Aggressive path forward for California’s precious state parks

Visitor Claudia Rojas watches northern elephant seals along a beach at Año Nuevo State Reserve in Pescadero. A new report urges expanded access to California’s state parks.
Visitor Claudia Rojas watches northern elephant seals along a beach at Año Nuevo State Reserve in Pescadero. A new report urges expanded access to California’s state parks. Bay Area News Group

California’s state parks offer an immense range of ways for visitors to learn and to play. Hear tales of the 49ers at Old Shasta or of Alta California at Pio Pico State Historic Park. Ride a wakeboard on Lake Oroville or discover an urban escape along the Los Angeles River.

With such rich assets, our state parks should be a foundation of California’s tourism industry, a magnet for visitors to admire our state’s natural wonders, and a driving force supporting local businesses.

Instead, state parks have long been mismanaged, leading to a system that – thanks to years of budget cuts and neglected upkeep – is frequently falling into physical ruin. Hikers are almost as likely to encounter yellow caution tape closing a trail as they are an informative sign about the local wildlife. Even the parks’ most devoted boosters recall the mismanagement that just a few years ago threatened to close dozens of parks even as the agency sat on millions in hidden reserves.

Californians deserve better.

After years of struggling, state parks appear to be on the right path thanks to the work of the Parks Forward Commission, which evaluated the failures of the park system.

After more than a year of public testimony, surveys, studies and social media engagement, the commission released its final report last week, calling for a fundamental transformation of state parks, beginning with an expansion of park access to reach all Californians and a renewed dedication to working with park partners.

Parks Forward proposes aggressively expanding options for overnight stays, so those who aren’t used to traditional camping can spend the night in a tent cabin or more modern accommodations. It would improve transportation links so urban residents can reach parks off the beaten path – whether far out in the mountains or just on the other side of town. It would renew a focus on outreach so all Californians – not just those who keep hiking boots in the trunk of the car – can enjoy the parks. It would steer resources toward developing parks where people will use them, not merely buying up swaths of land in remote areas in the name of conservation.

To help do the job, it would not merely pour new money into the old system, but also create a new California Parks Conservancy. This independent nonprofit would bring outside expertise and resources and build the vital community partnerships that make the difference between vibrant, well-used parks and neglected backwaters.

Parks should stand as a testament of our value for California’s natural wonders. When parks can operate effectively and remind visitors why they are places worth loving, California’s communities will regain trust in the state parks and begin recognizing the parks as their own.

We look forward to assisting state parks on this road forward.

Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, represents the 1st Assembly District in rural northeastern California. Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, represents the 63rd Assembly District in southeast Los Angeles County. Both are on the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife.