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.
Mother (Nature) of Invention
PRPD 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 now 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, the 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
Innovation for PRPD 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.
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. PRPD 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
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 PRPD 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, PRPD 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 of the event next year.
And public opinion matters a great deal to PRPD, 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 PRPD 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.