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Why No One Is Celebrating

After all the alarms and dire predictions, on June 26th the State Parks Department announced that all but five state parks have been saved from closure — for the time being. Why, then, is no one celebrating?

Jared Huffman, Chair of the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee of the State Assembly sees many unresolved problems. He believes that the “Enterprise Fund” provisions included in AB 1589, of which he is the principle author, will ultimately provide the technical authority to establish a sustainable plan for park operations long-term. However, the bill is still bottled up in the Senate Rules Committee. On July 2nd, the legislature goes into recess until August 6th. Even assuming that the bill becomes law, Huffman admits that he has often had to “divine what’s going on,” with respect to the strategies of the Parks Department and the Governor. He questions the way the parks closure process has been handled. Why were so many obvious short-term solutions not considered prior to the closures announcement on May 13, 2011? He agrees with this reporter that some Parks District Supervisors have taken steps in raising fees and improving local operations in trying to reach a “revenue neutral” operation where costs match revenues.

When asked why the Deparment of Park and Recreation (DPR) appears not to have considered on its own using improved fee collection technologies, increasing fees for some services, and other ways to avoid the drastic step of closing 70 parks (one quarter of the park units), he admits that many outside the department ask the same questions. One rumor floated about that Governor Brown wanted middle class voters to feel the pain of losing something they value, just as those depending on social programs have. Whatever the reasons, the only option for 13 months has been for closing parks. Why no other strategy has been considered remains a mystery. Assemblyman Huffman is also skeptical that the State Parks Department has the authority to contract out the entire operation of a state park to a private, for-profit enterprise. State Parks, after all, are the property of the citizens of the State of California, as he has stated.

The matter of privatization (in which a for-profit private company operates an entire park unit) remains a very real concern that must be addressed. The move to privatize parks is unprecedented in the state’s history and offers no solution to the problems — short or long-term — that state parks face. On June 25th, Robert Garcia ( ), commenting on an LA Times editorial, perhaps put it best, “Many do not want government workers to have middle class benefits they enjoy themselves.” In referencing the Great Depression era, Mr. Garcia goes on the point out that the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) provided three million jobs (I believe the total was five million), established 8,000 parks, planted two billion trees, and slowed erosion on 40 million acres. Such were the accomplishments of Americans and their government during depression times. By contrast, in a recessionary period, with attention given to self-appointed critics like Grover Norquist, who is anxious to shrink government down to a size small enough to “drown in a bathtub,” it is no wonder that there are some people ready to climb on the bandwagon of privatization.

One commenter went so far as to suggest that, “The best way to keep them (state parks) is to get the state out of them.” One reader, a Mr. F. Sanchez, reacted to the Modesto Bee’s coverage of the decision to turn Brannan Island State Recreational Area over to American Land and Leisure Company by saying, “Privatize it and build some custom high end properties to meet high end buyer or out of town investors.” Would the Mr. Sanchez recommend that the same be done at Benbow Lake State Recreation Area? After all, American Land and Leisure Company is set to assume operations at Benbow Lake SRA on August 1st. In the coming days, more such for-profit operations may be announced.

Fortunately, responsible stakeholders do not support turning state parks over to private, for profit enterprises. In his editorial in the LA Times on June 25th, Jason Dearon (Associated Press) called privatization “a discouraging turn of events.” He stated the obvious reasons, A) private companies are free to cut costs by hiring cheaper labor and reducing staff levels, B) raise fees, C) do not provide rangers or patrol trails, run rescue operations, or cite violators, D) are not responsible for wildlife, natural resources, or safety of historical artifacts, and E) major work, such as water and sewage will remain the responsibility of the State Park Department. Add to this that there will be no obligation to do anything about deferred maintenance (currently in excess of $1.3 billion system-wide) or in any way enhance the facilities under the company’s control.

Before losing sight of what has been accomplished to avoid immediate closure of 65 out of 70 state parks, it is important to acknowledge the efforts of Senators Noreen Evans and Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto). Their “trailer bill,” which identified $109.34 million of redirected funding keeps parks open for the short term. The Governor signed it on June 28, after stripping millions from the bill. In her press release, Senator Evans comments: “Although I welcome the news from the DPR that most parks will remain open this year, I believe the Governor missed a chance to establish a long-term recovery plan….” She went on to say that, “Temporary fixes won’t cut it. State Parks are a legacy bestowed to us by turn-of-the century citizens and lawmakers who sought to protect California’s most valuable lands which put the Golden State to the forefront of the preservation movement.” And, “I stand firm in my belief that public lands should be funded by public dollars and that no park should ever be abandoned because it is not a profit-rich attraction to be pilfered of its assets.”

