Paradise Outdoor Adventurer State & Regional Parks

Building Innovation: Paradise Recreation & Park District

There’s a fair chance that if you’ve ever vis­it­ed Butte Coun­ty, you’ve enjoyed the work of the Par­adise Recre­ation and Parks Dis­trict (PRPD) , prob­a­bly with­out even know­ing it. Cov­er­ing 172 square miles in a foot­print that near­ly match­es that of 2018’s Camp Fire, PRPD is a sprawl­ing dis­trict that stretch­es from near the Chico city lim­its all the way to Stir­ling City, Feath­er Riv­er Canyon, Butte Creek Canyon, and the back end of For­est Ranch. 

With­in its bor­ders lies a con­cen­trat­ed wealth of Butte County’s out­door beau­ty, and it’s the district’s mis­sion to open as much of it to vis­i­tors as pos­si­ble with inno­v­a­tive design and practices.

Moth­er (Nature) of Invention

Grow­ing from Setbacks

Par­adise Recre­ation and Parks Dis­trict has nev­er been with­out inno­v­a­tive plans and larg­er goals, but in a coun­ty that’s recent­ly suf­fered through pro­longed drought, one of the most dead­ly and destruc­tive wild­fires in US his­to­ry, and the con­tin­u­ing fall­out from the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, the orga­ni­za­tion has been forced to adapt to uncer­tain times.

Dan Efseaff, Dis­trict Man­ag­er, has had to adapt as well. Com­ing to the dis­trict in 2017, he man­aged to get at least a sin­gle year of rel­a­tive nor­mal­cy under his belt before the ensu­ing three years of strug­gle. The Camp Fire saw PRPD lose a full 60% of its staff due to forced relo­ca­tions or the loss of homes, the pan­dem­ic stymied oth­er­wise hope­ful plans for new events and pro­grams, and at the end of 2020, the loss of post-Camp Fire state and fed­er­al fund­ing that’s sup­port­ed the dis­trict will quick­ly begin to wane.

Yet rather than being slowed down by this long list of chal­lenges, Par­adise Recre­ation and Parks Dis­trict has bounced back to face its prob­lems with ever-increas­ing vig­or and enthu­si­asm , an ener­gy typ­i­cal of Butte Coun­ty res­i­dents that have pulled them­selves up and dust­ed them­selves off with cheer­ful, deter­mined hearts despite the set­backs of the last few years. It has once again bol­stered its ranks with employ­ees (who Efseaff fre­quent­ly refers to as super­heroes ” for their resilien­cy and deter­mi­na­tion), come up with new and inven­tive pro­grams that side­step pan­dem­ic dan­gers, and been proac­tive about bring­ing in visitors.

It also set for itself larg­er and more dif­fi­cult goals than it had when Efseaff first came to the dis­trict. Many of its own resources have long been woe­ful­ly under­used, and with social con­sid­er­a­tions becom­ing ever more impor­tant, PRPD want­ed to help ease the bur­den on some of Butte County’s more crowd­ed spots. Many area trails and parks are all but hid­den to any­one that isn’t local and already in the know, so mak­ing bet­ter, more deter­mined use of exist­ing pub­lic land — man­aged by the For­est Ser­vice, the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment, or even PRPD itself — is at the top of its pri­or­i­ty list, right along­side cre­at­ing new and bet­ter spaces to aug­ment what’s already on offer.

Blaz­ing New Trails

A New Vision for Trails and Defen­si­ble Space in Paradise

Inno­va­tion for Par­adise Recre­ation and Parks Dis­trict has come to mean find­ing the best ways to sup­port the com­mu­ni­ty it serves, which it does best by think­ing out­side the box. New trails are always a wel­come addi­tion to any pub­lic space, but what if those trails brought with them a com­mu­ni­ty more capa­ble of resist­ing wild­fires? What if an exist­ing park could be reworked to pro­vide defen­si­ble space that would aid fire­fight­ing efforts in the event of anoth­er wildfire? 

These are the kinds of ques­tions that PRPD has turned to sci­en­tif­ic rig­or to answer, using funds and part­ner­ships for stud­ies. Some of the work has even stim­u­lat­ed state and fed­er­al efforts as dis­as­ter relief agen­cies seek new and bet­ter tools for sand­ing down the jagged edges of cli­mate change, and PRPD con­sid­ers cre­at­ing new mod­els that can be export­ed to oth­er parts of the state to be part of its mandate.

