Soapbox

Transformation plan threatens soul of state parks

Hikers start the Donner Canyon-Eagle Peak loop at Mount Diablo State Park last month. A former state parks official worries that a proposed transformation plan neglects the parks’ mission, which is to preserve and protect their natural and historic resources.
Hikers start the Donner Canyon-Eagle Peak loop at Mount Diablo State Park last month. A former state parks official worries that a proposed transformation plan neglects the parks’ mission, which is to preserve and protect their natural and historic resources. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

As a longtime former California State Parks chief of public information and as an environmentalist, I have grave reservations about the recently announced Transformation Action Plan.

It appears to treat the state parks system as some kind of a business, which it is not. And the plan neglects the first and most important mission of state parks – to preserve and protect the parks’ natural and historic resources.

Public use and access should be provided only to the extent that they do not harm the resources. And revenue generation should only be considered when it does not harm either of these higher purposes.

Nor can you measure everything in dollars. Many years ago, when I was conservation education chief for state Fish and Game, there was an effort to do just that. But how can you put a value on the last few salmon still following their ancestral urge to spawn in the San Joaquin River – though there are folks who are trying to, even now.

I also urge caution in depending on volunteer organizations to operate state parks. I had a lot of experience working with volunteers, helping to establish and supervise the department’s Cooperating Associations Program. I also helped establish the League of State Park Cooperating Associations, and upon retirement served as the league’s executive officer for about 10 years.

The cooperating associations were established as a way to support and fund the department’s publications and environmental education programs, modeled on a program of the National Park Service. But some of these associations expanded to take over operation of “their” parks when closure was threatened.

This has forced them into extensive fundraising, and also tended to put the parks under local control, which is not the way to manage state parks, which were established to serve all the state’s people. It also tends to put at a disadvantage parks which do not have a strong funding base.

Contracting park operations to private concessionaires is even more dangerous. The associations at least are committed to protecting and preserving the resource. The concessionaire is committed to profit. Park history is a long story of battles with private companies proposing services and facilities that compromised park values.

I agree that many urban areas are underserved, but I do not believe it is the role of state parks to serve them. I was involved in several of the department’s early efforts at increasing diversity, none of which were particularly effective. Local park management, with its emphasis on recreation, is much better done by cities and counties, perhaps with funding from the state.

I also believe that park directors and their deputies should have park experience. I worked closely with a half-dozen directors and found that by far the best ones had a park background. The worst were political appointees who considered the job a rest stop while they waited for more congenial opportunities.

In summary, I believe the state Parks Department should do for the state what the National Park Service was established to do for the nation – preserve and protect its outstanding natural and historic resources for all the people, present and future. And it should be fully funded by the state alone.

William C. Dillinger was chief of public information for California State Parks from 1968 to 1984 and is a past president of the Sacramento Audubon Society.

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