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Keeping all state parks open

In a time of constrained revenue, limited private management of some state parks is an idea worth developing further.

August 20, 2011

Care for a Coke with that tree? In the absence of revenue and the political will to keep all of California's 278 state parks open, 70 are scheduled to close. Cutbacks in maintenance and basic services should be expected at most of the rest. One partial solution, according to the Department of Parks and Recreation, is to allow some corporate logos in the parks as well as limited private management agreements. And though these options might conjure up a mountain range's worth of slippery slopes, they're better than the alternative.

A few logo agreements already are in place at a handful of parks. A partnership between Coca-Cola and Stater Bros., for example, replanted trees in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, which in 2003 suffered a wildfire so devastating that there were no trees left to provide seed for new growth. The companies also partnered in a project that rehabilitated areas of Chino Hills State Park after a 2008 fire burned more than 90% of the park. The supermarket chain promoted offers in which the purchase of $10 worth of Coca-Cola products would result in a donation of $1 to state parks. Customers were invited to donate an additional small sum at the store. Over three years, $2 million was raised. In exchange, very modest renditions of the companies' logos are included at the bottom of interpretive signs in the parks.

Called "cause marketing," these agreements fall somewhere between philanthropy and branding. The companies are frank about their motives: They gain sales through the promotions, as well as exposure and goodwill. But no one is talking about changing Chino Hills' name to Fanta Hills State Park. Corporate officials say they wouldn't even want such a thing; overpromoting their role creates a backlash.

Other ideas for saving parks include allowing nonprofit organizations to run some of them (there already are a few such arrangements, and a state bill would allow 20 more), forming partnerships with counties or cities to operate them, or even giving concessions to companies to manage parks that otherwise would close. In Marin County, the CEO of a brewery has proposed a multipronged effort to keep Samuel P. Taylor State Park from closing. It would entail cutting costs, employing more volunteers and his personally making up any difference between operating expenses and revenue raised through entry and camping fees.

California State Parks Director Ruth Coleman maintains that this move toward private agreements, whether for logos or outright park operation, would not be allowed to change the essential character of the parks. Her department has drawn up an extensive set of rules for outside operators — one problem is that there are many willing to operate a campground but not the surrounding 20,000 open acres, and the state doesn't want private managers to pick off the easiest sections of parks to run — and she says that marketing agreements with companies would be kept in check by existing law, which forbids advertising in parks. At this point, the private offers to keep parks from closing, or to prevent deterioration at parks that remain open, appear to be sincere and often heartfelt.

But there are inherent concerns. For now, the logos are few. But as more companies develop an interest in similar arrangements, parks officials will have to decide: How many interpretive signs per park? How many logos? What happens if new corporate partners want somewhat bigger logos, placed more prominently? Future private concessionaires might be more interested in what they can get out of the parks than what they can put into them. In parks that increasingly rely on private largesse, it could become hard to say no to the incremental loosening of rules. That might be especially true if private rescue of parks leads to a decreased commitment from the public. If corporate money is taking a financial burden off their shoulders, taxpayers might come to think there's no reason to worry about adequate budgets for state parks.

Yet at a time of fiscal crisis, these outside agreements are a good deal. In fact, they're the only deal. The closure of parks, especially, is a bad solution to the budget shortfall because it could very quickly cost the state far more money than it saves.

It's nice to fantasize that, if parks were left to themselves for a few years, nature would recover from routine human trampling. In truth, most of the parks would still be used, but only by people who don't respect "Keep Out" signs. Illegal off-roading, backcountry campfires and meth labs could cause devastating wildfires. Marijuana farms and other illicit activities could increase crime in surrounding communities.

Just as it is doing for outside operating agreements, the parks department should draw up strict guidelines for corporate partnerships to avoid logo creep. And then it should be praised for not just sitting by while parks close, but seeking out innovative ways to keep its natural gems accessible to the public. That's not as good as robust public support for parks, but it's the best California has at the moment.

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