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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."

Her spokesman elaborated Friday by pointing out that the parks system has nearly 200 contracts with private entities for such things as operating marinas, restaurants, lodging, equipment rentals, retail shops and snack bars.

"There are many very capable private concession operators out there which have been strong park supporters for decades, and they should be considered as friends, along with nonprofits, in our efforts to preserve and protect our park system as we move to find solutions for a process that none of us likes," Stearns said.

The Mendocino County parks that are to be bundled with Austin Creek are Russian Gulch State Park in Mendocino, Hendy Woods State Park in Boonville, Westport Union Landing State Beach in Fort Bragg and Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area in Leggett.

Caryl Hart, Sonoma County's parks director and chairwoman of the California Parks and Recreation Commission, said she supports state parks seeking "maximum authority to enter into agreements that make sense for the park."

But she does not foresee that including private companies taking over public parks or those efforts undermining the work of nonprofit groups.

"The commission is never going to agree to Wal-Mart State Park," Hart said. "We name parks and we have authority over concession agreements."

Hart said the focus is being lost on the "very bad decisions" made by Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers to close 70 parks to save an estimated $22 million, an amount Hart likened to a "rounding error."

In addition to Sugarloaf and Austin Creek, Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen and the Petaluma Adobe are among the other Sonoma County parks identified to be closed July 1.

"It will have almost no impact on the state budget, but the impact of the local economies and the state of California is devastating," she said.

An agenda item seeking authorization for state parks to enter into an operating agreement with Sonoma County to operate Annadel also was pulled from the state Public Works' agenda.

Hart said she will present the plans to county supervisors at their Jan. 31 meeting.

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