When California’s Department of Parks and Recreation announced last year it would be closing a quarter of its parks due to budget cuts, millions of nature-loving Californians were devastated.
But, according to a report by the Huffington Post, there may be some relief ahead.
With the July 1 closure deadline looming, nearly half of the 70 parks originally slated to be shut down have been saved, and the state is in the process of negotiating agreements to keep nearly two-thirds open past that deadline.
The methods used to rescue the parks are varied, but they fall into a few distinct categories. Some received large donations from private individuals or conservation organizations, others were taken over by local municipalities or the federal government and a small handful, most controversially, are being privatized.
Though private companies (both of the non- and for-profit varieties) have long operated inside virtually all of California’s green spaces, having non-governmental groups handle the operation of an entire state park is relatively new. Last year, the legislature passed a bill allowing private organizations to take over the operation of California’s parks without first having to gain approval for each individual decision.
A recent report by the Legislative Analyst Office estimated that, by privatizing the operation of many parks, the state could save tens of millions of dollars each year.
Parks Department Deputy Director Roy Stearns admits that the idea has been met with some hostility. State Senator Noreen Evans, for example, said that park privatization is “inconsistent with serving the public.”
“We’ve gotten some pushback, but people are more and more coming to the realization that our budget has serious problems,” Stearns told The Huffington Post. “There are private companies in the Parks and Rec business that do it well. People shouldn’t see private enterprise as a dirty word. Our main goal is to get though these tough times.”
Other states have considered going the privatization route, but California is the first to actually implement it. Currently, the state is in final negotiations on private operation for six parks: Castle Crags, Benbow Lake, Woodson Bridge, Brannan Island, Turlock Lake and Limekiln.
A chain restaurant in Wharton State Forest. A Ferris wheel at Liberty State Park. Weddings, flea markets, and corporate events taking over New Jersey’s historic sites and scenic lands.
According to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, that could be the future if the state goes forward with plans to privatize parts of its park system, some warn.
“Next thing you know, you have to pay more for everything and the public’s access is limited,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey. “You’ll be getting fee’d to death.”
The state has a different vision. Lou Valente, chief project adviser for the state Department of Environmental Protection, foresees parks that retain their character while better serving the public, cost less to operate, and generate more revenue.
Private entities would provide lifeguards, event-planning, boat rentals, enlarged food service, even small stores with camping supplies. Nonprofits would take more responsibility for interpretive programs, freeing up DEP employees for other duties.
The changes, made public in October, will be implemented gradually, officials said, as part of a long-term strategy to keep the parks open by making them more self-sustaining.
The criticisms “have no connection to what we’re doing,” Valente said.
“We’re planning substantial change by 2015,” he said. By then, 38% of the system’s budget would come from deals with private and nonprofit entities for things such as the concessions at Liberty State Park, installing solar arrays on parkland and continued leasing of four state-owned golf courses.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that eventually, the state would like two-thirds of the system’s annual operation budget to come from outside sources.
“Some people may want McDonald’s,” Valente said. “We don’t. But giving people something to eat? That’s fair.”
Food service is already at most parks, he said. “There are hot dogs and hamburgers. We’d like to go more broadly than that.”
The state doesn’t want to compromise the system’s integrity, said DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese. “There’s no talk of Applebee’s at every park. There won’t be neon signs along the trails.
“We want to bring the parks into the 21st century,” he said. “People come to the parks for nature and history, but that doesn’t mean we can’t offer them something to go with it.”
A record 19 million visitors were drawn to 440 acres of state parks in 21 counties last year. The system takes in 500 miles of hiking and riding trails, 10 miles of beaches, and 39 recreation areas, along with 50 historic sites.