California state parks get unexpected funds to deal with wildfires, climate change

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. -- Governor Gavin Newsom's latest budget revision provides millions of additional dollars to help California state parks recover from last year's wildfires and deal with climate change.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which has been closed since the CZU Complex fires burned 97% of the park last August, will get $186 million to help it reopen.

The park in the Santa Cruz Mountains is home to ancient redwoods that are 2,000 years old.

"Gov. Newsom's revised budget is a historic investment in our parks and forests at a time when we need them more than ever," said Sam Hodder, president of Save the Redwoods League.

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The money is welcome news for the state park system, which has been so underfunded in the past that proponents like to joke it is "first in our hearts, but last in our wallets."

Overall, the state budget would invest $1.2 billion for land conservation, forest restoration and address the effects of climate change and wildfires.

"We are looking at a number of threats that we have in state parks and thinking about not just prevention but adaptation because the world is changing," said State Parks Director Armando Quintero, who estimates damage at Big Basin Redwoods State Park at $200 million.

The state parks system is looking at more wildfire-resilient ways to rebuild the infrastructure at Big Basin, including the visitor center, campsites and bridges.

"I think Big Basin has been an opportunity to create a park that looks like the parks of the future for California. Parks that are truly sustainable and protect resources," said Quintero.

Park advocates warn of a crisis unfolding in California's 280 state parks because of deferred maintenance but also from climate change.

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"We're seeing droughts. We're seeing extreme heat and storm events. We're seeing sea level rise and all those things really pose a threat to those special places," said Rachel Norton, executive director of the California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit that raises funds to restore habitats, build trails and repair picnic tables and other infrastructure in state parks.

Norton said the public is finally noticing the importance of a healthy state parks system as more people ventured to open spaces as an escape from the pandemic.

"We're starting to see those attitudes change and people realizing and our legislators realizing that parks can be a healthy intervention and support the quality of life of Californians in a very fundamental way," said Norton.

Quintero hopes the momentum can be used to establish acquire new parkland closer to cities and to increase access to underserved communities.

"We have a lot of political support right now for creating more access to parks, for bringing more communities to parks and for making parks more accessible for everyone," said Quintero.

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