The Kenwood Press
News: 05/01/2017

Private park operators celebrate five years of service

State park system is undergoing a major overhaul

Jay Gamel

Five years after California threatened to close state parks for lack of operating funds, local volunteers are not only keeping their respective parks open, but thriving. While California’s immense state park bureaucracy undergoes a long-overdue overhaul, the independent operators running Austin Creek Scenic Recreation Area, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Jack London State Historic Park, and China Camp in Marin have kept these parks from closing, increased and diversified attendance, and have developed innovative approaches to marketing, maintenance and improvements.

While no one was sure how private operations would work out, their future is looking pretty solid for the next decade or so.

“We are so fortunate that our local nonprofit partners stepped up, organized and negotiated operating agreements with the State to keep our parks open,” First District Supervisor Susan Gorin said.

“They have introduced so many people to the natural beauty and history of our parks and our Valley with innovative programming and welcoming attitudes. In addition, they have forged relationships with the Sonoma Ecology Center, Trails Council, Youth Ecology Corps, North Bay Conservation Corps and other groups to help maintain our trails and creeks.”

“At one time we had an emergency,” Ed Lai said. “Now that the economy is better, it doesn’t look like state parks want to take the parks back. In that case, we have to look at a more sustainable plan to operate the park in perpetuity.” Lai is chairman of Friends of China Camp, which contracts the operation of that park.

A multi-million dollar state budget shortfall in 2012 precipitated the proposed closures, prompting an unexpected surge of community groups willing to take over park operations. While Annadel State Park (now Trione-Annadel State Park) reverted to state operation after one year of being operated by Sonoma County’s Regional Parks Department, the rest have continued to be operated by independent nonprofit groups.

“It always comes back to people doing it because we love our parks,” Lai said.

California is poised to formalize independent operators to augment park operations, and increase attendance, funding and diversity. A new Partnership Office has been created at the state level, and training sessions have been held to work with the state’s private partners on all levels, including concessions and other private adjuncts to state park operations.

Five years after the state budget emergency, the State Parks and Recreation Department is being run by a veteran financial administrator who has already upgraded a clunky, antiquated accounting system to modern standards throughout the parks system. Major changes in how senior management is selected, as well as new paths to promotion for all levels of park administration are being implemented, though not without consequences.

Many seasoned veterans have left the system, either through retirement or leaving for new work, sorely testing the new promotion and hiring systems. Local operators have had to compensate for reduced state assistance, however temporary.

Longtime Bay Area District Director Danita Rodriguez has moved up the ladder and her number two person, Vince Anibale, is the interim director. Anibale has forged good working relations with the people at Sugarloaf, Jack London and China Camp, according to the operators.

Michele Luna, a veteran of park support organizations, has raised over $3 million in grant and contract funds working with the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods (SCR) since 1994. She is now executive director of SCR, which operates Austin Creek, adjacent to Armstrong Redwoods. But state park reductions have brought SCR a wider role.

“We have stepped up in recent years to help with maintenance and restoration projects in Armstrong as well. Both State Parks and Stewards are seeing the benefit in working together to develop a co-management plan for both Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve and Austin Creek State Recreation Area. There are ways that Stewards and State Parks can leverage our abilities and expertise to create a sustainable plan for both parks that will address day to day operations as well as the backlog of deferred maintenance projects.”

The operators themselves are as diverse as the parks they serve, but they have several things in common. They have all increased park attendance, increased park volunteers, developed new events and programs, found new revenue sources, and basically have boosted community awareness and participation in operating these state parks, which are a big part of the North Bay’s continuing attraction to tourists and a boost to the economy.

Sugarloaf Park manager John Roney is proud of what Team Sugarloaf has accomplished and what’s on the horizon, including back country camping and expanded creek and trail restoration projects.

“We think there’s a future for independent operators considering the success of the model, the maintenance of the park and the visitor experience,” Roney said. “The innovation we can bring is evident. We do all that while supporting the state parks’ mission of protecting the environment, educating the populace, and welcoming people to these parks.”

Jack London Park Partners is a single group of directors who hired an extremely effective management team lead by Tjiska van Wyk from the outset to run Jack London State Park. The Partners have increased attendance, have a huge pool of volunteers, and are overseeing a $750,000 renovation of Charmian London’s House of Happy Walls Museum. Patients of Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health and Sonoma Valley Hospital will get a free pass to park and walk in a park with prescriptions from their doctor.

“We were all very encouraged at the workshop last November,” Van Wyk said. “State Park Director Lisa Mangat said they recognize how important the public/private partnerships are. We are able, through community involvement, to raise significant funds and capital delivery. It was key and insightful on her part that they ‘get’ that local participation makes for great local involvement — those community members will make a park’s future. They will be the people who vote to support parks. With increased community participation, we ensure the future of state parks.”