|Design by Drew Brophy|
Why State Parks Still Matter:
A look at why private charitable contributions are still fundamental to
California State Parks in the wake of the ‘hidden funds’ debacle
by Trey Highton
At a conference in early June at UCLA’s Fowler Museum entitled “Making Waves: A History of Modern Surfing and the Clash of Cultures,” I met Jim Kempton, former editor and publisher of Surfer magazine and current executive director of the San Onofre Foundation. Jim is also one of the event directors for the Doheny Surf Festival, which in its fourth year, is now expanding into a two-day event with major music headliners including Eddie Money, Everlast, ALO, Fishbone, Common Sense, and Honk (revisit Five Summer Stories if you don’t know who Honk is). Since meeting, I have been badgering Jim and other panelists I met at the conference for guidance and expertise as I work on my graduate thesis on various aspects of surfing and globalization, and in return, Jim asked me to help him get the word out and spread some “digital aloha” through social media outlets about the Doheny Surf Festival, which will be taking place this weekend, August 11th & 12th at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point, from 10am – 9pm. I was happy to oblige – the Doheny Surf Festival raises funds for the local state park beaches of San Onofre, Doheny, Trestles, and San Clemente. Not only do 100% of proceeds raised by the event stay local, but the event itself, which not only provides entertainment but educates the public, and particularly the youth, through engaging activities about eco-issues, is aiming to be 100% carbon neutral this year.
Unfortunately, timing is just as important in public relations as it is in surfing, and the recent headlines and ensuing public outcry over the discovery of $54 million in unreported funds in the coffers of the California State Parks, has made it difficult for non-profits to justify asking for funds and concurrently made donors think twice before contributing due to a crisis of confidence in the state parks system. These funds would have been more than enough to cover the $22 million of imposed cuts to the department in 2011 – which resulted in slating 70 parks for closure and a reduction of normal operating hours and services to nearly every other state park.
To make a long, sordid tale as concise as possible, in mid-July the Sacramento Bee uncovered the unauthorized buyouts of unused vacation time by state parks’ employees, orchestrated by deputy director of administrative services Manuel Thomas Lopez, 45, of Granite Bay, who received one of the largest payouts himself - over $20,000. Lopez resigned in May and his replacement, Aaron Robertson, found the unreported funds when he started to dig into the vacation buyout operation. This program cost the state more than $270,000 and was carried out in secret – to avoid a paper trail, many requests were submitted on Post-It notes. The fallout of the scandal brought about the immediate resignation of Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks for more than a decade (the longest tenured director in the department’s 150 year history), and found her second-in-command, Chief Deputy Directory Michael Harris fired. The funds had been accumulating for more than twelve years, because the department had a pattern of underreporting their funds in its regular dealings with the state Department of Finance. As a matter of practice, each state department self-reports their funds for each year to the Department of Finance, from which the governor will draft a budget annually in January.
Of the $54 million in hidden assets, only $20.4 million is readily accessible for use in a Parks and Recreation Fund that is composed of mainly camping and day use fees. The majority, $33.5 million, is allocated in to the Off Highway Vehicle Trust Fund, which is supplied by an estimated percentage of how much OHVs consume in relation to the total sum of state gas taxes collected at the pump. A 2006 report found that the OHV fund is receiving more than it should, and with the new figures in place, the OHV fund balance is more than triple the Parks and Recreation Fund, with a balance of $165 million compared to $52.1 million. Some critics say that the OHV fund simply has more money than it can use, charged with simply maintaining off-road trails for recreational moto-enthusiasts to enjoy. (*Although I would enjoy the debate, I do not have the space in this article to delve into the deeper philosophical notions relative to ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ recreational activities, of which I would personally draw the distinction between the two with the necessity of fossil fuels. For example, playing catch is ‘clean’ in this regard, while off-roading on a four-wheeler would be ‘dirty’ due to its burning of fossil fuels. Things become complicated in instances when, instinctively, we as surfers think of the act of surfing as a ‘clean’ pursuit, being one with the ocean and all . . . but the surfboard manufacturing process is an inherently toxic one [ask Grubby Clark], and when jet-skis become involved, forget about it. Although the ‘greening’ of the surfboard has been under way in experimental new ways since Clark Foam was forced to close by the EPA in 2005, unless you are riding your bike to the beach and bodysurfing nude, you are far from participating in a carbon-neutral activity.)
