Sempervirens: always growing, always green, always alive
Imagine “Silicon Valley” in the late 1800s. Local residents of the rural valley watched in horror as 300 square miles of ancient redwood forests blanketing the Santa Cruz mountains were logged down to bald hills. What could they do?
They joined together and protected the largest remaining area of old growth forest, which became Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Since then, Sempervirens Fund has played a crucial role in creating three other local redwood parks: Castle Rock, Butano and Portola Redwoods.
Recently, when the California State Parks system faltered, we stepped in to keep Castle Rock State Park open and built top-notch facilities that put the park on solid financial footing for the long term.
Since 1900, Sempervirens Fund has protected more than 56 square miles of redwood forest. We continue to carry forth our founders’ vision. Many of them had seen and experienced the vast, pristine, ancient redwood forest here – before massive logging of the Gold Rush era felled the forests of these mountains. Knowing what thrived here – and what can be brought back to life and health – we work passionately to protect and connect the redwood forests into a vast, magnificent, life-giving redwood world that can support people and wildlife for countless generations to come.
In 1899, San Jose photographer Andrew P. Hill was on assignment in Northern California’s Santa Cruz mountains. His photographs were to accompany a news story about a recent fire in the redwoods that had been put out using wine from a local vineyard. While Hill was photographing a very large redwood tree, the owner of the grove stopped him, accused Hill of trespassing and demanded the negatives. Hill refused, and though he hadn’t thought of himself as an activist or conservationist, he returned to San Jose and started a campaign to save the remaining coast redwoods in the Santa Cruz mountains—and make sure local residents could see and appreciate them first-hand.
At the time, California was booming, and the redwoods were being logged at a frantic pace to build the new towns and cities. Concerned that the redwood trees of the Santa Cruz mountains would be lost forever, Hill convened a meeting of scientists and other influential people to discuss what could be done to protect the redwoods. At this meeting in the Stanford University Library, a surveying committee was appointed, headed by Hill and Carrie Stevens Walter from the San Jose Woman’s Club.
This group of inspired people went camping along the banks of Sempervirens Creek—in what is now Big Basin Redwoods State Park—and formed the Sempervirens Club in that exquisite place. The Club committed to contact elected and demand protection for the remaining redwoods and for the creation of a public park at Big Basin. They passed a hat, collected $32 to finance their efforts, and launched a fundraising and lobbying campaign to protect the redwood forest from further destruction.
Creating California’s First State Park: Big Basin Redwoods
For more than two years, the Sempervirens Club members campaigned for the creation of a state redwood park in the Santa Cruz mountains. Skillful lobbying by A.P. Hill, Santa Clara College (now Santa Clara University) President Father Robert Kenna, S.J., San Francisco attorney D.M. Delmas, and Harry Wells, editor of the San Jose Mercury News, convinced the California Legislature to pass a bill in 1901 to create the park.
In 1902, the State of California acquired 3,800 acres of ancient redwood forests in Big Basin for the people of California—protecting Coast redwoods for the first time, anywhere. The park initially was called California Redwood Park, later named Big Basin Redwoods State Park. It was the first park established in California in the current state park system.
Over the years Big Basin Redwoods State Park became a highly popular recreation area—so popular that campers were often turned away from the park for lack of room.
Intensified Threats Spur New Protections
In 1968, the Big Basin area was threatened with severe ecological damage from subdivisions, roads, and building proposals for more than 750 acres of private land in important places in the Waddell Creek watershed. Recognizing that these threats would intensify unless greater protections were put in place—considering the ecosystem and the region.
A group of local conservationists—including Tony Look, Dorothy Varian, Howard King, George Collins and Doris Leonard—joined together to work to establish a new state park at Castle Rock, 14 miles northeast of Big Basin, and protect the entire Waddell Creek watershed. A state park was created at Castle Rock in 1968. The group renewed the charter of the original Sempervirens Club and changed the name to Sempervirens Fund to reflect its new emphasis as a fundraising organization. A new era of conservation had begun.
During this period of renewed activism, local residents planned and began to create the 32-mile Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, completed in 1976. It brings people from the ridgeline at Castle Rock State Park through stunning old-growth groves, free-flowing creeks and profoundly quiet forest, and emerges to meet the Pacific Ocean at Waddell Creek.
Exploring the diverse ecosystems and marvels of coast redwood forests can be a rich, rewarding, and life-changing experience. But not everyone feels welcome in nature or comfortable visiting our region’s parks. We believe everyone deserves safe, welcoming, and inclusive access to the coast redwood forests of the Santa Cruz mountains. Learn more.
Over the past several decades California’s magnificent state parks have been underfunded, understaffed, and on the brink of ruin. For Sempervirens Fund, our state parks are interconnected with our legacy and with the permanent protection of many of the state’s most important redwood forests. We work to ensure that California State Parks is not only functional, but thriving. Over the last decade we worked to save Castle Rock State Park from financial ruin. And following the wildfires that engulfed the state’s forests in 2020, we believe there is a unique moment to re-imagine how state parks—and the risks of wildfire—are managed, and to improve safe, welcoming, and inclusive access to nature for all. Learn more about the future of state parks, including Big Basin Redwoods State Park.