On a trip to Big Basin Redwoods State Park to celebrate her Aunt Jennie Bliss Jeter’s 90th birthday, Tracy Bliss first learned of the indispensable role of women in creating the first California state park.
“My great-great aunt Jennie, one of the earliest advocates for preserving the Santa Cruz Mountain redwoods, settled in Santa Cruz in the 1870s,” Bliss said. “Women were absolutely essential from her perspective.”
Years later, Bliss was inspired to write a book about Big Basin and the role of the hardworking individuals who created the park. Her book, “Big Basin Redwood Forest: California’s Oldest State Park,” details the heroic efforts and groundbreaking environmental movement to preserve the ancient redwoods. The book will be published on Sept. 6.
“In terms of writing this book, Big Basin has become more and more important to me as I learned what … a huge effort it was to save the park, but also to sustain it,” Bliss said. “How much work it took for a decade to overcome all the major obstacles that the founders of the park faced.”
Big Basin was established in 1902. It is home to many ancient coast redwoods, some more than 50 feet around, 300 feet tall and between 1,000 and 1,800 years old. The park offers more than 80 miles of trails.
“It was so important to me as a child,” said Bliss. “This wonderful sense of being in nature, it was that initial sense of being out in such a beautiful, beautiful area as a child, with the redwoods and the deer. It was just a very special experience.”
For years, Bliss read about the park but never saw any mention of the women who were so influential in creating it.
“Always in the back of my mind was that nagging question,” Bliss said. “So, when my mother passed on, I felt this incredible sense of urgency that there were interviews I had to do with people from her generation who knew Jennie and who knew the story, that I had to interview. At that moment in time, that’s when I decided I had to retire early and pursue this story.”
At the time, Bliss was an education professor at Idaho State University. When influenced to do this research and write this book, Bliss moved from Idaho to be as close as possible to the Santa Cruz Mountain redwoods.
“It was my Aunt Jennie, she was the inspiration,” Bliss said. “The story of Big Basin radically changed my life… I just had to immerse myself in everything I could find related to the park. I did interviews. I looked at hundreds of photographs, artifacts, articles, brochures.”
Bliss spent time at the San Jose Public Library, History San Jose and the Stanford University special collections. She spent countless hours utilizing the digital newspaper collections. Bliss also hired a research consultant who put in more than a thousand hours helping her.
“These visionary men and women who saved the park, they all had such dedication and unselfish commitment to the common good,” said Bliss.
The book includes an epilogue with first-person interviews that Bliss conducted with two State Parks employees who were at the park and on-duty during the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.
“Just reading about their dedication and their commitment and then seeing this whole trajectory since the creation of the park 120 years ago, I think a real theme is resilient commitment,” said Bliss.
The 2020 fires were the most destructive in Santa Cruz County history, tearing through 86,500 acres of the Santa Cruz Mountains, destroying buildings, homes and killing one person. The fires also destroyed all of the structures at Big Basin and affected 97 percent of the park grounds.
Now, in the wake of the August of 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fires, the Reimagining Big Basin Project is underway. The project seeks to chart a new course for the park and renew the vision for Big Basin’s future.
“When Big Basin was created, there was no big picture, there was no long-term plan,” said the author. “Those who fought so hard to make it possible said it must be preserved in a state of nature… The original mission had drifted in an entirely different direction. So now, as a result of the devastation from the Lightning Complex Fire, the reimagining effort has, as one of its guiding principles, ‘Big Basin's natural character will be the chief informant of design decisions with built elements working together to consistently frame and complement the natural setting.’
“The Big Basin founders would applaud that guiding principle,” Bliss said.
The photos in “Big Basin Redwood Forest: California’s Oldest State Park” were found in archives from all over California and the country and many have never been seen before. More than half of the color photos were captured by nature photographer Bill Rhoades, of Los Gatos, who is also a Big Basin docent.
“The way that I see it is that more than half of the colored photos in my book capture the ineffable beauty that was Big Basin, before the fire and what it will be again with steadfast and consistent stewardship,” Bliss said. “That’s the most important piece that I’ve learned from this history, is that it’s one thing to have a very lofty ideal, it’s something else altogether to have consistent stewardship, to stay the course, and that’s what’s going to be required as we go forward.”
The Reimagining Big Basin Project also coincides with the announcement from Gov. Gavin Newsom that this year's budget includes $1.5 billion allocated for wildfire prevention and emergency preparedness. These funds, according to the governor, will be directed toward staffing 1,400 more firefighters, forest management and new technology to track wildfire behavior.
“To me, the fire prevention initiative is absolutely essential,” said Bliss. “The fact that it’s happening at exactly the same time as the Reimagining Big Basin, is just as essential. The two things go hand in hand … The fact that the state now has the opportunity to do it really right, for centuries to come, is just an extraordinary opportunity.”