Parks Forward report spurs major park reform
California’s immense state parks bureaucracy has been under intense scrutiny since it imploded during 2011’s round of severe state budget cutting, with revelations of millions of dollars hidden in obscure accounts and a hidebound bureaucracy unable to cope with rising demands. With the adoption of recommendations of a blue ribbon panel this month, the California State Parks Department is undertaking a wholesale reformation that is expected to begin showing results in the next two years.
Lance Conn, co-chair of the Parks Forward Commission that formulated a comprehensive plan, said there are three core themes: “A fundamental transformation of the department, a rededication to partnerships, and expansion of access to all Californians. Without transformation, it will be hard to build partnerships and increase access. We are likely to fail without strong and engaged partners. If we are not engaging the future decision makers – millennials and Latinos in particular – showing them why parks matter, all is for naught. That’s the ongoing challenge for 20 years out; how do we keep parks relevant?”
The Parks Forward Commission Final Report was unanimously adopted on Feb. 6 in Sacramento, after 18 months of study and input from public meetings held throughout California. Caryl Hart, director of Sonoma County’s Regional Parks, served on the Parks Forward Commission.
“This effort is important,” Hart said. “We need to be able to show how to take this park system with these challenges and turn things around, to make it relevant, exciting, and fiscally responsible without just buying new parks – make the parks we have relevant and make people excited about them again.”
The Final Report said efforts to improve the department have been “hampered by a Department that is debilitated by an outdated organizational structure, underinvestment in technology and business tools, and a culture that does not inspire or reward collaboration or innovation.”
Sugarloaf, Jack London and Annadel state parks were threatened with closure in 2011, but remained open after county and non-profit organizations stepped up to operate them. Sonoma County Regional Parks ran Annadel for a year, and Sugarloaf and Jack London State Historic parks are still being run by nonprofit groups, and seem to be flourishing.
The Final Plan strongly emphasizes the need for state parks to continue to develop private/public partnerships – an idea that appeals to Tjiska Van Wyk, who manages Jack London Park for the Jack London Park Partners under a contract with the state.
“I’m really happy they are endorsing private/public partnerships,” Van Wyk said. “Extended contracts, not short term, allows us to plan for the long term.” Like others, Van Wyk is cautious about how much a major state agency can be changed in a short time. “What takes place over the next six to 12 months will be critical.”
California’s Park and Recreation Department is one of eight departments under the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA), which also oversees another 18 commissions and boards, including the Coastal Conservancy and the Park and Recreation Commission.
The department runs 279 parks covering 1.6 million acres along 339 miles of coastline, with 4,500 miles of trails, 15,000 campsites and more than 450 miles of off-road vehicle trails. Each year, more than 65 million people visit California parks.
CNRA Secretary John Laird told the Parks Forward commissioners that he very much wants their recommendations to move forward and not languish on a shelf, like so many other studies calling for governmental reform.
To that end, a transition team made up of mostly department employees has been given a mandate to effectuate 30 of the final plan initiatives over the next two years. The team’s leader reports directly to Laird, rather than to the parks department’s interim director.
Danita Rodriguez, the District Superintendent for the Bay Area – including Sonoma County – is serving on the Transition Team. Having worked closely with the partners at Sugarloaf, Jack London and Annadel, she will co-chair the partnership subcommittee and serve on the operations subcommittee as well.
Given the size of the task, the department will let her allocate half her time to the new job. “To make that commitment work, there will be additional support to assist team members so that some of their tasks can be accomplished or backfilled,” Rodriguez said. The Transition Team is already at work.
“Nothing is easy,” John Roney said after reading the final report recommendations. Roney manages Sugarloaf State Park on behalf of Team Sugarloaf, a consortium of the Sonoma Ecology Center, the Robert Ferguson Observatory, United Camps, Conferences and Retreats, the Sonoma County Trails Council and the Jack London Park Partners.
“This will be a multi-year, complicated process. Each one of these things they are looking at changing is like that. You think it’s relatively simple, but look at California rules and regulations and it gets more complicated. You have to look at what the effects will be.” Even so, Roney is encouraged by the next steps being taken, as well as the results of private operations.
While the final figures are still being tabulated, both Sugarloaf and Jack London parks are thriving, posting increased attendance and revenues.
“Our visitorship and revenues are up,” Roney said. “We also spent more on restoration than we did the year before. This year we want to expand park usage to underserved communities, youth and other groups who don’t get to Sugarloaf very often.
The picture is rosy at Jack London park as well.
“We finished up last year $125,000 over our goal (of $600,000),” Van Wyk said. “About 50 percent of that was from entrance fees, weddings, and Transcendence Theater Company, but the rest was from contributions from individuals, businesses and charitable foundations which haven’t traditionally looked to parks as places to donate.”
She singled out PG&E for making a $5,000 donation last year.
Almost 90,000 visitors drove up the winding London Ranch Road to the iconic American author’s former home in 2014, up from 43,000 in 2012, and Van Wyk thinks 2016 will set new records as festivals are being planned to celebrate the Centennial of London’s death.
The Parks Forward Commission will meet one more time, in six to 12 months, according to executive director Ken Wiseman.
The Final Report can be read online at www.parksforward.com.