Dos Rios—Much-Needed, Long-Awaited Park for the San Joaquin Valley

Doug Steakley Photography

California officials recently announced the creation of the first new state park since 2009: Dos Rios Ranch, at the confluence of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin Rivers, near the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge. The announcement was remarkable, but not only because of the long interval since the last park opening in a state whose park system is the largest in the nation (with its 279 state park units, over 340 miles of coastline, 970 miles of lake and river frontage, 15,000 campsites, 5,200 miles of trails, 3,195 historic buildings and more than 11,000 known prehistoric and historic archaeological sites). The Dos Rios announcement also was remarkable because of the new park’s location.

When you look at a map of all the California state park units, it is quickly apparent that the majority of parks line the state’s coast, along with two belts of park units stretching inland across the north central part of the state and Southern California. Just as apparent is the dearth of parks in the massive San Joaquin Valley, which has the fewest state parks and least open space per capita in the entire state. The addition of a new, 2,100-acre state park in the heart of this region—only 20 minutes from the city of Modesto—really matters, especially to many local, low-income communities and communities of color whose residents are profoundly underserved when it comes to accessing nature. Creating state and local parks in this region in fact was a priority identified by the Parks Forward Commission in 2015, a partnership between the California Natural Resources Agency and Resources Legacy Fund (RLF).

The Dos Rios property was initially acquired for conservation in 2012 and 2014, by River Partners and the Tuolumne River Trust (TRT), working together to raise several million dollars to purchase the ranch from private owners. TRT’s work was supported by RLF grants and technical assistance from its Children and Urban Rivers Program (CURP), funded by the David and Lucile Packard, Stephen J. Bechtel, Jr., and James Irvine foundations. CURP focused on creating access to nature and children’s programs—particularly via river parks and parkways—for underserved communities in California, including several in the San Joaquin Valley. RLF staff helped grantees identify state funding sources for acquisitions and programmatic activities, and helped prepare materials about the project for state agencies and the media. (In fact, some of the funding for the Dos Rios acquisition derived from state bonds, such as Proposition 84, passed by voters after campaigns that RLF helped lead.)

Patrick Koepele, executive director of TRT, recently spoke in appreciation of RLF’s support of the effort from its earliest days, noting that RLF enabled TRT “to spend time knocking on doors and meeting with landowners along the river, which ultimately led to meeting [the owners of Dos Rios] which in turn led to a deal.” Beyond that early support, he added that RLF “provided invaluable advice” and “really took a chance on something that could have easily never paid off.”

After the ranch was acquired, River Partners spent nearly 10 years restoring the property, which had been identified as a potential park as early as 2009, in State Parks’ Central Valley Vision Implementation Plan. They brought back trees and shrub plants, transforming the former ranchlands into attractive habitat for returning wildlife, like rabbits, monarch butterflies, sandhill cranes, and ducks, while improving river stretches for fall-run Chinook salmon. Speaking to CNN, River Partners Director Julie Renter hoped that “When people come to visit [Dos Rios], they’ll be able to see ecosystem restoration in action, see compelling water management stories that are important as we think about climate change, drought, groundwater recharge, flood conveyance.” She added that she and her colleagues had “dreamed that one day, after this property was … restored and reforested, reconnected to the river, it would have public access.”

The state expects to take title to the land, which River Partners will donate, by the end of 2023, and public access will begin soon after. Because the acquisition will be via donation, $5 million in state funding will shift to expenses associated with the process of acquisition and launch of the park. State Parks Director Armando Quintero has promised to collaborate with the public to determine the services the park will offer. Possible amenities include trails, campgrounds, and kayaking or canoeing on the two rivers.

Renter has highlighted the collaboration required between River Partners and other partners, beginning with TRT, to restore the landscape and establish the park. “It’s a really cool model of partnership and collaboration across multiple different agencies, different programs, organizations, all coming together,” she pointed out. The project’s diverse funding illustrates the breadth of the Dos Rios alliance, with more than $45 million in acquisition and restoration funds coming from the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, Department of Water Resources, the Wildlife Conservation Board, and Natural Resources Agency; regional agencies including the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and Stanislaus County Public Works Department; nonprofits such as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and TRT; corporations including Sierra Nevada Brewing, New Belgium Brewing, and Pacific Gas & Electric; along with the United States Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Natural Resources Conservation Service.

RLF is proud to have been part of the more than a decade-long process of transforming Dos Rios from private land into a spectacular and accessible public destination for outdoor enjoyment. Official announcement of the new park brought smiles to many of our faces and we couldn’t agree more with River Partners’ Julie Renter, who said that the new state park will give “the people of California this tremendous recreational asset where none exists right now, in a location that can’t be matched.” Because, as Director Quintero noted, “Parks belong to all Californians.”