Redwood forests and sandy beaches, teeming wetlands and oak-crowned grasslands: Santa Cruz County has more state park units than any other county in California. So it’s only fitting that a new way to support the Golden State’s stunning inheritance of public lands started here, with the innovative nonprofit Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks. So successful has this group been at turning community enthusiasm and visitor traffic into dollars-and-cents support for state parks that state officials are studying the “Friends Model” and pondering how to encourage similar innovations statewide.
Today Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks supports operations at 32 state parks and beaches in Santa Cruz County and along the San Mateo County coast. It does this by collecting park entrance fees and splitting those proceeds with California State Parks, then using its portion to fund educational and interpretive programs, visitor services and a large volunteer program.
Friends also operates ParkStores at Natural Bridges, New Brighton, the Santa Cruz Mission, Seacliff and Wilder Ranch. All proceeds from these thoughtfully stocked gift shops—each with a theme appropriate to the host park, like butterflies at Natural Bridges and California history at the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park—go directly to programs at state parks in our area.
Santa Cruz County parks lovers also play a role in helping to fund the parks, as Friends leverages memberships, grants and partnerships with local businesses in support of its much-loved programs. Memberships come with nice perks, too—discounts at ParkStores, invitations to members-only events, and a one-day parking pass good at any park.
Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks began life in 1976 as the Monterey Bay Natural History Association. At the time, just after the recession of the early 1970s, many such “nonprofit cooperating associations” were emerging across the state to lend state parks a hand.
Initially the MBNHA focused solely on educational programs. In 1987, however, things shifted as new laws governing the cooperating associations came into effect and state parks took a funding hit. MBNHA entered into a new and unique arrangement with the state: it would not just act as a fundraiser for the state parks in the Santa Cruz area, it would actually function like part of the structure of state parks in the Santa Cruz area. It would be another 10 years—1997—before the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks name came into being, but with the new agreement, the Friends Model was born.
Here’s how it worked, and how it still works:
When you drive into a Santa Cruz area state park, a Friends employee at the entrance kiosk greets you, collects your parking fee and hands you a map (look for the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks patch on his or her jacket). Approximately half of your fee will go to support state parks in general, and half of it will fund, through Friends, various people you encounter on your visit. The knowledgeable state parks interpreter who tells you all about redwood ecology? That person’s position is funded by Friends. The person leading schoolchildren through the Mission Adobe? Also funded by Friends. The volunteer docents who lead tours of the Victorian buildings at Wilder Ranch and butterfly walks at Natural Bridges? Their training, name badges and snacks are funded by Friends.
When you wander into a Friends-operated ParkStore, the proceeds from the stylish mugs, posters, cards, books, toys, puppets and jewelry you buy help fund those positions too. As do firewood sales at campgrounds.
As the parks budget has continued to suffer, Friends has taken on additional roles—purchasing materials to be used by state parks staff to rebuild the Natural Bridges boardwalk, for example, and paying for the reroofing of the Victorian at Wilder Ranch. In 2013-14, Friends even stepped in to fund seasonal maintenance crews and lifeguards at the parks.
This is how, in 2013, Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks was able to provide more than 100 local jobs at peak season.
A Virtuous Cycle
“This area is known for having one of the best educational programs in the state,” says Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks Executive Director Bonny Hawley, “because there is one.”
One can see how the virtuous cycle might work. If the state parks in the Santa Cruz area are clean, well staffed and welcoming to families, with lots of classes, docent-led activities and educational features, they’ll be more popular than parks without those amenities. More people will return for another visit, meaning more dollars collected at the entrance kiosk and more dollars spent in the ParkStores—which in turn means continued or even enhanced amenities, even in hard times.
The effectiveness of this system was illustrated when the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park landed on a list of parks doomed to closure in 2011. Friends sprang into action and set about finding ways to keep the 190-year-old Mission Adobe open. It secured a three-year grant from the California Missions Foundation and the SD Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, as well as individual donations from the public, to cover operations. Donation stations were then set up and a program put in place to introduce the public to a state park in the middle of downtown Santa Cruz that few people even knew existed.
Thus was born an innovative series of activities at the Mission. In summertime the park, which overlooks downtown, hosts First Friday art celebrations and screens movies al fresco. The first Mole and Mariachis Festival, in October 2013, was a huge party that grossed $22,000—a portion of which will help build an expansion of the patio. In early 2014, the park was looking forward to hosting its first wedding in the spring.
The story of the Mission is an example of how an agile and entrepreneurial entity working closely with the parks can almost act as a private arm of a public agency, fast-tracking projects and experimenting with new approaches.
The model works so well that Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks has become the largest contributor to state parks of any organization of its kind. In 2012, its contribution to California State Parks was valued at $2.1 million—a full half-million more than the next-greatest benefactor.
No wonder the Friends Model is getting attention from parks lovers and officials struggling to find a way to fund 280 California state parks in the aftermath of the Great Recession, at a time when many fear that state funding will never return to its former plenitude.
Though Hawley cautions that the Friends Model isn’t the answer for everyone (“One of the reasons our model works here is because it’s tailored to our area,” she says), she does agree that her organization’s relationship with the local district of California State Parks functions very well.
“The system really works,” she says. “We do well, they do well. They need something, they ask for it, and we try to fulfill the request. It’s a real partnership. That term gets tossed around a lot, but that’s really what it is.”
Follow this link to visit 'That's My Park,' the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks website, to learn more, contribute, or find out how to get involved with their good work.
Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, 144 School St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060. 831.429.1840