California state parks navigating uncertain future

It was Mother’s Day, and as she has so many times in the past, Maria Dominguez had brought her family to the Sonoma Coast, where her problems always seem smaller when cast against the vastness of the ocean.

Dominguez, a divorced mother facing eviction from her Santa Rosa home because her landlord wants to sell, gathered her three teenage kids and made the 45-minute drive to North Salmon Creek beach, where her family has free access to a wide swath of sand edging the Pacific just north of Bodega Bay.

The popular beach is part of Sonoma Coast State Park, which has encompassed 17 miles of this lightly developed coastline for more than 80 years. It was here, 21 years ago, that Dominguez, then just a 17-year-old girl recently arrived from Mexico, first saw the ocean.

“Don’t look,” a boy who’d ridden out to the coast with her said as they approached the cliff overlooking the beach. Moments later, she opened her eyes.

“Ay, Dios mío,” she said.

Oh, my God.

Generations of county residents and visitors have been similarly awestruck and enthralled during visits to the Sonoma Coast and 10 other state parks, nature reserves and historic sites within the county.

Now, to sustain California’s parks into the 21st century, state officials say the system needs an overhaul. The transformation, as outlined by a panel appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, is meant to move past a management scandal that engulfed the parks system in 2012 and to extend the promise of places that serve as playground, refuge, classroom and museum for up to 75 million visitors a year.

That future hinges in part on a plan to improve fee collection statewide. But the Sonoma Coast is the only place in California where the state is seeking new fees, advancing an unpopular plan to impose day-use charges of up to $8 at eight coastal sites that have always been free.

The infusion of money would help parks offer more services, protect more land and open new sites for future generations to enjoy, explained John Laird, California’s secretary for natural resources, overseeing state parks.

Laird was an assemblyman during the recession, when a budget gap decades in the making for the parks department became a crisis. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration floated a plan to close dozens of parks. To stave off that scenario, Laird backed a proposal in the Legislature that would have pumped millions into the parks system through an increase in vehicle license fees. It failed to gain support, and in 2010 California voters rejected a similar measure at the ballot box.

Laird took the defeats personally. Born in Santa Rosa, he has fond memories of time spent at his grandparents’ ranch on Gravenstein Highway and trips to the Sonoma Coast with his dad, where the pair tossed tennis balls into the ocean and let the waves carry them back.

“That’s a precious resource that we have to turn over to future generations, and really, is the reason I wanted a long-term fix,” Laird said. “The voters didn’t agree, and we’re stuck in this position. We’re trying to figure out, within the context of the budget, how to do things more efficiently and how to get more money from the Legislature when we can.”

The latest, most significant bids to secure more money for parks include proposed taxes on marijuana - medical and recreational - and a bond measure that could go to voters in November. Each would generate tens of millions of dollars annually.

Fee opponents say the proposal threatens a history of unconstrained public access to the state’s coast, a guaranteed right under the state’s constitution and 1976 Coastal Act. That was the legacy of a pioneering movement launched in Sonoma County by environmental activists more than 50 years ago.

Richard Charter is a Bodega Bay resident who over four decades has fought to protect the North Coast from offshore drilling and preserve public access. Charter questions why visitors would pay extra at sites that offer few amenities beyond a parking lot and portable restrooms.

“People are used to paying for campsites or museums,” said Charter, a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Foundation. “It’s when the state, because of a certain amount of malfeasance in Sacramento, sees a gravel parking lot with an overflowing Porta-Potty as something they can start charging for, I think that raises the main questions now.”

The free park sites make Sonoma County an outlier compared with other parts of the state, where entrance fees are routinely charged, Laird said.

“If the people of Sonoma County went and stood next to all the people from Los Angeles who are paying entrance fees and said, ‘We don’t like it, why should we do it?’ I think they would get an earful,” Laird said. “It’s about balancing interests.”

But Charter said the fee expansion represents a pivotal moment for California. He is among those who view the debate through the prism of social justice.

“Are we going to sit idly by and let the state begin to deny public access, which is really what happens when you throw financial hurdles in the way of families for whom it could serve as a roadblock to have to pay?” he said. “They simply will not go to the coast, and that changes the whole social dynamic, not just of Sonoma County, but in several counties, because Sonoma is where they come, particularly during hot-weather days.”

