Tjiska Van Wyk steps down as Jack London Partners head, lawsuit clouds Transcendence's permit
As Tjiska Van Wyk made the rounds of the annual Jack London Gala cocktail hour on the green on Sept. 21, outside the winery stage, she seemed even more enthusiastically gregarious than usual. She dragged photographer Rebecca Gosselin from one attending couple or clutch to another, greeting all like long-lost best friends and posing for pictures.
Some of her enthusiasm may have been because that's her job, as executive director of the Jack London Park Partners, the nonprofit which in 2012 took over operations of the state historic park outside Glen Ellen.
And some of that may have been knowing that this was her last chance to see these people, to act in this role, to shoulder the burden and the accept the acclaim of the job – in late August, Jack London Park Partners announced that she was stepping down from the job as executive director, which she has held for seven years.
But days after the gala, the news broke that a state park rangers association had filed suit against the California Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Transcendence Theatre Company, for 'a commercial-style theatrical facility right in the heart of Jack London State Park,' in violation, the rangers allege, of state park polices and state law.
Though Van Wyk was named Jack London Park Partners director in 2012, the same year that Transcendence began its song-and-dance programming at the park, she told the Index-Tribune she didn't negotiate the original contract. Mike Lynch, president of the California State Park Rangers Association (CSPRA), which brought the suit, confirmed that neither she nor Jack London Park Partners were implicated in the legal action.
Instead the suit is based on a recent five-year renewal of a 'special events permit' for Transcendence to stage its performances in the Old Winery Ruins at the park. But such permits are usually issued for much shorter events – of a weekend or a week – and CSPRA asserts the atypical five-year permit would require an extensive CEQA study, which was never performed.
'The winery ruins are part of the core historical district established for the protection of the historical and archeological features that are the very reason the park was created,' said Lynch in a statement accompanying the Sept. 16 suit announcement. 'This proposed action is in violation of California State Park policies and also a variety of state laws designed to protect historical and cultural resources in the California State Park System.'
It was also in August that the Jack London Park Partners, which took over management of the park during a state park-funding crisis that began in 2011, signed a new contract with California State Parks to continue managing operations for another 10 years. 'It was a boatload of work to get to that point,' said Van Wyk.
It was shortly after the new contract was inked that she announced her retirement. 'I felt that when we signed a new contract with California State Parks, it would be time for someone to come in with some new energy to take the park to the next level,' said Van Wyk. 'I felt like I had done what I had set out to accomplish.'
She took a couple weeks off to go off-line and 'go chill in the mountains,' but was back in full form for the Sept. 21 gala.
In her seven years, she accomplished quite a lot. Her previous fundraising efforts for nonprofits like the San Francisco Zoological Society, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice prepared her for the challenge of raising money for Jack London, but there were more complex challenges in taking over a struggling state park and making it something that people valued, and that held a place in its community.
The park did not have that place in 2012. The state budget for its parks had been dramatically cut, and several parks – including Sugarloaf Ridge, also in the Sonoma Valley – were forced to come up with their own money for operations and programs, or face closure.
Van Wyk immediately felt the pressure. 'The first thing that I was struck with when I arrived on a beautiful Saturday morning, was that there were only three cars on the lot. I thought, what is wrong with this picture?'
She wondered how a 1,400-acre state park, with wilderness trails and historic sites including the London Ranch – home of one of America's most celebrated authors – could be so under-appreciated.
She tackled the challenge by focusing on recruiting only committed board members to help drive the fundraising and redirection of the park – she singled out Mike Benziger, a winemaker and neighbor, who became the first chairman – and hiring a PR person, Anne Abrams, to 'get the word out.' It was, she said, money well spent: Visitors more than doubled, from 43,000 to 100,000, and sales of a $49 annual pass (also good at Sugarloaf Ridge) not only brought in money, but second, third and fifth visits, and more.