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Rising seas, worsening wildfires pose enormous threat to California’s parks

by Julie Cart, CalMatters |

Of all the existential threats California parks face — dwindling budgets, more visitors and costly, long-deferred maintenance — now comes a climate-driven conundrum: When is a park no longer a park? When its namesake trees disappear in a barrage of lightning strikes? When its very land is washed away by ever-rising seas?

The California Department of Parks and Recreation is coming to terms with this dilemma after a climate-reckoning moment last August, when more than 97 percent of Big Basin Redwoods, California’s oldest state park, was charred by a lightning-sparked wildfire. 

The shock of it was almost greater than the devastation: Coastal redwoods, the so-called asbestos forests of iconic, giant trees, hadn’t been hit by such ferocious blaze in living memory. The fire incinerated buildings and roads along with many trees; it was the most unexpected, indiscriminate and comprehensive destruction of a California state park, ever. Established 119 years ago, Big Basin remains closed.

Although all state agencies face the threat of climate change, state parks — with the depth and breadth of their 2,300 square miles of land — are singularly jeopardized. Caretaker of the nation’s largest state park system, the department is responsible for all of its historic structures, roads, bridges, land, beaches, forests, water, plants and animals.

“Every bit of California is going to be impacted by climate change. It’s going to affect every person in the state and every acre of land in the state,” said Jay Chamberlin, chief of the state parks’ natural resources division. “State parks are not only vulnerable, but some are uniquely vulnerable.”

Managing California’s nearly 300 parks will now require a top-to-bottom rethink: How to make public land more resilient to wildfires, rising seas, drought and extreme weather. The price tag for arming state beaches, thinning forests, moving restrooms and visitors’ centers, and other climate-resilience projects has not been calculated. But experts say if the money isn’t spent now to protect parks from rising seas and intensified fires, the damage and costs will multiply. 

“There’s needs to be a climate resilience plan for every park unit,” said Rachel Norton, executive director of the nonprofit California State Parks Foundation. “This is what’s coming: Drought, fire, sea level rise, loss of habitat for species. There’s a lot more work to be done to understand the scope of the potential threat.”

In particular, making California’s state parks resilient to sea level rise and flooding is critical; the agency manages about a quarter of the state’s coastline. Although the state’s climate change response is ongoing and frequently updated, a comprehensive sea-level rise plan for parks is being finalized, officials said.

Chamberlin said the agency is transitioning “to a stance where we consider climate in everything we do.”

“I’m talking about planning our capital investment, the vehicles we purchase or how we plan projects. When it comes to coastal issues, do not build in harm’s way. If a building needs roof repair, harden it if it’s in a wildfire zone. We are believers in building resilience into everything we do.”

The legislature is watching to see what the parks department comes up with.

“I tend to think, is there an engineering solution or a technology solution to this?” said Luz Rivas, a Democrat from Arleta who chairs the Assembly Natural Resources Committee.

Rivas, who has a degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an advanced degree from Harvard, wonders if California can apply its ample brainpower to come up with solutions. 

“We are very fortunate to have many research institutions and national labs working on this. California is a leader in climate change policy but also technology. I think we should meld the two.”

>> Forest fires of the future

Even those deeply familiar with every woody acre of Big Basin Redwoods — home to ancient trees of such stature that many are named and curated — the aftermath was unsettling.

“Going back into the park for the first time, it was very hard to believe what I was seeing,” said Chris Spohrer, state parks superintendent for the Santa Cruz region. “To see what a fire of that intensity could do was disorienting. The landmarks were gone, the colors were monochromatic. It took several visits for it to sink in, to get your bearings. It was shocking.”

Even though the bulk of the contents of Big Basin was damaged or destroyed, the idea of the park, a celebration of the tallest living things on the planet, remains intact, officials say. While redwoods were burned, their bark is thick and fire-resistant, so park managers expect many of the big trees to survive, although other species, such as Douglas Firs, are not as hardy.

But things will be different. Managing a park to be resilient to fire is going to require change in a fundamental way in the decades to come: Visitors will have to alter their definition of a healthy park to include the sight of fewer trees and more prescribed burning. Managers may have to reduce the forest in order to save the park, and consider building future visitor centers and other facilities out of more fire-resistant materials like metal or concrete rather than charming but flammable wood.

Beginning in 1900, the Sempervirens Fund, a nonprofit conservation group, purchased about 17,000 acres of redwood forests and transferred them to the state, essentially creating Big Basin Redwoods. The organization also manages its own adjacent forests for climate resiliency by thinning and conducting controlled burns to reduce abnormal density of old-growth stands.

That work paid dividends during the blaze, resulting in low-intensity fire that cleared out overgrown vegetation but spared the giant trees on the group’s land, providing an object lesson for the adjacent park.

“There’s no one quick fix to any of this,” said Laura McLendon, the Sempervirens Fund’s director of land conservation.

To survive climate change, she said, California’s forested parklands must be aggressively managed for fire using an array of approaches. “There needs to be a suite of activities — fuels reduction, reintroducing fire to the landscape where it has historically occurred, rethinking where we develop and the materials we use.”

