a review and analysis of The First 70, the documentary on the closure of California's State Parks

By Haley Delany

The First 70 is a thirty minute film documenting boyfriend Jarrett Moody, girlfriend Lauren Valentino, and long time friend Cory Brown's one hundred and twenty day, biodiesel converted airport shuttle tour through seventy of California’s State Parks. The trio was motivated by last year's park closures announcement, whereby the state of California slated these seventy parks to close by July 30th, 2012. Amidst interviews with park employees, self-indulgent trail trotting hikers, and lingering shots of wide-eyed deer and fickle otters, the trio explain that while they understand the need for budget cuts they are nonetheless puzzled by the process used to evaluate which parks should remain open and which should close.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation's (CDPR) official May 13, 2011 News Release included the following criteria for their "Park Closure Methodology": Visitation, Fiscal Strength, Ability to Physically Close, Existing Partnerships, Infrastructure, Land Use Restrictions, and the trickiest to determine of all, Statewide Significance. The First 70 is a record of Moody, Valentino, and Brown's "see-for-ourselves" approach to understanding why the selected seventy are supposedly less significant than their other counter-parks. While the short film does a fair job sussing out some of the pitfalls the state will have to face if parks do close, it lacks the kind of deeper reflection we so desperately need when examining our relationships to open, protected, and "natural" spaces. Ultimately, all this comes back to how we conceive of and imagine our domestic spaces and their relationship with nature.

Ah, Wilderness
The state park closure announcements were a surprise to many. Park employees were in utter disbelief when they received the CDPR's News Release in their inboxes. They felt they had no forewarning at all, especially concerning something so weighty as this. It prompted one ranger to ask, "Is this even real?" Everything about the decision seemed beyond reason. Whenever a major project is proposed that may have significant effects on the environment, both positive and negative, often an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is required, or in the case of California, an Environment Impact Report (EIR) mandated by the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). There are many concerns regarding the effectiveness of these kinds of reports, particularly because when it comes down to the implementation of a project the reviews principally account for on-site consequences and largely do not seriously consider effects on surrounding environments or long-term impacts. CEQA mandates have also been increasingly streamlined specifically for infill projects, projects that aim to develop vacant space, especially in urban areas.

However, it's still of interest to look at CEQA's Appendix G in light of the possible park closures and CDPR's Park Closure Methodology. Appendix G is a required environmental impact checklist divided into seventeen categories: Aesthetics, Agricultural Resources, Air Quality, Biological Resources, Cultural Resources, Geology/Soils, Hazards & Hazardous Materials, Hydrology/Water Quality, Land Use/Planning, Mineral Resources, Noise, Population/Housing, Public Services, Recreation, Transportation/Traffic, Utilities/Service Systems, and Mandatory Findings of Significance. These categories are further subdivided. For instance, under Land Use and Planning, one clause asks, "[does the project] conflict with any applicable habitat conservation plan or natural community conservation plan?" Cities or the state are also required to file an EIR if they want to open a park, either a small city park, a regional park, or a state park, such a report would be required, but it doesn't appear such reports are necessary for closing any of the seventy parks listed. Not all of Appendix G's categories are applicable to state park closures, but CDPR's State Park Closure Methodology isn't remotely close to providing meaningful analysis concerning the consequences of park closure, economically, sustainably, or socially.

Is it economically viable, is it sustainable, and is it socially equitable to close our state parks? These three questions are commonly used to evaluate industry and institutional decision making, and The First 70 examines this questionable formula in relation to the proposed state park closures. Though the state projects $22 million in annual savings, a group called Save Our State Parks (SOS), first mobilized by the threat park closures prior to the current seventy, worry about the long-term fiscal impact on small businesses that rely on tourists. The money spent on lodging, food, and supplies in and around state and local parks is significant. Thus the $22 million in initial savings is not sustainable because long term the state will lose more from other sectors. There are also no estimates on how much it would cost to reopen state parks if their facilities, historical buildings, and access roads fall into disrepair.
The Ruins of Jack London's House
Beyond the compelling economic arguments in favor of keeping state parks open, where SOS has put together fiscal impact fact sheets for seven California state park regions, The First 70 quickly redirects its focus to the social value that California state parks provide. One park employee interviewed remarks, "[state parks] weren't designed as a revenue source, they were designed to give people the opportunity to enjoy themselves outside, to visit historic places, to visit places of beauty, to recreate, to renew, to learn, and that's what their point is, not as a revenue generator." Another park official stationed at a mountaintop astronomy observatory comments that when children view the stars and planets from a telescope they "get a perspective on their lives that you don't get anywhere else." This rhetoric means to strengthen our connection with state parks by imbuing a kind of enjoyment, revitalization, and sense of identity that are only possible in parks. The idea here is that parks compensate for all the needs our domestic spaces cannot meet.

