Bright red coals burn inside a charred redwood tree.

Fire smolders in a redwood in July 2021, seven months after Cal Fire declared the CZU Fire extinguished. In nearly five weeks it burned 86,500 acres, destroyed 1,490 buildings, and killed one person. Photo: Nina Riggio

Climate

Rebuilding an Iconic California State Park With Birds and Wildfire In Mind

In 2020, a blaze consumed Big Basin Redwoods State Park, incinerating cabins, blackening ancient trees, and imperiling endangered murrelets. Staff now want to reimagine the park to better ensure the seabird’s future.

People who love Big Basin Redwoods State Park remember it as a refuge. A place cool and damp and dark, crowned with frequent fog and layered branches of redwood, Douglas fir, oak, and madrone. But now there’s little shelter to be found here.

On a 90-plus-degree day in July 2021, Portia Halbert steers her Prius into the park through a tunnel of dense forest. The reprieve is brief: When we enter the burn zone, it’s as if someone has peeled off the roof. The ambient temperature rises, and verdant understory gives way to burnished copper. Halbert parks at a high overlook and leans out the window. From ridgetop to ridgetop, the view is mostly skeletal black trunks.

“How many trees do you see that have greenery in their canopy?” Halbert asks. Maybe 20, maybe 30? “There is no way you can look at this and go, ‘Everything is hunky-dory.’”

The transformation of the rumpled valley below began the previous summer with a heat wave that struck the Central California coast, where Big Basin encloses an 18,000-acre swath of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Lightning storms rolled in the night of Saturday, August 15, 2020, strafing the state with thousands of dry strikes—and starting 27 fires in and around the mountains.

Halbert had just cut into her bathroom wall for a remodel when she heard the news. At first she thought the flames might do some good. A senior environmental scientist with the Santa Cruz District of California State Parks, Halbert has worked with prescribed burns since her start with the agency in the early 2000s. The professed pyromaniac was thrilled when one of the fires entered an area of Big Basin she had hoped to burn to improve wildlife habitat, saving her the trouble. It stayed low to the ground, clearing out brush and accumulated dead branches, trees, and other debris, just as she’d hoped.

Then the winds came. On Tuesday evening several fires tangled into a single shrieking fury that raced through the treetops. Within 24 hours most park infrastructure was gone, including a small town’s worth of buildings that has served up to one million annual visitors, some of whose families had come here for generations. When the CZU Lightning Complex Fire was finally contained in late September, it left a scar encompassing 86,500 acres, including 97 percent of Big Basin.

The change boded ill for the 400 to 500 Marbled Murrelets that congregate offshore here each spring and summer—another of Halbert’s responsibilities. The mottled, robin-size birds spend most of their lives at sea. But when it’s time to nest, the species makes the wildly improbable choice to fly more than a dozen miles into towering coastal forests from here to Alaska. They lay a single egg directly on high, wide branches in ancient conifers, softened with lichen and mosses and hidden behind a screen of needles. This secretive behavior helps protect their offspring from predators. It also makes them vulnerable to logging and development; the species was listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in in the Lower 48 in 1992.

Marooned far south of the approximately 23,000 other Marbled Murrelets nesting in California, Oregon, and Washington, the Santa Cruz population has historically depended on Big Basin. The park held the largest concentration of big, old trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But in recent decades, booming tourism has threatened the bird’s survival here. And the CZU Fire piled on yet more trouble, scorching their remaining local nesting habitat.

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All that remains of the park headquarters, built in 1936, is a stone stairway leading nowhere.

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The fire’s aftermath was difficult, Halbert says as we descend into the park’s core. “You’d have to brace yourself for it.” She points to stump-covered slopes near the road where workers are in the process of removing more than 28,000 dead trees. The whine of chainsaws fills air that still smells smoky nearly a year later. Rectangles of earth have been excised where structures once stood, uprooting every possible contaminant along with the physical anchors of countless memories. All that remains of the park headquarters, built in 1936, is a stone stairway leading nowhere.

