California state parks are on the comeback trail

A view of Point Dume State Reserve in Malibu in 2016. A commission's recommendations to overhaul the state parks department are almost complete.
A view of Point Dume State Reserve in Malibu in 2016. A commission's recommendations to overhaul the state parks department are almost complete. Los Angeles Times/TNS

Almost five years ago, the Secretary for Natural Resources asked us and 10 others individuals of diverse experience to chart a new course for California state parks. We scrutinized the hidebound and underfunded Department of Parks and Recreation and recommended many difficult changes.

Parks leaders embraced the challenge and tackled each of the recommendations of our Parks Forward Commission. In June, with the help of several major California foundations, we checked the box on the final recommendation — the creation of a nonprofit that will raise new money and carry out projects to support parks.


The department cannot adequately serve nearly 40 million residents and tens of millions of more visitors alone. It needs partners. Parks California will complement work already underway and fill gaps.

The work unleashed by our sweeping 2015 recommendations will unfold over years. There are no simple, easy or fast fixes for a department with a maintenance backlog topping $1 billion and whose outdated organizational structure, underinvestment in technology and culture of independence led to the near-closure of 70 state parks in 2012 and a budget scandal that eroded public confidence.

While not entirely remade, the department is greatly transformed. New, strong leaders set in motion better budget methods, a more inclusive path to field leadership, interpretive programs more relevant to visitors, modernized reservation and revenue collection systems and a new Office of Partnerships to work with concessionaires, nonprofits and volunteer organizations.

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All of this work positioned the department for badly needed investment. The 2018-19 state budget devotes $80 million to maintaining and improving infrastructure that directly affects park visitors. The new funding also allows establishment of a recruitment and training office to diversify staff. It rectifies a structural budget imbalance and gives State Parks a stable, sustainable source of funding.

Just as significantly, voters in June approved Proposition 68, which will fund big, steady investments in local, regional and state parks over coming years. It will deliver $725 million for new and expanded parks in underserved communities, $270 million for local park rehabilitation and creation and $200 million to preserve, protect and restore state parks.


Californians will enjoy the payoff of this investment for generations to come. We can expect new soccer fields and playgrounds, refurbished restrooms, campgrounds, visitor centers and trails, more inclusive and innovative programs, improved access to parks that includes public transit and better assurance that our state’s natural, cultural and historic assets are protected.

Six years ago, stubborn, deep-seated problems dominated the state parks system. Today, most have been addressed, and a renaissance is underway.

Stephen Lockhart is chief medical officer of Sutter Health and chairman of Parks California and can be contacted at Caryl Hart is former director of Sonoma County Regional Parks and former chairwoman of the state Parks and Recreation Commission and can be contacted at