PD Editorial: Local park management is best outcome

  • Jack London State Historic Park Volunteer Bern Lefson, center with back to camera, stands in front of the House of Happy Walls as he talks to people at the start of a hiking tour of the park on Sunday April 7, 2013. (Scott Manchester/The Press Democrat)

Were it not for a summer scandal that put in doubt all that was previously known about state park funding in California, this would be a week of greater celebration.

As Staff Writer Derek Moore reported on Thursday, it was one year ago that a pact was approved to hand over management of the 1,400-acre Jack London Historic State Park to a local nonprofit group.

At the time, Jack London was one of 70 state parks in danger of closure due to state budget cuts. Other North Coast parks were on the cut list, including Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Annadel State Park, Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park and Austin Creek State Recreation Area. But those closures were averted thanks to passage of legislation that allowed the state to hand over management of the parks to nonprofit organizations, concessionaires and other groups. A deal with Jack London Park Partners, which now manages the park, was the first in the state. Many more would follow, including agreements to oversee Annadel and other Sonoma County parks.

But those accomplishments were largely overshadowed by revelations during the summer that state park officials, who were confronted with $22 million in budget cuts, had secretly squirreled away $54 million in surplus funds.

The public responded with understandable outrage, given the hundreds of people who held fundraising efforts and participated in local organizing campaigns in hopes of keeping their local park open. Many questioned whether the shift to local control had been a waste of time and energy.

The disclosure was certainly a major breach of public trust. But it was not a waste. The truth is, even if the state parks surplus funds had been known and had been used by the state, it would, most likely, only have bought time — another year or so before a closure plan would have surfaced again.

As it is, the new arrangement of having parks managed by local nonprofits and other groups is proving, so far, to be a superior model.

Attendance at Jack London and Sugarloaf, which is now managed by the Sonoma Ecology Center, was higher this past year than when the parks were managed by the state. Those operations also are said to be on target to meet their budgets.

The new management at Jack London took the necessary step of increasing day-use fees from $8 to $10 per car and took the even wiser step of staffing the entrance with someone to collect the fees. This replaced the less-than-reliable self-pay system the park previously had.

Meanwhile, the oversight change has allowed greater flexibility and creativity in fund-raising. Jack London, for example, now contracts with a theater company that offers "Broadway Under the Stars" productions on site. They raised $27,000 for the park last summer.

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