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Good News & Sobering Realities

For the last two weeks, from one end of Anderson Valley to the other there has been a huge sigh of relief. Hendy Woods State Park is off the State Parks closures list. This Sunday, June 10th, the Hendy Woods Community will come together at the Day Use Area (Picnic Ground near the river) from noon until 3 PM for a potluck celebration. The announcement went out last week and everyone is invited. What better way is there to express our thanks than to show up and congratulate Kathy Bailey and her stalwart team of volunteers? Stories of persistence and great efforts will reverberate throughout the park on that day. Against odds, Hendy Woods Community has prevailed.

It should be noted that Hendy Woods Community succeeded in spite of many obstacles put in their way. At the beginning of the year, while still organizing and gaining their footing, The Hendy Woods Community was told what criteria they must meet to be part of the plan to keep the park open. They needed a track record, proof of financial ability, and demonstrated capacity to meet their commitments. Even Rex Loren, Parks Superintendent for the Mendocino District, admitted that these demands, put in the path of volunteer groups are high, almost insurmountable. To top this off, on April 4th the Parks Department sent out an RFP (Request for Proposals) to for-profit enterprises to submit bids to operate Hendy Woods, along with Russian Gulch and Standish-Hickey.

While some volunteer associations around the state also facing closure have a long history of organizing and performing volunteer services to their local parks, this was not the case for Hendy Woods. Most of us were content to see our parks run by the Department of Parks and Recreation, although with some volunteer and docent participation. From November 2011 through May 2012, The Hendy Woods Community rolled up their sleeves to prepare a “joint donor proposal” to help operate the park. They held community meetings. They initiated fundraisers, such as the one at Navarro Vineyards in April and the upcoming event featuring Kris Kristoferson in July. Nor should we fail to include the efforts of Save the Redwoods League. One contribution that Save the Redwoods made, besides donating money, was to “raise the comfort level” of State Parks Department in dealing with the fledgling organization of The Hendy Woods Community (according to Kathy Bailey). All of this effort demands time and the foregoing of other priorities in one’s life. Nonetheless, everyone involved with The Hendy Woods Community committed their time and effort. The result is a tremendous success. There are so many to thank (See Kathy Bailey’s acknowledgements in this week’s AVA). Congratulations and thanks are most deserving to every member of The Hendy Woods Community.

One must, however reluctantly, bring up the not so pleasant fact that the reprieve is thus far only temporary for Hendy Woods State Park. The agreement between Hendy Woods Community and the Department of Parks and Recreation will run only through October. Extensions will be based on performance; that is volunteer participation and donations. Like everything these days when it comes to interacting with state government it comes down to how much a local community is willing to sacrifice in terms of time, effort, and money to take up the burden that should remain in the state’s hands. Do not lose sight of the fact that the state park system more than earns its keep and that the park rangers and staff have done their best to keep things afloat on a shoestring budget. Where once the state general fund provided 90-% of the operating costs of state parks, it now is committed to 29%. And at the rate things are going, it is obvious that the state wants to completely shed its obligations to help fund parks, while at the same time treating revenues generated by state parks as a cash cow for their own purposes. Nor should we overlook the fact that while our tax dollars go to such ends as a bloated prison system, huge water projects, and potentially ruinous projects such as high-speed rail, the message from Sacramento is to trim yet more from the state parks budget.

Those who trust our elected officials to make things right should step back and examine what is really going on in Sacramento. Our elected officials have gotten the word that there is not a voter in the state who wants to see state parks closed. It does not make sense to anyone, not anyone. In the depths of The Great Depression not one state park was closed. In fact, great effort and considerable employment were put into enhancing the state park system during hard times. Today, however, things are quite different. For years, Sacramento politicians ignored the burgeoning backlog of deferred maintenance.

