State Parks studies new amenities for Big Basin visitors center lost to CZU fire

California State Parks' Chris Spohrer talks to reporters at Big Basin Redwoods State Park
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

Nearly three years after the CZU Lightning Complex fires severely damaged Big Basin Redwoods State Park, officials are embarking on a public process to determine how to rebuild some of the facilities lost to fire and make the park more resilient to climate change. The Sempervirens Fund will host a free online webinar Tuesday to kick off public correspondence.

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Big Basin Redwoods State Park — and the rest of the region’s state parks, for that matter — have been through a lot to start this decade.

In 2020, the catastrophic CZU Lightning Complex fires burned about 97% of Big Basin’s 18,000 acres and more than 100 structures, including many visitor facilities, within the state park. However, new life has sprouted in the months and years following the devastation, with wildlife and native vegetation blooming once again. California State Parks officials and scientists have used the opportunity to learn about the evolving fire danger in California and the resilience of nature — and to educate the public on those very issues as well.

Just like the slow rebirth of the burned park, the way visitors experience Big Basin is evolving as well. And the next chapter of recovery is getting underway.

There are big questions to be answered.

What will be offered to the visiting public and where in the park? Prominent among those questions is the new visitors center, the decades-old one lost in the fires. That center might have a focus on Indigenous stewardship and a deeper history of the burned ancient forest. There could also be a new shuttle service to take visitors down into the old-growth redwood forest that burned so severely nearly three years ago.

To kick off that look into the future, California State Parks is working with the nonprofit Sempervirens Fund — California’s oldest land trust — to protect and preserve important natural reserves in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Sempervirens recently purchased Sterrenzee Ridgetop, a 16.5-acre property that connects Big Basin with the 153-acre Gateway to Big Basin that Sempervirens purchased last year.

The devastating CZU Complex fire that burned 97% of Big Basin Redwoods State Park is giving way to new growth — and new...

The collection and connection of these properties in the Saddle Mountain Vista area provide a strong option for future visitor-serving facilities, like the planned visitor center and new campgrounds. They did not burn as badly as the rest of the park and have maintained more of their original ecology and second-growth redwoods.

The Sempervirens Fund said it purchased the Sterrenzee Ridgetop property from landowners Kurt and Mary Mortensen for $500,000 and the Saddle Mountain Vista property from Andrea Potter for $376,500.

A map of the Sempervirens Fund's newly acquired properties.
(Via Sempervirens Fund)

Over the next few years, California State Parks will be engaging in public correspondence to determine which facilities will be built and where. That process starts Tuesday at 1 p.m., with a Sempervirens-hosted free online webinar with Chris Spohrer, superintendent of State Parks’ Santa Cruz District. He’ll discuss what’s to come, including status updates on roads and trails that have been closed during fire recovery.

Sempervirens Fund executive director Sara Barth told Lookout that there are a few reasons this new expanded region of the park is vital to the future of Big Basin. Most notably, she emphasizes, the area did not burn as much as the rest of the park, making it a safer location with more of the park’s original ecology. Sterrenzee Ridgetop is near Saddle Mountain, an area with a smaller amount of fuel loadings — the amount of combustible material present in a landscape.

“Parks is really evaluating how they keep people safe in a landscape that will almost certainly burn again,” she said, adding that the Saddle Mountain region and Sterrenzee Ridgetop also maintain much of Big Basin’s recognizable habitat, making it an attractive option for visitor-centric facilities.

“This is really about the larger effort to build out the park in this corner of the landscape to allow for a future of the park that’s vibrant and allows people to access it safely,” said Barth.

Spohrer said reimagining the Big Basin experience is no simple task, but that the recent acquisitions are good starts.

“These properties will certainly be helpful to look at what options we might have in relocating visitor-serving facilities,” said Spohrer.

The future looks different, but Spohrer said he hopes that through the process, State Parks can show how a coveted ecological haven can stand strong in the face of a changing world.

“We’re looking at what we’re doing in Big Basin is hopefully the model for how you can respond and thinking about creating these public parks that are going to be more resilient to climate change in the future,” said Spohrer.

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