California’s state parks were at risk of widespread closures a decade ago during the state’s fiscal crisis, but they were able to stay afloat thanks to legislation that let nonprofits take the reins.

Today, California state parks officials say their network of over 100 nonprofit organizations have not only kept park grounds open, but helped them thrive.

Read the study about the impact nonprofit partnerships are having on California’s state parks. (Courtesy California State Parks)

In a new study initiated by the California Department of Parks and Recreation and partnership organizations, a research team analyzed the contributions of nonprofit organizations assisting the state’s 280 parks, as well as identified best practices.

The study comes after State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, introduced legislation in February that would extend state legislation, which is scheduled to sunset in 2025, to allow state parks to maintain their partnerships with nonprofits.

“The value and efficacy of partnerships has never been more evident,” said Armando Quintero, Director of California State Parks. “As we look to strengthen parks with the help of a diversity of supporters and endeavor to inspire the next generation of park stewards in California, we believe our shared vision with nonprofit organizations will be key.”

According to the study, the 111 nonprofit organizations involved in the operations, maintenance or improvements of park grounds have brought specialized expertise, garnered community support, introduced new programs and racked in an estimated $15.6 million a year to the park system statewide.

“No state park is a contained system. … By furthering its commitment to nonprofit partnerships and elevating best practices, State Parks can increase its resilience, expand its capacity, and provide access to more Californians.”

California State Parks partnership report

One organization highlighted in the study is Sonoma County’s Jack London Park Partners, which was the first nonprofit that ran a state park on behalf of Californians. Community members first took over the Jack London State Historic Park during state financial hardships and, a decade later, have over 250 volunteers welcoming 100,000 visitors a year.

“Having built a strong relationship with State Parks over the past decade by rigorously aligning its efforts with the vision and mission of the district as well as demonstrating the invaluable capacities partner staff and volunteers bring, Jack London Park Partners is now trusted to go above and beyond its basic roles when called to do so,” reads the study.

Making friends and partners

Another Bay Area success story is the creation of Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks — the organization partnered with the digital documenting service Codifi to teach college students how to digitize cultural resources on park property. The partnership led to State Parks working with Codifi to evaluate wildfire damage on park properties across California.

“Codifi’s expertise and resources greatly accelerated State Parks’ ability to document and take action on wildfire restoration — all because Friends introduced Codifi into State Parks’ network,” reads the study.

Researchers also analyzed ways that partnerships can turn not-so-successful, like outdated agreements or when there’s not enough capacity to have effective communication between partners and state parks.

Researchers concluded that the parks system needs to embrace partnerships, simply because the diverse landscapes it oversees are cared for best with “collaborative stewardship.” The parks are inherently intertwined with the communities they surround, which is why there will always be a need for them to be in partnership with many stakeholders, reads the study.

“No state park is a contained system: its lands and waterways face threats that extend beyond parks’ borders, and its cultural and historical resources lose their value and relevance without an engaged public,” reads the study in its conclusion. “By furthering its commitment to nonprofit partnerships and elevating best practices, State Parks can increase its resilience, expand its capacity, and provide access to more Californians.”

State parks officials said the study has been the most comprehensive examination between nonprofits and state parks to date. Officials said the study serves as a foundation for further research, identifies ways to expand partnerships and can be a key resource for policymakers.

“This study illuminates a lesser-known fact about our state park system: the significant investment of volunteers and nonprofits in supporting State Parks’ mission. Californians love their state park system, and many have stepped up with their personal time and money to ensure that state parks continue to provide a high-quality experience to visitors and communities now and in the future,” said Rachel Norton, Executive Director of California State Parks Foundation. “We hope that as policymakers learn more about these contributions, they will gain a deeper understanding of what it takes to steward these incredible places.”