Rosa Rios, Dominguez’s 17-year-daughter, joined Charter and other environmental elders in April at a marathon Santa Rosa meeting of the California Coastal Commission, the influential entity that oversees protection and development of the coast. If the state were to expand day-use fees at beaches, Rios said, it would further limit the family’s options for spending time together - a point echoed throughout the day by park advocates and local elected officials.

“This is one of our favorite options to liberate us from our struggles and problems,” Rios said.

Forced to cut back

Four years removed from a scandal that toppled its director amid revelations that $54 million had been hidden by department officials to protect their budget - while dozens of parks were slated to be closed - California’s parks system faces a combination of pressures unrivaled in its 152-year history.

Chronic underfunding, management miscues and a failure to modernize have translated into scaled-back services, shorter public hours, skimpy staffing and visible signs of decay throughout the state’s 1.6 million acre parks system - the nation’s second largest behind Alaska.

In Sonoma County, cutbacks have closed bathrooms, campgrounds and water fountains in parks. In the nine-county Bay Area, park staffing is down 60 percent since before the recession, with 55 full-time state parks employees covering 28 sites, including eight in central and southern Sonoma County. The ranger corps in that territory has been cut in half since about 2008. More than $80 million in deferred repairs are needed in state parks in Sonoma County, part of a more than $1 billion backlog statewide.

Parks officials say they are seeking to overcome those hurdles, pointing to a coordinated effort in the aftermath of the 2012 scandal to overhaul management and bring park operations into the 21st century. That campaign includes upgrades in technology for visitors and rangers, greater diversity in leaders at the top of the agency and the concerted push to expand and improve fee collection. 

“You’d be hard-pressed to find in our history of state parks an effort that’s been as robust as this,” said Lisa Mangat, who last year became the third director of the California Department of Parks and Recreation since 2012.

Of the 279 sites in the state park system, 171 charge fees. In Sonoma County, including state and county systems, most parks charge fees for day-use and overnight visitors. It is not fair that visitors at parks where fees are charged are subsidizing those who don’t have to, or simply don’t, pay to play, Mangat and other state park officials say.

The parks system collects more than $103 million in visitor fees annually, comprising about 20 percent of its budget.

“This is not a one-off conversation we are having with Sonoma County, but how it fits into the broader scope of the state,” Mangat said.

“We are responsible for 280 parks across the state,” she said. “There is this unprecedented initiative that’s going forward in terms of remodeling ourselves and standing up this kind of new model of stewardship, protection, preservation and interpretation for all people. That’s the overarching vision for California State Parks.”

But others, including local and state representatives, say fundamental change is still a distant dream for the state parks system. Many observers say the overhaul will achieve little if California doesn’t up its commitment to funding parks.

“The bottom line is that we have a state parks system in crisis,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, a prominent voice among those pushing for more money for parks. He opposes the state’s beach fee plan, which he called a “piecemeal approach” that would deter access for low-income visitors and not fully address parks’ budget woes.

“State parks have been underfunded for years and for too long we as a state have run the system on hope,” McGuire said. “We hope there will be enough corporate donations to keep the gates open. We hope nonprofits will come in and manage state parks. Hope is not a strategy for success.”

Under such pressure, parks - whether from insufficient upkeep and staffing or outright neglect - may fail to live up to the system’s lofty public promise.

“Whether you’re talking about parking lots, bridges, ADA facilities, natural resource management - the gradual defunding of state parks is jeopardizing everything that we’ve built up for the last 150 years,” said Caryl Hart, Regional Parks director for Sonoma County and former chairwoman of the California Parks and Recreation Commission. “There’s no question about it. And you can see that here in Sonoma County.”

Strain on parks visible

The strains of constant use and inadequate care show in many parks. They include huge potholes that swallow tires on the road leading to Bodega Head, eroding trails in Trione-Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa and the condition of several historic buildings in Sonoma, including the Blue Wing Inn, one of the first hotels built in California. It has been closed to the public since 2001 over seismic safety concerns.

Staffing cutbacks and frequent turnover in personnel have also taken their toll on the public experience. There’s only one ranger patrolling Annadel, the 5,000-acre wilderness park at the eastern edge of Santa Rosa that attracts about 12,000 visitors a month. Rangers have little to no time to serve as natural history guides and interpreters for visitors. Instead, they spend what they have for field time in the most popular areas, leaving problems to proliferate in more remote spots, ranging from homeless camps to illegal trails.

