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California park system need fresh management perspective, report recommends

Tuesday, March 26, 2013
A California State Parks sign is seen in this file photo.

A California State Parks sign is seen in this file photo. (KABC Photo)

A state oversight agency's report on California's state parks recommends new approaches in management and fundraising.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation has suffered from poor public relations in the past two years. A number of parks were slated for closure due to state budget cuts, but the parks system could not explain its methodology in selecting which parks to close. Then $54 million was discovered hidden from the governor and the Legislature in two special funds.

The Little Hoover Commission, an oversight agency, began examining the park system a year ago and released its report, "Beyond Crisis: Recapturing Excellence in California's State Park System," on Monday.

The report notes California has added more parks to its system than it can afford, and recommends considering whether to turn over management of some of those parks to local entities.

The report suggests as an example that the Hearst Castle might be better operated by an organization like the Getty Museum that is more suited for the Castle's European art collection.

The report encourages different modes of managerial thinking, specifically on developing new methods to bring in more money and encourage more visitation at the parks.

After decades of decreasing funding, a $22 million cut at the time from its $779 million budget threatened the closure of a quarter of the 278 parks in the system. Officials were unable to explain how the parks were chosen or the cost of operating individual sites.

The discovery last year of the hidden $54 million hidden damaged the public's faith in the park system, even as dozens of volunteer groups were scrambling to raise funds and form partnerships to keep them open.

"The old model is obsolete," the report said.

The commission is asking the governor and elected officials to give the parks department the tools, authority and flexibility required to develop a new operating model.

The report says the state Department of Parks and Recreation needs more business-minded managers at the regional and local levels and must revamp its historic management tactics, including those focused primarily on promoting law enforcement rangers, if the system is going to survive.

The California League of Park Associations, which said it was consulted by the commission, agreed with many of the findings.

Some of the 70 threatened parks have temporary agreements with nonprofit groups that are keeping them open, but the deals will begin expiring next year - the 150th anniversary of Yosemite, the first state park. It was taken over by the federal government after Californians had plowed the valley and built livestock fences.

The commission studied structures of park systems in other states and trends in management. The report recommends training for current employees to help them learn to think more creatively. It also recommends hiring people with business experience from outside of state government.

The report also suggests forging more equitable partnerships with nonprofit benefactors such as the arrangements that exist with the National Park Service at Redwood National Park, state parks in Northern California, and regional park districts in Sonoma and Napa counties.

The commission has faith in Anthony Jackson, a retired Marine Corps major general tapped by Gov. Jerry Brown late last year to turn around the beleaguered department. But state park managers, currently focused on preserving and protecting resources, must also learn to explore ways to generate revenue and to encourage visitors to come, the report says.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

(Copyright ©2014 KABC-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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