Aftermath of the collapse

Accident at Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve prompts changes in management

This house on the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, built by the former publisher of Sunset Magazine, may soon be demolished as a result of the deck collapse that injured 11 people last October.

This house on the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, built by the former publisher of Sunset Magazine, may soon be demolished as a result of the deck collapse that injured 11 people last October.

Photo by Howard Hardee

Shortly after sunrise on the southern rim of the canyon overlooking Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve on a recent Thursday, retired Chico State professor Paul Maslin reverently describes the variety of habitats found in the 4,000-acre space.

Maslin gestures across the oak canopy below. Oak trees grow up to 110 feet tall here, he says, but emergent conifers can be even larger—up to 150 feet.

“That gives you interesting diversity; those tall conifers are where the raptors like the red-tailed hawks like to nest,” he said, “and the flying squirrels can go from one to another without ever dropping down into the oaks, if they want to. Natural diversity.”

But Maslin sees something else. Several hundred yards down the canyon, two blue porta-potties are visible through the trees. He sighs.

“And then, we have people.”

For Maslin, those toilets are more than an eyesore; they’re a constant reminder that changes are underway at the BCCER as Chico State administration reins in potential liabilities on the property.

Last October, a deck attached to a house on BCCER grounds collapsed during an Altacal Audubon Society gathering, injuring 11 people. In reaction, Chico State President Paul Zingg appointed a risk-management team to assess danger at BCCER and identify areas vulnerable to lawsuit.

The following spring semester, 10 programs were canceled, including K-12 outdoor education, expert-guided hikes and the reserve’s annual fundraiser, Candles in the Canyon.

While university administration said the programs will resume shortly, further changes appear imminent—namely, the demolition of the house where the deck collapsed, the addition of security cameras in place of an on-site caretaker, and a new outdoor education coordinator.

And much to Maslin’s annoyance, porta-potties have replaced composting toilets, which were deemed unsanitary and, therefore, hazardous.

“They don’t understand it—those porta-potties do not represent sustainability,” he said. “That’s where we get into a lot of conflict with the current university administration. They have no concept of sustainability, no matter how much lip service they give it.”

Historically each year, more than 1,000 fourth- and fifth-graders went on field trips to BCCER through a program called the Outdoor Classroom.

But shortly before last spring’s programs were set to begin, the BCCER’s outdoor education coordinator, Scott Huber, resigned after he was informed his salary could not be guaranteed, Huber said during a phone inverview. The Outdoor Classroom was subsequently canceled.

Additionally, university students conducting research on the reserve—formerly given a radio in case of emergency and left to their own devices—were required to be accompanied by a staff member, severely limiting study opportunities.

These support beams rotted from the inside out, giving BCCER staff little warning of the impending accident.

Photo by Howard Hardee

Katy Thoma, director of the Chico State Research Foundation, explained that, after the deck collapse, President Zingg transferred responsibility for BCCER from the Institute for Sustainable Development to the Research Foundation. Thoma, along with Lori Hoffman, vice president of Business and Finance; and Karla Zimmerlee, Zingg’s chief counsel, made up the three-person risk-management team tasked with reporting on liability at BCCER.

The report the oversight committee produced is not publicly available, Thoma said, citing pending litigation. But she did point to some of its results.

“The academic side of the house was using the reserve and not reimbursing the Research Foundation for their use, which would be normal course of business—if we own something and somebody uses it, they’re going to reimburse us,” she said. Moving forward, the Research Foundation will be reimbursed $285,000 a year for faculty and student research.

In the past, the reserve’s revenue came from fundraising and donations.

The educational value of the BCCER isn’t lost on Thoma. She noted that field trips with local elementary schools are planned for the fall, and the university is reviewing about 30 applications for Huber’s replacement.

Jeff Mott, former director of BCCER, said there’s “just no way” the educational program will resume as it was.

“It took 10 years to build that program,” he said. “It won’t be up to that same level of quality for at least five or six years. Even if they get someone really dynamic in here, it’s not going to happen fast.”

Other results of the report include the potential installation of video cameras at the entry gate, which itself will become electronic, and public access to the reserve is now restricted on hunt days.

As for the house on the property, Thoma acknowledged there “has been discussion” of demolition. She said engineering reports—also unavailable due to pending litigation—found the home noncompliant with commercial ADA and seismic requirements.

“The estimate we got was $800,000 in order to comply,” Thoma said, “or more than the house is worth two times over.”

In addition to accommodating the occasional meeting or conference, the home was previously used to house an on-site caretaker, a role Maslin and Mott maintain is necessary for tending to the grounds and acting as the face of the reserve.

Mott said that if the house was used only for that purpose, compliance with commercial requirements wouldn’t be an issue.

“They say it’ll cost so much to bring the building into compliance,” he said. “Well, don’t make it a public space.”

Demolishing the house would be “utterly wasteful,” Maslin said. “They’re going to throw that house away, have an excavator come and take it to a landfill, and they talk sustainability?”

Many community members hope the reserve will return as a top-quality educational resource. One of them is Marty Leicester, an education volunteer at BCCER and resident of Forest Ranch.

“When I became involved with the reserve over the last three years or so, it seemed like it was really on the upswing, becoming better-managed, receiving more funding through the fundraisers—Candles in the Canyon was becoming more well-known—and the restoration and research projects underway there were really extraordinary,” she said by phone. “I hope the liability issues can be resolved and it will be a time of more improvement.”