Q and A with Bay Area District Superintendent Vince Anibale

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Earlier this year, our executive director, Rachel Norton, had the chance to interview Bay Area District Superintendent Vince Anibale at a small event. Vince answered questions from Rachel on everything from his personal history with parks to what he sees as the future for our state parks system, and even answered a few guest questions as well.

Rachel Norton: I’ve met many people around the state since becoming Executive Director of the California State Parks Foundation, and one common thread is that everyone has a story about their connection to our parks. So, tell us, what are a couple of your memories of parks and was there someone who encouraged your interest?

Vince Anibale: This is kind of a long-winded story I’ll try to keep it short. As all of you know you go through personal growth in your life, you kind of have self-revelations at certain points, and in 2013 I decided to solo hike the John Muir Trail. I did it in order to raise funds for Sonoma State Historic Park and their junior ranger program. On day seven – I was trying to hike the trail in seven days and I didn’t make it, I did it in nine – and on day seven I was hiking up towards Donohue Pass and I came across this gentleman – and if you’re ever on the John Muir Trail especially by yourself everybody you see, you strike up a conversation say, “where are you going?” type thing. So this gentleman came up to me and says, “Hey, where you’re heading?” And I said Tuolumne Meadows. The guy just started laughing and said, “you’re never gonna make it!” It didn’t click until a couple weeks later, but him doubting me getting to Tuolumne Meadows was probably the biggest motivation I had on my whole trip. I had a messenger that I messaged my wife and I said, “I met the doubter today,” and it motivated me to move faster.

I got home, thought about this guy and I remembered when I was 14-years-old at San Mateo Memorial County Park camping on a boy scout trip and a ranger came, he was nice to us, and I said to my friends, “wouldn’t it be cool to be a ranger when I’m older?” My friends laughed and said, “there’s no way you’re getting a job to become a ranger because those are impossible jobs to get.” From that point on I thought, I’m gonna get a ranger job. I went through high school and college and the whole time I was thinking, I’m gonna apply to be a ranger somewhere.

RN: Moving forward to the present day, what is a day in life for a park superintendent and what’s your favorite aspect of your job?

VA: Variety’s probably my favorite aspect, you get to see a lot of different things. The Bay Area district has 26 parks, 12 of those parks are operated by a partnership of some kind day-to-day operations – those are East Bay Regional Parks, Napa County, Jack London Park Partners, Friends of China Camp, Team Sugarloaf, Marconi Conference Center – so all those different groups we interact with on a daily or weekly basis and I get to go around and talk to all those different groups and talk to different employees. There’s a lot of moving pieces, it can be very political, you have to kinda make snap decisions on things and hope it’s the best. So my day is different every day. I mean here I am at Anchor Brewery that’s kinda weird. It’s different, I like the variety. There’s a lot of moving pieces in trying coordinate all that is fun and challenging.

RN: You’re being too modest, it’s a very challenging job. In general and broad terms, how are our 280 state parks beaches and historic places doing?

VA: That’s a good question. I started in ‘99 with state parks at Big Basin Redwoods and at the time we had a lot of general fund dollars, much more than we do now. General fund obviously has been kind of creeping down and we’re looking at creative revenue streams and partnerships throughout the state to keep things running. I would say overall its favorable looking into the future for our entire parks system compared to the last 5-10 years when the funding was kind of dry, and now we’re getting different funding sources.

I think Director Mangat has done a good job of finding different funding sources overall for the parks, and the department is looking into more creative ways of partnering with different groups whether it be concessions or nonprofits or government entities to try to keep things going

I think overall for the department it’s been a good thing, it’s providing more funding and just more help from volunteers and different groups that are able to support us in many different ways. My outlook for our department is definitely favorable in the next three to five years and I think we’re going to get more funding and more things and more partner support.

RN: CSPF cares deeply about providing access to parks to youth, because we believe our parks offer benefits to them and because our parks need them as future stewards. What are some great initiatives you’ve led or seen at other parks to provide opportunities for youth to enjoy and engage with their parks?

VA: I’m very passionate about trying to get young kids into our state parks. I’ve tried starting junior ranger programs everywhere I’ve worked, and it really helps with getting repeat guests. What I’ve found is most kids that didn’t come with their families want to come back later with their families. One of the most incredible programs I saw was when I worked in Mt. Diablo State Park about 15 years ago. Grant funds paid for kids that had never seen the park before to be bussed from Oakland.

I think just providing transportation, which is such a difficult thing for most disadvantaged folks, just providing transportation to the park is I think half the battle. Once they get there they really usually enjoy what they’re seeing and want to come back. That transportation aspect is really key and just being able to find funds to bus a school into the park is sometimes all we need.

RN: Tell us about the relationship between the department of parks and rec and private organizations like CSPF. Why is private philanthropic support so vital to the work you’re doing?
VA: We have a marketing issue and we always have. We’re getting better at marketing and advertising, but what I found in 2012 when a lot of these parks were on the closure list and we had partners come in and take over some of the day-to-day operations of the parks, is the partners were really good at advertising the park and marketing to the surrounding communities and that brought in a lot more people who wouldn’t have normally visited, providing outreach where state parks hasn’t been able to do it in the past – though we are getting better at it.

In my experience here in the Bay Are District, we wouldn’t be able to operate several of our parks without the partners we have, in particular, CSPF. In 2012 you provided grants two or three years in a row for the Environmental Living Program in Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, which was on a closure list. CSPF, along with Sonoma Petaluma Parks Association, kept that park open and was able to maintain that program for 4th graders to spend the night. That’s a good example of how if those partnerships didn’t exist, there’d be about 1,500 kids each year that wouldn’t see that park. Maintaining those relationships and that outreach to the communities really helps us.

