Auburn State Recreation Area BLM takeover? It’s all about the money

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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The Bureau of Land Management seems like a logical choice to take over the Auburn State Recreation Area as the U.S Bureau of Reclamation falters on funding. But there’s one big catch. The Bureau of Land Management doesn’t have any money for it either, apparently. David Christy, spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management’s Mother Lode field office in El Dorado Hills, said Monday that the Bureau of Reclamation has discussed the possibility with them. “But right now we don’t have the funding or staff to handle it,” Christy said. The 26,000-acre recreation area borders Auburn and covers the middle and north fork American River canyon areas that would be inundated by an Auburn dam. But the Auburn dam, although authorized by Congress for construction in 1965, has never been built because of earthquake concerns and, in more recent years, funding questions. The Bureau of Reclamation, which was to have built the dam, manages the land with that goal in mind. But its budget for recreation, law enforcement, facility maintenance and resource management in the sprawling wildland park has nose-dived in recent years with no end in sight. That’s left recreational groups in a park that attracts 1 million visitors annually to question whether everything from hiking trail maintenance to a off-highway-vehicle park at Mammoth Bar to Lake Clementine boating facilities will soon go away. That possibility has led to groups like Protect American River Canyons to suggest that the Bureau of Reclamation bow out of its management of the federally held lands. Tim Woodall, president of the Auburn non-profit, said last week that its time the recreation area lands be transferred to an agency “that will work to develop the recreational potential of the canyons in a manner consistent with protecting natural resource values.” For many, the Bureau of Land Management seems like a natural fit. It already manages 15.2 million acres of public lands in California – nearly 15 percent of the state’s land area. Land Management would have to establish a satellite office in Auburn, staff it and take over everything from fire-control plans to law enforcement, Christy said. “There have been some inquiries and meetings with Reclamation,” he said. “They’ve asked us what it would take but there have been no dollars and cents. We do have the legal authority but it’s not within our present capability.” The state Parks Department, which has the contract with the Bureau of Reclamation for patrolling and maintaining the recreation area, is also caught in a money crunch, said Scott Nakaji, Gold Fields District superintendent. The financial tug-of-way has attracted the attention of the area’s congressman Tom McClintock, as well as state and local elected officials. They’re attempting to forge a partnership that keeps the recreation area open when the coffers of government are being increasingly shut to the park. “With the state fiscal crisis, State Parks is not in position to contribute,” Nakaji said. The state Parks Department has held management agreements with the Bureau of Reclamation since 1977, first on a long-term basis and, since 2003, on short-term contracts. But federal funding has been slipping since 2007, from $9.5 million annually to $1.6 million this year. Next year’s budget could be cut by another $300,000 – or 22 percent, Nakaji said. Parks doubled user fees and instituted new ones last September to try to compensate partly for the recreation area’s freefall in funding. But no new fees are expected to be added in the coming year, Nakaji said. Beyond next year, the questions remain on how funding decreases will affect patrol areas, access and maintenance. Possibilities include trails and other areas being closed on a seasonal basis. But Nakaji said nothing has been determined beyond the coming fiscal year beginning in October. The Parks Department is operating the Mammoth Bar OHV area with the help of $300,000 in state tax receipts and has two of its five rangers supported by state funds. In all, there are six fulltime staff members at Auburn and 10 to 15 seasonal workers. “We’ve been managing the canyon with the budget we’ve had in a pretty minimal way.” Nakaji said. “We’d like to be there but if there is no money and no contract with the Bureau of Reclamation, State Parks may not be there.”