Defen­si­ble space is, unsur­pris­ing­ly, a top pur­suit. While an indi­vid­ual home can have space around it that insu­lates it from wild­fires, larg­er areas can defend an entire com­mu­ni­ty. Any ter­rain with steep inclines, abun­dant fuels (such as trees or dry grass­es), and high winds is at risk, par­tic­u­lar­ly if those fac­tors make it dif­fi­cult for fire crews, fuel reduc­tion crews, or even graz­ing ani­mals to gain access — yet it’s these spaces that PRPD sees as packed with poten­tial. Improve­ments can reduce the risks they pose, but can fur­ther turn them into land­scape-scale buffer spaces that offer active pro­tec­tion, lead­ing to pub­lic areas with inher­ent pro­tec­tive and recre­ation­al val­ue that can help gen­er­ate funds for fuel reduc­tion. This is vital­ly impor­tant to Butte Coun­ty, where dry con­di­tions have caused ongo­ing frus­tra­tions but the breath­tak­ing land­scapes and out­door recre­ation spaces are impor­tant to both res­i­dents and visitors.

Building Innovation: Paradise Recreation & Park District
Courtesy PRPD
Crews work on building defensible space in Paradise

Revi­tal­iz­ing Pub­lic Lands

One tem­plate exam­ple of this work already under­way is Oak Creek Park , a lit­tle-known Par­adise gem of 17 acres that suf­fers from rel­a­tive invis­i­bil­i­ty because of its loca­tion. Sur­round­ed by pri­vate land, vis­i­tors cur­rent­ly have to pass through fenc­ing with post­ed no tres­pass­ing” signs before they actu­al­ly see the warmer sign wel­com­ing them in, mean­ing even locals who know it exists are few. Par­adise Recre­ation and Parks Dis­trict pur­chased anoth­er three acres next to Pear­son Road (a major thor­ough­fare) and plans to use it to pro­vide park­ing, an infor­ma­tion­al kiosk, and a trail­head, allow­ing those three acres to open up 17 — exact­ly the kind of enhance­ment the dis­trict wants to make.

PRPD plans to cre­ate more of these dual-pur­pose buffer zones and, just like with Oak Creek Park, revi­tal­ize exist­ing pub­lic lands to enhance their pro­tec­tive val­ue, recre­ation­al appeal, and acces­si­bil­i­ty. It sees this as a nat­ur­al and nec­es­sary cli­mate adap­ta­tion, one that can assist oth­er major improve­ments around elec­tric­i­ty and water use.

Funds are reg­u­lar­ly set aside for con­ser­va­tion projects, and future work looks to con­tin­ue retro­fitting spaces for solar pow­er, improv­ing insu­la­tion, and tran­si­tion­ing to LED lights wher­ev­er pos­si­ble. It has done the lat­ter in sev­er­al facil­i­ties already, includ­ing a base­ball field, and is look­ing at a two-year return on invest­ment that dras­ti­cal­ly cuts pow­er con­sump­tion, reduces their bot­tom line, and eas­es envi­ron­men­tal impacts.

A Coor­di­nat­ed Community

Part­ner­ships Cen­tral to PRPD’s Goals

Efseaff and his team aren’t going it alone by any stretch. With an over­whelm­ing amount of com­mu­ni­ty sup­port to fuel them, they’ve also invest­ed heav­i­ly in part­ner­ships with a grow­ing (and already enor­mous) num­ber of orga­ni­za­tions. Efseaff’s pre­vi­ous work with the Yolo Coun­ty Resource Con­ser­va­tion Dis­trict taught him how many hands it often takes to get things done, and that know-how, in con­junc­tion with a moti­vat­ed pop­u­lace and inter­na­tion­al expo­sure, have giv­en Par­adise Recre­ation and Parks Dis­trict a wealth of resources to exer­cise its ground­break­ing vision.

