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Will Calif. Privatize Its Parks? China Camp Marks Major Change

Posted: Aug 23, 2012

SAN RAFAEL, Calif.—Standing on the beach, it would appear as though nothing has changed at China Camp State Park. Children still wade into San Pablo Bay, north of San Francisco. And visitors to the park’s museum, learn of the camp’s historic importance as a Chinese shrimp-fishing village in the 1880's.

But China Camp is in the middle of its most significant transition since it was purchased by the state in 1976, for its historic preservation. This month, the State of California transferred operational responsibility for the park to a nonprofit organization. The rangers’ pay, maintenance costs and even liability insurance will no longer be covered by the state.

The change amounts to a radically different model for the future of California’s park system. Cuts outlined in Gov. Jerry Brown’s May 2011, budget proposal, threatened to close 70 state parks. Since then China Camp has become one of 42 parks the state is keeping open through local arrangements.

A Site for Recreation and Chinese Heritage

Rather than padlock the park, California leased it to Friends of China Camp State Park (FOCC), a community organization, initially for three years.

The China Camp arrangement with FOCC transfers authority of over 1,500 acres of public land to private control. To keep the park open, the group depends on donations and revenue from fees and events, such as weddings.

Located in San Rafael in Marin County, China Camp State Park is a haven for mountain bikers, hikers and beach dwellers. Visitors take in scenic views of the North Bay area and use its 30 campsites.

As an outdoor museum for the 19th century shrimping community where 500 Cantonese immigrants settled, the site preserves some of the structures and equipment that once processed nearly 3 million pounds of shrimp per year.

In the summer months the park hosts one of the region's floating museums, the Grace Quan a reproduction of the kind of San Francisco Chinese Shrimp Junk commonly used for shrimping here over a century ago.

Officials contend that the arrangement with FOCC is largely just an administrative shuffle.

“We essentially pay the salaries of state employees to continue operating as before on a contract basis,” explained Steve Deering, a retired civil servant, who is now on the FOCC board.

Victor Bjelajac, a superintendent for the Marin Parks District, called the transition “seamless.” He said, “It’s been terrific; Friends of China Camp have been great supporters.”

42 Parks So Far

The lease for China Camp State Park reads like a rental-car agreement. It states, “Operator agrees to accept the Premises ‘AS IS’ with all faults, and agrees to maintain the same in a safe and tenable condition.”

This contract became possible after the California Legislature passed a bill last fall allowing private nongovernmental organizations to administer parks that fell victim to California’s multibillion dollar deficit.

Of the 70 California parks initially slated for closure last year, only one has actually closed. China Camp is one of three state parks now being operated by local nonprofits. In 39 other areas, nonprofits have agreed to raise needed funds, while the state continues managing the parks, or other governmental agencies in the affected areas have assumed responsibility for the parks. The state is negotiating to save 24 more parks from closure, according the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

A sleepy organization before the budget crisis, FOCC ballooned from 25 to 1,200 members over the last eight months. That growth of the organization enabled it to raise over $250,000. It will pay the state $458,600 each year, due in quarterly payments of $114,000.

In recent years the state has covered some of the costs of operating China Camp through vehicle fees, but that left a $250,000 deficit the state absorbed through general revenues, Deering explained. FOCC must now make up this deficit by fundraising or increasing park revenue.

The arrangement between the state government and FOCC is unusual. The state retains various responsibilities, such as water treatment, and park rangers still report to their district superintendents, not to FOCC. California will review any major proposals or changes the organization wishes to implement, such as upgrading facilities or developing new park features to generate revenue.

It is an agreement that nobody seems to like.

Concern About Privatization

Out on China Camp’s beach, Lothian Furey, who brings her children to the park, said she was very concerned about the privatization of public lands.

“It’s a pay-as-you-go concept for natural resources, which should be supported by taxes and paid for by the state,” she said. “I don’t think every picnic table should have a donor name on it,” she remarked, adding that she is appreciative of FOCC for “responding to this crazy situation.”

Bjelajac, the region’s parks superintendent, said that returning to state control remains the goal, but may not be realistic in the current economic climate. “I think that’s the ideal, to have funds available to operate our state parks.”

Deering observed, “For us it’s not a political or philosophical discussion, it’s a place that’s extremely important that we’re going to protect.”

He noted that his organization plans to increase the number of events hosted at the park, such as weddings, and hopes to impose a fee on all visitors to the park. Under the current rules, visitors pay only for a vehicle.

“In some ways we can do things the state can’t do,” Deering said, comparing FOCC to an agile start-up. He added, “which is not to say we’re not sensitive to the historical significance and beauty of this park.”

Fundraising for the parks became significantly more difficult after it was disclosed in July that the parks department had a previously unknown surplus of $54 million, which led to the resignation of the department’s director. Of that amount, $20.4 million was in the State Parks and Recreation Fund. But it is up to the State Legislature to determine how to use this additional funding.

Community activists contend that the savings may actually be significantly less than this when you factor in the costs required to maintain a park even while it is non-operational.

Systemwide, the outsourcing of parks throughout California is designed to save the state $22 million, less than half of the discovered amount. That savings represents slightly more than one-tenth of one percent of the state’s overall budget deficit. But several officials interviewed for this article questioned whether the state could actually fulfill its threat to close the parks.

Dangers in Closing Parks

“You can’t really close this park,” Deering said. “There is a real danger of vandalism and fire if this place is not looked after.” Maintenance costs alone could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The threat of closure puts communities in a position where they must either pay for the operation of the parks themselves or allow for large swaths of unpatrolled, unmaintained land to degrade unchecked in their backyards.

At age 86, Frank Quan, the park’s sole resident, has witnessed many changes at China Camp, where his family has resided since the 1890's. Quan’s family lived through the period when laws limited Asian immigration and banned a popular Chinese shrimping method to limit competition with white shrimpers. Today, because of declining fish stocks, Quan said he’s lucky if he can get a coffee can full of shrimp.

Quan now runs China Camp’s general store and his right to reside within the park is written into the camp’s charter. With the state no longer guaranteeing funding, Quan now relies on community contributions to ensure that he will have a steady stream of visitors frequenting his store.

Despite this, after almost nine decades of residency, Quan said he’s there to stay. He said he’s not sure what would happen to him if the park were to close.

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