California libraries may lose free passes to state parks as budget deficit mounts


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As California faces a staggering budget deficit, library card holders may soon lose the ability to check out free passes to more than 200 state parks, including popular destinations near Los Angeles.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget for the upcoming year does not include funding for what’s known as the California State Library Parks Pass, which was launched two years ago to provide more equitable access to the outdoors. A survey of people who used the passes found the majority identified as low income and people of color.

If it ends, “it would be sad because obviously some of our patrons are really enjoying [the passes],” said Shellie Cocking, chief of collections and technical services at the San Francisco Public Library.

Passes, which provide free day-use parking at participating parks, were checked out more than 2,500 times at San Francisco’s 28 branches since July 2022. The highest number of checkouts were made at the Main Library, near the notoriously gritty Tenderloin neighborhood.

In April 2022, California State Library and California State Parks launched the three-year pilot program that handed out the passes — hangtags that fit over a vehicle’s rearview mirror — to all public library branches across the state, including mobile libraries.

Cocking herself used a pass in the early days of the program to visit Hendy Woods, a state park near Anderson Valley that is notable for its majestic old-growth redwood trees. Several families, including hers, went together and brought their kids.

“It’s a really different experience from San Francisco,” Cocking said. “It really gives kids a different view of the world, being able to connect to nature.”

California State Parks said in a statement that it was “very proud” of the program, but did not indicate that a revised version of the budget arriving in May would include money to extend the program.

However, the department said it was “exploring potential partnerships with park support organizations to continue the California State Library Parks Pass where feasible.”

Omission of the funding arrives as the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office projects a state budget shortfall of $73 billion — an estimate that has ballooned by $15 billion since last month.

The library parks pass and two other outdoor initiatives were allocated one-time funding of $9.1 million for three years. The other initiatives, however, remain funded and include free California State Park Adventure Passes for fourth-graders and their families, and Golden Bear Passes for families enrolled in CalWORKs, the state’s public assistance program.

With the library program in jeopardy, the California State Parks Foundation, a large advocacy group, has raised a battle cry to try to save it, writing to legislative leaders and posting a petition that’s garnered 1,800 signatures.

Rachel Norton, executive director for the foundation, said funding for the project was a “drop in the bucket” relative to the state’s proposed $291.5-billion budget.

“This is just such a good program,” she said, “and it’s so inexpensive in the context of the state budget that it seems crazy that you wouldn’t keep doing it.”

A survey of the program released in October, which was administered by State Parks and supported by the foundation, found 63% of participants considered cost to be their main reason for not having visited state parks previously.

Nearly 70% of the survey’s respondents reported an income of $60,000 or less and more than 63% indicated that they are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color).

A whopping 90% of respondents said they now plan to visit state parks over seven times a year.

“It is benefiting exactly the populations that we want to feel more welcome and that parks are accessible to them,” Norton said.

Passes permit day-use parking for vehicles with a capacity of nine or fewer people or motorcycles, state officials said.

Parking fees can be daunting to even average earners in expensive cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles. For instance, parking at scenic Malibu Creek State Park, just 25 miles from downtown L.A., costs $12 for the day.

As of last year, each library branch in California had an average of 24 hangtags, up from an initial four, state officials said. Cocking said San Francisco has 611 passes in circulation, a number that increased significantly last year.

Residents with library cards can check out the passes for a certain number of days allowed by their local library before they need to be returned.

Librarians said the passes are particularly popular during spring and summer, when warm weather and vacations draw people to the Golden State’s great outdoors.

It’s “like travel books,” Cocking said. “Travel books sit on the shelf a lot of the year and then as it gets closer to summer, they’re all checked out.”

If the program is not renewed, passes in circulation will remain active through the rest of 2024, Norton said.

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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