State Parks, once mired in controversy, eyes purchase of vast ranch
Gov. Gavin Newsom has budgeted $20 million to create California’s first new state park in a decade, a proposal that was greeted with bipartisan support. But with the park system facing a billion-dollar maintenance backlog, how can the state ensure that the beaches are clean, the toilets flush and some two million archaeological specimens are in safe hands?
It’s a fair question, with a long backstory. The governor’s proposal is more than just a line item: It is a vote of confidence that an agency embroiled in controversy eight years ago is capable of running the state’s 280 parks. It’s been a long road back from when the Department of Parks and Recreation was under fire for mismanagement and faulty accounting.
“We needed to earn back the trust of the public, of decision-makers within the administration and of our own staff,” said Parks Director Lisa Mangat. “It’s been a hard lift.”
Land acquisition has been on the decline, and conservationists say the timing to add a new park is perfect: State officials say they are ready to take on the task of transforming a bucolic landscape into a historical tableau that tells a story of California’s past.
While state officials are mum about specifics of the land under consideration for the new park, speculation has centered on the 50,000-acre N3 Ranch, a parcel of undulating oak woodlands draped across four counties, fanning out in the hills above Livermore.
“It’s a pristine property for wildlife and recreation within a few bus stops of millions of people,” said Sen. Steve Glazer, an Orinda Democrat. “This is a target of opportunity that may never come again in our lifetime.”
Conservation groups are raising millions to help the state purchase the ranch, which is on the market for more than $70 million. At some point, the Legislature might be asked to allocate more money to acquire the land. The condition of the land is unknown.
“It’s the beginning of the budget dance,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, state director of the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, which has raised money for the project. “State Parks has done a tremendous job of turning around their operation. They are in a good position to get back into the acquisition program. Californians are demanding more parks access.”
The state would be taking on additional costs when it already has $1.1 billion in maintenance projects deferred due to lack of funding. California’s expansive park system includes beaches, lighthouses, lakes, monuments, archaeological sites, museums and ghost towns.
The parks department has a to-do list of nearly 4,000 projects, some familiar to homeowners: painting, plumbing, weed control and roof repair. Other jobs are unique, such as $10 million to replace lifeguard towers, $24 million to shore up a road at Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and $16 million to repair and replace coastal access stairways at Carlsbad State Beach.
Mangat said the department keeps chipping away at the backlog. Of the 400 new employee positions the parks department was recently awarded, “the largest numbers went to maintenance,” Mangat said.
She noted that deferred maintenance funds are one-time appropriations. The 2016-17 budget included $60 million to address the parks’ maintenance backlog. This year, the proposed budget allocates none, she said.
Newsom proposed $65 million for parks, including $4.6 million to buy private land within park borders. Another $8.7 would expand access to urban parks and $20 million would fund a grant program that helps people in underserved areas gain access to educational programs in state parks.
Two recent governors have felt the lash of public opinion when attempting to limit access to state parks. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, facing a $15 billion budget deficit, proposed closing more than 200 parks, an idea he dropped after his office was deluged with calls and letters.
A few years later, Gov. Jerry Brown, in the midst of his own budget shortfall in 2011, called for as many as 70 parks to be closed. Again, the public outcry was fierce.
But that was nothing compared to the public anger when it was discovered that, during a time of draconian budget cuts, the state agency had squirreled away $54 million that it neglected to report to state officials. That accounting discrepancy shone a light on the park system’s broken bureaucratic systems: poor accounting and budgeting, indifferent bill collecting and restrictions on who could rise to leadership positions within the organization.
California’s government leaned in with a series of humbling moves, passing a “Parks Stewardship Act” and convening a panel of national experts to scrape off the State Parks’ calcified practices and suggest how the system might reinvent itself. The commission’s report promised no less than a top-down “transformation” of the department.
Now, after eight years of self-review, the system is blemished but resilient, experts say.
State Parks is hiring employees to be deployed to parks bulging with 80 million annual visitors but thin on rangers or staff.
Two years ago taxpayers made clear their interest in making parks more accessible, passing a $4.1 billion parks proposition.
“Look at who’s near a state park: 60 percent of Californians who live near state parks are from severely disadvantaged families. A million are living in poverty,” said Holly Martinez, Director of programs and advocacy for the nonprofit State Parks Foundation.
The foundation’s Pathway to Parks has a high-level booster—first-partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom. The program focuses on making parks and recreation areas more accessible, citing the physical and mental health benefits.
Martinez, who lobbies in Sacramento, said “there is strong political will in the Legislature to make access a priority.”
She knew things had changed when Newsom’s budget was published. “Last year’s budget I didn’t even see parks having a headline. In this year’s executive summary, Parks for All is a header,” she said.