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Austin Creek State Recreation Area gets reprieve

Saturday, September 15th, 2012 | Posted by | no responses

By DEREK MOORE

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Of all the campsites at Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville, No. 20 is Patrick Craven’s favorite.

It’s easy to see why. The space is shaded by majestic redwood trees and overlooks a pond that is named, appropriately enough, for the bullfrogs that Craven said keep him

Chris Knight, right, and Sarahfina Bachrach enjoy a picnic at Bullfrog Pond in the Austin Creek State Recreation Area on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/ PD)

awake at night.

“This is where I always come to get away,” Craven, a San Francisco stage hand, said Tuesday at the site.

Craven will continue to have access to his beloved campground after the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods received word Sept. 7 that California State Parks has formally agreed to let the nonprofit group run Austin Creek.

The 5,700-acre reserve was among dozens of state parks that were threatened with closure to bridge what was believed to be a $22 million shortfall in the parks budget.

Revelations that state officials were actually sitting on a hidden surplus of about $54 million led to public outcry and delayed consideration of the Stewards’ application to take over operations at Austin Creek.

The signed agreement finally arrived in the mail Sept. 7, almost a month after Stewards reopened Bullfrog Pond Campground to the public. The campground was closed last year because of service reductions at state parks.

Austin Creek is adjacent to Armstrong Redwoods State Park and is accessed through the same entrance.

Past Armstrong’s redwood groves is a single-lane road that enters Austin Creek and winds up the mountain to elevations of 1,500 feet.

Bullfrog Pond is near the top, tucked in a forest of tall trees. The campground has 23 sites, all of which were in use during one day over Labor Day weekend, said Michele Luna, the nonprofit group’s executive director.

Stewards is hoping to capitalize on the site’s popularity and build on it as the group embarks on the unchartered path of operating a state park.

“I think we can handle it,” said Luna, who has been with the Stewards group since 1994. “It’s not that complicated.”

Stewards submitted its bid to operate Austin Creek under legislation by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. The law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, allows qualified nonprofit groups to run state parks for as long as five years or until the state’s finances improve. The state maintains ownership of the parks.

Luna estimates that Stewards will need to raise $200,000 annually to keep Austin Creek open. The group received a $56,000 grant from the California State Parks Foundation and also will receive a percentage of the money generated from day-use fees at both Armstrong and Austin Creek, plus 100 percent of the proceeds from camping at Bullfrog Pond.

The Stewards’ application had to go through another layer of vetting by the state Attorney General’s Office after it was revealed that for at least 12 years, state parks officials under-reported nearly $54 million in reserves to the finance department.

Asked whether she has confidence in the state’s ability to manage funds going forward, Luna said she is hopeful Brown will sign legislation that she said will put additional financial safeguards in place.

Luna also expressed confidence that Stewards volunteers will be up to the task of maintaining public safety at Austin Creek, which includes 20 miles of backcountry trails.

Luna said the group can seek assistance from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department or from a state parks ranger if one is available.

“There hasn’t been a history of a lot of major problems here,” Luna said.

Stewards also is bringing back volunteer campsite hosts on some weekends to help manage the Bullfrog site. The state had discontinued the service.

Last Tuesday, Monte Rio and Jenner Fire Chief Steve Baxman towed a camper up the winding road for the campsite hosts to use.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore @pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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