“I’m saddened by it very greatly,” said Bud Getty, 82, whose 42-year career with the parks system ended in 2000 with his retirement as superintendent of what was then the Silverado District, which spanned eight parks in Sonoma and Napa counties, including Jack London and Annadel. A district superintendent now supervises 28 park sites in five Bay Area counties following a 2013 reorganization.

“I hate to think of what the workload is on the superintendent now,” Getty said. “I don’t even think they are able to get to all of the parks in one month.”

Getty recalled days when he wandered campgrounds chatting with visitors. But he said that kind of interaction with visitors is much rarer these days because of staffing levels.

“I bet most of them don’t see a ranger now,” Getty said from his home in Sacramento. “They are all virtual rangers now, sitting in an office behind a computer. The only contact they have with the public is an enforcement issue.”

County preservation efforts

Sonoma County has played a seminal role in the nation’s parks and land preservation movement, which began in the hallowed ground of Yosemite Valley in 1864 with the establishment of the nation’s first state park.

In 1928, 17 of the 43 proposed sites for California’s nascent parks system were in Sonoma County. Sonoma Coast State Park, among the first state parks dedicated in 1934, owes its existence to pioneer coastal families who sold their land to get out from under the crushing financial weight of the Great Depression. County officials threw in the redwood forest at Guerneville’s Armstrong Grove to match $50,000 in state money for the acquisitions.

Over the decades, local preservationists looked to Sacramento as their ally in protecting land they wanted to save from unwanted development. But preservationists say that stewardship role has been greatly diminished. Insufficient funding, mismanagement and a decade-old moratorium on state parks accepting new lands are all to blame, they say.

“I assume state parks is not a player at this point,” said Bill Keene, general manager of the county’s pioneering, taxpayer-supported Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. “There’s nothing to lead me to believe they are going to take land anytime soon.”

Laird, the natural resources secretary, said it will take more funding for the parks department to enable it to resume its lead role in land conservation.

“We recognize there could well be 50 million Californians in the next generation and that we have an obligation to deal with park acquisition and park operations,” he said. “We are not 100 percent sure how we are going to do it, but we recognize that obligation.”

With the state largely on the sidelines with land acquisition, private groups like LandPaths, Sonoma Land Trust and The Wildlands Conservancy have stepped up to own or manage big tracts of open space. A prime example is Jenner Headlands, purchased with public and private dollars in 2006 with the original intent that it be turned over to the state. That never happened. More than a decade later, The Wildlands Conservancy is slated to open the property next year to the public. Plans call for free access.

Other nonprofit groups have stepped up to assume responsibility for interpretive programs or to take over day-to-day management of state parks in the county. A nonprofit’s deal to assume management of Jack London State Historic Park was the first of its kind under a law that sought to prevent parks from being closed in the wake of the state’s budget crisis.

Similar deals now exist for Austin Creek State Recreation Area and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. The partnerships have kept the gates open. But as with state parks, there are concerns about the long-term sustainability of outside groups, which generate revenue largely through fees, contributed income and venue rentals and are subject to similar fluctuations in funding.

State parks officials also have raised concerns with the nonprofit managers of Sugarloaf and Jack London about commercial activity and visitor attractions, including a highly popular summer concert series, potentially harming park resources.

Representatives for the nonprofit operators acknowledge challenges working within state guidelines while voicing hope the shared operating model will continue.

“Both sides are really just trying to figure out how to work together,” said Richard Dale, executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center, which is a member of the coalition that runs Sugarloaf. “I feel like there are some things we can do better, and I feel there are some things parks can do better. But I’m pretty positive about the relationship.”

Competing demands

It will take public money to salvage and sustain the vision of state parks. On that point, there is little disagreement. But finding that money is difficult in a state searching for funds to support other core needs, including transportation, education, criminal justice, health care and water supply.

Balancing these competing demands is challenging, said Laird, a three-term Central Coast assemblyman who was appointed secretary for natural resources in 2011 by Brown. He noted there is no minimum level of funding mandated for state parks in California, which means the system is vulnerable to cuts.

