Some of the most majestic, awe-inspiring and unique vistas nature has to offer have been enshrined as California state parks. Millions of people love them, visit them and want to protect them.
So why has Gov. Jerry Brown had such a difficult time finding the right Parks and Recreation director? There have been two acting directors and one who served only 18 months before abruptly departing. Parks have been essentially in receivership for two years, after budget cuts and revelations that departmental managers had squirreled away $20 million even as park officials threatened shutdowns due to budget cuts.
Our parks department deserves long-term leadership and 21st-century vision, focused on public enjoyment and preservation of the state’s natural resources, history and beauty.
Lisa Mangat was named the acting director of Parks and Recreation by Natural Resources Secretary John Laird earlier this month. She is a good choice, for now. Mangat comes from a finance background, and her first task will be to make certain the department’s financial house in order. The importance of this can’t be overstated.
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While Mangat has the skills to do that, we worry that Brown and Laird are only vaguely interested in our parks. The department has emphasized its public safety duties over any kind of recreational role. Rangers carry guns and are sworn peace officers. Natural resource management, interpretation and facilities have become secondary. There is a culture of risk aversion.
California deserves a parks director who will welcome younger, more diverse visitors, and inspire the next generation of stewards who might not yet have a relationship with the outdoors. We need bikers, hikers, boaters, photographers, campers, kayakers, recreational vehicle travelers and climbers to flock to our parks. We want to see people not just visiting, but enjoying themselves. Our parks need a modern thinker who can combine digital marketing savvy with the need to set aside all the digital toys and go native.
The state needs someone who grasps that parks compete with other attractions. They need to understand that it’s not just about managing lands and buildings, but bringing people to parks and, when needed, bringing our parks to people.
The director should end the obsolete policy that requires that park superintendents be law enforcement officers, eliminating people who have science or historical backgrounds. Even the National Park Service doesn’t have such a requirement. An independent commission, Parks Forward, was the latest to recommend opening leadership roles to far more diverse candidates.
Finally, we must revisit the issue of developing more parks for the Valley. Perhaps the surest indicator of the state’s disinterest in providing recreational opportunities for Valley residents is Henry W. Coe State Park, which has 87,000 acres of wilderness trails, wild vistas, fishing and camping. Although a quarter or more of this park is in Stanislaus County, you have to drive into Santa Clara County to enter. Our parks are smaller and have fewer amenities, and fewer recreational opportunities. The next director ought to help remedy that gap.
Our parks are amazing. How about a parks director who invites us all to come be amazed?