Mendocino residents determined to keep Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area open under local management, met with State Park representatives last Monday night, March 12, to look at provisions of their partnership proposal.
Team Standish is collaborating with the Mendocino Area Parks Association, a 501(c)3 non-profit that works with other organizations to keep parks open in Mendocino County. Together they hope to have a proposal for management for Standish-Hickey ready to submit to State Parks' North Coast Redwoods District superintendent within the next couple of weeks.
If the superintendent approves the proposal, it will be sent to Sacramento for review by State Parks' legal department in the hope that it will pass muster in time to forestall closure of the park on July 1.
Making an already tight timeline even more difficult was the announcement that local parks officials will actually be forced to close Standish-Hickey as well as Benbow SRA and Grizzly Creek State Park at the end of this month, Michelle Gardner told Team Standish.
This means that the park could be closed to the public for several months between April 1 and the time it re-opens under new management.
Gardner has been interim district superintendent for the past year, as well as sector chief of the Eel River Sector of the district, which encompasses Grizzly Creek, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, Benbow SRA, and Standish-Hickey SRA.
The district has run out of money to keep the three parks already on the state's closure list open for the three months between April 1 and July 1, Gardner said.
But she expressed support for Team Standish's efforts and reiterated that no one in State Parks wants to close any parks.
The state legislature mandated cuts to State Parks' budget for the last three years, culminating in a required $22 million cut for the new fiscal year beginning this July 1. This leaves the department no choice but to close parks because all possible cuts to staff and other expenses have already been made.
State Parks has been actively encouraging non-profit groups or local governments to step up to take over management of the 70 parks on the closure list. Additionally, the agency is also soliciting Requests for Proposal (RFPs) from commercial concessionaires to manage “bundles” of parks of their choosing.
Concessionaires have had experience operating campgrounds; that's their advantage, Gardner told participants at last Monday's meeting. Local groups, however, will be putting the revenue they earn back into the park as improvements and programs, which is to their advantage when the state considers their proposal.
”We're reinvesting in the park,” said Bess Bair, a member of the Team Standish board and one of the organizers of the group.
Team Standish also has the advantage of working with MAPA, who have already successfully negotiated a partnership agreement to manage Russian Gulch State Park on the Mendocino Coast. Team Standish will be able to use some of the language from that agreement in their proposal, adding provisions that are specific to Standish-Hickey SRA.
Carolyne Cathey, executive director of MAPA, and her husband also attended the meeting. Sam Allsop, district maintenance chief for the North Coast Redwoods State Park, came with Gardner to answer questions relating to supplies, equipment, upkeep, and improvements to the park.
The group reviewed the ten “core functions” for managing the park established by State Parks, discussing which functions Team Standish and MAPA could perform and which the agency would continue to manage.
Team Standish would be handling most of the functions of administration and management, cultural and natural resources management, interpretation and education, maintenance and facilities management, public safety and law enforcement, recreation, and marketing and revenue generation.
State Parks will continue to be primarily responsible for real property issues, as well as planning, environmental and regulatory compliance. Another function, public works and capital development, would come into play “down the road,” Gardner said, since money is not available for the large projects that fall into this category.
In its proposal, Team Standish must describe how it will fulfill each of these functions, each of which includes a list of activities or tasks. While at first sight these lists seem daunting, Gardner explained that she, Allsop, and other State Parks staff will work with them on the details of their proposal.
Members of Team Standish have already discussed and planned for many of these tasks, found volunteers, and organized committees to address the specifics.
One of the major issues is law enforcement. According to Cathey, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman has agreed to send deputies to parks at no charge if they receive a call during the day.
Team Standish was also hoping to be able to pay for a ranger from another park in the area to respond to calls, but Gardner said she has only two rangers available for 14 shifts a week in her sector, plus a supervisor who can occasionally fill in. The likelihood of a ranger being nearby when a call comes in is slight.
She recommended relying on the sheriff's deputies and simply calling 911 for night-time emergencies. If a ranger is available nearby, he or she will respond but otherwise it's a matter of which law enforcement officer can be there the quickest.
Another difficulty is that all supplies and equipment, everything from vehicles to fuel stored in the onsite fuel tank, from tools to toilet paper, will be removed by State Parks to be used in other parks, so Team Standish will have to purchase all the items it needs to open and maintain the park.
The idea is that the parks are being closed to save money, and one way to do this is to re-distribute materials from the closed parks.
Later in the meeting Allsop told the group that he may be able to negotiate about some items currently stored at Standish-Hickey.
Park partners will not be allowed to make major alterations to structures or facilities within the park because these kinds of projects nearly always involve a lengthy and complicated permit process.
Even converting a garage currently used for storage to an interpretive center without making any structural changes requires compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Gardner explained, which involves high costs and a detailed approval process.
In general, Gardner encouraged Team Standish to focus on managing the campground and providing interpretive programs and activities for park visitors. More ambitious ideas for improvements should wait until the group has had a year or two of experience.
”When you first take over, remember, if it ain't broke, don't fix it,” Gardner said.
Interpretive programs should focus on nature and history. One of the strengths of a local group is that they know their area in depth and often develop excellent programs based on that knowledge.
The new managers have some leeway in setting fees with the approval of the district manager. Team Standish is considering different fees for regular and “premium” campsites, and for summer and off-season camping.
Lower fees in the off-season could attract more campers and therefore bring in more revenue for the year, Gardner said, adding that while the current campground fee of $35 is considered high, “We didn't want to raise fees.” As the state legislature allocated less and less of the state's general fund to the parks' budget, fees were raised to generate more operating revenue.
Team Standish, with the help of MAPA, will need to handle all personnel matters. At least four or five people will be needed each day, including two people in the kiosk, two people in maintenance, and a supervisor.
Job applicants need to be carefully screened, including background checks. Volunteers should be considered “unpaid employees,” that is, treated the same as paid employees except that they receive no pay.
MAPA director Cathey said that the California Parks Foundation has promised to provide up to 50 percent of start-up costs, and additional help may also come from Save-the-Redwoods League and other donors.
”I'm impressed by your enthusiasm and dedication, especially how you all are pulling together to keep the park open” Gardner told the group. She added that she had worked in the area and lived in Leggett “many moons” ago. “I really like the community and I know how important Standish-Hickey is to Leggett.”
She suggested that they find people specializing in each function to write up that section of the proposal, including what kind of training they need. State Parks staff will do their best to help with ideas and personnel to assist with training.
”Let's see what we can work out and how we can help each other,” she said.
Cathey also expressed her appreciation for the community's efforts. “I feel honored to have the opportunity to work with you,” she said.
The Team Standish members likewise thanked State Parks and MAPA for their help and expertise.
At a workshop in Ft. Bragg on Feb. 23, State Parks asked for proposals to be completed by April 15 so that they can be reviewed and receive final approval so the new managers have time to get ready to open on July 1. Even if they miss this deadline, however, they can still open as soon as they are ready.
Jeff Hedin, chairman of the Team Standish board, said that if Standish-Hickey is closing March 31, they hope to re-open the park even sooner than July 1, if at all possible.