In summary

After one of the most challenging years in our history, the Legislature’s work remains unfinished – investing in the future of state parks.

By Rachel Norton, Special to CalMatters

Rachel Norton is the executive director of the California State Parks Foundation, rachel@calparks.org.

Over the last few weeks, the world watched in horror as wildfires consumed more than 2 million acres across California. This pain and loss are all too familiar for Californians, especially recently. For many of us, the images of historic blazes sweeping through ancient redwood groves and engulfing beloved state parks was deeply personal. 

In response to the latest conflagration, a desperate, last-ditch effort emerged in the final days of California’s legislative session to secure funding for wildfire resilience. Despite broad consensus on the need to prepare for the impacts of climate change already wreaking havoc on our public lands, the effort died in the final hours of session. With it, any immediate hope for a clear strategy to make state parks more wildfire resistant died as well.

The trio of public health, economic and climate catastrophes facing our state require decisive action to protect our public lands. Our parklands are incredible resources that can support greater climate resilience for our ecology, economy and communities, but we must protect them before it’s too late. 

Over the past 13 years, California has experienced 14 of the 20 most destructive fires in its history. State parks have not been spared, and recovery is slow and expensive. While organizations like California State Parks Foundation and others have stepped up to meet the needs of state parks impacted by wildfires, we cannot do it alone. The scale of the challenge requires comprehensive, statewide solutions.

The good news is that investments in wildfire resilience for state parks directly support California’s efforts to combat climate change. Across 1.6 million acres, state parks contain 320 miles of protected coastline, 150,000 acres of redwood forests, and rare habitats such as coastal prairie and valley oak woodlands. Together, these natural lands provide critical protection for plant and animal species, and sequester huge amounts of greenhouse gases. 

Investments in our state parks also support local economies, public health, and help communities adapt to the impacts of climate change. With millions of visitors a year across California’s 280 state parks, state parks support billions of dollars in annual economic activity, while making communities healthier and more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

This summer, as Californians endured a weeks-long heat wave that included the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth, green space in urban environments helped lower temperatures in nearby neighborhoods and supported better air quality. These are essential services that will help keep our cities livable as temperatures continue to rise.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Californians have turned to nature in record numbers, intuitively acting on what a wealth of research confirms – that access to the outdoors supports greater mental and physical health. More than half of all Californians under 18 and a majority of low-income households live near a state park, making these places critical tools to support health and resilience.

As legislators head home from one of the most challenging years in our history, their work remains unfinished. The future of the California we know and love rests in our ability to meet this moment. We call on state leaders to continue the work to protect and invest in our parks, for the benefit of all Californians.

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