Henry Coe advocates renew deal to keep park open

State parks desperately need the help of volunteers. It doesn't

The future is looking bright for 87,000 acres of majestic South County backcountry stretching east of Highway 101 between Gilroy and Morgan Hill that was recently in danger of being closed to the public.

After a tumultuous year marked by threats of being shut down thanks to state budget cuts – not to mention the subsequent scandal that broke loose exposing financial negligence in the parks finance department – California’s second largest state park, Henry Coe, will remain open and staffed through 2016.

On Dec. 21, a formidable volunteer organization called the Coe Park Preservation Fund (known as the CPPF and including driving benefactor Dan McCranie, an avid outdoor enthusiast who owns Ladera Restaurant in Morgan Hill) became the first group to return and sign Assembly Bill 1478. Approved Sept. 25 by Gov. Jerry Brown, the legislation follows the recommendation that Brown return $20.5 million of the “found” funding that came to light in mid-July in the park’s finance department.

Now, having signed the matching fund agreement called AB 1478 – which appropriates $20.5 million of those unreported funds back to state parks to help prevent park closures in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 fiscal years – the CPPF renewed an amended memorandum of understanding to help keep Coe operating for all to enjoy. The CPPF’s donation of $279,000, coupled with a matching donation from the state and the park’s annual revenue of $100,000 generated by camping, day-use fees and paying visitors, will keep Coe open through the 2012-13 and 2013-14 fiscal years.

“We are so pleased and it is so nice to have this settled – it’s really been quite a cliffhanger,” said CPPF President Anne Briggs Thursday.

The agreement also keeps Coe open for an additional two years through 2016 and will maintain staffing, services and hours/days of operation, although the level of services and staffing are contingent on available state funding.

General Anthony L. Jackson, who was sworn in Nov. 16 as director of California State Parks after former director Ruth Coleman resigned in July, is also very happy with the latest development.

“We are extremely pleased that the Coe fund board had faith in our system and wanted to help our new management team,” he said. “This is our first, premier indicator of us moving beyond our recent troubles and forward with the restoration of trust in our park system.”

Briggs, one of four CPPF representatives who traveled to Sacramento to sign the amended agreement, confirmed Jackson’s perception of restored faith, saying, “I liked him, and I felt like I could trust him.”

Coe was among 70 state parks threatened with unprecedented mass closure in 2012 due to a $22 million budget cut enacted by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The CPPF – like dozens of other advocate groups that sprang up around California in an attempt to keep their local state parks open – formed in February 2011 and labored relentlessly to keep Coe from closing its gates.

The nonprofit organization originally inked a memorandum of understanding with the state in late 2011 that would keep Coe, a.k.a. “the wilderness next door” open for at least three years with a private donation of $300,000 per year coupled with the park’s regular revenue. The group of six CPPF board members then fundraised the first installment of $279,000.

McCranie is “delighted” that the CPPF signed the amended agreement, calling it “as good of an outcome as we could have hoped for.”

But after fronting a significant portion of the $279,000 donation and helping spearhead an impassioned campaign that asked taxpaying citizens to donate their own money to help keep Coe open – only to find out that the parks finance department had an extra $20.5 million in the bank – McCranie’s optimism is guarded.

“Only time will tell if the new leadership will address all of the issues facing the parks,” he added. “These are at least first steps.”

Just months after the CPPF cut a check to the state for over a quarter of a million dollars, it was revealed that the parks finance department was actually sitting on an “underreported” cache of $56 million that dates back 12 years, as revealed in a preliminary internal investigation that came to light in mid-July.

While $34 million of that money was tied up in an off-road vehicle account intended for motorcycle and dune buggy parks, the other $20.5 million belongs to the general purpose State Parks and Recreation Fund, which is intended to support the general operation of state parks. The account sources its revenue from fees, rentals and returns collected for the use of any state park system, according to a press release from the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the state parks department.

The CPPF subsequently demanded the state pay up – or pay back.

The group issued a public ultimatum in late July via news release and press conference, threatening to cancel its 2011 memorandum of understanding and request the “immediate” return of its $279,000 donation if the legislature did not allocate the $20.5 million “back to the department from which (it was) collected.”

McCranie previously noted that he hoped “it never comes to that,” but agreed along with the rest of the CPPF board that asking for the donation back was the group’s way of standing up for what its members deemed a “logical and morally correct” action.

Of the $20.5 million in state funding that is now available for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 fiscal years, $10 million will be set aside and made available to provide matching funding for groups such as the CPPF that have signed matching fund agreements with the State.

Approximately $10 million of the remaining $10.5 million will be available for the parks department to direct funds to parks that remain at high risk of shutting down during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 fiscal years. The remaining $500,000 will be available for the department to pay for ongoing audits and investigations as directed by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, the Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Finance or other state agencies.

“When we learned of the unreported funds, we were devastated,” said Briggs in the recent Dec. 21 press release. “But we waited to find out what would happen and today, we are returning with our full faith and confidence that the new parks department leadership is setting things straight and we can move the system to a better future.”

About Henry Coe

Henry Coe is California’s second largest state park and boasts mysterious groves of twisting Manzanita trees, shimmering streams, downy meadows teeming with wildflowers, chaparral hillsides, multiple ecosystems supporting elusive wildlife, a dazzling array of more than 700 plants, the historic Gilroy Hot Springs and dozens of trails leading to breathtaking vistas. Park staff and volunteers host numerous educational programs and outdoor recreation activities all year.

Coe’s terrain is rugged and varied with lofty ridges, steep canyons and welcomes hikers, mountain bikers, backpackers, equestrians, car campers, backpackers and picnickers. It was once home to Ohlone Native Americans and contains the headwaters of Coyote Creek.

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