Coloma Protest – California isn’t governing for the social good.

September 4, 2009

in general

Yesterday I was talking to a California State Parks employee in the middle of a peaceful demonstration led by the ASSEMBLYMAN GAINES asking for public support to keep Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park  open. I was shocked and moved by the story I was told. Up front I’ll share that I’m disturbed by it too. It’s a signal that California and the US in general continues to head in the wrong direction. Our social and community capital is being depreciated.

Keep Sutter’s Mill Open!

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park was on the State Parks closure list.  Not much information is available from the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), and we were told a decision on which parks will be closed will not be available until after Labor Day. This is the most significant historic park in the state, if not the most significant one west of the Missouri river. Over 70,000 school children visit every year to experience the living history Coloma brings to life with docents, tours, and demonstrations of the Gold Rush era. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma is the number one destination in the Sacramento area (click this link to see Sacramento Bee article).

This is the story including my reflections. I’d camped overnight in Coloma famous as the epicenter of the Californian goldrush in 1849. It was here in Coloma that gold was discovered at Sutters Mill. Word quickly spread and 10’s of thousands quickly made their way to California.

For over 50 years the area surrounding Sutters Mill and Coloma has be looked after by the California State Parks. This includes a number of small historical buildings, a museum and a beautiful setting on the banks of the American River. Important history and in many ways the whole story of California really starts here. It was gold that brought the people and then later helped fuel the innovative culture that exists to this day.

So yesterday I was surprised by the number of people 300+ gathering in front of Sutters Mill protesting the closure of the park. Some of the locals were decked out in traditional costumes many I’m sure work and volunteer to keep the park and in particular it’s educational facilities going.

My first experience of Coloma was accompanying my daughter on a school camping trip here. We stayed just across the river in the Coloma Resort. The class visited the site, learned about gold, the lives of the miners and had their first unaccompanied hikes in the woods, As well they found time to learn about the Indians too. It was fun and I expected no different. Even learning that even 8 years later AT&T still means “no service”.

I’d returned with my sister and nephew from New Zealand. It made sense to see a little history too! However equally impactful was sharing this beautiful slice of California with a crowd protesting the closure of this state park. As I listened to the protesters I moved round the crowd taking some photos, there was also some video service there recording. While not there for the protest it became clear that people really cared and it didn’t take long for me to start talking to one of the State Park rangers. An older man I asked him what was happening and while I sort of guessed I wanted his story.

I struck a raw nerve although I didn’t mean too. He almost tearfully told me how he’d first visited as a 4th grader and never thought he’d be back. And yet here he was many years later a ranger who’d spent much of his life looking after this spot of history and still finding the magic in it that he’d found as a child so many years ago. I didn’t take his name… or take his picture and once the closure happens I can’t even be sure he will have a job.

I asked him why the park was closing. He said it is all very mathematic. The government created a list and based on revenue versus costs made a decision which parks to close.    He said that parks with lots of boating or fishing were much easier to justify which financially may be true. And that is what really stuck me. The fight for Sutter Mill and Coloma State Park is on all the wrong terms and conditions. It may work the books but as a society it is a huge step backwards.

The Coloma State Park exists for my daughter my nephew and my ranger friend. For many it is a once in a life time educational visit. It isn’t the lake that a single family may return to again and again. It’s a story about risk, about people and adventure. And the government in their apparent wisdom is going to rid this world of a story that is literally told around the world. There almost isn’t a history lesson anywhere in  the world that doesn’t at least once refer to the California Gold rush

Is California now so poor, so morally bankrupt that it must wipe the last vestiges of the Gold Rush from people memory and eliminate the opportunity for families and children to visit?

We continued on up the road yesterday to Nevada City. Another gold mining town in fantastic condition. Coloma never had the riches of Nevada City and must of it disappeared as soon as the gold ran out. Yet on the way I reflected. Why is it that my generation was able to visit a state park like this and even my daughters generation? Why isn’t it possible to see the potential for my daughters offspring. I’m well aware that the world has changed and yet this change doesn’t appear to make us better off. Rather we should feel a sense of loss.  How is it that the society that my parents nurtured with taxes and attendance isn’t now sustainable by us?

Really, as I travel around the world I’ve seldom seen parks closed. Is this park closing because we have shipped the money elsewhere? Have the costs so radically changed vs a generation ago? Surely upkeep should be relatively less not more as a % of a growing population. I can’t help concluding that it is poor government that has the state in this position. It is not the budget or this park that is about to kill Coloma. It is greedy interests ready to raid the coffers of programs that were put in place years ago. While I can’t balance the books for them I do know that even the equation that is being applied. Revenue generation is not the only metric that should be applied here.

I’d love to see the Coloma State Park kept open. I doubt many will ever hear the story about how cutting a few dollars destroyed a community and made a mockery of people who have spent their lives telling a story that is incredibly important.

It’s time we looked at “changes” with a social understanding. “Our Social Capital” in California is rapidly depreciating. It is hard to believe that we could get to an even more unhealthy state that we are in now and yet perhaps it is just another pen stoke away.

Media Press Release

“This is the exact spot where California began its rise and we cannot allow it to be the place where this state marks its decline,” Gaines said. “California’s rich history must remain accessible for future visitors in the years to come and I assure that I will do everything I can to keep this state’s rich past alive.”

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