Reality check: Public parks need philanthropy

 In Philanthropy, Public Lands

Henry Coe State Park, photo by Laure Latham
Henry W. Coe State Park, photo by Laure Latham

State Parks in Crisis
At 87,000 acres, Henry W. Coe State Park’s wild open spaces span an area close to three times the size of the city of San Francisco. It is unfathomable to imagine this Santa Clara County park closing its gates permanently. Yet the state parks department named Coe State Park as one of 70 California state parks scheduled for closure between now and July 2012.

Across the state, on the east side of Yosemite National Park, the internationally visited Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve also sits on the closure list. When the closure list first came out, Geoff McQuilkin’s first question was “Why are we on this list?” McQuiklin, who is the executive director of the Mono Lake Committee, has never gotten a good answer from the state.

The Need for Philanthropy
The race to save state parks now relies on local park advocates. In the case of Coe State Park, a longtime group of park volunteers formed the Coe Park Preservation Fund in February to stop the closure. On September 9, 2011, the group announced that they had pulled together funds and an agreement with the state to keep the park open. A Los Angeles Times reporter who was set to go to press with a story about the state park closures in northern California, where most closures are concentrated, caught wind of the group’s good news just before press time.

To save the park, members of the Coe Park Preservation Fund worked to secure sponsorships from corporations, conservation-minded foundations and concerned individuals to cover park staff salaries and basic maintenance for a minimum of three years. Under the agreement with the state, funds raised will go directly to Coe and not a general parks fund, and the Coe Park Preservation Fund, a subordinate group of the a 501(c)(3) tax exempt charitable organization Pine Ridge Association, will have no administrative responsibility for park operations.

Once the agreement is finalized between the Coe group and the state, park administrators hope that this type of deal could be a model for saving other parks.

Beyond this unique situation at Coe, all over California park advocates and lawmakers are looking for solutions – from signing contracts with up to 20 nonprofits to raise funds and directly run state parks (Assembly Bill 42) to letting local governments take over (Senate Bill 356). The California State Parks Foundation co-sponsored AB 42 but has no position on SB 356.

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve at sundownMono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve at sundown

Can nonprofits save our parks?
In the case of Mono Lake, they have not had the good fortune of Coe State Park, where a generous donor came forward with a $1 million commitment for the next three years. If Governor Jerry Brown signs AB 42 by October 6 and it becomes law, they are looking at this tool as one possibility for protecting Mono Lake, but they need to take a serious look at how they could handle the challenges to taking over state park operations including major insurance and liability concerns. While, the Mono Lake Committee’s executive director feels encouraged by the way the Coe group is hammering out an agreement that will keep the same park staff in place and leave administration to the state, his group would need major donor commitments to make this happen as well. They have had an outpouring of support in the form of letters and petition signatures.

Ann Briggs, president and board chair of the Coe Park Preservation Fund was disheartened to hear about the predicament at Mono Lake. She finds it especially surprising given its popularity: “While we have a following, we don’t have anywhere near the exposure of Mono Lake,” said Briggs. As members of her group wait to hear final word on their agreement, they are now moving forward with creating an endowment fund as a buffer to ensure that Henry W. Coe State Park can be kept open in perpetuity.

Volunteers cannot do it alone
Although both groups have longtime dedicated volunteers, 40 at Mono Lake and 30 at Coe, the bottom line is that philanthropy will be critical for keeping parks open, safe and clean and protecting the ecological integrity of these public lands.

Who is mobilizing in your community?
Do you know of people or nonprofits in your community mobilizing to save a state park? If so leave your comments here or go to the California State Parks Foundation blog, where they would like to hear your voice.

This is the third article in a series on threats to California State Parks and the search for sustainable funding as park systems are forced to reinvent.

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