Editorial: Restoring trust is first step for fixing state parks

Published: Thursday, Mar. 28, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A

For too long, Californians have taken their state park system for granted.

Our population of 38 million people has inherited 87 state parks, 63 state beaches, 51 state historic parks, 33 state recreation areas, 16 state natural reserves and eight off-road vehicle recreation areas. These are a public trust for which we have a duty of responsible stewardship.

Yet after years of state budget cuts, threats of park closures by two governors and revelations that managers in the State Parks department failed to report what auditors called an "essentially useless reserve" that was never expended, the fabric of the public trust is frayed.

The Little Hoover Commission has released a valuable new report for a two-year course correction, while the parks have won a reprieve.

The major task is shifting to a culture that develops park leaders for a second century, establishes new partnerships and attracts a new generation of parkgoers:

• Creating multiple paths to become a park ranger or park superintendent other than through police training.

People who have backgrounds in environmental science, historic interpretation and other service should be allowed to be park rangers and superintendents, as in the National Park Service. Police Officer Standards and Training certification should not be required. Park police should be a separate track – and parks also should explore agreements with local police agencies.

• Expanding partnerships to allow more cost-sharing.

The harsh reality is that state funding has dropped from 91 percent of state park funding in 1979 to 22 percent today.

Collaboration will be key to the future. The state park system already has successful partnerships with the National Park Service; with city, county and regional park systems, such as the East Bay Regional Park District that operates four state parks; and with nonprofits, such as the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation that operates El Presidio State Historic Park.

State Parks should be more aggressive in seeking out state, national and regional park agencies, conservancies, trusts, volunteer associations and other partners.

• Using creative means to generate revenues.

Day use fees have tripled in the last decade; camping fees have doubled. Parks should be allowed more creativity in generating funds so they can reduce entrance and camping fees – assuring accessibility to people of all incomes. And when parks generate funds, legislators should allow them to keep some portion to reinvest in their own operations – as in the national parks.

These ideas – and others in the report – are not new. But previous state parks leaders trying to tackle them have run into political obstacles, such as police-trained rangers seeking to keep their monopoly.

The Little Hoover report offers a course correction to prevent park closures, not a vision for the state park system for the next century – a task for our political leaders. Our park system should not remain frozen in time with the Olmstead Plan of 1929. Vast areas still need state parks, such as portions of the Central Valley and other growing inland areas. If Michigan can work toward an $800 million Park Endowment Fund, surely California can raise a $500 million fund.

The Little Hoover report should provide impetus for State Parks Director Anthony Jackson, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators to take on restructuring. Their task – and ours – is rebuilding trust in the parks system and repositioning it for the future.

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