California’s treasured state parks system seems to have become an orphan.
During Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest stint in office, there have been two acting directors and one director who served 18 months. Parks have been essentially in financial receivership for two years, after budget cuts and revelations that department managers failed to report a $20 million surplus while park officials threatened shutdowns.
This is a department that oversees some of the earth’s most majestic and unique land. It needs long-term leadership and a 21st-century vision, focused on preservation of the state’s natural resources and history, and public enjoyment, while encouraging use by urban residents who don’t traditionally go to state parks.
Natural Resources Secretary John Laird named an acting director, Lisa Mangat, earlier this month. Mangat, who has a background in finance, is equipped to put the department’s financial house in order by the department’s Jan. 1 deadline for presenting a sustainable funding strategy to the Legislature.
The bigger task will be to find a parks director.
To date, Brown and Laird seem to have been disengaged from parks. And it shows.
Over the years, the department has become a public safety department; rangers carry guns and are peace officers. Natural resource management and interpretation have become secondary. A culture of risk aversion has set in. Longtime employees have left in frustration, creating a vacuum of leadership.
California deserves a parks director who can welcome younger, more diverse visitors, and inspire the next generation of stewards who might not yet have a relationship with the outdoors.
The state needs a modern thinker, not someone who harkens back to the park system of the 1970s, during Brown’s previous tenure as governor.
And the state needs someone with business sense, who grasps that parks compete with other attractions and understands that parks are not just about managing lands and buildings, but establishing programs that bring people to parks and parks to people.
He or she must be capable of dealing with long-standing fractures that prevent modernization. There is no good reason why parks cannot accept credit and debit cards for payment.
The director should end the obsolete policy that requires that park superintendents be trained law enforcement officers, which shuts out people who have science or historical backgrounds.
Neither the National Park Service nor many other states have such a requirement. An independent commission, Parks Forward, was the latest to recommend ending the law enforcement requirement and opening up leadership to more diverse candidates.
Despite its population growth, the Central Valley lacks parks, compared to other areas of the state, and its parks tend to be smaller and have fewer amenities. The next director ought to work to remedy that gap.
Above all, the next director must have a passion for parks and a vision for restoring a system that truly sets California apart from other states.