Alden Olmsted is trying to save California parks, a dollar at a time.
It may seem far-fetched — collecting spare change in buckets at coffee shops, banks, grocery stores and some of the 70 state parks ticketed for closure over the next 10? months.
But less than $1 from every Californian would offset the state park system's budget cuts for this year and next. And Olmsted, who lives in Cotati, knows all about paying for parks with nickels and dimes.
He's the son of naturalist John D. Olmsted, who helped establish Jug Handle State Preserve on the Mendocino Coast, as well as other parks and open space, by making down payments on critical pieces of property and then scraping together enough money to close the deal.
The elder Olmsted, a former education director for Golden Gate Park, died in March. Alden Olmsted's quest began about two months later when he saw two of his father's legacies, Jughandle and South Yuba River State Park, on the closure list.
"These parks were built with passion and blood and sweat," he said. "And I know because my dad built some of them."
California has 270 state parks, and almost a quarter are supposed to close by June 30. Cutbacks already started, and with summer drawing to a close, the pace is about to pick up. In Sonoma County, the Petaluma Adobe is open only on weekends, Annadel State Park is closed three days a week, and campground reservations aren't being taken for Sugar Loaf Ridge State Park beyond Labor Day.
State parks have been squeezed for years. With an $11million cut this year, general fund support has fallen below $100 million. Ten years ago, it was $250 million. The deferred maintenance backlog is now $1.3 billion, and another $11 million cut already has been approved for next year. Revenue is running behind projections, so the budget picture isn't likely to get any better. In other words, the parks are desperate for benefactors.
State law allows cities and counties to run state parks, but they're broke, too. A bill sponsored by North Bay Assemblyman Jared Huffman would extend the opportunity to nonprofit groups, but it's not known how many would step up or for which parks. Olmsted's goal is to keep all of the state's parks open.
In California, where political campaigns take place on TV screens and only the deepest pockets can afford an initiative, his change buckets may be quaint, even naive. But his dedication to his father's memory and his willingness to take on a big challenge are refreshing.
Olmsted understands that a bigger fix is needed. "I'll admit my solution of a dollar a person is shorter term," he said, "but it gives us time to have a conversation."
He wants to talk about the heritage of the parks, the people who worked to create them and the parks' economic impacts on surrounding communities. It's a conversation worth having, because the parks are worth saving.
In Sonoma County, you can find Olmsted's buckets at Oliver's and Bank of Marin. You can also visit johnolmsted.net.