Be Our Guest: The Next Story about CA State Parks (part 2)
July 10, 2013
Guest blogger Christine Sculati looks how CA State Parks went from closing to thriving with the help of the new park operators in today’s post…
Today when you visit Jack London State Historic Park in Sonoma County, you will find a sign that informs you that this park is now operated by the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association and clearly states: “No STATE Services or Staff Available.” A new law that took effect January 1, 2012, granted the option for California State Parks to turn over all park operations to up to 20 nonprofits.
What it is like for nonprofits to hold full responsibility for the day-to-day operations and fundraising required to keep parks open? I recently caught up with a few new park leaders.
Jack London State Historic Park and Valley of the Moon Natural History Association
In April 2012, California State Parks approved the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association’s bid to run Jack London State Historic Park near Glen Ellen in Sonoma County. The five-year agreement represented the first one made possible by AB 42.
Recently I checked in with the park’s first-ever executive director, Tjiska Van Wyk. Tjiska (pronounced “Chiska”) moved to Sonoma County from Marin County and she does not regret it. She runs the park with the help of a full time operations manager and six part-time staff responsible for managing volunteers, school partnerships, community events, retail operations, bookkeeping and maintenance.
Though it was a “steep learning curve in the first year,” says Tjiska, the park is now ahead of its fundraising projections and park attendance. For the first five months of 2013, visitation is double what it was for the same time period in 2012.
“We have a strong community of supporters. People stepped up with time, resources and money,” says Tjiska. In addition to 300 active volunteers, the park now has 325 donating members after starting from “zero.”
What made this possible?
- An experimental attitude.
- Tapping the expertise of state specialists in natural and cultural resources. Parks can consult with these experts for up to six projects a year according to Tjiska.
- Marketing – They hired a consultant that specializes in marketing and public relations to keep visitors continuously engaged. Holding year-round community events also bring in gifts.
- Selling a $49 all access annual pass.
- Securing sponsorships from local businesses.
- Renting the old winery ruins for weddings and other special events where people create “special memories” for the park.
- Raising more donations from the “Leadership Council.”
Now the park is embarking on their strategic plan to make the park more relevant and vital to more people. This includes new school groups and at risk youth and they hope to achieve this through grant funding.
China Camp State Historic Park and Friends of China Camp
The agreement Friends of China Camp holds looks a lot like a donor agreement because the nonprofit raised funds to pay for state services including fees for park rangers. Yet the new park operator remains an all-volunteer organization with no paid staff. They currently hold an agreement to operate China Camp State Historic Park until 2017, subject to annual renewals.
Recently I caught up with the newly elected Board Chair Ed Lai, who became a park docent in 2008 out of fascination for the park’s historical legacy. Then suddenly, last year, Ed, a retired engineer who is Cantonese, found himself serving in a role he never expected: to save the park and hold fundraisers.
This July, the Friends of China Camp will be able to look back on one full year of actual revenue and expenses for the park. They have based all of their planning thus far on projections with little historical revenue and expense data to go on. With this new information they will be able to do better strategic planning and financial planning. “We will know what we need to do,” says Ed.
Before Ed Lai became the new Friends of China Camp Board Chair, Ernest Chung, who was recently elected to chair the California State Park and Recreation Commission, led the group through the successful effort to save the park from closure. In a December 2012 email to supporters, he shared how FOCC volunteers exceeded their fundraising goal of $250,000 and became the park operator on July 17, 2012.
Here is a how they did it:
- Developed and received endorsement for a plan to save China Camp.
- Gained 1,400 donors.
- Mobilized new community partnerships and philanthropic support from over 20 organizations including the Bay Area Sea Kayakers, Marin Chinese Cultural Association, Marin Conservation League, WildCare, Marin Community Foundation and the California State Parks Foundation, among others.
- Achieved widespread media coverage in English and Chinese from newspapers, television stations, magazines, blogs, and other sources.
- Partnered with California State Parks staff to develop the park’s operating plan and now support the park’s operation.
- Rallied the community, raised needed funds, welcomed visitors to the park, supported the park’s daily operations, improved trails and other facilities, conducted interpretive and educational functions, and made China Camp a better place.
Austin Creek State Recreation Area and Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods
Michele Luna, the executive director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, “Stewards” for short, says that operations “are going very well” at Austin Creek State Recreation Area. In addition to reopening the park’s campground they also worked to reopen backcountry campsites – in the only park in Sonoma County where you can have a backpacking experience in the wilderness. State Parks staff “were surprised with how fast we got up and running.”
How are they funding the park and making it sustainable?
- Stewards now runs the entrance gate shared by Austin Creek and Armstrong Redwoods. Of the funds collected, 30% go to Austin Creek to pay for operations and 70% go to the popular Armstrong Redwoods reserve. All camping fees generated by the park also stay in the park.
- Expanding fee-based programs – They plan to add value to their current school programs to offer new outdoor education programs for youth.
- Drawing on technical assistance offered by the California State Parks Foundation, which also awarded the park grant funds.
- Tapping AB 1478 funds to match the $250,000 they raised in donations to fund trail maintenance and to stabilize the structures of a significant cultural site here – Pond Farm Pottery.
- Maintaining good relations with State Parks in the Russian River District and collaborating with other park partners to get things done.
- Troubleshooting issues and finding ways to do things better.
Sugarloaf Ridge and Team Sugarloaf
A group of five nonprofit organizations called “Team Sugarloaf” run Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Sonoma County’s Valley of the Moon with an AB 42 operating agreement that runs through 2017.
Team Sugarloaf is a coalition of the Sonoma Ecology Center, Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, Sonoma Trails Council, United Camps Conferences and Retreats, and the Robert Ferguson Observatory.
Like all of the other nonprofits mentioned in this post, they rely on user fees, donations and volunteers to operate and maintain the park and its amenities. Each organization handles a different park operation such as running the campground, trail maintenance, managing volunteers and operating the observatory.
I was not able to reach Team Sugarloaf for this post, but in October of 2012 the Kenwood Press reported that the park was doing very well. Sonoma Ecology Center’s Executive Director Richard Dale told the Kenwood Press that the partnership was going well, “with higher attendance in the park this year than in the past.”
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.
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.