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A redwood tree trunk, blackened and charred by fire, with a bright green piece of foliage in the foreground.
New growth emerges on and around burned redwoods at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on May 26, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As Big Basin Finally Reopens, Indigenous Stewardship Key Among Plans for Park's Rebirth

As Big Basin Finally Reopens, Indigenous Stewardship Key Among Plans for Park's Rebirth

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he ancient trees of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, deep in the Santa Cruz mountains, are some of the tallest living things on the planet. A quarter of a million visitors from around the world usually visit this place every year — that was, until August 2020, when the massive CZU Lightning Complex wildfire ripped through the forest, scorching 97% of the park's 22,500 acres and forcing its closure to the public.

In the nearly two years since, Big Basin has been the site of a mammoth cleanup and recovery operation. And now, a limited reopening of the park will finally take place this week — starting Friday, July 22, the public can once more walk under some of these towering old-growth redwoods.

But safely reopening even a small section of the park is no mean feat, even after 23 months of intense recovery work and preparation. And those tasked with reopening Big Basin’s gates must navigate often-complex, intertwining needs, from Indigenous tribal partners working to regain meaningful access to ancestral lands, to park visitors eager to hike and bike under the big trees again.

And against a backdrop of California’s new wildfire reality, the park’s reopening provides a look at how, after such destruction, a place like Big Basin could seize the chance for a truly different kind of rebirth.

The image dissolves from a road surrounded by blackened and brown trees, with two park officials walking down it away from the camera, into an image showing that same round surrounded by green banks and those same trees, still blackened by fire by sprouting countless bright green shoots.
A before-and-after GIF showing the same road in Big Basin in September 2020, after the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, and in May 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A reopened park

Ahead of the July 22 limited reopening, the resolute, repeated message from park officials is that visiting Big Basin will be different than before.

One of the biggest changes to the visitor experience is the introduction of a day-use reservation system for parking. There’ll be no parking available within Big Basin without a reservation, and no possibility of overnight stays.

Forty-five spaces per day, for $8 each, will become available up to 60 days in advance, with a limited number of additional reservations released three days before. No day-of, drive-up entry will be available, and parks officials warn reservations will almost certainly fill up several weeks in advance. (Make a day-use reservation for Big Basin, and see the schedule of available parking spots at Big Basin.)

A photograph of fire-scarred redwoods at Big Basin soaring into a blue sky, shot from below at a steep angle. There is bright green foliage growing on the branchless black trunks.
New growth emerges at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on May 26, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The way to visit Big Basin from July 22 onward without a parking reservation will be on foot or by bicycle, accessible via drop-off or by taking Santa Cruz Metro Bus Route 35, which will run four trips serving Big Basin on weekends only.

Another major change is the amount of the park that’ll be accessible to visitors. The majority of this vast space will remain closed to the public, owing to the innumerable hazards that fire-damaged trees and infrastructure still pose throughout the park. This means visitors will only be able to explore a small amount of Big Basin, including the Redwood Loop trail and access to about 18 miles of fire roads near the historic park core. Bikes will be allowed on some of these fire roads.

The reopening of Big Basin also brings the reopening of Highway 236, which runs through the park. Even without a day-use reservation, motorists may once again use the highway to travel through the park. Although you won’t be able to stop or park anywhere along the way, it’s a way to get a glimpse of Big Basin and see the forest’s recovery.

A survival story

Photographs from the days after the CZU fire show a scorched, smoky landscape that’s almost alien-looking. Today, Big Basin once again looks very different.

Driving into the park for the first time since the fire, it’s impossible not to be struck by the charring on the trunks of these redwoods. But all around, sprouting from the jet-black trunks and branches is bright green regrowth — so vivid against the black of the burns that it looks like the work of a camera filter.

"Most of the redwoods have survived," says California State Parks Santa Cruz District Superintendent Chris Spohrer, adding that this regeneration is "a remarkable thing that redwoods can do."

Chris Spohrer, an older man who presents as white, stands in front of fire-blackened redwoods that have much green foliage growing off them. He is wearing a California State Parks uniform of a green jacket with California state seal on the arm, and a wide-brimmed yellow hat.
Chris Spohrer, state parks superintendent in the Santa Cruz area, stands in front of burned redwood trees at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on May 26, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The few redwoods that did fall during the fire — or were so damaged and hazardous that they had to be removed afterward — are almost all being repurposed as lumber products throughout Big Basin: as decking on which visitors can walk, and as split-rail fencing.

