It is said that crisis is the mother of opportunity.
This has been very apparent in the state parks of California, which have undergone a roller coaster ride of budget cuts, community insurgence to meet the predicament, a scandal of hidden funds, and finally a calm, cautious sense of optimism. The crisis was brewing for many years, but it came to a head on Friday the 13th of May 2011, when the Department of Parks and Recreation released a closure list of 70 parks that were to be closed permanently in order to meet severe budget cuts. Much to the surprise of park lovers in Marin, China Camp State Park was on the list. The projected closure date was July 1, 2012.
The community rallied, led by Friends of China Camp (FOCC), a committee of the nonprofit Marin State Parks Association (MSPA), which up until that point had been a small organization of 35 members that worked on interpretive programs within the park. FOCC brought together a coalition of the many affinity groups that valued China Camp State Park, including hikers, bikers, the Chinese-American community, and those who appreciate the pristine and unique environment that has been preserved in this park. FOCC raised funds, held special events, and rapidly grew into a community-based organization of more than 1,000 members.
The result was a resounding success, and FOCC entered into an Operating Agreement with California State Parks to form a partnership with the state that allowed them to take over operations of the park for three years. The July 1 deadline came and the park was kept open, even expanding services within the park. The Back Ranch Meadows Campground was opened up year-round, and the picnic sites at Buckeye Point and Weber Point were reopened seven days a week.
Then just a few days after the July 1 deadline, scandal broke. It was revealed that the Department of Parks and Recreation , at a time when parks across the state had been threatened with closure. Ruth Coleman, the department director, and one of her associates resigned in disgrace. Investigations were initiated, audits were undertaken, and questions were asked as to how this could happen. The public trust was breached and park advocates throughout the state were left to explain to their supporters and donors that all the hard work accomplished thus far was not done in vain.
The legislative response to the scandal was AB1478, authored by then Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D – San Rafael), who has now moved on to Congress to represent a district that extends from Marin County north along the coast to the Oregon border. AB 1478 stipulates that $20 million of the hidden funds will be used to support California state parks, with $10 million of that amount being used to match financial contributions that have been raised by groups like FOCC. The matching funds also include compensation for volunteer hours, which recognizes the significant contributions made by dedicated members of the community to whom these parks mean so much. As a result of AB 1478, an agreement has been drawn up that not only allows FOCC to operate China Camp, but also calls for MSPA, the parent organization of FOCC, to become the operator of Olompali State Historic Park, and together with the National Park Service, Tomales Bay State Park, two other parks that were on the closure list.
A ceremony was held at China Camp Village on Saturday, February 16, to sign the agreement between California State Parks and FOCC to receive the matching funds. The ceremony marked the culmination of more than a year’s hard work by a wide spectrum of community, cultural, and nonprofit groups. A broad coalition of community groups was well represented at the ceremony, along with government officials from the city, county, state, and federal level. Speakers included Marin District Superintendant Danita Rodriguez, Elizabeth Goldstein from the California State Parks Foundation, Tom Peters from the Marin Community Foundation, Diane Einstein from MSPA, Cicely Muldoon from the National Park Service, Joan Lubamersky from Assemblyman Mark Levine's office, and Congressman Jared Huffman.
Among the luminaries in attendance were Nona Dennis from the Marin Conservation League, Dean (Kip) Witter III and Ken Blum from the Dean Witter Foundation, Jean Chan and Denise Wear from the Marin Chinese Cultural Association, and Louise Kanter Lipsey – a veteran of the efforts to create China Camp State Park back in the 1970s. The San Rafael City Council was represented by council member Damon Connelly, while Marin County Board of Supervisors President Judy Arnold and fellow supervisor Susan Adams brought good news with them, pledging $100,000 from the county to help China Camp. Linda Dahl from Marin County Parks, members of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, and a group of bikers from Mount Tamalpais High School were also present.
California State Parks had a large contingent of park rangers, along with District Superintendant Danita Rodriguez. The newly installed Director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, Major General Anthony Jackson, was not able to attend the event, so he sent his second in command, Chief Deputy Director Aaron Robertson. Robertson, along with Ernest Chung from FOCC, signed the agreement together at a table in China Camp Village, while the whole community looked on in appreciation. Afterwards, a large banner commemorating the occasion was signed by all those who wanted to express their support for this momentous occasion.
It's been a long strange trip, but it is starting to seem like the state parks of California have arrived at the light at the end of the tunnel. English science fiction writer H.G. Wells stated that "The crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow." Hopefully the day is near when we can look back and laugh, while appreciating the natural wonders of our beautiful state parks.