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The magical California state park that doesn't allow visitors

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The magical California state park that doesn't allow visitors

About 60 miles north of Sacramento, the Sutter Buttes rise starkly from the floor of the Central Valley, the remnants of a volcano active more than 1.4 million years ago. Their cathedral-like spires twist upward, some reaching more than 2,000 feet into the sky — an imposing circular formation, 10 miles in diameter, that’s been called “the smallest mountain range in the world.”

Sheltered within these lava domes is an oasis of rolling hills, rich with wildflowers and Native American artifacts, and watched over by hawks and countless other species of birds.

Bitter debates over the lack of public access to the Sutter Buttes have roiled for years. But most everyone on both sides agrees on this: They encompass some of the most magical and otherworldly terrain in California. Long sacred to Native American tribes, the formation is now home mainly to cattle that chomp grass behind stone walls built by Chinese laborers more than a century ago, oblivious to the fact that some people want to throw open the gates and some want to keep them locked forever.

For the last two decades, the Sutter Buttes have also been home to a California state park that almost no one is allowed to visit.

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For the record:

7:30 a.m. May 20, 2024An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of the famed landscape architect who helped establish the National Park Service as Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. His last name is spelled Olmsted.

In 2003, the state of California spent about $3 million to buy 1,800 acres on the north side of the buttes, including an idyllic stretch of emerald called “Peace Valley.” The government has eyed a park in this ruggedly beautiful landscape since the inception of the state parks system in the 1920s. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., the famed landscape architect who helped establish the National Park Service and also surveyed potential parkland for California in those early years, put it on a state park wish list, along with such gems as Point Lobos on the Monterey County coast and Donner Lake in Northern California.

In 2005, the state finally achieved its goal — sort of. The State Park and Recreation Commission officially declared its 1,785 acres a park. The property has its own state-sponsored webpage and a budget for conservation and maintenance.

What it does not have is any way for the public to get in.

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“Please note: There is currently no public access point to enter this park,” reads a notice in big red letters at the top of the webpage.

Beneath that are breathtaking photos: sunlight glinting off a placid lake; a dirt road leading up a verdant hill; a haunting photo of the buttes at sunset — from a distance.

That last image — the one from a distance — is the only way most people can view the park.

Most of the land in the Sutter Buttes is held by a handful of families, some with holdings dating to the 19th century, who use the fields to graze cattle and sheep.

(Brian Baer / California State Parks)

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The issue, according to current and former parks officials, is that all the roads leading into the Sutter Buttes are privately owned. And none of the landowners — some of whom have had title to the land since before California entered the union — will give the state permission to use those roads for park visitors. Nor has the state found anyone willing to sell them property near a public road that could be used to access the park.

With the impasse in its 20th year, state officials instead allow a few people into the park on occasion for carefully guided visits.

State parks officials were not available for an interview to discuss the situation, but said in a statement that the department “continues to look for opportunities to either secure land or easements to provide access.” So far, nothing has come up.

Many locals say the current status — an empty state park — suits them just fine. The Sutter Buttes are a precious ecosystem, they say, filled with delicate tribal artifacts and threatened species. It isn’t the same, they argue, as a state park in the immense Sierra Nevada or vast inland deserts or along the glittering coast.

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“This little blob in the middle of the Sacramento Valley is so sensitive to encroachment,” said Marty Steidlmayer, 59, whose family has owned land in the Sutter Buttes since the 1930s. A state park, he said, would “let people in, free and unattended,” which could lead to vandalism, fires and degradation. “It’s not a good idea,” he said.

Sutter County Supervisor Mat Conant agreed. “It is more important to protect those land rights,” he said, noting that “some families have held that land for close to 200 years.”

Francis Coats is one of the few local landowners who think the state needs to find a way to let in the public.

“It’s absolutely beyond me why it’s not open,” said Coats, whose family has been in the area since the 19th century. Coats said he owns a small interest in 160 acres on the north side of South Butte, and so strong is the antipathy toward access that he faced death threats when he first tried to visit his own parcel.

The sun sets over the Sutter Buttes.

Debates over the lack of public access to the Sutter Buttes have roiled for years. But both sides agree the buttes encompass some of the most magical terrain in California.

(Brian Baer / California State Parks)

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The Sutter Buttes, though little heralded in modern-day California, have played an outsize role in the state’s history.

The Maidu people took refuge there for thousands of years during periods when the Sacramento Valley flooded. They believed it was a resting point for spirits on their journey to the afterlife.

