Reimagining Big Basin: Following CZU fire devastation, what should the park become?

California State Parks Santa Cruz District Superintendent Chris Spohrer talks to reporters at Big Basin Redwoods State Park
California State Parks Santa Cruz District Superintendent Chris Spohrer talks to reporters at Big Basin Redwoods State Park about recovery plans Thursday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

The devastating CZU Complex fire that burned 97% of Big Basin Redwoods State Park is giving way to new growth — and new plans, including tribal involvement, as the 120-year-old park comes back to life.

What should the next Big Basin Redwoods State Park look like?

The Boulder Creek treasure and California’s oldest state park — established in 1902 — saw 97% of its 18,000 acres of redwoods, Douglas firs and more than 100 structures burn in 2020’s catastrophic CZU Complex fire that destroyed 928 houses.

Now, given a couple of years of planning and reflection, park planners have stepped back to consider what they might do differently as they rebuild the park over the next decade or so.

“It’s been a long haul,” said State Parks District Superintendent Chris Spohrer, speaking to a group of reporters at the park Thursday. “We lost a lot — a lot of things that mean a lot to a lot of people. Not just to our staff, but to the public.”

While the loss is enormous, state parks officials, their partners and community members — who want to see the park not only reopen, but become something even better — are motivated to come up with a new vision to rebuild the park. Rather than rebuilding Big Basin as it was, officials are taking things into consideration that the original builders probably didn’t consider.

Among newer guiding principles of the Reimagining Big Basin project: applying Indigenous knowledge, maintaining the natural landscape and making the land more resilient to climate change.

“I understand that it can be a difficult concept for people — to change from something that is beloved. But I think the thoughtfulness that went into this vision, and the support that we’re getting for these ideas is really heartening,” said Spohrer. “And I’m looking forward to working on this, for the rest of my career.”

Check out the latest info regarding Big Basin State Park

Among the lessons Spohrer and his team apply is that the areas that had structures experienced more intense burns and suffered more damage to the trees. Consequently, officials want to make the park more resilient to future fires by moving campgrounds and structures away from old-growth areas and to regions they can more easily protect.

It will be a long process, with Spohrer predicting that it will be another three to five years before structures start to be rebuilt.

However, state parks will announce an opening date for day use and an online reservation system for limited parking and entry in June, in conjunction with the reopening of Highway 236. Without utilities and other infrastructure in place, the park can’t yet open up for camping.

Visitors, whose numbers will be regulated due to a lack of parking and limited areas that are safe for public use, will find access to 18 miles of fire roads and several of the popular loop trails. The other regions of the park will remain closed until they’re safe for the public.

District Superintendent Chris Spohrer talks to reporters at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on May 26, 2022.
California State Parks Santa Cruz District Superintendent Chris Spohrer talks to reporters at Big Basin Redwoods State Park about recovery plans Thursday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

The fire burned regions of the park at varying levels of intensity — and depending on the species of the tree, the fire had a bigger impact on some more than others. Spohrer said he doesn’t have an estimate for how many trees were lost, but officials expect the majority of redwoods to have survived, with the more susceptible species, such as the Douglas firs, having been destroyed in larger numbers.

“[Redwoods] are incredibly resilient that way even under the duress of an intense fire like the CZU fire in this location, even where the entire tops of the trees and the canopy was burned out,” he said. “The trees are recovering, and you can see them in different stages of recovery.”

Some of the small number of redwoods that were so damaged that officials had to take them down are being repurposed for structures such as a deck.

“You’ll also notice that the understory is filled with shrubs. Ceanothus is the primary shrub — that’s a California native shrub that fixes nitrogen, and it’s a fire follower,” Spohrer said. “You would not have seen that [before]. There was very little of that in the understory prior to the fire, but that is coming back in abundance.”

In addition to building a more resilient park, Spohrer said officials are looking forward to working with local tribes on creating a new vision. Leaders from both the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe form part of an advisory committee focused on the reimagining project.

Prior to Spanish colonization and the establishment of the state park, the Quiroste and Cotoni tribes — relatives of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe — lived on the land.

“This is an opportunity to get back to the table to think about the entirety of a park plan, and have our tribal partners with us during that time,” Spohrer said. “We support that idea that our tribal partners are part of the planning and the ongoing stewardship of the park.”

How to participate in the reimagining of Big Basin Redwoods State Park:

  • Listen to a vision summary presentation on Friday, June 3, 5-7 p.m. at the downtown Boulder Creek Recreation Hall, located at 13333 Middleton Ave.
  • Stay up to date on upcoming events by visiting the reimagining project website.