Seeking to restore public confidence in an agency hit by mismanagement and financial controversy, Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday named a retired Marine Corps general and former captain of the San Jose State University football team as state parks director.
Major Gen. Anthony L. Jackson, 63, is scheduled to be sworn in Friday.
"He's a tough man for a tough job," Brown said.
Jackson, a resident of Fallbrook, in San Diego County near Camp Pendleton, retired last year after a 36-year career in the Marines. In his final assignment, he served as commanding general, Marine Corps Installations West, supervising Marine Corps bases across California and the Southwest.
During that command, Jackson oversaw administration, finances, military, construction and energy programs at bases like Camp Pendleton and Twentynine Palms, along with 13,000 employees and more than 60,000 Marines and sailors.
He has also been an advocate for renewable energy and other environmental issues, experience that some said Tuesday will help him lead the troubled agency.
California's state parks department has suffered in recent years from repeated budget cuts, along with a $1 billion maintenance backlog. The most recent blow came in July with the resignation of former director Ruth Coleman and the firing of her chief deputy, Michael Harris, after Brown's administration announced the state parks department had kept $54 million in two accounts without reporting
There has been no evidence that any of the money was embezzled or stolen, and Coleman says she did not know of it. Still, the discovery came at a politically difficult time for the governor. Brown announced last year that the state was so short of cash that 70 state parks -- one-quarter of the entire system -- had to be closed by July 1 to save $22 million. Critics called the threat a political gimmick to convince middle-class voters to support Brown's tax increase measure on the November ballot.
When dozens of civic groups, local cities and businesses stepped forward with donations, the parks closures were averted. The state attorney general's office is now investigating the financial irregularities, and Brown signed a bill this fall banning any new state parks closures for two years.
Jackson was traveling Tuesday and could not be reached. Environmentalists were optimistic that he could help secure new funding and focus for California's 280 state beaches, forests and historic sites -- places as diverse as the Sutter's Mill site where John Marshall discovered gold in 1848 to Big Basin Redwoods State Park to the "Baywatch" beaches of Southern California.
"California's state parks system is a very important resource, not only for people today but for future generations," said Jim Metropulos, senior advocate for Sierra Club California.
"It's definitely a good sign to appoint a strong leader, and this guy's record shows that he is a leader who can take command of a large department and rebuild the state parks system for the 21st century. We're very hopeful."
Two years ago, Jackson was a prominent opponent of plans by the Schwarzenegger administration to build a toll road through San Onofre State Beach in San Diego County. The plans failed under public opposition. Jackson also has been a leading advocate of installing more renewable energy on military bases, and has spoken at high-profile conferences on the topic.
"He cares deeply about natural resources. He knows about parks. And he brings a lot of expertise on management issues," said Michael Mantell, former undersecretary for resources in the administration of Gov. Pete Wilson, and founder of the Resources Law Group in Sacramento.
Jackson was born in Fort Lewis, Wash. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in history from San Jose State in 1971 and 1973, respectively. While attending SJSU on a full football scholarship, Jackson played three varsity seasons and was team captain in 1970.
In 1975, Jackson enlisted in the Marines to attend Officer Candidate School and rose through the ranks. He is a graduate of the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va., and the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. His assignments have included: assistant chief of staff, First Marine Force, deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II; deputy commanding general, U.S. Marine Forces, Central Command; and director of operations and logistics, U.S. Africa Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany.
In 2011, he was awarded him a Doctor of Humane Letters degree from California State University and San Jose State, where he has returned to speak to students and to financially support the school's Burdick Military History Project.
"Anthony Jackson is a well-known name on our campus," said San Jose State spokeswoman Pat Harris. "We have lots of young people who have come out of the military. He has really stepped forward to be here personally for them, and to help others. It's good news."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.