by Franklin Graham, March 14, 2012
Last week The California Report aired a special program on the decision to close 70 California State Parks, including 8 in Mendocino County. Among the jewels of California’s State Park system are Hendy Woods, Jug Handle, Manchester, and Point Cabrillo Light, to name but a few on closure list. A precious few have so far been exempted, in part because of the willingness of the National Park System to assume responsibility Del Norte Coast Redwoods, Samuel P. Taylor, and Tomales Bay state parks. In a few other instances, local groups have stepped up with pledges of cash contributions to remove their state park from the closure list (for example Henry P. Coe in Santa Clara County and Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve). However, 61 parks remain under threat of closure. An optimist may be forgiven for believing that all will turn out well in the end. But if one approaches this crisis using facts on the ground, one can only conclude that there has been an abandonment of both reason and leadership. The mechanisms to close and dismantle the State Park System continue to grind on toward July 1. We all are aware of what is at risk. We are at risk. The economic future of our communities is at risk. Our commitment as Californians to preserve and protect our natural heritage is at risk. Our access to local state parks that provide us with enjoyment, even spirit lifting retreats from everyday cares, is at risk. Who among us can ignore what is about to happen? And for what?
Where reason is abandoned leadership fails.
Over the last four months, the Anderson Valley Advertiser has published half a dozen in-depth reviews of the proposed park closures. Many updates of efforts being made by Kathy Bailey, the Occupy Hendy Woods Community, and many others have also been reported. At every turn, the facts speak for themselves. Our parks bring in far more revenue than they cost to operate. Their place in the economic health of local communities is without question vital. And, perhaps most importantly, outside Sacramento’s halls of power there is no support, none, for closing state parks. Well, that is if you don’t include for-profit concessionaires.
Stepping into the Breech
As noted above, there are brave and committed efforts being taken by volunteer groups throughout the north counties to stave off closures in their respective local communities. They are doing, and will continue to do, whatever is in their power to see that our parks remain open. We should all be thankful for what successes there are to date. Citizens of Santa Clara County, for instance, have pledged $900,000 to keep Henry P. Coe SP open. From Turlock to Mono Lake, Marin to Del Norte, citizen volunteers are stepping up to shoulder the burden and show leadership. Our community is fortunate to have the Hendy Woods Community group, which is in the process of preparing a formal “joint operations agreement” with the State Park Department to keep Hendy Woods open. Their proposal seeks to provide volunteer services to maintain infrastructure and trails, serve as docents, relieve park rangers of some non-security tasks, and raise money through donations and fundraisers. Local businesses are also helping. Navarro Vineyards, for instance, will host a BBQ fund-raiser on April 22nd. Save our Parks posters are cropping up throughout the north coast in every storefront window. If you attend almost any public function or performance, such as the recent Variety Show at the Philo Grange, someone will take the stage to speak up for our state parks and ask for more people to step up and held with their efforts.
If you are an optimist you may believe, or want to believe, that everything will turn out well in the end. You say reason and good will must prevail. There is the chance that the volunteers who are stepping into the breech will pull it off and save this park or that park from closure. But life is not often so kind to us, is it? After all, it has been a full 10 months since the Governor’s proposal to close parks was announced. It is a certainty that the proposal was in the works months before that. In all this time, the unmovable mantra from Sacramento has remained exactly the same: every department of government must take the hit, something in the neighborhood of 9%. Shared burden, they insist. We are in hard economic times, don’t you know? These are the kind of defensive statements made by politicians and bureaucrats who seem to have lost any sense of history. During the height of The Great Depression, America was on a tear when it came to building up the nation’s infrastructure. Everywhere one looks, from the murals on the walls of Coit Tower to the Ukiah Post Office, from earthen dams on the Navajo reservation to the great Shasta Dam, Americans were occupied with building for the future, not tearing it down piece by piece. In all that time, not one California State Park was closed. And, forgive us, the California State Parks in that time of want and need, certainly did provide refuge and relief to the bodies, hearts, and souls of countless citizens. Today, seventy million visitors a year seek out our state parks for many of the same reasons.
