By PETE GOLIS
BERKELEY— People who care about California’s state parks met here on Thursday to imagine how new kinds of partnerships could save some of the 70 parks now marked for closure.
One of those partnerships, it was announced, could involve Sonoma County Regional Parks and the conservation group LandPaths. Craig Anderson, LandPaths’ executive director, said the two agencies are exploring how they can combine efforts to preserve Annadel State Park, the popular reserve on Santa Rosa’s eastern boundary.
On Friday, Anderson and Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart said the broad outline of the partnership would have county government take responsibility for managing the park, while LandPaths would be responsible for coordinating a corps of volunteers. If the two parties agree, the arrangement would be subject to approval by the Board of Supervisors and by State Parks. It would take effect July 1, the day the state now plans to shutter Annadel.
In a three-hour session hosted by the Bay Area Open Space Council, representatives from conservation groups and parks officials found no easy solutions, but they vowed to seek home-grown business models tied to community fund raising, volunteer energy and shared responsibility among public and private agencies.
Traci Verardo-Torres, vice president for governmental affairs for the California State Parks Foundation, described these collaborations as “taking back the parks in a collective ownership way.”
We may discover later that these hurried initiatives are re-inventing the stewardship of public lands in California.
As many speakers acknowledged, success will depend on their capacity to convince the public to share their enthusiasm.
The session came a day after another grim budget forecast from Sacramento — projections that seemed to erase the last hope that political pressure might convince Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature to back away from closure plans.
When schools days are being cut, when social service budgets are being eviscerated, when college students face another round of tuition hikes, it doesn’t get easier for friendly lawmakers to argue that the state parks should be held harmless.
Responding to the plans to close five state parks in Sonoma County — Annadel, Sugarloaf, Petaluma Adobe, Jack London and Austin Creek — five public and private agencies came together earlier this year to form the Sonoma County Parks Alliance. The group now has 17 partners working to identify new ways to manage parks, said the alliance’s deputy director, Lauren Dixon.
The challenge remains that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every park is different in size and location and surroundings.
Samuel P. Taylor in Marin County will be spared, thanks to a new partnership with the National Parks Service, which operates nearby Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
An energetic nonprofit, the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, is seeking permission to operate Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen.
And a coalition led by the Sonoma Ecology Center wants to manage Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Kenwood.
Annadel? With county management, community fundraising and volunteerism, it might become what LandPaths calls a “people-powered park.” But how does one engage the tangible support of all those people who hike, jog and bike every day in Annadel?
It remains impossible to close Annadel, a 5,000-acre landscape on the edge of a city and open on all sides. Speakers here said it would be more like abandoning the park.
“We’re not sure what a closed park looks like,” said Davita Rodriguez, state parks superintendent in Marin County. Marin’s China Camp State Park, like Annadel, will remain accessible to the public even if the gates are locked.
About the prospect of trespassing, fires, vandalism, illegal dumping, environmental destruction, marijuana gardens and more, Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Frietas told a legislative committee earlier this month, “People are assuming that sheriffs can provide this service, when most of us are not in a position to do so.”
This is the third time in four years that state government has sought to shutter some of the state parks. While the closures have attracted public attention, the fact is, the parks system has been shortchanged for most of the last three decades.
The public cheered every time the state bought new park land, but no one noticed when the state failed to provide the resources adequate to maintain those new parks. The long-term cost of deferred maintenance is pegged at $1.3 billion.
In 2010, supporters hoped that a vehicle license fee earmarked for state parks would provide relief, but Proposition 21 was overwhelmingly rejected, taking with it hopes for a single solution. The defeat also made it easier for politicians to say parks are not a priority to the public.
Supporters may complain that the state has abandoned its historic role – and they would be right. But complaining won’t change anything. Waiting for state government to get its act together is the same as giving up.
“If we can’t make this happen in Sonoma County,” Dixon said, “We’re not sure where it can happen.”
She added, “The community is going to have to step up.”
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.