“I think every state park system has challenges that are similar to California’s,” he said. But voter-approved guarantees for education funding - which takes up half the state budget - and big-ticket spending on transportation and prisons affect what remains for parks.

“There is a limited part of the budget that is discretionary and parks is in that,” Laird said. “When there is an economic downturn, you go to the discretionary part of the budget first, and that’s been a challenge for state parks.”

Among state park systems nationwide, California’s system takes in the largest amount of revenue from visitors, concessions and other contracts. In the fiscal year that ended in mid-2015, that sum was $122 million, more than 20 percent of the agency’s budget. But ranked on a per capita and per acre basis, California’s park revenue falls to the middle of the pack among state systems, according to a 2013 report for the Senate and Assembly committees overseeing the parks department.

Given the volatility of the state budget and other challenges, that revenue generation needs to improve, Laird said. “You have to be more entrepreneurial given these circumstances. It means partnerships, it means different kinds of fee collection. It means different kinds of contracts to run things. It just means trying to figure out how to raise enough money to have parks run adequately.”

The California State Parks Foundation has stepped in to raise $246 million to support state parks. The system’s future hinges on embracing technology, updating management practices and partnering with private entities to jointly operate sites, foundation president Elizabeth Goldstein said, citing operating agreements with nonprofits to run several parks in Sonoma County as examples. She said new sources of public funding for parks must be identified, but she cautioned against the expansion of day-use fees, saying their implementation must be weighed against the risk of turning people away from the gates.

“There absolutely has to be a public funding source for a long time, or we’re going to be leaning on increased revenues to keep body and soul together,” said Goldstein.

California voters, however, have rejected tax increases to support state parks, even as the state has shifted general tax funding away from the system. Today, the department’s share of the general fund is a third of what it was in 1980.

That year marked the start of a decade when the state began putting off repairs to roofs, bathrooms, roads, water and sewer systems, trails and other park infrastructure to cut expenses, according to state officials.

The deferred repairs now total $1.3 billion. That is roughly double the department’s annual budget.

The governor’s proposed budget for this fiscal year includes $60 million to address deferred maintenance needs.

Park supporters are hoping to qualify a ballot measure in November that would earmark $3.1 billion for state parks and other outdoor programs. A marijuana legalization measure that is also expected to be on the ballot would set aside millions of dollars for parks.

McGuire, the North Coast state senator and former Sonoma County supervisor, introduced legislation this year that would establish a 15 percent sales tax statewide on medical marijuana, with 20 percent of the proceeds steered toward state parks for deferred maintenance costs. The amount for state parks conservatively would amount to more than $20 million annually, McGuire said.

“We’re at a tipping point,” he said. “We’ve spent billions to protect some of the most pristine open space woodlands and watersheds over the last many decades, and all of that investment is starting to crumble.”

Hart, Sonoma County Regional Parks director, agreed that public funding is critical to the turnaround of state parks. But she also said the state could be saving more money by partnering with local agencies to manage parks, citing Annadel as an example.

The state spends about $670,000 annually to operate the Santa Rosa park. The county, which took over management of Annadel in 2012 to keep it open, operated it for half that amount. But negotiations to extend the deal past the initial year fell apart because the state refused to put up additional money, according to Hart.

“Now it’s costing $300,000 more and the public is getting less,” she said.

In addition, state parks’ centralized command structure continues to stifle innovation, critics say. As an example, they point to Funky Fridays, the popular summer concert series staged by volunteers at Sugarloaf that was forced to move to a county regional park this summer.

State officials expressed concerns the event had become too popular, risking harm to the park’s sensitive natural resources. But now the park will go without that source of revenue.

“I had to hit my head against the wall for years working with state parks to use our services to better their product,” said Craig Anderson at LandPaths. “Time and time again, they tried to fit us in their existing template, but they were very slow to figure out how to use our services in a way that was helpful.”

For Maria Dominguez and her family, a day at the beach remains an affordable way to find comfort and inspiration. Following their picnic at North Salmon Creek, she watched the kids scatter and then lay down on a blanket to rest. Soon she was asleep.

Standing at the water’s edge, Rios said she hardly ever sees her mother at such peace. It’s among the reasons she looks forward to coming to the coast.

“We don’t have to worry about the things we have to do or where we have to be,” the teen said. “It’s just a free day.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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