Yet there’s hope beyond that painful vacancy. Although many of Big Basin’s old Douglas firs died, the vast majority of its namesake redwoods survived. And as staff undertake the arduous process of reimagining park infrastructure, they also have an unprecedented opportunity to change for the better how people recreate amid the sensitive old growth.

They face the kinds of choices that managers across the country will have to make as ballooning visitation and global warming combine to threaten the landscapes and creatures that parks shelter. In that sense Big Basin has become an early experiment on ecological recovery after a climate-charged disaster. But perhaps, above all, the undertaking will test what a public hungry for connection to wilderness is willing to give up in order to help rare species and rare places survive.

Big Basin is California’s oldest operating state park, and the model for the rest. Established in 1902 in response to clearcutting of redwoods, it became a place where people could commune with the 300-foot-tall giants, and with each other. The park’s built footprint grew with its popularity; during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps erected a lodge, cabins, an amphitheater, and more structures. 

As trees fell outside its boundaries, Big Basin and other protected forests, including neighboring Portola and Butano state parks, became sanctuaries for the murrelet—although people didn’t yet know it. The bird was an enigma. Ornithologists had little clue where it nested until loggers in British Columbia began finding chicks and eggs among felled trees in the 1950s and ’60s. Then, in 1974, a tree pruner working high in a Douglas fir in Big Basin nearly stepped on a downy chick hunkered on a branch 150 feet off the ground. He had found the first recorded tree nest for the species. 

Captivated by the murrelet’s story, a federal soil conservationist named Steve Singer began devoting much of his free time to studying the birds and became a local expert and consultant. Working with graduate student Nancy Naslund in the late 1980s, and later with the Santa Cruz Bird Club, he and his wife, Stephanie Singer, spent weekends spying on trees in Big Basin that murrelets might favor, discovering a handful of nests. But while monitoring nests provided insight on murrelet natural history, they were too well hidden, scattered, and high up to study in a practical way. So, in the ’90s, state park staff launched audio-visual surveys, sending biologists to watch and listen for murrelets at specific inland study sites over a set time frame. Steve Singer helped lead them. 

New redwood growth, like a tiny green tree, springs from a blackened tree and the forest floor.
New growth springs from a blackened tree and the forest floor. Redwoods can regenerate after a fire by sending up new tree shoots, known as basal sprouting. Photos: Nina Riggio

The findings suggested that Big Basin was the Santa Cruz Mountains’ most hopping murrelet breeding ground. The birds were so dense around a study site near park headquarters, called Redwood Meadow, that surveyors sometimes logged as many as 300 “detections,” such as sightings or calls, in a morning. But the counts also revealed that the meadow’s murrelets were declining, and by 2005 detections plunged to around eight on average. 

It was hard to be sure why, but there was one compelling possibility. Years earlier, Naslund had filmed two Steller’s Jays flank a murrelet chick and tear it apart in its nest. “They basically double-teamed him,” Singer says. Meanwhile, Common Ravens had been on the rise in the Santa Cruz Mountains since the 1980s. Of the 20 murrelet nests discovered there, predators had raided at least seven, and possibly nine more. Corvids plucked offspring from at least four nests.

When researchers looked more closely, they found Steller’s Jays were as many as nine times more abundant near campgrounds in the Santa Cruz Mountains than they were in surrounding forest. Ravens were 28 times more common. It made sense: Campgrounds meant accessible human food. Further studies showed that jays gorging on campers’ leavings were healthier than their wilder counterparts and had more babies, most of which dispersed into murrelet habitat. And at Big Basin, some 200 campsites crowded in and around the murrelets’ favored old-growth core, along with picnic areas, parking lots, a museum, and other busy facilities—all near Redwood Meadow. 

