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Astroturf Wars 

The fight is on to halt a subdivision near Joshua Tree

Wednesday, Apr 5 2006
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He shall enter also into the glorious land, and many countries shall be overthrown.

—Daniel 11:14

HARVEY NISKALA LIKES TO DESCRIBE what he does as “environmentally sustainable” architecture. A senior vice president and project manager at the City of Industry–based Glorious Land Co. (GLC), Niskala talks of building new communities that irrigate with reclaimed water, preserve the migration routes of native wildlife and keep streetlights from interfering with stargazing. The resort community that GLC’s architects propose for a delicate swath of desert 15 miles east of Indio would be the firm’s maiden effort, says GLC’s lawyer, Paul Selzer. But Niskala insists that he and his colleague, Eddie Wang, who left the Los Angeles Jerde group to work on projects integrated with nature, have a high regard for the local ecology. “We’re dedicated to treading lightly on that land,” says Niskaka.

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Environmentalists and community activists, however, question whether Niskala and GLC even know what that means. “It’s totally Astroturf,” says longtime desert activist and jojoba farmer Donna Charpied of Desert Center, who recently won a court battle challenging the sale of public land at Eagle Mountain to Kaiser/Mine Reclamation Corp. for a landfill to serve L.A. County Sanitation. “These guys are getting really good at betraying the public trust with their smart words.”

The land GLC has set its sights on — and which it bought for $400 an acre in 2000 — is a 6,400-acre parcel nestled between the Mecca Hills and Orocopia Mountains Wilderness areas near Joshua Tree National Park’s southern boundary. Called Paradise Valley, it would include 15,000 homes for 40,000 people, plus offices, resorts, schools, a “spiritual retreat” and at least one hotel. Water has been secured by way of a transfer agreement with the Metropolitan Water District; GLC would trade Kern River floodwater for water from the nearby Colorado River aqueduct, recharging the groundwater in advance of pumping it out via wells. The development would target a new breed of retiree, baby boomers with a keen interest in outdoor recreation. “From what we read in Golf Magazine,” says Niskala, “they’re not as single-minded in terms of golf. So we may even stop with two golf courses.”

Niskala knows that things have not gone particularly well for developers with designs on the land bordering Joshua Tree National Park. Opponents successfully shut out another park-adjacent development, Joshua Hills, on land that conservationists bought in October 2004 for $26 million. The primary architect of another golf-friendly resort, abutting the park’s popular Indian Cove climbing and camping spot, 31-year-old Twentynine Palms native Billy Barrett, fatally shot himself in the head — accidentally, some say — a week after a contentious late-February community meeting in which the city of Twentynine Palms balked at his rezoning requests. GLC faces significant opposition from local leadership, including Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent Curt Sauer, who argued in a letter to the Riverside Planning Commission that Paradise Valley would jeopardize a habitat-conservation plan currently pending in Riverside County, cause an increase in the human-dependent ravens that prey upon juvenile desert tortoises and lead to “eutrophication” of the desert — the spread of inappropriate nutrients from, say, golf-course fertilizer runoff — precariously close to the park.

Selzer scoffs at those complaints, calling them “silly” and “ridiculous.” When I raise the issue of whether golf-course irrigation might have an effect on the local humidity, he laughs so raucously he has to pull the phone away from his face. “I’m sorry to be incredulous,” he says when he returns, still chuckling. “But that’s just absurd.”

It wasn’t absurd last summer, however, when West Nile virus, borne by mosquitoes bred in irrigation runoff, turned up in the golf-centric communities of Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells. “We are changing the microclimate,” said James Saulnier, field supervisor for the Coachella Valley Mosquito and Vector Control District, to the Desert Sun back then. “The humidity and conditions in this environment are changing radically over the years.”

More diplomatically, Niskala boasts of GLC’s cooperative approach; he’s attended a workshop at the Sonoran Institute, a Tucson-based nonprofit that pushes community solutions to integrating development and conservation. “It’s not like anyone’s saying, ‘God, you guys are the gift to the desert,’ ” he admits. “We’re doing development; there’s no question about that. But we want to create a resort-style community that will grow in accordance with a respect for the land, and various agencies are excited about working with us.”

ON A RECENT MONDAY MORNING, as the melting icicles from an unusually generous late-season snow had begun to drip off the Joshua trees, I headed out with Howard Gross of the National Parks Conservation Association for a tour of what GLC’s opponents still call Shavers Valley. Geary Hund of the Wilderness Society came along to narrate, as did Donna Charpied. Mark Wheeler, a reporter for the small local newspaper the Hi-Desert Star, was there, too.

Although the rains came too late for a banner wildflower year, some ocotillo and barrel cactus were beginning to bud, along with some deep-blue Canterbury bells and scattered white pincushion; with the steep snow-covered flanks of San Jacinto visible in the east and the chocolate Orocopias lit up in the south, it was indeed glorious land. Hund talked about the rare, quiet beauty and natural biodiversity of the land officially known as “desert dry-wash woodland,” and led walks along the wildlife-migration routes under the I-10 freeway. Charpied counted the blossoms on the barrel cacti (on one: 24) and griped about how perchlorate-tainted Colorado River water could ruin the pristine local aquifer.

But it was Wheeler, a Joshua Tree resident since 1997 and a “transient climber” in the area for 10 years before that, who mounted the best defense for Shavers Valley. He has hiked every known route in the park — he can detail routes through the mountains from hundreds of feet away — and studied its flora down to the tiniest detail. The Palo Verde tree, he explained, has evolved to perform photosynthesis with its bark so as not to waste precious surface area — and water — on leaves. “When you look at this place and the impact [the development] is going to create, you have to ask yourself why. Why would they put it here?”

Niskala would answer that with one word: demand. (Selzer just says, “We own it.”)

“But there’s a demand for crack cocaine,” said Wheeler. “That doesn’t make it right. If you want to live in a place like this, and there’s no place for you, get on the waiting list.”

If there were a waiting list, it would be a long one: In the past year, home prices in the Coachella Valley have jumped by 30 percent, in the city of Joshua Tree by 22 percent. Near the Twentynine Palms Marine base, they nearly doubled. Last week, the Kaiser/Mine Reclamation Corp. and the Bureau of Land Management declared that they will appeal the ruling against the Eagle Mountain landfill. “Eighteen years have gone by, and now we’re facing another decade and $150,000,” said Charpied. “When are these guys going to go away?”

By “these guys,” she means not only Kaiser but developers like GLC. And the answer is, clearly, not soon. GLC has already discussed its plans with California Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife; when its first environmental study comes out this summer, its plans go to Riverside County’s unpredictable Board of Supervisors (desert district Supervisor Roy Wilson opposed the Joshua Hills development but supported the Eagle Mountain landfill).

“We have a lot of people excited about our vision for this land,” says Niskala. “And we’re very patient.”

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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