Can birds and people live together in California’s first state park?

After many years of work, countless hearings, and reams of analysis the California State Park and Recreation Commission approved the Big Basin General Plan on May 17, 2013.  I have followed this planning process on and off for 15 years (yes, 15 years).  It was always going to be controversial. After all, California’s first state park had never had a general plan before despite more than 100 years of public use. At various times the park has housed a swimming pool, dance hall, and cabins.  Most of these are now gone, but their memory persists for many people.  The question now was what level of use is appropriate for the 21st century?  It was no surprise then that on June 19th the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against the state and the Big Basin General Plan for failing to protect an endangered sea bird: the marbled murrelet.

New Year's Eve marbled murrelet
The elusive marbled murrelet lives on the ocean and in the redwoods

The park is significant in the history of the marbled murrelet. It was in the park in 1974 that a group of biologists made a remarkable discovery. They found the elusive marbled murrelet nesting on the mossy limb of an ancient Douglas-fir. Until that time, no-one knew where this sea-bird made its nest. It was, I believe, the last bird in north America to hold on to its nesting secret. The murrelet hasn’t fared so well over the past century as much of its nesting habitat — the limbs of ancient redwoods and Douglas-fir — have been logged. It now makes its last stand in protected redwood groves.  Big Basin redwoods state park happens to be its southerly hold-out.

While the trees in the park are protected, the murrelet continues to decline. The exact factors are unknown, but most scientists believe that predation by jays and ravens plays a significant role. Jays and ravens are attracted to human food and can maintain high populations feeding off our picnic scraps and food waste. Once we leave, these voracious birds are known to seek out birds eggs — including those of the murrelet.

So what to do? Should we remove all human use from the park? Ban picnics? Stop people camping among the trees?  It can be easy to say, “yes.” And while the law suite filed by CBD doesn’t go quite that far, it does open the question of significantly reducing the level of human use and activity in the park.

I for one think that is short-sighted. If we exclude people from the parks we will erode support. It also sends a message that we can’t live with wildlife. I believe it is better to use parks as places to demonstrate how we can live with wildlife and send people home better able to do that in their daily lives.  After all, food waste and trash is not only an issue in a park — it’s an issue everywhere people live.

I am sure that State Parks can do more can be done to protect the bird, but excluding people will do little to build the community of supporters needed to protect both the park, and the bird, long-term.  It’s time to get back to the table and develop a solution for Big Basin that protects this iconic bird and leaves space for people.

Murrelets nest in the limbs of ancient redwoods like these
Murrelets nest in the limbs of ancient redwoods like these

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