The Thin Green Line is something park rangers and all park stewards monitor and manage. In part, it consists of the people and efforts that protect our natural and cultural public-trust resources from exploitation. Exploitation includes privatizing what should be a public trust. "Privatize" is defined as transferring from public or government control or ownership, to private enterprise, such as a promise to privatize significant portions of public lands.
For the past several years, state park employees have tried to do the impossible task of keeping parks open while being told the state parks department was under-funded. Recently it was disclosed the department's headquarters did not report more than $54 million of available funds for a number of years just after carrying out an unauthorized vacation leave buyout program for headquarters' personnel costing more than $270,000.
At the same time there was a strong internal and external movement to "save our parks" and to keep them open by using a number of tools, strategies, private sponsorships and operating contracts. There was steady internal department pressure to get everyone behind the idea of outsourcing to save parks from closure.
Many well-intentioned individuals and organizations came forward to provide assistance when the rallying cry to keep parks open was issued. What better cause than to help ensure access to our parks?
More than one park district superintendent has told me that while motivating people into action during these circumstances, the department was at the same time promoting the privatization of park resources and undermining the basic intent of public-trust lands. Examples of this include the recent issuing by the department of requests for proposals to have up to 20 parks managed by private concessions, and encouraging corporations to sponsor and fund the high-profile, glitzy aspects of a park operation. Less-visible or less-marketable aspects do not receive the same attention. Cumulatively, this leads to commercialization, the degradation of public lands and public trust, and disparity throughout the system.
The core principles of the state's public-trust resources are at stake. The actions by executives in the department give the appearance that money was concealed to create a false financial emergency while encouraging the privatization effort.
Former Director Ruth Coleman began using the term "enterprise department" to describe the California state parks department. California's parks are not an "enterprise." This goes against the core principle of public-trust resource protection. A fee-based system that requires large private donations and sponsorships as a primary means of support in order to operate a park is counter to the idea that parks are for all people, not just those who can afford them. While paying for certain services is common practice, and appropriate profit models have their place in parks, essential services such as public safety, resource protection and facility maintenance cannot be ignored. Those can easily be compromised or exploited and do not lend themselves to an enterprise model.
In August 1865, Fredrick Law Olmsted proposed his groundbreaking report outlining the reasons government should reserve land of value for its people. The report proposed visionary guidelines for management of public-trust lands that still serve as models for park rangers and land stewards.
Olmsted described the benefits of the environment in ethical concepts now familiar. He said ordinary citizens deserved as much and that parks should be made accessible and available to people of all income levels, not just the wealthy. He described in detail the value and benefits of the natural environment and emphasized grounds for its enjoyment without compromising or exploiting its true value for future visitors.
Unfortunately, the parks department executive leadership has exploited the public, the parks, their employees and advocates with the vacation leave buyout program and by concealing unreported funds. And they created a false emergency enabling a movement toward privatization of the state park system.
Safeguards must be put into place to ensure that the parks are managed to meet their basic mission and mandates. Protection of the resources and their access for future generations is paramount.