A California state oversight board on Wednesday (Feb. 1) approved a controversial proposal that could lead to for-profit companies operating in 11 state parks, according to a report in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
Critics fear the action could allow these parks to be taken over by commercial interests or undermine nonprofits that are planning to submit their own bids to run the parks.
Despite earlier statements to the contrary, state parks officials on Wednesday said they will not seek to turn over the operations of entire parks to concessionaires.
“We’re not willing to say that we don’t have the authority to enter into an RFP (request for proposal) with a concessionaire to run an entire park. Are we doing it? No,” James Luscutoff, chief of the Concessions, Reservations and Fees Division for state parks said after Wednesday’s hearing at the state Capitol.
The two members of the state’s Public Works Board who were present for Wednesday’s hearing unanimously supported giving the state the authority to seek bids from concessionaires.
Among the possible concessions are operation of campgrounds, restaurants and day-use facilities, said state officials.
Parks representatives also said they are hoping to generate what they called hybrid proposals that would combine private concessionaires and non-profit groups as a way to keep parks open.
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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The Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park is one of three California state parks that will remain open — despite being slated for closure — thanks to an agreement reached by the National Parks Service (NPS) and California State Parks on Thursday (Oct. 6), the Eureka Times-Standard reported.
The agreement will allow the 31,261-acre park, which includes the Mill Creek Campground and Mill Creek Watershed, to remain open to the public. In addition, it’ll allow the Tomales Bay State Park and Samuel P. Taylor State Park to be operated by the National Parks Service. NPS will support normal day-to-day operations needed to keep the parks open.
Candace Tinkler, chief of interpretation for NPS, said park operations will still be very dependent on the regular state park fees collected for camping and day-use services.
”We’re hoping to be able to collect fees that will pay for the staffing we need to do the (every day) maintenance work,” Tinkler said.
No additional federal funding is available to help NPS keep the state parks open, so no major long-term infrastructure repairs are planned for the parks. Tinkler said the main goal is to keep the campgrounds open for visitors.
”There may be some of the lesser-used trails we may not be able to maintain as well,” Tinkler said.
The Mill Creek Watershed will remain under the state’s control, but Tinkler said the two different park associations are used to sharing responsibilities for forested areas.
”We have this flow between the two, where we work together all the time anyway,” Tinkler said.
She said the Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park has received support from various different entities to help keep it open, and that she’s had customers pleading with parks personnel to keep the Mill Creek Campground open. While it’s a lesser-known campground, Tinkler said it’s been growing in popularity.
”It’s tucked down there in that secret valley,” Tinkler said about the campground. “It’s a short drive to come into Crescent City and visit the beach.”
Both park services have agreed to try the arrangement for one year, after which they’ll decide whether they want to continue the partnership.
Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a bill that will allow some state parks scheduled for closure to remain open if qualified nonprofit organizations agree to run them, according to a report by the Bay Citizen.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman’s Assembly Bill 42 authorizes the California Department of Parks and Recreation to enter into agreements with the nonprofits.
Seventy state parks are scheduled to close next summer because of the state budget deficit.
“Particularly in these tough economic times, creative public/private partnerships are an essential tool in providing ongoing protection of, and continuing access to these public assets,” Huffman said.
California State Parks Foundation president Elizabeth Goldstein said the foundation will continue to work with nonprofit groups that want to protect the parks. She said Huffman’s bill will lessen the blow from park closures and encourage other groups to get involved in saving the parks.
With no advance warning, California’s Palomar Mountain State Park’s two campgrounds were closed to the public Sunday and, according to the park’s superintendent, are not scheduled to reopen because of the state’s budget problems.
A news release issued Monday (Oct. 3) said “due to severe budget restrictions, seasonal service reductions begin Oct. 2, 2011, at two California State Parks,” according to a report by the San Diego Union-Tribune. The park’s website says the campgrounds are not scheduled to reopen.
The release also said the Green Valley Campground and the Granite Springs Environmental Campground at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park are now closed. However that park’s website says they will reopen July 1. The Paso Picacho Campground at the park will remain open for camping and day use.
