Our View: California State Parks deserves innovative leader

May 29, 2014 

A California state park ranger scans the area near the confluence of the north and middle forks of the American River in Auburn State Recreation Area on Oct. 27, 2010.

RANDY PENCH — Sacramento Bee

Being California’s Department of Parks and Recreation’s director ought to be a dream job.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s parks director quit after an embarrassingly short tenure, giving the governor an opportunity to try again to find someone who can transform the troubled bureaucracy placed in charge of a world-class parks system.

Anthony Jackson, a retired Marine major general, was supposed to restore confidence after the previous director blamed budget cuts for needing to close 70 parks, only to discover $20 million in an off-budget account. Jackson is departing after only 18 months, with the parks system still struggling.

The Department of Parks and Recreation is in need of help, but it’s hard to see why.

California has more park land than any state other than Alaska. It gets between 60 million and 80 million visits a year, more than any other state system. Those in charge of the parks should be able to translate such affection into legislative and financial support.

California will devote $553 million in revenue from taxes and fees to the parks system in the coming year, more than any other state in the union. However, not enough of the money is used in the parks. The amount that California spends per capita and per acre ranks in the lower half among the states, according to the California Research Bureau.

In a report last month, the legislatively created organization Parks Forward called for “fundamentally transforming” operations and offered numerous suggestions. One was to hire more parks workers who don’t have peace officer status and thus carry guns.

The next director must be able to win support among the department’s rangers and other far-flung personnel, while also finding ways to make parks more inclusive and, if not innovative, at least up to date. For instance, the state parks system relies heavily on user fees. But in 2014, the parks department has failed to adopt credit-card readers so patrons can easily pay for their admission.

Perhaps there are other seemingly simple steps the department could take to become more relevant. The state could, for example, develop a mobile app that would give people information about the relative difficulty of trails, real-time availability of campsites or special programs being conducted. The department could make greater use of yurts and small cabins for campers, which would be less expensive than hotels but wouldn’t involve backpacking.

California’s parks system includes diverse locations such as Emerald Bay State Park at Lake Tahoe to Anza-Borrego in the desert, Prairie Creek Redwoods on the North Coast, to Cornfields State Park in downtown Los Angeles. No other state comes close to matching the richness of this state’s parks.

Being California’s Department of Parks and Recreation’s director ought to be a dream job. Brown needs to focus on finding an innovative and energetic director who will be the match of the system he or she will represent.

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