Over the years, California has added more parks to its state system than it can afford and should consider turning over control of some to local entities, a new report says.
The report released Monday by the Little Hoover Commission identified a number of problems with the park system. It even suggested that tourist favorite Hearst Castle might be better run by an operator such as the Getty Museum that is more versed in protecting the hilltop mansion’s European art collection.
While the outlandish Central Coast home of William Randolph Hearst is a major source of revenue, its upkeep exceeds the income it generates through ticket sales and the cost of needed maintenance is as high as $60 million.
“We have to take a fresh and rigorous look at the system from top to bottom,” said Stuart Drown, executive director of the commission, a state oversight agency. “We need a new business model and fresh thinking.”
From the coast to the giant sequoias of the Sierra, the California parks system protects some of the most historic and breathtaking places in the world. For years, the department has allowed millions of dollars in maintenance problems to pile up as it struggled with shrinking budgets and a manager mindset unaccustomed to generating revenue or asking for help, the report said.
The commission began looking at the state park system a year ago. After decades of decreasing funding, a $22 million cut at the time from its $779 million budget threatened the closure of a quarter of the 278 parks in the system. Officials were unable to explain how the parks were chosen or the cost of operating individual sites.
The revelations — plus the discovery last year of $54 million hidden from the governor and Legislature in two special funds — damaged the public’s faith in the park system, even as dozens of volunteer groups were scrambling to raise funds and form partnerships to keep them open.
“The old model is obsolete,” the report said.
The commission is asking the governor and elected officials to give the parks department the tools, authority and flexibility required to develop a new operating model.
The commission’s report, “Beyond Crisis: Recapturing Excellence in California’s State Park System,” is an overview for fixing the problems that have led to the long decline.
Officials with the parks department say the report echoes changes that managers were recently authorized to implement by the Legislature.
“We are grateful for the positive nature of the report,” said parks spokesman Roy Stearns. “We are committed to an open and transparent process that identifies innovative approaches for managing our state parks system now and for future generations.”
The report says the state Department of Parks and Recreation needs more business-minded managers at the regional and local levels and must revamp its historic management tactics, including those focused primarily on promoting law enforcement rangers, if the system is going to survive.
“This will require adding job classifications that do not yet exist and removing obstacles to promotion so the department can benefit from a broad range of management perspectives,” commission Chairman Daniel W. Hancock wrote in an introductory letter.
The California League of Park Associations, which said it was consulted by the commission, agreed with many of the findings.
“The proposed changes may not be easy for all involved, but we realize that the system as it currently stands is not working,” the group said in a statement.
Some of the 70 threatened parks have temporary agreements with nonprofit groups that are keeping them open, but the deals will begin expiring next year — the 150th anniversary of Yosemite, the first state park. It was taken over by the federal government after Californians had plowed the valley and built livestock fences.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” Drown said. “We’ve blown it before. We had Yosemite and we lost it.”
The commission studied structures of park systems in other states and trends in management. The report recommends training for current employees to help them learn to think more creatively. It also recommends hiring people with business experience from outside of state government.
The report also suggests forging more equitable partnerships with nonprofit benefactors such as the arrangements that exist with the National Park Service at Redwood National Park, state parks in Northern California, and regional park districts in Sonoma and Napa counties.
The commission has faith in Anthony Jackson, a retired Marine Corps major general tapped by Gov. Jerry Brown late last year to turn around the beleaguered department. But state park managers, currently focused on preserving and protecting resources, must also learn to explore ways to generate revenue and to encourage visitors to come, the report says.
“Open the windows and let the fresh winds come in and blow the cobwebs away.” Drown said. “The opportunity is there with the new management group.”