Remembering Former State Park and Recreation Commissioner and Chair Ernest Chung

Ernest Chung, a State Park and Recreation Commissioner from 2013 to 2019 and its Chair from 2013 to 2015, passed away on Jan. 13, 2021, from complications from a biking accident on Mount Tamalpais three years earlier.

In 2012, when 70 state parks were threatened with closings, Ernest, a longtime bike rider and volunteer at China Camp, helped create and then chair the organization Friends of China Camp (FOCC). FOCC raised the money to sign an operating agreement with State Parks to keep China Camp open. China Camp State Park still flourishes today under a State Parks operating agreement.

Many have shared fond memories and words of admiration for Ernest:

  • Bill Craven, chief consultant to the California Senate Natural Resources Committee for more than 20 years, recalled that Ernest was deeply committed to state parks, having worked as a volunteer at state parks in Marin County and, after his accident, in Monterey County: “His work in Marin County was what brought him to the attention of Governor Jerry Brown, who appointed him to the California State Park and Recreation Commission. Ernest brought his probing questions and analytical abilities to the work of the commission and for the overall improvement of state parks across the state. As one example, Ernest played a leading role in a successful effort to keep a smaller footprint for a golf course at Washoe Meadows State Park that ultimately was supported by the entire commission and the California Department of Parks. After leaving the commission, one of his final efforts was to work with various public agencies and nonprofits in Monterey County to relieve traffic congestion along U.S. 1 that serves several very popular state and county parks. He was an insightful and creative man of great intellect who was dedicated to improving the public’s access to, and enjoyment of, the greatest landscapes in the state and he will be deeply missed.”
  • Fellow State Park and Recreation Commission (SPRC) commissioner with Ernest, Elva Yanez, recalled “Ernest was a good friend and terrific ally both during and after my time on the commission. Brilliant, curious and always humble, commissioners and staff relied on Ernest’s advice when confronted with a vexing, complex problem or situation. These assets, combined with his steady, confident leadership as commission chair, helped State Parks make it through a particularly challenging period of its recent history. Noteworthy among his many accomplishments on the commission, Ernest championed increasing access to state parks for underserved groups. And, despite being a Bay Area resident, he was a strong supporter of urban parks in Los Angeles, especially the Los Angeles State Historic Park. Just this past year, Ernest and I co-authored a piece for CalMatters [Click here to read the article.] California State Parks has lost a cherished friend; he will be missed greatly.”
  • Ed Lai, who served as chairman of the FOCC from 2012 to 2017, then became FOCC Chief Financial Officer, shared his admiration and memories of Ernest: “I have always appreciated his visionary perspective on how we could operate China Camp on our own with no funding from DPR [Department of Parks and Recreation]. I also admired his ability to network and attract so many diverse groups of people to our cause of saving China Camp, including donors, partners, politicians, community members and volunteers. His dedication and willingness to share his vast business experiences helped to launch our efforts to keep China Camp open and thriving. Another fond memory was a media roundtable with local and international Chinese news services in print, radio, tv and online. About 25 different Chinese news outlets came. Prior to that event, China Camp was little known in the Bay Area Chinese communities, let alone internationally. I fondly remembered the exciting event with Ernest, Frank Quan, Michael Hanrahan (another board member) and me, telling our story, asking the Chinese communities for support and fielding questions from the press. As a result, significantly more and more Chinese families came to visit China Camp, including people from China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia.”
  • Diane Wittenberg, a current SPRC commissioner and former chair, recalled that Ernest was her mentor and friend ever since they met on the commission. She continued to talk with him frequently for his ever-ready advice and friendship. Her last visit to him was in August, where, along with her husband, they enjoyed a wonderful dinner and bottle of wine together.
  • Monterey District Superintendent Brent C. Marshall said “Ernest had a way of bringing elected officials, community members and agency representatives together to find common goals. He would identify incremental steps we could all do to move a project forward and still keep the group focus on the long-range plan.”
  • Kathleen Lee of the Point Lobos Foundation recalled that “Ernest was a force for good and ideas. I will always remember Ernest as a great convener and appreciate all of his work for parks and open spaces within California.”
  • Ernest was a trustee for Big Sur Land Trust from 2016 to 2019. Rachel Saunders of Big Sur Land Trust shared “We were so truly blessed to spend time, converse, laugh, debate, think BIG THOUGHTS, and reach towards the future with Ernest. He truly inspired … and still does.”
  • Steve Dennis of ParkIt! said “There is a Yiddish word that describes him—a mensch. There is no good English translation for the word—a person of integrity, honor and character.” ParkIT! is working to provide sustainable solutions for congestion and overcrowded parks from Carmel to Point Lobos to Big Sur. It is planning for shuttles, parking lots and reservation systems, thanks to the vision and energy of Ernest. A number of steering committee members have given a gift in Ernest’s name to the ParkIT! Stewardship Fund at the Community Foundation for Monterey County.
  • Others shared words to describe Ernest: “selfless,” “an alchemist,” “visionary,” and “caring”.

No memorial services are yet planned and will have to wait until after COVID-19. His family would like to hold events to remember him at China Camp State Park and Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, since both were immensely important to him.

Current State Park and Recreation Commissioner and former Chair Diane Wittenberg visiting Ernest Chung.

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