Saving CA state parks: the end of public funding?

Coe Park is California's second-largest state park, spanning more than 87,000 acres.
Coe Park is California's second-largest state park, spanning more than 87,000 acres.
Melissa Block/NPR
Coe Park is California's second-largest state park, spanning more than 87,000 acres.
Dan McCranie (left) hands over a check for $279,000 to Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks, at a ceremony at Coe Park in May. The amount is the first installment of about $900,000 from the Coe Park Preservation Fund that will keep the park open for three years.
Ron Fischler/Courtesy of Coe Park Preservation Fund
Coe Park is California's second-largest state park, spanning more than 87,000 acres.
Brad Beadell (right) takes his 11-year-old son William on his first backpacking trip through Henry W. Coe State Park in Morgan Hill, Calif.
Melissa Block/NPR

For the first time in California's history, 15 state parks are slated to be permanently closed to the public on July 1. They're the victim of budget cuts in a state with a $16 billion shortfall.

Over the last year, park enthusiasts have scrambled to save dozens of parks from closure, including Henry W. Coe State Park, California's second-biggest state park, located about 30 miles south of San Jose.

With 135 square miles of spectacular wilderness in the Diablo mountain range, Coe Park is considered one of the Bay Area's greatest secrets. Its namesake Henry Coe was a cattle rancher whose land became a state park in 1958.

The park will stay open for at least three years, thanks largely to the generosity of one man: an avid hiker and wealthy businessman named Dan McCranie.

'Crazy About This Place'

McCranie made his money in the semiconductor industry. For 30 years now, when he needs to escape the grind of Silicon Valley, McCranie seeks refuge in Coe Park, where an inscription on a monument to Henry Coe reads, "May these quiet hills bring peace to the souls of those who are seeking."

"I'm crazy about this place," McCranie says. "I think everybody who comes here is crazy about it."

When McCranie heard that Coe Park was on the list slated for closure, he stepped up with three quarters of a million dollars to help keep it open for the next three years. While McCranie is Coe Park's main donor, others have also contributed smaller amounts. In total, about $900,000 of private donations will be given to the state of California to fund rangers and maintenance staff for three years.

McCranie, who's turning 69 soon, says he couldn't think of a better thing to do with his excess wealth than to preserve Coe Park. Still, he admits he did not tell his wife before making the donation. "I figured forgiveness would be better than permission," he says with a laugh.

A New Funding Model?

Unlike some other California parks where operations will be taken over by private companies or nonprofits, Coe Park will still be managed by the state. But its funding will all come from private donors and entrance fees.

While McCranie is a firm believer in free enterprise who considers himself "right of Attila the Hun" on economic issues, he also believes turning the park over to private hands would be a big mistake.

Since the announcement of his donation, he's turned down offers from potential donors interested in privatizing the park. McCranie says he prefers a large group of medium-sized donors to keep Coe Park running so that no one donor can dominate. He is also against giving donors naming rights to parts of the park.

"We got the first $900,000 for nothing," he says. "Why don't we get the next $900,000 for nothing? Why wouldn't it be enough to say that you contributed to keeping the park open?"

A Slippery Slope?

McCranie figures that now that private donors have stepped up, state money will never come back to Coe Park. So it will be up to them to create an endowment fund big enough to keep this park open in perpetuity. But this model is precarious if enthusiasm flags or fortunes shift.

Getting the state off the hook for funding parks may also set into motion a slippery slope, says Rob Reich, who is a co-director of Stanford University's Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

On one level, Reich says, McCranie's donation makes a sweeping philanthropic statement. But Reich is also troubled by the questions it raises: What about parks in areas that don't have a lot of money? Who saves them? And what about donors who attach all kinds of strings to their gifts? And does private philanthropy replace the common good?

"You get lots of people like [McCranie] or others who do this who have great intentions and are civically minded and spirited," Reich explains. "But acting one by one by one, they set into motion this dynamic ... where suddenly we're not acting collaboratively or collectively as a public. We're acting individually as philanthropists to benefit the thing we're most passionate about. And suddenly we don't have a civic sphere anymore. We don't have political participation. We don't have an 'us.' We have a bunch of 'I's.'"

A New Lease On Life

In a parking lot in Coe Park, Brad Beadell and his 11-year-old son William from Sunnyvale, Calif., are strapped with heavy packs, ready to set out onto the trails, when they meet Dan McCranie.

"This is my son's first backpacking trip," Brad Beadell explains. "And this where I did my first backpacking trip."

McCranie tells him he took his son backpacking at Coe Park for the first time when his son was 11 too.

Beadell, a schoolteacher, knows all about budget cuts and the threat to the state parks. "It's sad that it's come to this, but it's where we're at right now in California," he says.

He thanks McCranie for his contribution. Then, father and son head into Coe Park, which has been given a new lease on life — at least for now.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio.