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Nature battles back in fire-scarred Big Basin Redwoods State Park

New life springs up in fire-scarred Big Basin Redwoods State Park
New life springs up in fire-scarred Big Basin Redwoods State Park 03:28

BOULDER CREEK (KPIX) -- California's oldest state park has reached a milestone in its rebuilding and recovery from a devastating wildfire that destroyed nearly all its historic buildings and facilities, shutting down the park for nearly two years.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park is poised to reopen sometime after the July 4 weekend, for day use only, with limited parking.

Only 18 miles of fire roads will be open, with smaller hiking loops added over time.

The reopening marks a two-pronged effort to expedite immediate public access to the park, while working simultaneously to develop a long-term plan.

Thursday, the park service released the results of months of meetings with hundreds of members of the public. Titled "Reimagining Big Basin," it contains a summary of the state's goals and vision.  In the 21 months since the outbreak of the CZU Fire, the park service has removed 27,000 "hazard trees," hauled away debris from destroyed buildings and milled wood from fallen trees to use in future construction projects.

Most of the trees that perished in the blaze were not redwoods. The great majority of old-growth redwoods -- 97% -- survived the intense heat and flames. Many of the redwoods that were left blackened, have begun sprouting bright green, feathery-soft shoots at their bases and up and down the trunks where branches were burned off.

The Mother of the Forest and Father of Forest, two of the park's most popular trees, have also begun sprouting shoots, much to the relief of experts who questioned if the heat had penetrated the redwood's defenses and damaged the core.

"They're here, they're alive. They're vertical and there were doubts about that early on," said Chris Spohrer, superintendent of the Santa Cruz District for California State Parks.

The tall flames of the CZU Fire also destroyed much of the canopy that shaded the forest floor. More sunlight is now reaching the understory and, as a result, wildflowers, grasses and shrubs are blooming.

"This fire is a great reminder that we have very little control over these things," said Sara Barth, executive director of Sempervirens.

With the reopening, visitors will only have access to 70 parking spots that will be managed by an online fee-based reservation system. The city of Santa Cruz will begin providing new bus service on weekends, running multiple routes on Saturdays and Sundays. Visitors arriving by bus will not be charged admission.

Some of the highlights of the long-term plans include moving services and amenities away from the old growth core areas in order to minimize impact on the ecosystem. Park services like the visitor center will be relocated three miles away on Saddle Mountain, near the park's boundary. The campsites will be relocated and consolidated away from the old-growth trees at Lower Sky Meadow and Little Basin Campgrounds.

Spohrer said the new campsites will feature a range of offerings from primitive sites to tent cabins with more amenities.

"It is different, you know? Whether or not it's as good, it's definitely going to be different and so we're going to strive to create the type of experience that people remember," Spohrer said. "You still provide an opportunity for people to experience the old growth through hiking trails but we're moving those impacts away from it and we're siting them in here, where they're going to have lesser impact on this more open terrain and younger forest."  

Tribal nations and cultural practitioners will also be consulted during the formation of programs, design and management in order to include indigenous perspectives and make the park more welcoming.

"The old park was lovely and I have a lot of reverence for its old-world charm but, the truth is, it was extremely outdated. It was based on our understanding of redwoods and other people's recreational interests from 100 years ago. And the world has changed dramatically since then and so this is an opportunity to really redo the park in a way that meets today's needs and today's understanding of what the forests need,"  Barth said.

In June, rangers will release more details about the upcoming reopening.

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