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The Thin Green Line

Lately, it has been observed that “it takes a village” to save a park. In the case of Hendy Woods Community and Mendocino Area Parks Association, this is literally true. Almost every state park on the North Coast owes its OPEN FOR YOUR ENJOYMENT status to the hard work and hard-earned donation dollars of local citizens. Statewide, there are well over a hundred local volunteer and donor organizations that have stepped forward to save local state parks from being closed. Generous individuals and companies have also stepped up. Together, these elements constitute the “Thin Green Line” that is vital to saving the State Parks system. So, why is the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) treating so many generous, willing hands like the enemy?

Throughout this entire manufactured crisis (some call it a “false emergency”), certainly since at least May 13, 2011, the DPR has been anything but open and transparent. Inquiries about the possible overtures to private for-profit companies were routinely ignored. When RPFs (Requests for Proposals) went out to potential bidders, at least as early as Febrrary 1st, were solicited by DPR, through the Public Works Department, such action was simply denied. Even elected officials, such as Senator Noreen Evans, found herself stonewalled and “blind-sided.” DPR executives have misrepresented many such initiatives. When volunteer, non-profit groups stepped forward to organize and provide volunteer services to keep parks open, they were given stringent criteria to qualify. Meantime, the “enterprise department” continued to woo the privatization class. Assemblyman Jared Huffman had it about right when he said that the for-profit companies would only be interested in the low hanging fruit, those rich with established campgrounds and infrastructure, such as Hendy Woods, Benbow, and Brannan Island.

In her article of August 4th, Lynn Rhodes states, “More than one park district superintendent has told me that while motivating people into action during these circumstances, the department was at the same time promoting the privatization of park resources and undermining the basic intent of public-trust lands.” She points out that Ruth Coleman, as Director, often referred to her department as the “enterprise department.”

In a previous article for the AVA, I outlined how Coleman’s “enterprise” mentality is linked to privatization. At the American Recreation conference, January 8-11, 2012, Ruth Coleman gave her remarks at the closing reception sponsored by Xanterra Parks and Resorts. The attendees had to be pleased with her remarks about slashed state budgets and the struggle to keep parks open. She acknowledged that corporate partnerships were being explored, something she would not share with concerned Californians. According to the American Recreation Coalition website, Coleman’s remarks were “responded to with a toast to the beautiful outdoors and the can-do spirit of partnership…”

The bottom line should be clear to everyone. She will break bread with the private for-profit advocates and encourage their efforts to privatize state parks, while at the same time accepting donations and volunteer efforts from ordinary citizens,. Parks officials had precious little time to listen or communicate with the very constituency they were charged with protecting the interests of. That is an apt description of an enemy.

In such a long in-the-making “manufactured crisis,” the dismantling of something so grand as the State Parks can’t be accomplished by the executives at parks headquarters alone. It takes alliances with like-minded influential people outside the department. Enter The California State Parks Foundation. Again, I have pointed out the self-described interests of Elizabeth Goldstein, the executive director, as one who has throughout her career promoted “private/public partnerships. As the executive director of CSPF since 2004, she and her subordinates have acted as the “point-of the-spear” when it comes to representing the interests of users and visitors to state parks.

Or, so it would seem.

After all, the CSPF claims to represent 130,000 members. It is open to question how many of those members believe the state parks should be privatized. Would they support maximization of fees, what Scott Silver has termed the “commoditization” of the commons? Does the membership encourage soliciting donor contributions without any real say as to how and where such funds are expended? The Foundation does indeed have precedence when it comes to soliciting donations from individuals and corporate entities and then directing them to those parks and operations the Foundation chooses to support. The entity that she in fact reports to is the Board of Directors of the CSPF, the 30 wealth management, real estate development, banking, corporate attorney, Disney, and PG&E executives who really set the direction of things, or at the very least have primary influence. No “ordinary” park enthusiast, environmentalist, or trained public parks management specialist need apply.

