Photo: Hariot Manley / Special To The Chronicle
Brandishing a pair of industrial-strength loppers longer than her arm, Elisa Rogalado plunges into a blackberry thicket lining the main road in Sonoma County’s Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.
“If you love something, you should take care of it,” says the retired Santa Rosa resident, yanking out a gnarly bramble that’s clogging the road’s drainage ditch. “And look,” says Rogalado, beaming as she pulls back her sweatshirt sleeve to reveal a turquoise-blue Garmin activity tracker. “I’ve burned 519 calories.”
Elisa isn’t the only one pitching in at Sugarloaf Ridge on this spring morning. Just up the road, a team of volunteers in hard hats cut down oaks and bays damaged in last fall’s destructive fires. (Roughly 80 percent of the rugged, 3,900-acre park was burned.) And in a few days, more than 60 volunteers will flood into the park to rebuild trails, clear debris and otherwise pitch in.
All these volunteers are coordinated not by California State Parks but by Team Sugarloaf, a partnership of five nonprofit organizations that now oversee the park’s daily operations. Responsibilities include coordinating volunteers, running the campground, staffing the visitor center, maintaining and protecting the park’s natural, cultural and historic resources, and paying the salary for the park supervisor and other personnel.
It’s part of a statewide trend that’s seeing nonprofit organizations, philanthropies, volunteers, cultural institutions and companies taking on bigger roles in operating California’s 280 state park units. And all eyes are on us as other states — and even the National Park Service — face similar challenges. (Full disclosure: The author is a member of Friends of China Camp State Park.)
“People here are so passionate, and willing not just to complain but roll up their sleeves and be part of the solution, and we’re willing to take a chance to work with them,” says California State Parks Director Lisa Mangat. “It’s a historic time. California has the opportunity to be the innovator, and the leader.”
The marriage between parks and partners isn’t new. The park system has been working with outside organizations and businesses for decades. (Think the woodsy camp store in Big Basin State Park near Santa Cruz.) But what is new is the extent to which these organizations are handling the day-to-day operation of the parks.
What started it all? In a word, crisis. In 2011, California’s budget was in a tailspin. To help cut costs, Gov. Jerry Brown announced a plan to lock the gates at up to 70 park parcels — news that shocked the public and kick-started local efforts to figure out how to keep parks open.
Nowhere did the grim news hit harder than in Sonoma County.
“We were staring at five parks closing,” explains Richard Dale, executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center, which works to sustain ecological health in Sonoma Valley. While individual organizations signed up to stave off closure at four of the five Sonoma County parks facing closure, there was one park with no takers.
“Sugarloaf was the orphan,” says Dale.
To fill the gap, five groups said they could each take on some of the responsibilities of running the park. Sonoma County Trails Council would manage and maintain the park’s trails. Another group would run interpretive programs. Volunteers would continue to offer star-gazing programs at Robert Ferguson Observatory, near the center of the park. A private concessionaire would run the campground. And Sonoma Ecology Center would oversee general operations.
Partnership agreements were quickly cobbled together, and after a few tense weeks in early 2012 when Sugarloaf’s gates were locked, the park opened again.
“We had no idea whether it would work or not,” says Dale. “But I was hopeful that we could pull it off.”
Mangat says that the budget crisis called for these kinds of emergency solutions. “These partnerships didn’t go through the methodical planning process that we’re famous for in state government. The circumstances and the times required that we act. It was a leap of faith.”
With volunteer, nonprofit and other organizations keeping parks like Sugarloaf open, albeit in ad hoc fashion, the park system started to do some serious self-reflection.
“The institution had ossified,” says Michael Mantell, president of the Resources Legacy Fund and an expert in philanthropies and conservation efforts. “The department had become locked into a 1950s way of thinking.”
Hikers in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park wind through a forest of blackened oaks, already sprouting new growth following last fall’s fires.
To get more modern, California State Parks set up a Parks Forward commission, with Mantell and other independent experts on board. The commission was assigned to deliver a road map for achieving long-term sustainability for the park system. It also explored how to “make parks more relevant for California’s growing and changing population,” Mantell says.
After two years of research, Parks Forward concluded that local groups and volunteers pitching in with dollars and free or low-cost labor was an effective way to better manage parks — not to mention connecting people and parks in a powerful and meaningful way.
That didn’t mean that the state should hand over the keys to partners. Instead, says Mangat, it motivated the department to act. “We sat down with our partners to find out what areas they thought they were really strong at, and what areas might not be their thing,” she explains.
What’s beginning to gel now, as long-term cooperative agreements between parks and partners take shape, is a hybrid management style. Partners may handle day-to-day operations or other key roles, while State Parks takes on law enforcement, resource management and maintenance, and provides general oversight. The department has also created a Partnership Office, with staff focusing on nurturing and developing these new roles.
