Worth the Price of Admission?

Posted February 25, 2009 in News

It’s easy to get lost in the moment at Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden. For many, it’s one of those meditative places where you can traipse amongst the ocotillos and prickly pairs and listen for the breathless sigh echoing past a thicket of Crucifixion Thorn. It’s been that way for years. It’s also been a free experience.  


Though they do ask for a donation, it’s an optional four dollars. Sometimes you pay it, sometimes . . . well, you know how it is. Maybe you skip the donation from time to time. Turns out too many people are skimping.


Effective March 29, Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden will begin charging an admission fee. Adults will pay $8, college students and seniors will pay $6, and $4 for kiddies ages 3-12.  


The Botanic Gardens got its start as a bit of Roaring ’20s philanthropy, the brainchild of Susanna Bixby Bryant, who wanted a proper memorial for her father, a wealthy cattle rancher and citrus farmer. In 1951, the Garden moved from its original home in Yorba Linda to the (then) wide-open spaces snuggled between Route 66 and the foothills of Mt. Baldy.  


As civilization encroached, the Botanic Garden has held firm, a therapeutic calm in a storm of modernity.


“Where else can you go to appreciate such native vegetation?” asks Dan Guthrie, president of the Pomona Valley Audubon Society. The Audubon Society, which holds a monthly bird walk at the Garden, is one of many groups and organizations that will have to decide whether such regional treasures are worth paying for.


“We’re holding a board meeting Thursday,” says Guthrie, who says they will discuss the new fees.Guthrie notes that, because the Rancho Santa Ana is one the last nature centers of its kind to hold to a donation-only policy, such a move was “inevitable.” 


Ann Joslin concurs. Joslin is both the Director of Visitor Services as well as Community Relations at the Garden. “We do a lot of double duty here,” she says. Of the admission fees, she says simply, “we have to enact this.”


Joslin further explains, saying “we’re a private institution. We receive no funding from any city—not from Claremont, not from the Colleges. Our endowment has decreased.” 


With no outside funding sources, the Rancho Santa Ana is scrambling for income just like everyone else. The shrubs and perennials don’t tend themselves and the garden walks and workshops don’t appear out of whole cloth. A staff of 66 full or part-time workers augmented by a couple of hundred volunteer docents do the dirty work behind the scenes. Charging admission fees will help save jobs, and keep the manzanitas a crisp evergreen.


As Joslin and Guthrie both note, other area botanic gardens have been charging fees for years. The L.A. County Arboretum in Arcadia has a similar fee structure, as well as backing from L.A. County Parks and Recreation. The Huntington Library in San Marino several years ago instituted an admission fee, controversial because of language in its original trust that mandated an eternal free admission.  


Joslin also points out that Rancho Santa Ana’s yearly membership fees will remain the same, $45 for individuals and $60 for families.   


On a recent Sunday afternoon, under a patch of gray clouds, the Botanic Garden’s parking lot is filled, with visitors filing past a docent cheerfully passing out pamphlets and dispensing information. For some, the news that they will soon have to pay for this walk in the park came as a surprise.


“Really?” said a father pushing his child in a stroller. “That’s too bad. There are other places to take a walk.”


Maybe so. But simply put: other places are not the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden.

–Kevin Ausmus


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