Revival of California's state parks is underway

  • by John Laird
  • Wednesday June 3, 2015
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Donner Lake is part of Donner Memorial State Park, a beautiful<br>camping and recreational area off Highway 80 near Truckee.
Donner Lake is part of Donner Memorial State Park, a beautiful
camping and recreational area off Highway 80 near Truckee.

California's state parks rival any collection of natural and cultural resources worldwide. In a California state park, a person may spot gray whales spouting from an ocean cliff, peer into the kitchen cupboard of an abandoned home in a high-desert ghost town, or walk the riverside oak gallery that harbors the state's last population of riparian brush rabbit.

These parks reflect the grandeur and history of an enormously varied and ecologically and culturally rich state. They embody our heritage as Californians.

If you have visited any of the 279 units of the California State Parks system in recent years, you may have noticed that curtailed services, shorter hours, higher fees, and a maintenance backlog have tarnished this heritage.

A transformation is needed " and underway. Under the leadership of Governor Jerry Brown, a Parks Forward Commission was established in 2012 to examine the steady deterioration of state parks, find ways to reverse that course, and make our parks system sustainable.

The commission " a group of business, academic, conservation, and parks leaders " announced its findings and recommendations in July 2014. They set forth short-term actions that are either already completed or well underway: Create a transformation team in the California Department of Parks and Recreation to transform its organizational structure and modernize its systems, tools, and technology. Open a pathway to leadership for the most qualified employees. Create a statewide nonprofit strategic partner capable of raising funds for key parks projects. Expand park access for underserved communities, urban residents, and younger generations. Establish a reliable, dedicated funding structure for state parks, including a more entrepreneurial revenue-generating strategy.

As part of this transformation, the Department of Parks and Recreation is moving to allow visitors to use credit and debit cards or smartphones to pay entrance and parking fees, where possible. The department is providing panoramic views of parks on its website, so potential visitors can see trails before they set out on a hike. More cabins are slated for the parks system, to appeal to visitors who may not want to pitch a tent. In an important behind-the-scenes adjustment, the department also has begun reporting to the Legislature each year the expenditures for each individual park unit " a first step to better fiscal management.

Beyond actions that can be taken in the next couple of years, the Parks Forward Commission has set forth a vision to be achieved over the next decade. Goals for 2025 include:

- Eliminate the park maintenance backlog.

- Make the Department staff a model of innovation that reflects California's diversity.

- Reflect California's ethnic, age, sexual orientation, and income diversity among park users.

-Collaborate with public agencies and non-profit groups to manage natural, historical, cultural, and recreational assets as an interconnected landscape of parks and open space.

- Ensure that every city dweller in California lives within a safe, half-mile walk of a well-maintained park.

- Inspire a younger generation to use, care for, and seek careers in the parks system.

- Sustainably fund state parks through a combination of revenue generation, the state's general fund, and dedicated public funding.

Come visit a state park, and know that a transformation is underway. If you head to the mountains this summer, consider stopping at the new Donner Memorial State Park Interpretive Visitor Center off Interstate 80 near Donner Lake. New exhibits, expanded interpretive programs, and a modern auditorium help tell the region's stories, which go beyond the ill-fated Donner Party emigrants who spent the winter of 1846-47 snowbound nearby. In the revamped visitor center, you can also learn of the Washoe tribe that first settled the area, the Chinese workers who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad, and the history of the Emigrant Trail and motor vehicle traffic over the Sierra Nevada summit.

To learn more about your parks, visit


John Laird, a gay former state lawmaker, is the secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency.