With Congress steering the country and the world economy to the brink of calamity, the past week won't be remembered for its feel-good stories about government.

This was the week that friends joked about burying their money in the backyard. (At least I think they were joking.)

So much for a national government that preaches to other countries about financial responsibility and political accountability.

Before you pull the covers over your head and assume the fetal position, however, let me report that I found a feel-good story about government last week.

It's a story that begins with one place's unique commitment to protecting open space, ridge tops, farm land and natural resources. It's also the story of the same community's determination to use some of that protected land for public parks and for programs that encourage more people to learn the pleasures derived from time spent in the out-of-doors.

Many of you will recognize the place you live — Sonoma County, California.

After 23 years, you probably take the success of the county's open space efforts for granted. You shouldn't. What happens here happens almost nowhere else.

If you appreciate the natural beauty of the place you live, if you're glad that one city doesn't sprawl into the next, you should be proud of what has been accomplished — and what will be accomplished in the future.

The latest chapter of this feel-good story emerged last week as the Board of Supervisors was adopting recommendations to jump-start the opening of public parks on public land.

Over the next 18 years, Staff Writer Brett Wilkison reported, the new policy will make available $42 million to provide the trails, parking lots, restrooms and other improvements necessary for public access to these properties.

What's happening in Sonoma County is all the more remarkable when compared to what's going on in the rest of California.

As state government began to abdicate its responsibilities, only the intervention of local groups saved several state parks from closure in recent years. Meanwhile, neighborhood parks in many cities are being neglected as local agencies try to figure out what to do about budget shortfalls.

Anyone who watched in September as the Santa Rosa City Council anguished over a proposal to hire temporary workers to clean restrooms and remove garbage from local parks recognizes that many cities are left with nothing but unhappy choices.

The Board of Supervisors was able to have a different and more uplifting conversation for the simplest of reasons: It has the revenues from the quarter-cent tax approved by voters in 1990 and renewed in 2006. That 2006 measure, Measure F, included a provision that allows 10 percent of the revenue to be spent on public access on public lands.

How much do local voters value open space protection? At a time when many Americans seem to loathe taxes, Measure F won 76 percent of the vote.

Since 1990, 106,000 acres have been protected, Open Space District General Manager Bill Keene told the board, and there is more to come. Between now and the time the current tax expires in 2031, the Open Space District expects additional revenues of $410 million.

For a time, farming interests and opponents of trails didn't want open space monies used for public access.

But that argument became harder to sustain. "If we can trust the public to pay for this land," Supervisor Shirlee Zane told her colleagues, "we can trust the public to be on this land." (Full disclosure: In making her argument, Zane read from a column I wrote on this subject several years ago.)

The board's unanimous approval of Keene's recommendations became an opportunity for open space and recreation advocates to celebrate.

"We're way ahead of the rest of the country. We're lucky to be having this conversation today," said David Bannister, executive director of Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation.

"It's quite amazing and gratifying to be listening to what we're doing today," added Dee Swanhuyser, North Bay trail director for the Bay Area Ridge Council.

Four properties are earmarked for transition from the Open Space District to the county Regional Parks Department, and Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart said as many as nine properties could be added over the next six years. In some cases, the parks agency will be filling the void left when the state began turning away planned acquisitions.

Sonoma County is laying down a standard for others when it comes to protecting open space — and when it comes to finding new ways to provide for parks.

But there is still work to do. For many communities, this will mean re-thinking how they develop and manage parks, recognizing that public-private partnerships and volunteer organizations will play a larger role. From the High Line in New York to Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, we've seen what these new models of stewardship can accomplish.

Parks help define what makes a healthy place to live. Whether walking on a beach or playing softball with friends, parks make life better in more ways than we can count. Let's make sure we take care of them.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>