Rebuilding Big Basin

March 24, 2021
sempervirens falls in Big Basin
Sempervirens Falls in Big Basin State Park. (Photo by Gnissah, Wikimedia Commons)

At midnight on August 18, 2020, as the CZU Lightning Fire consumed Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Sara Barth’s phone rang. At the other end of the line came an appeal from an acquaintance: “Promise me you’ll make sure that they stay true to the iconic architecture and that they’ll rebuild Big Basin!” 

Barth is the executive director of the Sempervirens Fund, the organization that lobbied for the protection of Big Basin – California’s first state park – in 1902. She could relate to the caller’s despair. She’s visited the park with three generations of her family; her kids cried when they heard about the fire destroying the cabins at Little Basin. But walking the smoldering landscape on an authorized visit to the closed park was a “gut punch,” she says – a confrontation with a changing climate that she couldn’t ignore. She knew she, and Sempervirens, couldn’t recommend going back to the way things were.

In the aftermath of the devastation, conservation organizations, Indigenous leadership, outdoor equity activists, and California State Parks have agreed that there must be a new way forward. Big Basin was a pioneer as the first California State Park; now, the various groups working on rebuilding it hope it can be a pioneer again as a new model for the next century of state parks. 

In a manifesto published before the fire had even been extinguished, Sempervirens proposed reimagining a Big Basin that was resilient in the face of climate change, incorporated modern and Indigenous burning practices, prioritized ecological harmony, and created a safe, welcoming environment for all. “The founders of Sempervirens Fund, who advocated for the protection of Big Basin more than 100 years ago, were visionaries with ambitious and forward-looking ideas about the need to both preserve nature and create parks that helped people access and experience redwood forests,” the statement reads. “Equally bold and innovative thinking is needed now to usher in a new approach to park management that is responsive to the realities of a new era. The destruction of this fire was tremendous, but it also means that we can reimagine Big Basin.”

But developing a plan for a park as historic and widely beloved as Big Basin will be a long process. There’s not necessarily a roadmap to success, Barth acknowledges, and State Parks cautions that there is not yet a reopening day toward which visitors can count down. It will be a long haul, and fatigue from a long closure may dampen sustained enthusiasm for change even while reimagining the park will require careful and innovative decisions.

“Equally bold and innovative thinking is needed now to usher in a new approach to park management that is responsive to the realities of a new era. The destruction of this fire was tremendous, but it also means that we can reimagine Big Basin.”

The CZU Lightning Complex fire was a magnitude beyond what Chris Spohrer had ever imagined possible, and a reminder, Spohrer says, of what the climate-changed future holds for California. He’s been the Santa Cruz District Superintendent for California State Parks since 2016 and has worked in the district since 1997. “It doesn’t do us any good to look backward,” he says. “Because it’s going to be different.”

Big Basin is still a wounded landscape. A few pockets of fire flared again in January. Then rain threatened to destabilize the dangerously baked soil. The risk of debris flows resulted in evacuation orders from Santa Cruz County, a late-arriving reckoning from the fire.

While most people understand that this was a large-scale event that will take a lot of time to recover from, Spohrer says, some have pushed to get back into the park quickly, even entering the closed park. Spohrer says one cyclist who rode past the closure gates across the damaged pavement fell into a ditch filled with burn debris. 

“We all want to get the public back into the park,” Spohrer says. “But I ask for patience from those supporting Big Basin and its recovery. At the moment, it is still quite dangerous.”

State Parks is still engaged in securing access into the park and preparing to clean up building debris with partners at CAL OES and CalRecycle. Then the agency will begin to repair damaged trails, remove hazard trees, and restore some electrical utilities. The recovery is supported by state and federal aid funds, as well as significant fundraising efforts from partners including the Sempervirens Fund, Save the Redwoods League, Mountain Parks Foundation, Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, and Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz. 

With cleanup and stabilization in the background, a more robust reimagining effort can begin, Spohrer says. The district’s team is just beginning meetings with agency leadership in Sacramento about how they’ll start planning the planning. 

As recently as 2013, State Parks had completed a general management plan for Big Basin. “I can imagine there’s going to be a lot of discussion about what it was like in the past and what it should be like in the future, and there will be a lot of arguments around that,” Spohrer says. “A lot of people might say, ‘We should at least evaluate what it looks like to do exactly the same thing.’ But already, there’s been a pretty good recognition that [if] you build a park starting in 1902, 120-plus years later, it’s going to be a different process to start again. We know the climate has changed. There’s different visitation. Access demands are very different. All those things, to me, indicate that we’re going to need to look at some changes to the way we operate, and what we provide to the public, so we can be resilient — we can be something that is going to make it into the next 100 years.”

