What’s Killing Joshua Tree National Park? 

Fire, smog, golf courses . . . and maybe even coffee-loving, rock-climbing hipsters like you

Thursday, Jul 8 2004
Photos by Debra DiPaolo (left) and Sara Munro

It was, we all agreed, a beautiful fire. Five years ago, during the last week of May, a few friends and I hiked into Joshua Tree National Park just after sunset, intending to spend most of the night exploring its washes and climbing its soft granite boulders under a bright full moon. We convened at the Beatnik Café in downtown Joshua Tree, then a rundown serve-yourself coffee shop that offered magazine-strewn black tables and the rare twin luxuries of an Internet connection and espresso. From there, we drove to the Quail Springs Road backcountry trailhead, made camp at a flattish cluster of rocks three miles from the road and then set out to enjoy the night.

We were reckless, but not alarmingly so. Two of our six slipped after they trusted their hands to unstable rocks; I fell butt first on a cholla cactus. But the full-moon expedition — the first of many on different trails in other wilderness areas — would remain forever memorable, not simply for its thrills but for a scene we interpreted as exquisite: Just inside the park’s West Entrance, to the west of Quail Springs Road, a fire simmered on the rocky hillside, turning the moon blood-orange and filling the skies with spectacular light.

We didn’t lament that fire; we thought we knew enough about environmental cycles to assure ourselves that fire is a necessary event in the wildest places: In many northern and mountain woods, for instance, pines can’t germinate unless their cones explode, which only happens at the kinds of high temperatures that occur in a fire. Later we’d find out that lightning caused the blaze, which comforted us all the more — this wasn’t arson at work, but nature. But all our previous Outward Bound sojourns and minimum-impact backpacking seminars had taught us not a thing about the strange ecosystem of the desert, or about how succulents were not meant to burn.

Related Stories

  • We Wish We All Could Be Caprice's Kind of California Girl

    “This is myself with my best friend at the time, frying my skin," says the across-the-pond celebrity Caprice Bourret while looking at old photos, nibbling a scone at high tea at the Culver Hotel. "I used to be such a California girl. I used to fry. Hawaiian Tropic, no sunscreen at all."...
  • Porn Flight 14

    California porn studio Kink.com, which last year came under scrutiny for a condom-free production in which a woman who afterward turned up HIV-positive had performed, said this week that it's opening facilities in Las Vegas. The company, which was investigated by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) following...
  • Laker Girls Auditions: 10 Dancers Explain Why It's Their Dream Job

    Most of the hundreds of young women who showed up at the Laker Girl tryouts on Saturday had been dancing their entire lives. Some went to Juilliard. Some danced with world-class ballet companies. Some were professional cheerleaders with NFL teams. Since dance is not a fairly compensated field even at...
  • Eco Cheap

    Los Angeles has some of the highest rents in the nation, and our worst-in-America roads cost us dearly when it comes to wear and tear on our vehicles. But there's one thing we spend less on: Energy. Comparatively, whether we're talking about electricity or natural gas, we don't use that much. And that means...
  • California's Foie Gras Ban Possibly Headed to Supreme Court 3

    It's been two years since California banned the sale and production of foie gras, and it seemed to be a done deal. But a group of attorneys, as well as 13 other states outside of California, are hoping to raise the issue again. In fact, they're hoping to take it...

In the morning, after watching the sun push through the smoky sky to a near-psychedelic dawn, we were greeted at the trailhead by a ranger, who had spotted our cars. The fire had jumped the road, and the park had been evacuated the night before. “Who let you in?” the ranger wanted to know. We looked at him quizzically: The park entrance had been open and unmanned the night before, as it always is after business hours. A better question might have been: Why wasn’t there anyone around to stop us?

Survivor: Joshua trees can live for hundreds of years, but take a century to replace. (Photo by Debra DiPaolo)

Last January, I returned to the scene of the Juniper Complex Fire, as the 1999 fire was named, in the company of Howard Gross, the California Desert Field Representative for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). I was shocked at what I saw. A pine forest by now would have turned green and purple with lodgepole pine seedlings pushing through opportunistic fireweed; it might look more like a bucolic meadow than a fire-ravaged forest. But this was barren ground, with only charred stumps of black brush and cat’s claw left to punctuate the sandy desert floor.

Earlier in the day, Gross, a tall, slow-talking man not given to hyperbole, held a press conference for a tiny gathering of journalists to announce that Joshua Tree National Park had been listed for the second consecutive year as one of the 10 most endangered national parks in the U.S. Most of Gross’ evidence turned out to be at the burn site: acres and acres of nothing.

“We think we’ve lost 40 percent of the black brush in the last 30 years,” Gross said as he kicked a blackened stub, “and about a fifth of the Joshua trees,” all of it to fire — fires that should have ignited only a small area and died fast for lack of fuel.

What caused the fires to be so destructive? Los Angeles smog, for one thing. Arriving at that conclusion, however, requires a substantial detour through desert ecology, a minor chemistry lesson and a mind-bending understanding of the interconnectedness of everything in nature.

The problem begins with nitrogen, which along with sulfur dioxide and ground-level ozone, is one of the components of air pollution produced by internal-combustion engines in the form of nitric oxide (NO) and the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (NO2). Having blown in through the mountains, NO and NO2 bind to airborne dust particles and settle on the naturally nitrogen-poor desert floor.

Burned: Nearly a fifth of the park’s Joshua trees have been lost to fire. (Photo by Howard Gross/NPCA)

“It’s called ‘fertilizing the desert,’” says Gross. Plants that belong in the desert don’t need nitrogen, but non-native grasses, such as red brome and cheatgrass, thrive like backyard tomato plants on it, even in the absence of water. The grass grows tall and spreads in the winter, dries out in the spring, and efficiently conducts fire from plant to plant in the summer and fall.

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets


  • 21st Annual Classic Cars "Cruise Night" in Glendale
    On Saturday, spectators of all ages were out in multitudes on a beautiful summer night in Glendale to celebrate the 21st annual Cruise Night. Brand Boulevard, one of the main streets through downtown Glendale, was closed to traffic and lined with over 250 classic, pre-1979 cars. There was plenty of food to be had and many of the businesses on Brand stayed open late for the festivities The evening ended with fireworks and a 50th anniversary concert from The Kingsmen, who performed their ultimate party hit, "Louie, Louie." All photos by Jared Cowan.
  • The World Cup Celebrated And Mourned By Angelenos
    The World Cup has taken Los Angeles by storm. With viewings beginning at 9 a.m., soccer fans have congregated at some of the best bars in the city including The Village Idiot, Goal, The Parlour on Melrose, Big Wang's and more. Whether they're cheering for their native country, favorite players or mourning the USA's loss, Angelenos have paid close attention to the Cup, showing that soccer is becoming more than a fad. All photos by Daniel Kohn.
  • La Brea Tar Pits "Pit 91" Re-Opening
    Starting June 28th, The Page Museum once again proudly unveils the museum's Observation Pit, which originally opened in 1952 but has spent most of the last half century closed. Now visitors can get an up-close look at Pit 91, which is currently under excavation. The La Brea Tar Pits, home of the Page Museum, is one of the world's most famous ice age fossil locations, known for range of fossils from saber-toothed cats and mammoths to microscopic plants, seeds and insects. The new "Excavator Tour" is free with museum admission if purchased online at tarpits.org . All photos by Nanette Gonzales.