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California park lovers hope redwood license plates lead to fields of green


A commemorative license plate program that could potentially raise millions for California’s cash-strapped parks system is in jeopardy before ever hitting the road.

Five years after legislation crafted by a North Coast lawmaker authorized the program, and 18 months after the special-edition plate — featuring an image of redwoods designed by a Napa County educator — was proposed, the California Parks and Recreation Department faces a May 18 deadline to get 7,500 preorders. As of Wednesday afternoon, 1,110 had been ordered.

Undaunted, park advocates are making a last-ditch push to generate interest.

“It’s a steep slope for sure, but I think it’s a matter of awareness,” said Sam Hodder, president of the Save the Redwoods League. “Californians love their state parks and their redwoods. If they are aware that there’s a way they can advertise that love on their license plates, they’d jump at the chance.”

State parks on the North Coast are a testament to the beauty and historical significance of California’s parks system. But pothole-lined roads to many park destinations, along with service reductions and decaying infrastructure, point to perennial funding challenges threatening the future viability of that fragile network of 40 state park locations in Sonoma, Mendocino and Marin counties including nature preserves, recreation areas and historic sites.

In 2012, Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, pushed through parks legislation as a member of the state Assembly authorizing the commemorative license plate program. At the time, the Parks and Recreation Department was in crisis, dealing with revelations that $54 million had been hidden by department officials to protect their budget. Dozens of parks were slated to be closed.

Huffman, who now represents the North Coast in Congress, said Tuesday he didn’t anticipate the effort to get the license plates would take as long as it has.

“This didn’t seem like a very complicated formula,” Huffman said. “I thought State Parks was eager to get new tools to get more revenue. That’s why I put those things in the bill.”

North Coast residents have shown willingness to support parks over the years, including backing a 2010 initiative that would have provided park funding by tacking an additional $18 onto vehicle registration fees paid by California motorists. The statewide measure went down to defeat.

Park advocates now are counting on North Coast support for the license plate program. The plates cost $50 for first issue and $40 each year after, and for personalized plates, $98 for first issue and $78 each year after. To order, click here.

California has 12 specialty license plates that have raised a combined $217 million for everything from environmental causes to services supporting military veterans.

State Parks has no detailed expenditure plan for the funds should they come through, other than the money will be spent on such things as interpretive programs and construction of new trails, according to Gloria Sandoval, a parks spokeswoman.

She said by law the funds can only be used for preservation and restoration purposes.

Addressing lingering fallout from earlier management scandals, Sandoval referenced a coordinated effort to overhaul management of the Park and Recreation Department and bring park operations into the 21st century. A key component of the effort calls for parks to find new sources of revenue.

But the license plate program, which would do just that, has not been heavily promoted.

Caryl Hart, Sonoma County’s parks director and a member of Parks Forward — the group spearheading the overhaul of the state system — said she was unaware until recently the plate program faced a May deadline.

She cited chronic underfunding and staffing within State Parks as reasons why the plate program “didn’t rise to the level of a top priority.”

But Hart expressed confidence officials will meet the May deadline.

“People love state parks so much I think once they (state officials) get the word out they will accomplish their goal,” Hart said.

The promotion effort is being led mainly by advocacy groups, including the Redwoods League, the California State Parks Foundation and Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods.

“I do think it’s a great idea, and support for both interpretive projects and trail maintenance is something that our parks can definitely use help with,” said Michele Luna, executive director of the Stewards group.

State law requires 7,500 plates to be ordered within a year for any specialized license plate to be printed. State Parks has already sought its only extension, which means it’s do or die May 18.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.