Climate change pushes CA state parks to re-think their goals

Even 20 years later, Claire Schlotterbeck remembers the hot August night when Chino Hills State Park offered her a transcendent moment.

She was sitting at an overlook in the park when a great horned owl flew up and hovered next to her for a while, just watching. “And then this stream of owls came up and over the crest of the overlook,” Schlotterbeck recalls. “Seventy-five owls. I mean, they just kept coming. I had no idea that they even did that. … It was amazing. It was a moment of grace that was given to me by the park.”

Schlotterbeck has worked more than 40 years to ensure people can have similar experiences with the plants and animals that live in this park. She’s the executive director of Hills for Everyone, which aims to protect land in the Puente Hills-Chino wildlife corridor.

“It’s burning so frequently that a lot of native plants don’t have an opportunity to mature enough to grow seeds,” Claire Schlotterbeck says of the wildfires that have devastated Chino Hills State Park. Photo by Caleigh Wells. 

Since the park was established in 1981, it has grown to include more than 14,000 acres at the intersection of Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. 

In that time, Schlotterbeck’s job has changed too. Now, preserving the land to make the park bigger and keep it wild isn’t enough to protect it from climate-driven collapse.

Native shrubs (left) have largely been replaced in the park by nonnative grasses (right). Photo by Caleigh Wells.

As the climate changes, nearly all of California’s 280 state parks face threats of sea level rise, coastal erosion, flooding, drought, heat waves, or a combination of those conditions. The problems are almost as diverse as the 2,100 plants and animals that are unique to California.

In Chino Hills, the climate threat is wildfire. In 2008, 95% of the park burned. In 2020, nearly two-thirds of it burned again. That’s much more frequent than the usual decades-long intervals between fires.

“It’s burning so frequently that a lot of native plants don’t have an opportunity to mature enough to grow seeds,” Schlotterbeck says.

As a result, where even 20 years ago the hillsides were dotted with shrubs, walnut trees, and oak trees, now they are covered with grasslands that are invasive and dangerous as they grow, dry out, and burn more quickly than native plants. 

As wildfires become more frequent and intense due to climate change, they’re threatening native plants in Chino Hills State Park. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

One solution would be to rip out the invasive grasses and reseed the native shrubs and trees. 

But there isn’t enough money or people to do that.

Rachel Norton, executive director of the California State Parks Foundation, says the current budget is barely adequate to cover maintenance and won’t stretch to evaluate and respond to new threats. The parks could, for example, pay to repair a flooded road the old-fashioned way. But they would have a harder time funding a study to figure out how to stop the road from flooding as sea levels rise.

But Norton says she is stubbornly hopeful as she grapples with the needs of California’s parks. “I have incredible memories about what this place was,” she says of the state’s landscape. “It has changed. It is different than it was when I was a child, but it’s still offering amazing experiences in the outdoors.”

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