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Be Our Guest: The Next Story about CA State Parks (part 3)

July 11, 2013

Guest blogger Christine Sculati looks at how CA State Parks went from closing to thriving with the help of public agencies in the final post of our series…

Before nonprofits entered the business of rescuing parks slated for closure, the National Park Service was the first to step up to sign agreements with California State Parks to grant temporary reprieves for three Northern California state parks.

The state-federal relationship was not an entirely new concept. A March 2013 report by the Little Hoover Commission highlights that decades-old compromises made between the National Parks Service and California State Parks became the model of the agreements that removed Samuel P. Taylor, Tomales Bay and Del Norte State parks from the state parks closure list.

In the Bay Area, other public agencies that followed the federal-state lead are Sonoma Regional Parks and Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District. What has it been like for partners working for public agencies with different histories, training and perspectives to work together to keep parks open?

 

Samuel P. Taylor, Tomales Bay and the National Park Service

Two Bay Area state parks share legislative boundaries with national parks, where joint federal/state agreements have existed for years to share staff for resource protection and park operations. Samuel P. Taylor is located within Golden Gate National Recreation Area in Marin County and Tomales Bay State Park is located within both Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

The woods of Samuel P Taylor

In October 2011, the National Park Service stepped in to help these state parks stay open and came up with new ways to raise some additional funding including a new $2 fee collected at Muir Woods National Park. The five-year agreements are now renewed on an annual basis.

To find out the latest I spoke to Howard Levitt and John Dell’Osso of the National Park Service and Danita Rodriguez with California State Parks. Howard Levitt, who is the Director of Communications and Partnerships for the National Park Service says that his agency has always had good relations with California State Parks and if anything the new agreement has allowed them to do more together.

“None of us would have wished for the state budget crisis, but it forced us to apply creativity…We strengthened our relationships to the benefit of the people who use the parks,” says Howard. He also added that many people are unaware of what jurisdiction they are in when visiting a park.

John Dell’Osso, who is Chief of Interpretation and Resource Education for Point Reyes National Seashore says visitors to Tomales Bay State Park are happy to see uniformed park rangers in the park, which was a shift from only the presence of an “iron ranger” before. To him, visitors seem indifferent about which agency it is in uniform; they are just “happy to see rangers” there now, he said.

One of the first things they did was install easier-to-use fee stations at Tomales Bay that take cash or credit cards. John Dell’Osso also agrees with Howard Levitt saying that the National Park Service has always worked well with California State Parks as partners in interpretation and resource management. “We are happy to be helping our sister agency,” he says.

Danita Rodriguez, who is the acting sector superintendent for California State Parks in the district that encompasses Marin County, says that she has been amazed with how well all the agencies whose jurisdictions overlap in Marin have worked together. Over the years, they have gotten out of their “silos” by meeting regularly and can call each other to solve problems, she says. “We all have different policies and answer to different boards but we share more in common than differences.”

 Bale Grist Mill

Bothe Napa State Park and Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park and Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District

John Woodbury, the first executive director of the Bay Area Open Space Council, is the General Manager of the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District. His agency now runs Bothe Napa State Park and Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park in partnership with the nonprofit Napa Valley State Park Association.

The two adjoining Napa Valley parks, in the heart of northern California’s wine country, are doing well and “broke even in their first year,” says John. While they are “in the black” operationally, thanks to a reduction in expenses and greater revenue from day-use areas and campgrounds, they rely on help from their nonprofit partner to raise funds for deferred maintenance and capital projects including projects that will generate revenue.

In the last year John has also discovered that while  State Parks staff are friendly  and very dedicated to their jobs, the system itself makes it almost impossible to get things done. He is wading through much more bureaucracy than expected because the county agency and State Parks operate in very different ways. Initially he anticipated more autonomy as a public agency. He is eager to open up seven new yurts, put up last year by the county agency, because the park’s first three yurts, installed previously by California State Parks, are very popular. But it has been a long slog through the state’s review process.

Yurt

I recently caught up with Sandy Jones, a field park ranger for California State Parks, while visiting the Napa parks in early June. Sandy was doing her rounds at Bale Grist Mill, an 1846 mill that still grinds grain with the original stones thanks to support from the Napa Valley State Parks Association. Sandy calls herself a “rented” ranger. After 25 years of service, she still wears the State Parks uniform but she now manages the two Napa parks that run under operating agreements with the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District. “I love my job even more now.”

Ranger

Sandy says that with the county arrangement she can get what she needs for the park with much less hassle. In the past sometimes she would just buy things herself, such as a light bulb for the mill, rather than wade through paperwork and time consuming procedures. In the first year of the transition, Sandy also focused on getting on top of park expenses and how to lower bills. She is also able to buy things locally and more “like a household.” Before it was centralized, which meant that she had to purchase two years of a supply like toilet paper. Sandy also knows that marketing and networking are key to drawing visitors and raising funds. The Napa Valley visitors’ bureau did not know we were here, she said.

She encouraged me and my husband to attend the annual Bale Grist Mill Harvest Dinner on September 7, 2013. Now things are looking up for these two parks, which also enjoy tremendous local support, said John Woodbury. “People in the community are thrilled and hope we stay.”

What will happen to these new park partnerships in the future? Will California find a long-term, sustainable funding solution for the state parks? Join the conversation in the comments here, on Twitter at @BA_OpenSpace and with your networks.

 

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Christine Sculati is a Berkeley-based development consultant and writer for nonprofits in the Bay Area. The California state parks crisis has been on her mind since closures were announced in May of 2011. She then realized that the whole system had been under siege due to under-funding for many years. She is inspired by the tremendous amount of dedication by volunteers around the state to help the parks and wants to do her part by elevating their voices on her blog and by writing for BayNature.org. She is committed to protecting parks and open spaces because of the benefits these places bring to society and the health of ecosystems. When she is not working, she likes to spend as much time as possible in the outdoors, experiencing nature, wilderness and adventure with her husband and friends.  She also volunteers for a Bay Area puma study by checking wildlife cameras in a remote Marin watershed.