In terms of public relations, this has been a disaster for the state parks department. Retired park ranger and former deputy director of operations Ted Jackson stated, "The department has been going around telling people we had to close parks, and it comes to light we had been sitting on this kind of money. It's devastating for the department and it's devastating for state government. This is the worst violation of the public trust that one could imagine." When the state budget was announced and the list of park closures was released, local municipalities stepped up to meet budget shortfalls, despite being in their own fiscal quagmires, to keep 69 of the threatened 70 parks open to the public. Now, after these findings, some local governments, like the counties of Ventura and Oxnard, have publicly asked for their money back. "There was a sense of betrayal," said Carolyn Schoff, head of the California League of Parks Associations, an alliance of nonprofits. "We're the ones in the trenches raising funds for state parks and now there's a dark shadow over us."
A SILVER LINING
Out of the ashes of this debacle, however, some good does seem to be emerging. Governor Brown issued an independent audit of all 560 special state funds, from specialty license plate fees to anti-bullying funds in public schools, that has uncovered more than $232.6 million in unreported funds. These findings have also led to a change in policy that will require the state Department of Finance to reconcile and confirm balances between the state controller’s office and the governor’s budget, to ensure that allocated funds do not slip through the bureaucratic cracks again.
Gov. Brown wants to put the found $20.4 million in the Parks and Recreation Fund towards one-time maintenance projects, which have accrued a $1.3 billion backlog over the last few years. Brown has also supported the idea of creating a state matching fund for private donations to the state park system. This fund was first proposed by Assemblyman Fred Keeley (D-Santa Cruz) in 2000, who proposed a $2 billion endowment - $1 billion from a then budget surplus and $1 billion from private foundations. Unfortunately, then Gov. Davis rejected the idea. Although Gov. Brown’s proposed fund would be substantially less, it is a step in the right direction, one that will double every dollar a citizen puts toward the state parks. (Less has been said about the over $30 million in the OHV fund, and it will probably not be addressed until the next annual budget is proposed, in January ’13.)
DOHENY SURF FESTIVAL . . . AND YOU
In 1931, oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny donated the beach for public use, making it California’s first state beach. From the 1930s to the ‘60s, Killer Dana was home to one of the most vibrant local surf scenes in California. This was the home break of Hobie Alter (pioneer of the surfboard shaping industry and creator of the Hobie Cat catamaran), Bruce Brown (filmmaker of “The Endless Summer”), Corky Carroll (international surfing champion), and one of California’s first true watermen, Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison. Killer Dana is also where in the summer of ’53, a thirteen-year-old Phil Edwards put on an infamous display of ‘hotdog’ surfing that changed the aesthetic approach to wave riding from that day on. To those outside the surfing community, however, these aspects are unquantifiable - or worse, down right meaningless.
Rumors first circulated in 1964 that the Dana Point Chamber of Commerce was seeking government and military assistance for the instillation of a harbor. One year later, congress doled out one million clams for the project, an allotment that triggered three days of celebrations in Dana Point. One year after that, the first 10-ton boulder was laid to the delight of a few thousand clapping onlookers, many of them stuffy yacht dorks in topsiders. Today, it's nothing but tricked-out sailboats, bad Mexican food and an oversize parking lot with only gutless Doheny left for your longboarding pleasure.
Among the surfers there was a general sense of helplessness -- a sense that the project was inevitable. Longtime local and noted surf scribe Chris Ahrens says of the spot's demise, "It was like a sudden death that you couldn't talk about. I couldn't even look at it for probably 10 years, just the most painful thing you can imagine. It was a whole world, a whole history erased. I knew I'd never feel at home in Southern California again. If they can do that, they can do anything. (Heller, www.surfline.com/surfing-a-to-z/killer-dana-history_844/)
But the history of Doheny is not the only attribute that makes it such a fitting venue for a benefit fundraiser – its contemporary status as one of America’s most polluted beaches is another important factor:
For many years Doheny has been ranked at or near the top of lists of the most polluted beaches in southern California. Orange County Health Care Agency's 2003 Ocean and Bay Water Quality Report indicates that Doheny had the most "Beach Mile Days" of water quality standards violations of any beach in Orange County. Heal the Bay's 2003-2004 Beach Report Card listed Doheny as their #1 Beach Bummer, consistently earning "F" grades for water quality, especially during wet weather. Although a sewage treatment plant exists alongside San Juan Creek just up from the beach, this plant has had a good operating record in recent years. Doheny's high bacteria counts are likely due to a combination of factors, including urban runoff from the 134 square mile San Juan Creek watershed, pollution from boats in Dana Point Harbor, large flocks of seagulls that poop in the creek water near the creek mouth, and poor water circulation at Doheny which has been a problem ever since Dana Point Harbor was constructed.
