A study released Monday by the Little Hoover Commission says California should consider giving up some of its state parks and turning them over to local agencies permanently.
The 120-page report is the result of a yearlong investigation that started before financial scandals emerged in July 2012 at the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
Among other things, department leaders were found to be hiding $20 million even as they moved to close 70 of the 278 state parks because of state budget cuts. Numerous other government agencies have probed these events.
The 13-member Little Hoover Commission, appointed by the governor and Legislature, chose to focus on long-term survival of the state parks system, the largest in the nation.
"We really wanted to focus on what they need to do to move forward," said Stuart Drown, the commission's executive director. "A lot of the scandals - the misbehavior and bad bookkeeping and all that - that's the result of some of the fundamental problems they have."
The most controversial of six recommendations calls for appointing an advisory council to decide which parks have "statewide significance" and which serve more regional or local needs. Those in the latter category, the study says, should be transferred to local agencies.
The commission found that the parks department is burdened by an obsolete management structure; it can't raise enough money from visitor fees to replace cuts in state funding; and land acquisition over the last two decades has overwhelmed maintenance budgets.
"A great public institution is falling apart," commissioner Virginia Ellis said in a statement.
The primary reason is that the department added 168,000 acres to the park system over the last two decades. It did so at the behest of voters, who approved millions of dollars in bond measures for land acquisition.
But state leaders did little to increase the operating revenues available for park maintenance, ranger staffing and interpretive programs. Bond money cannot be used for those purposes.
The department boosted visitor fees significantly, but that wasn't enough by itself. At the same time, state lawmakers slashed general fund support dramatically; it fell from 91 percent of park funding in 1979 to 22 percent in 2012.
As a result, today there is a maintenance backlog in state parks that exceeds $1 billion, and many of the state's finest natural resources and historical treasures are in severe decay. Staffing at the parks has declined, compromising the visitor experience.
"The growth curve for the department is no longer in acreage, but in deferred maintenance," the report states.
Carolyn Schoff, president of the California League of Park Associations, said she was pleased by the study overall, but the idea of eliminating parks will be difficult for many supporters to accept.
"Certainly we want to keep our park system intact," she said. "But if this is a recommendation that will keep the parks as open and available as they were intended to be, I think it's a possibility."
In a related recommendation, the commission urges the governor and Legislature to commit to a consistent level of general fund support for parks, and to allow parks to keep more of the money they generate locally.
Park superintendents have been reluctant to try innovations that would boost revenue because they knew the money would not help their park but would end up in Sacramento.
The department also needs to adopt modern budgetary processes to track expenses and plan for lean years, the report states. Some of this has already begun in the wake of last year's financial scandals.
The commission also recommends that state parks should add a new job classification of "park manager." This would allow employees other than park rangers, who must have peace officer training, to oversee a park.
Currently, only park rangers with peace officer training can rise to the position of park superintendent. This is not always a bad thing, but it increases training costs for the department and may exclude park employees with special skills, such as historians and archeologists, from supervising parks.
Brent Marshall, spokesman for the California State Parks Peace Officer Management Association, said it has been falsely reported in the past that his organization opposes this change. It merely wants to be part of the discussion, which didn't happen under prior leadership, he said.
"What we've always said is, we're open to new ways of conducting business," Marshall said. "We just need to be invited to the table."
The commission acknowledged that the parks department does not have enough park rangers to ensure the safety of visitors and staff, and to fulfill the park ranger's classic role of educating visitors about nature and history.
But instead of simply hiring more rangers, the study urges the state to launch an independent review of crime trends in the parks. This would reveal the most pressing law enforcement problems so rangers can be hired and deployed appropriately.
State parks spokesman Roy Stearns said the study accurately reflects many challenges the department has struggled with in recent years. He said the agency is open to looking at divesting some of the parks, and supports creating the new "park manager" job classification.
"This validates all that I've seen in the first four months that I've been here and want to work on," said state parks director Anthony Jackson, who was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in November.
The study, titled "Beyond Crisis: Recapturing Excellence in California's State Park System," can be found online at www.lhc.ca.gov.
Contact The Bee's Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.