State Parks Director Says Overhaul Underway
CAVANAUGH: Coming up we will meet a retired Marine general who now has the task of getting the state park system back in shape is 1219 and you are listening to KPBS Midday Edition. This is KPBS Midday Edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. California's beloved state parks have been in the news in recent months but not always in a good way. Last year we learn that state park officials were keeping millions in surplus funds even when the state budget cuts threaten to close 70 parks. Since that time there's been a change at the top and a retired Marine general from Fallbrook has been named to head the agency. He's hoping to bring big changes to the way state parks are managed. I would like to introduce my guest, Maj. Gen. Anthony Jackson. Gen. Jackson, welcome to the program JACKSON: Well thank you very much. Thanks for having me here. CAVANAUGH: Now is it going to take a retired Marine general to whip this park system into shape? JACKSON: I think somebody thought so, but the reality is I've been with the park system now for about 7 ½ months. Absolutely great people. You have 99% of the people going to work doing their job actually dedicated. So, and I have a whole new executive staff all those people basically involved in last year's revelation of the mismanagement of funds are gone from the agency. Those who, so from a decision standpoint. So it's going to take a lot of hard work, yes. It's going to take that. I'm not quite sure if it required a Major General. CAVANAUGH: What is your link with the state parks system are you a naturalist, state parks enthusiast? JACKSON: It's probably a long story, but let me put it like this. First of all as a kid I grew up just with the outdoors a significant part of my life. I've really enjoyed the outdoors. I married someone who is also very much in love with the outdoors in California, and but at the same time our natural resources if we don't take care of them, if this generation doesn't take care of them, then no other, we cannot leave it to other generations to take care of them, so I thought that this was the protection of our natural resources is absolutely vital and did something that Californians are proud to do. When I found out the park system was in trouble and I was actually asked, I was enjoying retirement, to come to Sacramento and see if I could apply my leadership, my whatever the governor thought I possessed, although six, to help fix it I thought it was absolutely the right thing to do as a citizen of California. CAVANAUGH: Now, last year we learned a lot of things from the things we learned was that the state park system was really in something of a mess. Notably state budget cuts but the deferred maintenance on the parks was estimated at over $1 billion. Can you tell us what kind of maintenance has been deferred, in other words, what kind of maintenance to state parks need? JACKSON: If you look at California State Parks, you are right, it's a little bit more than $1 billion worth of deferred maintenance. But, as far back as 10 years ago, the general fund, that is your tax dollars, provided about 90% of the operating dollars to fund state parks. Today that number is down to 27, 28%. Of what we used to maintain the parks, pay the people is provided by taxpayers dollars. There are about a quarter of the monies generated from park fees, now so that we had to rely more on Park fees. At the same time if I just take an example, last year in using $22 million of the budget, we had to let go of 280 people. So, the reality is doing the hard economic times for California the park system has paid a significant price. And so it has had to, and a lot of the people left or not left, but we had to let go, maintenance workers party aides, those kinds of people who came and Facilities going so we need to restore that. We need to get a sustainable funding source in order to bring our maintenance dollars down. It is manageable, but it's going to require a partnership with both the governor and the legislature to at least start chipping away. It will take more than a decade to catch up on. CAVANAUGH: Have you toured the parks, have you seen where the facilities really are in bad need of some maintenance? JACKSON: Well I would say that our park superintendents are doing a remarkable job of trying to keep on top of this maintenance as possible. You know, I developed the strategic action plan that has as one of its most significant goals the five big goals of it is to clean restrooms and repair our facilities. And we've got about prioritizing those facilities which one of the natural resources may be more need of maintenance and things like that, so we are actually working on right now. I would say that some of the other strategic objectives that I would just like to address really shortly here is you know, restoring public trust that is a big one, and the trust of employees of their leadership so the reality is you asked me if I spend, if I've been out to the parks. I've traveled from breakdown here from Porterfield State Bar clearly at the Tijuana border at Ocotillo Wells, last week I was up in Sonoma County beaches and might wife and I are heading to Allensworth State Park on Tuesday but mostly I spend between four and 3 ½ days a week in Sacramento and on the weekends I'm usually at one of our parks meeting the people, meeting associations, the foundations that have stepped up to help keep them open, so yes, we do some of our parks were significantly have reduced hours at some of the parks because we cannot maintain them seven days a week or five days a week as we have traditionally, so we need to really work on that. CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Maj. Gen. Anthony Jackson. He is California state parks director. There has been criticism of former parks management. As you outlined the amount of money for the general parks in California has steadily gone down. And the amount of fees that people pay to visit the park is not matched what you've lost in those general funds, so there's been criticism that there has not been innovation, kind of a spirit of trying to figure out what we're going to do to make up this difference. What changes are you thinking of making? JACKSON: Well, you are probably right on all accounts there. We have put a real excessive burden on the park superintendents. That's your local guy here in San Diego, or all the way up to Hearst Castle and further up to Eureka. The individuals, we have 24 different superintendents that manage the 280 Park system and they have been really with bubble gum and bailing wire, they've been trying to keep up as the amount of available funds has declined. So, things we are doing right now in 11 of our parks systems, we have employed for the first time, where you can come up and swipe credit cards. We don't use electronic means to pay for parking or to handle fees. CAVANAUGH: You've been calling it we've been stuck in 1950s technology. JACKSON: It's kind of 1950s 1960s the iron Ranger is typical where you have a steel pipe at the park entrance you don't have a park attendant, you