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What’s Killing Joshua Tree National Park?

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.

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.

 

Nearly three-fourths of desert fires are caused by lightning, and there was a time when they did little damage: Desert plants normally grow far enough from one another that fire doesn’t spread fast among them. Had the desert been in the same condition it was 50 years ago, the 1999 lightning strike should have left behind nothing more than a small scorched patch. Instead, its spark caught a field full of tinder-dry grass parched from a hot spring and a yearlong drought, and the flame tore through the desert with unprecedented speed, destroying nearly 14,000 acres in just under three days. The Juniper Complex fire was the worst fire in Joshua Tree’s recorded history, which dates back to 1945.

 

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 communiqué 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 piñon 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 piñon 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.

 

 

(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.

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 Café 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.”

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.

“We abuse the land,” wrote the famed conservationist Aldo Leopold in the 1940s, “because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.” The quote, widely circulated among the ecology-minded, applies almost too well to Joshua Tree. To the local authorities who manage it, to the rock-climbing schools and even the National Park Service, the wilderness is a source of revenue. It is not, as Leopold advised, “a community to which we belong.” If it were, we would not treat the wilderness as an island in civilization, but recognize that everything that happens around it has an impact on it. In the end, the wilderness will only be saved when we understand Leopold’s definition of land: not just our national parks and forests, but our houses and green lawns, our office buildings and factories, our highways and city parks — the land we walk on and the air we breathe every ordinary day of the week.


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