“It’s been really hard,” Nedra Martinez, the superintendent for both Palomar and Cuyamaca Rancho, said Monday evening.
She said campers Sunday were told they had to leave, and the state’s reservation contractor started calling people last week with the bad news that their reservations for the coming fall and spring could not be honored.
“It’s just really sad,” Martinez said. “People have been calling me all week about the family trips they had planned.”
Martinez said until recently she thought enough funding had been found to keep the Palomar campgrounds open until November and then to reopen them in the spring. But the funding fell through.
In the spring the state announced plans to close 70 parks beginning in the fall to cut $11 million in fiscal 2012 and $22 million the following fiscal year.
There is concern within the tourism and private park industry that the budget cuts and the possible closure of 70 state parks in California pose a threat to privately owned and operated campgrounds in California and across the country.
According to a press release, the issue is that thousands of campers go to California to see the extraordinary sites located within the state parks, but camp in private parks along the way, and without many state parks open, private campgrounds could be hurt by fewer visitors according to a news release.
However, Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks, feels strongly that the challenge presented also provides opportunities to counter the situation with increased public-private park collaboration, particularly in the areas of marketing and media outreach, since both industries target the same consumer.
“We have a very strong interest in being together with the private park industry as we face these challenges,” said Coleman, who noted that California State Parks will join the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) this month.
Coleman, who will become president of the National Association of State Park Directors (NASPD) in September, added that while 70 state parks in California are currently scheduled to close on July 1, 2012, opportunities exist for private park operators to take over management of several state park campgrounds.
Coleman said she is also open to discussing ways in which state parks can help refer campers to privately owned parks, perhaps by directing them to websites such as GoCampingAmerica.com or Camp-California.com.
“We bring the destination,” Coleman said. “State parks are the thing that people want to come see. But we don’t offer that many spots for people to stay.”
Indeed, the entire California State Park system only has about 15,000 campsites, while the private park sector has more than 90,000 camping and RV sites. But by working together, Coleman said, both public and private parks could find ways to help each other.
California is among the first of a half of dozen state park systems that have already indicated interest in joining ARVC this year following a recent push by the association to open its doors to all non-member parks throughout the country, including state parks.
Several states already have strong relationships with state parks, including Virginia, Maryland and Maine, but, more can be done, not only at the state level, but at local levels across the country.
Debbie Sipe, executive director of California ARVC, sees these efforts at pubic park-private park sector collaboration as a positive move, and noted that the state association is specifically interested in stepping up its marketing and public relations outreach efforts in collaboration with California State Parks.
Sipe said communicating with Coleman also enables her to better understand challenges facing state parks while also identifying ways in which state parks could help private park operators.
Looking down the road, Sipe said increased public-park park collaboration could also go a long way toward improving best practices in campground management across the country.
Paul Bambei, ARVC president and CEO, said ARVC Director of Membership Jeff Sims plans to attend next month’s annual NASPD Convention, where he plans to reach out to state park directors across the country and highlight the association’s efforts to seek improved collaboration with the public park sector to help both industries in these challenging economic times.
The federal budget, or more precisely the national debt and the attempts to reduce it, are being felt in California with U.S. Forest Service campground closures and reduced hours at some visitors centers.
The Inyo National Forest in eastern California is having to take some drastic measures to balance its budget this fiscal year, and in unprecedented actions is closing some campgrounds and reducing services and interpretive programs at visitor centers in the middle of the summer, Forest Supervisor Ed Armenta said in a press release.
In line with the reduction in staff capabilities and to further reduce costs, the following campgrounds have been closed for the summer: Upper Deadman, Lower Deadman, Hartley Springs and Obsidian Group Camp, The Inyo Register, Bishop, reported.
As of July 31, reductions in hours and services at Visitor Centers, from north to south, will be in effect until further notice.
This year, all of the national forests received their budgets much later than normal, with the Inyo National Forest receiving a final budget on June 15. The final budget was significantly lower than what had been projected, particularly in the areas of recreation and wilderness, Armenta said.
According to Armenta, for the past month, Inyo National Forest leadership has “struggled with how to balance their budget and they have been working with many of their partners in an attempt to maintain as high a level of public service and resource protection as possible.”
