Team Standish, a group of Piercy and Leggett residents who came together nearly two years ago to find a way to keep Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area (SRA) open in spite of state budget cuts, is entering its second year of managing the park in partnership with the Mendocino Area Parks Association (MAPA) and the California Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR).
Although the park did not pay for itself this past season, falling about $70,000 short of its $210,000 budget, according to Team Standish board president Jeff Hedin, campgrounds and day use areas remained open to the public throughout the year and many improvements were made.
It takes 7,000 daily campsite uses to cover all the park’s expenses, Hedin said. The budget shortfall this year was made up by donations from the California Parks Foundation and Save-the-Redwoods League.
With the cooperation of local State Parks staff as well as dozens of local volunteers, Team Standish/MAPA successfully re-opened the park following closure due to state budget cuts on July 6, 2012.
Except for a period when the water system failed this last summer, Standish-Hickey SRA has been open ever since.
Summer 2013 saw the re-opening of the Redwood Loop campground area across the South Fork Eel, although it was closed after Labor Day because of regulations protecting salmon migration. Access to the Redwood Loop trail was via a "Bailey bridge," a portable
When the campground closed, the bridge was removed and stored in sections until it can be-installed next year.
The two campgrounds on the east side of the river will remain open all year. While the Redwood Times was visiting the park last week, we were greeted by an enthusiastic camper from Sebastopol walking a lively young border collie. "What an awesome campground!" the woman exclaimed. "It’s so peaceful, beautiful, and clean."
The maintenance staff, comprised of both a small paid crew and volunteers, takes special pride in keeping the park clean and inviting. We also encountered maintenance manager John Eickhoff as we strolled through the campground. It was his day off, but he stopped by to check on a problem with the door to one of the bathrooms.
Improvements to the park will continue during the off-season months, including a double handrail along the steep switchback path from the campground to the river and development of a day use area with river access that can be reached by car.
A state recreation area differs from a state park in that the emphasis is on recreational use in the SRA, so there are fewer rules and restrictions on activities than in a state park, which emphasizes preservation of resources, Hedin explained.
For example, visitors are asked to stay on established trails in a state park, but in an SRA, kids (and adults) can run free, climb over logs, splash through streams, turn over rocks to see what is under them, and in general act like kids.
Serving visitors with different needs and expectations can be challenging.
"I’m astonished to learn what recreation is to different people," Hedin said. Some people come to the park seeking solitude and a closer relationship to nature, while some come to "repair their family" by giving their children a chance to enjoy the freedom of being outdoors after living in a cramped urban environment, and still others see a camping trip as a chance for family and friendship reunions.
Some families have been coming to Standish-Hickey every summer for 40 years and feel proprietary about their special campsite, Hedin said.
The staff tries to steer visitors with children to parts of the campground occupied by other families and sends those who want quiet camping across the river, so that everyone can have the experience they’re seeking.
Eventually Team Standish hopes to create a hike-in only campground as well, but as Hedin notes, Standish-Hickey is not the right park for backpackers or those seeking a more strenuous back-country experience.
The staff tries to keep campsites near Highway 101 unoccupied so that people arriving late on a Friday evening, for example, a family from the Bay Area planning a weekend hike in Redwoods National Park, will have an easy place to camp for the night when they’re too tired to keep driving but don’t want to spend a night in a motel.
Interpretive programs enhance visitors’ experience and teach them about the natural world in an enjoyable way, such as the "100-inch hike," which gets kids crawling on their hands and knees to discover how many different plants and animals live in 100 inches.
Hedin expressed his strong belief in the need for city people to spend time in nature. Standish-Hickey is an ideal location because it’s only a few hours from San Francisco and close to many other parks and recreational opportunities.
Events such as holiday celebrations from different cultures with appropriate food and music would make the park more appealing to a diversity of ethnicities and attract more visitors from urban areas.
Standish-Hickey SRA encompasses a thousand acres, stretching from ridgetop to ridgetop when viewed from the campground overlooking the river. Part of the SRA boundary touches Smithe Redwoods State Natural Reserve just north on Highway 101, a day use area with a beautiful swimming hole on the site of a former resort, and a favorite stop for weary travelers on Highway 101.
Hedin felt that keeping Smithe Redwoods open to the public is dependent upon the success of Standish-Hickey, particularly its ability to meet its expenses from its operating revenue, so that the state would be more willing to continue funding the small natural reserve next door.
Somewhat notoriously, $54 million in reserves was discovered in DPR’s coffers in 2012 after the agency’s budget was cut by $22 million, triggering closure or threatened closure of many state parks and recreation areas. The discovery created a scandal that resulted in the resignation of the director of DPR and her second-in-command, although fraud was not an issue.
But $34 million of that $54 million came from a special tax on the sale of off-highway vehicles and was set aside for the development of off-road vehicle recreation areas, Hedin explained.
As for the remaining $20 million, "It wasn’t so much squirreled away as it was drifting through an antiquated accounting system," Hedin said.
In any case, Team Standish and MAPA are still in only the first year of a three-year contract with DPR to manage Standish-Hickey SRA.
This is really a three-way partnership with DPR, Hedin said. State Parks’ help has been "invaluable," bringing a wide range of experience and expertise, everything from a long-time understanding of visitors’ needs and how best to protect the park’s resources, to critical details such as when to pump the septic tank and the correct size of steps in a tiered trail like the one from the campground to the river.
As for MAPA, "They’re not just our fiscal sponsors," Hedin pointed out. "They worked very hard to come up with a contract that works for their mission statement and DPR’s mission statement and satisfies the lawyers and that doesn’t drive the community volunteers crazy."
All three organizations have unique histories and memberships, he added.
"To keep the park we have to get together and go shoulder-to-shoulder with professionals and maintain it until we’ve made the necessary adjustments," Hedin concluded.
REDWOOD TIMES PHOTOS BY VIRGINIA GRAZIANI
1. Even in mid-October of a low-water year, the ol’ swimming hole in the South Fork Eel River at Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area still looks tempting on a hot day.
2. The path to the river at Standish-Hickey State Recreation area is steep and rocky, but Team Standish/MAPA has volunteers and hired staff working on improvements. Although hard to see in the dappled sunlight, the course of two rails, one child height and one adult height, has already been marked out along the path.