Last week, the independent Parks Forward Commission released its final report, “A New Vision for California State Parks.” As the only statewide nonprofit singularly dedicated to supporting California’s state parks system, we at the California State Parks Foundation (CSPF) congratulate the Commission on its report and its work over the last 18 months.
The Commission has brought a welcome set of fresh eyes and minds to the goal of making California’s state parks more relevant, inviting, and enjoyable to all Californians and park visitors. Challenges that have plagued our parks system for the past decade have been acutely felt by those of us working on behalf of our parks every day, and a new group of highly dedicated Californians bringing their time and talent to this problem has brought much-needed attention and perspective. In the last seven years alone, there have been three gubernatorial proposals to close state parks, a multi-million dollar financial scandal, and four different state park directors. During that tumult, CSPF didn’t stand on the sidelines. Rather, with the support and activism of our own base of 130,000 members, we leaned in by providing over a million dollars of financial support to local fundraising campaigns to keep parks open, sponsoring legislation to enable new models of nonprofit management of parks, developing a nonprofit Technical Assistance Center to improve and grow local organizations that support parks, and more.
While the Commission’s release of their report signifies the end of its core charge, we see it as a beginning and an invitation for all partners and stakeholders to lean in further. We enthusiastically accept that invitation.
As we consider the work ahead, there are several key places where we have more specific recommendations.
The Parks Forward Report has a section titled “State Parks Cannot Do It Alone” that emphasizes the need for increased collaboration from the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) with its various partners. We could not agree more. But where the Parks Forward Report has a sub-section indicating “Californians Want to Help,” the reality is that Californians have already been helping this parks system for decades, and are engaged in partnerships that are, indeed, the path to the future.
Our experience working with DPR and with local park organizations every day gives us a unique perspective about what is needed to make partnerships work. We believe that healthy partners equals healthy partnerships, and that’s why we have focused our efforts in the last three years on improving the capacity in the nonprofit sector supporting state parks. Nonprofit state park “friends” groups exist because local community members and park enthusiasts see their parks as key gems in their communities. They give time, talent, and money to keep those gems shining – by funding education programs, running community outreach efforts, managing retail and other revenue-generating enterprises, and providing hours of volunteer time. All of this to add necessary value since public funding to our parks is maxed out just keeping gates open and employing minimal staff.
Across the state, there are shining examples of partners who not only add value, but embody what a great nonprofit partner can bring to the table. For example, the California State Railroad Museum Foundation is a financial powerhouse, raising over $4 million annually through museum retail sales, special events – including the annually sold-out Polar Express event – that is reinvested into museum exhibits, restoration of steam engines, educational programming, volunteer support, and more. And it poised to take on a new venture for a future Railroad Technology Museum once the downtown railyards project progresses. Other organizations, such as the Mendocino Area Parks Association and Sonoma Ecology Center, have taken on direct, day-to-day operations of state parks in their areas, (Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area and Sugarloaf State Park, respectively), and have increased visitorship, overnight campground reservations, revenues, and visitor services in those parks.
But for as much as nonprofits can do great things to support state parks, there needs to be a stable, flexible, willing public sector partner across the table. Where the Parks Forward report recommends DPR institute a changed structure to accommodate partnerships, we have an even more specific recommendation: DPR needs a Partnership Czar to bring leadership and institute a culture of “yes” and “can do” when it comes to collaborating with partners.
State park partners have achieved so much within a system that is often challenged or reticent to accept innovative ideas, novel approaches, or out-of-the-box thinking. Imagine how much more good will be done and how much more rich our park experiences will be when there is a deliberate invitation to those partners to be even more innovative.
One of the key areas where we provided specific, detailed comments to the Commission over the last 18 months is in the discussion about a new nonprofit entity. As we look to the future of the state parks system, we believe there is, indeed, space for a new entity to fill two critical, core functions not being adequately met now by CSPF, DPR, or any other stakeholder: marketing and enterprise development.
