Kenwood Press

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Guest Editor: 11/15/2019

To park rangers – don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good

By Todd Board

This is in response to the Oct. 15 Kenwood Press article about the California State Park Rangers Association (CSPRA) lawsuit against CA State Parks, where CSPRA (mostly retired rangers) criticizes the current Jack London State Historic Park operating and funding model.

In the last year I volunteered over 200 hours at the park, and have done similarly for six years. This involves a mix of public-facing, uniformed hospitality, and behind-the-scenes park/trail maintenance and historic orchard restoration. Like a growing number of park volunteers and enthusiasts, I’ve completed the California Naturalist certificate program. This, of course, doesn’t make any of us instant, encyclopedic experts – but it does reflect our focus on understanding and caring for the park’s broader natural context.

Often over the years I’ve heard visitors express appreciation for the renewed vibrancy of the park and hospitality they encounter under the Park Partners operating model. And yes, from time to time I do hear people comment that a Transcendence [Theatre] performance was their introduction (or perhaps long-lapsed reintroduction) to the park. I’ve never heard anyone suggest that the park’s focus is, or should be, as a public performance venue. Every volunteer – let’s remember, a very vital park constituency! – has his/her favorite historical, cultural, and natural elements of the park, and very much wants them protected. I can’t read the minds of our many thousands of pass-holders and day-use visitors, but again believe they also find their own park facets to cherish.

I take Mike Lynch and CSPRA at their word, that they’re concerned about park mission’s integrity, and want to protect valuable resources – “same here,” again as our hundreds of volunteers would say. I agree it would be a boon to the park if $500,000 in administrative funding were allocated to the park – there will always be a backlog of good uses for this kind of funding (including, yes, more visible law enforcement). I also would welcome a solar-powered unicorn under the tree from Santa this year, but that seems about as likely under the current parks funding regime.

We have to play reality as it lays, even as we work to improve on that reality. I believe that’s the perspective that State Parks brought to a careful CEQA review of the overall park operating model, including the Transcendence performances. Many of us know that State Parks (and Fish and Wildlife) aren’t exactly reticent enforcers of CEQA environmental protection! Nor should they be, of course. My understanding, admittedly from the outside of this particular CEQA review, is that State Parks closely examined Transcendence impacts, and affirmed that the process (including oversight by Park Partners staff) protects park resources.

It’s cliché to invoke the reminder that we shouldn’t “make the perfect the enemy of the good,” but it applies here. In more flush times decades ago, California went on a funding binge for parks – acquiring land, hiring rangers (and other staff), and taking on their pension obligations. Then – like the neighboring SDC property that so many locals also care about – we hit the hard wall of financial reality and had to adjust our thinking and habits around parks. State Parks are not going to revert to the heavily cross-subsidized status of the Pat Brown era – that was a financially unsustainable “perfection.”

For six years, this park – powered by a vital mix of generous board/donors, dedicated staff and volunteers, delighted paying visitors, contributing passholders, and the important Transcendence partnership – has been engaged in the act of “the sustainable good.” The many of us who value the ongoing availability of Jack London State Historic Park (and its sister park, Sugarloaf Ridge) should remain mindful that access to these local jewels is not foreordained. There isn’t space here to get philosophical about the tension between the “intrinsic existence value” of places like our parks, and the more extrinsic human benefits they provide. But here’s what we know: as a practical matter of financial sustainability, a baseline of human engagement remains necessary to keep the park not just “open,” but cared for and healthy.

And what if any of the legs underpinning the operating model get dislodged? If Transcendence were to be kicked out, if free-labor volunteers or paying visitors develop a bad taste for the park experience after being jeered from the sidelines by retired rangers? Might the park again face potential closure? If so, let’s go through the thought experiment. We’d have a wide expanse of heavily wooded landscape, open to Diablo-driven winds, homeless encampments, and incursions from rogue weed grows, without reliable public monitoring and protection. This would introduce huge new safety and financial risks to our community, when we can least absorb them.

In closing, I encourage CSPRA to take a more constructive role in the park’s fate by doing the following. Shut the PC lid, get out of the comfy chair, put on some clothes you don’t mind getting dirty, and come help us volunteers remove some downed trees from the trails. Don’t worry, there’s more than enough of this useful, salubrious labor to go around! And there always will be.

Todd Board lives in Kenwood.

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