What do volunteer groups, such as Hendy Woods Community, face in their struggle to be recognized as the entity to take on the role of joint operator of a state park? District Superintendent Loren Rex made the hurdles quite clear on John Sakowicz’ The Truth About Money, aired on March 9th. At a recent all-day workshop, volunteer groups were told that any group must show that it has both the skills and the ability to succeed. That is, a volunteer group will be judged suitable in the basis of the strength of the organization, its ability to perform, financial record, and track record. Could the bar have been set any higher? As host, Mr. Sakowicz, who has first-hand experience working for a for-profit park operator in Colorado, pointed out that any new organization based on volunteer efforts cannot but be in question when it comes to the credibility of its claims. It simply has no record—of skills, organization, financial management, or history of performance. One can almost hear the patronizing gaffaws behind closed doors at state park headquarters in Sacramento: “Oh, their heart’s in the right place, but this is a matter for grown-ups.”
If anyone is in doubt where the heart of the bureaucracy in Sacramento is on this matter, one need only google ww.lao.ca.gov. Up will come a 20-page legislative analysis of the pending closures. Keep in mind that state assembly members and state senators typically rely on this supposedly “non-partisan” office to guide their decisions on how to vote. This document lists the “Strategies and Options to Address Parks Closures” as:
• Reducing the Size of the State Park System (Closing State Parks/Transfer Ownership of parks)
• Change Park Operations (Limit use of sworn staff/ allow for non-profit operations)
• Increasing Park Revenues
While the legislative analysis briefly considers the merits of non-profits, the conclusion does not recommend that non-profits be part of the mix of solutions. Instead, this legislative analysis makes much of what they term the “Canadian” model. They list a number of so-called advantages. It is, to the mind of the analysts, a means to both reduce staff and operating costs. However, as stated in the analysis, “the (existing) infrastructure has not been adequately maintained” so that “private operators may require DPR to fund the cost of certain repairs as a condition of the operating contracts. In some cases, the degradation of park infrastructure…is so severe that if funding these repairs were the only way to attract qualified bidders, additional cost pressures would be placed on DPR…” On top of everything else, at a time when staffing at state parks is being reduced, there will be a requirement to add staff in Sacramento to administer the for-profit segment. As things stand, there are already 1000 administrators sitting in Sacramento, almost as many as there are rangers and staff to run and maintain the entire state park apparatus in the field. In its conclusions, the “non-partisan” legislative analysis formally recommends that “the Legislature adopt budget trailer legislation specifying that for-profit organizations can operate state parks…” No mention is made of non-profits participating in the operation of state parks in the formal recommendations.
Bundling schemes and carving up the spoils
In January, a shoe dropped in Sacramento. It had the sound of a giant redwood falling to earth in a storm. You could hear it up and down the state. The Department of Public works announced that it was soliciting bids from for-profit companies to operate some of the state parks on the closure list. Close to home, it was learned that one proposal seeks to bundle five Mendocino County parks into a single operation (Hendy Woods, Jug Handle, and Manchester among them). Naturally, the for-profit company is interested only in those units that will generate the most revenue. These are largely, if not exclusively, parks with campgrounds, which generate far more revenue than day use only parks. On the same show on which Loren Rex, the Mendocino Superintendent spoke of the criteria upon which volunteer non-profit groups would be judged, Mr. Sakowicz was quick to assert that one cannot expect for-profit companies to bear the burden of deferred maintenance, which will balloon from 1.3 billion dollars in 2012 to 2 billion by 2020. It is also likely that any agreement with a for-profit will specify that major repairs that are needed during the term of the agreement will be borne by the State Park System, as a capital expense, not the for-profit. And, what does the state receive in return for such agreements? Currently, the estimate is that it could receive up to 3% of the revenues generated. So, on top of losing the revenues a park now generates, it would give up any claim to all but a pittance? John Sakowicz noted that for-profit enterprises are, of course, in the business of making money. As such, they will squeeze every dime out of an operation to make it pay. Left unaddressed are such unknowns as how long would such for-profit agreements last, how might a park be returned to the system, what say would local communities have in the care and operation of their state parks. On a larger scale, the movement to privatize state parks is but a symptom of where legislators and elected officials seem determined to lead us: privatization of every public sector of our lives. The solution to running government is to shift essential functions away from government and into the hands of private, for-profit companies. It is a trend that affects every aspect of our lives, and now it threatens to also erode public support for the State Park System.
