Supporters struggle to buy time for endangered state parks


SAN RAFAEL — When Ernest Chung started mountain biking in China Camp State Park two decades ago, he never worried about where the money came from to preserve the tree-covered hills, dirt trails and rocky shoreline.

Now that the Marin County park is scheduled to close because of budget cuts, it’s always on his mind. Chung and his allies are in a race to raise enough money to keep it open, courting deep-pocketed philanthropists, blasting out batches of desperate emails and rounding up musicians from the San Francisco Symphony to serenade potential donors at a fundraiser.

Chung, a retired executive who heads the nonprofit group Friends of China Camp, is part of a grand experiment California has launched to avoid closing 70 parks that state officials say the government can no longer afford to operate. Supporters across the state are trying to find ways to keep treasured natural and historic sites accessible to the public before their scheduled closure next month.

But even if they are successful, the rescue will be a reprieve, not a solution, officials and advocates say. It’s a struggle playing out in California and around the country, with lawmakers searching for enough money and the right policies to save parks permanently.

“This is a brave new world,” said Chung, standing outside a San Rafael library where he was scheduled to meet with a potential donor.

Supporters have pooled $200,000 to keep China Camp solvent and need $50,000 more. Chung noted that even if they are successful, they will have to start over next year: “If we tell people that we are going to be successful every year, we’d be fooling ourselves, because we haven’t done it yet.”

China Camp boosters at least have a stable of potential donors in wealthy Marin County. In less fortunate locales, the prospects of quickly raising tens of thousands of dollars is dim.

Officials and supporters in Whittier are struggling to scrape together $80,000 to save the historic home of Pio Pico, California’s last Mexican governor — even as the preserved rancho at Los Encinos State Historic Park 35 miles away has been spared from closure thanks to a $150,000 check from a single anonymous donor.

“In some of the richer areas, someone steps forward and writes a check for the full amount,” said Whittier Assistant City Manager Nancy Mendez. “That’s not the case here. They’re getting $5 donations.”

For some park supporters, the funding crisis means new opportunities. A nonprofit organization that runs the Jack London State Historic Park in Sonoma County wants to host weddings, corporate retreats and other events there.

“We’re having a ball,” said Tjiska Van Wyk, executive director of the Valley of the Moon Natural History Assn. She said the association is also raising money for repairs, a major problem across the park system.

State parks Director Ruth Coleman estimates that more than half of the 70 lands scheduled for closure will, in the end, remain open.

In some cases, donors and local governments have pledged to replace the funding that was cut. In others, a nonprofit will operate the park, collecting entrance fees, hiring personnel and maintaining the grounds. The state may also sign more contracts for private companies to run concession stands and marinas in some parks.

Across the country, politicians and community leaders are struggling to sustain defunded park properties.

Vending machines have been installed at parks in Nevada so snacks and drinks can be turned into revenue. Idaho officials have sought companies that will pay to discreetly place their logos on park signs.

In Colorado, a commission authorized oil and gas drilling in St. Vrain Park, about 30 miles north of Denver. The roughly 750 acres, dotted with ponds, sits on a potentially lucrative oil field.

Supporters say it’s better to allow drilling inside the park than to watch the energy companies drill on the outskirts, draining mineral wealth without helping the state’s bottom line. But conservationists are concerned about the environmental effect, noting that the park is a nesting area for birds.

“There are some places that are too important to drill on,” said Jason Bane, spokesman for Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder-based group.

Similar ideas are not on the table in California. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal to drill off the coast of Santa Barbara was met with hostility, and he dropped it in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Arizona began closing almost all of its parks in 2010 until they were saved by a patchwork of agreements with local governments and nonprofit agencies — much like that being developed in California. Some counties shared their money with the state, and nonprofits held charity events to raise funds for the parks.

Donations can take things only so far, however. Philip McKnelly, executive director of the National Assn. of State Park Directors, warns that nonprofits and other charitable sources “can’t keep generating the revenues necessary” over the long haul.

California lawmakers are working to develop a longer-term solution. They are weighing proposals to tap vehicle registration fees and sell special license plates to drivers who donate to the parks system. Lawmakers also want to collect entrance fees at more parks.

Some Republican lawmakers are pushing to allow for-profit companies to run parks. So far, the Democratic majority has resisted those calls.

Maintenance work, from potholes to damaged roofs, has been so neglected that there is a $1.3-billion backlog of work to be done across California’s 279 state parks. There are no funds for anything that goes wrong in places like Plumas-Eureka State Park, northwest of Lake Tahoe, where donors were able to raise enough cash to avert closure.

“We don’t have money if there’s a major water issue or a major plumbing issue,” Scott Elliott, a supervising park ranger, said of Plumas-Eureka State Park, where donors were able to raise enough cash to avert closure. “There’s no backstop.”