Housing / Land Use

Pinnacles Gateway Partners discuss overcrowding and future for park

Meeting discussed ways to promote communities around the national park and encourage volunteerism

Pinnacles Gateway Partners, which is comprised of Pinnacles National Park staff, city and county personnel, the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce, and marketing experts from Monterey, met March 16 in Hollister to receive updates on Pinnacles and brainstorm ways to promote San Benito County as a gateway to the park.

The mission of the group is to communicate and work together to protect resources, to inspire visitors, and to foster economic prosperity and community enrichment for the long-term stewardship of Pinnacles National Park and its gateway communities. One of the group's goals is to capitalize on the strategic location of gateway communities as entry points to Pinnacles for the economic benefit of these communities.

Juli Vieira, CEO and president of the San Benito Chamber of Commerce, told the group that they would learn how they could help in bringing tourists to the area.

“We might not have a place for them to stay, but they can come and play for a day and stay in Monterey, do a couple things there, and then come back to the Pinnacles. We have a lot to offer here,” she said, and then introduced Linda Stonier, a National Park Service (NPS) planner, based in San Francisco. “She has been our facilitator for the last two years for Pinnacles Gateway Partners.”

Stonier said she was at the meeting because Karen Beppler-Dorn, superintendent of Pinnacles National Park, had submitted to the NPS Planning and Technical Assistance Program to assist the gateway partnership. In updating the group, she told them she had taken part in a night hike on March 15.

“Most of the people were from the campground and were from all over, some from Texas and even back East,” she said. “It’s definitely worth it. I encourage anybody locally to go and do it.”

Stonier also had taken a look at the Yosemite Gateway Program, which she said is the only national park she is aware of that has an actual gateway effort underway. She said they will be having a meeting April 13, and will be going on an interpretive hike with rangers. She and Beppler-Dorn invited anyone else who might want to accompany them.

Beppler-Dorn said her mission is to invite visitors and protect what makes the park so special. She told them that spring is the busy season for the park, particularly on weekends when the policy is “one car in, one car out between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.”

“This past weekend the line of cars made its way almost out to Highway 25,” she said. “We’re filling up. We’re popular, so anything you can do to promote getting people to the park earlier or later, or during the week, and enjoying your communities from 10 to 2.”

Tthe park is now running two shuttle buses. Beppler-Dorn said that within a month, it’s hoped that there will be a third bus, but said because of the hiring freeze for federal employees there has been an issue finding a third bus driver. She said winter and fall are good alternatives for people who shy away from crowds.

“One of the things we’re really excited about is a new trail system we are constructing,” Beppler-Dorn said. “There will be two trails. The Point Trail will be accessible to people who have mobility issues or those who just want to walk on a flat trail. And there will be a connecter trail called the Jawbone Trail that will take people down to the chaparral area, or up from the chaparral area to the visitors’ center on the west side.”

Timing issues have delayed repairing the roof of the restroom at Bear Gulc, she noted..

“Now it looks like they’re going to start right in the middle of our busiest month,” Beppler-Dorn said. “We will have temporary restrooms. As soon as we know the start date of the project we’ll try to get that out to you and the community.”

Brent Johnson, chief of cultural resources at the park, told the group that a big part of the attraction at Pinnacles now is the sudden bloom of wildflowers, as well as the condors. He said the wildflowers will continue through April. He reiterated Beppler-Dorn’s cautionary message: “For the next six to eight weeks, it’s almost guaranteed that visitors will be waiting to find a parking spot on weekends. This gives you a chance to tell them to check out something else in the county to do until after 2 p.m. With daylight savings time it stays light later and they can go hiking in the afternoon.”

He said that by delaying their visits it will not only help with the traffic situation, but add to their experience at the park.

“There are trails on both sides that are good for wildflowers. That’s a common question we get,” Johnson said. “Condors are obviously there, but they’re free-flying and we have no say on where they go. It’s a hit-or-miss thing, but this time of the year there are good chances of seeing them.”

He explained that there is a great deal of research and restoration happening continuously at the park.

“We try to make good choices made on science-based decisions,” he said. “One of the things that has really taken off is working with local interns. Right now, we have 14 interns, eight of which are from local communities. That’s a benefit to us in so many ways. These are all local youth working on helping us with so many of the things we’re facing. They’re getting experience in all the aspects of operations in a park.”

One audience member asked how people can find out about youth volunteer opportunities in the park. Veronica Johnson, a park employee, said the primary method is through the park’s website, followed up with information going to high schools. She said the most successful way the park has been able to pass along information is through its Community Connectors and Pinnacles Gateway Partners.

“Specifically, we’re trying to find out who in the community has connections to the groups we’re trying to reach,” she said. “One of those is a way to connect to local youth, 18 to 25, who might be looking for local internships. We know guidance counselors at high schools; we know some people at CSUMB (California State University Monterey Bay), and we actually got some interns from that. If you know any of those people, please connect them to us.”

Johnson said the park also hosts volunteer groups, including corporations, scouts and other youth organizations to do volunteer work at the park.

“They come and serve three hours and get some service learning, so if you know anybody who has groups we’ll hook you up with that information,” she said, 'with our 'Every Kid in a Park' program that the Department of Interior puts on for all fourth graders, which also allows their families to get a free pass to all the national parks for the year. If you know a fourth-grade teacher or people who work with fourth-graders, our goal is for all fourth-grade teachers are aware of this program in all of our gateway communities.”

Johnson said the park’s Love (Locals for Volunteer Engagement) program is for individuals who want to volunteer.

“There are a wide variety of opportunities,” she said, “in interpretation, leading school groups, staffing the nature center, pulling weeds, chasing pigs, tracking condors, we do it all.”

Brent Johnson added that the park is moving toward being an “international dark skies park.” He said in order to achieve that status the park needs to examine its own lighting systems in a balance of safety and dimming them in order to maximize night viewing.

“We’re on our way to doing that because we’ve been thinking about it for many years,” he said.

Vieira asked if there was anything the community could do to help bring funding to help with the program. Beppler-Dorn said there was an application process that would take about a year. She said letters of support would help.

“As part of getting our designation we’ll be putting together a dark skies management plan and once we have that we’ll have a little better idea about what our needs are for replacing lighting systems,” she said. “We’re pretty dark right now. In fact, we rate being just as dark as Big Ben National Park in Texas. So, we’re in pretty good shape.”

The park is in the second phase of planning new structures on the east side, one being a new entrance station in late 2018, with funding coming from the NPS recreation fee program.

It was brought up that the gateway communities could help with the night skies program by examining their own lighting ordinances. Brent Johnson said it would be good for the park administration to coordinate with the communities in its efforts. He was told that San Benito and Monterey counties both have dark sky ordinances. Mary Paxton, program manager of Hollister's Development Services Department, said Hollister and San Juan Bautista also have ordinances.

“This is great and part of the plan will be gathering some of that information and putting it together and working with our local communities,” Johnson said.

On the east side of the park, Soledad Prison was mentioned as a major lighting issue.

“We’ll be looking at all these issues,” Johnson said. “This group will be a great platform to continue talking about this.”

Emily McDermott, a youth volunteer who came all the way from Boston to live and work at Pinnacles, brought up another program for teachers who might want to volunteer during summer months.

“Those dates would be between June 18 and August 12,” she said. “We’re looking for an application deadline of April 8. The teacher is able to get a stipend and some credits while helping the park staff develop a curriculum for the park that has the same standards as schools are using now.”

For more information on the Pinnacles Gateway Partners program, contact Linda Stonier at [email protected]

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]