SSU Tapped to Help Save Sonoma's State Parks in Peril


Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Sonoma Valley is being operated by the nonprofit organization Team Sugarloaf. SSU researchers will begin developing best practices to help keep local state parks like this one stay open as state funds diminish.

Thanks to an anonymous $75,000 donation made this summer, two Sonoma State University scientists are launching a research project to help ensure that five of Sonoma County's most popular state parks can remain open.

Caroline Christian and Claudia Luke will work with local non-profit groups and state parks to analyze "best practices" for managing local parks in a new era of reduced public funding, here in California and nationwide.

In February 2013, the SSU researchers will release a report that describes "lessons learned" from the developing alliances between state parks and non-profits, "best practices" from peer-reviewed literature, and new ideas for collaborative, multi-stakeholder management of protected areas.

The report will serve as a resource for parks facing similar challenges of reduced public funding throughout the state.

caroline_christian.jpg"Although the disaster of park closure was averted, at least for now," says Caroline Christian, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Planning, "long-term solutions are required to keep parks open and available to the public."

"The last thing we want to see is parks shut down, especially ones that are at the core of our community's identity and economic and environmental well-being."

Christian is a conservation scientist and is an expert on the ecology and management of both public and private lands. She says as management responsibility is passed down from the state to different local organizations, greater community involvement will be needed.

claudia.jpgLuke is Director of SSU's Field Stations and Nature Preserves and is in charge of managing more than 4,000 acres of land for the University's various academic and community programs. 

Throughout her career, she has developed research, education and management collaboratives to address the challenges of managing natural areas.

"State parks are likely to continue to get smaller pieces of California's General Fund every year and still face drastic budget cuts and the threat of closures, "says Christian.

"Looking forward, we need new locally-relevant and financially sustainable models for operating the parks. We can't wait for solutions from Sacramento."

"Running a park is more than showing up and opening the gate," she says. "It involves public safety and land management issues as well as the preservation of natural and cultural resources."

Besides Christian and Luke, the team includes Sara Moore, Project Coordinator, and Sonoma State undergraduates Noelle Fletcher, Niki Shmatovich, Megan Foster and Christine Kuehn.

The major work includes a survey of the new park managers - finding what barriers and challenges they face and what models can be developed to manage them effectively.

A workshop will be held in the fall for key park managers and local government representatives to review SSU's findings and discuss collaborative strategies for long-term sustainable management of the parks.

The parks have been threatened with closure by the State of California due to the current budget crisis.

Thanks to AB42, legislation drafted by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, state parks slated to close in 2011 were allowed to stay open and be operated by local non-profits.

In Sonoma County, a coalition of 16 organizations, known as the Parks Alliance of Sonoma County, stepped forward in a grassroots effort to keep five parks accessible by the public, at least temporarily.

The five Sonoma parks amount to approximately 15,000 acres and thousands of people visit them every year from all over the world.

The parks and the local organizations currently responsible for their operation are:

• Annadel State Park (5,092 acres): Sonoma County Regional Parks until July 2013
• Austin Creek State Recreation Area (5,927 acres): Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods until 2017
• Jack London State Historic Park (1,611 acres): Valley of the Moon Natural History Association until 2017
• Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park (41 acres): Sonoma Petaluma State Historic Park Association until July 2013
• Sugarloaf Ridge State Park (2,700 acres): Team Sugarloaf until 2017. Consists of the Sonoma Ecology Center [lead] with Valley of the Moon Observatory Association; United Camps, Conferences, and Retreats; Valley of the Moon Natural History Association; and Sonoma County Trails Council.

Project coordinator Sara Moore has established a community blog at to allow the public to track the group's work.

For further information, contact Caroline Christian, (707) 664-3144 or

Above, (left) Caroline christian and (right) Claudia Luke.

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