How Desert Advocates Are Trying to Protect the Landscape They Love - Pacific Standard
The number of visitors to Joshua Tree National Park has doubled in the past four years, an increase that spells trouble for local flora and fauna. But as tourism has increased, so have the numbers of conscious residents and conservation efforts.

Out on the Mojave Desert Land Trust's Section 33, a 624-acre parcel of desert apportioned by railroad checkerboarding in the 1850s, the trash is everywhere. in every line of sight. Styrofoam, plastic bags, candy wrappers—some of it thrown from the highway, some blown in from the nearby middle school ("It's amazing how much trash they make up there," marveled Adam Henne, a volunteer coordinator with MDLT).

The land is crisscrossed with off-highway vehicle trails—paths of desire that are the result of successive tramplings of the yucca shoots and creosote bushes—even though there is plenty of signage prohibiting anything larger than a mechanical bike. Walk around the area and there's a chance you'll spot a baby desert tortoise shell pecked to death by the overgrown raven populations, fattened by the scraps of food people toss aside. All this on a stretch of Earth that sits opposite the MDLT office, on the edge of the city of Joshua Tree.

The land here degrades even when it's not under direct abuse. The Mediterranean schismus grass that gives the modern desert both its yellow tinge and its flammability has taken root in recent years thanks, in part, to an abundance of nitrogen-based pollutants in the soil. Most people would probably assume it's a native plant; at this point it's associated with the desert landscape of Southern California nearly as much as the Joshua tree itself. But when schismus burns, the native plants die out and are replaced by live oak and other invasive species more adapted to taking root in burnt land. (Live oak will take root and grow faster than Joshua trees will, outcompeting them on burned land.)

This state of victimhood—of bearing both the direct and indirect brunt of civilization—applies to much of the land not explicitly protected in the Mojave Desert. It is, in many ways, a product of the abiding assumption that the land is uninhabited and unchangeable, a mere stage for whatever art or frivolity a person wants to indulge. Fact is, the desert is vibrant and alive but also fragile and slow to grow—and its vulnerabilities will only continue to manifest as more people come to the desert.

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The number of visitors to Joshua Tree National Park has doubled in the past four years, cruising just south of three million in 2017. This summer, the park increased entry fees from $25 to $30 in an attempt to make some headway toward cutting down on its $50 million backlog-maintenance tab (a cost that will only continue to swell with such heavy visitor attendance). But such fees don't apply to land outside of the park and national monuments. Most wildlife corridors, desert tortoise habitats, and fragile flora exist without the monetary and symbolic protection that entry fees and institutional designation provide. If the park is hurting, the land around it is hurting as well.

As Americans continue their inadvertently harmful affair with the desert—much has been written about how we are, essentially, "loving the desert to death"—local non-profits and the park itself are forced to find ways to conserve.

Land misuse isn't new in the desert. In the '90s and early 2000s, illegal dumping by residents affected the survival rates of desert tortoises and damaged local ecologies to the point of requiring restoration by the Bureau of Land Management. The difference now, though, is that the trash can no longer be ignored. "I'm from the rural south, Tennessee, and there were people who thought that was their right, and that seems to be desert-wide still," says Cody Hanford, executive director at the Transition Habitat Conservancy. "Maybe in the '80s there were just fewer people in your favorite spot. There wasn't an aggregate of dumping or masses of trash, but now we have so many people out here on a weekend." The same increase in visible damage goes for illegal off-highway vehicle use. The problem can no longer be hidden in the denser, more heavily trafficked Mojave of today.

Though by no means the only land stewardship non-profit in the Mojave, MDLT is among the most successful. MDLT has donated more tracts of land to the National Park Service than any other non-profit in the country since 2006, the year of the trust's founding. The land trust's projects include a robust seed bank, a nursery for local plant life, and citizen science training seminars.

Visibility is central to the organization's success. When I visited in May, they were building a float for the local Memorial Day parade. MDLT has created adventure kits—which include informational bandanas, maps, stickers, and a Spotify playlist, among other tidbits—to sell at hotels. MDLT volunteers set up shop at music festivals, where they give presentations to concertgoers. Whatever their project, the opening pitch is always the same: "Connect with the desert you love."

