Report on state parks urges fundamental changes

Key recommendations include upgrading technology and fee-collection systems, diversifying leadership and creating a dedicated source of public funding to support network of state, regional and local parks.|

A report on the future of California’s state parks recommends fundamental change to overcome chronic budget and management problems that threaten the long-term sustainability of these pantheons to nature.

Key recommendations include upgrading technology and fee-collection systems at parks, diversifying park leadership and creating a dedicated source of public funding to support an integrated network of state, regional and local parks.

But as noted in the 56-page Parks Forward report, underscoring funding challenges is a dearth of data on how much park services currently cost. The report calls on the California Department of Parks and Recreation to “promptly identify” those costs in order to determine what additional funding is needed to ensure the system’s viability.

“Revenue generation has to be optimized,” said Caryl Hart, Sonoma County’s regional parks director and a member of the Parks Forward Commission.

Financial scandal within the state Parks Department in 2012 led lawmakers to create the blue-ribbon commission. The 12-member group, which includes people with backgrounds in business, nonprofit agencies, academia and public service, held meetings across the state to gather input. Its final report is being released Friday.

The recommendations do not immediately address the park system’s current fiscal plight. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a one-time budget increase of $16.8 million for the Parks Department in 2015-16 as a way of maintaining existing services while longer-term revenue solutions are considered. The proposal represents a $2.8 million bump over the previous fiscal year. In the meantime, the parks system is burning through reserves and still faces a maintenance backlog of more than $1 billion.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said he supports the Parks Forward recommendations. At the same time, he said the state needs to immediately address the “fiscal cliff” the parks system faces in two years when reserves are projected to run dry.

“We are having an ongoing dialogue with state parks leadership about potential revenue-enhancement, as well as the potential use of general fund dollars in the next two fiscal years,” McGuire said Thursday.

However, he said specific funding recommendations will have to wait until an audit of how much the Parks Department spends on individual parks is completed later this year.

California voters are likely to be asked sometime in the near future to support new funding for parks, possibly in the form of bond money. The state also is seeking authority to expand fees on the coast.

The governor set aside $3 million in his proposed budget for a “transformation team” recommended by the Parks Forward Commission to overhaul the Parks Departments’ organizational structure and outdated accounting systems and technology.

State parks would also bolster partnerships with public and private entities under the Parks Forward vision. Nonprofit organizations stepped up to take over the management of state parks that were threatened with closure as a result of budget problems and the 2012 financial scandal. In Sonoma County, nonprofit groups operate Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park near Kenwood and Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen.

Carolyn Christian, president of the California League of Park Associations, said nonprofits should be a more equal partner in how state parks are operated and managed.

“We don’t have a place at the table, yet we’ve been instrumental in keeping these parks open,” she said.

For many park visitors, change can’t happen quickly enough. Many state parks, including those on the North Coast, have had to cut back on hours and staffing because of budget problems.

Hart said the public “doesn’t pay attention to who is managing the park. They care about their experience in the park.”

She said state parks leadership is exploring reducing the cost of annual park passes and partnering with regional and local parks to offer integrated services. Park visitors could one day pay day-use fees using debit or credit cards and navigate parks using wireless Internet and digital trail maps. There also would be more lodging for overnight stays and transportation options for getting to and around parks.

There have been several attempts in the recent past to overhaul the state parks system, with limited success. But advocates say they expect substantive change will flow from the Parks Forward endeavor.

“You don’t put this on the shelf and say, ‘We’re done,’” said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, who is chairman of the state Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee.

Levine promised to hold oversight hearings to ensure the Parks Forward recommendations are carried forward as intended.

“We need to adopt the best ideas now, but longer-term, make sure they are implemented correctly,” he said.

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

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