California's road map for its troubled park system needs a driver
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
Jon Christensen, a veteran science journalist who also teaches history, is an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. This op-ed appeared originally on August 1 in SF Gate.
Parks Forward — a state-appointed blue-ribbon commission with deep talent, knowledge and connections — issued detailed draft recommendations last week for a "series of sweeping changes to ensure the long-term sustainability of California's State Parks."
Now it's up to Gov. Jerry Brown to find a leader who will use this new road map to guide reform in the state Department of Parks and Recreation. The former Marine major general whom the governor appointed to turn around the scandal-plagued agency in late 2012 retired in May after only 18 months on the job. An acting director from within the department is holding down the fort while waiting for the governor to make his move.
The governor may have been waiting for a vision. He's got one now. "Our recommendations are not designed to tinker around the edges and patch the current system," the Parks Forward commission notes. "Instead, we present a plan to transform state park management and modernize state park operations."
The plan could also help the governor craft a job description for the next state parks system chief. California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, who oversees the state parks department, signaled his approval of the commission's directives last week, saying, "There is no question we will continue to work together to craft a bold, realistic plan for the future." The commission called for dramatic, specific changes on a timeline set to begin before the end of the year, including:
Creating a new nonprofitCalifornia Parks Conservancy — modeled in part on the very successful local Golden Gate Natio•nal Parks Conservancy — to provide financial support for parks and take on projects the state agency and other parks advocacy and support organizations don't have the capacity to undertake.
Establishing a multidisciplinary team of experts from within the department and outside charged with developing and implementing a new organizational structure and business model for the state parks agency within two years.
Creating an open pathway to top leadership in the agency so that management positions no longer require peace-officer certification, and a professional recruitment program to ensure a workforce that reflects California's changing demographics.
Expanding access to parks for all Californians - especially focusing on underserved communities, urban populations and younger generations — by developing amenities, such as cabins for overnight stays, better transportation options to parks and trails, and digital tools that enable people to find nearby parks with the services and activities that appeal to them. Educational, interpretive and outdoor recreation opportunities need to be improved and expanded, particularly for young people, to bolster interest in science, history and, perhaps, ultimately careers in parks.
Laying the groundwork to create a stable funding structure for parks by setting up a modern fee-collection system and encouraging more entrepreneurial revenue-generating schemes, but also by collecting more transparent, reliable information about the agency's true costs and finances so that a successful appeal can be made to voters to approve a reliable source of public funding.
The commission's recommendations are rooted in two findings: The state park system is "debilitated by outdated organizational structures, technologies and business tools, and by a culture that does not adequately reward excellence or innovation." And state parks don't provide experiences that serve all Californians or attract other potential visitors, particularly younger visitors.
These findings are related by a common goal: to establish trust in the state parks agency and establish connections with diverse Californians so that they will support state parks in the future.
In research that I conducted on social media in parks with the San Francisco mapping and data visualization firm Stamen Design, we found two things that give us hope that state parks can forge better connections with Californians:
-- First, parks are already social. Parks are vibrant spaces for sharing all kinds of things on social media. People use social media in parks just as they do in other aspects of their lives — and, yes, they share lots of selfies and sometimes too much information — but they also share things they love about parks: beautiful scenery; fun with friends and families; activities like hiking, surfing, barbecuing, camping.
-- And second, although the Parks Forward Commission found that young Californians worry that they won't see people like themselves in parks, they should have no fear. Social media clearly show that diverse Californians will find lots of people who look like themselves in parks.
So what qualities might the governor want to look for in a new leader for California's state parks? Someone willing and able to shake up a big, entrenched bureaucracy, to be sure, but also someone who will identify and promote staff who can make change happen, play well with other organizations, and articulate an inspiring vision for California parks within and well beyond the agency. And someone who has a good social media presence.
California has 280 state parks
State Parks in Northern California
Ranked by social-media mentions
Angel Island State Park
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Eastshore State Park
Pacifica State Beach
Mount Diablo State Park
Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park
Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve
Sutter Buttes State Park
Admiral William Standley State Recreation Area
Old Sacramento State Historic Park
Reynolds Wayside Campground
Auburn State Recreation Area
Woodson Bridge State Recreation Area
Mailliard Redwoods State Reserve
Editor's note: Parks are ranked by the sum of postings on Twitter, Instagram, Flickr and Foursquare that originate within the park.