Before spending a day in Southern California’s great outdoors, you might think to stock up on snacks from the market or buy some gear at a nearby hiking store.
But did you consider swinging by your local library?
Public libraries have long checked out more than just books, with many offering free movies, storytime kits and even laptops to card holders. Recently, the world of non-book offerings has expanded to include nature itself.
For the past year, card holders at libraries across the state have been able to check out visitor passes that grant access to more than 200 California state parks and beaches — and, recently, thousands more passes were made available to eliminate wait list times. This month, many libraries also added “explorer” backpacks stocked with hiking gear — including compasses, wilderness guides and binoculars — to their inventory.
The idea is to make California’s natural wonders more accessible for everyone. Data shows that getting outside can boost your mental and physical health. It also happens that people who go outdoors regularly are more likely to support protecting the environment.
“We want to make sure Californians experience these places and value them, because that is what creates long-term stewardship,” said Rachel Norton, executive director of the California State Parks Foundation, which helped create the program.
“A body of people who know about these places, who love these places, and want other people to experience them is ultimately what keeps these places protected and thriving for generations to come.”
The idea started half a decade ago, amid growing concern about making sure that non-White and disadvantaged households have equal access to all public parks. Studies show, for example, that communities of color are nearly three times more likely than White communities to live in “nature deprived” areas, with little to no access to parks, paths and green spaces. And surveys of National Parks routinely show that visitors are disproportionately white.
In 2018, California State Parks Foundation, in concert with UCLA, commissioned a study that found a majority of Californians, including disadvantaged households, lived close enough to a state park to regularly walk, bike or drive there. But Norton said there was a strong sense that parks were being underutilized in many of these communities, and that one barrier was cost.
It typically costs $10 to $15 per vehicle to visit state facilities such as Chino Hills State Park, where wildflower blossoms are beckoning visitors from across California, or Huntington State Beach. So Norton said the foundation — with support from California first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom — started working with California State Parks on programs to eliminate that barrier for visitors who might otherwise be held back from visiting these places.
They created a Golden Bear Pass, which offers free access to state parks and beaches to any resident who’s qualified for the state’s low-income assistance program CalWORKS. They also created an Adventure Pass, modeled after a National Parks program that gives a free annual pass to any fourth grader so they can bring their families to state parks and beaches for free. And with $3 million in grant funding included in the 2021-22 budget, they worked with the California State Library to launch a three-year pilot program that made state park passes available to check out from libraries across the state.
Libraries already have strong systems in place to lend and track items, Norton said. Plus, they’re trusted community institutions that often serve some of the very same people the parks program hopes to reach.
Anyone with a library card can check out a pass, with most libraries lending them for two or three weeks. Borrowers can use the passes as often as they want during that window, with options to renew in many cases.
Last April, Anaheim received 25 park passes to lend out from the city’s seven libraries plus its Mobile Library, also known as the Bookmobile, according to city spokesman Mike Lyster. Interest was strong as news of the passes spread, Lyster said, with 434 passes checked out to date for three weeks at a time.
Last year, in some places, residents reported long wait lists to get one of the passes. So Norton said they went back to work to get some $13.5 million in funding for an additional 28,000 passes that are being distributed across California now.
Anaheim now has about 1,000 passes available throughout its various branches, Lyster said. And he said “word of mouth, and our promotion to library patrons, has brought steady interest.”
The situation was similar for libraries in Riverside. Miriam Perez with the city said there were wait lists at some libraries last year, when they only had a total of 10 or 15 passes. But, with more than 100 passes to lend out, she said they’re more easily available. And if one location runs out, she said they can call another library branch and get visitors squared away with a pass.
“We just want everyone to know it’s here and we just want to remove all barriers to access,” Perez said.
So far, Norton said they’re very pleased with the interest and impact the program is having. They recently did a survey of more than 1,000 residents who’ve used the California State Library Parks Pass program. Some 61% of respondents who had never visited a California state park before said the reason was the cost of the day-use fees. Now, more than a third of the people surveyed said they anticipate visiting California state parks three to six times a year, while 44% expect to visit seven times or more annually.
Clearly the program is getting some residents out to state parks for the first time. But the survey showed it’s also working in reverse, with 80% of folks who checked out a pass saying they’re also more likely now to use other library services.
“It’s a win-win all around,” Perez said.
As the pass program gained traction, Norton said, the state identified another potential barrier that might stop people from venturing outdoors or keep them from having an enjoyable experience once they got there: lack of gear. That’s where the new backpack program comes in.
Outdoor retailer REI recently donated 500 backpacks to be available for check-out at libraries across the state, with some libraries already loaning them out and others starting soon.
“We believe that a life outside is a life well lived,” said Haley Caruso with REI, which also rents gear and offers free outdoor classes at many locations.
Randy Widera, director of philanthropy at California State Parks Foundation, said that thanks to donors the REI backpacks also include binoculars, guides to California tree and wildflower and wildlife, a hand lens, and a compass.
Anaheim recently received eight backpacks, one for each branch plus the Mobile Library. Lyster said they’ll soon be available for checkout.
The 500 backpacks are just a pilot, Widera said. They hope to gather feedback on how the system is working and how visitors are responding to the contents before hopefully scaling that program up as well.
Along with getting some basic gear into hikers’ hands, libraries also are partnering with State Parks to offer workshops about what visitors can see at different sites and how to safely and affordably visit. (Check the online calendar for your local library branch to learn more.)
The pilot park pass and backpack programs are slated to sunset next year. But Norton is hopeful that the high interest they’re seeing and the data they’re gathering will help them land permanent funding to continue the programs into 2025, despite concerns over a tightening state budget.
“Money spent on parks — maintaining parks, expanding parks, adding new amenities, getting new access to parks — it all pays a dividend in future generations,” Norton said.
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