Portia Halbert looks skyward as she records murrelet observations into a handheld recorder amid a forest.
Portia Halbert, bottom, records murrelet observations into her handheld recorder in the first summer after the fire. An audio recording unit, top, is setup to capture murrelet and raven calls. Photos: Nina Riggio

Changing the park layout would have been politically unpopular and financially difficult. So, in 2012, Portia Halbert started the “Keep It Crumb Clean Campaign.” It required campers to watch a video explaining the dangers of unattended food, garbage, and scraps and sign a “Crumb Clean Commitment,” backed by fines. Signs and animal-proof food lockers went up at campgrounds, along with dishwashing kiosks and special grates beneath water spigots that kept food bits from accumulating on the ground. To supplement these efforts, park staff also killed some ravens with air rifles. It seemed to be effective: By 2020, corvid numbers in campgrounds had dropped and Big Basin’s murrelet numbers were rebounding slightly. 

Then the CZU Fire hit. As soon as it was safe, Singer visited some good nesting trees he had mapped before the blaze. Of 18 suitable redwoods, 15 had survived and still seemed worthy nest sites. All but seven of 22 Douglas firs died. Extrapolating across the burned parts of known murrelet areas, Singer estimated the birds lost 33 percent of their nesting grounds. “It couldn’t have occurred at a worse spot in the Santa Cruz Mountains,” he says. And for Singer, it begged the question: Would this event push the birds over the edge? 

Summer is a sleepless season for people who study birds. The weekly audio-visual survey starts 45 minutes before sunrise; on July 8, 2021, that’s 5:12 a.m. Halbert has been up for two hours when she begins to scan the sky at her site, a dirt lot surrounded by thick forest in Portola Redwoods State Park, just north of Big Basin. The first sounds are the yelling of an American Robin and the laugh track of Acorn Woodpeckers. Then a high, clear note cuts through the marine fog above: keer

“There!” Halbert says. She notes into her tape recorder a murrelet bound inland, as she will all other murrelet activity she witnesses over the next two hours. Surveyors at three other state parks in the Santa Cruz Mountains will do the same. 

There is lots to listen for besides keers. A groan call that is a cross between a creaking door and a kazoo. The WHUF-whuf-whuf of wingbeats under the canopy, a sign of a nest nearby. Soon, murrelets are traversing the gap of sky above our heads in pairs and groups, constellations of flight and song. Social hour, Halbert calls it. 

Before the 2021 breeding season, Halbert predicted that murrelets would flock to Portola’s unburned forests and abandon severely burned habitat in Big Basin and elsewhere. Indeed, Portola is humming. But Big Basin is humming, too, averaging about 50 murrelet detections per visit, higher than before the fire. In fact, detections at all sites are the second highest in recent years. “I was straight wrong when it came to assessing the likelihood of birds coming to use the habitat,” she says. 

There is more to be upbeat about. That afternoon Halbert sets up a spotting scope in a ruined Big Basin picnic area. Through its aperture is a branch flexed like a bodybuilder’s arm in a still-green Douglas fir, where a sunbeam spotlights a fuzzy, motionless ball tucked against the trunk. A week earlier consulting biologist Alex Rinkert saw a murrelet fly low to this place with fish in its bill. He staked out the location until he was certain: The bird was feeding a chick. Amid the devastation, Rinkert had discovered a nest. 

The chick doesn’t look like much that first visit. But when we meet Rinkert there the following day, we find it plucking away at its down, wisps of which drift through the scorching air like lost snowflakes. The sleek head that has emerged is capped with gray, its throat cream-colored, the bulgy eyes white-lidded and sleepy. Somehow, in two days, this creature has sculpted itself from lump into bird, preening into smoothness, stretching inert limbs into wings and beating them into life. “It’s ready to go,” Rinkert whispers, a long solo journey west to the sea. 

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Somehow, in two days, this creature has sculpted itself from lump into bird, preening into smoothness, stretching inert limbs into wings and beating them into life.

