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 small retirement enclave of Sun City in Palm Desert, which abuts the Coachella Valley Nature Preserve, is full of people who consider the desert paradise. And yet the community has been pushing to build a fence between its land and the preserve to keep sand off its golf courses on windy days. But the fence would inhibit formation of the sand dunes critical to the survival of the fringe-toed lizard, for which the preserve was established in 1986 (the lizard needs the dunes to hide from elements and predators). The nature preserve, the first habitat-protection project of its kind in the country, cordoned off the last 5 percent of what was once a 100-square-mile dune system.
“Trying to stop the dunes would be like nailing the coffin shut on a number of threatened and endangered species,” says Cameron Barrows, the preserve’s regional director. “We have and we’re continuing to put in sand fences so it isn’t blowing onto the golf courses, and the county road crews are taking as much sand as they can and moving it at the upward end of the preserve to recycle it through the preserve again. But we’re finding protecting that last 5 percent extremely challenging. People come out here for the inexpensive land and don’t think carefully about what they’re buying.” Then again, says Barrows, who is as a rule polite and generous when it comes to the residents he has to negotiate with — many of his preserve’s docents hail from Sun City — how much careful thought does it take? “There are sand dunes looming over the property,” he says. “No one should have built homes there, and no one should have bought them.”
On the face of it, desert tortoise and bighorn sheep still fare well in Joshua Tree, but their good fortune may not extend beyond the current generation. The tortoise is increasingly threatened by a shell-softening virus brought in by humans and traffic; sheep face the dual threats of depleted water and genetic isolation. The sheep, says Joshua Tree’s wildlife biologist Amy Fesnock, are “obligate drinkers”; without a water source, they die, and “if we continue on the course that we’re currently on, bighorn sheep will become extirpated from the park,” she says, “because all the development that’s continuing around our boundaries is dependent on the tapping of the aquifer for its water supply. Eventually the springs and the seeps in the park, which are fed by that same groundwater, will run dry.”
Fesnock claims there are “indications that the spring at 49 Palms Oasis has been substantially reduced in the last 10 years due to development,” but she can’t yet prove it. “We haven’t been able to get funding together to actually connect the dots,” she says, and California has few laws to protect groundwater supplies in a wilderness. “The only way we can change the course of events is by proving that the water supply is being depleted by development. Basic logic indicates it’s true, but it’s very hard to prove.”
The sheep also need genetic diversity — they need to connect with other herds in nearby mountains. But Joshua Tree is increasingly an island, cut off from other herds by highways and homes. The loss of connectivity, says Fesnock, is “another one of those insidious things — if the sheep die, they’ll die a slow death, just like everything in the park.
“We have no problem putting in place the infrastructure to protect the human population — when the government goes to build a new road, they never put a new road that’s going to cut off a water line, or power transmission line. They recognize the importance of connectivity. Connecting populations of bighorn sheep is the same thing; it’s a power line. We need to be working to keep our open-space lands connected.”
In early April, I hiked and drove through the eastern side of the park, from Cottonwood Spring to Twentynine Palms, marveling at the spring display after a winter of healthy rain. Yellow marigold and white pincushion blanketed the hills, the ocotillo near the Fried Liver Wash was sprouting bright orange buds, and the yucca sent up white masts of flowers for which they store energy all year. I wondered how many people I knew would care whether this display ever happened again, and also wondered why they should. I came up with only this: In their profound sensitivity, our deserts serve as our global indicator species — the canaries, as it were, in our worldwide ecological coal mine. I remembered one long winter hike I’d taken in Anza Borrego State Park when it took me two hours of trail to notice that there was more to the landscape than green or brown; that there were small purple flowers on the edge of my path, and tiny orange buds on the ocotillos. We regard the desert as empty only because we don’t take the time to look. And if we in urban areas ignore the symptoms of our surrounding wild lands’ illnesses, we are also ignoring the deterioration of the environments we inhabit everyday.