Parks Forward initiative is a step backward

Aaron L. White
Aaron L. White

The California Department of Parks and Recreation will soon decide how to implement the Parks Forward initiative, which recommended creation of a state-sponsored nonprofit to raise private money to support state parks. Though well intentioned, the initiative fails to consider two popular and successful alternatives for management of California’s state park system.

One alternative, currently trending across the country, is a public-private partnership where the state retains ownership but lets a company or nonprofit trust manage the land. For example, New York City manages Central Park this way, with nonprofit organizations handling general operations, providing the majority of operating funds and investing in capital projects. Moreover, in California there are already more than 400 parks privately managed to some degree using variations of the public-private partnership model.

The second option is to cede state parks to land trusts, organizations dedicated to land preservation and conservation. There are more than 150 land trusts in California preserving more than 2.5 million acres. Land trusts already manage an area larger than the size of California’s state park system of 1.6 million acres.

The final report from the Parks Forward initiative acknowledges the efficiency of land trusts as successful models for park support, particularly the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the Yosemite Conservancy and the Anza-Borrego Foundation in Southern California.

In both approaches, an independent entity does what the state has failed to do – account for funds and balance an operating budget. Californians might recall that in 2012, as the Department of Parks and Recreation prepared to close 70 state parks, the department suddenly discovered $58 million in a hidden account. That sort of fiscal misconduct is obviously unacceptable.

Land trusts provide management and conservation services for a lower cost to the public, raising money voluntarily through foundation support and private individuals. Between both public-private partnerships and land trusts there is a large body of evidence to suggest a viable alternative to California’s Department of Parks and Recreation and the proposed nonprofit.

The Parks Forward initiative also does not adequately account for environmental impacts. The Department of Parks and Recreation currently reports 70 million visits to state parks each year. The Parks Forward initiative recommends increasing this number. Increased traffic may be good for the department, but it has yet to be determined if it is good for wildlife.

Increased foot and bike traffic in state parks can lead to soil loss, which, as Jeffrey Marion, a recreation ecologist at Virginia Tech, writes in Park Science, is “the most significant and irreversible form of trail impact.”

Many conservation land trusts combine volunteerism with restoration ecology, which builds awareness and support in their local communities. For example, the Mojave Desert Land Trust, headquartered in Joshua Tree, offers land stewardship, land restoration and land monitoring programs to engage their community and teach volunteers in a hands-on outdoors capacity.

These programs enabled the land trust to restore more than 1,300 acres of desert lands, an area larger than Golden Gate Park. The local nature of many land trusts combined with their activities can accommodate increased park visits without environmental damage. But Parks Forward did not examine this.

The Parks Forward initiative is flawed on fiscal and environmental grounds and should not be implemented. Instead, California should expand public-private partnerships and land trusts to include every state park. That is a better way to expand accountability, environmental quality and recreation for all Californians.

Aaron L. White is a policy research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland.