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PD Editorial: A stark challenge for state parks

Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 6:03 p.m.

Beginning with efforts in the 1920s to preserve old-growth redwood groves and historic sites including Gen. Mariano Vallejo's Petaluma adobe, California built its modern system of state parks.

With campgrounds, museums, Spanish missions and archaeological sites spread across 1.5 million acres of mountains, beaches and deserts, the parks are repositories of the Golden State's history and culture. They attract 60 million visitors annually and generate $4 billion in economic activity for neighboring communities.

They're also in trouble, according to a stinging assessment by a state oversight commission that concludes the state may not be up to the task of managing its own parks.

Capping a year-long review, the Little Hoover Commission said parks and artifacts are deteriorating, funding hasn't kept pace with land acquisition, and the parks department suffers from ossified mismanagement and missed opportunities.

“A great public institution is falling apart,” said Commissioner Virginia Ellis, who led the study.

The commission said the parks department needs a more entrepreneurial approach to managing its property as well as a larger share of general tax revenue. For the department to better develop its commercial opportunities, the commission said park superintendent and district superintendent jobs should be opened to people with expertise in finances, management and recreation. They're currently limited to rangers, the law enforcement arm of the parks department.

Even if its other recommendations are adopted, the commissioners said the state should cede control of many of its parks to cities, counties and private operators.

Otherwise, Ellis said in a statement accompanying the 102-page report, “California risks a replay of closing parks that the state can no longer afford to operate.”

There are precedents — new and old — for that approach.

Most readers know that private groups, local government agencies and the National Park Service assumed control of 70 state parks last year to prevent closures. But readers may not know that California's first park — Yosemite — was turned over to the federal government in 1905 amid allegations of mismanagement by the state.

The partnership model has great promise, and Anthony Jackson, the retired Marine general appointed to run the parks department, supports a review of its 278 parks to determine which ones should remain under state control.

However, cities, counties and the federal government have their own budget issues. So there's no guarantee that there would be takers for any parks the state decides to abandon.

Jackson might do better by expanding on the partnerships formed last year, looking especially at potential savings from combining management responsibilities, as happened with Spring Lake and Annadel parks in Santa Rosa. Jackson also must address widely recognized shortcomings in the department's revenue-collection system to help pay for maintenance and operations of the parks.

His first task remains: convincing a skeptical public that the department's financial scandals are in the past. Because no one wants the park system to be part of the past.

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