RN: You get one minute with Governor Brown. What would you ask him for?

VA: If I saw Governor Brown in an elevator or something like that and I’m alone with him? I don’t know if I’d ask him for anything I think, I’d probably thank him and say thank you for supporting California state parks and then talk about my personal situation: I have three kids, I got to see parks when I was a child, and explain the generational aspect of state parks and how we’re trying to save them for future generations. I wouldn’t ask for – well, I’d probably ask him for stable funding. I’d be like, c’mon man, you know? C’mon man!

GUEST: What’s your favorite state park?

VA: It’s one that I haven’t worked at, I’ll tell you that – all the parks that you end up working at you’re like, oh man I’m so sick of this park. Henry W. Coe is my favorite state park. I go backpacking there twice a year, I go with my brother and my son and we have a great time. Henry W. Coe is about 80,000+ acres in the San Jose foothills, east of Morgan Hill, north of Gilroy, an awesome place if you want to backpack. It’s dispersed camping once you get a couple miles out, its really the gem of the bay area for backpacking cos you don’t need a reservation, you can go anytime you want. The secret’s out.

GUEST: Any possibility of dogs on leash at any of the state parks?

VA: I can only imagine if we ended up having dogs on trails the amount of support we’d probably get, but it is written into law that dogs are not allowed on state park trails, so that’s a hurdle that would have to be overcome. There are certain areas designated in those parks, there’s usually one or two trails that I find. Even at Henry W. Coe, there’s a trail that goes from the campground to the visitors center that you take your dog on. In Big Basin there’s a trail that goes from the visitor’s center to the campground, there’s usually a fire ring designated [dog-friendly]. That’s a hurdle I cannot accomplish or jump over, but I can imagine certain trails may be designated in the future at some point, but I can’t do that myself.

GUEST: We’ve traveled to many states where admission to parks are free, it’s considered general support, the parks are well cared for. Do you have a sense of what we can do as citizens in California to move the needle in that direction? So we can move away from fees as barriers to access?

VA: It’s a good question. Definitely state parks could do better with stable funding and making access free for everyone. The biggest impact you could make is by writing your legislators and governor and putting it on their radar that that’s what you want. If you write to state parks there’s not much we can do about it, it’s gonna have to come from a real high level. I think that’s the most impactful way, talking with your high-level government appointees and elected officials.

RN: I have just one last quick question, on the funding issue, do you want to say anything about the state parks bond and different maintenance and what that could potentially do for your parks?

VA: So, obviously I can’t say much as a government employee. We do have a large, long list of deferred maintenance needs especially in the Bay Area, we have state historic parks with crumbling infrastructure. The backlog is incredible, if we were able to get funding that would be incredible to maybe fix some of those problems.

RN: More is always better, right? Thank you so much for joining us, Vince.

Old and new memories forged at Mitchell Caverns

by Rachel Norton, Executive Director

One of the best parts of my job is spending time in parks, and I’ve had a great time in the last six months visiting at least a half-dozen state parks for the first time. However, one of the most meaningful and fun visits I’ve taken was to a place I’d actually visited as a teen 35 years ago.

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With my friends and classmates in the Mojave Desert in 1984

Mitchell Caverns, the only limestone caverns in the state park system, reopened to the public on November 3. Named after Jack and Ida Mitchell, a couple who operated a resort at the site from 1934- 1954, the caves offer spectacular limestone formations like stalagmites, stalactites, helictites, lily pads, draperies, curtains and cave coral.  Recently, the Department of Parks and Recreation hosted a private reopening ceremony for park supporters and members of the Mitchell Family, and I was fortunate enough to be able to attend. Representatives of the indigenous Chemehuevi people were also on hand to bless the Caverns, a place they regard as the sacred eyes of the mountains (you can see why as you approach the Caverns from the trail).

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The openings to Mitchell Caverns at Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, October 2017

Providence Mountains State Recreation area, the home of Mitchell Caverns, is in the eastern Mojave Desert, one of the more remote places in the state park system (let alone the country). The easiest way to get there from my home in San Francisco is to fly to Las Vegas and then drive three hours southwest to the park. There are campgrounds in the park, but the closest indoor place to stay is in Needles, an hour away. Once you leave Interstate 40, it’s not uncommon to have the entire two-lane road to yourself for long stretches.

When I was in high school, I was fortunate enough to have a biology teacher who had studied herpetology (reptiles) and was passionate about desert wildlife and ecology. Each year she took a group of students to the Mojave for a week on spring break, and I was lucky enough to go three years in a row (I loved the trips so much she let me tag along even when I was no longer her student). It was an incredible learning experience that introduced me to the beauty and vibrancy of a place that is often misunderstood as being devoid of both qualities. And as I walked into Mitchell Caverns on my visit several weeks ago, I realized I’d been there before!

Sure enough, when I looked back at my high school photo album (from the days when we used actual film and waited days to get our vacation photos developed and printed!) there was an identical shot of the Caverns from one I’d taken days before. Though interactions with the carbon dioxide from our breath and oils from our fingertips degrade the caverns over time, they are in remarkably good shape – I’m proud that the California State Parks Foundation was able to provide $10,000 from our grants program to help restore the caverns and reopen this remarkable place to the public.

If you visit, you must have a reservation – you cannot enter the caverns without a guide. Essential information about planning your visit is available on the state parks web site.