“It’s not cookie-cutter,” stresses Mangat. “We need to have conversations, so partners can focus on strengths.”
There’s also a focus on bringing in talent from outside the department. Brown’s 2018 budget includes funding for more than 360 new park positions, including rangers, resource specialists, cultural professionals, even lifeguards — almost all of them to work in the field, not in Sacramento.
Another directive is designed to attract Californians who haven’t traditionally visited parks, such as Millennials and ethnic groups. That could mean increasing the number of organized events, like the popular summertime concert series at Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen.
It could also mean more places to stay overnight at state parks, off the ground and in clustered shelters that better allow for groups and large families. In the Bay Area, Angel Island plans to add 13 cabins, potentially using a “wedge” design created by architecture students at Cal Poly Pomona. In Calaveras Big Trees State Park, 10 to 15 new cabins are in the works. These could be grouped to give a sense of community, and better serve all types of visitors.
California’s June ballot could also bring good news. Passage of Proposition 68 would authorize $4 billion in bonds, $3 billion of that earmarked for state and local parks and water projects.
Ultimately, the path that parks take may be up to the people who enjoy them — whether it is how they vote, what groups they support, or how they pitch in to keep the parks thriving and healthy.
“It’s all about giving back and contributing,” says Elisa Rogalado, still smiling as she cuts back more brambles at Sugarloaf. “And it’s a heck of a lot better than watching daytime TV.”
Harriot Manley is a freelance writer and photographer. email: email@example.com.
More parks with partners
Like Sugarloaf Ridge Regional Park, other state parks, historic sites and recreation areas threatened with closure in 2011 have also risen, phoenix like, from the ashes of a grim financial future. Here are three more that not only kept the gates unlocked but have forged new partnerships, connected with their communities, and thrived.
Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park
This downtown park, protecting the only remaining building of the 12th Franciscan mission outpost, has a guardian angel in Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks.
“In 2009 every one of the parks in our district was threatened with closure,” said Bonny Hawley, executive director of Friends of Santa Cruz. “We rallied the community and kept all the parks open. In 2011, when closures were threatened again, we offered to fund a portion of park operations at the mission.”
The group also organizes mission events, including the annual Mole & Mariachi Fest (held the Saturday after Labor Day). The food and music event brings in much-needed dollars for recent mission projects, including replacing floors with handcrafted adobe bricks and replastering walls. It’s also a nod to the region’s rich Hispanic culture.
“This community loves its parks,” says Hawley, “and we’re able to tap into that passion.”
Austin Creek State Recreation Area
Protecting rugged canyons, lush meadows, and a former artists colony, this roughly 5,600-acre park east of Guerneville is now managed by the nonprofit Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods. The partnership has paid off big time. “Campground revenues have gone from $30,000 to $90,000 a year,” says Stewards executive director Michele Luna.
Another accomplishment: the reopening of the historic Pond Farm, an experimental artists colony on the southeastern tip of Austin Creek. In the late 1930s, Marguerite Wildenhain, a Jewish master potter, fled Europe and settled at the hilly farm, where she taught the art of ceramics until the 1980s, when the farm was closed.
Laura Tyler Neely of Fairfax studies a pitcher, part of a display showing the teaching process used by master potter Marguerite Wildenhain at Austin Creek State Recreation Area near Guerneville.
According to Luna, nearly $500,000 from a 2006 state bond measure was secured by Stewards and used to restore the farm’s ark-like barn. (It still houses the rows of foot-powered kick wheels used by Wildenhain and her students.) More restoration plans are in the works, and volunteers lead monthly Pond Farm tours. There’s talk of an artist-in-residence program, too.
“We have a strong arts community in Guerneville,” notes Luna. “It makes sense to be part of that.”
China Camp State Park
At China Camp State Park in San Rafael, the nonprofit Friends of China Camp came to the rescue when closure was threatened, rallying donors and volunteers to keep the park open. Today, the group provides all staffing in the park and oversees daily operations, including the maintenance of miles of multiuse trails.
That proved to be a daunting responsibility when the 2017 winter rains washed out a 20-foot stretch of China Camp’s popular Shoreline Trail. Government funding for repairs were held up, so Friends, wanting to get the trail open, decided to fix the slide — and foot the bill.
That’s when the group turned to locals. “The San Rafael Rock Quarry donated 300 tons of rock, and volunteers pitched in to do much of the work — totaling about $50,000 worth of free labor and materials,” says Executive Director Martin Lowenstein. “That kind of support shows you what an organization can do when working with the local community.”