The California state parks closure list is shrinking as philanthropists, nonprofit groups and the federal government step forward with money and resources, but questions remain about how private stewardship of public property will work.
According to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle, nine of 70 parks have been taken off the state’s closure list so far, and park officials say negotiations are ongoing between the state and organizations trying to save 27 others, including the Benicia State Recreation Area, Benicia Capitol State Historic Park and Jack London State Historic Park.
The proposed closures are a major crisis in California, where 278 parks cover 1.4 million acres, including 280 miles of coastline and 625 miles of lake and riverfront, and generate billions of dollars in revenue from tourism.
The surge in private funding is in large part because of the recent passage of AB42, introduced by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, which smoothed the way for nonprofit groups to take over park operations.
The latest to be removed from the list of parks slated for closure on July 1 is Henry W. Coe State Park, near Morgan Hill, which at 87,000 acres is the largest state park in Northern California. A private citizens group from Silicon Valley agreed to donate the money for maintenance and operations through June 30, 2015.
Similar agreements have been reached at Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, where a nonprofit foundation agreed to collect the fees necessary to keep the lake and surrounding facilities open. Tomales Bay State Park, Samuel P. Taylor State Park and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park were taken off the list in October after the National Park Service agreed to take over security and operations.
The question is, how will these agreements work over time? If parks remain open using donations, what is the incentive for legislators to put money for parks in the general fund budget? And who is going to stop a rich crook or pot dealer from taking a park off the closure list and using it for fiendish pursuits?
“These are important issues, and it doesn’t seem like any one person has the guts to say, ‘I’m going to take charge and answer these questions,’ ” said Alden Olmsted, who has collected $26,000 in contributions by placing collection buckets around the state and is on the verge of signing an agreement to keep open Jug Handle State Natural Reserve, along the Mendocino County coast.
“I don’t want to say they didn’t think this through,” he said, “but maybe they just had to pass the budget and go with it and see how it worked out. This whole process is interesting and strange.”
Roy Stearns, the state parks spokesman, said there are rules governing park operations that prevent unknown entities or shadowy characters from running parks or filching park revenues.
Essentially, he said, the state can make agreements with the federal government, cities, counties, special park districts or nonprofits to operate parks. The parks can contract with businesses and corporations to run restaurants, boat rentals, riding and other concessions, but for-profit entities are not allowed to operate entire parks.
“Could anyone step up? Sure, but we would consider them based upon what kind of an entity they are and whether or not they can provide proof they have the ability to operate the park with a funding stream and management infrastructure,” he said.
Park officials and watchdog groups promised that no criminal will ever get his or her clamps on a park, but the situation is desperate nevertheless.
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