The locals I speak with are aware and appreciative, but also somewhat hazy, on MDLT’s work. "Here in the Morongo Basin [the valley in which Joshua Tree National Park lies], they think we do something good," says Henne, the volunteer coordinator. "They don't always know what exactly we do, but they go, 'Oh, you're one of those green people.'"

Most of the staff at MDLT I spoke to for this story were recent transplants to the area. Henne moved down a couple of years ago from Wyoming. Outreach manager Michael Mora moved from Los Angeles. So did Madena Absell, who directs the seed bank and nursery. Jessica Dacey, the communications czar, moved here a few months ago from Europe. They were all driven by the same curiosity—of the vast emptiness of the desert, and the hair-raising sense of solitude it offers.

Of course, it's these very sensations that the desert stands to lose if the influx of visitors continues unabated.

As the tourism boom continues, nature is continually altered. Heavy indiscriminate land use in wilderness areas—everything from trampling to sound pollution—can irreparably change the landscape. And there are human effects as well. The park search-and-rescue team has been stretched to its limits in recent years finding people unprepared for their desert adventures. Jaywalking and pedestrian accidents have reached a crisis point in the city of Joshua Tree.

Most desert conservation efforts focus on mitigating environmental degradation: picking up trash, closing illegal vehicle trails, cataloguing desert tortoise activity, and so forth. These tasks may seem small-scale—and they are—but, cumulatively, they can work: A recent study found that Section 33, the 624-acre parcel, has become a prime spot for Joshua tree growth.

An MDLT volunteer.

An MDLT volunteer.

The ethos of these conservation programs can be further seen in the humble process of vertical mulching. To restore land to a native state (specifically land that has been bladed flat into an off-highway vehicle trail or camping ground), volunteers drive bits of dead wood from the surrounding area into the ground, where they stick out like jagged rows of thin teeth. This odd-looking contraption serves as an ecological microclimate: The branches catch windblown seeds, create shade, and allow rare puddles of rainwater to form, which in turn helps plants to grow and re-assert their primacy in accord with the surrounding landscape. This is an effective process, but it's also a long one, taking around 10 years to complete. During that time, the landscape looks a bit like an art project, a series of wooden stakes acting as a visual deterrent for anyone who might think of driving across the land.

Visual deterrents aside, the conservationists have their work cut out for them. Damage outpaces restoration efforts. People continue to cut new trails, some on purpose (carefree kids with Jeeps) and some by accident (employees and attendees of a local music festival accidentally bladed 10 acres of protected land that they thought was their designated parcel, pulverizing the plant life with heavy foot and vehicle traffic).

The BLM won't be much help. The Barstow desert field office employs six field managers for all 11 million acres overseen by the BLM, with one district manager at their head. (Requests for comment to the Barstow field office went unanswered.)

In terms of best practices to combat these issues of scale, Ben Lawhon, the education director at the Leave No Trace, a national conservation non-profit, says that "we have some silver buckshot but don't necessarily have the silver bullet." Lawhon places some of the blame with the Internet, which he says gives people a false sense of security and understanding with our natural world.

"You can just find a place and go there without having to understand the location [to] understand better how to take care of a place," Lawhon says, adding that it is imperative that this contact happen before visitors arrive at their destination. Anything after arrival could be too late: Unless you fully understand the fragility of the desert, what harm could one off-trail drive really do?

MDLT is doing its part to provide this kind of preparatory contact for visitors. In an Earth Day exhibition on land near the trust's headquarters, artists received extensive guidelines of how to work with the land in their installations. One work, "Double Ellipsis" by California State University art department chair Sarah Vanderlip, was embroiled in a bit of early stage controversy when some conservation-minded locals worried the two mirrors that comprise the installation might reflect sunlight on and thereby damage nearby plants. But Vanderlip kept the issue in mind when crafting her mirrors; she made them out of aluminum rather than silver, which helped lower the intensity of the reflection.

As Michael Mora, the MDLT outreach manager, says, "I bet that, in this process, [Vanderlip] learned that this was Mormon Tea"—he points now at a nearby plant apparently called Mormon Tea. "That is information that gives me a sense of myself."

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