A Poorly Timed Appeal for State Parks

Every so often, I receive in the mail appeals to become a member of the California State Parks Foundation.

There are different levels of membership, from $25 (with the discount coupon enclosed in the mailing) all the way up to $1000, with the money going to support state parks and with members receiving certain benefits in return. You probably have seen this bit of mail in your home too.

The timing, and content, of the last appeal was startling. It arrived last Thursday at my Southern California home -- in the middle of ongoing reports about $54 million in funds turning up unexpectedly in state parks accounts. The money appears to have been hoarded away for a decade or more; investigation continues.

The letter, however, didn't mention this. It also didn't mention that Gov. Brown and the legislature had made budget moves to prevent state parks from being closed. So, essentially, the foundation was asking for money for a parks program that had a $54 reserve, and begging to help avoid parks closures that could have been avoided.

A foundation spokeswoman said this was an honest mistake. Mass mailings are done well ahead of time, and this one was prepared and sent to the post office before the latest budget news or the discovery of the $54 million.

The foundation's president, Elizabeth Goldstein, has followed up with a letter on the web site that reacts to recent news -- and a spokeswoman assured me that the letter was being sent out to Californians around the state as well.

The bad timing here is understandable. But one wonders what effect this recent news will have on future efforts to raise money for the state parks, both through the foundation and through community groups and others that have rallied to save particular parks.

Some of those donors want the money they've already given back. Will those donors give again?

Because the parks will continue to need private fundraising, even if the discovered money stays with parks. The state parks are very vulnerable in California's budget system because they don't have the special initiative or constitutional protections of other programs -- which makes the parks much easier to cut.

So future cuts to parks are a certainty. And so are future fundraising appeals.

But will the public respond generously after the recent news? It may be a hard sell.

Which is why the discovery of more money in the state parks may not be such good news for state parks.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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