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Watching it, it’s easy to feel a sense of rebirth despite the soot that smears our faces and cuffs. Already tall green shoots explode from the bases of charred redwoods. Others are covered with fuzzy green foliage—sprouts spurred by disturbance, a phenomenon that arborists call “poodling.” Waxy ceanothus shrubs decorate the ground, along with coyote brush, yerba santa, and other fire-following plants that were scarce before the burn. By a creek where flames have burned away needles, scarified seeds, and opened the canopy with blinding sun, thousands of finger-size redwood seedlings rise from the ground. Even Tim Hyland, a Santa Cruz District environmental scientist who focuses on plants, had never seen that here before; the dense foliage had prevented it. The forest will not be a vaulted green cathedral again for a generation, but it’s still very much alive, becoming something new.

Halbert is careful to temper optimism. The nest and monitoring site lie within a nine-acre patch where the fire burned less severely, sparing the canopy. Logically, returning murrelets might concentrate there rather than choose fire-blasted sites with little cover from predators. “My theory is that we had a busy season at Big Basin because most of the murrelet habitat is gone,” Halbert says. Singer, meanwhile, believes the birds’ abundance indicates their loyalty to their nesting grounds—even torched ones. The fire’s true impact may take years to show up in surveys.

But while murrelets are making the most of the destroyed picnic site, other park residents are conspicuously absent. Normally Rinkert would find a handful to a larger flock of jays and ravens hanging out in each campground, despite the Crumb Clean campaign. Now, as we slowly case for flashes of glossy black feathers, we see mostly the glossy black ripple of burned bark, along with juncos and workers clearing debris. The jays have all but vanished and the ravens have dispersed. Murrelets have a moment of reprieve. Within it, managers are already well into the process of rethinking the park in ways that might help secure the species’ future here. 

In the year 544 A.D., a redwood sprouted in these mountains. When it fell 1,400 years later, Big Basin displayed a cross section of its trunk outside the visitor center, a timeline reflecting a redwood’s immense lifespan. Tags drilled into packed tree rings commemorated many colonial waypoints: Columbus’s and the Pilgrims’ arrival in the Americas, the first Catholic mission in San Diego, the discovery of California gold. The monument burned with everything else. 

Here, as some historians have noted, there is a literal and metaphorical clean slate in terms of what is built and whose stories guide Big Basin’s fate. “It sparks a need to think differently,” says Santa Cruz District parks superintendent Chris Spohrer. “We face different problems, not the least of which is climate change, with increased drought and heat and the fires that follow.”

Addressing those problems will involve doubling down on efforts to return regular fire to the park. Prairie was once common along this coast, not because of some innate ecology, but because Indigenous nations who lived here maintained it with low-intensity burns, a practice they also used in forests. These carefully managed fires did more than reduce fuel loads, explains Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, which has ancestral territories to the south and works to maintain tribal stewardship in the Big Basin region. (The park itself was once home to people who spoke the Awaswas language.) Fires returned sacredness to the land, Lopez says, and nourished meadows that provided forage for deer and elk, material for everything from baskets to houses, and seeds which were important food.

A Steller’s Jay, top, stands on the forest floor. A sign, bottom, displays the perils of abandoning food in the redwoods and the effect it has on murrelets.
A Steller’s Jay, top, is one of the predators driving declines in the region’s murrelets. A sign, bottom, displays the perils of abandoning food in the redwoods and the effect it has on murrelets. Photos: Nina Riggio

Spanish Catholic missions forcibly removed local Indigenous people from their homelands around the end of the 18th century. Among other injustices, colonizers banned cultural burning, a prohibition that has functionally continued with fire suppression policies under agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and California State Parks in the name of protecting forests and communities. “The park and everyone were just afraid of fire,” Lopez says. Over time, there was so much fuel there that “if it got out of control, then it could be horrendous.” 

