July 20, 2024
State parks acquires 222 acres for $4.2 million for park west of Los Gatos

Breaking a long-running trend where it has blocked the acquisition of new land for years, California’s state parks department announced Tuesday that it will spend $4.2 million to purchase 222 acres at Castle Rock State Park, a scenic location popular with rock climbers and hikers along the Santa Clara-Santa Cruz county line.

The purchase is the first time that the department has expanded any state park in California since 2021, and the first time that it has expanded a park in its Santa Cruz District, which includes San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, since 2011.

Under the deal, state parks will pay the Sempervirens Fund, a non-profit group based in Los Altos, $4.2 million to acquire 222 acres in six parcels that are adjacent to Skyline Boulevard and Highway 9.

The purchase includes a grand new entrance to Castle Rock with 90 parking spaces, restrooms and a 60-seat amphitheater that Sempervirens Fund built and opened to the public at its own expense four years ago. The organization had tried to donate the 33-acre property to state parks, but department officials had previously said they would not accept it because it might increase maintenance and staffing costs. Instead, the department has been leasing the site for $1 a year from Sempervirens Fund.

“We hope that state parks is once again in the business of expanding its holdings,” said Sara Barth, executive director of Sempervirens Fund. “It’s really exciting. Having a park system that remains one size for generations doesn’t really expand to the needs of a growing, diverse population. It would be liking having a public library and never buying new books for it.”

Sempervirens Fund, named for Sequoia Sempervirens, the Latin name for coast redwood, helped establish Big Basin Redwoods State Park in 1901 when timber companies were cutting down ancient redwoods for fence posts and railroad ties. The group spent $12 million purchasing the six properties it sold Tuesday, including $8.7 million to buy a former Christmas tree farm and construct the new Castle Rock entrance facilities.

For many parks lovers, the Castle Rock entrance parcel has been seen as symbolic of the wider statewide trend: California has largely abandoned efforts over the past 15 years to expand its 280 state parks, which are visited by more than 70 million people a year, and range from historic sites like Hearst Castle to redwood forests and hundreds of miles of beaches.

For more than a decade, the Schwarzenegger, Brown, and Newsom administrations decided not to expand the state parks system, turning down donations of land or below-market sales of property from environmental groups and land trusts. They claimed the state couldn’t afford to provide rangers and maintenance workers, even at times when the state has had huge budget surpluses. Critics have said that freeze has made it more difficult for families to find places to camp, or to secure parking spaces, or other amenities as the state’s population has grown.

Brown and Schwarzenegger also attempted to close dozens of state parks to help balance California’s state budget — moves they abandoned after public outcry.

California has not added a new state park since 2009, when the U.S. Army donated four miles of beaches in Monterey County to become Fort Ord Dunes State Park. That 14-year gap in new parks is the longest such drought since the state parks department was created in 1927.

Last year, Newsom announced that the state would purchase Dos Rios Ranch, a 2,100-acre parcel west of Modesto near the confluence of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne rivers to become a new state park. That purchase, from a non-profit group River Partners, has not been completed yet, and the park is not open to the public.

Adeline Yee, a spokeswoman for state parks, said Tuesday that the Newsom administration also is in the planning stages to construct a new California Indian Heritage Center on 51 acres at the American and Sacramento Rivers confluence in West Sacramento. That project received $100 million from Newsom’s state budget several years ago, but still needs another $100 million in private funds before it can be constructed.

Environmentalists said they hoped that the Castle Rock purchases will be the beginning of a new trend.

“It’s terrific news,” said Sam Hodder, president of Save the Redwoods League in San Francisco. “It’s exciting to see California’s state parks stepping back into the conservation agenda. It’s a great first step.”

Hodder noted that his organization has more than a dozen redwood properties — totaling thousands of acres — that it has purchased in recent years from the Oregon border to Big Sur, and in the Sierra Nevada. Many of them are near or adjacent to existing state parks, he said, and could easily be added to them if state parks will accept or purchase them.

He noted that three years ago, Newsom committed the state to a goal of protecting 30% of California’s land and coastal waters by 2030.

“California state parks have always been a leader in protecting nature, history and our memories,” Hodder said. “It’s extraordinary that the state parks system has grown so little in this past decade when we have needed our parks the most.”

A new entrance to Castle Rock State Park is photographed near Los Gatos, Calif., on Friday, June 21, 2019. The new $8 million entrance includes a parking lot for 90 cars, restrooms, a rustic amphitheater for ranger talks, interpretive signs, a picnic area and trails. It was acquired by the state parks department on Tuesday Aug. 15, 2023. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)