Parks Forward

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: Parks Forward--a blue-ribbon commission studying the troubled California State Parks system--is proposing a surprisingly bold vision for the future of parks in California. But it has been met with a surprising silence. While the crisis in California State Parks generated headlines statewide, the commission's recommendations, which were released in late April, have been mentioned in just two newspaper articles so far. Chris Megerian wrote one of them for the LA Times. His story ran online, but never in the paper, as far as I can tell. I wrote the other--an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Why this strange silence? It's hard to understand, really. Sure, journalists like a crisis. And they were all over California State Parks in its time of need. But where are they when solutions are being proposed? Solutions that deserve and need to be broadly debated. The narrative is moving forward here, friends in the media. I hope the silence is just because you're busy working on stories that will help Californians understand what's at stake and what's afoot for their parks. It's big news.

After reading Megerian's piece, I sat down to read the Parks Forward Commission's recommendations frankly expecting to be bored by another litany of the problems facing our state parks system and another set of bureaucratic proposals destined to make eyes glaze over before finding a permanent resting place on some dusty shelf in Sacramento. Boy, was I surprised. The Parks Forward Commission is recommending fundamental reforms to the state Department of Parks and Recreation. But it is going well beyond that to suggest that what is needed is a brand new privately and publicly funded organization to do what the state parks agency cannot do.

Dockweiler.jpgThe Parks Forward commission evidently recognizes that the parks agency will have its hands full with the daunting internal reforms necessary to get its own house in order for years to come. And it will never have the capacity to take on the innovations necessary to bring California parks into the 21st century technologically, connect with a rapidly changing younger and demographically diverse urban constituency, and embrace new business and funding models. The solution: create a new, more nimble, nonprofit parks support organization to work with the state parks agency, other local and regional parks agencies, nonprofits, businesses, and community groups to do what needs to be done.

It's a simple, elegant, and seemingly obvious solution that will, no doubt, require lengthy discussion and negotiation if Parks Forward is to succeed in defining an essential new niche in a crowded field and then build an effective organization to fill it. But the commission is in a good position to do that, packed as it is with influential and intellectual firepower, appointed by the state secretary of natural resources, John Laird, and backed by some of the most powerful philanthropies in California.

The commission is refreshingly frank in its assessment of the challenges ahead. Two key findings guide its recommendations: "First, California's parks system is debilitated by an outdated organizational structure, underinvestment in technology and business tools, and a culture that has not rewarded excellence, innovation, and leadership. Second, only broad-based, fundamental change will transform the system into one that will transform parks and the parks experience to once again lead the nation and the world in meeting the needs of citizens and visitors for decades to come."

The commission's recommendations for internal reforms in the Department of Parks and Recreation include upgrading the department's information and technology infrastructure, budgeting, planning, and accounting systems, and fee collections. Right now, as state parks director Anthony Jackson, a retired Marine major general, has said, the agency is stuck two-thirds of the way through the 20th century technologically. Bringing it into the 21st century is going to be a huge undertaking. The commission also recommends a big change in state parks leadership. Right now, to rise in the agency's ranks to district superintendent and above, employees must be peace officers. As a result, the commission says, leaders tend to focus on law enforcement. The commission recommends abolishing the requirement and opening up leadership to more diverse candidates with other skills and interests.

As for the new support organization, the commission proposes an ambitious agenda that includes: providing funding, design, and support for deploying state-of-the-art fee collection machines in parks, and finding new business development opportunities, such as special events and partnerships for parks; fundraising and other financing for parks; developing digital tools for communications, marketing, and on-the-ground guides to parks in English and Spanish; strategic planning, coordination, and collaboration with other organizations especially focused on providing parks in underserved urban communities; and land acquisition to expand the parks network in California to meet the needs of urban and other underserved communities and create a network of conserved lands that enable the state's flora and fauna to adapt to climate change.

From the beginning of its efforts, the commission says it has been "mindful" of California's rapidly changing demographics. The state's Latino population is projected to grow from 38 percent in 2010 to 52 percent in 2040. Millennials--people born between 1980 and 2000--now make up 29 percent of the state, constitute "the single largest generation in human history," and nationally "will decide the next six presidential elections." And while 61 percent of Californians were clustered in three urban areas in 2010, that number will rise to 76 percent by 2050.

All of this gives a decidedly urban, millennial, technologically savvy flavor to the Parks Forward recommendations. In 1928, when the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. offered his recommendations to a state park commission, he noted the "magnitude and importance, socially and economically, in California, of the values arising directly and indirectly from the enjoyment of scenery and from related pleasures of non-urban outdoor life." Today, the future of California's 280 state parks, covering 1.6 million acres, and providing access to 340 miles of coast (more than a third of the state's coastline), hinges not on escaping the city, but on reconnecting to urban life.

The draft recommendations are available on the Parks Forward web site. Additional public meetings will be held this summer to gather feedback. The commission's final recommendations are due in the fall. Let the debate begin.

This piece is adapted from my op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle. I also discussed the Parks Forward Commission's recommendations on KPCC's "Take Two" program. Photo of Dockweiler State Beach, one of my favorite state parks, by Tamara Evans. Want to see more of the social life of California parks? Visit our project visualizing social media in California parks at

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