Leadership to Avert the Worst Consequences
Credit must be given to our state elected officials for taking initiative to stave off some of the worst consequences of the decision to close 70 state parks. In one sense, they had no alternative because the North Coast has without question been singled out for the harshest treatment. State Senator Noreen Evans realized that 22 of the closures were in her district alone, constituting fully 31% of all park closures in a state with 53 counties. Likewise, Jared Huffman, running for the new 2nd Congressional District, has shown that he, too, understands the impact to the local economies of the North Coast.
In early January, Senator Evans found that she had been “blind-sided” by the Department of Public Works. The department is required to give key legislators, such as herself, advance notice of any planned action under consideration. In this case, the plan is to solicit bids from for-profit companies to operate state parks. Six of the eleven state parks that were to be put out for bids from for-profits are in Senator Evans’ district (Hendy Woods SP, Russian Gulch SP, Standish-Hickey SRA, Westport-Union Landing SP, Austin Creek SRA, and Sugarloaf Ridge SP). The DPR violated the rules, to say the least. On February 1, she made her position clear. “There has never been a defensible criteria for the closures.” She added, “There has been no transparency, no public process, and no economic impact study. It appears arbitrary.” She went further: “It doesn’t pass the smell test that …non-profits will be able to work with concessionaires who want to carve out the most profitable concessions. Concessionaires will leave valueless or low generating sources to non-profits…” In short, non-profits could be left to try to operate parks or elements within parks without the needed revenues to make their efforts workable.
Senate Bill 974, authored by Sena Evans, is about to receive legislative scrutiny. It deserves support. The bill seeks to address many of the deficiencies in the closure process and insist upon transparency and legislative oversight. It also seeks to recover unpaid fees from concessionaires and an assessment of the costs of closure to communities. Ironically, AB95 already calls for public hearings, an examination of economic impacts, and a CEQA analysis. Ignoring these existing provisions did not, however, stop the Parks Closure Committee from submitting the list of 70 state parks to be closed. The drawback to Senator Evans’ initiative, however, is that even it if passed and is signed into law, it cannot be implemented until at least January 2013, too late to stave off the current move to close parks.
Even before January 2012, a number of legislators raised concerns about the park closures. On November 2nd, the day after of Joint Committee Hearing on the park closure process, Jared Huffman, chair of the Water, Parks, and Recreation Committee made his position clear: “We need the administration to step away from this.” He recently introduced AB1589. Similar in many ways to the initiatives taken by Senator Evans, it calls for more transparency, a defensible set of criteria for evaluating the merits of closing a park, and also includes a number of initiatives to increase revenue sources to support the park system. However, Huffman has not unequivocally ruled out some closures and some for-profit operators from taking over selected state parks. Even so, it is an initiative worth support.
Drawing a line in the sand
Is it too much to ask our elected officials to draw a line in the sand? With due respect for the office, Senator Evans and Assemblyman Jared Huffman could tell the Governor that unless the closure list is rescinded, in its entirety, they will vote against the behemoth $137 billion State Budget. Such “horse-trading” is a common fixture when it comes to making law and passing budgets. It could be done privately, without the loss of face by any of the parties involved. They could take such a stance knowing full well that the Governor is not about to imperil his budget for the sake of $11 million this year and $22 million in succeeding years. Then, with reason and good sense prevailing, the hard work of finding long-term solutions to the funding of state parks can be worked out in an atmosphere free from the crisis of the moment. It makes for good fiscal sense, good leadership, and good stewardship.
Ruth Coleman, State Parks Director, calls our parks the “Cathedrals” of California’s natural world. As the song goes, “From the Redwood Forests to New York Island, this land is made for you and me.” Why abandon, or dismantle, or turn it over to private, for-profit companies? The parks were not made for them. This is the time to honor the commitment of all those who over the last 100 years have done so much to create a legacy that deserves to be protected. You can do your part, now, by letting our elected leaders know that you expect them to lead. Restoring the budget cuts and keeping all our parks open and accessible to 70 million visitors each year is not something to walk away from.