California’s parks are a visitor’s delight — and a financial fright.
The park system comprises 1.6 million acres, with 339 miles of coastline, 15,000 campsites and 7,600 picnic sites, 4,400 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails and 6 million artifacts in a network of museums and visitors centers.
Yet just six of the 279 parks pay for themselves, and expenses for the system exceeded revenue by about $300 million in the most recent fiscal year, according to new data from the Department of Parks and Recreation.
At 88 parks, from Del Norte Coast Redwoods to the Salton Sea, costs — operating, capital improvements and maintenance — outstripped revenue by more than $1 million last year. The list includes Annadel State Park ($1.1 million), Fort Ross ($1.9 million), Sonoma State Historic Park ($2.3 million) and the Sonoma Coast state beaches ($3.2 million).
Parks are a public asset — preserving open space, offering a wealth of recreational opportunities and serving as a repository of the Golden State’s heritage. It wouldn’t be right to judge them solely by the bottom line.
And it isn’t right to let them deteriorate.
From graffiti and peeling paint to erosion along streams and hiking trails, signs of decay are obvious at almost every state park. After years of tight budgets, deferred maintenance totals about $1.3 billion.
The park system desperately needs an infusion of money before the damage is irrevocable.
Before that, the parks department needs an overhaul.
A series of financial scandals uncovered management shortcomings and undermined public confidence in the department.
Restoring that trust will, to borrow a phrase from a commission appointed to study the park system, require “a fundamental transformation” of the department.
The Parks Forward commission’s recommendations include updating the department’s structure and policies for recruitment, hiring and accountability, supervised by a “transformation team” of experts drawn from state agencies and external sources. Gov. Jerry Brown included money in his budget proposal to begin the two-year process.
Beyond its organizational structure, the commission said the department needs to modernize its accounting and software systems and to draw more heavily on public input when establishing priorities, including the size and location of future parks.
With those improvements in place, the park system could more credibly seek help ending the mismatch between expenses and revenue.
A revenue plan almost certainly will include more electronic fee-collection systems in the parks and, quite possibly, parking fees at state beaches in Sonoma County. The commission identified other opportunities to increase revenue and address maintenance needs, including adding amenities such as soccer fields to attract new patrons, especially city dwellers and millennials; forming partnerships with community groups eager to provide volunteer labor; and establishing a nonprofit public benefit organization to assist with marketing, fundraising and stewardship.
The commission presented an ambitious vision. Turning it into reality by 2025, as its report suggests, will require ongoing commitment from Brown and his successor as well as state legislators. But with the management improvements envisioned for the department, more TLC for the parks and a revenue system that relies on more than fee increases, the park system will remain one of California’s most valuable assets.