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Are California state parks stuck in a 1950s business mentality?

by on July 29, 2013

Should California state parks rangers be required to be officers of the peace? Photo: USACE HQ.
Should California state parks rangers be required to be officers of the peace? Photo: USACE HQ.

California State Parks is grappling with modern funding problems as it strains for cash while its staffing, recreation and maintenance needs grow. But according to critics and even the parks’ new director, the department’s business practices are stuck in the 1950s.

An old-fashioned "iron ranger." Photo: Randy J.

An old-fashioned “iron ranger.” Photo: Randy J.

To pay for parking at the parks, visitors must shove exact change and cash into metal posts known as “iron rangers.” Accounting and budgeting software lacks consistency throughout the state from park to park. Park rangers are still required to have law enforcement experience, even though much of their work involves providing education, visitor assistance and community programs. And state parks has yet to create a working relationship with the state travel and tourism commission to market the parks.

A bit of modernization and thoughtful reworking could help the cash-strapped park system regain its footing as it searches for ways to become economically sustainable, according to a couple of study commissions seeking to revamp the department.

The most recent effort was announced by state parks and the California Natural Resources Agency in early June with the formation of the Parks Forward Commission. The panel of experts and citizens are being chosen by Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird to recommend improvements to state parks’ financial, operational and cultural practices.

Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for California State Parks, declined to list the specific problems the commission plans to address, but she said the panel will consider any viable solutions that would help sustain the parks.

“Everything’s going to be on the table, as we understand it,” she said. “It’s going to be a top to bottom assessment of the state park system, including the 280 parks.”

Major General Anthony Jackson, the new state parks chief who stepped in after former director Ruth Coleman resigned in the midst of a budget scandal, has been more blunt about the department’s outdated practices. While speaking at a Regional Parks Association forum on June 15 in Oakland, Jackson said that state parks hasn’t made a cultural or business change since the 1950s and continues to lack a marketing or business department.

Jackson said he will create a new business and marketing department in the next couple months and will begin promoting the parks more aggressively with state park passes for sale at retail outlets, as well as television advertising campaigns.

“We haven’t done a good job of marketing what we have, and need a broader tourism strategy,” said Stuart Drown, executive director of the Little Hoover Commission, a bipartisan state agency that also offered recommendations to improve California State Parks.

A report the Little Hoover Commission released in late March says: “state parks has no working relationship with the state travel and tourism commission to

Many people say Cal State Parks needs a new marketing plan. Photo: Mike Baird.

Many people say Cal State Parks needs a new marketing plan. Photo: Mike Baird.

promote the parks, despite the fact that the travel and tourism commission often uses images and mentions of the parks in promotional materials.”

And it’s no wonder the parks department ran into budgeting problems when it lacks a consistent department-wide way to track its revenue. Drown called the accounting system “antiquated.”

He added that state parks also needs to modernize its view of the nonprofit and citizen partners it collaborates with by taking their concerns and ideas more seriously as their involvement in management grows.

Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, said she hopes the Parks Forward Commission uses the Little Hoover Commission’s findings and Jackson’s action plan as a starting off point to make solid improvements.

“We have strongly felt that the department and state parks deserve to have a fresh vision for the future,” she said.

Dhyana Levey is a Bay Nature contributor and writer for our state parks funding crisis series.

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leanne k on July 31st, 2013 at 8:53 pm

personally I like to camp and hike. I also have dogs. guess where I spend my money? National forests and county parks that are dog friendly. Allow dogs to hike and I would love to spend money camping there or paying for parking to day hike the parks.

Tim on August 7th, 2013 at 11:41 am

“Rangers” in the photo are National Park non-sworn park interpreters, not peace officers nor State employees…just sayin’…

I don’t think the problem is marketing or business affairs. There is plenty of visitation already. The struggle is translating visitation into revenue. Generally, the only charge is for parking, and that is pretty much max’d out ($12 day use or $45 campsite is pretty steep for most visitors). Yet, the parking revenue comes nowhere near covering costs (except for certain recreational parks near population centers), and goes into the general fund anyway.

At the same time, people are loathe to pay for what is supposed to be a public park, already having paid for it through taxes. Many parks have multiple entry points which make it impractical to collect fees in any event. Besides, many people avoid paying the fees by parking outside the park and walking in.

I agree that accounting and fee collection are antiquated, but I think we need a RETURN to the culture of the 1950’s, in that too much control is concentrated in Sacramento, instead of being devolved to the local park superintendents. The recent accounting scandal was a headquarters thing. Appointing commissions, creating departments, etc., just perpetuates the current state of affairs.

To change the paradigm, allow local parks to keep the revenue they generate, instead of having it go to Sacramento. Even then, the various special interests and NIMBYs are so lawyered-up, and the regulatory environment so restrictive, I doubt much can be done about it.

A local manager might, for example, be tempted to set up a dog-friendly area instead of just pointing to the “No Dogs Allowed” sign, if the revenue generated by that visitation could be captured locally. Right now, no such incentive exists.

Parks are public entities for a reason: They would not exist (or not be open to the public) if not for their protected status. They cost money to maintain, and, with few exceptions, can never be operated at a profit. I think the answer is to concentrate on fundamentals: Keep the parks clean and safe, eliminate the empire-building in Sacramento and keep revenue local to give managers an incentive to seek out opportunities. Cut expenses and excessive regulation.

Lowell Landowski on August 8th, 2013 at 3:58 pm

While they were closing parks, they were cutting low paid staff. The staff who clean the toilets, fix the fences, and pickup the trash, were cut. But guess what, they were adding managers, and promoting them in droves. If you want your public parks back, cut at the top, and not the bottom. The Locals do it, why can’t the State. To his credit the General is reversing the dark decade of Coleman. He is starting to hire more maintenance people, and not so many managers.

jj on April 24th, 2016 at 10:23 pm

The two rangers in the above photo are Corps of Engineers, US Army civilian rangers, not Calif State Park Peace Officers (Rangers).

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