Currently, the parks infrastructure is in need of $1.3 Billion of backlog maintenance. By 2020 this backlog is projected to be $2 billion. In the face of citizen outcries and with an election year looming, our state assembly and state senate representatives went to work on a flurry of bills designed to put funding for the parks back on a sounder, if not sound, footing. To begin with, however, not one proposal is designed to insure that the level of general funds dedicated to state parks is either preserved at present levels or increased.

As it stands, the reductions of general fund revenues for parks ($11 million this year, and $22 million next year) will remain in place. True, both Jared Huffman (State Assembly) and Noreen Evans (State Senate) have bills weaving their way up the legislative ladder designed to increase revenues for state parks. On June 1st, for instance, Senate Bill 974 sponsored by Noreen Evans and Joe Simitian, called the “Sustainable Parks Proposal” passed the Senate by a vote of 30 to 3, with a number of members not voting. Bipartisan support is alive and well, one might presume.

The question one has to ask, however, is in what ways will these new revenues be achieved? In a nutshell, existing funding sources will be moved around, citizens may choose to pay extra for a vanity plate (one with a redwood tree on it), and the parks department will be charged with finding ways to increase fee collection. In short, the solution is to move scarce moneys from one fund to another within the existing budget, ask citizens to spend more money on license plates, and find ways of making visiting a park even more expensive. This burden shifting strategy has gone so far as to propose initiating parking fees at state park lands not previously subject to fees. Imagine going into Mendocino for lunch and on your way out of town stopping at Mendocino Headlands or Big River for a short walk. You won’t if the parking fee $8 for a 15-minute walk. Loren Rex, District Superintendent, does think it will be that high but something is likely to be charged.

Jared Huffman has made much of his sponsoring of Assembly Bill 42 in 2011. This bill, now law, paved the way for volunteer non-profits to step up to the plate and help operate and/or fund state parks. Of course it became law. It places no financial obligation upon the state, only relieves it. Currently, Assembly Bill 1589 is making its way from the Assembly to the Senate for consideration. Like Noreen Evans’ SB974, it also has provisions for enhancing revenues through license plate fees, taxpayer check-off contributions, use of new technologies to enhance visitor fees, and such.

The upshot of the Huffman Initiatives, as with Noreen Evans’ bills, is not to ensure current levels of state support but to shift the burden on to the shoulders of local communities and individuals, on top of the taxes they already pay. The assumption, one must presume, is that there is no political will to retain funding at present levels, even though funding support has already been reduced by 40% in the last few years. One reason the parks are in such a deteriorating condition is the decade long reductions in state budget support. What is even more disturbing is that while these legislative initiatives take pains to insist on more transparency and a reasoned methodology in the event of more park closures, none of the bills seeks to either rescind the current park closings or prohibit closures in the future. It is logical to assume that leaders accept the inevitability of future park closures; else the legislative language would be clear that closings are not an option.

The one constituency for which closings are not an option is the local community. Locally based volunteer and donor groups have rolled up their sleeves and pitched in with commitments to shoulder the routine work of keeping parks running and donating money. In volunteer time alone, in 2010 34,000 volunteers provided 1.1 million hours of work, saving the Department of Parks and Recreation $23 million. How much more is there to give to offset the ever increasing shifting of burden on to volunteer shoulders?

Even corporations have stepped in to give generously. The fast food giant, Chipotle, to cite one example, has committed $100,000 to the “Answer the Call” Campaign organized by the California State Parks Foundation. The California State Parks Foundation with 13 grants has dedicated at least $328,586 (to date) to numerous volunteer organizations to keep parks open, including Hendy Woods. Jug Handle State Reserve will be spared for another year by the generosity of Mr. Olmsted, his family being the original donors of the land to begin with. The National Parks has stepped in to absorb operations at three parks. Cities and Counties have stepped forward to take on local state parks. In all, 23 State Parks have thus far been taken off the list, most of these rescissions due to donor and operation agreements with volunteer groups.

Herein lies the cautionary tale we must all keep in mind. In order to avoid closures, volunteer groups have sought to take up the burdens of keeping local parks open through generous contributions and/or volunteer activities. Some agreements are for one year, or one season. Others are for terms from three to five years, depending on ongoing reliable donor funding. At the very time that local communities and citizens are concerned about their own economic viability, they are being asked to shoulder even more financial commitments beyond the taxes they already pay to the state.

