What does it take to get a 7-year-old to put down his iPad? How about giving him something cooler to contemplate, like a real deer antler.
"Be careful!" warns volunteer Anne Briggs, as she pulls the antler out of a cupboard in Henry Coe's visitor center and hands it to a couple of transfixed pint-size campers. "I don't want that to fall. Feel how heavy that is."
Briggs is one of 34,000 volunteers around the state who help keep the parks going. A recent report by the state's non-partisan legislative analyst noted that volunteers across California worked over one million hours in 2010. Like Briggs, they serve as tour guides and nature specialists. As often as not, that person you see behind the cashier's desk at a park gift shop is a volunteer. The estimated worth of their labor: $20+ million a year.
Stepping outside the visitor center at Coe, you can't really get a sense of how big the park is. It's the biggest state park in Northern California, with 130 square miles of rolling hills. Or, as Anne Briggs puts it, "You can backpack for six days and never cross yourself and probably never see another soul."
Henry W. Coe State Park At a Glance
By the Numbers
- 34,207 visitors in FY 2009-10.
- The second largest park in the system at 87,722 acres.
- 364 miles of hiking and biking trails, the second-most in the system.
"You can't quite see forever, but pretty close to it on a clear day."
— Volunteer Bob Patrie
From some of the ridge tops of Henry Coe, you can see the Sierra. With a pair of binoculars, you can pick out Half Dome in Yosemite. From another ridge facing south, you can see Monterey Bay. "You can't quite see forever," says volunteer Bob Patrie, "but pretty close to it on a clear day."
Patrie is from New York State, a transplant who came west to work in Silicon Valley decades ago. He's hiked every trail in this vast stretch of former ranch land, which is dotted with oak trees, meadows that burst with wildflowers each spring and broad expanses of chaparral. The park is so big, it includes three different kinds of ecosystems. That's one of the reasons local volunteers find the park so compelling.
"These hills look pretty much the same today as they did in the 1850s," Patrie says, marveling that such a thing is possible within easy driving distance of a massive urban population.
Just months after the announcement that Coe was closing, Patrie and the other members of the Coe Park Preservation Fund lined up more than $1 million, much of it from their own pockets.
That turned out to be the easy part. Giving the state of California $1 million isn't as simple as you might think. It took from July until December to get everybody's signatures on the dotted lines.
Patrie demurs when asked why he thinks it took so long, before he says diplomatically, "The more people have an oar in the water, the more likely it is to get all messed up."
The head of the state parks agency would characterize the time spent differently. Ruth Coleman of the Department of Parks and Recreation says six months is "lightning speed" for a government agency charged with doing due diligence on any and every proposal.
The special challenge with the Coe proposal was that the park doesn't have its own budget line. "We do not budget at a park level," says Coleman. "We budget at a sector level, because we are deploying staff across many parks."
While she's actively encouraging donations and rescue plans, she says the math has to pencil out, and that's a little more complicated than you might think.
"We no longer can afford to have individuals at parks. So then when somebody comes in saying ‘I want to fund that park,' we're now having to tease out what portion of that ranger's time was spent at Henry Coe versus the other parks that are in that area."
State lawmakers anticipated that non-profit groups might want to "borrow" a state park for a few years until the budget improves, and they passed a law allowing for that. That said, big parks like Coe need a law enforcement presence that volunteers can't provide. Just imagine Anne Briggs trying to read the riot act to armed gunmen running a pot grow.
"You can't!" she protests. "You simply can't, and as a long-term and older volunteer myself, I would hesitate to."
Bob Patrie says the volunteers here look to the rangers, who are sworn peace officers, to keep park visitors of all kinds in line. "Criminal activity without the presence of you know, rangers and so on, well, you'd just be inviting it."
Another major concern is safety. State lawmakers passed legislation granting California immunity from prosecution, should somebody enter a closed park and become injured.
Patrie scoffs at that. "To me that seems kind of foolish. I don't know how you can write a law that exempts you from liability for something that you own." We may not know how it will work until a number of parks actually close later this year.
Not that the volunteers at Coe want to wait to find out. Minor accidents, like a sprained ankle, can become life-threatening if there's nobody to notice you haven't returned from the trail in days. While periodic aerial flyovers might catch pot patches, they're not likely to spot poachers, squatters or incipient wildfires. So for the next three fiscal years, Patrie and his pals will cover the salaries for two rangers, a park maintenance worker and two aides.
Back in the visitor's center, Ranger Cameron Bowers offers gratitude to the volunteers for saving his job. It's a vote of confidence from the people he works with, but also an investment in building Coe's future volunteer force of park lovers.
It's part of Bowers' job to take second-graders on, what is for many, their first camping trip ever. The recent report from the LAO suggested this is the kind of duty that might be out-sourced for cost savings. After all, people like Anne Briggs with her deer antlers and such are effective ambassadors for the state parks.
What the report doesn't reflect is the force of personality someone like Cameron Bowers brings to the job. It's not just that he cuts a commanding figure in his uniform. The former football player and current assistant coach on the Christopher High School Cougars Varsity team has a natural affinity for kids. He's also a generational mid-point between today's children and the largely elderly corps of volunteers at Henry Coe. To see the light shining in his eyes when he talks about camping in California parks is to be converted.
Bowers is a regular visitor to elementary schools in and around San Jose.
"I ask the kids 'Who owns the park? Who do I work for?' And they always say 'The Governor...' They say everything else except the people of California, and that's what I want them to know, is that I work for them."