Libraries can still offer free passes to California parks, thanks to budget deal

Greg Wood 25, of Northridge enters a cave on the beach at Leo Carillo State Park in Malibu which offers camping and beach access.

Californians can once again borrow a pass from their local library to gain free entry to a state park.

The popular state library parks program that began two years ago was on the chopping block this spring, a potential victim of the estimated $45 billion budget deficit for fiscal 2025. But advocates across the state campaigned to save the program, and in the most recent budget deal, it was renewed for another year at $6.75 million.

“We commend the legislature and Governor for reaching an agreement to restore full funding for this highly effective and popular program providing free access to California state parks,” said Rachel Norton, executive director of the California State Parks Foundation, in a statement.

The day passes allow free parking at more than 200 state parks for vehicles with nine or fewer people. Advocates have praised the program for offering low-income families of color access to the great outdoors.

"This is a huge bonus for our families," said Amy Boese, a deputy county librarian in Merced County. "[It] really makes family time more accessible and having adventures a more achievable goal."

Read more: Opinion: Californians love the state's parks. We just don't know they're state parks

A study by California State Parks Foundation found that 70% of surveyed users of free passes made under $60,000 a year and that 63% of users identified as Black, Indigenous or people of color.

"It's really in an equity issue for being able to appreciate all of the experiences that California has to offer," Boese said. The entry fee for a state park can cost $10 or more, which makes it inaccessible for some families, she said.

Reflecting the growing demand by Merced County residents, some libraries' park passes would be checked out all the time, Boese said. LAist reported that Orange County public libraries loaned out nearly 10,000 passes to local residents in the last year. And in San Francisco, the passes have been checked out more than 2,500 times since the program's inception in 2022.

The passes were so successful in Merced that the libraries began to build programming and services to educate local residents about state parks. Boese said local biologists would come to talk about the native flora and fauna, and the library began to lend out backpacks with "things like binoculars and easy guides to birds and trees."

Boese is hopeful that they will be able to continue offering these services in the years to come. To her it makes perfect sense why libraries should be offering this service across the state — it fits in with a librarian's overall mission to encourage lifelong learning.

"Some people learn through reading, some people learn through experience. Most people learn through both," said Boese. "Libraries are not here just to give you books; libraries are here to give you access."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.