One consequence of California park cutbacks: soaring crime

Crime in California's state parks has more than doubled over the past decade, outpacing growth in the statewide crime rate and in park use, according to a review of park crime data by The Bee.

There were 58,475 criminal incidents in California's 279 state parks in 2008, or an average of 160 every day, according to crime data obtained from the state Department of Parks and Recreation. The crime rate rose from 35 crimes per 100,000 visitors in 1999 to 75 last year.

From simple trespassing to theft of artifacts, park crime has been raised as a leading concern as the state prepares to close more parks on weekdays — or for entire seasons — to address a budget crisis.

State Parks Department officials blame the increase largely on urbanization pushing up against park borders.

Other park advocates say years of tight budgets have left parks inadequately patrolled by rangers. As park use increased 20 percent in the past decade — to 79 million people — the number of rangers remained flat.

One particular crime category — crimes against the parks themselves, ranging from vandalism to illegal tree cutting — increased fourfold in the 10 years of data analyzed by The Bee.

Just two weeks ago, rangers discovered a 50,000-plant marijuana garden covering an area the size of a football field inside Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in San Diego County.

Earlier this month, a team of volunteers at Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley labored to rebuild 80-year-old leaded glass windows that had been shot out with BB guns.

If such willful abuse of public resources is difficult to prevent now, how will rangers protect parks that can't be sealed off on days when they're closed? Will such crimes become more common with reduced staffing and park hours?

"I could easily see the stripping of our state parks," said Richard Bergstresser, president of the State Park Peace Officers Association and a ranger at Humboldt Redwoods State Park. "There will be an uptick in, for instance, marijuana plantations, vandalism, outright theft."