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California’s Parks System Looks For Solutions

| June 3, 2013
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California’s embattled state parks system is preparing to take a good, long look in the mirror.

Henry Coe State Park (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Henry Coe State Park (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

On Monday morning, State Parks Director Anthony Jackson and Natural Resources Secretary John Laird announced the formation of a special commissionthat will spend the next year and a half analyzing the system’s problems and recommending long-term solutions.

The commission will be funded by five major foundations.  (Click here for more details on who’s funding the project.) Only one member has been named so far —  investor Lance Conn  – but Jackson said the dozen-member panel will be a diverse group. “Some of them nationally known, some of them prominent from within the state,” said Jackson. “Some academics, some from the business community.”

“This is a turnaround effort,” said Conn, who predicted the commission will come up with “bold and innovative changes” to create a stable funding and operation system for California’s parks, after first “establish[ing] and then confront the brutal facts.” Those brutal facts include:

  • An uproar when $54 million was discovered sitting on the books undeclared. Audits later determined $34 million of that was unspent money for off-highway vehicle projects. That still left $20 million for which the explanation appears to be that parks department officials feared they would get in trouble and the money would be taken from them to plug state budget holes.
  • Decades’ worth of budget cuts – Laird pegged them at between 60-70 percent over the last two decades – that ultimately led to the threatened closure of 70 parks in 2011. 

Those parks ultimately remained open after a 2012 law empowered the Parks Department to seek out private funding partners, which have contributed nearly $4 million to more than 30 sites. (The same law required the department to create the commission announced this morning.)

Jackson said the commission will look at expanding that model. “And that is partnering not just with park associations and foundations, but we have some good examples of partnering with national parks, regional parks,” he said.

This won’t be the first commission to look at California’s parks. The Little Hoover Commission examined the system earlier this year. As the L.A. Times reported, its findings weren’t pretty:

A report from the nonpartisan Little Hoover Commission released Monday said years of heedless growth had saddled the state with more land than it is equipped to manage, and the lumbering Department of Parks and Recreation has allowed the system to slip into obsolescence.

At some park entrances, credit cards are useless because fees must be paid by slipping cash into hollow metal posts. Budget cuts have stalled more than $1 billion in roadwork, bathroom repairs and other badly needed maintenance. Hundreds of thousands of artifacts are locked away in outdated warehouses rather than on display in museums.

Organizations that have tried to work with the state have repeatedly been dealt with clumsily, exasperating groups that could prove key to parks’ survival, the report said.

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About the Author ()

Sacramento bureau chief Scott Detrow covers state government, politics and policy for KQED News and its statewide news program, The California Report. Before joining KQED, Scott reported on Pennsylvania's natural gas drilling boom for NPR's StateImpact project. Reach Scott Detrow at sdetrow@kqed.org.

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