State officials on Monday launched a new program to analyze and reform California's troubled state parks system, to be led by a volunteer commission.
Called Parks Forward, the effort is required by the California State Parks Stewardship Act of 2012. That law was passed in the wake of a financial scandal, first reported by The Bee, in which top officials at the parks department were found to be hiding $23 million in "surplus" money even as they set about closing 70 parks due to budget cuts.
Among its other troubles, the department has a deferred maintenance backlog at the 280 parks in the system that exceeds $1 billion. That is partly because the state general fund subsidy to the department has declined sharply over the past 20 years, and revenues collected from visitor fees have not filled the gap.
California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said Monday the Parks Forward initiative will seek to make the parks department "sustainable" over the next century. Asked to define that, he said: "We would like to get to a point where we are not deferring maintenance and we are adequately funding the stewarship of the parks."
Laird will appoint the commission members, which will include park users as well as experts on conservation and finance. The only commissioner named so far is Lance Conn, a venture capitalist and former investor for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. He vowed to confront the "brutal facts" about how state parks are operated and funded.
The commission is expected to produce a report on its findings and recommendations by the end of next year, Conn said, which will include public input and examples from around the nation and the world.
"I love California parks and I love tough problems," Conn said. "We're not going to toss the report over a wall and sneak away under cover of darkness. We're going to stick around and see that the measures are implemented."
Parks Forward will be funded by grants from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and others, under the auspices of the Resources Legacy Fund. For more information, visit: http://www.parksforward.com.
Contact The Bee's Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.