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Protecting the legacy: New friends group for Malakoff Diggins is born

Laura Petersen
Special to The Union
Period costumes were the trend at Humbug Day
Submitted by Dave Anderson |

Tucked away along a winding road on the San Juan Ridge, 3,500-acre Malakoff Diggins State Park is rich with historical, natural and cultural resources featuring a massive abandoned hydraulic mine, miles of forested trails, a fishing pond and campground and a charming ghost town known as North Bloomfield.

Yet many people living in Nevada County have never been there.

Over the past decade, the state has repeatedly threatened to close the park because of high deferred maintenance costs and park attendance records that bean counters in Sacramento consider woefully low.

“It’s been quiet. It’s out of the way. It’s not well advertised,” said Dave Anderson, former president of South Yuba River Parks Association (SYRPA) and the interim chairperson for a new nine-member committee forming to help support Malakoff Diggins.

“We look forward to working with the state and the community to reinvigorate our association’s role in supporting interpretive and educational programs in this very special park.”SYRPA President Robert Coats

“We’re trying to get a group of people together to do the right thing for the park and represent the community,” Anderson said.

Quietly in the works for about a year, the group called Friends of North Bloomfield and Malakoff Diggins (FNB&MD) is made up of representatives from local nonprofit conservation and recreation groups, educators and a robust showing of SYRPA board members.

FNB&MD will operate under the SYRPA cooperating agreement with the California Department of Parks and Recreation. So far, the group has met three times.

“We’re just getting started,” Anderson said.

Need for upkeep

For years, SYRPA has supported South Yuba River State Park at Bridgeport by recruiting volunteer docents who staff the park’s visitor center, lead tours and provide interpretive materials such as brochures. The nonprofit association also raises critical funds for the park.

In recent years, the group has been a major player in the Save Our Bridge Campaign ­— a successful grassroots effort that raised enough community support and eventually state funding to stabilize the covered bridge at Bridgeport. Well-established SYRPA will provide oversight for the new group while members slowly gain independence.

The first line of business will be to supply $4,500 left over from the former disbanded Malakoff Diggins Park Association, to repair wooden picket fencing in the heart of North Bloomfield.

“Right now it looks kind of run down and it’s a shame,” said Anderson.

Another component is to increase visibility of the park through renewed communication and outreach.

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of North Bloomfield’s annual Humbug Day celebration — a day full of blacksmithing, gold panning, history re-enactments, the world’s shortest parade and of course the shooting of the water cannon.

Finding creative ways to provide additional living history tours and activities and form different relationships with local schools is also on the table.

“We need the support of the community. We need their interest and their visitation. Most of all, we want them to enjoy Malakoff. This is their park,” Anderson said.

Robert Coats, president of SYRPA, agreed. “We look forward to working with the state and the community to reinvigorate our association’s role in supporting interpretive and educational programs in this very special park,” he said.

A new direction

For more than 20 years, Malakoff Diggins Park Association supported the park, as one of three nonprofits representing three Western Nevada County state parks: Malakoff Diggins, South Yuba River and Empire Mine.

While being “forever grateful” to the former association, it was time to consolidate resources, at a point where California State Parks is undergoing a transformation process, park officials say.

“We felt the need to improve efficiencies within our sector by decreasing the number of nonprofits that represented our local state parks. We felt the move would help create an ‘economy scale’ where fewer nonprofits could: pool resources, lessen competition for funding opportunities and provide outreach to a broader stakeholder base. Similar models exist throughout the state park system,” said California State Parks Sierra Gold Sector Superintendent Matthew Green.

Malakoff Diggins and South Yuba River state parks are a natural alliance because they share property lines and a similar California Gold Rush history.

While desiring to retain the grandeur, beauty and history of state parks, there is a critical need for positive changes to their organization that will greatly improve their ability to provide excellent services in a cost-effective, creative and accountable environment, according to one official.

Therefore, State Parks decided to go in a different direction with a new organizational structure for the Sierra Gold Sector, they added

Living museum and going green

Since 2011, when the governor first announced the potential closure of both Malakoff and Bridgeport, South Yuba River Citizens League has been intimately involved in an effort to keep the parks open.

Caleb Dardick, SYRCL executive director and a committee member for the new park group, said he grew up in Nevada County and remembers, as a boy, learning about California Gold Rush history at Malakoff.

He sees the park as an important place for “living museum” education and to teach visitors to become better stewards of the environment. Mercury remediation efforts are still underway by groups like The Sierra Fund, where feeder streams to the Yuba River continue to discharge mine toxins from more than a century ago.

For years, SYRCL has advocated for the idea of bringing renewable solar energy to the off-the-grid park that relies on diesel-fueled generators for power. Each year, the park spends upwards of $80,000 on diesel fuel, more than half of its operating budget costs. Interest from private donors coupled with state funding could cover the costs of the projected $300,000 to install solar at the park.

“It would pay for itself in a few years. We think greening the park would create an economic boom and send a really great message,” said Dardick.

Already SYRCL has secured grants for environmental review approved for the site. Bringing solar to Malakoff would be a significant step toward the park’s long-term sustainability.

Other issues to tango with are the mounting costs of deferred maintenance for the deteriorating buildings of the townsite, ongoing threats of wildfire and vandalism.

“We need to protect the legacy,” said Dardick.

Attracting more people to visit the park is the challenge ahead.

Maximizing the number of days open, creating more family-friendly activities and promoting them to the world will help to offset years of threatened closure announcements and the park’s remote location.

“People need to know the park is open for business. If people haven’t been there, it’s worth the drive. It’s clearly the epicenter of hydraulic gold mining in California,” Dardick said.

Learn more about Malakoff Diggins State Park at: http://malakoffdigginsstatepark.org/

Learn more about South Yuba River Parks Association at: http://www.southyubariverstatepark.org/

Contact freelance writer Laura Petersen at laurapetersen310@gmail.com or 530-913-3067.

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