Category Archives: Parks

What does the American Civil War have to do with a park at the geographic center of the UK?

The history of place fascinates me. Especially when that place is a park.

On a recent trip to Williamson Park in Lancaster, England, I picked up another fascinating park foundation story. It’s a surprising one as it spans both centuries and miles. It connects an ornate memorial that I have passed countless times driving up the M6, to the American Civil War, and to that classic kitchen flooring – linoleum.

Northern England in the nineteenth century was home to a thriving cotton industry.  The fortune of whole towns was based upon the fortune of the mill. When the American Civil War broke out the flow of cotton from the southern States stopped and many local residents lost their jobs as the mills closed.

In Lancaster, the cotton famine stopped the mills owned by James Williamson Sr. and his son James Williamson Jr. They specialized in coated cotton products — James Williamson Jr. would go on to be known as the “lino king” and eventually became 1st Baron Ashton.  In what is an early example of a public works project (albeit privately run), the displaced mill workers were employed to convert a disused quarry on Lancaster Moor into Williamson Park.

The park is well worth a visit. If you’re a collector of geographic oddities, it’s worth noting that it’s very close to the geographic center of the United Kingdom. And from the outdoor balconies of the ornate memorial he built to his wife, you get glorious views across the sands of Morecambe Bay to the Lakeland hills — that is, if it’s not raining!

The Ashton Memorial in Williamson Park, Lancaster



How will climate change affect California’s park visitation?

This year’s warm and dry winter is expected to become the norm in the future. Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent time up at Tahoe and most recently among the north coast redwoods. My anecdotal observation is the weather this year is already affecting tourism and our public agencies have yet to catch up.

The lack of snow in the mountains drove people down to the lake shore where the visitor facilities remained closed for the season. At the Emerald Bay overlook, the parking lot was closed and cars were double-parked along the road causing a traffic jam in both directions. While the parking lot for Vikingsholm was open it was as busy as I have seen it during the summer. The house itself was closed and there were no park staff to be seen to greet the hundreds of visitors.

Up on the north coast, the Prairie Creek campground was partially open — and already full by late afternoon. The camp hosts told me they’d be turning people away rather than opening up the second loop as the maintenance crews hadn’t got in yet to open up the additional campsites.

If this year is repeated and becomes the new normal, our public agencies are going to have to change the way they manage the parks. We’ll have to be nimble enough to open them up earlier in the season as the weather, and visitors, demand. More park visitation is perhaps one bright spot in an otherwise bleak future.

Emerald Bay State Park - one of the gems of the State Park System
Emerald Bay State Park – one of the gems of the State Park System

Red Oak Victory anchors Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park

Did you know there’s a National Park on the waterfront in Richmond, California?  This city, which makes the news for all the wrong reasons — think the Chevron Refinery catching on fire or gun violence in the iron triangle — is also home to Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front Historic Park (quite possibly the longest park name in the nation).

It’s fascinating park both for the story it tells, and also how it tells it. Unlike a classic national park where the Government owns the land and the buildings, this is an innovative partnership between the city, the park service and various non-profit partners. During World War II, Richmond was home to some of the largest ship yards in the world. It was also home to countless women — “Rosie’s” —  who picked up welding gloves and heavy equipment to build the machinery that liberated Europe and defeated Japan. It was also in these Kaiser shipyards that the concept of health coverage and insurance and workers was popularized.

At it’s height, these shipyards turned out three ships a day. And in one frenzy of activity, they assembled a liberty ship in five days. Most of these ships are now just a memory. The SS Jeremiah O’Brien, berthed in San Francisco was actually assembled in Maine. So this makes the Red Oak Victory all the more special. It’s one of the few remaining ships built in these ship-yards that remains afloat today.  It’s actually in the care of the Richmond Museum who have been working since 1998 to restore it and fire up the boilers. That’s time consuming and expensive work. But without it, the National Historic Park is just a collection of signs showing old photos of what was.

The Red Oak Victory is one of the few remaining ships built at the Richmond, CA shipyards during World War II.
The Red Oak Victory is one of the few remaining ships built at the Richmond, CA shipyards during World War II.

You may have seen the recent report that estimated our National Park System has a $11.5 billion backlog in deferred maintenance. That’s a big number. But it doesn’t include the money needed to restore other critical pieces of our national heritage — like the Red Oak Victory. That responsibility is falling to the volunteers and supporters of the Richmond Museum.

It’s time for the National Park Service to step up and help the volunteers of the Richmond Museum finish this effort. That would be a great way of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in the city of Richmond.  And with the boilers lit the historic park will finally come to life.  That’s a day I want to see.

Young mariners boarding the SS Red Oak Victory
Young mariners boarding the SS Red Oak Victory

Want to find 30 great parks near you?

