Damage from the CZU fire in Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Damage from the CZU fire in Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
San Lorenzo Valley

Why a Boulder Creek land purchase has conservationists so excited

The Sempervirens Fund is closing in on a purchase of a 153-acre property near Big Basin Redwoods State Park — a development that could reopen at least part of the region devastated by the CZU Lightning Complex fire in 2020.

When Sara Barth walks around a 153-acre property near the entrance to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, she finds herself staring up at the canopy and daydreaming.

Barth, the executive director of the nonprofit Sempervirens Fund, says the property has everything people love about the Santa Cruz Mountains: redwood trees, Douglas firs, riparian areas and a great diversity of animal wildlife. It even has flat areas that would be perfect for picnic areas and campgrounds.

Also, unlike neighboring Big Basin State Park, the property survived the 2020 CZU Complex fire relatively unscathed. That’s part of why Sempervirens is in the process of purchasing the land this month.

Barth says her group’s goal is to donate the “Gateway property,” as it’s being called, to California State Parks. She and her colleagues would love to see it be added to Big Basin. It might even be the first part of the park to open, she says.

“While the heart of Big Basin is going to be closed for a very, very long time and inaccessible, our hope is that this property can become the place where people can go — to visit in the next few years,” said Barth, who is helping spearhead a $2.86 million campaign to manage the purchase. “This is going to be a catalyst to reopening Big Basin. That’s the hope.”

This is going to be a catalyst to reopening Big Basin. That’s the hope.

As it happens, the Gateway property will already be familiar to many fans of Big Basin.

The parcel sits on either side of Highway 236. So when Big Basin was open to the public, visitors would travel through it as they drove from Boulder Creek to the park’s main entrance. And so the land acquisition presents an exciting opportunity as park stakeholders aim to forge a new path in the fire’s aftermath, said Bonny Hawley, executive director of Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks.

“It’s obviously the front door to the park,” Hawley said. “There’s a blank canvas at Big Basin right now, the buildings are all gone. There will be a public process and questions to sort through about transportation and facilities.”

It’s too early to say what the exact fate of the property will be. But prior to the fire, parks officials had already identified the Gateway property as a place where Big Basin facilities could be relocated, if needed, California State Parks spokesperson Doug Johnson said.

There is no estimate, however, for when the park will reopen.

“It’s going to be a while,” he said.

Trees at Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Charred trees at Big Basin.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

‘King Tut of Hoarders’ moves on

As much as conservationists enjoy looking ahead, the property has lately been getting less attention for its possible future than it has for its unusual past.

In the years before this acquisition process started, the property had a different claim to fame. The land was home to Roy Kaylor — whom Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce McPherson called the “King Tut of hoarders.”

McPherson wasn’t using the word lightly.

Kaylor was actually featured on a 2011 episode of the actual A&E television show “Hoarders,” documenting the self-described inventor’s reluctance to part with a junkyard’s worth of rusting vehicles on a stressful rainy afternoon.

Kaylor, who could not be reached for comment for this story, found himself in a yearslong legal battle with the county that ultimately resulted in an intensive cleanup effort and also the sale of the property to Verve Coffee cofounder Colby Barr in June 2020.


Dramatic rise from the ashes

The devastating CZU fire of 2020 didn’t miss the Gateway property altogether when it tore through 85,000 acres of Santa Cruz Mountains land some 17 months ago. Still, the conflagration did not rip through at a temperature nearly as hot as it did in Big Basin State Park.

When Big Basin burned, the fire left little of the forest behind when all was said and done. By the time the smoke cleared, some very old and tall fire-resilient — albeit badly scorched — redwoods had survived. In the Gateway property, however, the fire rejuvenated the property’s woods as much as it damaged them, Barth said — clearing out some underbrush. And it left behind a healthy forest that’s still home to mountain lions, bobcats and banana slugs.

There are other reasons why conservation of this land is important, Barth explained. The land includes the headwaters for Boulder Creek, which filters into the San Lorenzo Watershed, a source of drinking water to many thousands of customers.

Barr, who’s now selling the Gateway land to Sempervirens, says the topography of the Gateway’s basin shielded the land from the worst of the blaze.

Barr fondly remembers falling in love with the property the moment he set foot on the land in 2019.

Preserve the Gateway to Big Basin! 153-acres of redwood forest along the entrance to Big Basin Redwoods State Park are at stake. We must act urgently to purchase and permanently protect the Gateway to Big Basin before January 31. Learn more: sempervirens.org Footage: Jordan Plotsky

It took Barr a year to navigate the complicated purchasing process and complete the $1.3 million sale, as Kaylor was moving out. After that, the property needed some additional work. And then came the CZU fire. As the woods cooled from the disaster, Barr reached out to Sempervirens for guidance on how he could be the best steward possible. Over the course of their conversations, staffers told Barr about their vision for the property — as a large public park. They talked it over, and Barr is now selling them the property for $2.4 million.

Barr says it was never his plan to flip his property for a relatively quick million-dollar profit. The initial price reflected what the property was. He also put a lot of hours into managing the land — not just cleaning things up, but also doing a thorough environmental analysis, funding road maintenance and clearing up confusion about the title, among a variety of figurative and literal messes that surrounded the property. There was a lot of risk involved.

“The property had been in the courts for 12 years. It was not cheap to purchase, and it was a lot of work,” Barr said. “It was an open process, and I was the highest bidder. The sale price for the property was typical for the type of property that it was and the time when the sale happened and a sale of that nature.”

As it happens, Sempervirens did not even bother putting in a bid on the project back in 2020, says Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Matt Shaffer — in part because of the uncertainty and risks associated with such a challenging sale and a complicated property.

Shaffer said the group has put $2.5 million toward the campaign, although most of that was already in the bank and had been raised prior to the Jan. 11 campaign kickoff. The fundraiser will cover the cost of the land itself, and also money for stewardship programs.

Barr says he had always planned to take good care of the land, and thought he might sell it to a conservation group someday, maybe 30 years in the future.

“Now, it’s just happening, two or three decades sooner than I anticipated,” Barr said. “Sometimes in life you just have to follow your instincts. This felt like one of those serendipitous moments.”

Sempervirens executive director Barth sees serendipity in what’s happening, too.

Although she’s loath to come off sounding “too woo-woo,” Barth says it really does almost feel like some sort of cosmic intervention to think of this piece of land being conserved now — right as naturalists begin the task of “reimagining” California’s oldest state park.

Those naturalists might soon have more land to dream about.

“It’s literally connected to Big Basin,” Barth said. “But the difference in how [the fire] came through is so striking. It’s just dramatic, and it shows how fickle the fire was. It feels almost miraculous that this property wasn’t torched. It does feel a little like the stars aligned a little bit.”

Charred trees in Big Basin Redwoods State Park
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)