In the 1840s, Kit Carson and Gen. John C. Fremont, fresh from their savage massacres of Native Americans in the north state, hid out in the buttes and plotted to seize California from Mexico. Then they headed to Sonoma County to lend support to the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846. Their Republic of California was short-lived, but helped stoke the Mexican-American War, which paved the way for California to join the United States.

When state officials first proposed a park in the Sutter Buttes in the 1920s, local newspapers took the opportunity to celebrate this history.

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“These rugged hills hold a prized place in the hearts of Californians,” the Sacramento Union wrote in 1931. “They are indelibly linked with the romance of the state’s secession from Mexican rule.”

The park didn’t come to fruition then, and the Depression and World War II created other priorities.

The state tried again in the 1970s, putting money in a parks bond to fund the purchase of tens of thousands of acres in the Sutter Buttes. Local landowners were horrified, and the county Board of Supervisors voted in opposition. “We’ll fight them, right down the line,” Supervisor J.A. Bagley told the local newspaper.

The state backed down. But within the parks department, some never dropped the dream.

The department’s chief of land acquisition, Warren Westrup, knew how to play a long game. Westrup, who worked for the state for 37 years, figured out how to put together parcels of land, piece by piece, until a vision came to fruition.

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He did it in the Santa Monica Mountains, where state officials devised ways to purchase land for a trail that connects communities from Los Angeles to Malibu; and in Chino Hills, buying one canyon after another until eventually a whole park came to fruition.

In 2003, Westrup heard through an intermediary that someone with land in the buttes was looking to sell. He arranged for its purchase, even though he was aware the property was surrounded by private land blocked by private gates and accessible only via a private road.

Parks officials moved forward to establish the park with the notion that they eventually could persuade someone else to sell them land adjacent to a public road, where they could build a parking lot, bathrooms and maybe a few tents for people to camp.

The problem: No one would sell.

A pair of bathtubs in a green meadow.

Government officials have pursued a park in the Sutter Buttes since the inception of the state parks system in the 1920s.

(Brian Baer / California State Parks)

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Most of the land in the buttes is held by a small number of legacy families who primarily use the fields for grazing cattle and sheep. No one lives in the interior, although there are a few homes on the outside.

After the state pushed for a park in the 1970s, some landowners feared the government might take their property. To stave that off, they began providing guided tours that granted limited access to the public and also to researchers. Local schoolchildren were also invited in.

They hired a manager, who moved into a cabin for the job, along with his wife, their golden retriever and their cat. They fell in love with the quiet grandeur of the area — all except for the cat, who was snatched by an eagle and never seen again.

“Some places just attract us more powerfully than others,” Walt Anderson, the manager, explained in a 2006 oral history. “I mean, everybody loves the profile of the buttes when they pass it, but once they get inside, I mean, they’re hooked.”

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Steidlmayer, who owns land adjacent to the state park, said officials have told him “that the state will buy anything that we would be willing to sell. But that is the last thing my family would ever do.”

Even some outdoor enthusiasts have reservations about opening the park.

Lisa Lindman, executive director of the Sutter Buttes Regional Land Trust, said she has come to view the issue as “really complicated.”

She wants the public to be able to appreciate the peace and beauty of the buttes, but echoed landowners’ concerns about the delicate ecosystem and centuries-old Native American artifacts that remain largely untouched.

In lieu of full public access, Middle Mountain Interpretive Hikes, a sister organization to Lindman’s land trust, leads private tours for small groups of people who pay about $35 apiece for a carefully supervised hike. Reservations can be hard to come by. The Middle Mountain hikes do not enter the state parkland. Instead, they traverse private land near the park under a long-standing agreement with landowners that grew out of those early tours from the 1970s.

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On a recent spring day, a tour group wound up dirt roads and through locked gates in a small caravan of cars, before parking near the center of the range. Volcanic domes rose above a green meadow. Wind rustled through the grass. A flock of snow geese passed overhead, their silver wings gleaming against a blue sky.

From atop the lava domes, it was possible to see Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta. The snow-capped Sierra stood to the east. After a precarious scramble down, group members traversed the grassy base of the domes and came to the edge of the state park at Peace Valley. A guide warned the tour group they did not have permission to enter.

Ruth Coleman, who was head of the Department of Parks and Recreation when the site was designated a state park, said she hopes California will keep pushing to find a way to change that, while putting measures in place to preserve the land.

“It’s classified as a state park. And a state park has access,” Coleman said, adding: “I’ve been there. … It’s magic.”

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2 climate activists were arrested after spraying orange paint on Stonehenge

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2 climate activists were arrested after spraying orange paint on Stonehenge

In this handout photo, Just Stop Oil protesters sit after spraying an orange substance on Stonehenge, in Salisbury, England, on Wednesday. (Just Stop Oil via AP)

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Two climate activists have been arrested at Stonehenge in England after spraying orange paint on the well-known historic landmark.