Want to get outside this weekend and enjoy some time in the park? Perhaps to ride some single track, or take the dog for a walk? Well unless you know your parks pretty well, you can spend as much time visiting different web-sites to figure out where you can go to do what as you do actually in the park. That’s where this great new web-site — — comes in.

Take the Bay Area as an example. We have National Parks, State Parks, Regional Parks, City Parks, and more.  Lots to choose from, but it can quickly get confusing.  At this new web-site, just click on what you’re interested in, enter your address, and you’ll quickly get a list of up to 30 local parks, along with a map, and links to social media feeds about the park.

It’s a great resource for anyone who’d prefer to spend more time on the trail, and less time figuring out where to go. Thanks to the team who put this together. Especially the Parks Forward Commission and my friends at GreenInfo Network who provided the mapping data that lies at the core of this great new site!

Now time to find a great place to enjoy in the rain!

Playing amid the woods, Roberts Recreational
Playing amid the woods, Roberts Recreational

National Park Concessionaires seek to Shake Things Up (with apologies to Taylor Swift)

I think there may have been a recent bout of collective insanity washing across the States. What else could explain Taylor Swift, Delaware North and Xanterra filing trademark for common terms?

Delaware North has operated the concessions in Yosemite for the last 20 years or so. They are seeking trademark protections for the iconic Ahwahnee lodge and Camp Curry Village.  When the concession goes out to bid, they want the next concessionaire to pay them handsomely for the names that predate their operation by decades. Perhaps Delaware North should pay any remaining descendants of the tribes who lived in the area for their use of the name for the past 20 years — it is derived from their name for the valley, “Owwoni” or “large mouth — after all.

Not to be outdone, Xanterra who operates El Tovar at the Grand Canyon is now in one the act too. They are seeking trademark protection for El Tovar, Bright Angel and Phantom Ranch. There claim is at least based upon their operating the lodges for most of the past century.  Presumably, their claims are being filed largely because today’s lawyers see gaps in contracts written decades ago.

And to top it off, Taylor Swift is seeking to trademark such common terms as “1989” and “I Am an American Citizen.”  Will I have to put a penny in a jar every time I tell someone, no despite my British accent, “I Am an American Citizen?”

While the Taylor Swift push is a side-show, the push by the concessionaires to claim these trademarks disturbs me.  They are being allowed to operate with public parks as they offer a valuable service to the visiting public. It would be a loss to the public if these storied names went away because of a legal spat designed to increase their chances of retaining a lucrative concession.  Rather than take a short-term view, driven by clever attorneys, why not take a long-term view more in-keeping with the park ethic. Even if they lose the concession for a period, they will be better off in the long-term if these names and brands are maintained and strengthened. To me it’s clear that  regardless of what the lawyers may say, these names belong to the public as much as the parks they are allowed to operate in do.

Embed from Getty Images

Time to move Parks Forward

After months of work, dozens of hearings, and reams of data crunched, the Parks Forward Commission released their final report on Friday.  The report makes six basic recommendations to move California State Parks beyond permanent crisis, to a brighter future.

  • Create a dedicated transformation team.
  • Open pathways to leadership.
  • Create a statewide nonprofit strategic partner with resources not currently available from existing park partners to undertake projects in coordination with the Department .
  • Prioritize necessary support to protect the system’s natural and cultural resources for future generations .
  • Expand park access for California’s underserved communities and urban populations and engage California’s younger generations .
  • Establish a stable funding structure for California parks that includes a robust revenue generation strategy and a dedicated, reliable source of public funding .

It’s not the first report to make many of these recommendations, but hopefully the last as the time has come to focus on implementation.

It was no accident that the Commission put the issue of opening up multiple pathways to leadership up front. To me it’s the central issue that State Parks is facing and without change in this area, the park system will continue to fall short.  Over the past 30 years, leadership in parks has narrowed and been focused on law enforcement and peace officer training. Don’t get me wrong, public safety in parks is critical. But securing and maintaining a peace officer certification is costly and takes hours each year. It also narrows the pool of people drawn to park leadership. Opening up leadership to those with backgrounds in natural resources, recreation and the like, will strengthen parks and be the key to unlocking the other changes.

Too often when I have camped at a State Park, the only time I see the Ranger is when they drive around in their police vehicle a the end of the day. I will know the Commission Report has been successful when the Ranger walks around and invites me to the campfire talk they’re giving later that evening.

Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks
Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks

Has spring arrived already?

It gets me every year. January is barely started and California is already flirting with Spring.

Last weekend, out in the redwoods in west Marin, the California Bay trees were blooming. When the weak sun filtered through the canopy and hit their branches, the diminutive cream colored flowers shone like little jewels. As the day wore on and the leaves heated up, that classic smell of the woods permeated the air — the peppery smell of this beautiful tree.

Have you seen the signs of Spring yet? Let me know!

One of the early signs of spring by the Bay.
One of the early signs of spring by the Bay.

