The California State Parks Foundation (CSPF) announced Thursday (May 17) it will award 13 grants totaling $328,586 to organizations that are fighting to keep state parks off the closure list.
This one-year commitment is one of several steps the 43-year-old foundation is taking in response to the crisis of park closures across California’s state park system, according to a news release. These grants were made possible by funding from the S. D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation and the Thomas J. Long Foundation.
“We are pleased to announce these grants as part of our integrated effort to help keep these threatened parks open,” said CSPF President Elizabeth Goldstein. “The grantees that have come forward to assist parks need our help now, and more organizations will have similar needs in the future. It is our hope to assist in providing reprieves for as many parks as possible by working closely with the parks community. We’ve been working hard on a number of different fronts, such as launching a major fundraising campaign and offering new technical assistance to nonprofits working to keep parks open.”
In addition to these 13 new grants, CSPF previously awarded two grants to temporarily keep open Santa Susana State Historic Park and Jughandle State Natural Reserve. All of these awards are contingent on the state entering into agreements with these organizations who have developed strong and effective proposals to keep parks open.
“This is an example of the value of public-private partnerships,” said California Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) Director Ruth Coleman. “We thank CSPF for mobilizing donors and resources to assist our nonprofit partners to get through this budget crisis.”
Adeline and Walt Holmtren have been visiting the northeastern shore of the Salton Sea for more than 50 years. A couple times each month since the early 1960s they drive their camper from their home in Aguanga in Riverside County to the Salton Sea State Recreation Area and camp for a couple of nights at the Salt Creek campground.
According to a report in the U-T of San Diego, it is an odd place. The Salton Sea is Californias’ largest lake and its surface elevation is about 230 feet below sea level, making it one of the lowest places on Earth. Millions of birds use the sea each winter. There is a particular smell, not always pleasant, but people get used to it quickly, they say.
“It’s a unique place,” said Adeline, 70. “There isn’t anything like it.”
But that may well all end this summer.
The recreation area is a 14-mile-long shoreline state park that, despite millions of dollars in improvements in the past decade, is scheduled to be permanently closed June 30.
One of the original 70 state parks targeted by Sacramento for closure last year because of the state’s budget mess, the area is far from self-supporting. Camping fees and day-use payments bring in only about $100,000 a year while the budget to keep it operating has been around $1.2 million. A proposal that would severely reduce staffing and other costs in hopes of keeping it open has been proffered.
Many of the parks around the state, like Palomar State Park in North County, have since been saved, or are about to be, thanks to partnerships formed with nonprofit citizen groups that promise to keep the parks open by covering any budget shortfalls.
But no such arrangement has come close at the Salton Sea and with just a couple months before the deadline, supporters are growing desperate.
They need someone to step forward. They need money. And they need it fast.
“We just haven’t been able to access the public the way we would like to be able to do so,” said Bill Meister, president of the Sea and Desert Interpretive Association, which runs the visitor center and park store and is leading the charge. He said that for nine months the association has been trying to generate interest in saving the park. They’ve contacted local and state representatives “but really haven’t had any response from them.”
“It’s going to be very tough,” Meister said. “It’s going to be a close call.”
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It’s been an exercise in frustration and futility for many campers around Southern California who wish to spend the Memorial Day holiday weekend in Big Bear.
The website, www.recreation.gov, where people go to reserve a spot at campgrounds throughout the San Bernardino National Forest, isn’t taking reservations, the Big Bear Grizzly reported. Instead, all the prospective camper gets is a blanket statement: “The campground is closed through May 31 while the San Bernardino National Forest works on issuing a new permit for management of this and surrounding facilities.”
Unfortunately for campers and for Big Bear, May 31 comes three days after the holiday.
According to John Miller, public information officer for the San Bernardino National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service is required to renew concessionaire permits every five years. “The plan is to have them all open by the Memorial Day holiday,” Miller said. “The challenge is in a lot of the older areas there are campers used to reserving the same spot for even generations. The biggest thing is that people have been unable to reserve a spot.”
May is a critical month for campgrounds throughout the national forests. “Usually (the concessionaires) need a couple of weeks in the site before they can open,” Miller said. “They need to turn on the water system, limb trees, rake leaves and do minor maintenance.”
As of press time, the Memorial holiday weekend is less than three weeks away.
