For State Parks, A Whole New Direction

by Traci Hukill

Sept. 11, 2013—The Parks Forward workshop in Santa Cruz Monday almost went to the dogs. The first of 10 such meetings around the state held by a commission tasked with reimagining the beleaguered California state parks system—kind of a big job, right?—was nearly derailed by the most narrow and parochial of feuds: leash laws in Santa Cruz. Commenter after commenter stood at the podium to weigh in on this hot-button local issue with little regard for the scope of the task at hand. At one point the panelists frankly looked stunned.

Fortunately, many of the 150 or so people who crammed into the stuffy Louden Nelson auditorium for the four-hour confab came prepared with actual ideas about how to make the parks more relevant and financially sustainable. This is a system that needs ideas: covering 278 parks and 1.6 million acres, its budget has been cut by the legislature 37 percent in the last five years in what appears to be the new normal. The threatened closure of 70 parks in 2011 and discovery of $20 million in unaccounted-for park funds in 2012 damaged faith in the current setup. It’s the job of the 12 Parks Forward commissioners to come up with a new one. The crowd was there to let the public’s desires be known.

The suggestions poured in. Many speakers, including yours truly (representing Hilltromper; read our brief comments to Parks Forward commissioners here), asked for lower park fees; some argued that a broader base of engaged users would allow parks to charge less. (Parking currently costs $8-$10/day at most Santa Cruz County-area parks; camping is $35/night.) An equestrian suggested that parks lower the $50 price for horse trailer parking and consider putting rangers back on horseback while they’re at it. One man speculated that rangers might do better on motorcycles. A passionate volunteer at Cooper-Molera Adobe State Park in Monterey said parks should lean more on volunteers like herself, and another weighed in saying volunteers should be encouraged to work at the smaller, less popular parks. Someone floated the idea of a regional parks magazine, with ad revenue going to parks coffers. Another said a revitalized parks system should embrace our underwater parks: the state’s Marine Protected Areas.

Watch archived video of the Sept. 9 Parks Forward meeting in Santa Cruz

Brown And Young
Key to the day’s discussion was an observation made right out of the gate by the first invited speaker of the day, Bill Leahy of the Big Sur Land Trust. “We are an aging white movement,” he said bluntly, “and we will have to become a brown and young movement or perish.” The composition of the crowd—perhaps 50 percent of which was over age 60—drove Leahy’s point home handily (as did that day’s International Business Times article on the absence of minorities in national parks).

In response, one commenter suggested adding more of the facilities most commonly used by families of color, like picnic areas and fire rings. Shawn Wilson, owner of Epicenter Cycling, laid out one way to reach the whippersnappers, especially here in Santa Cruz, where mountain biking is hugely popular. “I’m probably the youngest person here,” Wilson said. “I know most ages ride bikes, and if you want everyone in the parks, you make bike-friendly trails. That’ll be your answer.” Hilltromper suggested partnering with regional transportation agencies to make sure people without cars can actually get to state parks.

This Trail Brought to You by …
What people want in their parks is one thing; how to pay for it is another. The need for parks to generate revenue and embark on new kinds of partnerships was a theme throughout the day—not surprising given the contents of an influential report on California state parks by the Little Hoover Commission released in March 2013. That report, often mentioned in the same breath as the Parks Forward Initiative, calls for “a new operating model built around shared management, innovation, greater transparency and the expectation that it generate more revenue from its operations.”

While John Coburn of the California Parks Company, which has the concession at Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Angel Island, suggested (cough, cough) one kind of public-private partnership (exclusive contracts with Coca-Cola or Pepsi at the parks), as well as raising user fees on weekends, mountain bikers and nonprofit groups pointed to another kind of model.

Wilson of Epicenter, as well as professional mountain biker Katie Jay Melena and mountain bike trail designer Drew Perkins, suggested expanding on existing volunteer/bike company partnerships (see The Santa Cruz Pump Track Boom) to build mountain bike trails in area parks. Volunteers will gladly maintain the trails, as they currently do at Wilder Ranch, said Perkins. As for the companies, Melena noted, "They want people to ride their bikes, so they're willing to pay for the trails.”

Terry Corwin, executive director of the Land Trust for Santa Cruz County, mentioned a source of revenue that would have been heresy a generation ago: timber. “We have a forest we sustainably harvest and have since 1984,” she said, referring to the Land Trust’s Byrne-Milliron Forest. “We use the proceeds to take care of the forest and keep it open to the public.

“You asked for provocative ideas,” she said. “There are ways of using these types of progressive management regimes for the health of the landscape and to create revenue, so I encourage you to take a hard look at that and tour any of these lands.”

Friends in Deed
Invited speaker Bonny Hawley, executive director of Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, pointed to her organization as an example of a longtime successful partnership with state parks—one that has preserved and even expanded state parks offerings locally in the 26 years it’s been in effect.

The “Friends model,” Hawley explained, provides funding for ranger, maintenance, visitor service and fee collection staff in exchange for a percentage of proceeds from entrance fees. By reinvesting 100 percent of those funds back into the local parks and leveraging them to raise more money—through sales at its five parks stores, for example—Friends has been able to keep all parks in this area opens, create an online learning program for thousands of students across the state and even take a park slated for closure, the Santa Cruz Mission Historic Park, and turn it into a hub of community activity.

Key to replicating Friends’ success, Hawley said, will be the Department of Parks and Recreation’s willingness to flex, be creative and allow “locally relevant initiatives and partnerships” to flourish.

“This will be a challenge in the these times,” she added, “where the understandable reaction by the department and the legislature would be to regiment, standardize and homogenize to gain further control of park operations in the hope of avoiding any hint of future scandal.”

Not So Fast
No one involved with parks these days seems to think the state will ever again fully fund them at the levels of the past. But not everyone is letting the state off the hook, either. Reed Holderman, executive director for the Sempervirens Fund, said the state must commit to maintaining the parks system at some level and stop threatening to axe parks whenever it’s in a bind. “It’s essential that the state of California agree on the size of the California state parks system and that we make sure the state of California pays for it,” he said.

Holderman also noted that while the revenue-generation idea for parks is nice, it’s not the ultimate answer—even for a popular destination like Castle Rock State Park, much less smaller, less glamorous parks. “We’re working on talks about revenue,” he said of Castle Rock, which is undergoing a major renovation with support from a group of businesses and nonprofits that includes Sempervirens Fund, “and we may get to self-sufficiency. I don’t know. It’s a great goal. But let’s be real: this is a public benefit that should be supported by the public.”

The Parks Forward Initiative is accepting written comments from the public on an ongoing basis, as well as on its Facebook and Twitter pages.

The Parks Forward Commission’s first meeting will be in Sacramento on Sept. 18. A draft plan is expected in April 2014 and a final version in November 2014. Learn more at Parks Forward.

How to Fix State Parks
Castle Rock to Remain Open