Armenta noted many partners, including the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, Friends of the Inyo, the Town of Mammoth Lakes, and the National Park Service, have stepped up to help, but even all that assistance can only go so far.
Over the past couple of weeks, in an attempt to reduce costs, the Forest Service has reduced staff by seven temporary employees who had been hired for the summer, has moved a couple of employees to grant-funded programs, and has not filled several vacancies that had been slated to be filled, including the key staff positions of Forest Recreation Officer and Forest Resource Officer.
Activists representing more than half of the 70 state parks targeted for closure due to California’s budget crisis braved broiling temperatures Tuesday (June 21) in Sacramento to rally at the Capitol building.
The Chatsworth Patch reported that park supporters have been writing letters to state legislators to ward off the closures.
There’s pending legislation in the state legislature that could help to keep the parks open. AB 64 and AB 42 are on the Assembly and Senate floors and could allow the state to join with nonprofit organizations and local governments in the effort to stave off closures.
“It’s upbeat and fantastic,” said John Luker, representing the Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park about the rally. “Everyone realizes the parks will be closed. But by the same token in looking around and looking at the others in the same boat, it brings a feeling of mutual reinforcement.”
The California State Parks Foundation hosted Tuesday’s rally to highlight the impact of the closures, showcase the natural, cultural and historic resources that will be at risk, and meet legislators to seek ways to protect California’s state parks during this fiscal crisis.
Speakers included Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks
Foundation; Sen. Lois Wolk, author of Senate Bill 580; Rep. Jared Huffman, author of Assembly Bill 42; Robert Hanna, founder of Range of Light and great-great grandson of John Muir, and Alden Olmsted, a filmmaker and son of naturalist John Olmsted.
Foundation spokesman, Jerry Emory, said about 200 people met under a large tent where pamphlets, photographs and other literature were handed to the public.
Holding the rally on the lawn of the Capitol gave the cause good exposure, Emory said.
“To see all of these independent representatives under one tent, (it is) impressive to see their dedication to their specific park and their regional parks,” Emory said.
Emory said Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto of the state budget last week was a surprise. He said he doesn’t believe it will change the status of the parks when the budget is finally signed.
As part of the 2011- 2012 state budget, the state park system will begin to implement $11 million in cuts that will grow to a permanent $22 million General Fund cut by 2012-2013.
“Everybody loves state parks. No one wants to see them close,” Luker said. “It’s the worst case scenario for everyone.”
State parks here are in a downward spiral amid budget cuts that have left many only partially open and in decrepit condition heading into the busy summer season — amid plans to indefinitely close a quarter of the 278 parks.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the 70 closures, slated for 2012, would be the first in the 84-year history of California’s state park system, the largest in the country. The legislature decided in May to cut an additional $22 million from the state Department of Parks and Recreation to help close a state budget deficit of $9.6 billion.
Overall, funding for California state parks has dropped 43% since fiscal 2006, to $99 million planned for the fiscal year beginning July 1 from $175 million six years earlier.
Sixty state parks are partially closed while 90 more have experienced severe reductions in services, said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Officials are racing to try to avert some of the closures, including with a bill that would make it easier for nonprofit groups to take over some park operations. But the bill proposed by Democratic Assemblyman Jared Huffman—which has passed the Assembly and is pending in the Senate—wouldn’t save all of the parks, Ms. Goldstein said. “We are not optimistic we will keep 70 parks open or anywhere close,” she said.
Budget cuts have hit state parks elsewhere, too. Arizona has closed seven of its 30 state parks over the past 18 months because of budget troubles, said Renee Bahl, executive director of the Arizona State Parks Board. Officials in Idaho, meanwhile, are considering corporate sponsorships to keep state parks open there.
Some people say the parks cuts are necessary at a time when almost every other part of state government is being reduced in the face of big deficits and suggest the parks’ agency should seek new sources of revenue.
“There are things they could do to become more self-sufficient,” such as charging higher camping and day-use fees and outsourcing campground operations to a private concessionaire, said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a taxpayers’ advocacy group in Los Angeles and Sacramento.
