State Parks Funding

California state parks must refocus to survive, report says

There might be no money for state parks, but money isn't all they need.

That is the basic message in a new study released Friday by California's largest parks advocacy group.

The "Vision for Excellence" report by the nonprofit California State Parks Foundation is an acknowledgment that no financial salvation is at hand for the embattled parks, and that a new mission for an austere future may be needed.

Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered the State Parks Department to cut $22 million from its operating budget over the next two years. Within two weeks, the department is expected to release a list of properties to close in the 278-park system to meet the cost-cutting target.

They would become the first total closures in the 150-year history of the state park system.

In this context, it might seem surprising that the new report offers few financial fixes. But in November, the foundation was unsuccessful in that arena when voters failed to approve Proposition 21, which would have imposed an $18 annual fee on vehicle registrations to fund park operations.

So the report seeks to refocus park operating priorities.

"It may seem an odd moment to be talking about a vision for excellence," said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the foundation. "But we believe the California State Parks system is at an extremely important turning point."

The report is informed by an online survey that drew 6,400 participants – mainly devoted park users, according to the foundation. It also completed a phone survey of 800 Californians who were evenly split between regular park users and nonusers.

The foundation declined to share the full survey results with the media.

Among the recommendations:

Teach more people how to use parks. Some demographic groups need help accessing outdoor and historical experiences.

Make state parks more relevant to a diverse population through hands-on activities in the parks, integration with school and cultural groups, and health education.

Mobilize an army of volunteers for interpretive work and to protect parks in the absence of paid staff.

Find new ways to make money in parks, such as creating new overnight accommodations in historic structures or tent cabins.

The last item is one of the few aimed at directly solving park system budget problems. The foundation proposes a systemwide inventory of park assets that could be used to generate more revenue.

But Goldstein said monetizing parks must be done without commercializing them.

The polling revealed that visitors don't want to see parks operated or sponsored by corporations, she said. But they are open to more amenities operated by private concessionaires, such as restaurants, boat rental, skills classes and tours.