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
The landmark 1994 California Desert Protection Act, which Senator Dianne Feinstein pushed through with much fanfare, upgrading both Joshua Tree and Death Valley from national monuments to national parks, struck a careful balance between public and private interests, ecology and recreation (which includes not just hiking, camping and climbing but off-highway-vehicle rock crawling and target practice). But nowhere in its discussion of mining rights, military use or “unique scenic, historical, archeological, environmental, ecological, wildlife, cultural, scientific, educational and recreational values” is there any mention of lessening our impact from afar — nowhere does it mention that polluted air blowing in from Los Angeles, or garbage dumped at the parks’ borders, or the slow draining of their meager aquifers posed any immediate threat to their delicate ecosystems, as all these things already did 10 years ago when the law was passed. The image of wilderness that emerges is of a thing floating, independent and clean, in some alternate universe. “Protection” means managing only what happens within its boundaries, not what happens 200 miles away.
Nor does the act address the inevitable impact of development right along these wild lands’ boundaries. In the last 25 years, Joshua Tree’s annual visitor count has risen from 300,000 to 1.2 million, with no attendant rise in park funding to contain the impact. Rock climbing, once the province of a few dirtbag extremists, has become a fashionable American sport. But the park currently lacks the manpower to plant rangers in the field to interact with its new visitors, reminding them what “minimum impact” hiking and camping and rock climbing means.
The park, for instance, can post signs to discourage coyote feeding, but it rarely makes a difference in human behavior. “Coyotes [fed by passing motorists] give up hunting and stand by the road all day,” park superintendent Curt Sauer says. “Eventually, they get hit or die of malnutrition.” But one conversation with an onsite ranger typically ends the practice. “Education is an underfunded and underappreciated park-management tool,” says Sauer. “It should be right up there with funding to fix stuff that’s broken.”
If rock songs, travel stories and, most recently, a stylish French film have made the region extending from Twentynine Palms in the east to Desert Hot Springs in the west an even sexier vacation spot in the past 20 years, rising Southern California real estate prices have also made it an alluring place to live. Population in the Coachella Valley has doubled in the last 10 years and is expected to rise to half a million by 2010. On the park’s northwestern border, Yucca Valley has bloomed into a full-blown Riverside County exurb, complete with a bustling Wal-Mart, a 24-hour Sav-On and several grocery stores. In Twentynine Palms, which boasted 422 phones in 1952, Marines share breakfast counters with former Beverly Hills homeowners who buy vacation land here and end up staying right through the blistering summers. (Summer visits to the park have increased 240 percent in the last two years, in part because more people live on its borders.) Until recently, the strip of pristine land between the park itself and the Coachella Valley Nature Preserve (CVNP) had been slated for a 9,000-acre resort with 7,000 homes and 12 golf courses. (The developer, Cathton Holdings, Ltd., abandoned its plans for its Joshua Hills resort under pressure from conservationists, and the land will soon be sold to the Nature Conservancy for preservation.)
The unincorporated town that bears the park’s name, which has grown from 500 in the 1950s to more than 15,000, is not likely to escape the steady march of development. “Palm Springs is over,” says Clea Benson, a West Hollywood resident who owns the building that houses the Crossroads CafĂ© and Rattler Fine Foods in the center of town. “People are going to start looking around for the next place, and Joshua Tree is a logical place to look.” Benson and her husband have plans to establish a wine bar and bakery across the street . . . “if we could only find someone who could bake.” But will the town’s artists, musicians and rock climbers, most of whom come to Joshua Tree to find refuge from the soaring costs of urban living, patronize a wine bar? “Starbucks opened up in Yucca Valley last year and figured they’d do $15,000 in their first month,” Benson says. “They did that in their first week. That’s a real sign that people have disposable income.”
Benson insists the expansion is inevitable. “We have a chance to turn Joshua Tree into a sanctuary like Santa Fe,” she says. “And my goal in all of this, the reason I’m putting my money where my mouth is, is that since this town is going to grow, and needs to grow, let’s take a proactive approach to it and make it happen right — not the way it happened in Yucca. Let’s keep it funky and down-to-earth.”
And environmentally sound? Howard Gross is alternately proud of and worried about the town’s improved food and entertainment. “It’s a great thing to have when you live here,” he admits. “But is that what we want to be promoting our parks for? We have to be careful not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”