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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.

'There wasn't much going on here,' Van Wyk said. 'So, it was lots of fun to be part of a team that was creating a much more relevant park, and basically promoting this incredible story,' the story of Jack London.

The new board reached out to the community, with a special priority on education. They started with developing a pilot program to help teachers attain common core standards in science and literacy, for which Jack London Park was ideal. An early step was working with Adele Harrison Middle School to coordinate on programs that would 'get these kids up to the park to make connections with nature, and getting away from their computers.' They started children's programs, such as treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, and craft-making.

There was also the step of creating hiking classes focusing on photography, wildflowers and other special interests, as well as a 'Hiking for Health' series, to rejuvenate the appeal of Jack London Park's trails system. 'People will sustain their exercise programs if it's in nature rather than a gym,' said Van Wyk. 'You know, that's kind of common sense too.'

All of which has made Jack London State Historic Park more than just a place to learn about the roaming writer and his wife, Charmian, who Van Wyk described as 'a pistol in her own right.' Responding to complaints that the museum at the House of Happy Walls was 'a little bit dated,' the board agreed to start a capital campaign to raise money to upgrade the 100-year-old building and its 1950s museum.

It reopened in November, 2018, after a 10-month remodel, with digital displays, interactive features, and a lot more attention given to Charmian – and by all accounts, it was a success.

Success seems to follow Van Wyk, and the 200-plus guests at the Sept. 21 gala were appropriately generous in their gratitude. The event, which celebrated the Silicon-Valley buzzword 'disruption,' honored several key people whose out-of-the-box thinking helped the park and the community it serves. Among the 'disruptors' were Nancy Lasseter of Apple and Lasseter Family Winery, Ari Weiswasser of Glen Ellen Star restaurant, and Doug McConnell, whose 'Bay Area Backroads' and other television shows have helped introduce viewers to the Bay Area's natural attractions.

Also on that short list of disruptors was Amy Miller, co-founder of Transcendence Theatre. Miller, along with her husband Brad Surosky and partner Stephan Stubbins, were looking for a place to stage outdoor musical productions and found it in Jack London State Historic Park. Every year they expand their offerings, and have just completed their eighth year, with 15 performances at the Old Winery Ruins.

According to Van Wyk, the park's cut of those Transcendence performances, at $5 per ticket and parking lot fees, adds up to 'a little over 100K a year – which serves as much needed funds to support park operations.'

It's a significant amount, but on that one September Saturday night, the Gala brought in $360,000 from ticket sales, sponsorship, a fund-a-need drive, a silent auction and other programs. While the fund-a-need drive raised $175,000 for 'urgent capital improvements' including re-roofing the historic cottage roof and repairs to the House of Happy Walls, the rest goes to supporting park operations.

That's what Jack London Park Partners has been doing since it stepped into its role as the first private organization to manage a state park. They were soon followed by Team Sugarloaf, which is making Sugarloaf Ridge a similarly crucial component of Sonoma Valley's natural environment. Both teams have accomplished what they set out to do.

Tjiska Van Wyk has set the end of February, 2020, as her official departure date, and will stay around for another few months, helping the board recruit her replacement and bequeathing the benefit of her own experience.

Then it's off to foreign lands, where different cultures help offer new perspectives on our own – a modern point of view that, of course, the wandering sailor Jack London explored over a century ago.

'That's a little bit of my bucket list,' said Van Wyk.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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