Tag Archives: California State Parks

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

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!

Places I love: Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Ferns grow where water flows.

In a remote part of northern California, a small creek flows to the Pacific Ocean in the heart of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. But this isn’t any creek. This is Home Creek and for its last mile of so it flows through Fern Canyon. I think it is one of the most beautiful spots on the coast.

I took the eight mile dirt road to Gold Bluffs beach earlier this week.  It was raining gently and I had the canyon to myself.  It may lack the grandeur of the better known canyons of the south west, but it more than makes up for this with a series of intimate views as you head upstream, repeatedly crossing the creek as you go.  The sheer walls of the canyon, draped with five-finger ferns, gently reflect and soften the sound of the creek. It’s just magical.

What can parks learn from museums?

Over the last few weeks I have been fortunate enough to spend a week camping at Grover Hot Springs, travel by train to the California State Rail Road Museum, and visit the new Exploratorium on the waterfront in San Francisco. My excuse has been summer with my sons.  And a great summer it has been!

Exploring color
Exploring color

Anyone with kids knows it can be a challenge to keep them entertained. They can only take so much looking at nature, or big steam trains, before they have you running screaming for the door. I vaguely remember it as a kid also — I loved the museums in London. The Science Museum, Natural History Museum and Geology Museum. And if you could find a button to press and make something move you were mesmerized! But mostly it was traipsing around looking at “exhibits” as your parents read out words from the display panels.

Fortunately museums have moved on and become interactive. The Exploratorium, has taken it to a whole knew level. I managed to spend five hours in it with my six year old son enthralled by the countless exhibits. Learning about constellations. color, sound, termites, waves, fog and so much more.  The Exploratorium has been pioneering this kind of interactive learning for decades.

Digging in the dirt
Digging in the dirt

Contrast that to California State Parks that have changed little for decades. We had a wonderful time at Grover Hot Springs, don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place for creative play. But somehow you always feel you are breaking the rules. Wading around in creeks as you dam them up  (is it bad for the fish?), climbing rocks (are we off trail?), painting pine cones (will the paint despoil them?), and we simply daren’t make a tree fort even though there are countless downed sticks.  I know enough about habitat and endangered species to understand why this makes sense, in theory. But there has to be a way to find a better balance.

The California State Railroad Museum has made minor inroads. Hidden away in a corner of the second floor is a play area where kids can build and play with Thomas the Tank Engine model trains. It’s where you will find the smart parents and toddlers catching a break before they head back to the “don’t touch” exhibits downstairs.

I believe its time, way past time, to introduce more interactivity into our state parks. We need places where we encourage kids to dam streams, to dig for worms, to climb trees, to build forts, to pick plants and make collages, and to get thoroughly immersed in the park experience.  The best museums have figured this out. As State Parks considers its futures under the Parks Forward initiative, its time to catch up.


Cleanest restrooms in the country?

Brilliance in the Basics -- a new strategic plan for State Parks
Brilliance in the Basics — a new strategic plan for State Parks

California State Parks has new leadership and they have a plan. It’s called Brilliance in the Basics and one of the five goals jumped out at me. To have the cleanest restrooms in the country. Yes, you heard it right. To have the cleanest restrooms in the country!

This is a big country. There must be hundreds of millions of restrooms. And I am pretty sure there are some pretty fastidious cleaners out there. Despite sequester cuts I am sure President Obama’s commode is well taken care of….

So I am poking gentle fun at this, but I also agree that it’s an important goal. It’s important to take care of the basics before you can strive for excellence. And when it comes to parks, unless you provide a clean restroom many people will be turned away: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in action.

The rest of the plan presents an ambitious set of goals and actions for the coming two years while a more comprehensive independent review of parks is undertaken. I was happy to see Parks committing themselves to partnerships, to resource protection and restoration, to interpretation and education, and to purchasing additional land when this will address pressing park needs.  A lot of the strategic plan calls for developing further plans to prioritize work before actions are taken. I hope they are able to move through the planning phase rapidly and move to implementation as that’s when we’ll start seeing changes on the ground. To paraphrase a military aphorism: a decent plan well executed beats out the perfect plan that never hits the ground.

Ultimately the challenge State Parks will face in the coming two years is they are highly unlikely to get additional public funds and the private donor community is already showing signs of fatigue. To be successful, State Parks will have to look first to how they can deploy existing resources in a more targeted manner. And this will present State Park staff and partners with some tough tradeoffs.

In his forward, Major General Jackson encourages all park staff and volunteers to read and understand the plan. I would take this one step further and encourage the myriad of park partners in the public, private, and non-profit sector to read and support the plan. The State Park system has always been more than just the Department of Parks and Recreation, and in tough times it becomes ever more important to fully embrace the myriad of park partners.

Is this the cleanest restroom in the Country? (Photomato / Flickr)
Is this the cleanest restroom in the Country? (Bodie SHP / Photomato / Flickr)

And if the next park restroom you visit isn’t up to your high standards, I am sure Major General Jackson would appreciate a call…..

Looking across the pond at fun in parks

50 Things to do before you are 11 3/4
50 Things to do before you are 11 3/4

Recent news coverage of The National Trust’s “50 Things to do before you’re 11 3/4” campaign had me reaching for my bookshelves. I had picked up a copy of this fun book and list when I was last in England.

The Great Outdoors holds boundless opportunities: to create, to learn, to walk and run, and to spend precious time with family and friends. Memories that last a lifetime are made through these experiences. And that’s what 50 Things to do Before You’re 11 3/4 is all about.”

It’s a nationwide campaign in the UK to encourage children to get outdoors and enjoy classic activities from stone skimming to building tree forts. It’s also a campaign that the National Trust, one of the largest landowners in Britain, is taking to heart at its properties and historic homes. Go to a trust property these days and you’re likely to find places that kids can pond dip, build tree forts, or simply mess around getting wet and muddy.  It’s part of a broader initiative the Trust launched a number of years ago called, “going local.” The idea was simple, the goal was to have local managers make decisions on how best to let the public interact with the Trusts properties.  The velvet ropes that traditionally guarded quiet dusty rooms came down and people were let in to interact with history.  They are now doing the same for their wild places. Letting people in to play and roam.  It’s part of the broader “children in nature” movement that is gaining momentum also here in the states, spurred in part by Richard Louvre’s best-selling book, “Last Child in the Woods.”

I can’t help but contrast this to many parks here in California. How many times have you been to a park only to be greeted by a long list of what you cannot do? Don’t ride your bike, picnic, walk off trail, dive in the river, walk your dog, pick any flower or stick or cone, and do watch out for mountain lions, poison oak, snakes, and perhaps stinging bees. Makes our parks sound pretty dull, if not outright dangerous places to be.   Is it any wonder that for many people parks are not a place they really think of going?

Take the recent Yosemite plan that I wrote about recently. It proposes to remove bike rentals and an artists studio that sells paints and gives classes in the valley. How does either benefit the visitor or the park? Or look at our state park system in California that is on the verge of collapse after deep cuts and financial scandal. The legislature ordered a two year pause in park closures after the administration had announced the closure of one quarter of the system for budgetary purposes. The administration has a small window to remake California’s park system. I urge them to take a close look at what is happening in the United Kingdom at the National Trust. They have found a way to both protect precious resources, become financially self sustaining, and invite the public in to enjoy themselves. To me it all starts with welcoming people in, and that means having the courage to allow people in to find ways to make our parks fun once more.  It’s good for the visitors, it’s also good for the parks who need a new cadre of strong supporters.

Oh, and in case you are wondering. I am at 45 and counting….