It is unfortunate that the Department of Parks and Recreation does not appear to share the sentiments and level of commitment displayed by Senator Evans and Assemblyman Huffman. The pending contracts with American Land and Leisure Company will turn Benbow Lake SRA and Brannan Island into profit centers for private enterprise as of August 1st. Benbow Lake SRA owes its existence to the 1958 generosity of the Benbow family, which donated the first 200 acres of the now 1200-acre park. Brannan Island State Recreation Area has been attracting visitors since 1952. Now, however, the State Parks Department, in its wisdom, will turn it over to American Land and Leisure Company. On June 16th, Steve Werner, Vice President of American Land and Leisure, commented, “We’re really excited to be entering into a partnership with the state park system.” And why not?

Brannan Island, offering 140 campsites and 10 boat launch ramps, has been described as “One of the outstanding water-oriented recreation areas in the world. Located near Rio Vista in the Delta, it offers swimming, boating, fishing, windsurfing, and wildlife watching. The facility has been developed over the years with attractive campsites, three miles of trails, and many amenities, with California taxpayer support. In the future, the private operator will be collecting the nearly $2,000 per day camping fees (on a full occupancy day), the parking fees, boating fees, and other incidentals.

All of the revenue, except the undisclosed rent, will be lost to the State Parks Department for at least the next five years. The same must be said of Benbow Lake SRA and any other unit that is slated by the Parks Department to be ceded to a private for-profit enterprise. As Assemblyman Huffman noted some time ago, private companies are interested only in the “low-hanging fruit.” For the parks this means the loss of significant revenues in an already stressed system. In coming days, we could be subjected to more announcements of “partnership” agreements with private operators, an entirely new development in which California citizens and park visitors had no say whatsoever.

As mentioned at the outset, a short-term reprieve has been accomplished. But what about the long-term outlook? For starters, the reported duration of a “partnership” agreement between DPR and a private company will run for at least five years. This means that for the duration of the agreements, which one can assume have renewal options or clauses, implies those units are lost to the park system for the medium, if not the long-term, future. There is no information on what plan the DPR may have in place forever recovering these park units to its control. As troublesome as this is, if the DPR determines, without consideration to local sentiments or the judgments of lawmakers, that the public-private “partnership agreement” is a means of papering over the challenges of managing park units, it could well enter into additional agreements of this kind. There is no existing law that would prohibit it. Ruth Coleman, California Parks Director, has stated that “these agreements are short-term and meant to buy time. We are not out of the woods yet, not even close. California’s entire state park system remains threatened.” It does not stretch the imagination to believe that her words reflect the sentiment that some units can and will be sacrificed for the greater good. All state bureaucracies operate on such a survival mode.

It is in this vein that the cautionary tale must be revisited concerning the North Coast parks that for over a year have faced the dire prediction of closures. Hendy Woods is a case in point. For now, through October 2012, the park will continue to operate as it has in the past with two exceptions: the matching generous donations of the Hendy Woods Community and Save the Redwoods League and the promise of 1000 hours of volunteer time. For years to come, Hendy Woods State Park will rely on the continued donations and commitment of volunteers to keep it open. Similar medium-to-long-term commitments will be required of dozens of donors and volunteer groups throughout the state.

As stated in previous articles, in order to keep many state parks open, the burden has, and is very likely to continue to, fall increasingly on to the shoulders of local citizens groups and donors. How long can such a complex, confusing array of commitments hold? Or, will Californians wake up sometime this fall or coming spring to another announcement from the State Parks Department that it is accepting bids from private companies to operate up to two dozen park units? In short order, private companies, now that the door has been opened for American Land and Leisure Company, could well be stripping away some of the most valued and revenue rich park units.

Perhaps something positive has indeed come from all of this turmoil and uncertainty concerning our state parks. John Woodbury, quoted in the Modesto Bee on June 16th said it best: “If there is anything positive out of all this, it’s that it’s connecting local communities back with their parks, making people pay attention to them and realizing that they don’t just take care of themselves.”

If you have read this far, then you have an idea what you can do. You need to contact our elected leaders and voice your support for their efforts to put our State Parks on a firm, sustainable fiscal footing.

• Jared Huffman—

• Wes Chesbro —

• Noreen Evans —

Finally, consider the benefits of volunteering at your local state park. Kathy Bailey and the Hendy Woods Community needs volunteers ( ). The Mendocino Area Parks Association ( ) also is looking for volunteers for Standish Hickey and MacKerricher, and Russian Gulch.

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