One of its major upcom­ing projects is a 15 to 20-mile looped trail sys­tem run­ning along the Mag­a­lia Reser­voir to Par­adise Lake. It plans for the major­i­ty of the trails to be shad­ed — a rar­i­ty at this ele­va­tion — with a vari­ety of dif­fi­cul­ty lev­els for walk­ing and moun­tain bik­ing, from fam­i­ly-friend­ly to advanced, yet cre­at­ing this fan­tas­tic new asset has already required exten­sive plan­ning and nego­ti­a­tion with no less than six dif­fer­ent landown­ers. Anoth­er con­sor­tium for a study on trails includ­ed over a dozen part­ners from var­ied back­grounds, like the Butte Coun­ty Office of Edu­ca­tion, the Nature Con­ser­van­cy, Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­si­ty, Chico, the US For­est Ser­vice, and Explore Butte County.

Where many orga­ni­za­tions are too inter­nal­ly focused or don’t look much far­ther than exter­nal fund­ing, Par­adise Recre­ation and Parks Dis­trict is look­ing for active, dynam­ic part­ner­ships that expand the range of its capa­bil­i­ties. For instance, it recent­ly part­nered with the Par­adise Irri­ga­tion Dis­trict at Par­adise Lake. PID knew that recre­ation was only some­thing con­sid­ered as an aside to its pri­ma­ry mis­sion, thus PRPD has been able to take the helm, enhance the vis­i­tor expe­ri­ence, seek funds, and offer pro­grams that nev­er would have hap­pened otherwise.

While lake recre­ation has only been under PRPD’s care for around half a year, it’s already gain­ing steam and has been a boon to the pub­lic in the time of COVID. It allowed for the suc­cess­ful Astron­o­my on the Lake pro­gram, where 30 kayak­ers took a guid­ed tour of the stars with Dr. William Kop­er­whats, a pro­fes­sor at CSU Chico’s Com­mu­ni­ty Obser­va­to­ry. The pro­gram brought in peo­ple from as far as Sacra­men­to and Colusa, and was so pop­u­lar there are already plans for more instances in the future.

Building Innovation: Paradise Recreation & Park District
Courtesy of PRPD
Astronomy on the Lake at Paradise Lake - Courtesy of PRPD

Pub­lic Opin­ion Leads the Way

And pub­lic opin­ion mat­ters a great deal to Par­adise Recre­ation and Parks Dis­trict, if the abun­dance of con­tact and feed­back forms on its web­site is any indi­ca­tion. It has con­tin­u­al­ly sought to tap into the heart of the com­mu­ni­ty and pro­vide ser­vices in response, tak­ing direc­tion on the events it offers and what peo­ple would like to see inside its ren­o­vat­ed parks, using Paradise’s Long-Term Recov­ery Plan as a guide. Efseaff empha­sizes that it wants to let expe­ri­ences help dic­tate facil­i­ties, not the oth­er way around.

That com­mu­ni­ca­tion has moti­vat­ed cit­i­zens from all around the coun­ty, hun­gry for doing good in a time when so much needs doing. PRPD has respond­ed by cre­at­ing more vol­un­teer oppor­tu­ni­ties, and inter­est­ed par­ties can get in touch by email or through the con­tact form on their vol­un­teer page. Kids from mid­dle schools, the Boys and Girls Clubs, Girl Scouts, and Boy Scouts have vol­un­teered, learn­ing not just envi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship skills, but how to once again love a Moth­er Nature that has been tem­pera­men­tal enough to be scary these last few years. Adult vol­un­teer work is also avail­able, includ­ing ser­vice learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. While COVID has put a por­tion of these on hold, larg­er vol­un­teer events are already being planned for the future.

A Par­adise For Everyone

While Par­adise Recre­ation and Parks Dis­trict keeps the res­i­dents with­in its juris­dic­tion most imme­di­ate­ly in mind, these oppor­tu­ni­ties and improve­ments are made for every­one. Giv­en that many locals have become scat­tered around the coun­ty and the state, it feels that its mis­sion is not just for Par­adise or even Butte Coun­ty prop­er, but for every­one with a love of the out­doors that the gor­geous land­scapes of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia always inspires. Sup­port has come from Zen Bud­dhists in San Jose, who passed out gift cards to Camp Fire sur­vivors at the reopen­ing of the ice rink in 2018, to Aus­tralians half a world away look­ing to sup­port and learn from PRPD’s inno­v­a­tive ways of using recre­ation­al zones as defen­si­ble space. With the eyes of the world on Butte Coun­ty in the last few years, many have seen how much there is to offer, and PRPD wants to make sure all those who vis­it have the best, safest spaces to enjoy.