Parks and Trails Stewardship in the 21st Century: Part I

The concept of stewardship is one that has become much more prominent in our environmental discussions in recent years, especially as it pertains to our parks, trails and urban open spaces. Webster defines stewardship as: the conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.

That last part of the definition is the most critical. The land that we inherited from our forbearers is definitely “entrusted to our care,” and we are required to protect and preserve it. Public parks are highly visible pieces of entrusted property that we must steward through a difficult economy, reductions in government services and the indifference of others.

Stewardship of parks and trails is a shared responsibility among many, as the 200-plus parks in San Jose and 55-plus miles of trail require a community effort. Big changes that have occurred in the last decade here have also occurred across the United States. San Jose’s Department of Parks Recreation and Neighborhood Services (PRNS), like so many Parks and Rec Departments, has faced huge cutbacks in budget and large reductions in personnel (about 39 percent cut since 2009).

The impact of theses cuts cannot be understated. It means a reduction in maintenance, gardening, recreation leaders and a massive reorganization in which staff now has to do more work with less people. They have had to realign departments while continuing to provide services. Topping off this unfortunate downscaling, everyone also took a pay cut. We owe PRNS staff our gratitude for what they’ve endured.

Our parks still look great, and the total impact of the cuts is not yet visible. With luck and skill, and some community spirit, we can maintain our parks and trails and even many of our programs at a high level. The volunteer component has really increased, thanks to corporate and citizen groups playing a greater role in cleaning, planting, clearing and repairing. Mollie Tobias, the PRNS volunteer program coordinator, is now full time. Volunteer work has been valued at more than $1 million in the past three years. This will need to increase, and so far it has continued to grow.

The real change that has to happen is caring citizen-stewards need to play a more active and substantive role in setting priorities and proposing and implementing solutions.

There needs to be a more open dialog—and this has already begun—between PRNS staff, San Jose Parks Commissioners (citizens), non-profit support groups (San Jose Parks Foundation, Guadalupe River Parks Conservancy, Rotary, Kiwanis, Save Our Trails, Happy Hollow Foundation and others), the corporate sector (PG&E, eBay and San Jose Water Company are already involved), and the various neighborhood associations throughout the city (Buena Vista Park, Hamann Park, Friends of Five Wounds Trail, Martin-Fontana Parks Association, et al).

To be continued.

James P. Reber is the executive director of San Jose Parks Foundation, a veteran nonprofit entrepreneur and experienced special event planner and producer. He can be reached at [email protected]  or 408.893.PARK.

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