Can a Marine general transform California State Parks?

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: When Governor Jerry Brown appointed Anthony Jackson as director of California State Parks, a lot of people wondered why. Apparently so did Brown. The governor asked Jackson why a former Marine major general would want to come out of recent retirement to take on the job of fixing a state park system mired in trouble.

General Jackson--and, yes, that's what everybody calls him, still--says that he told the governor the same thing he's been telling everybody ever since. Wars have long been fought over natural resources, he says. And if we are ever to stop sending our sons and daughters to shed blood on our behalf, it will have to come from learning to take care of our environment.

LASHP groundbreaking.jpgI heard Jackson tell this story to appreciative murmurs at a conference on parks last week at Stanford University. It's a reassuring, feel-good sentiment. Love for parks and nature will heal all wounds, from our overweight society with its digital addictions to a dysfunctional state park system that threatened to close down 70 parks before it was revealed that the agency was hiding a $20 million secret account.

But what bunkum. And the general should know better. The fact that the United States conceived of itself as "nature's nation" didn't prevent the Civil War. And the fact that the Nazis professed a love for German landscapes and passed that country's first comprehensive national nature protection law did not prevent the Holocaust and World War II.

I wish that Jackson would be more straightforward with public audiences about the real reason that he was hired to whip the broken, demoralized state parks corps into shape. Like the National Park Service, California State Parks is essentially a military-style organization, even if it includes restoration ecologists and historic preservation specialists in its ranks. "Look at their doughboy uniforms," Jackson told me in a conversation before his speech. Jackson has been a Marine his entire professional career. He lived through the modernization of the infantry in the age of big data and drones, he told me, and his job is to bring California State Parks into the 21st century.

It's not going to be easy. In the 16 months that he's been on the job, Jackson says he has made some progress in improving accounting and management systems. And the governor rewarded him with a $14 million one-year increase on top of a $554 million budget stabilized after a six-year decline. But California state parks are still stuck two-thirds of the way through the last century, Jackson said. Visitors who travel all the way from Europe on an American Express card can find themselves unable to enter a California state park. "We only take cash," a ranger will tell them, "but you can park down the road." Many parks only accept cash stuffed into "iron rangers"--rusty metal tubes with a small opening for envelopes.

This is just one symptom of a California State Parks system that is profoundly behind the times and out of touch with its customers. "What do millennials do with an iron ranger?" Jackson asked rhetorically. "We need to do a better job of using data for managing parks," he added. But right now state parks managers know very little about their customers, except that they increasingly don't look much like the overwhelmingly older white crowd that attended last week's park conference.

This all raises an important question: A Marine general may be the perfect leader to modernize the quasi-military corps that has run California state parks since Yosemite was set aside as the first park in the state 150 years ago, but can he transform a hidebound state agency into a nimble 21st century organization focused on understanding and satisfying its customers?

Parks Forward, a blue-ribbon commission funded by several major California foundations, is expected to release its draft recommendations for California State Parks at the end of April. But it's not too early to conclude that the success of the general's new mission will depend on much more than just-so stories about how our love of nature will make everything better.

Los Angeles State Historic Park groundbreaking ceremony March 15, 2014. Left to right: Raul Macias of Anahuak Youth Sports Association, General Anthony Jackson of California State Parks, Robert Garcia of The City Project. Photo courtesy of The City Project.

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