So the Doheny Surf Festival, in essence, is both a cultural and environmental reclamation of a place that was once an epicenter for the Southern California surfing community. This year’s event is presented by Subura, along with supporting sponsors Kona Brewing and Rubio’s.
Unfortunately, financial support from SIMA (the Surf Industry Manufacturer’s Association – think Quiksilver, Rip Curl, Billabong, Volcom, etc.) has remained tokenistic at best. Although they market the ideal of a pristine oceanic paradise to their consumer base, the industry does little to support its sustainability and protection. Since its inception in ’89, SIMA has awarded $5.8 million to non-profit environmental groups, including the Surfrider Foundation, through its public-relations ploy, the SIMA Environmental Fund (www.sima.com/charitable-funds/environmental-fund.aspx). The amount of money doesn’t seem quite so paltry until you realize that the surfing industry has become a $16 billion business annually, outpacing even the domestic film business in the United States, which comes in at roughly $10 billion. SIMA’s total philanthropic contributions to environmental causes comes in at a scant 0.0003625% of their current annual sales (I couldn’t find a calculator big enough, let alone the mental fortitude, to calculate how much smaller the number would get had I factored in annual sales since ’89). Even worse, the vast majority of these funds are not coming from the businesses themselves, but solicited from the public through the annual Waterman’s Classic Golf Tournament and the Waterman’s Ball & Auction. What is paradoxical about SIMA and their tight-fisted attitudes concerning the environment is that surfing has always subsisted as a counter-culture within greater hegemonic societal forces; yet, how can the surf industry hope to maintain this image, which is their greatest marketing gimmick and point of difference from more traditional sports, if they conform to standard industrial praxis – running business as usual?
SIMA has been more than happy to profit hugely off of the usurpation of the indigenous Hawaiian practice of he’e nalu, or wave sliding, but has turned a blind eye to the reciprocity of malama ‘aina, the care for the sea and land, that surfers have an inherent responsibility to embody. “At best, Pacific islander culture lingers on as something exotic and different to be marketed, simulated, and consumed – as ‘ex-primitive’ delight” (Wilson, Reimagining the American Pacific 111). As native Pacific anthropologist Epeli Hou’ofa notes, “Economists do not take account of the social centrality of the ancient practice of reciprocity – the core of all oceanic cultures,” wherein by acting as a steward of the environment, it will in turn provide to those who safeguard its resources, and the people are essentially indivisible from the land – “we are spiritually and mystically related to the lands to which we belong” (Hou’ofa, We Are the Ocean 36 & 74).
These facts are meant to do more than condemn an industry and it’s practices; they are meant to act as an impetus for individual action. Do more than be mindful of the problems affecting our environment - help to turn the tide back in nature’s favor. And nothing could be easier, or more fun, than attending the Doheny Surf Festival this weekend. There will be outrigger canoe races, SUP demonstrations, tandem surfing and nose riding exhibitions, vintage surfboards and woodies on display, and the chance to meet and greet living legends such as Peter Townend, Skip Frye, Paul Strauch, David Nuuhiwa, Herbie Fletcher, and contemporary big-wave hellmen Mike Parsons and Greg & Rusty Long – not to mention delicious food from some of LA’s finest food trucks and a stellar music line-up for the evenings.
"This is a significant effort to show how much appreciation the citizens of California have for their public lands," says San Onofre Foundation President Steve Netherby. "Every dollar we raise stays right in the local parks."
So if you’ve ever claimed local status at any of the beaches that will be aided by this event, or even if you’re just happy to have a clean beach to enjoy, come out, support a worthy cause, and put your money where your mouth is – because if you don’t, who will?
Official Festival Website - http://www.dohenysurffest.com/