The Cambrian

Helping hands keep state parks functioning

One in a series of reports on California state parks.

When campers want to know where to go for ice or groceries in state parks, they often ask a camp host. When visitors want information on Hearst Castle tours, they can ask a docent at the visitor center’s front desk. If hikers want details about the flora, fauna or history of Harmony Headlands State Park, they can ask a Harmony Ambassador.

All those people are volunteers. And as parks budgets are slashed yet again, such unpaid workers frequently are what keep the state’s open spaces, recreational areas and museums

functioning and open.

In fact, the first official “nature walk” at the Headlands will start at the Highway 1 parking area at 9:30 a.m. Friday, July 9, led by volunteer Ambassador Bob Swanson.

Déjà vu

State Parks has relied on volunteers for decades. 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, 5-mile 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.

Among the people appointed by parks legend William Penn Mott were: Del Clegg of Cookie Crock Market in Cambria; Mike Hanchett of Cavalier Resorts in San Simeon; Doug Wagnon, then with Bob and Jan’s Bottle Shop and Deli in Cambria, now the owner of The Spirit of San Luis restaurant at the San Luis Obispo airport; Woody Frey of Cal Poly; Pete Sebastian of the founding family that created what is now the Sebastian’s General Store, wine tasting room, post office and state historic monument in San Simeon; retired Crocker Bank manager Mel McDonald and Howard Vanderlinden, retired Rexall Drug vice president.

Ultimately, the state found money to repair the road.

But instead of disbanding, the group hosted in 1983 a well-attended 25th anniversary party of the monument’s opening as a State Park in 1958, raising money for artifact restoration. The group’s blueprint for public-private partnership, supported by hundreds of individual volunteers, is once again crucial to maintaining the state’s prized parks.

The committee eventually became the 3,500-member Friends of Hearst Castle, a nonprofit organization that has raised about $3 million–mostly in the past 15 years –for the monument’s artifact conservation, educational, interpretive and art programs, according to Hoyt Fields, museum director at Hearst Castle.

The group also contributed about $500,000 toward restoring the night lighting that made possible the nighttime events and tours at the hilltop estate.

The dedication of Friends members and other volunteers “is invaluable,” Fields said, “because everything they do benefits the Castle and the district.”

Friends is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

Volunteers’ role

The situation would be worse without San Luis Obispo Coast District’s 600 volunteers and more than 50 partner organizations.

Volunteers give tours, act as docents, garden, maintain trails, pick up trash and provide free labor that cash-strapped park managers couldn’t provide otherwise.

Ranger Bill Payne said, “The volunteers fill gaps we just can’t handle,” with the department’s short staffing and budget woes.

Ranger Rob Colligan, super vising State Park ranger, said volunteers at Harmony Headlands State Park “have a wealth of information to share with visitors, all while enforcing the rules. I don’t even want to think where we’d be without them. They run that park. The Ambassadors make it what it is today.”

Veteran docent Ambassador 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: Staff writer Kathe Tanner was a founding member of the Hearst Castle Citizens’ Committee.


Part one of this series appeared in The Cambrian on July 1: