California’s 280 state parks represent the very best of California, covering over 1.65 million acres of protected land, 340 miles of coastline and coastal habitat, and more than 3,000 historic buildings. From towering redwoods to sand-swept beaches, our parks have it all. They provide us with places to soak in hot springs, explore our state’s unique history, surf world-renowned beaches, hike to tops of peaks, build sandcastles, discover ghost towns, and so much more.
Yet too many Californians, especially those from disadvantaged communities, don’t have the opportunity to experience the wonders in their own backyards. There are obstacles to visiting parks: cost barriers, lack of transportation, or simply not feeling welcome or comfortable when visiting are just a few. And it’s people of color, low-income folks, and people who live in park-poor communities who most often bear the brunt of this inaccessibility.
Recent research by UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability showed that 57% of Californians live within a typical walk, bike ride or short drive of a state park. Although 59% of households within these short distances of state parks are disadvantaged – including 1 million youths living below the poverty line – cultural, language and technological barriers discourage these people from visiting.
In May, Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a set of budget proposals that will put the state on a course to dramatically expand the park access every Californian deserves. These proposals include:
- $68 million to help educate California’s 6 million public school students and their teachers about state parks. The funds would upgrade learning facilities and expand interpretation capacity so that students can experience the parks’ incredible learning opportunities. Separately, the governor has proposed education funding to help school districts with costs related to taking students on field trips to state parks.
- An Adventure Pass pilot program, modeled on the highly successful Every Kid Outdoors programrun by the National Park Service since 2016. The pilot would provide free passes to fourth graders and their families to 19 parks around the state, add interpretation capacity, and expand outreach to schools to support the logistics of visiting these sites.
- Funds to support a pilot partnership between public libraries and the state park system, modeled on another successful program in Marin County that allows library card holdersto check out state park passes and explore parks near them.
- Funds to support recipients of CalWORKs and other assistance programsin applying for existing low-income passes to state parks.
All these ideas are seen by advocates as promising ways to expand access to state parks for some of California’s most challenged communities. The current budget surplus, combined with soaring park visitation in the wake of the pandemic, has provided us with an opportunity to explore solutions that have worked elsewhere, and to gather feedback on how they might work on a larger scale. We urge the Legislature to support these innovative proposals.
Rachel Norton is the executive director of California State Parks Foundation, firstname.lastname@example.org.