Californians have access to 270 parks and other state-owned recreation facilities, but there's a tendency to take this great system for granted.
Sure, citizens took notice the last few years, as two governors threatened up to 70 park closures and, more recently, as audits found that managers in the State Parks department had unreported money stashed in camouflaged reserve accounts.
But too little thought has been devoted to the long-term viability of the park system a legacy and an inheritance that demands responsible stewardship.
The Little Hoover Commission has released a valuable new report that offers some significant suggestions about the philosophy and practices of the park system. Two key themes: 1. That increasing the number of visitors is essential to preserving the parks and 2. That requiring parks to generate more money means they need more flexibility in how they operate.
Purists will be alarmed as the cartoon by Jack Ohman of The Sacramento Bee shown here suggests that this means parks will be commercialized to where nature and historical significance are overshadowed. Disneyland takes over Calaveras Big Trees, if you will.
But the report notes that the park system is not sustainable under the current funding arrangement. Change is essential.
The most radical of the six recommendations calls for an assessment of which parks are "presently under state ownership have statewide significance and which parks serve primarily regional or local needs. Parks that lack statewide significance should be transferred to local control."
The study calls for development of objective criteria and a public process to make this assessment. This would be controversial but it's a valuable recommendation and should be pursued.
The proposal isn't to sell state parks but to promote collaboration. The state system already has successful partnerships with the National Park Service; with city, county and regional park systems, such as the East Bay Regional Park District that operates four state parks; and with nonprofits, such as the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation that operates El Presidio State Historic Park.
Conservancies, trusts and volunteer associations also are prospective partners.
We also like the study's emphasis on attracting a new generation of park goers. Too many young Californians aren't aware of or don't appreciate what is available to them. Once introduced and informed, they will be the next generation of park advocates.
Creating multiple paths to become a park ranger or park superintendent other than through police training.
People who have backgrounds in environmental science, historic interpretation and other fields should be allowed to be park rangers and superintendents, as in the National Park Service.
Day use fees have tripled in the last decade; camping fees have doubled. Parks should be allowed more creativity in generating funds so they can reduce entrance and camping fees assuring accessibility to people of all incomes. And when parks generate funds, legislators should allow them to keep a portion to reinvest in their own operations.
These are not new ideas. But previous state parks leaders trying to tackle them have run into political obstacles.
The Little Hoover report should provide impetus for State Parks Director Anthony Jackson, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators to take on restructuring. Their task and ours is to rebuilding trust in the parks system and reposition it for sustainability in the future.