Preparing for Climate Change in California's State Parks

Created: 4/27/2010 - Updated: 3/02/2020


The California State Parks system is comprised of roughly 275 parks over 1.5 million acres of land. Partly due to funding constraints and a governmental mandate, the California State Department of Parks and Recreation (California State Parks) developed a guidance tool in 2007 to help prioritize management and preservation of parks that are healthy and representative of long-term conservation goals. California State Parks identified 47 sites that are most representative of the California landscape and associated ecological regions. Selected sites will be afforded more protection to help preserve areas in the long-term from land conversion and to provide climate refugia for plants and animals. California State Parks is also planning an inventory of infrastructure in coastal parks to assess potential impacts from sea level rise.


The California State Parks system is the largest state park system in the United States with over 275 separate parks spanning 1.5 million acres. These parks are located in a variety of diverse ecosystems, including terrestrial and coastal; the department manages roughly 30% (or 295 miles) of California’s coastline.

Climate change will have a variety of impacts on the state parks; impacts will vary with park location and habitat types. As such, planning for climate change has been relatively limited in scope and application. Managers have been working under the premise that "good" adaptation to climate change is directly related to biodiversity and strategic long-term conservation through land acquisitions and restoration.

Recent funding constraints in California have further hampered efforts to develop climate change adaptation strategies for parks. Despite these barriers, California State Parks is beginning to consider the impacts that climate change will have on its coastal and inland parks and has identified inventories and surveys needed to initiate the planning process.


California State Parks released the “Representative Keystone Watershed” report in 2007. This report details 33 watersheds and watershed "complexes" that exemplify desirable characteristics for long-term conservation goals, including resilience to climate change. These include:

  1. Mill Creek Complex (Jedediah Smith Redwoods SP, Del Norte Coast Redwoods SP)
  2. Prairie Creek Complex (Prairie Creek Redwoods SP)
  3. McDonald Creek Watershed (Humboldt Lagoons SP, Harry A. Merlo SRA)
  4. Bull Creek Complex (Humboldt Redwoods SP)
  5. Jackass (Wolf) Creek-Whale Gulch Complex (Sinkyone Wilderness SP)
  6. Big River Watershed (Big River Unit of Mendocino Headlands SP, Mendocino Woodlands SP, Montgomery Woods SR)
  7. Willow Creek Watershed (Sonoma Coast SP)
  8. Lagunitas Creek Watershed (Samuel P. Taylor SP)
  9. Redwood Creek Complex (Mount Tamalpais SP)
  10. Castle Creek Watershed (Castle Crags SP)
  11. Angel Island SP
  12. Jamison Creek Complex (Plumas-Eureka SP)
  13. Burton Creek Watershed (Burton Creek SP)
  14. General Creek Watershed (Ed Z’berg-Sugar Pine Point SP)
  15. Beaver Creek Watershed (Calaveras Big Trees SP)
  16. Mitchell Creek Complex (Mount Diablo SP)
  17. Waddell Creek Watershed (Big Basin Redwoods SP)
  18. Wilder Creek Watershed (Wilder Ranch SP)
  19. Aptos Creek Watershed (The Forest of Nisene Marks SP)
  20. Malpaso-San Jose Creek Complex (Point Lobos Ranch SP, Carmel River SB, Point Lobos SR, Garrapata SP)
  21. Big Sur River Watershed (Andrew Molera SP, Pfeiffer Big Sur SP)
  22. Islay Creek Complex (Montaña de Oro SP)
  23. Coyote Creek Watershed (Henry W. Coe SP)
  24. Orestimba Creek Watershed (Henry W. Coe SP)
  25. Gaviota Creek Watershed (Gaviota SP)
  26. Moro Canyon Watershed (Crystal Cove SP)
  27. Big Sycamore Canyon Complex (Point Mugu SP)
  28. Upper Santa Ynez Canyon Complex (Topanga SP)
  29. Aliso Canyon Watershed (Chino Hills SP)
  30. North Fork San Jacinto River Watershed (Mount San Jacinto SP)
  31. Sweetwater River Complex (Cuyamaca Rancho SP)
  32. Upper Red Rock Canyon Watershed (Red Rock Canyon SP)
  33. Coyote Canyon Watershed (Anza-Borrego Desert SP)


California State Parks characterized all of its parks based upon set criteria to identify representative keystone watersheds. The selection process utilized GIS-based data including land ownership, ecoregion delineations, hydrology, topography, and Calwater watershed mapping layers. Watersheds were selected based upon how well they exemplified the physical and biological characteristics of the ecological region and how likely they would keep their value and qualities in the future. Other criteria of consideration included the health of the aquatic system and land, size of the state-owned land, protection level, and landscape connectivity. The information included helps California State Parks managers prioritize natural resource management and land acquisition actions.

Along California’s coasts, park managers are planning to inventory the extent of shoreline hardening. If seawalls are not providing a vital function, they may be flagged for removal. The department also plans to inventory facilities on beaches (i.e. lifeguard stations, concession stands) and relocate them as needed.

Outcomes and Conclusions

California State Parks is working to develop a strategic plan to combat the impacts of climate change upon their lands. In addition to identifying keystone ecological regions, they are prioritizing actions such as removing invasive species, improving watershed conditions, maintaining natural disturbance regimes, and eliminating artificial processes in order to improve parks' resilience. In addition, the department's Director has promoted the integration of climate change into future plans. Unfortunately, budget constraints have hampered their ability to launch some of their adaptation programs but all staff at California State Parks strive to integrate climate change into their plans.


Information gathered from interviews and online resources. Last updated on 4/27/10.


Feifel, K. (2010). Preparing for Climate Change in California's State Parks [Case study on a project of California State Department of Parks and Recreation]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE:… (Last updated April 2010)

Project Contact(s)

The California Department of Parks and Recreation manages more than 270 park units, which contain the finest and most diverse collection of natural, cultural, and recreational resources to be found within California. These treasures are as diverse as California: From the last stands of primeval redwood forests to vast expanses of fragile desert; from the lofty Sierra Nevada to the broad sandy beaches of our southern coast; and from the opulence of Hearst Castle to the vestiges of colonial Russia.


Scale of Project
State / Provincial
Sector Addressed
Conservation / Restoration
Land Use Planning
Target Climate Changes and Impacts
Air temperature
Habitat extent
Invasive / non-native species, pests
Range shifts
Sea level rise
Species of concern
Storms or extreme weather events
Water temperature
Climate Type
Type of Adaptation Action/Strategy
Natural Resource Management / Conservation
Incorporate future conditions into natural resources planning and policies
Create new refugia / Increase size and amount of protected areas
Capacity Building
Design or reform institutions
Increase organizational capacity
Infrastructure, Planning, and Development
Managed retreat of built infrastructure, relocation of people/communities
Create or modify shoreline management measures
Sociopolitical Setting
Effort Stage
In progress

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