The Six Foundations Helping to Overhaul California’s Troubled Parks

For years, California’s state park system, while storied for its size and diversity, has been plagued with budget crises. The problem hit an all-time low in 2012, amid a scandal over millions in hidden funds and the closure of 70 parks. Now a third-party commission is stepping in to clean up the mess, funded by six major state foundations. 

California’s 280 state parks are deeply beloved, but the system that governs them seems to be in ruins. 

Among its concerns was the financial scandal in which the Sacramento Bee revealed that the Department of Parks and Recreation was hiding $20 million, while threatening to close the parks for budget cuts. Then there’s a maintenance to-do list of over a billion dollars, racked up from declining state funds and visitor fees. It just seems that the system is flawed and overloaded.

Out of this mess, along with a shakeup of parks department leadership, has emerged the Parks Forward Commission, an independent, volunteer initiative mandated by a state law passed in the aftermath of the closure scandal. The commission is charged with stepping in and doing what the department has struggled to do—determine its underlying problems and what it would take to make the system sustainable. No more closures, no more backlogs, and a system that serves the state’s evolving population. Not easy. 

Shepherding the process is the Resources Legacy Fund, a familiar name in California philanthropy and conservation that’s been involved in park protection for years, along with marine preserves and fisheries, energy policy and water resource management. Commissioners include Julie Packard and other prominent state figures in business, academia, nonprofits and parks.  

The main task the commission is performing this year is a comprehensive report, a draft of which was just released, to diagnose (or autopsy, perhaps) the Parks Department as it stands. (Read the full draft here.) 

So who’s paying for this reboot? We know the state can't afford it. So six prominent California foundations, who have funded RLF and various state conservation and parks projects in the past, are ponying up to fund the commission (hit the links for IP profiles on these foundations): 

The funders are all based in California; in fact, aside from Marisla in Laguna Beach, they’re all based in the Bay Area, and mostly from tech money. And aside from James Irvine, which is more of a culture and community funder, they all have sizable environment programs. 

What makes this initiative really stand out is that—unlike the usual support funders like these give to augment or patch public funding, or even purchase private land for conservation—foundations are actually taking a role in fixing the core of a public structure.

Governments and foundations are always reminding us that philanthropy can't supplant public funding, and that's absolutely true. But here, we have a case where a Dream Team of foundations has come together to pay for an overhaul of a government department, helping to address the core of the parks problem instead of supplementing on the edges.

Let's hope the Commission comes up with some good ideas.