In the wake of a stunning discovery last month of $54 million surplus for the beleaguered state parks system, volunteers at China Camp State Park in San Rafael have successfully assumed control of day-to-day operations and a similar arrangement is being discussed at just north of Novato.
Danita Rodriguez, the state parks superintendent for the Marin district, said things are going well so far at China Camp now that the Friends of China Camp group is handling everything from electric bills to housekeeping supplies to day permits. The park is fully operational, and volunteers are preparing for a Heritage Day celebration on Aug. 11.
"They are really enthusiastic and have some really good ideas," Rodriguez said. "They have shown great promise and are turning out to be a great partner for us."
That bit of good news follows the bombshell announcement that $54 million of unaccounted-for funds were suddenly discovered by parks officials in Sacramento.
The Sacramento Bee reported July 20 that State Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned and her deputy was fired after officials learned the department has been sitting on the surplus money for as long as 12 years. State Parks carried out a secret vacation buyout program for employees at department headquarters last year, costing the state more than $271,000, the Bee reported.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), who chairs the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee and also serves as co-chair of the Legislative Environmental Caucus, at the revelation especially because upwards of 70 parks have been threatened of closure because of state budget problems after $22 million was cut from the parks budget in 2011. On Friday, that the $54 million would remain targeted for endangered parks.
State Parks has made deals with nonprofits and government agencies to keep 42 parks open, but 20 more are threatened with permanent closure, according to a story in the Bay Citizen.
Meanwhile at Olompali, Rodriguez and other parks officials have worked with the Olompali People, a group that has been supporting the park since 1982. The 700-acre property on the eastern slope of Mount Burdell is a culturally significant site in local Native American history and the early formation of the state of California.
Olompali is only open Saturdays and Sundays and hasn't had a full-time ranger or maintenance worker in more than six years. Park maintenance has been done by maintenance staff brought in from other parks, and rangers only come in to cover special events such as Olompali's annual Heritage Day and Summertime Bat Night.
The operation plan drawn up by the Olompali People calls for most work to be done by the Volunteer in Parks Program. Volunteers would staff the visitors' center, monitor the parking lot, handle general maintenance and housekeeping and conduct mounted horse patrols to monitor the park's trails. It's a much smaller job than managing China Camp because of the San Rafael park's historic waterfront village, its campground and its mountain biking trails.
"It's not really a comparison between the two parks ... it's apples and oranges," Rodriguez said. "Olompali tends to be on the quiet side, but there's a lot of potential there. ... We are still working on an operating agreement with the Olompali People and we're looking forward to having something worked out."
Diane Einstein of the Olompali People is a bit more tentative, saying it's unclear whether the proposal would work or if another approach will be necessary.
"In any event, we remain committed to working with State Parks to keep Olompali open, and we are confident that will happen," Einstein said.
Clint Kellner, a biologist and board member of the Olompali People, said the park's support group numbers 10 or fewer people and fundraising is critical at this point.
"It's a valuable park for its historical resources and its biological resources, but we just haven't found the right donor combination to keep it open," he said. "We haven't been able to build that big constituency like they have at China Camp because of the mountain bikers and Chinese historical interests they have down there. Olompali is one of the most historical places in the whole state, and we hope to find people who are willing to help save it."
Olompali has an opening now for a volunteer park host to work at the visitors' center and museum and monitor the site. Einstein said the ideal situation would be for a retired couple to work in exchange for a trailer pad with full hookups (electricity, water, propane) for a mobile home. Also, the park needs tour guides, horseback patrols and naturalists. Those interested should contact Einstein at email@example.com or 707-762-9715.