Meanwhile, our state representatives propose bills that only shift more of the burden on to county, local, and citizen shoulders. At the same time, nothing more is being asked of the state, except that it accept the new revenues generously provided by citizens, visitors, volunteers, and donors.

As if burden shifting were not enough, it is already recognized that in order to administer this vastly expanded volunteer and donor effort, a new layer of bureaucracy must be put in place to “administer.” Every district superintendent will find her or his job more complex and demanding. New titles will appear on the organizational roster in Sacramento. “Director of Donor Agreements” or Director of Volunteer Operations” might be just two such new bureaucratic monikers.

It does not stop there, however. In most cases, those parks which have been saved from closure by donor or operation agreements owe their survival to a plethora of organizations. Take, for example, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. Sugarloaf Team is comprised of five non-profit agencies (Sonoma Ecology Center, Valley of the Moon Society, United Camps, Conferences and Retreats, Valley of the Moon National Historic Association, and Sonoma City Trails Council). China Camp, I won’t bore you with the list, will depend on nearly a dozen groups and parking revenues from Muir Woods, collected by the National Park Service.

The Petaluma State Historic Park Association raised $35,000 and received a matching anonymous grant of $35,000, in addition to expecting new revenues from special events, such as an Open Air Shakespeare production in August, “Two Gentlemen from Sonoma.” Henry P. Coe State Park has delivered a $300,000 check for the first year to keep their park open and is committed to another $600,000 for the following two years. The Santa Cruz Mission State Historical Park will be saved by the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks. This non-profit it committed to providing interpretive staff (Campfires and Jr. Ranger programs), running the Mission Park Store, coordinating the UCSC Work Study Student Staff, and funding for 3 maintenance staff and one ranger. All this was necessary for a park which attracts 327,601 visitors a year. Grizzly Creek was only saved by a collaborative effort of Humboldt City, Van Duzen County Park, and funds from Save the Redwoods League. For every park taken off the closure list, a similar matrix of participants is at work.

What about the remaining 47 state parks yet to see a reprieve from the closure axe? The State Parks Communications Director, Roy Stearns tried to put a positive spin on his speculation that up to 36 parks might be saved by July 1st (May 27 communication). Then, he left town until June 7th. Some might think it a good thing that Russian Gulch has tentatively been taken off the list because of sewage problems that no volunteer organization can be expected to handle.

By some clever legerdemain, we may end up with another 13 or so parks being spared by July 1st. The list changes weekly. But in the end, 20 to 25 parks are almost certainly headed for closing. While those saved from the chopping block may express a big sigh of relief, what about them? What about the parks that could not be saved? Decay, vandalism, neglect, lack of security, unprotected “protected” species, and uncertain future are a few descriptive words that apply. And for those that are reprieved? The operant descriptive terms include tentative, depending upon, provided that.

Therein rests a precautionary tale. It will require unprecedented dedication on the part of volunteers and donors to sustain the promises they have made or that they expect of others. It will require coordination and cooperation on the part of multiple players at every state park to make the plan, whatever the plan is, work. It will take a level of transparency and communication on the part of the Department of State Parks that has to date been lacking. Finally, it will require a better legislative effort on the part of our elected officials than has been evident to date. Burden shifting and a continued downward trend in the state’s commitment to state parks is not the answer in the short run or in the long term

So, while we are all feeling good about the success of The Hendy Woods Community, let’s all meet at Hendy Woods State Park on Sunday, at noon. Celebrate. Congratulate and thank those who have borne the burden. There will be time, later, to consider what’s next.

One Comment

  1. Chuck Becker June 6, 2012

    Thanks from myself, and I know I speak for my family as well, to the Hendy Woods Community and Kathy Bailey for their tremendous effort and great success in keeping Hendy Woods open.

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