State turns to nonprofit to maintain Santa Barbara park

As California struggles to expand and maintain its massive system of state parks, it has found an innovative solution in Santa Barbara: Get a nonprofit group to do it.

For more than four decades, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation has operated El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park. The unique partnership prompted California lawmakers to pass special legislation in 1988 allowing the trust to continue running the park on behalf of the state.

“There’s nothing else quite like it,” said Jarrell C. Jackman, the trust’s executive director, who has visited all 278 state parks. “We do everything from interpretation to renting out the rooms.”

While several state parks have forged business relationships with private or nonprofit groups to run gift shops or other park concessions, El Presidio is fully operated by the trust.

The relationship started in 1966, after Santa Barbara civic leaders recognized a need to restore and permanently conserve the 18th-century Spanish colonial fort that is Santa Barbara’s birthplace. The group has since expanded its operations and purchased Casa de la Guerra, the 1820s home of the city’s patriarch, and the Santa Ines Mission Mills in Solvang. The latter has been deeded to the state to become a future state park.

The trust has grown from an all-volunteer organization to nine full-time staffers, 14 part-timers and 140 volunteers.

In 2007, California State Parks signed an agreement renewing the partnership for 20 years.

Jackman said he would encourage communities with their own beloved state parks to explore similar partnerships — with one caveat: Only large, well-established nonprofits that are prepared to stay in for the long-term need apply.

“You really have to be patient to work with State Parks,” he said. “They don’t like the B-word, but they do have bureaucracy. Sometimes it can take too long to get things done.”