Advocates argue the timing is bad. “When you have near-record unemployment and home foreclosures and a health and obesity problem with youth and adults, that is a terrible time to be taking away the close-to-home recreation opportunities for these folks,” said Phil McNelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors.
The impact can be seen at the Austin Creek State Recreation Area, a 5,683-acre forested preserve near Guerneville, in the mountains of Sonoma County north of San Francisco. Budget cuts prompted park officials in 2010 to close the 24-site Bullfrog Pond Campground for 10 months out of the year.
On a recent day, a padlocked gate blocked motorized access to the bucolic campground, where rodents had taken up residence in a restroom and its mirrors were missing. The campground is set to reopen July 1 through the end of August.
“People get really mad at us when we tell them it’s closed,” said Jenny Donovan, public safety superintendent for the park agency’s Russian River district, which includes Austin Creek. “But as state park employees, it’s hard on us, too.”
Elsewhere in Ms. Donovan’s district, an admissions gate at the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve was unmanned even on a busy day recently. Meanwhile, the Fort Ross Historic State Park—site of a 19th century Russian encampment—is now open only five days a week, down from seven.
And with an estimated $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance statewide, parks in the district are in general disrepair. At Sonoma Coast State Park, weeds have grown to nearly obscure a closed restroom. At some other parks, graffiti covers campground signs.
Parks officials say they had no choice but to trim services because of staff reductions caused by the budget cuts. In her Mendocino County district, parks superintendent Liz Burko has funds to fill only four of 11 positions for rangers to patrol 22 parks. “We are forced to focus on areas of peak visitation,” said Ms. Burko, who also oversees the Russian River district.
Nonprofits have stepped in to provide some help. In Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation runs El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park under an arrangement Mr. Huffman’s bill would expand to other parks statewide. In Santa Cruz County, Friends of Santa Cruz raised $60,000 last year to keep 30 seasonal lifeguards employed at three state beaches. And in Jenner, Calif., Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods raised about $5,000 last year to keep the Sonoma County State Park Visitors Center open, said Michele Luna, executive director of the group.
But nonprofits can do only so much. A recently discovered leak at the visitors center created worries about the need for an expensive repair, Luna said. “The costs could be prohibitive” for her group, she said.
California State Parks announced Wednesday (June 1) a new partnership with national firelog company CleanFlame, in order to support and promote the state’s 278 parks and campgrounds.
CleanFlame joins the parks’ “Proud Partner” program with a commitment to donate $300,000 of the proceeds from sales of its new Campfire Log during the next three years to help keep California’s state parks open and accessible to the public, according to a news release.
The company’s “S’more Fun in the Forest” campaign launched in May to call attention to this opportunity for consumers to help support critical infrastructure and maintenance projects needed throughout the State Park system.
“We are pleased to partner with CleanFlame to generate revenue for our parks through the sale of their new campfire log. They are a California-based company whose environmentally friendly products will add to the outdoor recreation experience and enjoyment at our 15,000 campsites,” said Brent Reed, deputy director of partnerships and consumer strategies.
“CleanFlame is proud to support California’s majestic state parks and campgrounds during these budget-challenged times,” said Kory Hamman, CEO of CleanFlame. “The new Campfire Log by CleanFlame represents a new era in responsible camping safety and convenience. Unlike other artificial firelog brands, our Campfire Logs are clean enough to cook over, toxin free, safer for our families and better for our environment. And with a portion of proceeds from the sale of each log going to support our state campgrounds, we hope to keep the adventure of camping alive for generations to come.”
Campfire Log by CleanFlame and Rapid Fire Firestarters are available at California state parks, Safeway stores, Vons, Dominick’s, Randall’s Food Marts, Tom Thumbs, Pavillions, Raleys, Savemart and many other retail locations nationwide. Visit http://www.cleanflame.com for a store locator.
About the Proud Partnership Program: California State Parks instituted the Proud Partnership Program, with assistance from the California State Parks Foundation, to help enhance and promote the state parks to the public. Financial support and resources from “Proud Partners,” such as CleanFlame, help fund visitor enhancement projects and promote California state parks programs. For more information about the Proud Partner Program, visit http://www.parks.ca.gov.