Soapbox

Big steps forward for state parks

Bicyclists trek to Mount Barnabe at Samuel P. Taylor State Park in Lagunitas.
Bicyclists trek to Mount Barnabe at Samuel P. Taylor State Park in Lagunitas. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed two important measures that will help move California’s world-class state park system and its steward, the Department of Parks and Recreation, forward in the 21st century.

As longtime park advocates and conservation partners who grew up camping in such iconic parks as Mount Tamalpais and Anza-Borrego, we are happy to see this tangible sign of progress.

After a series of mismanagement scandals wracked the department in 2012, Brown and the Legislature empowered the Parks Forward Commission to develop recommendations for reform. After more than a year of study and consultation with park partners and experts, department leaders and staff, and the public, the commission released its recommendations in February.

Since then, we have been cautiously waiting to see how state leaders would advance much-needed changes within the state park system. Senate Bill 204 by Sen. Fran Pavley and Assembly Bill 549 by Assemblymen Anthony Rendon and Marc Levine are meaningful initial steps. While carefully focused, they advance two important goals: expand the resources available to state parks, and better position the department to partner with outside supporters.

Prior to these reforms, a nonprofit organization seeking to help improve a state park by creating a trail or constructing a visitors center could not undertake such a project directly, even if it were more efficient than giving money to the department for the work.

Now, partners can donate services and even entire projects, unleashing the potential for more groups to work with the department.

The new legislation also makes it easier for state parks to establish partnerships with a broader array of organizations. For example, previously, the department often refused to enter into agreements or share resources with nonprofit youth organizations.

Now, the department can partner with nonprofits that engage young people in volunteer and paid service projects such as improving trails, restoring habitats and teaching other young people about the value of conservation. The department can expand efforts to develop a future generation of park stewards, including rangers and managers. Moreover, it can give young people a stake in the state park system, helping them become lifelong supporters.

The Parks Forward Commission identified these and many other changes as necessary to modernizing the department and the state park system. Still ongoing is the department’s transformation effort, which should identify more needed changes in the coming months. That effort needs to be maintained, monitored and supported by the department and the governor as well as by park supporters throughout the state.

For now, the department, Legislature and governor are to be commended for helping to move this legislation forward. It is exactly the sort of teamwork we would hope to see as we look to 2016 and beyond so Californians and visitors to our state can continue to enjoy our magnificent parks for generations to come.

Serge Dedina is mayor of Imperial Beach and executive director of WILDCOAST. Jay Watson is regional vice president of the Student Conservation Association, which works with the National Park Service and others on projects across the country.

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