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Yosemite Grant Act Anniversary Celebrated With Tree Restoration Project

A cluster of large trees in Yosemite.
Al Golub
A cluster of large trees in Yosemite.
Yosemite Grant Act Anniversary Celebrated With Tree Restoration Project
Yosemite Grant Act Anniversary Celebrated With Tree Restoration Project
Yosemite Grant Act Anniversary Celebrated With Tree Restoration Project GUESTSClay Phillips, Superintendent, San Diego Coast District of California State Parks Christine Kehoe, Co-Chair, Parks Forward Initiative

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. At the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln made a gesture towards the future of our embattled nation, and created California's first state park. That was 150 years ago this week, and that first State Park Yosemite has long since been designated a national park. Even so, California's state park system and Yosemite are celebrating this joint anniversary. Our state parks have gone through a rough patch lately, with budgets in attendance both going down. As part of this anniversary, Park activists are working to find a way to make these state treasures viable in the twenty-first century. I would like to look in my guests, San Diego State Park Superintendent Clay Phillips. Clay, welcome. Thank you. CLAY PHILLIPS: Thank you. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And former State Senator Christine Kehoe, who is now Co-chair of Parks Forward Initiative. Welcome to the program. CHRISTINE KEHOE: Hi Maureen, how are you? Hi Clay! CLAY PHILLIPS: Hi Chris. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you both for doing this. I appreciate it. Clay, the history of the state parks system is populated with people who worked for years tirelessly to preserve sections of California in their natural state. Do you have a favorite story of how one of these state parks was created? CLAY PHILLIPS: Well, when comes to mind that is a fairly obscure state parks but one of my favorite, Providence mountain state recreation area. Needles is a pretty remote location and this is 40 miles west of needles in the Mojave Desert. Back in the depression era, a couple, Jack and Ida, I cannot think of their last names, they came out and lost everything during the depression, except that Jack had some mining claims out in the middle of nowhere. They decided to make a go of silver mining, but they also had to caverns, and one thing led to another. He realized that the real value of the mining claim area where the caverns that were there on the site, and over the next twenty years he developed a dude ranch in the middle of nowhere. He developed an 18 mile Road and attracted people from off Route 66 to come visit his caverns. Then, in the mid-1950s, he had a terrible accident and died right next to his home, working on his car, and his wife could not maintain the caverns, so she offered the caverns to the state park system. But I find fascinating about that story, now one of my favorite state parks is basically a state park simply because a couple of people try to make a go of silver mining in the middle of nowhere. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How does a part Designated as a state park? What sort of criteria does it have to meet? CLAY PHILLIPS: They have to have a statewide significance in meeting commission of state parks, either for natural resource values, historic or cultural resource values, or recreation values. When we have proposals that come to state parks, like in the 50s when I do Mitchell showed up and said are you guys interested, a team goes out and evaluates what those resources are, and whether they meet statewide significance. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Play, can you give us a sense of the range and types of state parks we have in California? You gave us that one that was west of needles, what other kinds of diversity are there among our state parks? CLAY PHILLIPS: Of the 280 state parks, we are so diverse. We are by far the most diverse park system, in the United States. We have read would, dark rich redwood forests, spectacular wide-open desert landscapes, here and in eastern San Diego County. We have amazing private homes like Hearst Castle, private homes on the edge of Lake Tahoe. We tell the story unlike anybody else. We tell the grand story of California. From all the way to the start with Native American communities and all the way into the twentieth century. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I read that we have the most visited state park right here in San Diego? CLAY PHILLIPS: That is right, old town San Diego State historic Park gets over 3 million visitors per year. In fact, the district, there are twenty districts in the state park system that were organized into the district that I am in charge of, the San Diego coast district, it is the most visited district in the state park system. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Christine, the last time we talked, we talked about state parks on this program, we talked with former state parks director Anthony Jackson, he was in the process of establishing the commission that you now cochair. What do you see as the mission of the Parks forward group? CHRISTINE KEHOE: The mission of the Parks forward and the commissioners group is to develop recommendations for the governor and legislature in the parks department, the whole administration. To develop the conditions that will put the state parks department on a path for being a system that works in the twenty-first century, that will be reaching out to a lot of Californians. We will be performing a department fundamentally, not just tinkering around the edges. We will be coming up with concepts for sustainability that goes far into the future, that includes financial stability as well. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Apparently the state parks department suffered through a number of years of poor management, there was a scandal about stashed funds a few years ago. Beyond those headlines, what do you see are the major problems that our state parks face? CHRISTINE KEHOE: Our state parks are a wonderful system, but it is a system under stress. The two crises that you mentioned, the hidden funds that came to light, you might also recall the threat of closing seventy parks one year when the budget was tight, that was in the legislature at that time. These were real setbacks, and I think we realized that there are fundamental difficulties within the department. We have in some cases a demoralized workforce that has not been encouraged to take initiative, and has been rewarded for entrepreneurial or creative solutions. There may be some bureaucratic stagnation up and down the food chain, especially in Sacramento. It is behind the time, we have to do more with being able to use charge cards, getting ATM machines into the parks, so people can readily access the cash they may need for park services or souvenirs, hot dogs, whatever they need. We need to revitalize our IT, and we need to get our word out to a broader group of Californians with park passes and other kinds of better reservation systems, other kinds of systems that will invite more people into the parks, near homes or maybe 500 miles away, but get them thinking about going to a state park this weekend, get them thinking like that again. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: During that conversation with former director Anthony Jackson, we talked about a lot of the backlog of maintenance needed by the parks. What are you finding there, and what kind of problems is that maintenance backlog causing? CHRISTINE KEHOE: I know General Jackson will come he did his double duty as the Marine general for his whole career and taking on a troubled department. But nobody can turn around a troubled department in a short time. This will take some years. There is maintenance backlog that is significant. Hundreds to millions of dollars, maybe more. The way that the parks system is set up now as far as accounting and record-keeping goes, we do not have an accurate number, but we do know it is a problem. It is really there and it inhibits the parks from being as good as they could be. If you go to our beautiful beach parks you will see rusted out equipment. Of course that will happen cut they are in the salty air way for seven. That means you need to plan ahead and give the folks like Clay Phillips and his whole team the resources they need to keep things maintained, painted, or replaced when they are too far gone. We're not doing that, because we do not have the funds. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you both this question, this may be something that you do not have an answer for, but people do not like to see parks fees continue to go up. Is there anything that you have heard, a way for the parks system to be more profitable without further raising fees? CLAY PHILLIPS: I do have a lot of answers to that. We have actually and very innovative, especially down in both orange county and San Diego County, recognizing that we are primarily the bread basket of the entire state park system. This is where most of the visitation is, this is where the opportunity is to generate revenue. Rather than raising fees, for nothing extra, we have tried to create a value added opportunity in the state park system. Inappropriate example is at Silver Strand State Beach. We had a campground right on the beach, you will not find that too many places in California. We decided that we would add full hookups to those sites. What I found very interesting and actually very entertaining was when we're considering doing this, we went to some of the users at the time. We said we have some bad news and good news, what you want to hear first? They usually want to hear the bad news. Bad news is that your camping fees per night will probably this time next year be going up by fifteen dollars a night. Their face would get a little sad, but they would come back and go that is okay, I can handle that. What is the good news? The good news is, you will have full electrical and water hookups. On radio I will not replicate the level of scream that every person that I gave that little impromptu survey to would have. They would scream with delight. Those are the kind of revenue-generating opportunities we are looking for, a value added and a scream of delight at the end. I would like to add to what Chris said, we are a broken system, as far as our ability to do the things we are charged to do and have been for many years. It is much more than just maintenance, it includes basically everything that we are doing. We cannot do it the way we're supposed to be doing. If you can picture a jar full of 834 BBs - - MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Which you have there. CLAY PHILLIPS: Which I have here. They are all the same color except one. These 834 BBs represent the entire tax funded operational cost of California state government, all of the agencies. One of those BBs, you can see I am shifting it around, and I cannot find it. One of those BBs is a white BB. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see it. CLAY PHILLIPS: That is the share of California State Parks in the tax fund, which I use as an example of the very relatively small piece of the general fund that we get, especially in comparison to the kind of attention and hopefully admiration and use that people lavish on the state park system. As we celebrate these 150 years, where what we are really celebrating is the brilliant idea of actually setting aside land for public good, for all eternity. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is that the kind of challenge that the initiative is facing in the idea of trying to get attendance, profitability, funding up for these parks, and make the whole experience more relevant to people in this century? CHRISTINE KEHOE: Well said Maureen, you are exactly right. The innovation that Clay was talking about in our area, that could be extrapolated statewide. All good ideas would be on the table for the superintendents and the local personnel to take the best practices and make them work in their park. We think that there is, as it stands right now, an opportunity for state parks to bring in more money without raising rates, it's collect the money that is due. It would not turn things around from red to black, but it is a step in the right direction. We do probably need another part fund in the couple of years, and we need to look at some sustained kinds of funding, and we are trying to evaluate what would be the most successful and the most practical way to do that. Finding additional funds for parks over the long haul, not just a bump, consistent, stable state funding is a real challenge. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you both, I find myself out of time here, the thank you so much, and thank you for that audio aid that you brought in. I appreciate that. CHRISTINE KEHOE: Thanks, Maureen. CLAY PHILLIPS: Thank you.