The trees that didn’t survive the CZU fire were mainly Douglas firs, which lack the resilience to fire that redwoods have. But amid the dead firs, there’s regrowth all around in Big Basin. In the understory, the above-ground trunks of trees such as live oaks and madrones may be visibly dead, but their bases are sprouting and regenerating from their roots.

As a fire-follower shrub, ceanothus (also called California lilac) has come back "in abundance" across the forest floor — something Spohrer calls "part of the succession of the forest."

The ongoing recovery and reopening of Big Basin is supported by a massive fundraising drive by the Sempervirens Fund — California's oldest land trust, established in 1900.

Founded by a handful of redwoods enthusiasts in the Santa Cruz mountains, the Sempervirens Fund was responsible for lobbying for the creation of Big Basin itself in 1902, making it California's very first state park.

A bright yellow digger performs cleanup in Big Basin in the middle of a redwood grove, where blackened tree trunks have bright green foliage growing off them.
A construction crew works near the former headquarters at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on May 26, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Sara Barth, Sempervirens’ executive director, knows that for those people who loved visiting Big Basin, that first trip back might be emotional — and also jarring to see how the place they remembered has changed.

"They're going to see these charred trunks,” says Barth, but "please remember that most of those trees are very much alive, and this is part of a natural process.

"It's really hard to kill a redwood — really hard. And that's a great thing. It's why they live thousands and thousands of years.

"These forests are meant to burn. And in some ways the fire has been, for much of the forest, a very good thing. And so while it's tremendously sad that the way you remembered it is not the way it's going to be, the future is bright for this forest. This is what nature wants — and needs — to happen.

"We have to surrender to the fact that we're on nature's timeline, and take heart in the resilience and the greenery that you're going to see when you're here."

Tribal partnership

Big Basin wants to be, as Spohrer puts it, "a model in the future of how you can manage old-growth redwood in the face of a changing climate." But officials want to rebuild the park in other ways — and they make frequent reference to the deep collaboration between California State Parks and Big Basin’s tribal partners.

The CZU fire, and the reimagining of Big Basin it forced, has been "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," says Spohrer, with "a real focus on active stewardship."

A photograph of fire-scarred redwoods at Big Basin soaring into a blue sky, shot from below at a steep angle. There is bright green foliage growing on the branchless black trunks.
New growth can be seen through a burned redwood tree at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on May 26, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Those tribal partners include the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, a group whose members are the descendants of the Indigenous peoples whose villages and territories fell "under the sphere of influence of Missions San Juan Bautista (Mutsun) and Santa Cruz (Awaswas) during the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries,” according to the tribe's website.

The Amah Mutsun’s traditional territory encompasses some or all of what are called San Benito, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties today. And Big Basin itself is in the traditional tribal territory of the Awaswas people, explains Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.

There are no living survivors of the Awaswas people. It’s for that reason, says Lopez, that the Amah Mutsun "feel that it's very important that we ensure that their lands are spoken for. That the Awaswas ancestors are remembered and never forgotten. And that's why we work here."

In 2013, the Amah Mutsun formally established their Land Trust, a vehicle by which the tribal band pursues the conservation and restoration of Indigenous resources — both natural and cultural — within these traditional territories, to steward these lands and restore historic ecological practices. (The Amah Mutsun Land Trust was also supported and sponsored in its genesis by the Sempervirens Fund.)

It’s this same ethos that Lopez and the Amah Mutsun want to bring to Big Basin, says Lopez: "to bring back the traditional ways of stewarding and managing these lands."

Concrete ecological asks made by the Amah Mutsun include the management of tree volume.

Maximizing tree growth on land like this "does not make a healthy forest," says Lopez, who is advocating to reduce the number of trees to increase sunlight on the forest floor: "That right there is really important to take care of the insects, the birds, the four-legged who depend on that landscape there for their foods, and their materials — for their survival."

Related is the Amah Mutsun’s request to increase the amount of open meadow within the park, of the kind historically stewarded by Indigenous people there. Such open meadowland was "really important to ensure the biodiversity within the forest," says Lopez.