Making parks relevant to Californians means putting visitor value first, providing the types of services that park visitors want, keeping our park facilities and spaces in productive, well-maintained use, and promoting excellent amenities, programs, and activities that inspire and excite visitors to come again and again. If there is to be a new nonprofit or quasi-nonprofit created out of the Parks Forward work, this is the most important niche it can serve.
A new body could achieve those outcomes. Staffed with skilled personnel who are sensitive to the conservation ethic of state parks as well as savvy to mission-appropriate business opportunities that could be successful in a parks environment, it would be responsible for bringing innovative new amenities into parks that visitors want. To be clear, CSPF is not recommending or interested in turning the natural spaces of our state parks into commercialized spaces that drown out their unique natural, cultural, or historic values. We recommend a new entity take on things like increased overnight accommodation options in state parks as a way to bring new visitors into parks. In addition to cabin development recommended in Parks Forward, we believe there are ideal locations in state parks today for yurt installations, vintage “trailer park” sites that provide trailers for rent, investments in adaptive re-use of historic facilities, and more. We believe there are opportunities for park tours and eco-tourism that leave zero or a light footprint in park locations. Imagine staying overnight in restored barracks at Angel Island, waking up to a panoramic view of the San Francisco Bay, staying in yurts for rustic or “glamping” overnights in the Sonoma Valley, or spending the night in historic cottages on the shore of Lake Tahoe. All of these ideas put visitor value first, provide attractive new amenities, and reflect the reality that new and creative use of park facilities, buildings, and structures will do far more to keep those facilities in shape than allowing them to deteriorate and adding to a burgeoning $1.3 billion backlog of deferred maintenance.
On the marketing side, far more can and should be done to promote California’s state parks to her own residents. Complementary to the idea of putting visitor value first on the enterprise side, it is key to focus in supporting and providing the tools, technology, information, and connections that will help Californians access such innovative new amenities, as well as simply use and appreciate their state parks.
Access for All
A significant recommendation in the report is expanding park access for California’s underserved communities, urban populations and youth. The report says an important way to do that is by expanding local parks and building parks where people live. This is important, and we have been working for years to help develop Rio de Los Angeles State Park and Los Angeles State Historic Park, and Candlestick Point State Recreation Area in San Francisco. However, this isn’t the only thing that will connect people to parks – we also need good programming, visitor-centric services, special events and improved transportation options.
Ensuring that visitors have a reason to come to parks and feel welcome doing so is at the core of making state parks relevant. For many people, their first visit to a state park will be because an event or special activity beckons them. But aside from that first visit, what is happening that makes Californians want to return to parks, and see parks as an extension of their personal or family priorities? Ensuring there are interesting and engaging programs in state parks is critical. Also making sure park staff are proficient in various languages and that visitors have access to recreational equipment at parks are key to making people feel welcome.
This means that within existing state parks, better and more engaging programming should be in place. But it does not mean that the Department of Parks and Recreation needs to be the only one responsible for this. They can and should partner with others to do so, as many local park systems are experts in this very field.
CSPF takes its tag line, “Your voice for parks,” very seriously. One of the most ambitious ideas in the Parks Forward report is that a reinvigorated state parks system is one that calls for, and responds to, broad public engagement and greater stakeholder involvement. Our parks can and should be the best example of bringing the public into the discussion, debate, and decision making about public resources that belong to all of us. However, for the public to be able to bring insight and, ultimately, intelligent advocacy and support to their state parks, they need information and data. The involvement of partners and stakeholder groups in the development, and especially the purveying of data, is critical to ensuring that strong data and information is available to all and effectively incorporated in decision-making. We stand ready to take on that challenge.
In 2011, we released “A Vision of Excellence for State Parks,” a report that set out a similar vision to that embodied in the Parks Forward report. Shortly after we released that report, 70 state parks were slated for closure and we rightly pivoted from reaching for excellence in favor of simply trying to keep our state parks system intact and open. The Parks Forward Commission’s report signifies another key pivot for all of us – turning away from the negativity of the past and back toward excellence. As we have for the last four decades, CSPF remains committed to ensuring that our state parks remain available, accessible, and enjoyable for all Californians and we look forward to the important, successful work ahead.