Anthony Jackson discusses challenge of rebuilding California state parks

The retired Marine general heading the tarnished California State Parks department made two promises Saturday (Jan. 5) in Pacific Grove before about 200 people dedicated to a park system jewel — the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.

Anthony Jackson, a Marine Corps major general who became the 19th director of the state parks Department in November, told members of the Point Lobos Foundation that no state park will be closed under his watch and “every single penny will be accounted for,” The Herald, Monterey County, reported

Jackson, an Oakland high school graduate and former football standout at San Jose State University, was named to lead the Parks Department amid continuing investigations into the concealment of millions of dollars of public park funds for up to 15 years.

The controversy broke last summer, with reports that up to $54 million had been squirreled away, as the state was readying to close dozens of parks for lack of money, and park lovers were raising funds for their favorites.

Jackson, a resident of Fallbrook in San Diego County, said he had contributed money to nearby Palomar Mountain State Park to help it remain open.

Then the scandal broke, and a short time later state Resources Secretary John Laird asked Jackson to run the battered department, which has 280 facilities, 1.4 million acres and a $500 million annual budget.

“This was a troubled organization, and the thinking was it would be kind of good for the culture to bring a Marine general in,” Jackson said.

But Jackson, who devoted much of his speech to his compelling biography — he was one of seven children in an Army family who later left a lucrative insurance sales business as an adult to join the Marine Corps — said a successful general is not “a drill instructor” who issues orders from high.

“They (succeed) because they can build teams … and shake hands with a private,” he said. “The more senior you get, the more of a team-builder, the more of a listener you have to be.”

Jackson has spent recent Fridays and Saturdays visiting parks from San Diego County to Sonoma County and the people who work at them. He said he has found thousands of employees and volunteers “who love their park and the park system,” he said.

“They have been taking some real body blows that I anticipated when the governor called me in and said you are my nominee,” he said.

There will be one more investigation — the state auditor is also looking into the budgeting flap — and one more set of headlines, Jackson said.

Jackson said he reviews the budget every week and every cent will be accounted for. “If we miss it by $10, you will be able to see it,” he said.

He attributed the concealment of park funds over so many years to “people making mistakes” and a consequent fear of having those mistakes come out.

“It was fear, it appears, that kept people from reporting accounting errors,” he said. People were afraid they’d lose their jobs, or that the parks budget would be trimmed.

“I want to run an organization without fear of honesty … without fear of failure,” he said.

In his last command, Jackson oversaw Marine bases in California and other western states. That put him into regular contact with officials in Sacramento and made him very aware of the state’s environmental law.

As a major general, Jackson promoted green energy policies and helped fight a toll road near Camp Pendleton that would have gone through San Onofre State Beach. He described that as a victory against “people more interested in money than in protecting our natural resources.”

Jackson’s appointment was greeted in November with applause from park advocacy and environmental groups.

On Saturday, Jackson said parks, no matter what may happen in Sacramento, are “a phenomenal resource for the state of California.”

He said his “grand plan” is to leave the job with parks open and improved.

Jackson’s came out of his short retirement, which included putting 9,700 miles on a spiffy recreational vehicle on trips to parks around the state, to take his first state government job.

The reason was the same one that made him join the Marines — “service before self,” he said.

“I’ll get around to retirement some day,” he said, noting the work put in by local volunteers, many of them retirees. “I’m very happy to be a member of your team.”

Jackson said he has asked the state’s 21 district park superintendents for their top priorities, but he said acquiring more parkland will not be one.

“Right now we are in a holding pattern on that,” he said. The more important task is to make sure the existing parks are maintained and improved.

The Point Lobos Foundation is a charitable nonprofit formed in 1978 to support interpretive and education programs and to help the parks department maintain Point Lobos.