Big Basin: honor its past, build it to last

A wildfire-damaged sign welcomes visitors Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Calif.

A wildfire-damaged sign welcomes visitors Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Calif. – Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Much has changed since Big Basin became a park. From climate change and fire to population and visitor growth – the new Big Basin should reflect new realities.

September 10, 2020

We are relieved that fire crews have gained significant ground on the wildfire that has consumed so much of our community’s lives, homes, and forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains in recent weeks. The firefighting and first response teams have put in heroic work. We are humbled by their perseverance and grateful for their tireless commitment.

There has been great loss in our community: lives lost and health harmed, homes destroyed and livelihoods disrupted, and forests and grasslands scorched. It is an especially difficult time to navigate a crisis of these proportions while in the midst of a global pandemic. We are grateful to philanthropic foundations in Santa Cruz, San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties that are helping people recover; they are emblematic of the innumerable community members who have stepped forward to assist those in need.

We are proud to be working in parallel to raise urgent funding needed for recovery efforts at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, as well as funding for the longer-term ecological restoration throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains. Thank you to the hundreds of donors who have already stepped up to support the most immediate needs. Learn more.

Redwood forests are resilient and adapted to fire. The forests will recover from this recent fire just as they have from previous firesEven the demise of individual trees will nourish new growthLong dormant seeds of fire dependent plants, like shortleaf pine and California buckeye, will finally have their chance to sprout. This fire will hit some species harder than others. Endangered salmon, and other aquatic species, are likely to face severe impacts from fire-related debris and runoff that will flow into the region’s streams with the arrival of the first rainsBut, over time, and with a little help here and there, nature will return and regrow from the ashes.

The historic Big Basin headquarters, consumed by fire. – California State Parks

The human spirit is as resilient as the redwoodsbut human infrastructure takes planning and investmentThe nearcomplete destruction of the buildings and facilities at Big Basin illustrates just how ill-adapted they were to fire. California Governor Gavin Newsom recently toured Big Basin and suggested it would be at least 12 months before it reopens And as California’s first state park, and one of the region’s most-visited parks, emotions are high for those who have spent formative moments in nature under Big Basin’s canopies and on its trails.  

We feel that anguish. Like you, we long to see the park reopened. In a year that has been filled with disorienting and calamitous events, it would be a welcome respite to once again experience the balm of Big Basin’s forests.

If you love Big Basin, please consider this: rebuilding Big Basin can pioneer a new model for California’s state parks, just as Big Basin accomplished more than a century ago. 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. 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.

Much has changed since the period when Big Basin became a park and its core infrastructure was built. The climate is warmer and drier, leading to more extreme weather events. A century of fire suppression has created a large buildup of fuel in the forests leaving them vulnerable to intense and catastrophic fires. The regional ecosystems and landscape of the Santa Cruz Mountains are now surrounded by dense, urban development that creates indirect pressure on the park and other nearby protected lands. The number of park visitors has exploded, and how people recreate has changed. Our understanding of forest ecology has also evolved. The new Big Basin should reflect this.

We aspire for a new Big Basin that honors its historic past and is designed for the future. Big Basin should be:

  • Built to last. The rebuilding of Big Basin and the replacement of historic buildings will be a direct response to the lightning sparks that started this recent conflagration. New infrastructure should be light on the land and designed to be resilient and safe when these forests burn again, and again and again.
  • Planned for fire. We can build resilience to climate change and wildfire into both our infrastructure and our forest. Fire management practices should be a feature of park management, based on both the best available science and also the traditional Indigenous knowledge that has been ignored for far too long.
  • Co-existing with nature AND people. In meeting this moment, Big Basin can, and should, demonstrate how we can coexist successfully with other species. New park planning must reflect how deeply the park is interconnected with the surrounding landscape and nearby communities.
  • Safe and welcoming for everyone. Big Basin is a great place to model new recreational experiences that are inclusive and welcoming to all people, reflecting the diversity of our communities and cultural traditions that value nature above all else.

Sempervirens Fund is and always has been a family made up of supporters, volunteers, staff and board members and our local Santa Cruz Mountain communities, and together we will be there for Big Basin, as we have since the days before California purchased the redwoods that would bring the park to life. We will engage in this effort in close collaboration with the many partners we have in the non-profit, for-profit, and governmental sectors. And although the iconic buildings may be gone, the essence of Big Basin will only be lost if we fail to prepare it for the future it and we deserve.

Stay informed about progress at Big Basin and with redwoods recovery throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains.

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