SACRAMENTO — Anthony Jackson can relate to the many Californians who are furious with the state Parks Department.
The retired Marine and his wife were among the outdoor enthusiasts who dug into their pockets this year to save a beloved local park after Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration announced there was no money to keep dozens of them open. Then it turned out that parks officials had concealed tens of millions of dollars — enough to keep almost everything operating — from state bookkeepers.
Now it’s Jackson’s job to make sure nothing like that ever happens again. In November, Brown appointed the state government neophyte to run the Parks Department, which has 280 facilities across 1.4 million acres and a $500-million budget this year.
“There’s a lot of pressure on me,” Jackson, 63, said in an interview. “Sometimes my wife chuckles, ‘You’ve got yourself in it.’ ”
Faced with an accounting scandal born of longtime insiders playing by their own rules, the governor put in charge an outsider with a record of order, discipline and creative thinking about the environment. In his last military post, Jackson, who had risen to major general, commanded more than 73,000 people on seven bases. He pleased conservationists by promoting green energy policies on those bases and helping to fight a toll road near Camp Pendleton that would have cut through San Onofre State Beach.
“It’s kind of shocking how much I like him,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California and a self-described “liberal peacenik.” In a November letter to Sierra Club members, she said Jackson “may be exactly the right man at the right time for state parks.”
After retiring from the military a year ago, Jackson bought a Winnebago and logged 9,700 miles as he crisscrossed the state from park to park. He planned to tend a vegetable garden at his Fallbrook home, where 4 acres are preserved as a natural habitat for plants and animals. But now he’ll be spending weeknights in a one-bedroom apartment just blocks from his new office in Sacramento.
Jackson, who must be confirmed for his new post by the state Senate within a year of his appointment, is still getting his bearings in Sacramento. His vision for the parks system is a work in progress.
“Everything is on the table,” he said. “Everything except fouling the beauty of our parks. We’re not going to turn our parks into Disney World or an arcade.”
Jackson has long been something of a crusader.
He protested segregation at a Houston lunch counter when he was 13. As a student at San Jose State, Jackson led fellow black athletes in a boycott of a football game against Brigham Young University because of the school’s ties to the Mormon Church, which didn’t allow blacks to be members of its lay priesthood at the time.
He signed with the military as the Vietnam War was ending, moved to enlist by a Candlestick Park news ticker reporting that Marines had recaptured an American merchant ship in the Gulf of Siam.
“I felt like I had never put myself at risk like those Marines had,” he said. “I resolved to wake up the next morning and join.”
He told his wife only after the deed was done. She was furious, so he promised to quit after three years.
Jackson left and joined the reserves, but that wasn’t enough for him. He went back into active duty and served nearly four decades in posts around the world, including Iraq, where he helped manage the supply chain for frontline troops.
“Generals don’t have to treat you well,” said former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher of San Diego, a Marine veteran himself. “But he does. He treats people with respect and dignity.”
Once retired, Jackson had talked to state officials about working in the administration in some capacity — maybe the energy commission, maybe a university. Nothing stuck until the phone rang last summer and John Laird, Brown’s natural resources secretary, asked if Jackson was interested in running the Parks Department.
He was. But only with his wife’s blessing, which he received.
Restoring the sheen to the state’s park system won’t be easy.
The discovery of about $54 million that parks officials had hidden will not solve the funding problems. More than $1 billion in maintenance work has been put off over the years. The accounting scandal, including fresh irregularities unearthed last month by Brown’s Department of Finance and the state controller, may even make things harder.
“It’s going to be difficult to get people in the state of California to rally around parks,” said Dan Jacobson, legislative director at Environment California, an advocacy group. “The image of the money found in someone’s couch is going to keep popping up.”
The state auditor and attorney general’s office have yet to weigh in with their own findings.
“We’re going to take a few gut shots as these reports and audits come out,” Jackson acknowledged. “But we’re going to get off the mat.”