Over the past week, the Sacramento Bee has unearthed a trove of evidence  that has revealed that officials at the California State Parks administration have been sitting on “hidden assets” that are worth at least $54 million. This breaking story, set with a backdrop of more than a year’s worth of desperate community scrambling to respond to the threat of park closures, as well as a park’s maintenance backlog of more than $1 billion, has resulted in the immediate shakeup of State Parks management. Last Friday, July 20, Ms. Ruth Coleman, who had served as director of California State Parks since 1999, offered her letter of resignation to Governor Brown. The Governor immediately accepted the letter, making Ms. Coleman’s resignation immediate.
For the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) this news confirms what we have long contended –that Ms. Coleman offered highly questionable and less than competent leadership for the globally valuable California State Parks System. In several instances during 2011, EPIC specifically requested her removal and replacement in letters to Governor Brown. The concerns that we have raised have been related to management shenanigans at Tolowa Dunes State Park, where Ms. Coleman made backhanded attempts to facilitate illegal hunting near Lake Earl, as well as largely turning a blind eye to inappropriate off-road vehicle (OHV) use, and illegal grazing permits. Last year, and only due to the threat of imminent litigation, EPIC was able to leverage State Parks management to end the illegal grazing permits at Tolowa Dunes.
During the spring and summer of 2011, as more information became available concerning the creation of a list of 70 state parks to be closed due to budget problems within the State Park System, EPIC was amongst the first to question the legality of the closures, and the process by which those closure decisions were made. EPIC has also questioned the manner in which State Parks has been largely silent on the Richardson Grove issue, failing to effectively act upon the Caltrans project planning process, essentially acquiescing before the highway construction behemoth. Our organization has also vocally questioned the failure of State Parks to fulfill the promise of the Headwaters Deal that was intended to acquire lands contiguous with the two separate parcels of Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park and expand the park to refortify the protected area network for the redwood ecosystem. Ms. Coleman was director of California State Parks for nearly the entire period of time that has passed since the Headwaters Deal was signed. These issues, and more, have lead EPIC over time to question her leadership, and ultimately to request a change in the directorship. We are truly disappointed that the change in leadership had to occur in these circumstances.
Our organization stands behind the demand of State Senator Noreen Evans that every department and division in the state government be audited. We support robust and well-funded public agencies dedicated to the stewardship of our public trust resources, and we insist that transparency and accountability be the foundations upon which these agencies fulfill their duties. We hope that this development is a wake up call to decision makers in Sacramento, including Governor Brown, to recognize that their lackadaisical attitude regarding citizen group concerns about the management of our state agencies only results in scandal and harm to our natural and human communities. In the meantime, the stewardship crisis in our state parks continues unabated, while public faith in the institution charged with their protection is eroded, only promising a devaluing of the protected places themselves in the public’s eye. The vicious down trending circle of Ms. Coleman’s poor leadership has been greatly exacerbated by the scandal. It will require the ongoing advocacy of EPIC and our broad community of supporters to continue to support our parks as globally treasured jewels that we must protect for the future generations.