Already, Big Basin’s natural recovery after the CZU fire provides a glimpse of that sort of change: wildflowers in bloom, like violets, recently carpeted areas of the forest floor. These are "things that you wouldn't necessarily have seen as much under the full canopy cover prior to the fire," Spohrer says.

Rebuilding for wildfire

Big Basin lost numerous historic visitor buildings in the fire, many of which had been established deep within the forest, like the camp store and the nature museum. Now, a lesser-known area of Big Basin called Saddle Mountain — a place Spohrer calls “something that you kind of drove by on your way down into the headquarters” previously — will soon become the home of a new welcome base, with visitor services, parking and a shuttle to take people into the park.

A grey-colored stone fireplace and chimney stand in the middle of a redwood grove, with chainlink fencing around it and bright green foliage growing below
A stone fireplace and chimney remain from the Old Lodge at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on May 26, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Relocating that infrastructure to this new space isn’t just about making the most of a spot that was less harmed by the CZU fire. It’s about moving away from a parks model that places buildings in ancient old-growth redwoods.

There are several reasons for this shift at Big Basin. For visitors, the park’s decision not to rebuild the structures that burned among the redwoods in 2020 will "allow the ancient forests to be a place where people can have a really natural experience in that forest," says Spohrer. Officials also don’t want to “reestablish structures in a place where it's nearly impossible to defend them,” says Spohrer. “That is not something we want to repeat."

Another reason for moving away from pairing old-growth trees with buildings is still visibly scorched onto the forest floor at Big Basin where those visitor structures once stood — namely, the ferocity with which human-made structures can burn. Not only is it “nearly impossible to protect structures in an environment like this,” says Spohrer, but several of the old-growth redwoods that stretched above those historic buildings were affected greatly by the intensity of the structure fires below them.

Amid the optimism of planning for Big Basin’s future is the ever-present need to safeguard against the next big fire. Prescribed burning is a large part of that conversation.

Fire-scarred redwoods at Big Basin, with bright green foliage growing on the branchless black trunks. One trunk in the foreground has no foliage, and is leaning at an angle. Bright green grass grows below.
New growth emerges at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on May 26, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“For a healthy forest for future generations, we have to really consider the idea of expanding prescribed fire,” says Spohrer. “This park has had a long history of prescribed fire to protect and enhance old growth, but we have to upscale that and we have to think bigger.”

Before colonization, prescribed fire was a key part of Indigenous stewardship of California's lands. Tribes held annual controlled burns to clear out underbrush and to encourage the new growth of plants in a managed way. When those Indigenous communities were forcibly removed from their lands by colonizers, who also banned religious ceremonies, this cultural burning was severely throttled. Both California and federal authorities instead pursued a policy of swiftly extinguishing wildfires — an approach that is only just beginning to be reversed.

Most recently, a history of prescribed fire around Yosemite National Park's iconic Mariposa Grove — a group of giant, ancient sequoias in the park — has been hailed as an instrumental force in defending those trees against the Washburn Fire. Prescribed burns reduced forest fuels in the area, and permitted the fire to move through the grove without inflicting damage on the sequoias themselves.

This need for "good fire" has affected every aspect of the Big Basin redesign, Spohrer says: “By being selective and thoughtful about where we place infrastructure, whether it's buildings or it's trails or anything that's the built environment, we can set ourselves up for the ability to do successful prescribed burning in this area.”

'Restoring the sacredness to the ground'

"I think when you come into this park now as it is even today [post-fire], you can start to experience what this forest felt like prior to when it started being more developed," says Spohrer, who calls this "a significant change" that’s "been influenced by our tribal partners."

But this kind of physical evolution isn’t just about changing the way Big Basin looks and feels for the general public visitor base. For Lopez, it’s also about being clear on the kind of unique, special access and presence that the Amah Mutsun want, and need.

For Lopez, meaningful access to Big Basin for the region’s Indigenous people is key — not temporary stints, or brief allowances in the forest, but the kind of physical and spiritual presence that deepens connection to the land. And the active stewardship that Big Basin officials speak about starts, "first and foremost," he says, "with restoring the sacredness to the ground."

One aspect of this access, Lopez says, is about enabling ceremony: designating a place to gather in the forest, a place to hold tribal meetings. There’s also discussion of what kind of physical buildings could be built at Big Basin for ceremonial purposes, such as a roundhouse that could be used "not just by the Amah Mutsun, but by multiple tribes," says Lopez.

