In the 1980s, when California was gripped by a recession and severe budget crunch, the state Department of Parks and Recreation lacked enough money to properly maintain the steep, five-mile access road to Hearst Castle.
So a group of area business people and residents, fearing that the road’s deep potholes and ruts could cause a catastrophic accident for tour buses, formed the Hearst Castle Citizens Committee to raise money for the road and other maintenance.
Ultimately, the state found money to repair the road.
But instead of disbanding, the group raised money for artifact restoration. In doing so, they created a blueprint for the dozens of partnerships and hundreds of individual volunteers whose work is once again crucial to maintaining the state’s prized parks.
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The committee eventually grew into Friends of Hearst Castle, a nonprofit organization that has restored night lighting to the hilltop estate and provided money for artifact conservation as well as educational, interpretive and art programs.
Friends of Hearst Castle also hosts several high-visibility, high-ticket annual fundraising events, including a December holiday dinner in the Castle’s refectory (dining hall). In addition to contributing about $500,000 for outdoor lights that made nighttime events and tours possible, the group has raised $3 million, mostly in the past 15 years, said Hoyt Fields, museum director at Hearst Castle.
The dedication of Friends members and other volunteers “is invaluable,” Fields said, “because everything they do benefits the Castle and the district.”
‘OK, but not by much’
Budget cuts have affected more than maintenance in recent years.
Nick Franco, a State Parks superintendent, said his San Luis Obispo Coast District has fewer employees this year, too — with
14 full-time vacancies and a 10 percent cut in seasonal positions.
Law-enforcement staffing is down by four rangers, a canine officer, a supervising ranger and a superintendent/peace officer.
At Hearst Castle, the district has had up to 130 tour guides in previous summers. This year, “We’re down to 70,” Franco said, adding that 65 is the break-even point for a full summer schedule. “We’re OK, but not by much. Trying to limp by is tough,” he added, especially if someone gets sick or retires.
Visitors to the San Luis Obispo Coast District tell park officials, “ ‘Gee, it’s not as nice as I remembered,’ ” Franco said. “That’s a measure of ‘it’s open, but we’re doing less frequently the regular things we would normally do more often.’ ”
That includes everything from the frequency of cleaning restrooms to landscape and habitat maintenance, pavement patching and routine repairs.
“What suffers is resource management and interpretive work … the ranger stopping to talk to you about the elephant seals, a good place to hike on the beach or plover nesting,” Franco said.
The effects can be subtle.
“If somebody doesn’t learn more about plovers on an immediate, day-to-day basis, we can live with that. But long-term, if you’re not educating people, you’ll have more law enforcement problems later,” Franco said, noting that people who don’t know why there’s fencing will be more likely to trespass in those cordoned-off areas.
Furthermore, maintenance that’s delayed three to five years can trigger escalating damage that will cost a lot more to repair later, Franco said.
The situation would be worse without the district’s 600 volunteers and more than 50 partner organizations.
Volunteers garden, maintain trails, pick up trash, give tours, act as docents and provide free labor that cash-strapped park managers couldn’t provide otherwise, Franco said.
Some of them — called unpaid camp hosts — perform chores and greet guests in exchange for their campsite, making a big difference in the day-to-day cleanliness and friendliness of a campground or state park, according to biker-campers Nicole and Jed Methena of Flagstaff, Ariz.
“Thank God for camp hosts,” she said. “They keep it clean. They’re here to enjoy it themselves, so they want it to be nice, too.”
Her husband agreed.
“Some campgrounds probably would be really nasty without the camp hosts,” he said.In some units, State Parks gets help through partnerships.
Locally, some have been in place for decades.
Several, such as the 3,500-member Friends of Hearst Castle, were launched to help specific parks. Others, such as the Cayucos Land Conservancy — which holds a conservation easement and helps maintain and operate Estero Bluffs State Park, and essentially operates Harmony Headlands State Park — took on chores as part of their mission.
Volunteers for the Harmony Ambassadors must take at least a day’s worth of formal training, with some on-site orientations to learn about the many bird and plant species on the former dairy ranch.
Veteran docent Evelyn Dabritz said she enjoys the opportunity to answer questions and interact with visitors.
It “is a nice peaceful way to spend a Sunday afternoon,” she said, “rather than in your rocking chair.”
Editor’s note: Tribune staff writer Kathe Tanner was a founding member of the Hearst Castle Citizens Committee and was a member of that group for about a year after it converted to a cooperating association.
A look at who’s helping our state parks
Here’s a closer look at services provided by some of the San Luis Obispo Coast District partners:
• Central Coast Natural History Association, which provides docents, education, interpre-tation and more at Morro Bay Natural History Museum, Moñtana de Oro, Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove and nature center and various other parks in Morro Bay and the Five Cities area.
• Cayucos Land Conservancy, the first nonprofit to have conservation easements over State Parks lands — contracts that were crucial in launching Estero Bluffs State Park and in opening Harmony Headlands State Park to the public. The group provides everything from docents to manual labor.
• Cal Poly, which provides data, research and other information on park-related topics, such as Hearst Castle artifacts. The university also houses many drawings by castle architect Julia Morgan.
• County schools, which provide various services, including connecting the district’s computers to the state’s schools via the educational high-speed internet, so State Parks can deliver information to students statewide.
• Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which co-sponsors and manages the Coastal Discovery Center at William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach in San Simeon; helps support the Friends of the Elephant Seal docent program; and assists State Parks with coastal issues and signage along the sanctuary’s shores from Cambria to Marin County.
• California Conservation Corps, which has undertaken restoration and construction projects from building boardwalks and cleanup to tree work.
— Kathe Tanner