Largely under the radar, the CSPF commissioned two consulting firms in 2011 “to conduct a study of DPR for three districts—San Diego, Monterey, and the Central Valley, for the purposes of developing financial sustainability plans for each park in those three districts” (quoted from Noreen Evans’ letter to the Governor on August 3rd). Senator Evans letter continues, “In DPR’s words, ‘we will be looking closely at what services we provide, to whom, and at what cost, and for what benefit.” Senator Evans is quite clear where she stands. The state parks already have a mission statement. What purpose, it is logical to ask, is accomplished by paying consulting firms tens of thousands of dollars to come up with a new mission statement, a new blueprint for running state parks? It is appropriate here to quote from Senator Evans letter on the role the consultants have played regarding state parks nationwide.

“Websites of the two consultants engaged by DPR reflect their expertise in hotel and resort investment, development and management. This is how CHM describes itself: “CHM Government Services was formed in December of 2007 as a subsidiary of Capital Hotel Management, LLC (CHM), the largest independent hotel asset management and investment advisory company operating in the U.S. today.”

“PROS Consulting Services provide specialized experience in parks and recreation, tourism planning and development, sports, municipal utilities, public works, transportation, general civic planning and development, and governance and administrative services.”

“PROS Consulting was responsible for controversial changes to the Kentucky State Parks system, including privatizing many operations and allowing alcohol to be sold in state parks.”

“Pros Consulting is also responsible for helping privatize Arizona State Parks.

“Obviously, privatization is DPR’s plan for the future of our state parks. Combining public and non-public funding, turning over most or all of the operations of individual parks to private for-profit companies, and developing plans to generate profits for private companies constitutes privatization no mater what DPR calls it.”

Senator Evans is clearly engaged in this issue. She asks the Governor in her letter “for a moratorium on privatizing the operations of entire parks. The legislature and the public must be engaged concerning the future operations of these public parks before the state moves any further toward privatization.”

Senator Evans has more “good stuff” to say in her letter to the Governor. I am grateful to the Senator and her staff, especially Teala Schaff, for keeping me informed of many of the developments in this ongoing crisis. It is indeed ongoing and the battle for the integrity of the parks system is by no means won. Director Coleman had over a decade to install like-minded people in positions of influence within the DPR. Cooperative understandings were fostered between DPR, the California State Parks Foundation, and many privatization organizations that are well funded and intensely active in pursuing their interests.

Now, right now, it is up to everyone who cares about the future of state parks to weigh in. Letters and e-mails to Senator Evans, Assemblyman Jared Huffman, and Governor Brown will make a difference, a big difference. At the very least, our elected officials will know that we here in the North Coast are engaged.

Remember the above insights of Lynn Rhodes in the Sacramento Bee, on August 4th? Readers did respond, via comments online. They were almost uniformly negative. The “Enviro-nazi,” one commenter, stated flatly that “privatization is inevitable,” and that “parks are a luxury.” Those who disagree are, in his words, “socialist.” It is always of interest how the wing-nuts on the right, the far right, seem to always get their hands on the microphone to make their views known, loudly and with sneering, jingoistic verbiage. Meanwhile, the rest of us, those in the middle or of a more, dare I suggest “progressive” leaning, remain largely disengaged and silent. These matters should and do concern us and our interests.

Now, before more time slips away, before more parks end up privatized, speak up. If you would, simply cut out this article and send it with your comments, handwritten in if necessary, to the Governor, to Assemblyman Huffman, and to Senator Evans. Or, e-mail them at the addresses listed below. Tell them how you feel about supporting parks and keeping them in the hands of the State, and not surrendering them to for-profit operators. Our elected officials, including Governor Brown, are listening. Don’t let the wingnuts have all the attention.

You, yes you, are part of “The Thin Green Line.”

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Senator Evans Senator:

Assemblyman Jared Huffman:

Governor Jerry Brown

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