The linking of psychological and bodily health to parks and recreation is not a new one. In the March 1910 issue of Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, landscape architect John Nolen published his article “The Parks and Recreation Facilities In The United States,” which includes an introduction and three subsequent sections detailing his thoughts on the necessity of incorporating i. National Parks, ii. State Parks, and iii. City Parks into daily life. Nolen was an early and major contributor to the groundwork for state park systems and worked on projects nationwide, selecting and allocating land for public use. Nolen writes:
We wish we could make him talk
We need more plain pleasures, for recreation rightly used is a resource for the common purposes of daily life... It is one of the means ordained for the promotion of health and cheerfulness and morality… efficiency and happiness depends upon vitality, and vitality depends largely upon recreation, especially the simple recreations of the open air.
Consider that Nolan wrote this while industrialization is in full swing in East Coast cities, the West is being rapidly settled, and child labor is peaking. Opium use for stress relief is also on the rise and in ten years the Constitution will be amended for the 18th time and the Volstead Act passed, ushering in the prohibition era. Nolen and his like-minded contemporaries saw recreation as a way to rebalance societal morale and " 'supplant the attractions of the low dance halls, theaters, and other similar places of entertainment that only serve to stimulate sensuality and to debase the taste.' " For Nolen such an alternative was the "open air" of a well designed and established park system, and in many ways The First 70 is arguing to the same point. Yet there is something amiss with this rationalization, and one can begin with the very first paragraph of Nolen's article.

Let them frolic in nature!
Nolen begins by quoting English philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer (who actually coined the phrase "survival of the fittest”—it wasn’t Charles Darwin) from an 1882 speech given at a farewell dinner party in New York City. The trip to the States was a vacation for Spencer, and he turned down all speaking opportunities, but obliged to this one, in which he unexpectedly criticized American's excessive work ethic in front of prominent intellectuals and well-to-do businessmen. Here is what Nolen chose to include from "Mr. Spencer's Address":
Exclusive devotion to work has the result that amusements cease to please; and when recreation becomes imperative life becomes dreary from lack of sole interest, - the interest in business… life is not for learning, nor is life for working, but learning and working are for life… In brief, I may say that we have had somewhat too much of the gospel of work. It is time to preach the gospel of relaxation.
But amidst the linking of selected sentences Spencer also described his week at Niagara Falls when he "learned from the landlord of the hotel that most Americans come one day and go away the next." He went on to say:
Spencer understood the problem
In large measure with us [English], and still more with you [Americans], there is not that abandonment to the moment which is requisite for full enjoyment; and this abandonment is prevented by the ever-present sense of multitudinous responsibilities. So that, beyond the serious physical mischief caused by overwork, there is the further mischief that it destroys what value there would otherwise be in the leisure part of life.
According to Spencer Americans have become so occupied and stressed from work that it prevents one from enjoying any kind of meaningful recreation. He also suggests that more than a day is necessary to really take pleasure—today 80% to 90% of California state park visits are day trips. It may sound contentious, but if state parks' primary social function is to provide this kind of short lived rejuvenation, then both Nolen and The First 70 fail to unite parks with positive human relationships and instead continue this arguably detrimental disconnect that has existed between the functions of our domestic and wilderness parks for over one hundred year.

Wendell Berry's essay "Preserving Wildness" is a more positive piece of writing to ponder while evaluating California's state park closure dilemma and The First 70's contributions to this debate. Berry writes:
Let us think with him
The only thing we have to preserve nature with is culture; the only thing we have to preserve wildness with is domesticity... we are not safe in assuming that we can preserve wildness by making wilderness preserves. Those of us who see wildness and wilderness need to be preserved are going to have to understand the dependence of these things upon our domestic economy and our domestic behavior. If we do not have an economy capable of valuing in particular terms the durable good of localities and communities, then we are not going to be able to preserve anything…In other words, conservation is going to prove increasingly futile and increasingly meaningless if its proscriptions are not answered positively by an economy that rewards and enforces good use.
The First 70 highlights that our economy currently neither rewards good land use, nor does it attach value to state parks beyond traditional capitalist models. The film also shows that our parks provide an essential ecosystem service by providing social and cultural well being that enhances our domestic life and is difficult to monetarily quantify. But this service as it is now is very transitory because the experience in a park setting is only there and we have nothing similar to it in our everyday lives. The First 70 does not examine ways to increase our connectivity with wilderness and wilderness resources through the value we attach to our domestic activity. This is what is of the utmost necessity, and in connection to Nolen possibly the simplest pleasure of all. Berry uses a table as an example. If we do not build tables with care and craft, then we are not respecting the milled lumber, if we do not mill lumber with care, we do not respect the tree, and if we do not respect the tree we do not respect the forest from whence it came nor its resulting vacancy. One can visit a state park all they want to feel a kind of Thoreau-ian revitalization that The First 70 uses as its primary grounds for keeping state parks open, but if we do not bring that kind of wildness and awe-inspiring respect into our homes, into our domestic culture, into the objects we live with and the routines we embody, then the future of our wilderness, open spaces, state parks --our wildness and well being -- is still in dire straights.

Should we take the leap? To what?
The 70 state parks slated for closure in 2011 will remain open until 2013/2014 fiscal year after it was discovered that the Department of Parks and Recreation illegally hid $53 million in funds and under-reported their account balances. But once 2013/2014 rolls around the fate of our state parks will again hang in the balance.

©The CCA Arts Review and Haley Delany

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