Parks Forward looks to the future for state parks
Public urged to comment on what is needed
A blue-ribbon commission is undertaking the monumental task of restructuring California’s parks system, a system that has recently foundered under a massive bureaucracy, questionable fiscal management, and grim financial times. The Parks Forward Commission held the fifth in a series of 10 statewide meetings in San Rafael to accept public comment on what should be done to improve the state’s ability to manage its widely diverse park system.
A 2011 budget shortfall of more than $20 million prompted the California Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) to propose closing 70 state parks, including Sugarloaf, Annadel and Jack London state parks, which would have been a major blow to Sonoma Valley’s economy and quality of life. Legislative backlash from the discovery of more than $50 million embedded in obscure DPR accounts resulted in new top park management and new legislation calling for a major overhaul of the system.
Last month, park professionals and public advocates for open lands and parks gathered at San Rafael’s Embassy Suites for a five-hour session focused on developing sustainable funding, working more productively with new and existing private sector partners, and widening the range of park users from California’s ethnically diverse population.
Sonoma County was well represented at the hearing. Sonoma County Regional Park Director Caryl Hart is a member of the Parks Forward Commission, taking testimony from Philip Sales (president of the Sonoma/Petaluma State Historic Park Association), John Roney (manager of Sugarloaf State Park for the Sonoma Ecology Center), Tjiska van Wyck (executive director of the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association now operating Jack London State Park), Ken Wells (executive director of the Sonoma Trails Council), Bill Keene (director of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District), and Lauren Dixon (director of the Sonoma County Parks Alliance).
Sustainable funding for state parks was the first topic of the afternoon and everyone who spoke was clear that parks must be adequately funded by the state and not depend on private sources of income.
“These institutions shouldn’t have to rely on bake sales and the whims of philanthropy for their survival,” Ron Miska, deputy director of Marin County Parks said, leading off the afternoon session as an invited speaker. “Parks must be supported by public funds and their use must be within the reach of everyone in society.”
Even so, parks could develop better incomes with better marketing and more creative outreach, according to Philip Sales.
“There needs to be a serious study of structural reform at State Parks so the public feels they are getting value for their money.” He noted that only four tenths of a percent of state residents buy annual passes. “They are overpriced and need a marketing system.” In contrast, five percent of Sonoma County residents own annual passes to Regional Parks.
Reducing costs is another way to improve state park finances.
“It costs way too much to get anything done in the state system,” Roney said, referring to an instance of a small bridge taking a year to build and costing nearly a million dollars. “We’ve increased the revenues (at Sugarloaf) over 50 percent, but there is only so far we can go. There are only so many hikers and nice weekends in a year.”
Closing parks is not an alternative, either, because of vandalism and illegal marijuana operations.
“Money spent on parks is a wise investment,” East Bay Park District spokeswoman Patricia Jones said. “For every dollar spent on parks, we get $2.35 back. We definitely need a dedicated, stable source of funding and can’t depend on legislative appropriations every few years.”
Alternative funding sources could include bond measures, an extraction tax on oil and gas, a vehicle tax, or an addition to gas taxes.
Bob Berman of the Benicia State Parks Association noted that their parks were too small to sustain themselves. “But they are important resources. They need a dependable state level support to keep operations going.”
Looking for more customers
One of the commission’s mandates is to look for ways for state parks to meet the needs of all Californians and a thorough examination of how park services, facilities, programs and activities could better meet the needs of current and future visitors, with an eye to underserved segments.
Michele Luna, Executive Director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, was specifically invited to speak on this subject. She pointed out that “individuals and groups from inland and urban communities” are a large, underserved source of visitors. Just getting to parks is a serious problem for these communities.
“Bus service to the Russian River area is very limited,” she said, noting that millions of potential visitors have no way to get to most parks.
People with disabilities have a tough time accessing most parks as well, Luna noted. “Parks need more maintenance staff, better signage and upgraded ADA trails. We need more nighttime activities.”
Rue Mapp, Executive Director of Outdoor Afro, another invited speaker, stressed the importance of using social media to reach target youth audiences. She also has used print, television and other media to reach out to the African American community and get them involved in outdoor and park activities.
Anyone wishing to know more about the Parks Forward initiative and/or provide comments should visit www.parksforward.com. All the meetings are recorded and are viewable online at cal-span.org.