But attitudes toward fire began to change, and in the 1970s, Big Basin and the Santa Cruz District introduced prescribed burning within the state park system. The parks have conducted multiple burns since, but Halbert says politics, air quality concerns, and the uncertainty of favorable weather prevented them from burning as often, as hot, or as widely as necessary. Now, though, the CZU Fire has cleaned out the forest enough to make it safe to set larger, more frequent fires. And the destruction of most of the buildings will allow crews to conduct burns in places they couldn’t before. 

Already the state has earmarked $186 million for rebuilding the park. After an extensive effort to gather public input, staff are considering a shuttle system to move most of the parking out of the sensitive old-growth core, as Yosemite National Park has done to restore water flow in a grove of ancient sequoia. They also envision locating high-impact uses, like corvid-attracting campgrounds and the visitor center, well away from the big, old trees so important to murrelets. 

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“If any place could be a beacon for what parks of the future need to be, this would be it.”

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Members of an advisory committee are hopeful that what follows will be bold. The Amah Mutsun, for example, have pushed for tribes to have co-management authority. “Our history has been a difficult one, and the hardest thing in restoring any type of relationship with landowners is trust,” says Lopez, a committee member. “Little by little, that trust is building.”

Committee member Sara Barth, who leads the Sempervirens Fund, an organization that first helped found Big Basin, notes that park staff have a difficult task ahead of them. “Within the context of a place that is beloved and a place that you expect will burn again, you need to design in a way that is responsive to that reality,” she says. “If there is any place in the whole state parks system, and maybe even the country, that could be a beacon for what parks of the future need to be, this would be it.”

Stephanie Singer peers through a viewing scope.
Longtime volunteer Stephanie Singer watches over the murrelet nest. Photo: Nina Riggio

The real test will come when the park proposes a concrete plan, which must then undergo a formal public review. “It’s important that the park continue to communicate that we’re making these adjustments to help endangered birds not go extinct,” says Shaye Wolf, the climate science director for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. The organization’s successful lawsuit against Big Basin over murrelet protections helped secure dedicated funding for the Crumb Clean campaign and other vital work in 2014. “When people know, they’re like, ‘That makes sense,’ ” Wolf says. “ ‘We don’t want to contribute to the extinction of the population in these mountains. That’s not what we want to do when we camp here.’ ”

Halbert returns to the nest tree at the edge of twilight. Perhaps a dozen people have gathered in camp chairs with binoculars and scopes, keeping silent vigil for the chick’s departure. Rinkert is here, and the Singers, both with colorful knit caps stretched improbably over the hard hats required to sit beneath the fire-scarred trees. 

For a long time nothing happens beyond the failing of the light, the worsening of the mosquitoes, the occasional dry crackle of feet shuffling in leaves. Then someone gasps. A silhouette has arrived—a parent with a fish. The transfer takes time. The chick is little more than a white smear. A shift, a rustle, and more gasps. The wiggling smear is gone. I squint through the gloom at Rinkert, who gazes into the sky over my head. 

“It dropped off the branch toward us,” he says. 

“You just lost it in the trees?” Halbert asks.

“It became invisible,” Rinkert says, with a slow grin.

Wildlife photographer Frans Lanting pours Prosecco into paper cups and we gather behind his long-lens camera to watch the video he’s captured. There it is, crystal clear now: a small bird coming to the edge of all it has known—this green island amid a sea of blackened trees where its parents set its life in motion—stretching its short wings. It shoots straight up into the air and dives diagonally out of frame. Halbert compares it to a hummingbird, a bumblebee. We watch again and again. 

There is no way to know whether the murrelet will make it. Such journeys are inherently uncertain, and this one is especially heavy, freighted as it is with meaning for those gathered here. The grim global future. The grief of this burn. The legacy that cut down the bird’s kind in the first place. The work that people put in to stem those losses. The ways they’ve fit their lives to this creature, despite it being unknowable, out of reach, completely other.

I look after the bird’s path for a moment, the direction it somehow knew to go. May it reach the ocean. May it find its way through the years ahead, find its way back here, find a way to make a home and a life in this altered world. May we, also. 

This story originally ran in the Summer 2022 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.

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