It’s a process that will involve State Parks leadership in Sacramento and Santa Cruz, as well as outside consultants, stakeholders like Sempervirens, and the public. It will also require oversight from regulatory bodies such as the California Coastal Commission, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Any timeline for this planning process is aspirational, Spohrer says, and he can imagine it taking at least 18 months: “The hope is that when we’re done, we’ll have a vision and a plan that we can then start executing as projects and construction.” 

There will come a time when creative ideas run into the reality of visitors’ needs, Spohrer acknowledges, like providing water and sewage treatments. Funding is another wrinkle. Certain types of aid funding are also predicated on rebuilding in exactly the same place, in exactly the same way. 

But in making space to reimagine, State Parks has the support of traditional conservation stakeholders like the Sempervirens Fund and the Save the Redwoods League. “The tragedy of Big Basin is rooted in the fact that it was perhaps the most popular, and the most accessible, resource to a large population,” says Paul Ringgold, chief program officer for Save the Redwoods League. “The loss of that resource is going to be carrying forward for quite some time as the park is rebuilt. How do we look at this situation in a way that affords an opportunity here for us to start fresh?”

Barth sees the Sempervirens Fund as “an angel on the shoulder” of State Parks, urging them to stay committed to change. “There’s intense pressure on them, and it will grow over time, to rebuild the way they had it before,” she says. “Groups like ours that have been involved with Big Basin from the very get-go have a rare legitimacy in saying, ‘You know what, we were there for the beginning and we’re here to tell you that we want this as much as anybody, but let’s do it thoughtfully and with innovation.’”

And while the park begins to organize toward a large rebuilding effort, Barth and Ringgold, representing two of the region’s most established conservation organizations, want to use their clout as stakeholders to make room for new voices to the table – especially the voices of the Indigenous people whose traditional burning practices were eradicated from the landscape.

Gavin Newsom tours Big Basin
California Governor Gavin Newsom tours Big Basin State Park after the CZU Fire. (Photo courtesy California Office of the Governor)

In the aftermath of 2020’s catastrophic fires, many landowners are realizing they’ve failed to protect their lands, says Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. Now, they’re looking to Indigenous knowledge, traditions and ways to restore the land in a way that provides for sustainability and biodiversity.

“One of our high-priority projects is restoring Indigenous burning to the landscape so what occurred there never happens again,” Lopez says. 

The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band’s membership represents the lineages of several Indigenous groups who survived the Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista missions, and the tribe has relationships with both the Sempervirens Fund and State Parks. While he’s communicated some with State Parks staff about Big Basin, the tribe’s level of involvement is still to be determined, Lopez says, partly because the park is not traditionally their territory.

For thousands of years, the land that eventually became Big Basin Redwoods State Park was the home of the Cotoni and Quiroste people, who were part of a greater collective of Awaswas language speakers. There are no known surviving descendants of the Awaswas nations, Lopez says. The Amah Mutsun could help return Indigenous stewardship practices to Big Basin’s landscape, he says, but it would be important for them to honor the Awaswas and to invite other tribes, such as the Muwekma Ohlone, to join their efforts.

“State Parks is one of the partners who’s more open to bringing back the traditional ways,” Lopez says. The agency has learned side-by-side with the tribe in a joint archaeological research project at Quiroste Valley Cultural Preserve within Año Nuevo State Park. Work at Quiroste has showed that Indigenous stewards would burn the landscape every 7 to 11 years – a frequency that the tribe would like to bring back.

State Parks had administered some prescribed burns to areas within Big Basin – an estimated 3,500 acres out of the park’s 18,000 acres. So far, it appears that those areas fared better in the CZU Fire, Spohrer says. If further data collection bears out that impression, then it would be logical to plan the park in a way that allows for more generous burns. In the past, it would be a big year if they burned 400 acres, Spohrer says. To effectively treat an entire landscape with fire, they will have to burn much more often.

Yet prescribed burns require buy-in from neighbors and regulatory agencies, which has prevented fire managers from using them as often as they might like in the Santa Cruz Mountains and beyond. Smoke inhalation is a concern for communities and individuals, and visitors will still come to the park for the outdoor experiences they expect. 

“There are very legitimate reasons that people are unexcited about prescribed fire,” says Barth. “But prescribed fire is a release valve. Absent that, it is extraordinarily catastrophic. What’s important is to help explain the alternative and have a dialogue about how it can be done in ways that are least harmful.” 

As a visitor who had memories of the park and the camping facilities with his family, it was “heart-wrenching” to see the burned foundations of beloved buildings in the park, says Save the Redwoods League program officer Ringgold. But he also acknowledges that this is an opportunity for needed change to the park’s infrastructure, both for the ecosystem and for people. 

In the aftermath of a massive disturbance like the CZU Lightning Complex fire, non-native annual grasses, forbs, and shrubs may creep into the land from neighboring developed areas. And for Big Basin to flourish one hundred years into the future, Ringgold says, “What we really want to see is an ecosystem that is resilient to the kinds of disturbances that are going to become the norm – warming and drying trends in spring, summer, and fall.”

