California’s parks still far from needed turnaround

A new report calls for expanding access to California’s state parks, including Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
A new report calls for expanding access to California’s state parks, including Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Tribune News Service

An optimist would say that California’s state parks are on the brink of transformation, now that there’s a blueprint to fix the department and appeal to the next generation.

The realist, however, would say that there is a lot of work to get anywhere close to the ambitious vision for 2025.

After 18 months of study and public outreach and $5 million in foundation funding, the Parks Forward report comes at a crucial time. The parks department has been stuck in neutral since the hidden-funds scandal in 2012, which led to a purge of its top leadership and a plunge in public trust.

The agency is responsible for an incredibly diverse mix of 279 parks, beaches, recreation areas, cultural sites and natural areas that cover 1.6 million acres. They are a precious inheritance that we should preserve, enhance and make available to more Californians.

The 56-page report was formally approved Friday by the independent commission charged by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature to chart the future of the state parks system. Natural Resources Secretary John Laird told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board that the administration is on board.

The recommendations fall in three areas:

Modernize the department

The cultural and leadership problems in the agency have built up over many years and were worsened by budget cuts.

Still, it’s disappointing that not more progress has been made since The Bee uncovered that at the same time the director was threatening to close 70 parks, the department was sitting on $20 million in an off-budget account. And it’s frustrating that an agency “transformation” team is expected to take two more years to work out operational issues, update technology and make other bureaucratic reforms.

It’s mind-boggling, actually, that the agency lacks so much basic information needed to make smart decisions. For instance, its backlog of essential maintenance is guesstimated at $1 billion, but it could be much more or less. It doesn’t have the data to set fees based on demand, and until just recently didn’t have park-by-park revenue and expense figures.

Customer service is out of date; 50 of 170 parks with entry fees still don’t accept credit or debit cards. No, the department is not a business, but to survive, it has to start acting more like one.

Expand partnerships

Collaborating with other public agencies, nonprofits, universities and Indian tribes makes a lot of sense. As Parks Forward leaders point out, Californians don’t notice or much care who runs a particular park. They just want a nice, reasonably close place to go for a hike, have a picnic and enjoy the outdoors.

It’s even more essential in park-poor regions like the Central Valley for everyone to work well together. In some areas, the state’s best approach might be to give money to expand local parks – not to open new parks itself.

The report also calls for a new nonprofit “strategic partner,” Parks California, to help raise money for key projects, complementing the existing California State Parks Foundation. At the same time, the department must capitalize on the enthusiasm of “cooperative associations” that support individual parks.

Broaden public access

This goal may be the most challenging and most important to the future of state parks. It’s not just about additional revenue from more park visitors. It’s about the broader support that parks need in the long term.

There’s a growing mismatch between where many state parks are located and the cities where most Californians live. While there is a loyal group of park-goers, the department must aggressively reach out to younger and less affluent Californians and keep pace with the state’s demographic shift.

Offering a discount bus ride to small cabins for families camping overnight for the first time may seem like a small step. But ideas like it are part of the solution.

None of these exciting possibilities in partnerships and public access are going to happen, however, until the department gets its house in order, says Lance Conn, a commission co-chairman and Bay Area conservationist. Acting Director Lisa Mangat agrees, vowing to tackle credibility and transparency “once and for all.”

Good. There’s no time to waste to turn around an agency that is supposed to guard treasures like our state parks.