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State parks system launching makeover
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SACRAMENTO (AP) — The California state parks system, beset by financial problems and scandal, is launching a study commission that leaders hope will reshape the system and restore public confidence and financial stability.

The group of private sector business leaders will study everything from how big the park system should be, to whether individual parks can do a better job generating revenue, and if the current practice of promoting only law enforcement rangers to leadership positions has led to a lack of innovation at the top.

"Everything is going to be on the table," John Laird, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, told The Associated Press.

On Monday, Laird announced formation of the independent Parks Forward Commission, a privately financed panel that will study how to revamp the parks system for 18 months. It comes a year after scandals and problems threatened to shutter a quarter of the state's 280 parks.

Laird will appoint up to a dozen leaders from business, finance, public policy and arts communities to examine the structure of the department and assess future needs for a state of 38 million people and growing.

"They have to be intellectually honest and creative in coming up with solutions, especially in how we are organized," said Anthony Jackson, a retired Marine Corps major general appointed last fall to lead the parks department out of its troubles.

Jackson already has hired new top management and is looking at other changes. Staff is testing technology that allows visitors to swipe credit cards to pay for entrance and parking, rather than collecting cash and driving it to the bank as is done now in what Jackson called "1950s technology."

Jackson also is looking at making park passes more accessible by selling them at retail sporting goods outlets, as fishing and hunting licenses are.

And he's looking to undo the culture that said only rangers with law enforcement backgrounds were eligible to become superintendents, leaving behind naturalists, archeologists and others who might be innovative managers. It's something the commission will examine.

"If you look at regional parks and the national parks, they don't require that someone go through the law enforcement academy to go into leadership," Jackson said.

The parks leadership has been criticized in the past for a lack of revenue-generating innovation. Consequently the department has allowed millions of dollars in maintenance problems to pile up as it struggled with shrinking state budgets. Critics also say managers were slow to figure out how to generate money.

Last year, a $22 million cut from the system's $779 million budget threatened the closure of 70 parks. Then the discovery of $54 million, which was hidden from the governor and Legislature in two special funds, damaged the public's faith in the system of towering redwoods, breathtaking beaches and old Gold Rush sites.

The Legislature ordered the formation of the advisory group being formed. Laird introduced commission chairman Lance Conn, a venture capitalist and former investor for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Conn said the report should be complete by the end of 2014.

"Our goal is not to write a love letter to the parks or to create a theoretical white paper that gathers dust, but to come up with a bold and innovative plan to create a sustainable future for our parks," said Conn, who also sits on the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's board.

"Clearly part of our task will be to seek out the best practices that anyone is doing, either outside of California or outside of the U.S.," Conn said.

The commission's funding will come from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation and others, under the auspices of the Resources Legacy Fund, which aids organizations involved in conservation efforts.

While critics have said the parks system is too big and expensive, Laird said the commission will examine not only that but whether additional parks may be needed to serve California's growing population.

"We have to look to the future ... and look back at the 280 parks we have and protect some of the most scenic places in the world," he said.