That means rebuilding in a way that reduces impact on the park’s sensitive ecosystem, Ringgold says.

The Sempervirens Fund owns lands that are directly adjacent to Big Basin, which Barth indicates the organization may transfer to State Parks, or collaboratively co-manage with them, as a future site for facilities for staff or visitors. Moving administrative buildings, for example, could relieve some of the human pressure on the old-growth grove that was the park’s cherished nucleus for so many years.

In the cleared landscape, Lopez sees an opportunity for the Amah Mutsun to conduct research efforts that might influence the building of new sites in the park. “That’s one thing that this burn is going to do: allow us to go out there and identify other cultural sites,” Lopez says. “If they’re going to put in parking lots, bathrooms, camping grounds — we don’t want them to be on cultural sites.”

Protecting sensitive old growth and cultural sites should be balanced with a need for access, Spohrer says. “Thinking about access and inclusion are going to be top priorities,” he says. “There’s ideas out there that we’re seeing in national parks that are providing access from higher-population areas without covering the landscapes with parking lots. The parks are for everyone, and we want to make sure that’s incorporated in our thinking of the planning.”

“Work directly with us: that is the one message I would like State Parks to hear. We’re here, extending our hands.”

Until Big Basin burned, Teresa Baker explored the park with Hiking Every Available Trail, or H.E.A.T., a Bay Area-based hiking group. Baker is the founder of the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge, an initiative that supports outdoor brands in becoming more inclusive of communities of color. She’s worked with the National Park Service to improve representation of Black, Indigenous and people of color in that agency and as visitors to the parks, but State Parks still has work to do, she says.

For too long, there’s been an attitude of “Change is needed, but not on my watch,” Baker says. When it comes to public engagement and choosing stakeholders to weigh in on plans for Big Basin, she recommends the agency start now in choosing a diverse group o tap directly into the communities they serve by finding affinity groups – like Latino Outdoors, or H.E.A.T. – and asking them what they would like to see during the rebuilding process. “Work directly with us: that is the one message I would like State Parks to hear,” Baker says. “We’re here, extending our hands.” 

Baker also sees an opportunity to correct a century of cultural omission as the park physically rebuilds. “We’ve removed the foundation of culture in some of these parks,” she says, “of Native Americans, of course, Latino Americans, African Americans.”

Baker proposed inviting representatives from communities across California to contribute to a new cultural center, in their own words, which she says would be especially meaningful in California’s first state park – and a way for Californian parks to be a leader for the nation by prioritizing diverse stories. 

“We would be very interested in a cultural center if we had other tribes working in collaboration,” Lopez says. “We want to honor and remember the Awaswas and the Cotoni and the Quiroste; we would love to work with other tribes to put that there for them.”

Naming trails and park locations in honor of the Awaswas would be a priority for the Amah Mutsun, says Lopez, and Indigenous stewardship presented at Big Basin would be presented as the knowledge of Awaswas nations based on the Amah Mutsun and State Parks’ research at Quiroste.

And it’s important that there be something in the park that addresses the history of native people in California, Lopez says. 

“We have a horrendous and brutal history that has never been told,” he says. “And the state of California hurt their soul because of that history. Healing begins by telling the truth, so they need to tell the truth about Indigenous people. And an important thing to heal is allowing people to tell their stories. Indigenous people need to tell their stories; it’s also important that perpetrators tell their stories.”

Baker says she is not surprised that in the months following the burn a new coalition of allies – traditional conservationists, State Parks, tribal leadership, and community groups – has worked together to rebuild the park. Groups that once might have argued with each other about priorities for State Parks are tired now, she says, and ready to work toward common goals. “No one has all the answers,” she says. “But we all want these parks to be in the best conditions possible. Let’s put our guards down, and let’s work together.”

The future of Big Basin Redwoods State Park will require sustained and meaningful collaboration between State Parks, the tribe, and all stakeholders, Lopez adds. “We’re developing relationships that will last a long time,” Lopez says, “where we work together, where we work on healing together, to take care of Mother Earth together. That’s our jobs. It’s an obligation, and Creator’s counting on us.”

For months following the fire, Spohrer found it hard to go back into Big Basin, to see again and again the loss of the structures, the scope of the devastation, the work ahead.

But after January’s rain, when he returned, he saw something different. The forest floor, once gray and covered in ash, was now sprinkled with mulch from dropped leaves and needles. Many of the trees were resprouting; even the trees that were top-killed had new growth around the base.

“You can’t help but feel more optimistic when you see that,” he says. 

About the Author

Jess Silber is a freelance journalist in San Francisco who has been published in AFAR magazine and a Lonely Planet anthology.