Could Volunteers Help Keep California’s State Parks Alive?

June 6, 2013

Before Caryl Hart got her doctorate and became the director of Sonoma County Regional Parks, she spent more than a decade volunteering for Sonoma’s county and state parks. She said she understands the value of volunteers.

But does the state park system?

Park officials should be finding new and creative ways to encourage and use volunteers, according to a recent study released by Sonoma State University about the state parks funding crisis. “Sonoma County Parks in the Balance: Barriers and Opportunities” was recently presented in Sacramento at the 2013 California League of Park Associations Conference. While it focused primarily on state parks in the Sonoma area, it suggested that the recommendations noted in the report could be extended to other threatened parks in California.

One conclusion of the study advised that cash-strapped parks could expand their work by including more volunteers, using such practices as volunteer vacations and court-referred volunteer programs.

While volunteer vacations are not as common in this area as in other parts of the world, they have already been used in Southern California as part of a habitat restoration project in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. People vacationing in a developed campsite at Borrego Palm Canyon helped to remove invasive Sahara mustard near the site. This kind of practice could be of great use to Sonoma County parks, the study said.

It also mentioned the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County’s Court Referral Community Service Program and suggested that using the juvenile court program could be an excellent way to help introduce youth to the parks.

“Entities like the parks that people love, those are the types of things that are rich for volunteers,” said Hart, who assisted in the study. “People can see in the parks what they are doing. It could be a great source of pride for kids who are working off community service.”

With the announced closure of 70 state parks in 2011, parks supporters banded together to form the Parks Alliance for Sonoma County to keep the county’s five threatened state parks open. This move made Sonoma County an ideal example to study, said Caroline Christian, principal investigator of the study.

“Here you had organizations that had never run parks before,” said Christian, an environmental studies professor at Sonoma State University.  “We had friends groups and all kinds of different skills sets representing different missions. We came in and participated with the Parks Alliance and basically did a needs assessment.”

The “Sonoma County Parks in the Balance” report suggested increased support for internships and citizen science, adopt-a-park programs and corporate volunteering. It also recommended that Sonoma County parks come up with a business plan to broaden its parks’ appeal to visitors of all socioeconomic levels and highlight the region’s natural, cultural and economic resources.

The study was made possible by an anonymous $75,000 donation in August 2012 and completed through stakeholder workshops and interviews with park managers, state officials and local nonprofits. The two recommendations highlighted in the report stressed that further study on parks in Sonoma County and collaborative relationships among stakeholders is needed.

“I think that people here working locally on this issue are hopeful that state parks will want to continue to be a partner in this and find new ways of making this work,” Christian said. “The bottom line is, we have to keep the momentum during this fragile time while the state is deciding what to do with state park lands.”

 Dhyana Levey is a Bay Nature contributor and an author of our continuing coverage on the California state parks funding crisis.

About the Author

Dhyana Levey is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. Over the past decade, she's written for such newspapers as the San Francisco Public Press, San Francisco Daily Journal, Merced Sun-Star and the Cambodia Daily.