Three ways to beat the crowds at Muir Woods

One of the Bay Areas top visitor spots is Muir Woods. It was beautiful when I was there yesterday. I’ll never tire of the walk to Cathedral Grove along the banks of Redwood Creek. But it can get a little crowded. In fact this year, visitation is up 10 per cent  — or about 1 million people a year. I was surprised to learn that the days after Christmas can be as busy as any summer weekend!  Unfortunately the shuttle bus service is suspended due to the slide on Highway 1 and that the County is blocking parking along the county road. It had me thinking, if you want to visit the redwoods but want to avoid the Muir Woods crush, where should you go?

I have three suggestions for other spots to try.  They are all close by and have the added advantage of being kid friendly!

Live in the South Bay? Head down the coast and turn inland at Pescadero to find Butano Redwoods State Park. Much like Muir Woods, the highlight is a beautiful trail that follows Little Butano Creek with redwoods cloaking both sides.  Head up to the campground to see some of the largest trees in the park. And on your way out, stop at Bean Hollow State Beach and watch the breakers roll in.  It’s a grand day out!

Headed North across the Golden Gate Bridge? Instead of getting off at Muir Woods, head out on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard as it winds out to West Marin and stop at Samuel P. Taylor State Park. You could start our at the picnic area and admire the classic CCC hearths — you could even throw on a log and heat up your tea. Kids, young and old alike, will enjoy playing on the old stumps.  Then take a walk over the bridge to the Cross Marin Trail. It’s a great place to ride your bike, or just enjoy a walk along the creek.  Then hike up Wildcat Canyon to see some of the tallest trees in the Bay Area. If you’re feeling ambitious, follow the Pioneer trail up the the hill to an unusual grove at the top.

Want to stay in the East Bay?   It may lack the grandeur of the ancient forest, but my kids love to go to Roberts Regional Recreation Area.  It’s got a great playground and a beautiful redwood grove where they can play to their hearts content.  You can follow the short trail and see the site of the “landmark trees” — redwood beacons used by the early sailors on the bay.

Do you have other places to recommend? Let me know!

What would Stephen Mather think about WiFi in National Parks?

The National Park Service is developing plans to bring WiFi and better cell-phone access to parks, including the iconic Yellowstone National Park. It’s triggering a heated debate, evidence by the recent article on Mashable that has been widely shared. Do elk and moose need access to the internet? Or more importantly, do the visitors who have come to be with nature also need to be connected to the internet so they can post a selfie instantaneously?

As we come up to the Centennial of the National Park Service it had me wondering what Stephen Mather, the first head of the National Park Service, would think of this debate. Of course, we’ll never know, but I have a hunch he’d have been an advocate.

Mather was a fascinating individual who had made his millions out of 20 Mule Team Borax. He understood the power of brand and the importance of getting people into the parks. He professionalized the park service, developed the iconic image of the Park Ranger (think of that hat), promoted Park Highways, and introduced concessions into Parks to provide for the needs of the visitors attracted to the parks he was building. He understood that parks needed protecting and the best way to protect them was to have passionate advocates who loved them.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he’d understand the importance of introducing WiFi and internet access in a careful and limited manner to both encourage new visitors and provide new services to the visitor once they arrived. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we need access everywhere all the time, but I do believe parks need to keep pace with current trends to ensure they remain relevant to all visitors.

What do you think?

Embed from Getty Images

Paying to park

In the past week, I’ve visited a couple of great parks.  ‘Akaka Falls State Park on the Big Island in Hawaii and Point Lobos State Park, here in California.  Both are much loved and much visited parks. Both have small parking lots and in both instances many people park outside along the road. Both charge for parking, and both have a $1 fee for visitors on foot.

But the Californian park does it differently: and I argue not as well. The $1 is a “suggested donation” in California whereas in Hawaii its mandatory. So why do I think the $1 should be mandatory?

Please donate $1 to support the park
Please donate $1 to support the park

In Hawaii there was a friendly person to talk to to learn more about the park as you paid your money. The funds provide a job for someone in the park and provide funding to maintain the park.

In California, there’s a small sign suggesting you put a donation in the iron ranger. I had $20 and no small bills. So the park lost out.  But it wasn’t just the park that lost out.  I am all for  keeping access to parks affordable for all.  But paying a nominal amount to get into the park can actually enhance the visitors experience by giving you a point of contact, it can provide entry-level jobs in the parks, and provide support to maintain the park. That’s a win-win-win.

Come on California. You have a world-class park system, but in many ways it is far behind the times.  What do you think? Should access be free for all? Or do you share my view that a small fee can be an win all around?

420' 'Akaka Falls tumbles down through the rain forest.
420′ ‘Akaka Falls tumbles down through the rain forest.


Is this the most perfect meeting of land and sea in the world?
Is this the most perfect meeting of land and sea in the world?