How creative grassroots efforts may keep local state parks open
“How do you close a forest?”
A man in his mid-twenties, dressed in baggy jeans and sneakers, asks his friend this question as they pass a group of climbing students on a trail in Castle Rock State Park. The park—preserved since 1968—is slated for closure July 1, along with 69 others statewide.
“It’s a sad, sad situation,” says Reed Holderman, executive director of the Sempervirens Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has pledged $250,000 to keep Castle Rock open. “This [money] is just a stay of execution and we’re hoping that keeping it open another year will buy us some time to figure out what to do in the future.”
Along with Castle Rock, Santa Cruz County was slated to see Santa Cruz Mission Historic Park and Twin Lakes State Beach close. However, on April 14, Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks signed a three-year agreement with California State Parks to keep Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park open. Under the terms of the agreement, the nonprofit will continue to coordinate special events at the Mission but will now be responsible for funding maintenance and operations of the park, and paying the staff salaries.
“We strongly believe the agreement should be viewed as temporary, rather than a permanent solution to the state funding crisis,” said Friends Executive Director Bonny Hawley in an April 16 press release. “The Mission has been saved for the time being from closure thanks to a high level of collaboration between State Parks and Friends, and thanks to our passionate local community.”
Santa Cruz-based outdoor expedition company Adventure Out is fundraising the money that Sempervirens pledged so that the foundation can instead build a visitor center and a bigger parking lot with a trailhead, flush toilets, and running water. “Our government has failed and the money is not there,” says Adventure Out owner Cliff Hodges. “If we want our open spaces and parks to be enjoyed both now and for future generations, then we have to step up.”
According to Holderman, this simple yet expensive solution could generate enough revenue to keep the park off the closures list.
“The reality is Castle Rock is well used now, but what happens is people park outside the park entrance so there’s no record of visitation, which is the reason it’s on the closure list—because there’s no revenue,” Holderman says. “While Sacramento is culpable because they’ve had several years of disinvestment leading to the situation we’re in now, we’re also culpable because many of us haven’t paid the fee to actually keep the park open.”
If the foundation’s proposal is approved by the California State Parks, all future money collected at Castle Rock will legally stay within the park, and a 1,340-acre area—30 percent of the total park’s area—located in the San Lorenzo River Redwoods, will be opened to hikers for the first time.
On April 21, Adventure Out is hosting a fundraiser at Pacific Edge Climbing Gym to engage the Santa Cruz community in the closure problem. Holderman will speak, and a documentary about state park’s closures titled The First 70 will be screened.
“The biggest message we’re trying to put out there is that the citizens of California are going to need to take ownership of their parks,” says Hodges.
There are three main models that could theoretically save state parks if implemented at a grassroots level. The first is an operations model, where a nonprofit organization steps in to run the park’s routine operations, such as patrolling, cleaning, clearing trails, and so on. The second option is a donor agreement model, wherein a nonprofit agrees to raise and give money directly to a state park in order to keep it open. The third is a concessions agreement model, in which a private company or nonprofit agrees to take over all park operations and then breaks even or benefits from any park profits.
Little Basin, a campground within Big Basin Redwoods State Park, is an example of a concessions agreement model where a public/private partnership was forged between California State Parks, Sempervirens Fund, Peninsula Open Space Trust, and United Camps, Conferences, and Retreats (UCCR). UCCR is a nonprofit company that manages wilderness venues, inviting other nonprofits to visit and hold retreats. Although Big Basin as a whole is not on the closures list, budget cuts have affected park staffing and maintenance in past years, leading people to take matters into their own hands.
“[The State Parks] saw the writing on the wall and said ‘we can’t take on new land,” says Randy Widera, a consultant for the California State Parks Foundation and the founder and director of the Web of Life Field School, who helped with the project. “Hewlett Packard owned the land and wanted to transfer it to the State Parks but saw they were in crisis so they found a concessionaire [Peninsula Open Space Trust, UCCR, and the Sempervirens Fund] that could operate and distill the mission of the state parks as well as the nonprofits.”
Little Basin is holding a Camping & Recreation Festival on April 21 that aims to showcase the sustainable partnership and educate people on how to follow this model to save other public land from closure.
California State Parks have recently submitted Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to the public in hopes that nonprofits may come forward and submit a request to take on responsibility. Castle Rock, Twin Lakes, and Santa Cruz Mission Historic Park already have partnership agreements in progress.
“Because our budget has been cut, we’re looking to partners and creative ideas,” says Roy Stearns, California State Parks spokesperson. “This department has decided it cannot sit on its hands.”
State Parks is looking to outside interests, but if proposals are not submitted by July 1, parks will close as scheduled. According to Stearns, bathrooms and visitor centers will close, but the agency doesn’t know exactly what the closures will look like.
In February, Assemblymember Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) introduced the California State Parks Stewardship Act of 2012, A.B. 1589, a bill that would create a State Park Enterprise Fund for construction and provide the option to buy an annual state park pass when filing tax returns as well as a special state parks license plate.
“The parks movement definitely is growing in response to the parks crisis,” says Widera. “We’re actually influencing the bills that are being written and having a great effect.”