The state is seeking authority to attract bids from concessionaires to potentially operate 11 parks, including six on the North Coast, a move that critics fear is a step toward privatizing these public places.
Sugarloaf Ridge State Park east of Kenwood would be bundled with five Central Valley parks to make them more financially attractive to bidders, under a proposal by state parks officials. The state could award contracts for work ranging from operating campgrounds to running entire parks.
Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville would be bundled with four parks in Mendocino County. The state estimates that each group has combined annual revenues that exceed $500,000.
The park system is merely seeking "one more tool in the tool chest" to attempt to keep as many parks as possible open beyond July 1, said Roy Stearns, a state parks spokesman. That's when 67 parks are to be shut statewide because of budget limitations.
He said the state would retain control of the parks and that the maximum length of any contract would be five years. "We want them back in the system and will not be proposing to privatize or sell them," Stearns said.
But Richard Dale, executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center, called the state's actions "a little bit of a slap in the face," saying they could undermine the nonprofit agency's bid to operate Sugarloaf.
The proposal comes just weeks after "Team Sugarloaf" submitted its bid.
Dale said his group can't compete with a private company that has the resources to operate multiple parks.
Even awarding a contract to only operate Sugarloaf's camping sites could deprive the nonprofit consortium of its main revenue source to keep the park open, he said.
Under the state plan, concessionaires would have to give 3 percent of their profits back to the state. But under separate legislation, nonprofits that are awarded operating agreements for parks have to pump all of their proceeds into the park.
"Nonprofits aren't doing this to get rich," Dale said. "We're doing this because we feel it serves the community's interests to have these parks open."
In a Jan. 9 letter to State Parks Director Ruth Coleman, Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, requested that the concession bidding process be put on hold because he said nonprofit groups "may legitimately feel blindsided."
State Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, weighed in on Jan. 13 with a press release labeling the state's efforts a "big step toward privatization of a public resource."
"What's the next proposal, the Wal-Mart State Park and Recreation System?" Evans wrote.
In an interview last week, Evans expressed concerns that lawmakers were not properly notified about the state park plans.
"Something that's this big of a change, including privatizing some or all of our state parks, requires, in my opinion, a lot of public input," Evans said.
The state's Public Works Board, which must approve giving state parks the authority to seek the bids, was set to take up the issue Thursday. But the agenda item was pulled to give staff more time to address some "outstanding concerns," according to a spokesman.
In her response, parks director Coleman wrote that the state parks system "absolutely commits itself to continuing to explore all possible partnership options — whether with nonprofits, local governments, for-profit companies or hybrids thereof."