The Big Bear Discovery Center has been receiving calls about reservations, Miller said. Miller suggests checking the website frequently during the next two weeks. “Once an agreement is formalized, then recreation.gov will come alive to take reservations,” Miller said. “When that is, I don’t know.”
The California State Parks is planning to increase the price of annual park passes by as much as $70 on May 1, another example of park users being asked to pay more to avoid more service reductions or parks being shut, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat has reported.
The cost of an annual day use pass that is valid for all California parks will jump from $125 to $195. The Golden Poppy Pass, which provides entrance to 98 parks will go from $90 to $125.
State parks officials have yet to announce the increases, which were outlined in a memo sent to all park employees last week and obtained by The Press Democrat.
Roy Stearns, a state parks spokesman, said Wednesday the park pass increases — the first since 2009 — are necessary to offset service reductions.
“We don’t like raising fees. But the cost of everything is going up,” Stearns said.
The fee increases reflect a growing sentiment that park users will have to pay more out of their own pockets as Sacramento grapples with budget deficits. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered $22 million cut from the state parks budget to help solve a much larger deficit.
In the first few months after California announced its park closures in May 2011, park advocates were stunned and outraged, according to a report by The Bay Citizen. The state was tearing down 25% of a world-renowned system – 70 parks in all.
Almost a year later the state parks closure cloud still looms, big and black. But dozens of small victories and individual acts of courage are adding a silver lining.
The good news started with some wins last year. A handful of beach lovers and staff at McGrath State Beach near Ventura raised half a million dollars for the new sewage system that is keeping that park open. And a nonprofit, the Coe Park Preservation Fund, raised more than $500,000 to protect its namesake park near San Jose.
Institutional neighbors stepped up, too. The National Park Service has pledged to keep Tomales Bay, Samuel P. Taylor, and Del Norte Coast Redwoods state parks open for at least a year. Counties and cities have offered to provide services at parks within their borders.
“People are beginning to be mobilized in a way they haven’t before,” said California State Parks Foundation president Elizabeth Goldstein.
At the same time, promising and dedicated grassroots leaders have emerged. To name a few: Greg Hayes, a former state park superintendent, has forsaken retirement to try to rescue Jack London Historic State Park; Kathy Bailey, a longtime resident of Northern California’s Anderson Valley, is devoting her days to working with her neighbors to keep Hendy Woods State Park open; Robert Hanna, not long ago a sales manager in a financial firm, has teamed up with activists at several state parks to “do everything I can to help keep parks open.” Perhaps Hanna was destined to be a leader; he is John Muir’s 31-year-old great-great grandson. Somehow this crisis has led him and dozens of other Californians to a new calling: preserving state parks.
Inside and outside the bureaucracy, the crisis has highlighted some not-so-new ideas. At Samuel P. Taylor State Park, in Marin, supervising ranger Rose Blackburn is reassessing her use of volunteer campground hosts. In exchange for free RV space, they work 20 hours a week helping park visitors and handling emergencies. In peak season, she now has two campground hosts and may expand that to three or four, with one host concentrating on maintenance. One surefire revenue enhancement at Taylor is a new lodging option: five new primitive cabins that she hopes will be ready for visitors this summer, at $100 a night or so (compared with $35 for a campsite).
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A non-profit group is seeking to prevent closure this summer of Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville, Calif., and also restore services at several beaches and campgrounds along the Sonoma County coast.
As with other proposals to save state parks from closure, the plan submitted by Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods hinges on whether park visitors are willing to pay more to use facilities, the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reported.
Specifically, the organization is proposing to charge visitors for parking at day-use areas on the coast and to expand the paid parking area at Armstrong Woods State Reserve.
“We’ll do what we can to appeal to peoples’ goodwill and interest in keeping parks open,” Michele Luna, executive director of the Stewards group, said Friday.
The state is planning to close 67 of California’s 278 parks by July 1 to save $11 million this fiscal year and $22 million in succeeding years. The list originally included 70 parks, but the National Park Service has agreed to operate three parks, including Tomales and Samuel P. Taylor state parks in Marin County.
In Sonoma County, state parks slated for closure include Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park east of Kenwood. A total of 16 parks on the North Coast are on the closure list.
The Stewards group is one of several non-profits that have submitted proposals to operate Sonoma County parks and keep them open. The Stewards plan is the most ambitious, as it encompasses not only 5,700-acre Austin Creek, but also Sonoma Coast State Park, which is not slated for closure but has experienced major service reductions.
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.