Grey-colored steps with railings on either side, shot from below, with redwoods behind them.
Steps lead to what once was the Headquarters Administration Building at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on May 26, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

And just as with the Amah Mutsun’s Land Trust, research into the land and Indigenous practices once used there is a key concern for the tribal group when it comes to Big Basin — as is how such research requires physical access. The tribal band’s members want "to study how our ancestors stewarded and managed and lived in the forest," explains Lopez. "What were their food sources? Where did they fish? What were their trade routes? What were the places of the rites of passage or coming-of-age ceremonies?"

Lopez is also keen to include concrete specifics in the conversations around Indigenous partnership in Big Basin’s future — the kinds of granular details that can often get left out of revisioning plans. He says the Amah Mutsun want to work with park officials to find a way for tribal members "that are stewarding Mother Earth and taking care of it in the traditional Indigenous ways" to be financially compensated for their work, rather than having to do it for free.

Lopez has spoken in previous years about how many of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band can no longer afford to live in their ancestral territories, instead having to relocate to areas like the Central Valley. Noting that several tribal members would be "traveling from great distances" to do work in Big Basin, Lopez says, "This should be compensated at a fair rate that is equivalent to others who steward the lands as well, for other organizations."

When it comes to conversations between California park authorities and tribal representatives, "we're not shy," says Lopez. "And that's based on the relationship and the trust that we have so far."

An image of a fire-blackened redwood stump -- taken in 2020 after the fire, with brown scorched foliage all around -- dissolves into a more recent image of the same tree, still darkened with burns but surrounded by bright green foliage above and below.
A before-and-after GIF showing the same redwood grove in Big Basin in September 2020, after the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, and in May 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For the Amah Mutsun, meaningful access to Big Basin also means California State Parks acknowledging tribal members as being the ones with “decision-making authority on everything related to our culture,” says Lopez. Yes, the group could “ask to hold a ceremony” in Big Basin, he notes — and park officials could grant or deny that request. But this kind of formality around ceremonial gathering within the park — wherein the Amah Mutsun aren’t able to steer the process themselves, for what could potentially be multiday events — could then plunge tribal members into a world of event-planning bureaucracy, and a permit process that covers every aspect from crowd numbers and parking to trash cans and bathrooms, says Lopez.

“That's not what we want. We want the tribal people to have those kinds of decision-making authorities,” he says. “And that's the voice that we will be asking for.”

Truth telling

“Our creation stories of multiple tribes tell us a Creator gave us the responsibility to take care of Mother Earth and all living things,” says Lopez. “Because this responsibility was given to us by Creator, we are the only ones that have the moral authority — a moral obligation to take care of these lands. And so that's what we want to do: We want to work with these lands to fulfill our obligation to the Awaswas, and to Creator.”

That moral obligation is one from which California’s Indigenous communities have been physically obstructed for several centuries. The Amah Mutsun’s work with Big Basin officials comes as many Indigenous communities across the United States continue to advocate for the landback movement, and for the return of lands to the Native stewardship they were forcibly wrested from. It’s a history and a context Lopez wants to make clear — because “within our territory, every inch of land was stolen from us — every inch of the counties that make up the greater Bay Area,” he says. “And all of California, for that matter.”

A green and black construction vehicle sits among a brown pile of lumber, against a backdrop of redwood trees.
Piles of lumber sit near burned redwood trees with new growth at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on May 26, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

While the tribal band has “a strong relationship with [California] State Parks” forged through steady progress and trust-building, Lopez says that “if we’re ever going to have a healthy relationship with the state of California, a healthy relationship with land trusts, open space districts, city/county parks, etc., they have to acknowledge and understand the history of our area — the true history, not the fabricated history, that's told in schools and other institutions like state parks.”

Interpretation and documentation — that is, whose histories get told within a place like Big Basin, and whose voices are amplified — is a common theme from park authorities in discussions about the park’s future. “We're trying to tell more inclusive stories,” says Spohrer, adding “there's going to be ... more focus on the history of stewardship here from Native people.”

“One of the things that we've really encouraged — and that I'm really pleased to see Parks embrace — is the idea that the interpretive elements here at Big Basin should touch upon every group of humanity that has touched this landscape,” says Barth, the Sempervirens Fund CEO. “And it's a far more diverse story and diverse group of people than has traditionally been represented here.”