can't use a credit card and you are expected to get an envelope and put your money in it and slide it down the iron Ranger. Up north, we have some of those, somebody came through with a saw and cut off the head and took out the funds. It would be nice now we are actually using the parks credit cards we are testing out a new system. I'm putting together a business and marketing department California state parks does not have a marketing department and I'm working with the Department of tourism California Department of tourism to help us on girl something of that nature and many other entities to help us on role that. At the same time I'm working very hard to reestablish the park needs that we lost $10 an hour aid that can collect $100 per hour at a park would be beneficial, last year we got a personal code of some $22 million but we lost 288 positions and a lot of those for maintenance or park aid type positions. CAVANAUGH: Just the people that you need. JACKSON: Just the people we need, but our big opportunity for us to bring more Californians which is a third of my strategic objective is to connect our parks more with the diversity of the state of California and bring more people in from our diverse communities. And so next year is the hundred and 50th anniversary of the state park something we should be very proud of. I would say that if you took 280 systems from the desert of the way to the redwoods you would actually, we actually have probably the crown jewel, one of the majors crown jewels, one of the wonders of the world if you combine them. And it just happened in 1864 and the crisis of the Civil War and all of that, Abraham Lincoln said we should preserve Yosemite and Mariposa Grove and he corresponded with Gov. Lowell and in September of 1864, Gov. Lowell accepted the very first of our parks, Yosemite, Mariposa Grove and from that, all of the other parks in the park system grew in the national Park system group because you know now Yosemite is a national park. CAVANAUGH: I was going to ask you as you look at the history of the parks everything changes, everything it seems that fees increase all the time, some people have been saying is California state parks, there should be higher fees in order to keep up maintenance on the park. What do you think about that? JACKSON: Well, yeah, that's kind of, I don't think that the parks are going to be able to sustain themselves by higher fees. Higher fees are also considered detrimental to those people were not economically advantaged. So if you continuously actually put it to where the parks are actually funding themselves from self generated revenues, then you are going to exclude a lot of Californians. Economically. And we do have programs for people who may have difficulty paying bills and things who are economically disadvantaged and getting certain kinds of park passes but I would say that we have to get a more sustainable that's why we have the parks forward commission CAVANAUGH: I was just going to ask you about that let me just tell everybody that the parks forward initiative is something that was passed last year. It is trying to get people together to figure out, give some blueprint for the future of the state park system. Who is on this panel for the purpose forward initiative? JACKSON: The only person that has actually been named right now is Lance Conn, and he's an extraordinary businessman. He is the vice chairman. We've got all the administrative people in place, but until we are ready to announce who the chairman is, all the other members have not yet been identified. The funding is in place for it. Everything is set, the office bases are set so we are ready to launch and hopefully in the next couple weeks we will be able to reveal all the names. CAVANAUGH: What are the goals of this initiative? JACKSON: The first I would say the main goal is to bring up, make those actionable recommendations, now, that's things that we really can't do, that we can really take to the governor and say this, we can do it, we continue to the legislature and say we can do it, and how we can do it to make our parks sustainable through the 21st century. And it is a maintenance standpoint, do we have the right number of people do we have the right number of administrative people in the headquarters versus people out in the field working daily, so they are going to take though they were worked directly for me, they work for the legislature, the governor and the secretary of national resources so I will not even be picking them, although the process is to get all these bright intelligent people from diverse segments of the state and the nation and bring them in and have them do a really good scrub with great intellectual honesty and then present an actionable plan. Meanwhile I have my own strategic action plan but I'm trying to implement and make sure there is no falloff of services and even heightened services. CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering is a part of this initiative to get public input to hear what the public has to say in what they want to see if their state parks? JACKSON: Absolutely in the next year I think there will be 10 to 12 public meetings from the southern part of the state all the way up to the northern part of the state and East and West part of the state accessible to the public and those will be announced will make it all that schedule so the public can actually come and make comments, make suggestions and there's an online website that's already set up if you go to the state parks Internet site, you will have direct access into what the parks forward commission is dialoguing, and actually put your comments into it. I think it's vital to the state that the people participate. I think in some sense we've taken for granted our park system. We grew up with this magnificent park system, we always thought it would be there. We always thought our parks would be accessible to us and I think that in one way, this $20.5 million that was mishandled, that is the great cloud, but there's a silver lining in it that it allows us, forces us all of us as concerned California's today hard look at the park system and make them even better than they were. CAVANAUGH: Maj. Gen. Anthony Johnson California State Parks Dir. Thank you so much for speaking with us. JACKSON: Thanks for having me and I'd be glad to come back and give you a progress report in the future. CAVANAUGH: You're welcome to do that JACKSON: Remember the 150th anniversary next year, bring out your friends and relatives we're going to have some great activities next year. CAVANAUGH: Thanks. JACKSON: You're welcome.
California's beloved state parks have been in the news in recent months but not always in a good way.
Last year, we learned that state park officials were keeping millions of dollars in surplus funds, even when state budget cuts threatened to close 70 parks.
Since that time, there's been a change at the top and a retired Marine general from Fallbrook has been named to head the agency.
Retired Maj. General Anthony Jackson is hoping to bring big changes to the way the state parks are managed.