Sugarloaf, Jack London operators hanging tight
Loss of income is stretching private groups running state parks
People love parks so much that they had to be closed shortly after Coronavirus quarantine was imposed on March 17. Initially, people were encouraged to get outside, visit parks, exercise and enjoy the fresh air. The resulting mobbing of parks and beaches prompted a quick decision on March 23 to close them to prevent further spread of the deadly virus.
Today, our parks stand as lonely testaments to the beauty of California’s natural lands, devoid of visitors and all but minimal maintenance staff. While all California parks are in the same quandary, both Sugarloaf and Jack London parks have special worries.
On a positive note, some state and county parks have been allowed to have limited visitors as of April 30, though details are being worked out and may be flexible for awhile. Learn more about Jack London and Sugarloaf park limited availabilities.
The private nonprofit groups who assumed operation of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and Jack London State Historic Park during a state financial crisis in 2012 are as impacted as any other business in America by the quarantine. Both groups are dealing with the crisis as best they can and will hopefully survive to keep serving the Valley of the Moon and countless people from around the world who come to these parks.
Team Sugarloaf is a consortium of five groups that operate the park: Sonoma Ecology Center; Robert Ferguson Observatory; United Camps, Conferences, and Retreats; and the Sonoma County Trail Council. The Sonoma Ecology Center is the lead agency of the group, supplying its nonprofit umbrella along with leadership, volunteers, and project development, Sugarloaf Manager John Roney noted.
Jack London Park Partners, a subsidiary of nonprofit Valley of the Moon Natural History Association have been running the famed author’s former Beauty Ranch, now a state historic park and museum.
Both groups have accomplished amazing results in the time they have had with the novel responsibility of running a state-owned park.
Sugarloaf has one of the few campgrounds in the east part of Sonoma County and provides over 5,000 acres of pristine hiking and the best view in the county from 2,379-foot Bald Mountain. Jack London’s eponymous park is a showcase for his and his mate Charmian’s legacy home and modern agricultural enterprises – modern for his day, at least. It houses a museum, a cottage, and outbuildings, including the winery ruins which each summer has hosted a nationally-renowned Broadway theater review.
As of now, both parks have someone on site every day, keeping people out, catching up with paperwork, checking buildings and trails, doing maintenance, and planning for the day when their lands reopen.
“My goal is to keep staff on as long as I can,” Jack London SHP’s new executive director Matt Leffert said. “It’s important that they have consistent paychecks, and to make sure they are here when we open our doors.” Leffert took over the job at the end of February, and was looking forward to overseeing the thriving, well-established operation he inherited from his predecessor, only to have the park close a few weeks later.
“We have been adapting operations weekly based on the situation,” Sugarloaf’s Roney said. “We have been working on protocols on how to operate when we can reopen, assuming it opens up under limited people and safer procedures. We are planning for the next phase.” The Sonoma Ecology Center has already applied for federal grants to help keep people paid, he added.
Resiliency is a necessary part of being a private operator.
“We have to reinvent the business every year,” Roney said. “Now, the park is closed, hikes and events have been cancelled, and things like that will affect our revenues.”
Both park operators have worked hard and successfully since 2012 to increase attendance and make park visits more attractive to a wider range of users than was the case in the past.
As for their ability to survive a prolonged shutdown, both Roney and Leffert have positive outlooks.
“It will be interesting because the state budget will probably be hammered next year,” Roney observed. “The state may become more dependent on private operators in the future.”
“Because we are a private, nonprofit partner, the state will see the real value in a nonprofit partner being able to operate parks and not have to rely on [taxes]. I think that that is going to be a really positive note.”
That’s not to downplay the seriousness of the current situation.
“The park being closed makes things incredibly challenging for us,” Leffert said. “We rely on entrance fees to operate, book sales, signups for our programs, and a good fundraising climate.” A lot of money comes from contributions from community, corporations, and foundations, many of which have been affected by the situation.
Both parks are urging supporters to buy their annual $49 pass, which will be available for pickup as soon as the parks reopen. The passes are good for both parks.
“The very day the park officially reopens, we will have your new pass ready for you at the entry kiosk,” Leffert said. “It will be good for 14 months from the happy date we are able to reopen.”
Leffert and Roney both ask people who already have passes to simply donate if they can.
State Parks have offered help if it’s needed, in the form of Rangers or other personnel.
“They have been strained, too, with staff working from home and limited in their ability to do everyday work and being out in the field,” Leffert said.