Newsom appoints new California state park manager amid wildfires, budget challenges

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California’s state park system – a stunning landscape of sandy beaches, redwood forests, and Lake Tahoe landmarks at Hearst Castle – has been damaged in recent weeks by raging wildfires and hampered by a decade of budget problems, and critics say, lack of direction.

Now the collection of 280 parks, 340 miles of coastline, 4,500 trails and 15,000 campsites visited by millions of families per year has taken on new leadership.

Governor Gavin Newsom has appointed Armando Quintero, 64, of San Rafael, as director of the State Department of Parks and Recreation. It starts on Tuesday.

“It’s an astonishing honor at an extraordinary time,” said Quintero, a former park ranger whose love of nature was born from reading National Geographic while working in his father’s auto shop. .

Since 2015, Quintero has been the Executive Director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at UC Merced. Prior to that, he served as Director of Development from 2008 to 2014. He has also served on the Marin Municipal Water District Board of Directors since 2009 and the California Water Commission, where, as Chairman, he served on the Board of Directors of the Marin Municipal Water District since 2009. oversaw the granting of $ 2.7 billion in government bonds for new reservoirs and other water projects.

Armando Quintero (Photo: UC Merced)

But what catches the attention of rangers and park advocates is Quintero’s story in the parks. From 1977 to 1998, he worked as a ranger or supervising ranger at Sequoia National Park, Point Reyes National Waterfront, John Muir National Historic Site and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, as well as a visit to the National Park Service headquarters in San Francisco. He is trained in law enforcement, firefighting and scuba diving, and speaks Spanish.

“We’re really encouraged,” said Mike Lynch, president of the California State Park Rangers Association. “Armando is imbued with the values ​​of the National Park Service parks. It will be great to have a manager who you don’t have to explain to what a ranger, maintenance worker or lifeguard does.

Outgoing director Lisa Mangat is a former budget officer in the state’s finance department who was appointed in 2014 by Governor Jerry Brown. She is credited with streamlining and organizing the parks department’s budget systems after a former director, Ruth Coleman, was forced to resign after officials discovered her department had $ 54 million in unspent money in his accounts that had not been reported to the state finance department. Audits found there was no shortage of money, but the incident embarrassed Brown, who threatened to close the parks, telling the public the funding was insufficient.

Neither Mangat nor Newsom’s press service responded to a request on Sunday to discuss his dismissal as director.

In an interview, Quintero said his priorities would include helping state parks and park workers recover from the devastating wildfires of recent weeks, which destroyed the historic 1930s siege and others. buildings in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, and blackened thousands of acres in others, including Henry Coe near Morgan Hill, Armstrong Redwoods in Sonoma County and Julia Pfeiffer Burns in Big Sur.

Quintero said he also hopes to expand access and open new facilities, especially in communities where there are few parks.

“The San Joaquin Valley is almost devoid of state parks,” he said. “The people who feed us don’t have easy access to nearby state parks.”

Quintero, a Democrat who will oversee 5,000 employees and earn $ 186,389 a year, was born in San Francisco and raised in Martinez, working in his father’s auto garage.

“My parents didn’t go to parks when I was little,” he says. “My interest came from National Geographic and Encyclopedia Britannica. Dreaming about these places, dreaming of exploring Mayan ruins and finding exotic creatures and exotic places made me go through a lot when I was a child. These kinds of places exist all over California.

Long considered the best state park system in the United States, California’s has struggled in recent years. Two governors, Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, have both threatened to close dozens of parks to balance the state’s budgets, proposals they dropped after a public outcry.

California hasn’t opened a new state park since 2009, when the US military donated four miles of beaches in Monterey County to become Fort Ord Dunes State Park. This 11-year drought is the longest period that California has not had a new state park since the department was established in 1927.

As a result, California’s state parks, beaches, and historic sites – visited by 79 million people per year – are increasingly crowded. Parking lots and campsites are harder to find. Some properties are preserved, but by private groups who often cannot afford to offer public access. The system also has a maintenance backlog of $ 1.2 billion.

“Morale in the department is low,” said Rusty Areias, who was director of state parks from 1999 to 2002. “Even at the best of times with huge budget surpluses, state parks appear to have been last on the list in terms of funding priorities. That was a mistake. “

The number of visitors has increased during the coronavirus pandemic as people vacation near their homes and seek more outdoor recreation. Yet budget pressures from the pandemic could lead to cuts to parks.

“Parks have a time,” said Rachel Norton, executive director of the California State Parks Foundation. “Director Quintero’s job will be to really help us capitalize on this moment as a state.”

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