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Sierra State Parks Foundation Works Collaboratively to Fund and Enhance Parks in Northern California

By Amanda Keith posted 09-26-2018 02:49 PM


Sugar Pine Point State Park along the western shores of Lake Tahoe, CA.

In California, there are more than 280 state parks managed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. These parks contain diverse natural, cultural and recreational resources and many of them are supported by nonprofit partners who raise funds and manage operations to ensure that the parks are open and enjoyed by park visitors.

In northern California, Sierra State Parks Foundation (SSPF) supports seven of these parks in the western shores of Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake area. SSPF is one of 89 cooperating associations that partner with the state parks system and, while many of their activities are similar to nonprofit public land partnerships at the federal level, there are characteristics unique to this system that present both challenges and opportunities for California’s state park partners.

Heidi Doyle, Executive Director for SSPF explained that when she took on her role with the nonprofit in 2012, the parks faced a backlog of disrepair and the park system was undergoing major budget cuts.

“Shortly before I became Executive Director, the California parks system announced that it would be closing 70 of its parks due to a lack of funds,” she said.

At the time of the announcement, the California League of Park Associations (CALPA) was also meeting for its annual conference in Mendocino, CA. Over 150 nonprofit partners with the state parks system had gathered that week to learn from one another about how to be better partners. This announcement was a critical turning point for their nonprofit community, as they began to see their role as even more vital to keeping the parks open for visitors.

For SSPF specifically, it meant taking on more responsibility and becoming extensively involved in the operations of the parks that it supported.

“At that time, we entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with our park partners for two major historic sites at Lake Tahoe. Not only did we commit to raising funds for maintenance of the buildings, but we now operate tours and manage the associated visitor centers. Without our help, there would not be enough government funding to keep these buildings open to the public,” she said.

Heidi also explained that her organization’s extensive involvement with park operations works well because of her relationships with park leadership staff and maintenance staff.

“The parks rely on us to fill the funding gaps, run daily operations and advocate for the future protection of these parks,” she said. “It only works because we communicate often and we work together to prioritize what the parks need most.”

Raising $1.8 Million for Donner Memorial State Park to Commemorate the Western Migration

The Pioneer Monument in Donner Memorial State Park was dedicated on June 6, 1918 to honor those who traveled across the western plains and mountains in difficult and rugged terrain to reach California in the 1840's. The monument stands as a testament to the thousands who have risked their lives in search of a better life and in honor of the pioneer spirit in the United States.

SSPF is leading a campaign known as The Donner Project to raise $1.8 million to restore the monument, improve the site landscape and to construct an outdoor community education pavilion.

Commissioned by SSPF, a team of engineers assess the condition of the

Pioneer Monument at Donner Memorial State Park.

Heidi explained that the process of identifying project needs, acquiring funding and managing the project is a collaborative effort with the parks. For this project, she explained that SSPF and the park have gone through a multi-stage process to ensure the project’s success:

  • Step 1: Identify the need for movement on the project. The Pioneer Monument is 100 years old and is in need of repair after a century of harsh winters.

  • Step 2: Understand what it will take to achieve project goals. Thanks to revenue generated through donors and retail sales, SSPF was able to contract for engineering reports and research to understand the issues with the monument and how to resolve them. In addition, they commissioned the State Parks capital project planning team and local architects to develop the site plan and pavilion design.

  • Step 3: Break down the project needs into partnerships. There are aspects to projects, such as funding reports, paying for maintenance, and other administrative tasks that are not appealing to funders. SSPF is utilizes its sales revenue to cover these items and then works with the park and other committed partners to ensure that critical, yet less appealing, tasks are covered before they begin a fundraising campaign.

  • Step 4: Launch fundraising campaign and manage project timeline. Once SSPF has support for critical project tasks, it then reaches out to its donor-base to raise funds that ensure the success of the project. Heidi explained that with a six-year track record of getting projects done, its donor-base has confidence in SSPF’s abilities, which has helped fast track many projects such as this one.

As a small nonprofit, SSPF also faces the challenge of managing projects within its capacity.

“It would be really easy for us to just keep spinning wheels,” Heidi said. “Instead of tackling too many projects, we strive to focus on activities that make real, impactful contributions to our parks.”

Heidi also explained that the parks system has made great strides to better partner with nonprofit partners since the park closure threat in 2012.

"The challenges of that time period forced changes into how the state looked at the role of nonprofit cooperating associations. We have moved from supplementing the interpretive budget to becoming partners in meeting the mission of the parks," she said.

In recent years, the California Department of Parks and Recreation has created a Partnerships Office to further support its parks' nonprofit partners.

"The creation of the Partnerships Office is critical to our success," Heidi said. " This commitment to partnership, at the Director level, will enable nonprofits to best meet the needs of the parks and our public."

SSPF sponsored docent hike at Washoe Meadows State Park.

Connecting with Nonprofit Partners Across the Country through the Public Lands Alliance

As of July 1, 2018, CALPA has joined forces with the Public Lands Alliance (PLA) to connect its nonprofit members with PLA’s diverse membership across the country. Through the joint-membership program, California state park partners are able to connect with a professional network of public lands partners and learn from one another in order to better serve their sites and enhance the visitor experience.

Despite the differences between state and federal partnerships, SSPF is excited about the opportunity to learn from other partners:

“We may work under different guiding documents but there is still so much to learn and share in the public lands nonprofit community,” Heidi said. “I’m looking forward to learning from them and being inspired by them so that I can do even more for my parks in California.”

To learn more about the CALPA/PLA Membership program, click here.

To keep up-to-date with Sierra State Park Foundation's work supporting Lake Tahoe and Donner area state parks, visit their website.