The Kenwood Press
News: 01/15/2019

Sugarloaf Ridge, Jack London parks are flourishing

Annual reports reflect recovery and renaissance

Jay Gamel

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and Jack London State Historic Park are unique among California’s 278 individual park units in that they are not operated directly by the California Department of Parks and Recreation (CDPR). Sonoma Valley’s two state-owned parks have very human faces, locals John Roney and Tjiska Van Wyk, the people who are in charge of the day-to-day operations of these very different parklands.

The great recession that began in 2008 crippled California’s budget, and by 2011 lawmakers threatened closure of 72 state parks. This inspired a variety of civic-minded groups to keep the parks open, including Sugarloaf and Jack London. Responding to a hidden funds scandal that rocked the entire state parks department and to years of critics urging fundamental changes in the CDPR management, contracts were awarded to private and nonprofit groups in Sonoma and Marin to operate state-owned park facilities.

Team Sugarloaf – an amalgam of five groups under the umbrella of the Sonoma Ecology Center – and Jack London Park Partners (paired with the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association) signed operating agreements with the State of California to run these parks in 2012 and are still at it. They are doing pretty well according to the latest figures offered by their 2018 annual reports that were publicly presented on Dec. 19 at the Sonoma Community Center.

The state contracts are coming up for renewal in 2019, and both operators are optimistic about those renewals.

There’s some reason for that optimism.

“All of our partners have really understood what our mission is at State Parks and have worked really hard to meet our mandates and make them first class visitor experiences,” said Maria Mowrey, who oversees both Sonoma Valley parks as Superintendent of CDPR’s Bay Area District. “It’s a relationship like a marriage; we had rough patches in the beginning. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we found common goals. It’s been really good.”

“State Parks and the nonprofit operator review the operator’s annual work plan every year to assess the needs of the park and prioritize those items in the work plan,” Mowrey said. “When we negotiate the new contracts, they will be for at least five-year terms.” Hopefully, this will alleviate some issues the operators have expressed in the past about their ability to make longterm plans.

“We are currently working on renewing our contract with Jack London Park Partners,” Mowrey continued. “As for our other partners, Team Sugarloaf and Friends of China Camp (in Marin), we are looking at reviewing the contract agreements and negotiating new agreements.”

That should happen in the next few months, she said.

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

Team Sugarloaf consists of the Sonoma Ecology Center (SEC); Robert Ferguson Observatory; United Camps, Conferences, and Retreats; Sonoma County Trails Council; and the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, with each tending to different parts of the overall park operation.

Park Manager John Roney works for the SEC and has managed Sugarloaf since 2012, working through the creation of a new management system with a state bureaucracy undergoing major changes.

Sugarloaf took a huge hit in the October 2017 wildfires, Roney said. More than 75 percent of the park’s approximately 4,000 acres burned over a 10-day period. The public was allowed to return to the park in February, and camping fully reopened in late April, after hazard trees were confirmed safe or removed. Park staff, CDPR, contractors, and park volunteers continue to repair damaged trails, bridges and infrastructure, but the park has otherwise returned to normal operations.

“The amount of damage throughout the park was the biggest challenge over the past year,” Roney said. “There were big things like bridges and little things like retaining walls. The state did a damage assessment, which we used to prioritize repairs based on the demand for trails like Pony Gate and the Loop. Everybody wants to see the waterfalls.”

A big problem was keeping people off the ravaged hills and damaged trails, both for liability considerations and to prevent further ecological damage.

Money and volunteers were a big part of making the rapid recovery possible.

“Luckily, we got a lot of grant and donation money along with volunteer hours with lots of people. Every work day we would have four to six tasks lined up for eight to 12 people.”

The talents of the many working and retired contractors and builders who came up to help were an added bonus.

While fixing the Meadow Trail bridge, the CDPR said on a Tuesday that we needed railings,” said Roney.

“OK, we can do that.” Roney said. “Scott Burn picked up 2x4s and deck screws and by one o’clock that afternoon we had 25 feet of rock solid railing and opened the trail by Thursday. We had a lot of highly skilled, retired contractors and builders. Show them a pile of wood, tell them what needs to be done, and there you go.” Burn is a regular member of the maintenance crew.

It was a good year financially, as well, Roney said. Over $50,000 was donated, with another $16,000 generated from fundraising activities. Major corporate donors included Levi Strauss, St. Francis and Landmark wineries, and Gensler Design.

Grants included $50,000 from the Sonoma Valley Fund; $35,000 from the California Parks Foundation; $10,000 from the Sonoma County Vintners Association; $10,000 from PG&E; and $5,000 from Landmark Winery.

Team Sugarloaf also expanded its Spanish language programs, added two campouts and a Star Party at the observatory. They will continue the popular Rx hikes (free when prescribed by a doctor). And plans are underway for a Memorial Day weekend 50th anniversary party.

The full 2018 report is available at the Sugarloaf website

Jack London State Historic Park

Tjiska Van Wyk has been developing attendance and major capital improvements since she became Executive Director of Jack London Park Partners in 2012, created by the nonprofit Valley of the Moon Natural History Association.

Last year was highly successful in increasing both attendance and fundraising. The House of Happy Walls museum completed a $1.5 million renovation, reopening in November, helped by the $850,000 raised from private funding.

tjiska van wyk
Tjiska Van Wyk is executive director of Jack London Park Partners, the group that oversees Jack London State Historic Park.
The museum renovation is a highlight of Van Wyk’s work, work that also includes developing tours and school programs aligned with the revamped exhibits, organizing a total of 43 different hikes throughout the park, associating with students working with the Sonoma Ecology Center, and encouraging year-round art classes in photography, water color and drawing.

Broadway Under the Stars performances by the Transcendence Theatre group of transplanted Broadway and Hollywood talent attracted 14,000 attendees and contributed $86,000 toward park operations last year.

In all, JLHSP management raised $815,000 – apart from the museum renovation funds – for operating costs. About 50 percent comes from earned income (entrance fees, annual passes, Transcendence, Triple Creek Horse Outfit, venue rental fees), and the remaining 50 percent comes from contributions (grants, memberships, fundraising events and board giving).

While Jack London Park did not have any major fire damage in 2017, it underscored the need to make the park safe from future fires, Van Wyk emphasized. Defensive work included clearing eucalyptus groves and maintaining defensible spaces around the museum, the Wolf House, farm buildings, ruins, and other park features.

Attendance dropped by nearly 3,000 a month right after the fire, but over the year, JLHSP managed a slight increase in total visitors in 2018, with a total of 83,925 visitors, about 1,500 more than 2017 figures.

Volunteers are crucial

Volunteers have played a huge part in making both parks work since the financial meltdown, contributing thousands of hours of labor worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars.

Susan St. Marie has coordinated the volunteer programs for both parks since the new operators took over. In 2019, however, Sugarloaf management will oversee their 400 volunteers.

“Susan is an exceptional volunteer manager,” Van Wyk said. “I believe our high retention rate is due to her attention to detail and personal interest in all the individuals who make up our volunteer force.”

Call 938-4827 to enquire about volunteering at Jack London. For volunteer opportunities at Sugarloaf, contact the park at 833-5712.