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1:14 pm
Wed June 20, 2012

Saving Calif. State Parks: The End Of Public Funding?

Originally published on Wed June 20, 2012 3:23 pm

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

Over the past 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 has needed to escape the grind of Silicon Valley, McCranie has sought 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 $1 million 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 is 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 has 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 McCranie.

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

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block at NPR West in Culver City, California. On July 1st, 15 California state parks are slated to be permanently closed to the public. It will be the first time in state history that's happened. 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. Among those given at least a temporary reprieve is Henry W. Coe State Park in the Diablo mountain range about 30 miles south of San Jose. It's considered one of the Bay Area's greatest secrets, 135 square miles of spectacular wilderness, and it'll stay open for at least three years, thanks largely to the generosity of one man, an avid hiker and wealthy businessman named Dan McCranie.

Dan, how many times do you figure you've hiked this trail?

DAN MCCRANIE: All told, hundreds.

BLOCK: McCranie is leading me up a rugged stretch of Pine Ridge in Coe Park. This is the second biggest state park in California. You can hike for days here and never see a soul.

MCCRANIE: So this is, what, 90,000 acres? You're only going to see about 600 today, so...

BLOCK: The tiniest river.

MCCRANIE: Yeah.

BLOCK: The air is fragrant with bay laurel. Acorn woodpeckers yammer as they drill high up in the Ponderosa pines.

MCCRANIE: You see any of their...

BLOCK: Yeah. There he is.

MCCRANIE: Yeah, that's him. Yeah. There's a bunch of them there. It's cool, isn't it?

BLOCK: It's really cool. Dan McCranie made his money in the semiconductor industry and, for 30 years now, when he's needed to escape the grind of Silicon Valley, he's come here to Coe Park.

MCCRANIE: I'm crazy about this place. I think everybody that comes here is crazy about it.

BLOCK: It's named for Henry Coe, the cattle rancher whose land became the state park in 1958. We hike up to a monument showing Henry Coe riding a mule with this inscription.

MCCRANIE: May these quiet hills bring peace to the souls of those who are seeking.

BLOCK: Sound about right to you?

MCCRANIE: You bet. You bet.

BLOCK: When Dan 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.

When you did that calculus in your mind, how did you figure out, yes, it's worth it to me to spend three-quarters of a million dollars on this park?

MCCRANIE: Well, like lucky tech guys, I was able to hit a couple singles in my career and I did OK financially. Not terrific, but OK. And I could see how this was not going to materially impact my lifestyle or my children's lifestyle. I'll be 69 here pretty shortly and all of us, I think, start thinking about just what you're going to do with the excess and I just can't think of a better thing to do than to preserve this park.

BLOCK: What was that conversation like with your wife?

MCCRANIE: She didn't actually know about it until after the fact. I figured that forgiveness would be better than permission.

BLOCK: It's a high wire act you're walking there, mister.

MCCRANIE: Well, through 46 years, what's she going to do?

BLOCK: McCranie is Coe Park's main donor. Others kicked in some more for a total of about $900,000. That money will be given to the state of California to fund rangers and maintenance staff for three years. Now, unlike some other California parks where operations will be taken over by private companies or nonprofits, here, the state will still run things, but the money will all come from private donors and entrance fees.

Dan McCranie and I sit down next to Frog Lake to talk about this model. He says he's a firm believer in free enterprise.

MCCRANIE: Economically, I'm clearly right of Attila the Hun.

BLOCK: But, he says, turning the park over to private hands would be a big mistake.

MCCRANIE: I received calls after this announcement from individuals who wanted me to consider working with them to privatize the place. That's not going to happen.

BLOCK: Do you think there's a risk that a donor in the future would want to impose a stamp, would want more control, would want to change this park because, basically, he or she owns a good chunk of it?

MCCRANIE: I think that - I think, if you allowed that to happen, that would be a problem. What I'd like to have is a large group of medium-sized donors so that no one has that kind of control.

BLOCK: It'd be tempting, though, wouldn't it? I'll give you $200,000, but I want this to be the Melissa Block Lake. Naming rights, things like that.

MCCRANIE: We had those discussions, too, and why not give them nothing? We've got the first $900,000 for nothing. Why don't we get the next $900,000 for nothing? I mean, why wouldn't it be enough to say that you have contributed in keeping the park open?

BLOCK: Dan McCranie figures that now that private donors have stepped up, state money will never come back to Coe Park, so it's up to them to create an endowment fund big enough to keep this park open in perpetuity. But what if they can't? This model is precarious if enthusiasm flags or fortunes shift and if the state is taken off the hook for parks, what's next?

ROB REICH: Next step, libraries. Next step, public education. If it sets in motion this slippery slope, that's not a good development.

BLOCK: That's Rob Reich. He directs the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford. On one level, he says, what Dan McCranie is doing is great, a sweeping philanthropic statement, but step back and he's troubled. What about parks in areas that don't have a lot of money? Who saves them? What about donors who attach all kinds of strings to their gift and does private philanthropy replace the common good?

REICH: You get lots of people like Dan or others who do this, who have great intentions and are civically minded and spirited, but acting one by one by one, they set into motion this dynamic then where, suddenly, we're not acting collaboratively or collectively as a public. We're acting individually as philanthropists to benefit the thing that we're most passionate about, and suddenly, we don't have a civics sphere anymore. We don't have political participation. We don't have an us. We have a bunch of I's.

BLOCK: There's a deer.

MCCRANIE: Oh, yeah.

BLOCK: Back in Coe Park, as I hike with Dan McCranie, a mule deer crosses our path. He's seen bobcats here, rattlesnakes, all kinds of stuff.

MCCRANIE: One mountain lion. I've seen tons of coyotes. Tons and tons and tons of wild pigs, feral pigs.

BLOCK: Yeah?

MCCRANIE: Oh, yeah. They're really cute when they're babies. Some of them are chocolate brown. They're just so precious, then after about three months, they just are beastly.

BLOCK: And, in the parking lot, we find Brad Beadell with his 11-year-old son William from Sunnyvale, California. They're strapping on heavy packs about to set out onto the trails.

BRAD BEADELL: This is my son's first backpacking trip and this is where I did my first backpacking trip.

BLOCK: Dan McCranie tells them he took his son backpacking here for the first time when he was 11, too. Brad Beadell is a schoolteacher. He knows all about budget cuts and the threat to the state parks.

BEADELL: It's sad that it's come to this, but it's where we're at right now in California.

BLOCK: And I introduced Beadell to Dan McCranie, the man who's given three-quarters of a million dollars to keep this park open.

BEADELL: Hey, and thank you very much.

MCCRANIE: Of course.

BEADELL: I really appreciate your...

MCCRANIE: Of course. Yeah.

BEADELL: ...contribution.

MCCRANIE: Have a great time, guys.

BLOCK: Off they go, father and son headed into Henry W. Coe State Park, which has been given a new lease on life, at least for now.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

BLOCK: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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