Exactly 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act, preserving the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove. The anniversary was celebrated with a project to protect the giant sequoias.

Any visitor to the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias might not notice the 2,000-year-old trees are threatened. But the roots of the ancient trees stretch out near the surface for more than 200 feet. Parking lots sit right on top of them. Don Neubacher, superintendent of Yosemite National Park, says that puts stress on the trees.

“So the runoff from these parking lots is not getting down to the roots, it's being channeled into certain areas, all the wetlands have been interrupted so the natural flow of water which these trees really depend on have been altered dramatically, so their long-term health is definitely at risk.”

A $36 million project will remove the parking lots and paved road segments within the grove. The roads will be replaced with pedestrian trails. The Yosemite Conservancy provided $20 million for the project. It should be complete by 2016.

Parks Forward Initiative

A group made up of experts, former elected officials and advocates are in the middle of finalizing an assessment of the State Parks system. The Parks Forward Commission, co-chaired by former State Senator Christine Kehoe, is designed to address the financial, operational and cultural challenges facing the department.

The Commission was set up in response to ongoing and serious financial problems.

In its most recent draft report the commission said:

California state parks are at a crossroads, facing tough challenges — some old, some new. If California does not chart a bold new course, State Parks faces the very real prospect of closing parks, the inability to protect or steward natural and cultural or cultural resources and failing to connect with Californians of today and the future.

The Parks Forward Commission is set to adopt a long-term plan for a state park system this fall.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.