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

  • Hollywood's Tax Win

    Jerry Brown, California's skin-flint governor, acceded Wednesday to an increase in the film tax credit to $330 million. Brown is a well-known skeptic of Hollywood subsidies, but the combined forces of organized labor, multinational entertainment conglomerates, and B-list celebrities proved too powerful to resist. The industry didn't get the $400...
  • $100 Short 8

    L.A. is the most unaffordable rental market in the United States. And if you're lucky enough to be in the market to buy your own place, you're also facing some of the highest prices in the nation. Now comes word that the cash in your pocket has become less valuable...
  • Are You Ready to Vote on Weed Shop Policing? 3

    A proposed law that would have established policing of marijuana dispensaries statewide was essentially killed in the California legislature last week. Dale Gieringer, state coordinator of California NORML, says it's now time to take the matter directly to voters. He envisions the possibility, in 2016, of an initiative that would...
  • Porn's Condom Law Goes Down

    A proposal, dreaded by the porn industry, that would have mandated condom use for adult performers on-set throughout the state of California, was essentially defeated in the legislature today. The bill by L.A. state Assemblyman Isadore Hall would have expanded L.A. County's own mandatory condom rules to reach across the...
  • Porn Company Kink.com Says Oral Sex Doesn't Require Condoms

    Last week the AIDS Healthcare Foundation told the world that it has filed a complaint with Nevada's Division of Occupational Safety and Health over a Kink.com adult video shoot in Las Vegas where condoms were not used. The group argues that federal law, which seeks to protect workers from on-the-job...

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

  • Venice Boardwalk Beat-Down Caught on Video

    A brutal beating next to the Venice boardwalk this week was captured on video (on the next page). Los Angeles Police Department detectives are asking for your help in tracking down not only the suspect, but the victim, who "we haven't been able to locate," Officer Nuria Venegas told us...
  • L.A. Porn Production Shuts Down Over HIV Report

    The adult video industry's trade group today called for a moratorium on production after a performer might have tested positive for HIV. The Los Angeles-based Free Speech Coalition said in a statement that one of the facilities used by porn stars under the industry's voluntary, twice-a-month STD testing protocol "reported...
  • Here are the Winners and Losers in California's $330 Million Film Tax Subsidy

    Jerry Brown, California's skin-flint governor, acceded Wednesday to an increase in the film tax credit to $330 million. Brown is a well-known skeptic of Hollywood subsidies, but the combined forces of organized labor, multinational entertainment conglomerates, and B-list celebrities proved too powerful to resist. The industry didn't get the $400...
Los Angeles Concert Tickets