Unsung Heroes in California State Parks

By Richard J. Dolesh | Posted on July 3, 2012

For the past 18 months, the media has counted down the days to the planned closure of up to 70 of California’s state parks on July 1, 2012.  Well, Doomsday has arrived, but in a somewhat surprising turn of events, virtually all of the parks slated to close remain open, although some are hanging on by a thread, and a handful may not remain open for more than a few days or weeks.

The good news for many of the parks on the hit-list is that a large proportion of them may escape being shut down, at least temporarily, because of an outpouring of public support and volunteer contributions. Local businesses, philanthropists, foundations, and regular citizens who love their state parks have stepped up in extraordinary ways, donating time and money to keep parks open, hoping for a revival.

But almost unnoticed in stories about the unfolding crisis is that the remaining employees of the California Department of Parks and Recreation reported to work on July 1, as usual, and continued to do what they have done every day for almost 100 years—provide outstanding service to the public, protecting natural and cultural treasures, rescuing stranded visitors, interpreting nature to kids, and being stewards of one of the finest park systems in the country.

Faced with a double-whammy budget crisis—structural deficits aggravated by the recession—the state services in California are being cut back across the board, but the state parks are taking it on the chin.  Steep budget cuts have not only resulted in plans to close parks, but have also led to severe cuts in supplies, materials, maintenance, and operations.  And the noose continues to be tightened mercilessly.  Every state park worker has taken a pay cut in the past year, and more cuts in pay and benefits are anticipated.  “Just about everyone will be taking pay cuts, one way or the other,” said a senior staffer. Fortunately, no full-time career employees have been terminated yet, but layoff notices in anticipation of further cuts may be next on the horizon.  “Everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Yet in the face of this relentlessly bad news, the employees of the state park system--from the park maintenance workers, to the administrative staff, to the trades staff, to the park rangers, to the leadership--have shown a resilience and can-do attitude of public service that is extraordinary.

I asked a state parks spokesperson recently, Who is stepping up?  “Well, just about everybody,” she said.  And many are going above and beyond the call of duty, working additional uncompensated hours.  Examples range from park managers attending evening and weekend meetings with civic and business groups, archeologists and natural resources specialists working to save threatened park resources, park rangers  patrolling larger and larger territories, and professional staff dealing with volunteers in new roles--as stewards of resources and managers of parks, all in situations that they have never dealt with before.  Every member of the California state parks staff in one way or the other is working to find solutions to the unfolding crisis and trying to keep the public safe and the parks well-maintained  in the face of ever-diminishing resources and an uncertain future. 

And what is the attitude of parks’ workers despite the bad news?  A staffer told me a story recently of a woman who had stayed in a rustic camping cabin in Northern California who had lost her wallet.  She had collected her trash, checked out of the cabin at the end of the weekend, and was on her way home when she realized that she didn’t have her wallet and thought she had thrown it out with the trash.  After fielding her frantic call, the staff took in on themselves to start opening a large pile of trash bags collected over the weekend, sorting through each one, bag by bag.  Amazingly, they found her wallet.  They contacted her, and made arrangements for its return.  This might be a one-off, feel-good kind of story, but it exemplifies the willingness of park staff—whatever the level—to go above and beyond the call of duty.

So, here is to the unsung heroes of the California State Park system.  Despite the unrelenting bad news, they continue to serve the public and care for California’s most outstanding natural and cultural resources—a true public trust.  No matter what the current budget situation and what the future brings, their contributions and service are recognized and appreciated—in California and across the nation.

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President for Conservation and Parks.