Only Six of 279 State Parks Made Money, and Government Has a Problem with That

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

California parks don’t make money. The state parks system wasn’t designed for them to be self-supporting—they rely mostly on state government funding—so it’s not a surprise to find revenues fell about $300 million short of expenses in fiscal year 2013-14.

The parks system has deteriorated markedly over the years as public financial support waned in the face of general economic decline and shifting priorities. The state nearly shut down 25% of the state’s 279 parks in 2012, and when scandal rocked California’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), Governor Jerry Brown appointed a commission to reach outside government for solutions.

Parks Forward presented its report (pdf) a couple of weeks ago and it fleshes out recommendations foreshadowed in the draft plan (pdf) released last August. The plan is to transform a department “debilitated by an outdated organizational structure, underinvestment in technology and business tools, and a culture that does not inspire or reward collaboration or innovation.”  

The report proposes changes in infrastructure, a new emphasis on local community parks and diversity, an upgrade in technology, a clearing of the maintenance backlog and donning of a new attitude, exemplified by five of the 56-page report’s first six pages that are solely devoted to photos of smiling people in parks.   

Of course, all those changes cost money, which will be added to a ledger sheet that isn’t close to balancing on the merits of park revenues. That is addressed on page 37 in the section entitled Secure Funding for the Future,” which they assume will not be provided by government.

“The Department must focus on increasing appropriate revenue generating opportunities,” and to that end the report proposes creation of Parks California, “a nonprofit public benefit organization to provide operational, financial, and strategic support for organizations that manage or operate parks and other protected lands.”

The Parks California board would be “given the ability to receive and distribute funding from governmental and non-governmental sources.”

The governing board would include people with expertise in business and finance, marketing, communications, citizen engagement and, uh, parks.  Top positions in the field would no longer be restricted to peace officers.   

The new leadership would capitalize on the department’s desperate outreach over the years to private and nonprofit groups to compensate for budget cuts and other forms of more benign neglect, but amp up their efforts in ways they do not. The California State Parks Foundation has raised private funds and undertaken land acquisitions for parks since 1969 and was instrumental in helping avert financial disaster three years ago.

The report includes among its two-year objectives the development of a long-term plan to expand lodging options in state parks that would include “private funders” as “key participants.”     

Skeptics fear that the parks could suffer reduced services, higher fees and gross commercialization if the state shifts management responsibilities away from direct public control. Perhaps the earliest measure of that will be how the gap between revenues and costs at individual parks is closed.

Last year, only six of the state’s 279 parks made money. These were the 10 biggest losers, according to data crunched by Capital Public Radio:

Park Name Revenue Park Unit Costs               Loss
Empire Mine SHP $217,613 $16,469,220 -$16,251,607
Oceano Dunes SVRA $2,060,667 $13,948,588 -$11,887,921
Ocotillo Wells SVRA $40,945 $10,847,681 -$10,806,736
Hearst San Simeon SHM $12,827,408 $20,775,876 -$7,948,468
Folsom Lake SRA $39,601 $7,862,959 -$7,823,358
Hollister Hills SVRA $400,350 $8,065,671 -$7,665,321
Lake Perris SRA $2,442,474 $9,369,815 -$6,927,341
Hungry Valley SVRA $293,172 $7,106,199 -$6,813,027
Anza-Borrego Desert SP $517,694 $6,937,601 -$6,419,907
Lake Oroville SRA $1,580,195 $7,095,340 -$5,515,145


These are the six that made money:

Park Name Revenue  Park Unit Costs               Profit
Asilomar SB $2,055,192 $1,299,064 $756,128
San Elijo SB $3,143,926 $2,477,177 $666,749
Carpinteria SB $3,376,742 $2,734,562 $642,180
Lake Valley SRA $504,457 $42,703 $461,754
Pfeiffer Big Sur SP $2,996,309 $2,842,425 $153,884
Torrey Pines SNR $1,724,670 $1,572,747 $151,923


–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Parks System Faces Tough Road to Sustainability (by Ben Adler, Capital Public Radio) 

California State Parks Seek Younger, Diverse Visitors (by Scott Smith, Associated Press)

California Has a Private Plan for Its Public Parks (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

A New Vision for California State Parks (Parks Forward) (pdf)

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