Parks for All: Californians Underserved by State Parks, Commission Finds

California's state parks have so much to offer, yet are underutilized. Pictured is Humboldt Redwoods SP, where League supporters have protected 50,000 acres.
California’s state parks have so much to offer, yet are underutilized. Pictured is Humboldt Redwoods SP, where League supporters have protected 50,000 acres.

California State Parks is one small yet important step closer to a more sustainable future, and it’s becoming clear what else must be done to get there.

At the Parks Forward Commission meeting in San Diego yesterday, we reviewed the latest version of the draft report that can and should chart the course for the future of state parks. The report is the result of extensive data-gathering, interviews and assessments led by the Commission, and broad public engagement, including months of direct participation by Save the Redwoods League staff and volunteers.

Predictably, the report finds that a major overhaul is in order. Essentially, we need to cut way back on the red tape, modernize the department’s systems, and make it substantially easier for partners to help.

We have been particularly enthusiastic about the Commission’s efforts to reintroduce our treasured parks to today’s California. Critical to revitalizing the parks system is the effort to make our state parks more relevant, accessible and engaging to all Californians and the broad diversity of visitors who come to see the beauty and culture safeguarded in the 280 parks.

Many of our parks were built more than 70 years ago and cater to the demographics and preferences of that time. For our parks to truly thrive, for them to enrich our lives and our communities as intended, then we need to be prepared to rethink how they function for a very new and different audience.

Here in California, we are incredibly fortunate to have these world-class natural treasures in our own backyards, protected forever, for all of us to enjoy. But, a substantial percentage of the population is unable to benefit from that bounty. Many Californians are from cultures or families that are not as comfortable with the outdoors, don’t have the resources to gear up, have no way of getting to the parks, and wouldn’t be sure what to do if they got there. As we reenvision our state parks, these places we created to help build stronger and healthier communities, we can address these barriers and broaden the audience of Californians who benefit.

This potential positive impact of this effort was brought into remarkable focus at yesterday’s meeting, with a presentation from leaders of the San Diego-based Outdoor Outreach. With the vision “to transform lives by connecting youth to the outdoors,” and a focus on underserved urban youth who otherwise have little means to experience the outdoors, the testimonials from the participants stopped me in my tracks. It was inspiring to hear how their experiences in the outdoors, primarily in California’s state parks, had given confidence, aspiration, hope and a love of life to kids from the most dire of circumstances. It became undeniable at the workshop that our state park system and its management should be structured to accelerate and amplify partnerships like Outdoor Outreach.

How can the redwood forest play more of a role in introducing urban youth to the power of the outdoors? These natural cathedrals inspired the establishment of California State Parks to begin with, and they can and should be core to its revitalization. We at the League see a young person’s first visit to the redwood forest as the beginning of a new perspective on the world, with a wonderfully transformative impact.

We must lower the barriers to that experience through a renewed partnership with a revitalized California State Parks. For that reason, we fully support the efforts of the Parks Forward Commission and will continue to collaborate with their team to keep momentum moving towards real reform.

Learn more about how the League is participating in the Parks Forward Initiative process, and read my blog Charting the Course for California State Parks.

About the author

President and Chief Enthusiast for the Outdoors (CEO) of Save the Redwoods League, Sam brings more than 25 years of experience in overseeing land conservation programs from the remote wilderness to the inner city.

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