Great (corporate) outdoors

State parks find funding in the private sector

Buy a Coke, help save a forest. That’s the new funding reality for California state parks, due to budget uncertainty and more than $1 billion in deferred maintenance.

As voters consider a November proposition that would change how parks are funded, California state parks have turned to corporate partnerships to help plug the budget gap.

“With the budget crisis, corporate partnerships are seen as a way to supplement programs and help promote the parks,” explained Susan Parker, director of marketing and partnerships for the California State Parks Foundation. “This will never replace the need for state funding [of the parks].”

Big-time corporations, a Northern California NFL team and a nonprofit have all taken part in the program.

Subaru, for instance, gave the state park system six low-emission Outback cars. In exchange, the automaker staged promotional campaigns for the vehicle at several state parks. The Save the Redwoods League, which helps restore logged forests, sponsored the state parks’ redwood parks brochures. The Oakland Raiders have partnered with California state parks to promote physical fitness.

In the Coca-Cola project, the company donated $1 for every $10 purchase of Coca-Cola products at Stater Bros. Markets. The fees raised funds that paid for the planting of more than 1 million trees in fire-scarred state forests.

As part of the program, corporate partners receive a variety of benefits, including exposure to the 70 million park visitors each year. According to the California state parks website, other opportunities include “logo placement on the back of park passes, green in-park projects and inclusion in our 2009 Welcome Kit Map,” and assistance with “developing cause-related promotions to connect with visitorship at some of our most popular park units.”

Although such efforts may be seen as a weird blend of the commercial and the outdoors, or “park units,” Parker said the goal of the partnerships is to be unobtrusive.

“Visitors walking in to parks are not going to see billboards, and there will not be any [park] naming rights,” she said. “It is more to keep the parks going and help get the word out, since the park system has limited marketing dollars.”

This lack of funding could change in November if voters pass Proposition 21. The initiative would use fees from an $18 annual vehicle surcharge to create a trust fund for California’s 278 state parks. Revenue from the trust fund could then only be spent on state parks and conservation programs for wildlife, natural lands and oceans. The fee would apply to cars, motorcycles and recreation vehicles, and allow owners and passengers free daytime use of parks throughout the year. If passed, the program could generate up to $500 million a year, with 85 percent dedicated to state parks and 15 percent allocated to wildlife-protection agencies.