Local control favored for state parks

Written by Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat March 26, 2013 11:43 am

California state parks’ management is in disarray and some parks ought to be turned over to local authorities to help rescue the system, according to a report released Monday by an independent state oversight agency.

The 120-page report from the Little Hoover Commission comes as the Department of Parks and Recreation reels from a scandal dating back to July, when an investigation revealed department honchos were hiding $54 million in revenues despite threatening to close 70 of the system’s 278 parks to accommodate budget reductions.

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown had been slated as one of the closures before state officials announced a reprieve the same month. Private nonprofits such as the Sonora Area Foundation had stepped up to offer help in keeping the park’s doors open prior to that announcement. 

A lodging tax measure went to Tuolumne County voters a month earlier with promises of funding for Railtown but failed at the ballot box.

Railtown Superintendent Kim Baker and District Superintendent Dana Jones could not be reached by telephone Monday for comment.

The commission’s report Monday names no specific parks the state ought to turn over but states a “State Park and Recreation Commission” should be formed to “undertake a public, top-to-bottom assessment of the parks in its collection to determine which have clear statewide significance and which parks serve primarily local or regional populations. Those parks determined to serve primarily local or regional needs should be realigned.”

It identifies no sacred  cows, specifically calling out popular Hearst Castle in San Simeon as a money pit, requiring millions more dollars in upkeep for its European art collection than is collected from visitors.

The parks system has fallen victim to a major lack of foresight and vision, the report added. The Department of Parks and Recreation cannot generate enough revenue on its own to replace ongoing reductions in taxpayer support; utilizes an obsolete, highly centralized system to run its parks; has a staffing structure too stagnant and rigid; expanded beyond its ability to staff and maintain its parks with bond borrowing and has allowed relationships with many of its most important partners and supporters to deteriorate, the commission found.

“For a generation the state has made repeated cuts to state park funding while  offering the impression that the cuts would have little effect,” said Commissioner  Virginia Ellis, who led the Commission’s state parks study. “The results are clear. 

A great public institution is falling apart. Without a bold, new course equal to the vision that created the state park system, California risks a replay of closing parks that the state can no longer afford to operate.”

The commission’s report does give praise for the appointment of a new state parks Executive Director Anthony Jackson late last year and development of a strategic action plan to begin to address some of the issues it outlines.

“Open the windows and let the fresh winds come in and blow the cobwebs away.” said Stuart Drown, the commission’s executive director. “The opportunity is there with the new management group.”

A statement from a department representative Monday agreed with calls for more sunshine on its operations.

“We are grateful for the positive nature of the report,” said parks spokesman Roy Stearns. “We are committed to an open and transparent process that identifies innovative approaches for managing our state parks system now and for future generations.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.