It’s up to the state to manage parks

Artwork is displayed in one of the cloister bedrooms at Hearst Castle.
Artwork is displayed in one of the cloister bedrooms at Hearst Castle.

If the state Parks Department has been guilty of mismanaging Hearst Castle — particularly the castle’s extensive European art collection — then by all means, call Getty Museum and ask their people to take over.

Absent evidence of wrongdoing, though, we’re wondering why the Little Hoover Commission would suggest that Hearst Castle might be “better maintained” by a private entity — a suggestion raised in the commission’s extensive report on the troubled state park system.

That report poses the question, “Should Hearst Castle be in the State Park System?” but in the brief discussion that follows, the only issue raised is financial.

The commission points out that Hearst Castle is a major revenue source for State Parks, but that still isn’t enough to cover a backlog of deferred maintenance needs at the castle that total as much as $60 million.

In other words, the Little Hoover Commission isn’t necessarily saying that State Parks is incapable of managing Hearst Castle or its art collection. It’s just saying that it needs more money to do so.

In fact, the entire park system is woefully underfunded; in the late 1970s, the general fund covered 91 percent of its expenses; this year, it’s covering just 22 percent of operating costs.

According to the report, the best way — perhaps the only way — to deal with that is to enter into partnership agreements with private concessionaires, nonprofits or local or county governments.

We don’t disagree.

However, we strongly believe that the state has the primary responsibility for managing and maintaining its public lands and historic sites, including Hearst Castle. And we don’t want to see the state shirk its duty by transferring that responsibility to other government agencies or nonprofits that may be in no better financial position to operate parks.

While the Little Hoover Commission raises valid concerns and makes some excellent recommendations, we’re concerned, too, that its sky-is-falling mentality could lead to some rash decisions.

For instance, a letter from the chairman of the commission warns that California has only a two-year window to “save” the state park system.

That sounds like a threat, and frankly, we’re tired of such scare tactics being applied to parks.

We agree with the commission’s recommendation that there should be a careful analysis of all State Parks properties, to determine which are statewide attractions and which primarily draw local or regional visitors. If it makes sense to turn over management of those local and regional parks to some other entity, we’ll support that.

We also agree that all parks should be forging partnerships with local governments, foundations and other entities that can provide expertise, funds and other forms of assistance. In fact, Hearst Castle has been partnering with other museums — including the Getty — and, of course, with Friends of Hearst Castle, which has been instrumental in raising funds.

And finally, we agree with Little Hoover Commission’s conclusion that the parks system needs a new operating model — one that’s more transparent, more up-to-date and one that generates more operating revenue.

But any permanent changes in the management of state parks must be done methodically, rationally and without artificial deadlines — and not simply because the state is trying to get out from under a burden it now finds too onerous.