State Parks Funding

An Olmsted steps forward to fight California park shutdowns

Unlike his father, famed California naturalist John D. Olmsted, Alden Olmsted had little desire to become an environmental activist.

Since leaving college at age 19 to start his own BMX bike company, the Sonoma native has worked as a Hollywood screenwriter, photographer and even as a car salesman.

But when state officials released a plan in May to close 70 of California's 278 state parks to cut $33 million over the next two years, the distant cousin of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted said he felt a need to protect California's "legacy of natural beauty."

Alden Olmsted has picked up right where his father – who died of liver cancer in March at age 73 – left off, looking for solutions that could keep as many parks as possible from closing their gates.

"I don't feel that this is any time to dwell in the past," the 39-year-old Olmsted said while eating at the Fox & Goose Pub, one of 40 locations throughout the state where he has left a bucket asking for donations to help save the parks.

"I feel like there has to be some solution. I get letters every day from people, telling me how much they appreciate the parks and what I'm doing. They say, 'Please save our parks.' I've raised just under $20,000, essentially without asking, but I'm feeling kind of alone in the fight right now."

Inspired by conservationist John Muir, John D. Olmsted spent more than 40 years pursuing his passion of preserving the natural beauty of California. He proposed creating a public-land corridor that would connect a chain of natural landscapes stretching across Northern California.

Now Alden Olmsted is exploring his legal options to help save the parks, three of which were created by his father.

"It's almost a slap in the face," Olmsted said. "If your father spent 40 years building a house, and then two months after he died you tore it down, you'd be upset. Gov. (Jerry ) Brown picked the wrong last name to mess with."

Roy Stearns is a spokesman for the California State Parks and thinks there are still viable options to keep at least some of the parks operational.

"There are 32 parks that have been operated by cities and counties for years," he said.

"We own the land, they operate the park. That sort of operational model is nothing new to us. We are very amenable to those kinds of relationships, if they fit."

Traci Verardo-Torres, vice president of governmental affairs at the California State Parks Foundation in Sacramento, is lobbying for Assembly Bill 42, which would help nonprofit organizations step in and operate some of the parks.

"I don't think Alden is a lone activist," she said. "We welcome his passion and crusade because we want every Californian to feel as invested in the parks as he is."

Olmsted compared the current fight to a successful film script.

"A great movie presents a question at the beginning. Over the course of the movie that question will be answered. In this case, the question is 'Do we care about parks?' And I can't say the answer is yes, but I really hope it is."

If no solution is agreed upon, the affected parks, which include the Governor's Mansion and Stanford Mansion in Sacramento as well as Brannan Island State Recreation Area in Sacramento County, are scheduled to be padlocked by next July.