Growth puts pressure on California's state parks

Sooty shearwaters gorge on anchovies in protective beaches in Santa Cruz County, California.
Sooty shearwaters gorge on anchovies in protective beaches in Santa Cruz County, California. Aimee J. Santos/San Jose Mercury News

At the Riverwood Inn in rural Humboldt County, where a Harley-Davidson flag flaps on a light pole beneath the Stars and Stripes, the proprietor is steaming mad.

Some 15 miles south of Loreen Eliason's roadhouse, the California Department of Transportation is planning to widen a twisty stretch of Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park, home to one of the world's last old-growth redwood forests. Although Caltrans has assured the public the ancient giants won't be harmed, some residents and activists are alarmed by the very prospect of disturbing the trees' shallow root systems.

"I was born up here. I'm connected to those trees," said Eliason, who has joined a lawsuit to halt the road plan.

"Those uppity-ups in Sacramento. They absolutely can't say for certain they won't hurt the trees," she said. "I was more than glad to jump into the lawsuit."

As civilization closes in on many of California's 278 state parks, legal and emotional battles are erupting up and down the Golden State. With 1.3 million acres in public hands – much of it the most prized real estate in California – the state's parks increasingly find themselves poked at and even assaulted by outside pressures.

"As California grows, it's growing out to our (park) borders," said Roy Stearns, spokesman for the state Department of Parks and Recreation. "And lots of people see a park as an under-utilized open space instead of something that should be preserved for all time."

California originally envisioned its parks as remote havens of beauty and tranquility, establishing the first in 1902 when the state's population was about 1.5 million. More than a century later – plus another 35 million people – the demands of a growing population and 21st century technology are butting up against these scenic refuges.

Pressing against park borders – and sometimes well into them – are power poles, cell towers, sea walls, casinos, the border fence, housing developments, wineries and road projects. Conflicts have arisen with private landowners, transportation agencies, utility companies, businesses, environmentalists, park users – even outlaws.

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