Through the efforts of a North Bay Assemblymember and concerned citizens throughout the state, as many as 20 state parks in the budgetary crosshairs could be granted a reprieve.
When California State Parks announced last year that it would close 70 of its more than 270 parks by July 2012 due to budget cuts, the public outcry was swift and emphatic. The parks—considered by many to be the crown jewels of a state blessed with abundant natural resources—became an icon of loss in an era of misfortune.
But through the heroic efforts of a North Bay Assemblymember and concerned citizens throughout the state, as many as 20 of the parks in the state’s crosshairs could be granted a reprieve, as nonprofit groups have organized to take on the responsibility of operating them.
The prospect of closing the parks was particularly dismaying to North Bay Assemblymember Jared Huffman
, a Democrat from San Rafael, who represents the Sixth Assembly District (Marin and southern Sonoma counties) in the California Legislature. Following the defeat of Prop. 21 (which would have increased vehicle license fees in the state to establish a dedicated fund for the parks) in 2010, Huffman realized park closures would likely become a budget-cutting tactic. In December of that year, he introduced Assembly Bill 42 (AB 42), which allowed local nonprofit organizations to enter into park operating agreements with the state. The closure proposal was announced in May 2011; the bill was signed into law in late 2011 and became effective on January 1, 2012. With the parks facing closure in less than a year, efforts to save them reached a fever pitch.
“It’s been very exciting to watch the way it’s rolled out,” Huffman says. “Community groups have formed all over the state and have come up with incredible proposals. I’ve always known that there’s tremendous community and grass roots support for our state parks, but people are translating that support into action in a pretty unprecedented way.”
Buoyed by the response he’s witnessed, Huffman introduced Assembly Bill 1589—the California State Parks Stewardship Act of 2012—in February of this year. The bill has received unanimous, bipartisan support in both policy committees where it was heard and now has more than 16 joint authors and coauthors from both sides of the aisle. It offers new funding opportunities and other creative strategies to help prevent park closures, and it received unanimous bipartisan approval from the Assembly’s Water, Parks & Wildlife Committee in March (Huffman is the committee’s chairman).
“This is a major, comprehensive bill that will finish the job we started last year with AB 42, further positioning the parks for better support going forward,” Huffman says. “Just saving them from closing won’t work. We need them to be fully functional and supported. AB 1589 puts new revenue tools on the table and sets a long-term course for the parks.”
Magic in Marin
In Marin, the state originally rang the death knell for four state parks—Samuel P. Taylor
, Tomales Bay
, China Camp
. The National Park Service
stepped up early to take over operations of Samuel P. Taylor State Park, which is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area
, and Tomales Bay State Park, which straddles both the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore
. Efforts are currently under way to save both China Camp and Olompali, thanks in huge part to the Marin State Parks Association
(MSPA). (Huffman and Marin Community Foundation
President/CEO Dr. Thomas Peters co-chair Marin Open Parks Coalition
, which supports MSPA.)
Ernest Chung of Kentfield is on the board of MSPA and also serves as chairperson of Friends of China Camp
. A former partner with KPMG Consulting
, Chung joined Friends of China Camp, a small organization originally founded in the 1970s to provide educational and interpretive activities in support of China Camp, when he found out the park was on the closure list. “I wanted to save it,” he explains. He became chairperson at the end of 2011 and has been working nonstop to keep the historic Chinese fishing camp from extinction.
“The park has an incredible history,” Chung says. “It’s a shrimp fishing village that dates back to the 1860s. At one point, the Bay Area was home to 26 Chinese fishing villages up and down the coast, as far south as Santa Cruz and Monterey. They’re all gone now and China Camp is the only one left.”
According to the park’s website, more than 500 people from Canton, China, lived in the village, which had three general stores, a barber shop and a marine supply store in its heyday. It sits on 1,500 acres along the shore of San Pablo Bay. In addition to campsites, the park has a beach, picturesque trails used by mountain bikers, runners and hikers and “some of the most pristine wetlands and marshlands anywhere in the Bay Area,” Chung says. It also has aging infrastructures. “There’ve been many budget cuts over the years, and the state just hasn’t spent the money to upgrade things.”
It’s a situation that’s not unique. California’s state park system is the largest in the nation, with more than 1.5 million acres under its management. As the general fund budget for state parks has decreased, it’s estimated that there’s now a deferred maintenance backlog of more than $1 billion, according to Huffman’s office.
“China Camp isn’t cheap to run. As much as we optimize its operation, we’d still need a half million dollars per year, which is much more than the Friends of China Camp has ever raised,” Chung says.
The organization had to ramp up in a hurry to develop a proposal to save the park. Last year the group had 25 members. Since the park has been threatened with closure, membership and donors have now grown to more than 1,000, exceeding the initial goal of 1,000 members by the end of this year.
The plan is to have the state parks personnel continue to run the day-to-day operations, which will now be paid for by Friends of China Camp. “They know how to run parks and they know China Camp, so that boosts our confidence [in our ability to do the job]. We want to have the park open 365 days per year, which isn’t the case now—picnic grounds and camping aren’t open during the week and lots of facilities are closed as well. Under our plan, everything will be open every day,” Chung says.
Fund-raising so far has netted almost $200,000. The group received a matching grant of $40,000 from the Marin Community Foundation (which ended in April) and two grants totaling $50,000 from the California State Parks Foundation. The Marin Chinese Cultural Association donated $10,000, and the rest of the funds have been raised from individuals and private family foundations.
“Every year, we’re going to have to raise $500,000 to run the park. That’s a tall order,” Chung laments. “We’re going to have to raise park use fees, and we’re hoping to do some wonderful special events to raise funds. We need to educate the public that we’re not making money on this—what we’re doing is simply keeping the park open for them.”
Volunteers have made a big difference. “We’ve come far in just a few months, thanks to a team of dedicated people,” Chung says. “Many are retired or not working for the time being, so they have the ability to help. That’s the only reason we’ve been able to do so much in such a short timeframe.”
Saving Sonoma’s finest
In Sonoma County, the state originally planned to shut down Annadel
, Jack London
, Petaluma Adobe
and Sugarloaf Ridge
parks, plus the Austin Creek State Recreation Area
on the hilltops of Armstrong Redwoods State Park
(which isn’t closing). But at press time, all the endangered parks had found the necessary funding to continue operations.
To save the parks, three concerned citizens—Caryl Hart of the Sonoma County Regional Parks Association
, Ralph Benson of the Sonoma Land Trust and Bill Keene, general manager of the Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space District—formed Parks Alliance for Sonoma County in June 2011. The Parks Alliance works to create a collaborative effort between all of the organizations that want to be involved in saving the parks, building strength in numbers. Each of the parks on the chopping block has a sponsoring organization working with the state to take over operations.
Jack London Park Partners, a project of the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association
(VMNHA), has secured a formal approval to run Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, a memorial to writer and adventurer Jack London, who lived on the site from 1905 until he died in 1916. Elisa Stancil, a VMNHA board member for eight years, helped spearhead the effort to keep the park open. In the end, the state agreed to accept a 32-page contract after a rigorous planning process that Stancil compares to motherhood. “It started as a dream, then it became an exciting idea and now it’s a job,” she explains.
The entire effort wouldn’t have been successful without the help of the Parks Alliance for Sonoma County and “the magnificent support of the California State Parks Association,” she says. From the beginning, the group was encouraged to think outside the box to find creative solutions to the park’s closure. Dave Gould, a retired state parks ranger who heads the Parks Alliance for Sonoma County, told Stancil and her team, “Don’t go by what you’re told, but by what you want it to be like.” And so they did.
“We quickly realized there was no Mommy and no Daddy, and we actually had to make up what we wanted it to look like. For a while, we waited for direction from the state, but it never came. So we dreamed and we thought big. We asked ourselves, ‘What are the treasured aspects of this park?’ Now we’re bringing them forward and partying on,” Stancil says.
The park will now be open five days per week instead of four and operating hours will begin 30 minutes earlier than in the past. It will be a venue for 32 special events annually, including three that directly benefit the park plus 14 evening theatrical performances by Transcendence Theatre Company
(featuring wine, food trucks and other related activities). Brides and grooms seeking a rustic wedding or elopement setting can find one at the park (for a fee, of course).
“The important thing, however, is to limit [those types of] activities during the day when people are experiencing the history of the park,” Stancil says, noting the more than 53,000 people who visit it annually.
Lauren Dixon, deputy director of the Parks Alliance for Sonoma County, reports that Annadel, which is located on the eastern edge of Santa Rosa, has already received enough donations to keep it open for one year. The Sonoma County Regional Parks Department is in the middle of negotiations to sign a one-year operating agreement, and an ancillary support group called Friends of Annadel is forming to give the community a means by which to get involved.
Thanks to an amazing fund-raising effort by the Sonoma/Petaluma State Historic Parks Association
, Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park will remain open at least through July 2013. And the efforts to save Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, located in the Mayacama Mountains northeast of Kenwood, have become a real feel-good story, according to Dixon. “Five nonprofits came together to form Team Sugarloaf
,” she explains. “Each has its own area of expertise and they’re pooling their strengths to keep it open.” As of late May, the Sonoma Ecology Center
will handle administrative details and care for the natural resources. United Camps, Conferences and Retreats
of Petaluma will manage the campgrounds, and the Valley of the Moon Observatory Association
will continue to have operating responsibility for the Robert Ferguson Observatory, which is located in the park. The Sonoma County Trails Council will maintain the park’s 25 miles of trails used for hiking and horseback riding, and the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association will coordinate volunteers to help run the park.
The Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods
, a nonprofit located in Guerneville, has submitted a proposal to operate the Austin Creek State Recreation Area, Dixon says. “It actually has its offices in Armstrong Woods, and the recreation area is located on the hilltops. The Stewards have a long history, and it’s absolutely the right group to take this on,” she explains.
Dixon is enthused about the commitment she’s witnessed since Parks Alliance for Sonoma County started last year. “We have a lot of people around the table who are talented and willing to work hard,” she says. “It’s critically important to keep the parks open and operating, because you really can’t close them. People can always get in—Annadel alone has 22 entrances; Austin Creek can be hiked into from Armstrong Woods. If the parks aren’t watched and cared for, we’ll get the wrong people out in the park. We’re concerned about vandalism and crime [if the parks are closed], but the biggest thing is just the loss of five parks
! That’s why people live here. People care about them and are willing to step up and do whatever it takes.”
Napa has three state parks, two of which—Bothe-Napa Valley
and Bale Grist Mill
—were on the state’s hit list. In March, the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District
(NCRPOSD) announced it would assume local control of the two parks, effective April 1, to keep them open.
“The state has been threatening to close parks for quite a while, but last year, we knew it was for real. That’s when we got serious about putting together an alternative plan,” says John Woodbury, general manager of the NCRPOSD. The district’s proposal to the state is in partnership with the Napa Valley State Parks Association, which will operate Bale Grist Mill and run the visitor center at Bothe-Napa. The district will then be responsible for “most everything else,” Woodbury explains, including the management of the campgrounds at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park. It’s one of the first public-private partnerships to reach an agreement with the state to operate a park.
Right now, the focus is on raising the funds necessary to put the two parks on sound financial footing and repair structures that have fallen into disrepair. Once restored, the district plans to use the revenues the buildings generate to complete remaining restoration and keep up maintenance.
“The money is needed to give us a jump start on a huge amount of deferred maintenance,” Woodbury says. The district is appealing to major donors through contacts on its board of directors and is making a broad-based appeal to secure smaller donations, engage the community and get people involved. One of its largest gifts was a $25,000 challenge grant from Warren and Barbara Winiarski, founders of the storied Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
. (The couple initially granted $25,000 to the cause outright, but then added the second challenge amount. The group’s first target was to raise $100,000 by April 1, which it achieved; it’s now working on the next $150,000, which it expects to raise over the next year.)
According to Woodbury, more than 65,000 people per year visit Bothe-Napa Valley and Bale Grist Mill parks, which are located north of St. Helena next to Highway 29. He’s hoping to see that number grow through partnerships with local businesses to promote use.
“In Napa, the wineries built in the last couple of decades have restrictions. Most can’t have picnic tables. We’d like to explore partnerships whereby people who go wine tasting can go over to the parks for picnics,” Woodbury explains. “We have to find new ways to generate revenue so we can make it economically feasible and sustainable to continue to operate the parks.”
While the state looks to save money by closing the parks, it appears to have overlooked the role the parks play in local economies, Woodbury believes. He estimates Bale Grist Mill and Bothe-Napa Valley parks add more than $1.6 million annually to the local economy. It’s an observation shared by Assemblymember Huffman.
“Parks are obviously a huge part of our environment and enrich our quality of life. But the part that’s not discussed enough is the fact that they’re a tremendous economic engine,” Huffman says. “Just talk to any merchant in downtown Tiburon about Angel Island
[Tiburon is the access point for Angel Island via ferry]. And it plays out the same all over the state. Up in Anderson Valley [Mendocino County], one of the few bright spots of the economy is tourism. The bureaucrats singling it out for parks closure aren’t taking into account the huge impact it will have on a region’s economy.”
Power of the parks
One thing is shared by all those involved in saving North Bay parks: fierce dedication to the cause.
“To take away our parks touches a nerve,” says Chung. “Northern Californians love the outdoors. We’re dedicated to it. Look how much we’ve successfully preserved the natural beauty of our environment in past decades. It’s so important and such a big part of our culture.”
“I was constantly taken to state parks as a child and grew up knowing how important it was that they were cared for and honored as part of our history,” says Stancil. When the state announced the park closures, “There was no choice but to create a solution,” she says. “The last decade of budget difficulty would have brought any company to its knees. When it became an opportunity for us to come up with a solution [to saving the parks], it was an open doorway to happiness, not a daunting task.”
But one thing is certain. The process for all has been anything but “a walk in the park.”