Partnerships: An Essential Part of a Thriving State Park System
Those of us who work every day in California state parks know that the staff –— both at headquarters and in the field at parks — are wonderful, skilled, and dedicated people. We also know that employees of California State Parks cannot deliver the mission of the state park system alone, because the park system is not adequately or sustainably funded. We know that the system could not function without the hundred-plus partner organizations that provide programming, services, and financial support to individual park units and the system as a whole. Partners, with their deep connections to communities of park users, are also instrumental in advocating for a park system that is always working to improve.
Creating Impact: A Study of Nonprofit Partnerships in California State Parks, released by Parks California with support from the California League of Park Associations (CALPA) and California State Parks Foundation, found that partners in state parks contribute over $15 million annually in direct financial contributions to California state parks. When in-kind contributions are considered, the total is likely millions of dollars more. For example, while this figure includes the direct funding California State Parks Foundation provides California State Parks, the hundreds of thousands of dollars more the organization spends each year on grants to partners who work with or in parks and running volunteer programs in parks is not included.
California State Parks Foundation has long been a champion for partners as a crucial way of supporting state parks. We’ve also observed that parks can struggle without the support of a strong partner or partners. We envision a future where every state park has a dedicated partner that helps with financial support, programming, staffing, and community engagement. Let me say it again: state park staff — from system leaders in Sacramento; to district superintendents and other leaders in the field; to interpreters, park aides, and rangers — are hard-working and committed individuals who do great work in our parks every day. And: they cannot do it alone.
The park system faced what might have been its biggest challenge when Governor Schwarzenegger and then Governor Brown proposed closing as many as 70 state parks — a quarter of the system — more than a decade ago. People all over the state stepped up to help, and we had an idea: if the state park system couldn’t afford to keep parks open, maybe we needed a new model so that nonprofit operators could help.
With the help of then-State Assemblymember (now Congressman) Jared Huffman, California State Parks Foundation sponsored Assembly Bill 42, which was signed into law in 2011. The legislation expanded the state parks system’s authority to enter into agreements with qualified nonprofits to allow them to operate one or multiple state parks and eliminated the requirement that these agreements be approved by the Legislature. Nonprofits that operate state park units are subject to oversight, however, as the law requires them to issue an annual report on park operations and hold an annual public meeting. AB 42 contained a sunset provision which ends the expanded flexibility of the nonprofit operator model in January 2025.
At the time, many of the organizations that were willing to step up to become park operators needed assistance and resources to ensure they would be successful. Thanks to generous grants from the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation and the Marisla Foundation, among others, California State Parks Foundation operated the Technical Assistance Center, which in those early years connected nonprofit operators with trainings and consultant support for fundraising, business planning, and program development.
The nonprofit operators grew out of crisis during the recession, but many of the state parks they operate have moved from surviving to thriving with their help. Some of the original AB 42 operators who have built successful park management operations are:
Friends of China Camp, which went from an all-volunteer organization with no paid staff to a flourishing operation with eight employees and annual revenues approaching $1 million. The organization operates China Camp State Park, a historic site on San Pablo Bay offering hiking, camping, panoramic views, and a look back into a 19th-century shrimping village.
Jack London Park Partners, which operates Jack London State Historic Park in the Sonoma County hamlet of Glen Ellen. The park occupies the site once farmed by author Jack London and his wife Charmian, and houses a museum, restored buildings, and miles of hiking trails. The park now welcomes over 100,000 visitors annually.
Team Sugarloaf is a consortium of nonprofit organizations that operate Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, also in Sonoma County. Led by Sonoma Ecology Center, the consortium manages the park’s trails and campgrounds, offers programming, and works on restoring habitat in the park. After the destructive fires in 2017 and 2020, Team Sugarloaf successfully rebuilt trails and other facilities that were destroyed.
Things look very different in state parks than they did in 2011, in part due to all of the work partners have done in collaboration with the Department of Parks and Recreation to recover from the park closure crisis. The Creating Impact study found that nonprofit partnerships are an effective way to amplify the reach of community engagement efforts, foster ongoing connection to parks with added programming and events, and leverage public investments as additional sources of funding, and increase park access to more Californians. The study also found that disruptions from natural disasters are presenting new opportunities to refocus and renew partnership norms statewide.
Partnership is a two-way street, and partners need support and a measure of autonomy to thrive themselves while helping parks thrive. That support and limited autonomy depends on the authority the park agency is granted through the state’s Public Resources Code, which governs how the state manages public resources like parks. As with AB 42 back in 2011, California State Parks and its partners sometimes must go to the Legislature to update and expand the flexibility and authority needed to co-manage parks well through public-private partnerships.
California State Parks Foundation is supporting two such opportunities in the 2023 legislative session:
Senate Bill 668 (Dodd) which would remove the sunset from the original AB 42 language and allow co-management arrangements to become more stable through longer-term agreements.
We are also co-sponsoring Assembly Bill 1150 (Committee on Water, Parks, and Wildlife) with Outdoor Outreach, which allows California State Parks more flexibility to enter into fee-reduction and in-kind service agreements with qualified nonprofit community partners that provide programming in state parks and beaches. This legislation arose out of the requirement that California State Parks charge sometimes hefty Special Event Permit fees even to community organizations providing access to key populations, like low-income youth, who experience barriers to visiting parks.