The group Just Stop Oil took credit for the Wednesday action, which they said was a call on the United Kingdom to stop the use of fossil fuels by 2030.

“Continuing to burn coal, oil and gas will result in the death of millions. We have to come together to defend humanity or we risk everything,” Just Stop Oil said in a press release.

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The group said the orange cornflour used on the monument would wash away in the rain.

It identified the two activists responsible as University of Oxford student Niamh Lynch, 21, and Birmingham resident Rajan Naidu, 73.

The Wiltshire Police confirmed that officers arrested two people on suspicion of damaging Stonehenge.

The action took place just one day before the summer solstice — the longest day of the year — when thousands of people are expected to descend upon the historic monument.

English Heritage, the group that manages Stonehenge, said in a post on X that the site remains open. It called the incident “extremely upsetting” and said its curators were assessing the extent of any damage.

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In its press release, Just Stop Oil said it wouldn’t be enough for the UK to stop any future oil and gas licenses, but rather urged the government to sign a legally binding treaty barring it from extracting and burning oil, gas and coal by the year 2030.

UK political leaders were quick to condemn the demonstration.

In a post on X, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “Just Stop Oil are a disgrace.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer, who is running against Sunak in the upcoming election, saidthe damage done to Stonehenge was “outrageous.” Starmer called Just Stop Oil “pathetic” and said those responsible for the action “must face the full force of the law.”

It’s the latest public protest initiated by activists with Just Stop Oil, whose members have also interrupted tennis matches at Wimbledon, disrupted the London pride parade and defacedclassic works of art.

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Celeb Hologram Creator Hit with $900 Million Sexual Assault Verdict

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Much Ado About First Folios — the world's largest Shakespeare collection reopens

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Much Ado About First Folios — the world's largest Shakespeare collection reopens

The new main exhibition hall at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., on June 14, 2024.

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Jared Soares for NPR

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. — home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection — is emerging from a four-year metamorphosis that has left it almost entirely transformed — new museum spaces, new leadership announced, new programming outreach.

After years of being available only to scholars, the jewels of the library’s collection — 82 copies of Shakespeare’s “First Folio,” printed 400 years ago — will now be together on public display for the first time.

We got a behind-the-scenes sneak peek to look at how the Folger is reaching out to new audiences.

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Shakespeare and the classics in Chocolate City

So much has changed at the Folger Shakespeare Library since it closed for renovations in January 2020, that it makes sense that the show reopening its performance space is called Metamorphoses. Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Ovid’s epic Roman poem is all about change, and Karen Ann Daniels, who directs programming for the Folger and is artistic director of its theater, sensed that it could speak to underserved audiences in D.C. if the Folger Theatre did it right.

“The play could really lean into the larger history of the populations of D.C.,” she said. “I’m totally thinking Chocolate City. That’s really where my idea came from.”

Her idea was to do the play with an all-Black cast, a notion director Psalmayene 24 wasn’t sure he was on board with until Memphis police officers fatally injured Tyre Nichols, a Black FedEx employee, last year during a traffic stop. The director said he worked through his grief at the incident by incorporating elements of the Black diaspora into Metamorphoses to celebrate Black humanity.

Artistic Director of the Folger Theatre Karen Ann Daniels at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., on  June 14, 2024.

”The play could really lean into the larger history of the populations of DC,” said Folger Theatre Artistic Director Karen Ann Daniels, shown here in the Folger’s performance space on June 14, 2024.

Jared Soares for NPR


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“So in some ways this play is a response to America’s own proclivity for lethal anti-Blackness,” he said. “And when you do a show like this at a place like Folger, it says something about how not only Folger Theatre is changing, but how American culture is changing, how D.C. is changing, and how universal the stories that pass through this theater actually are. These stories are for everyone, and can be told in many different ways.”

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The librarian has a favorite First Folio. It’s not the fanciest one.

A huge display case in the middle of the library’s new exhibition space glows softly, quietly announcing that it contains the Library’s crown jewel: 82 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio printed in 1623 — more than a third of all the copies that are known to exist.

The First Folio marked the first time, just a few years after Shakespeare’s death, that his works were collected into a single volume, which makes it a benchmark for scholars. But no two of the copies collected by Henry and Emily Folger in their lifetime look the same. Some are skinny, others massive.

The main exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library

One of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 82 copies of the First Folio, the Bard’s complete works printed in 1623, just a few years after his death.

