California State Park
California State Park

Opinion: Bold steps needed to bring California parks up to speed

Jon Christensen is an adjunct assistant professor in the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and is collaborating on a project visualizing social media in California parks. This op-ed appeared April 29 in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Parks Forward — a blue-ribbon commission studying the troubled California State Parks system — is proposing a surprisingly bold vision for the future of parks in California: a brand-new privately and publicly funded organization to do what the state parks agency cannot do.

The Parks Forward commission evidently recognizes that the parks agency will have its hands full with the daunting internal reforms necessary to get its own house in order for years to come. And it will never have the capacity to take on the innovations necessary to bring California parks into the 21st century. The solution: create a new, more nimble, nonprofit parks support organization to work with the state parks agency, other local and regional parks agencies, nonprofits, businesses, and community groups to do what needs to be done.

It’s a simple, elegant and seemingly obvious solution that will, no doubt, require lengthy discussion and negotiation.

The commission is refreshingly frank in its assessment of the challenges ahead. “First, California’s parks system is debilitated by an outdated organizational structure, underinvestment in technology and business tools, and a culture that has not rewarded excellence, innovation and leadership. Second, only broad-based, fundamental change will transform the system into one that will transform parks and the parks experience to once again lead the nation and the world in meeting the needs of citizens and visitors for decades to come.”

The commission’s recommendations for internal reforms include upgrading the department’s information and technology infrastructure; budgeting, planning and accounting systems; and fee collections. Right now, as state parks director Anthony Jackson, a retired Marine major general, has said, the agency is stuck two-thirds of the way through the 20th century technologically. Bringing it into the 21st century is going to be a huge undertaking. The commission also recommends a big change in state parks leadership. Right now, to rise in the agency’s ranks to district superintendent and above, employees must be peace officers. As a result, the commission says, leaders tend to focus on law enforcement. The commission recommends abolishing the requirement and opening up leadership to more diverse candidates with other skills and interests.

The new support organization would be tasked with providing funding, design and support for deploying state-of-the-art fee collection machines in parks; finding new business development opportunities such as special events and partnerships for parks; raising funds and securing other financing for parks; developing digital tools for communications, marketing and on-the-ground guides to parks in English and Spanish; and working with organizations focused on providing parks in underserved urban communities.

From the beginning of its efforts, the commission says it has been “mindful” of California’s rapidly changing demographics. The state’s Latino population is projected to grow from 38 percent in 2010 to 52 percent in 2040. Millennials — people born between 1980 and 2000 — now make up 29 percent of the state, constitute “the single largest generation in human history,” and nationally “will decide the next six presidential elections.” And while 61 percent of Californians were clustered in three urban areas in 2010, that number will rise to 76 percent by 2050.

All of this gives an urban, millennial, technologically savvy flavor to the Parks Forward recommendations. In 1928, when the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. offered his recommendations to a state park commission, he noted the “magnitude and importance, socially and economically, in California, of the values arising directly and indirectly from the enjoyment of scenery and from related pleasure of non-urban outdoor life.” Today, the future of California’s 280 state parks, covering 1.6 million acres and providing access to more than a third of the state’s coastline, hinges not on escaping the city but on reconnecting to urban life.