Major changes called for in state park system
It’s becoming clearer by the day that California’s state park system will have to be completely overhauled to continue to provide the level of service citizens have come to expect from the nation’s largest and finest state park system. The Parks Forward Commission’s long-awaited recommendations were released in draft form on April 23 with strong recommendations for extensive changes.
“Despite years of well-intentioned external reports and internal strategic plans, the [Parks] Department has not yet been able to achieve the magnitude or scope of change needed,” the draft report states. And the time for waiting is at an end. “Progress on all components of the new vision must happen concurrently, and not sequentially. We do not have the luxury of waiting for a transformed Department to implement this vision, nor do we think such an incremental approach is a reasonable strategy for success, given past efforts and current realities.”
The final version of the report should be submitted by the time this paper is circulated. Dr. Caryl Hart, Director of the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department, was one of 12 members of the Parks Forward Commission.
Key findings are that the State Parks Department has to transform its inner workings and how it deals with its partners – the various park associations and groups who have either been working with state parks for years or who came together more recently to keep open many of the 70 state parks scheduled for closure in 2012 during another state budget crisis.
The California League of Park Associations held their 2014 Annual Conference in Sonoma County, in part to hear from the many local groups and county agencies that stepped up two years ago. While the budget crunch that prompted the closures was partially alleviated with the discovery of $55 million in obscure State Parks Department accounts, the future of the entire park system continues to depend on new public-private partnerships and innovative management and marketing of the kind that has emerged in Sonoma County.
Members of Sonoma Parks Alliance, Team Sugarloaf, Jack London Park Partners, and Sonoma County Regional Parks were on hand to explain what they have done to increase attendance, income and marketing. They presented “A Model for Saving Sonoma County State Parks,” a conference workshop held at Guerne-ville’s Dawn Ranch on April 24. They also discussed what remains to be done and areas of difficulty in developing ongoing working relationships with state park staff and administration.
Many people living in Sonoma Valley have been touched by new programs – Funky Fridays summer music, Bill and Dave hikes, mushroom hikes and trail days at Sugarloaf; Broadway Under the Stars, Thursday Sundown music series, and piano recitals at Jack London State Park; new guided tours and cleaner trails at all parks, including Annadel, which still has support of local volunteers and the Sonoma County Regional Parks department. These have all increased attendance, boosted revenues and reinvigorated the parks with new features, restored trails and improved facilities.
A common complaint from park partners is about the long response times from state staff when submitting new ideas and requests for work orders. While everyone making the complaint acknowledged that the state parks department is understaffed and overworked, the situation needs to improve if the parks themselves are to continue improving.
“Externally, an effective Department is one that seeks and embraces new models and opportunities for working with existing and new partners to advance the vision in new ways,” the draft report states. “The Department must function as a leader, coordinator, and partner, seeking out innovative, cost efficient, effective means of conducting business. The Department must work closely with public agencies, tribes, nonprofit organizations, businesses, volunteers and civic leaders not only within the State Park System, but across the landscape of local, state, and federal parks and protected lands.”
The report specifically criticizes the Department’s long held policy of promoting only Park Rangers with law enforcement backgrounds to management positions.
“The current structure for training and promoting leaders is seen by many to focus more on the Department’s public safety functions, than on other core functions such as administration, resource protection, and facilities maintenance, which are equally important for effective management and leadership. Additionally, the Department’s current policies do not provide comparable training opportunities or a clear promotion pathway to leadership for qualified nonpeace officer staff.” The report specifically calls for elimination of the requirement for peace officer certification as a prerequisite for promotion.
A copy of the draft report is available here. The final report is not expected until later this year.