Breaking news! Kathy Bailey and the Hendy Woods Community appear on the verge of success. See her article ‘Hendy Woods State Park is Back in Business!’ Congratulations! Such an agreement does have implications for what is written below. However, with so much in flux and so many parks still at risk of closure or being taken over by private concessionaires my article will stay as written.
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Over the last six months and in as many articles on the parks closures, you might think we are getting some real answers out of elected officials, the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the California State Parks Foundation about what is really going on. WRONG!
We all want to believe that our system of governance really has our best interests in mind and will not willfully harm them. DON’T GO THERE!
For six months, I have been asking elected officials, bureaucrats, and self-appointed “people’s advocates” what is going on and how they propose to avert the train wreck that is in sight. The standard answer given is, “We are doing our best.” DON’T YOU BELIEVE IT.
Half way through this draft article the realization came to me that much of it is by way of review of what has already happened and facts that many readers are already familiar with. Perhaps, then, it is best to deal here with the real threat to the future of state parks that no one wants to talk about: privatization. Of course, if you ask state elected officials about it they claim to be ignorant of any pending takeovers of state parks by private for profit companies. Ask the professed professional advocates for the parks, The California State Parks Foundation, and the answer is “Don’t Go There.” Ask the Parks Department officials and have your phone calls and e-mails ignored. Let’s give the elected officials, such as Jared Huffman and Noreen Evans, the benefit of the doubt. Jared Huffman says he is in the dark. Noreen Evans, as of May 14, responds that our concerns are right on target. But if so, ask how and why? Who, after all, is in charge? Are nameless bureaucrats in charge, some of whom may see their future out of government service and into one of the for-profits that is seeking to take over state parks? We all are aware how the revolving door mechanism works.
What we do know, as acknowledged by Roy Stearns at California Parks, is that The State Public Works Board on February 1st issued Requests for Proposal to for-profit concessionaires to bid on 21 parks. Included on the list four in Mendocino Mendocino (Hendy Woods, Russian Gulch, Westport-Union, and Stankish-Hickey (see RFP # 2 & 3). Also at risk of being turned over to for profits on the North Coast are Castle Crags SP, Grizzly Creek Redwoods SP, and Benbow SRA. Proposals are due by May 29 at California Deparetment of Parks and Recreation, Concessions, Revervations and Fees Division. (http://www.parks.ca.gov/concessions .)
While we cannot say with certainty that the for-profit entity seeking to take over these four parks is indeed The California Parks Company, it is not unreasonable to assume just that. This company, founded in 1975, is seeking fresh opportunities to take over some of our most precious state parks, those Jared Huffman calls “low hanging fruit.” By “low hanging fruit” what Huffman and others mean is those parks with the most attractive targets for profiteers---established camping facilities. The bundling proposal said to be in the works for Hendy Woods, Russian Gulch, Standish-Hickey, and Westport-Union is just that, “low hanging fruit” ripe for a for-profit picking.
What might it mean if The California Parks Company takes these four parks over? Consider what the company is already doing at Big Basin State Park. While there are “primitive campsites” available on hiking trails, these have no water, no bathrooms, no picnic tables, no grills, and allow no fires. As for the main campground, tent-cabins are available for a minimum of two nights (three on holidays) for between $75 and $125 per night. And if you need supplies of any kind, why go into town? There is a store and gift shop on site. Most of the operations are run by non-professional, low wage workers who have no stake in the park or its precious resources. It is no stretch to assume that a for-profit company to maximize its profit potential on the North Coast would want to put in place such a gentrified operation. Only the well-heeled, urbanized camper type need apply. Reservations only. On a budget? Forget it.
What can one learn from the website for The California Parks Company? The message from John Koeberer, CEO, is that “Increased public funding of the parks just isn’t an option.” To his way of thinking, “voters declared their opposition to increasing taxes to maintain state parks…” He wants you to “consider these private sector alternatives.” He claims, by the way, to be a park professional. As a former president of the California Chamber of Commerce, and currently Co-Chair of the Tourism Committee of the Chamber, and former member of the California Travel and Tourism Commission, he should know what his chances are to maneuver the State Parks into his orbit.