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“These were all printed in 1623,” confirmed Folger librarian and director of collections Greg Prickman, “in the printshop of William Jaggard and his son Isaac, but over the intervening 400 years a whole lot has happened to these books. Sometimes they get damaged and parts are removed. Sometimes parts are added from other copies.”

Asked if he has a favorite, he headed to the far right side of the display case, past Folios prettily bound in leather with gold tooling.

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“The one that I like the most is #30 — the only copy in this collection that has the original binding that was put on when this book was first purchased, not long after it was printed.

“So, if you wanted to see, ‘What does Shakespeare’s First Folio look like when it was just another quote-unquote new book?’ that’s the copy that you’re gonna be looking at, is #30.”

A sampler of Shakespearean insults

To the right of the main display case, there’s a smaller interactive display that lets you create a Shakespearean conversation. We only spent a few moments with it, but the display makes its own selections from phrases in the Bard’s plays once you choose a category — perhaps “blessing” (“You have been nobly born”) or “burning” (“Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee”).

We only played with it for a few minutes, but we note that the plays contain a full complement of Shakespearean insults, so in theory, it could have you spouting such Elizabethan invective as:

“Away, thou rag, thou quantity, thou remnant.” (Taming of the Shrew, Act 4, scene 3)

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“I am sick when I do look on thee.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2, scene 1)

“I must tell you friendly in your ear, Sell when you can; you are not for all markets.” (As You Like It, Act 3, scene 5)

“More of your conversation would infect my brain.” (Coriolanus, Act 2, scene 1)

“The rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril.” (The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 3, scene 5)

“And thou unfit for any place but hell.” (Richard III, Act 1 scene 2)

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“Villain, I have done thy mother.” (Titus Andronicus, Act 4, scene 2)

“Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon!” (Timon of Athens, Act 4, scene 3)

The Mulberry Conundrum

The exhibition space has lots of rare manuscripts in a room called “Out of the Vault,” which of course made us wonder what else is in “the vault,” which is not open to the public. So we asked, and were led down a staircase to an imposing, steel, bank-vault door, behind which lie the refrigerated (“because that makes the books happy”) library stacks containing the quarter of a million other volumes in the Folger’s collection.

There are also 100,000 objects down here, ranging from paintings of the Bard, to props, costumes, models and “pieces of the tree,” said Prickman, enigmatically.

Folger Shakespeare Library Director of Programming and Exhibitions Greg Prickman outside the main exhibition hall.

Librarian Greg Prickman is the Folger’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions.

Jared Soares/Jared Soares for NPR

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“The mulberry tree,” he continued when pressed. “’Objects associated with Shakespearean legends’ is probably the best way to put it. I’m not the one to tell this story.”

So we looked it up.

Shakespeare allegedly planted a mulberry tree at his home in Stratford. More than a century later in the 1750s, the home’s then-owner, Rev. Francis Gastrell, got so tired of people asking to see it that he chopped it down, and local entrepreneur Thomas Sharpe bought the wood and had it crafted into Shakespearean souvenirs — everything from a carved casket that was presented to actor David Garrick (1717-1779), to snuff boxes and medallions.

So many items were created that they pretty clearly didn’t all come from one tree, but the Folger has some.

Why the Folgers placed a bet on the Humanities

The impulse to reach a more universal audience is what led Folger Library director Michael Witmore to spearhead the library’s $80.5M rethink — a wholesale “metamorphosis,” if you will, of a building and a mission that had been, frankly, functioning quite well.

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“For the first part of the Folger’s existence, it was primarily a research library,” said Witmore, “serving scholars who were studying everything from animal husbandry to lyric poetry to theater. But we have the facilities and collection to do more, and this renovation allows us to take a world-class research library and surround it with a cultural institution that is a destination.”

A destination in the service of words written more than 400 years ago. Words that are also available digitally — “we digitize in order to create access, said Prickman, “and we exhibit materials in order to create access. The originals remain.”

And the presence of those originals just down the block from the Library of Congress, U.S. Capitol, and Supreme Court, was a big part of the intention of Henry and Emily Folger, said Witmore.

A view of the new underground entrance to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibition areas.

A view of the new underground entrance to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibition areas.

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“We need these words and these stories to elevate our sense of what’s possible as citizens. When you think about what happens in the Capitol, which is where words — you may not agree with them, you may think they’re funny or shallow — but it’s where words really matter. Including when the court is looking at what those words mean.

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“So to put a Shakespeare library where his works are being performed, and where people are working through the poems and other things, right in this spot I think is a big bet on the importance of the humanities and the arts in a functioning democracy.”

Story edited and field produced by Jennifer Vanasco. Broadcast story produced by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento.

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