Fallbrook’s Jackson praised, but San Onofre beach issues raised

By Michael Gardner - June 6, 2013
U-T San Diego

Sacramento A Senate panel approved the confirmation of state parks director Anthony Jackson of Fallbrook Wednesday, but not before a dust up over protections for the popular Trestles surf spot in North San Diego County and a proposed toll road near San Onofre State Beach.

The two Republican members of the Rules Committee abstained after grilling the retired Marine general over his stands on the two divisive issues. But they were overruled by majority Democrats who voted 3-0 to send Jackson’s nomination to the full Senate floor for confirmation. A date has not been set.

Jackson did draw widespread support from divergent interests. Off-road enthusiasts, parks groups and environmentalists complimented his initiatives undertaken over the first six months on the job. Among those: working to restore funding secretly diverted from the Off-Highway Vehicle Account meant to pay for off-road parks, more oversight of the parks budget to prevent a repeat of recent budget scandals, and creating more partnerships to keep parks open even in challenging budget times.

But not all was praise. Republican Sens. Bill Emmerson of Redlands and Jean Fuller of Bakersfield questioned Jackson’s views over the state’s successful efforts to preserve Trestles and block the nearby toll road.

The State Historic Resources Commission in February voted to recommend that Trestles be placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The designation still must be approved by federal “keeper” of the National Register, which is part of the National Park Service.

The decision was made over the objections of the military, which feared a designation could impede training at Camp Pendleton. Those pursuing a potential project to extend the state Route 241 toll road toward San Onofre also saw it as another barrier.

Fuller and Emmerson questioned why the state parks department did not intervene and demand a delay of the historic designation vote given the opposition of the military, in particular.

Jackson testified that he could not take action because he was advised by the state’s attorney that he should recuse himself. As former commander of Camp Pendleton, he had previously been involved in decisions related to the beach designation and toll road.

Emmerson and Fuller said they were frustrated that Secretary of Resources John Laird did not respond to a letter asking for a delay.

“Somebody dropped the ball here,” Fuller said. “We don’t know who it is. The issue has not been resolved to our satisfaction. Nor have we been given any light to shed on it.”

Jackson noted that the letter was sent to Laird, not him, because he had to stay out of the dispute.

In a later interview, Jackson said he did not feel it was the role of the parks director to intervene because the historical preservation commission was appointed by the governor and is supposed to act independently.

“You don’t want a director telling a commission what should be on their agenda,” he said,

Jackson also signaled he would oppose any toll road that threatened the state beach and its accompanying San Mateo campground.

“My job is to preserve and protect California State Parks for future generations. … Historically, parks has not supported any proposal that would impinge on park land,” Jackson said.

Jackson took over the scandal-tinged department in November.

He immediately vowed to repair strained relations with a public angered by revelations last year that top managers hid a $54 million surplus even as 70 parks stood to be padlocked because of budget cuts.

He has allocated $1.2 million in discretionary funds to hire more park aides. He is also working to modernize collections systems, including implementing credit card payments at kiosks and bringing back a marketing program, given parks generate $4 billion for the state’s economy.

Meanwhile, all of the campgrounds that were closed due to budget cuts are now open and Jackson reported Wednesday that campers were out in record numbers over the Memorial Day holiday.

Jackson also vowed to continue pushing new parks partnerships with local governments and nonprofit agencies.

“I have absolutely no plans to sell parks, close parks, privatize parks,” he said.

Three supporters of off-highway vehicle parks praised Jackson for attending events and working to ensure that their issues are heard. Off-highway parks were due $33 million of the $54 million squirreled away and left unspent during the threat of park closures.

Dave Pickett, of the Motorcycle Sports Committee, called Jackson “solution oriented” and a “boots on the ground kind of guy.” Amy Granat, managing director of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, said off-roaders “are a pretty tough community to win over.” But Jackson is making headway with “integrity and honesty.”

The California Council of Land Trusts, in a letter, urged confirmation. “After several embattled years, the revelations last summer (of budget mismanagement) severely tarnished the department’s reputation. From his first day, he began rebuilding the department’s internal practices and public accountability as well as its relationship with important stakeholders and the citizens of California.”

Jackson oversees about 280 parks in the system, spanning 1.4 million acres of coast, forests and mountains. He oversees a budget of $574 million.

His salary is $150,112 a year.