State Parks Funding

April 14, 2013

Clean-up Day at Folsom State Park illustrates need for partnerships

PG&E and the nonprofit California State Parks Foundation helped organize the Earth Day cleanup at Beals Point at Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, which took on projects that the state lacks staff and funds to handle.

A daylong round of park maintenance conducted and paid for by nonprofits and private entities went off without a hitch Saturday during the Earth Day cleanup at Beals Point at Folsom Lake State Recreation Area.

It was the first such event since a state parks funding scandal last year cast a spotlight on the financial woes of the park system. That scandal also helped shed light on the role that nonprofit organizations – such as the California State Parks Foundation – and private corporations play in keeping parks open and usable.

On Saturday, workers in blue PG&E T-shirts fanned out over Beals Point, working in collaboration with the foundation. The work included trail fencing and weed-whacking.

"We do not have the staffing that can just put a big dent into some of these big projects until we have a day like this," said Terri Lopez, interpretive specialist with the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area.

This year's event was the 16th annual Earth Day Restoration and Cleanup, with Beals Point and the Auburn State Recreation Area local beneficiaries.

Last year The Bee discovered that the state parks system had $54 million in "hidden money" in its coffers even as a budget crunch forced it to consider closing many state parks.

Since then, more than $20 million in found funds have been put back into keeping state parks open.

The scandal also led to a new law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last September, that allocates $10 million in a dollar-for-dollar matching grant scheme for private donations to the state parks system.

For the nonprofit California State Parks Foundation, which has more than 130,000 members, the scandal had a palpable effect. The nonprofit partners with the state parks system but is not affiliated with it. Yet, some of its members and the public conflated the two.

"It has been a little more of a struggle this year to maintain our funding, said Mike Bankert, vice president of finance and administration with the foundation.

Bankert said the organization will not know the overall effect of the scandal until the end of this fiscal year. However, renewals at the foundation have remained strong, he said.

"A lot of people were initially very upset," said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation. "But I think people are starting to turn a corner.

"People are really supportive of state parks, and I think they understand the relationship between what happened and the underlying financial risks that state parks remain under."

Since the 1970s the foundation, which has been around for 44 years, has given $200 million to state parks.

"When the crisis started in '08 the need was, literally for keeping the doors open," Goldstein said. "What was really extraordinary was donors across the state stepped up."

Nonprofits have been assuming the role of park operator – as at Jack London State Historic State Park. Last year the nonprofit Valley of the Moon Natural History Association entered into an agreement with the state parks agency for the nonprofit to run the park under a five-year arrangement. The state will retain ownership throughout that agreement.

More recently, Malakoff Diggins State Park, which was scheduled to close, will stay open this summer as a result of a $25,000 donation to the South Yuba River Citizen's League by the foundation.

"It's too early to tell, but there's no question that one of the changes going on is the kind and level of complexity of partnerships that the state parks department is engaged with," said Goldstein.

"They're entering into many different kinds of partnerships in many different locations, and that's going to be part of the future," she said. "It's not the solution to running parks, or keeping them open for the whole system. That would be impossible, but in specific places where organizations have the capacity to do it – it definitely is going to be a part of the mix."

A recent report by the Little Hoover Commission recommended an expansion of partnerships that would allow more cost-sharing.

The new model could see a role for private entities to be part of the mix, too.

All day Saturday, PG&E employees set in posts to create new wooden fencing or applied curb paint to faded concrete.

"This year, PG&E was intentional about maintaining our strong level of funding for the Parks Foundation as we recognized the unique challenges facing the organization," said PG&E President Chris Johns.

PG&E gave the foundation $277,000 for maintenance and improvement projects at state parks, he said.

During the 12 years the utility has partnered with the foundation, Johns said, the company has given more than $1.7 million.

Call The Bee's Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.

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