By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Nitrogen has been falling on the desert for more than a generation. The South Coast Air Quality Management District began issuing health warnings to residents of Southern California in the late 1960s, and in recent years, after a short period of improvement in the ’80s, the district’s air quality has taken a turn for the worse. Longtime visitors to Joshua Tree have been dismayed by the park’s deteriorating views, some of which have become so smog-choked that the surrounding San Gorgonios disappear in the summer. (“You call that a view?” one recent visitor complained up at Keys’ View, a 5,000-foot-high overlook from which, on a clear day, the Salton Sea should glitter in the distance.) This spring, the Environmental Protection Agency issued an interoffice communiquÃ© declaring that the park’s air had fallen short of national standards 38 days last summer, ranking among the worst in the National Park System and rivaling the Great Smoky Mountains, which is cloaked in the discharge of coal-burning factories and industrial pollution from the cities of Atlanta and Detroit.
I expected Gross to be happy about the EPA’s announcement — especially since it was based on a new, stricter eight-hour standard of measuring air quality (instead of one-hour increments that don’t always catch the cumulative effects of smog), a change environmentalists had been lobbying for. Recently, Gross and park superintendent Curt Sauer celebrated a small victory when they got the South Coast Air Quality Management District to team up with them on a new monitoring station in the park. But the longer I talked to Gross, the more the EPA’s announcement began to look like the Bush administration’s customary environmental doublespeak: “Healthy Forests” for more logging, “Clear Skies” for fewer restrictions on coal-fired power plants. The EPA’s new alarm about National Park air pollution obscures the fact that surrounding industries and communities now have more time to fix their toxic problems.
“The eight-hour standard recognizes that long-term, low-level exposure to ozone is detrimental to people’s health,” Gross said, “and that’s positive — that’s very good that they did that. But when they announced the details of the eight-hour standard, they also extended the deadline for when these areas had to come into compliance. For the South Coast AQMD, the deadline went from 2010 to 2021. For portions of the park it went from 2007 to 2013. The extension of those deadlines is really, really unfortunate. It removes the sense of urgency that more meaningful measures need to be taken.”
For the park’s ecosystem, there may not be that much time left. Since 1970, 40 percent of the park’s piÃ±on and juniper habitat has been destroyed by wildfires fueled by smog-fertilized grass, a disaster from which the slow-growing desert evergreens have so far been unable to recover. The park’s chief naturalist, Joe Zarki, adds that the park’s piÃ±on and black brush seem poised to disappear by the middle of the century. Mojave creosote, a bush so aggressively specific in its adaptive skills that it contains three times the chromosomes found in West Texas creosote, takes a decade to re-establish itself in the desert; a small shrub like black brush takes five times that long. A Joshua tree, which can live for hundreds of years, takes a century to be replaced. It’s not hard to understand, then, that within a few decades, if Angelenos stick to their SUVs and the federal government neglects to enforce restrictions on industrial pollution, this unique landscape at the confluence of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, where species of bighorn sheep and desert tortoise thrive like nowhere else on Earth, with its ocotillo and cholla gardens perfectly manicured by evolution and trees that looked to the Mormons like supplicants, will be stripped of its native plants. Wildlife will die off. Only the rocks will remain.
Â(Photo by Debra DiPaolo)
“What do you mean Joshua Tree is dying?” a friend asked when I started this story. “It’s so empty — what’s there to die?” This was not a person unfamiliar with the region, but a man who has spent the last 10 years documenting its changes, as old shacks have been renovated into luxury cabins by wayward San Franciscans, new restaurants have made freshly ground coffee commonplace and the Beatnik has blossomed into an ultrahip music venue where any night of the week a stressed-out bottle blond with pierced eyebrows will serve you with all the enthusiasm of a late-night waiter in the East Village. It’s the desert’s very emptiness that first appealed to my friend, just as it draws disenchanted professionals and the down-and-out alike: In its unbroken violet horizons and uninhabited expanses they find not only solace but a blank slate on which to inscribe their re-invented selves.
The perception of emptiness that Southern Californians so love about their deserts, however, is actually hurting them. Back in the 1950s, California’s singular high-desert wilderness was an oddity of interest to only geologists, historians and serious desert enthusiasts. But in the 1980s that began to change. Improvements in climbing technology and aggressive marketing of outdoor lifestyles started to make scaling rocks accessible to weekend hikers. Europeans in particular flocked to Joshua Tree’s monzogranite surfaces (there are now more than 4,500 named routes in the park). In 1984, the United Nations declared the monument an “International Biosphere Reserve,” cordoning it off for unenforceable protection, but it would take 10 more years for the United States Congress to upgrade the land to national park status.