For Lopez, these corrective measures can’t come soon enough. Of California State Parks interpretation in general, “you read the history that’s on those boards or their interpretive signs and stuff like that — you know, the older ones, they don't say a darn thing about Indigenous people,” he says.

“It's kind of like the land was cleared and they just came in and claimed it, you know? And this was one of the most populated areas in North America.”

For Lopez and the Amah Mutsun, the deep wounds of California’s history of genocide and cultural erasure targeted at the state’s Native American communities make the need to return Big Basin in some way to Indigenous stewardship all the more urgent — for restitution, and for healing.

“There was a lot of brutality, an incredible amount of brutality. And that has to be acknowledged. And perpetrators such as the state of California, they have to acknowledge their responsibility for that violence,” says Lopez.

“They have to understand that for them to heal as a perpetrator, they need to respect the Indigenous people and they need to work with us to help us restore our culture. To restore our spirituality. To restore our environments. To restore our Indigenous knowledge. And to restore our identities and humanity.”

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“We understand that it's very difficult for non-Indigenous people to understand what we're asking for, or what we need,” stresses Lopez. "Or to understand how to have a relationship with the tribe ... But we appreciate them taking the time to try and understand — to listen, to learn. But for us to keep the conversations going, what we're looking for is a healthy relationship.

“We cannot have a healthy relationship if they think that this land is theirs because they bought it.”

Looking to the future

The fact that two years on, the majority of the park will still remain inaccessible to the public upon reopening is a testament to the devastating nature of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire and the enormity of the task facing park authorities to make this land safe for the public again.

Spohrer says that, in the name of reopening Big Basin, park authorities continue to “focus on elements that we can do more quickly, along with opening up the trails.” For example, restoring the backcountry trails in the wilderness of Big Basin will be a far longer process, he warns.

“It's been a long haul,” says Spohrer, “a tough climb out from a devastating fire.”

Another much-loved element of Big Basin lost to the 2020 fire were the four campgrounds. Spohrer says that officials’ “overarching principle” is to “try and retain the amount of camping recreation that we had in the park prior to the fire.” But he notes that of all the elements of Big Basin’s return, camping is one of the ones that will take the longest because of the sheer amount of infrastructure camping facilities demand — and that it’ll be several years until campers can return to the park.

For Big Basin staff, talk of rebuilding the campgrounds comes with particularly raw memories of the campground evacuation that took place when the flames of the CZU fire began to become visible on the horizon: “a flaming front,” as Spohrer puts it, that “moved extremely rapidly” toward the campers gathered below. That night in August 2020, the campgrounds were full with summer vacationers, who were all successfully evacuated from the park.

A person wearing a California State Parks uniform and a yellow wide-brimmed hat turns away from the camera to point at the redwoods behind them.
Chris Spohrer, state parks superintendent in the Santa Cruz area, stands in front of burned redwood trees at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on May 26, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“It was remarkable how quickly our staff was able to respond and to successfully get everybody out without loss of life,” says Spohrer. But those same staff who scrambled to evacuate campers lived close by, in park housing that had stood in Big Basin since the 1950s, and they had no time to go back and save their own possessions. Six of the seven homes burned to the ground, and “they and their families pretty much lost everything,” Spohrer says.

“Everybody in this region that was affected by the fire has been in a recovery mode,” he says. “It takes its toll for sure.”

In many ways, it’s possible to see Big Basin as the inaugural test case for how a beloved California land rebirths itself after fire. What choices will that land’s most recent stewards make — and whose voices and needs are brought to the table, perhaps for the first time? What could it look like to work with fire, not against it, and remake a place not for newness, but in the spirit of intentional return to older ways?

A blackened fallen redwood tree trunk lies in a bright green meadow. Yellow wildflowers are in the foreground.
Tall grass and wildflowers grow in a meadow at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on May 26, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

"We feel confident that we can find ways to reach agreements to allow Indigenous people to once again come back to these lands, and to take care of them in the traditional ways, and to restore sacredness to these grounds," says Lopez. "And to have a voice in how Big Basin — and those lands of Big Basin — are managed and stewarded."

"And it's going to take time," he says.

As California wildfires get bigger and hotter, and more national and state parks potentially lie in fire’s path, these are choices those places might have to make soon, too.

As Spohrer acknowledges, at Big Basin “we are — either fortunately, or unfortunately — getting to be the first to do that."

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