SACRAMENTO — A retired Marine Corps general pledged Friday to restore integrity to California’s troubled state parks department as he was sworn in as its new director.
Maj. Gen. Anthony Jackson also said he has no immediate plans to close any parks, which feature hardy hikes in redwood forests, breathtaking sandy beaches and cultural relics from the Gold Rush era.
Jackson’s management experience will make him a good steward, Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said during the ceremony at department headquarters in Sacramento.
Jackson, 63, steps in as the state continues to investigate why $54 million was kept hidden in two special funds, even as budget cuts threatened to close 70 of nearly 280 state parks.
Jackson said he wants to win the trust of the public and the respect of the roughly 2,400 department employees.
An estimated 65 million people visit state parks each year, and they are a major economic driver for communities, according to the parks department.
“I want people to know that every nickel, every dime will be honestly handled within the department,” he said. “I’m kind of stunned I’m in this position, but I’m also exhilarated.”
His annual salary will be $150,112, and the state Senate has a year to confirm the governor’s appointment.
Sen. Noreen Evans, a Democrat from Santa Rosa who has worked to restore parks funding, said she is excited about the discipline Jackson will bring as a military leader. She wants to know more about his approach to park management.
“He obviously understands the value of parks,” she said. “But the question remains, there are issues related to the movement of our state parks department toward privatization, which is problematic.”
Jackson most recently commanded Marine Corps installations throughout the Southwest, overseeing fiscal, military, construction, energy and administration programs that involved 13,000 employees and more than 60,000 Marines and sailors.
Former parks director Ruth Coleman resigned last summer and a senior official was terminated when it was revealed that employees kept money hidden from the Legislature in two separate funds for more than a decade.
Laird said the results of an audit and investigation are expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed several bills in response to the scandal. They called for establishing a two-year moratorium on park closures, providing about $30 million in funding, and giving the state Department of Parks and Recreation new fundraising tools.
Among other things, the state will allow Californians to donate to the department by checking a box on income tax returns. Another provision establishes a specialty state parks license plate.