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Park pacts paying off

Jack London State Historic Park Volunteer Bern Lefson in front of the House of Happy Walls on Sunday. A nonprofit group took over management of the park a year ago.

Scott Manchester / The Press Dem
Published: Wednesday, April 10, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 7:23 a.m.

Like many Jack London fans, Riccardo and Jean Peccei feel a special connection to the late author at his former Glen Ellen estate.

On a sun-dappled afternoon at Jack London State Historic Park this week, the couple, who live in London, said the grounds were as well-maintained as they've ever seen them.

"It's beautifully quiet, and the vegetation is lovely," Riccardo Peccei said.

That's positive feedback for the nonprofit group that last year entered into a historic pact with the state to assume management of the 1,400-acre park. Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of when the deal was announced.

The operating agreement was the first of its kind in California under a new law that allowed the state to negotiate with nonprofits, private concessionaires and other groups to try and keep open 70 state parks that originally were slated to shut by July 1 last year.

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park near Kenwood, Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park and Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville also were on that list. All were spared.

The question in the immediate aftermath of the celebrations was whether the groups that were granted the authority to run the parks were up to the task of doing so. Judging by things at Jack London and at Sugarloaf, which announced its own agreement with the state May 1, the answer appears to be so far, so good.

"I think it's been a good learning curve. We've been working well together," said Danita Rodriguez, the acting district superintendent for the Diablo Vista district of California State Parks.

Attendance at Jack London and Sugarloaf has been higher in the past year than when the parks were being managed by the state, according to officials with the nonprofit groups that now run the sites. Both facilities also are on track to meet operating budgets this fiscal year.

Public safety, a concern going into the new management structure, has not materialized into a significant problem. Both parks rely on local law enforcement to handle serious issues, although a state park ranger still patrols Sugarloaf during peak camping hours. The main problems have been with people allowing their dogs to run off-leash at the parks.

Richard Dale, executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center, which is a member of the coalition that now runs Sugarloaf, said in terms of compliance with park rules, "people tend to be supportive when they know it's their own community trying to keep the park open."

He said there have been no significant issues with the new management instituting a ban on alcohol in the campground.

At Jack London, the only significant public safety issue was a man who collapsed of a heart ailment outside the park's boundaries. He was rescued by members of the park's volunteer Mounted Assistance Unit, said Tjiska Van Wyk, executive director of Jack London Park Partners.

"It is a great illustration of how well trained they are to deal with emergencies," Van Wyk said.

However, Rodriguez said not having peace officers assigned to the parks -- except in limited situations at Sugarloaf -- is an example of what's not working under the operating agreements.

Problems with dogs or people camping in areas where they shouldn't occur everywhere, she said.

"But they will happen more when you don't have a (law enforcement) presence there," she said.

On the whole, Jack London and Sugarloaf appear to be setting the standard for a new model of operating state parks outside of a centralized bureaucracy, which was one of the recommendations made by the Little Hoover Commission in a scathing review of the state's park system issued last month.

The commission began looking at the state park system a year ago when the state was considering shutting down 70 of the state's 278 parks to offset a $22 million cut in the system's $779 million budget.

The disclosure that the parks system was sitting on a hidden $54 million surplus, as well as a lack of transparency over how parks were selected for the closure list, galvanized critics and led commissioners to recommend that the state cede control of many of its parks to cities, counties and private operators.

"The old model is obsolete," the report said.

Creating a new one has had its share of challenges. In the case of Jack London, volunteers with the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association were thrust well outside their comfort zone, going from a supporting role, to running the show.

"There's no blue book," Van Wyk said while she sat on a bench outside the House of Happy Walls on a day when the park was closed. "You learn as you go. You make mistakes."

Under the terms of the agreement, Jack London Park Partners will operate the site for five years while the state maintains ownership. The nonprofit group is responsible for daily maintenance, visitor services, volunteer staffing, protection of natural and historic resources and interpretation.

The Valley of the Moon association, which was established in 1977, also works in Sugarloaf and Annadel.

Van Wyk said the group has raised a third of its annual operating budget of $500,000 via day-use fees, venue rental and concessions. The rest has come from contributed income, including park memberships and charitable gifts.

"The bottom line is that we made budget in a start-up year," said Van Wyk, who has had a long career in marketing and development for nonprofit organizations.

The new management has gotten creative with fundraising efforts, including signing a six-year contract with the Transcendence Theatre Company, which brought "Broadway Under the Stars" to Jack London last summer and raised $27,000 for the park.

Day-use fees were increased from $8 to $10, and a person now collects the money at a kiosk at the park's entrance. Under state management, visitors were asked to use a self-pay station.

Riccardo Peccei said the higher fees are reasonable for "such a magnificent place."

Day-use fees at Sugarloaf remain the same at $8, but the cost to camp overnight increased to $35. The park also has beefed up fee collection and is in the process of installing an automated payment machine at the entrance to the Goodspeed Trail below the main parking lot, Dale said.

In a first, Jack London will be open seven days a week from May to October. It is currently closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

The gates at Sugarloaf never close but visitors are only supposed to be on the trails between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. during the peak season.

Van Wyk and Dale are hoping to get matching funds from the state to complete deferred maintenance projects at the two parks. At Jack London, that includes roof repairs at the House of Happy Walls, where Van Wyk's office is located.

Asked how long she anticipates the nonprofit group will be running Jack London, Van Wyk said, "I don't see the state's budget issues going north anytime soon. The public-private partnerships seems to be a trend for the future."

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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