Mr. Koeberer says quite openly that “some parks don’t belong in the state park system. Most of these are among the smallest of our parks (note how he calls them our parks) and lack any semblance of statewide…. significance.” His solution? “California needs an independent task force (similar to the Defense and Realignment Commission) to assess which parks should be retained and which should be buttoned up and maintained until times are better.” Would any of us want such pro-business, in it for the money, type deciding which of our parks to save and which to condemn? Keep in mind that no ordinary citizen, and almost no professional wildlife management professional, biologist, or the like is ever likely to see the inside of the conference room of such a commission. Case in point, The California State Parks Foundation has 30 members on its board. They are to a person from banking, commercial real estate, corporate law, wealth management, PG&E, and the Disney Company.
According to John Koeberer (just Google The California Parks Company to see), “Many parks could be packaged on a regional basis for private-sector management…” “Private enterprise has shown it can accrue operating savings on an average of 30% better than government…” Of course, he ignored the fact that the State Parks Districts are indeed regionally based operations, such as the Mendocino District.
True, the state rangers have to divide their time between the “low hanging fruits” and those small units that in his estimation “don’t belong.” Nor does Mr. Koeberer acknowledge that the only way to achieve savings is to ignore “deferred maintenance (that $1.3 billion backlog in current terms) as well major repairs. On good authority, it is common knowledge that the State Parks Department will still carry the burden of major repairs at state parks, even if they are run by a for-profit. In return, the state might receive up to 3% of the revenues. Talk of low rent? As for Koeberer’s glancing comment about better times, any for-profit agreement is very likely to be for a minimum of 5 years, and in many cases 10 or more years, else why would they do it. Options to renew might effectively remove a state park permanently from state control.
There is one thing that Mr. Koeberer says that I agree with: “The California State Park funding crisis has given our state the opportunity to redefine how our parks are managed in ways that will assure their quality, relevance and access for Californians now and into the future.”
However, Mr. Koeberer’s solution is to gentrify the most profit making potential parks, effectively shutting off access to those with more modest means, while at the same time Balkanizing a system that to this point has remained whole and undivided.
Mr. Koeberer lists some of his (Innovate(ive) Revenue-Generating Solutions” as automated fee collection at park entrances, parking lots and showers that could collect revenue 24/7, more privately owned and managed tent-cabins, park models, yurts and other popular new forms of alternative camping, and special events (concerts, competitions and spectator events). In short, he advocates more revenue collection opportunities at every step of the way and a Disneyland atmosphere replete with competitions and spectaculars. If your idea of a state park is that of a refuge from the frenetic pace of life outside its borders, forget it if Mr. Koeberer has his way. Can you picture it: Hendy Woods Futurama! What is Mr. Koeberer’s defense for his ideas of innovation? “It is in the DNA of entrepreneurs to invent new ways to stimulate revenue.” Has he no clue that State Park custodians, our park rangers and administrative staff of the system, should have in their DNA the instincts to protect, preserve, and leave nature as much alone and without modification as is humanly possible?
Well, at this point, perhaps it is best to reserve a discussion of the current wave of legislative initiatives for another week. Let’s leave it that you, the reader, now have a better idea what is in store if private for-profit companies end up running our state parks, any of them. It is up to you now to press our elected officials and the Department of Parks and Recreation for answers. It is up to you to make them understand that for-profit operators are not the solution to our current fiscal problems in maintaining state parks. What might you say to Jared Huffman, Wes Chesbro, and Noreen Evans? Tell them to keep pressing for the right solutions and not to close our parks. As for privatization initiatives: tell them “Don’t go there!” These parks belong to 35 million California citizens, and are not for sale.