Preparing for Climate Change in California's State Parks

Kirsten Feifel
Posted on: 4/27/2010 - Updated on: 11/27/2021

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Kirsten Feifel

Project Summary

The California State Parks system comprises 280 parks over 1.6 million acres of land. In 2007, the California State Department of Parks and Recreation (California State Parks) developed a guidance tool 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. Since 2007, California State Parks has released inventories of infrastructure in coastal parks to assess potential impacts from sea level rise, participates in multiple interagency efforts to increase the resilience of California’s coast, and released a sea level rise strategy to guide agency activities.


The California State Parks system is the largest state park system in the United States with 280 separate parks spanning 1.6 million acres. These parks are located in a variety of diverse terrestrial, aquatic, and coastal ecosystems. The department manages roughly 340 miles of California’s coastline. Climate change will have a variety of impacts on the state parks, and impacts will vary by 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 considering the impacts that climate change will have on its coastal and inland parks and has identified inventories and surveys needed to undertake climate adaptation.


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 State Park [SP], Del Norte Coast Redwoods SP)
  2. Prairie Creek Complex (Prairie Creek Redwoods SP)
  3. McDonald Creek Watershed (Humboldt Lagoons SP, Harry A. Merlo State Recreation Area)
  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.

California State Parks has conducted resource inventories and condition assessments in multiple coastal parks, including details on climate change and sea level rise impacts. Several state parks have considered climate change impacts in their general plans, which provide policy guidance on day-to-day and long-term management of these sites, such as Cuyamaca Rancho SP and Topanga State Park. In addition, the agency released its Sea Level Rise Adaptation Strategy in May 2021. The Strategy prioritizes several principles: integrating sea level rise adaptation into coastal projects and plans, funding research to inform decision-making, collaborating with other partners across jurisdictions, balancing public access and protection of ecological services, and increasing public awareness and understanding. The Strategy supports several projects undertaken by State Parks, including using living shorelines to stabilize Cardiff State Beach, removing derelict roads to restore dune and creek habitats at MacKerricher State Park, and relocating and elevating trails and accessways at Carpinteria State Beach.

Outcomes and Conclusions

California has been a leader on climate adaptation for many years. State Parks is one of several state agencies that are undertaking climate action. In addition to the recent release of the Sea Level Rise Adaptation Strategy, the agency is collaborating on other initiatives, including:

  • Conducting a vulnerability assessment and developing an online tool with the California State Coastal Conservancy;
  • Assisting with the creation of a Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategic Plan, led by California State Office of Historic Preservation and the Cultural Resources Climate Change Task Force; and
  • Working with partners to conduct targeted coastal surveys of state parks at risk of sea level rise and erosion.


Feifel, K. and Gregg R.M. (2021). Preparing for Climate Change in California's State Parks [Case study on a project of California State Department of Parks and Recreation]. Version 2.0. Product of EcoAdapt’s State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: (Last updated October 2021)

Affiliated Organizations

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.

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