The complexities of extreme weather played a role in the Big Basin fire. Coastal redwoods are historically shrouded in cool, moist fog, providing a wet blanket that spared the region the catastrophic fires that plague the rest of the state. That fog has been significantly reduced and the region’s nighttime temperatures have risen.

Twenty-two state parks were hit by fire last year, according to the State Parks Foundation. Climate scientists say California can expect more frequent fires and more damaging megafires. 

In Southern California, fires driven by late-summer winds regularly scorch state parks. More than half of parkland in the Santa Monica Mountains was damaged in the 2018 Woolsey Fire, with the popular beach retreats of Leo Carrillo and Malibu Creek State Parks bearing the brunt of the blaze. Historical sites were lost as well as employee residences and campgrounds.

Will Rogers State Historical Park, a popular hiking retreat, has been hit by fire, and up the coast, Point Mugu State Park was nearly destroyed in 2013 by the Spring Fire, which burned more than 80 percent of the park and left it vulnerable to flooding. 

Climate change’s impacts require adapting to a new and sometimes unfriendly climate, and building resilience — the buzzword of the moment — into the state parks’ nearly 1.5 million acres.

Sarah Newkirk, director of disaster resilience for The California Nature Conservancy, said it “used to be about bouncing back.” But now, “instead of bouncing back to the original configuration, we need to learn to bounce back better.”

>> Rising seas, rising threats

Darren Smith doesn’t need to read a report about climate change  to understand the threats to state parks. He’s living it every day. 

Smith, who is the natural resources manager for the park department’s San Diego Coast District, is fighting water — from all sides.

“We are being squeezed,” he said, gesturing to the ocean on a recent visit to South Carlsbad State Beach. The sea’s powerful wave action throws rocks and boulders up on the beach, cobbling it with smooth stones that crowd out sand. 

Turning, Smith points to the cliffs behind him and the city of Carlsbad on the other side of a highway. El Nino-powered storms create runoff that gushes over bluffs or percolates into porous sandstone, carving fissures that pockmark and destabilize the cliff face. “We don’t have anywhere to go.”

As for a park campsite on a promontory affording a magnificent view of rugged coastline, “it’s a goner,” he said.

The Pacific Ocean is inexorably rising on the beaches he manages, slamming into bluffs and undermining parking lots, campsites and restroom facilities. On the ever-shrinking state beaches, Smith and his crews fight to preserve all-important “towel space” as well as public access. Staircases that lead down to the beach are in rusty decay and battered by waves. 


The parks department is on a penny-pinching budget — $858 million for 2021-22, down 34 percent from the previous year because of one-time bond appropriations. Coronavirus closures cost the agency lost revenue from entrance fees and concessions.

The state is facing even worse sticker shock when considering the system-wide costs to respond to climate change. Smith said the agency can spend $3 million just replacing one beachfront staircase. 

Experts say the state can no longer throw good money after bad and must plan for managed retreat — a wholesale push away from the sea. In Southern California, state park facilities are moved back from the shore in order to preserve them. Smith said a handful of beach-facing parking lots in his district have already been lost or moved. 

In one case, not only does the public lose convenient access to a beach, but the state lost the parking lot’s annual $400,000 in revenue and spots for more than a million cars.

In some places, where the state beach is a narrow strip of land hemmed in by a road or highway, agency officials have to get creative, buying or swapping property from neighboring cities in order to move out of harm’s way.

Elsewhere, beach parks are being reconfigured by massive sand-moving projects. On a recent day, a parking lot served as a staging area for heavy equipment and excavators preparing to sculpt sand reclaimed from a nearby lagoon.

In Encinitas, an experiment in restoring a “living shoreline” is underway, an example of so-called soft armoring. Rather than piling up massive mountains of rock or pouring concrete to keep the sea at bay, the park built a dunes system anchored by native plants. The undulating sand dunes now provide an invaluable function, absorbing and slowing encroaching waves and providing habitat for an array of animals and plants.

The dunes are not only stabilizing the sand and preserving the beach, but on the landward side they prevent sand drifts from accumulating on the adjacent road. “If it wasn’t for this project, (it’s) guaranteed we would have lost some of the highway,” Smith said. 

Smith said the parks agency is keenly aware of “what climate change is doing and will do in the future.” But he said, “we can’t keep up.”

Parks are threatened by other aspects of climate change, too: Extremes of heat and cold stress facilities and operations. Drought threatens animals’ habitat and makes trees more susceptible to disease and insect infestation.

Chamberlin, the parks’ resources chief, said future investments will be assessing whether a proposed facility is going to eventually be underwater or vulnerable to fire.

Whether its fire or water, climate change will continue to eat away at California’s parks — and the agency’s budget.

“The state parks system represents  the most profound investment on the part of all Californians and reflects our collective passion to protect the natural environment,” said The Nature Conservancy’s Newkirk. “The state parks system has a real role in providing a good example of resiliency.”