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Opinion: When Joshua Tree National Park was my Home

posted Feb 8, 2019, 6:33 AM by Rahni Sumler   [ updated Feb 8, 2019, 6:40 AM ]
Reposted from Susan Grigsby at Daily Kos 

It was late afternoon when we pulled into the Cottonwood Springs Campground on that September day in 1989. The only ones there, we sat outside of our motorhome and enjoyed a glass of wine and watched while the sunset turned the desert gold. Although this was not the Chihuahuan Desert of Big Bend, where we had been visiting friends, this expanse of the high Colorado Desert, part of the larger Sonoran Desert, was just as beautiful. This was our introduction to Joshua Tree National Monument.

Josha National Monument in 1936

Designated in 1936, Joshua Tree was initially called a National Monument. It is located in California, east of Los Angeles, near Palm Springs. Image attributed to the Joshua Tree National Park.

My husband loved to tell the story of how the next morning, when he took our dog out for a walk around the deserted campground, it was so still that he could actually hear the wind through the wings of a raven that circled them before deciding our Sheltie would not make the meal he desired, and flew away. 
There is a stillness in a desert park like Joshua Tree that you cannot find anywhere else. With no leaves for the wind to rustle, it is quiet there: peaceful and serene. And just like being on the ocean, the eye can travel for miles with no obstruction, to the distant mountains across the desert basin.
We did not know then that we would fall in love with that desert and eventually settle there, happily spending the next 23 years in and near the national monument. We just knew we would volunteer to work there for the coming winter season.

Employment and Volunteers at National Parks in the 1980s

It would not be our first gig as volunteers in our national parks. Three years earlier we had spent a season as volunteers at Big Bend National Park in Texas. It was a wonderful experience, and even though we worked the visitor centers alongside the interpretive division rangers, most of our friends were members of the maintenance staff who lived in the park housing, just behind the headquarters.

Big Bend included us in the two-week orientation that was given to all seasonal rangers in the interpretive division. We learned of the geology, the history, and the life that filled the park. In so doing, we learned to truly appreciate the young men and women who were employed by the Park Service on a seasonal basis. They all had degrees, some advanced, and were working the winters in the desert parks and the summers up north in the mountain parks. It was clear that they were doing it for the love of the parks, as the money was well below what they could have earned in the private sector.

These were the rangers who took visitors on walks and hikes, explaining the park, teaching the history and the geology of the riparian zone along the Rio Grande River. Or up into the Chisos Mountains, where wildlife abounded and the trails—I swear—only led uphill. They were expected to develop the walks and talks on their own, while putting in hours behind the desk of the visitor center.

The maintenance staff tended to be an older crowd, with whom we actually had more in common. They worked hard at keeping the roads clear and potholes filled, the generators working, and the water flowing, as well as caring for the structures within the park. 

Although there were a few employee housing areas within the park, the one behind the Panther Junction headquarters was where most of them lived. That is where we had an RV site with water, sewer, and electricity. After a day’s work, it was common for people to gather around a campfire or the kitchen table of one of the staff. Long-lasting friendships develop when you live together in an isolated housing area. 
Although many of the resident maintenance staff were married, few had children with them, although the management staff often did. There was a small preschool in the housing complex and older children were bussed long distances to attend schools outside of the park. 

Among the younger interpretive staff there were few married couples. Romances happened, and friendships were formed. It did seem that these rangers were more likely than any of the others to spend their time off hiking across the desert or rafting down the Rio Grande. They were young, and they worked hard.

just like being on the ocean, the eye can travel for miles with no obstruction, to the distant mountains across the Desert Basin

At that point we were in year five of what would be 12 years of nomadic traveling in a motorhome. We both loved to travel, visiting the National Parks all over the country. We enjoyed being in a position to give back through the VIP (Volunteers in Parks) Program that the National Park Service had established in 1970 even more.

In 1989, we returned to Big Bend, spending time with good friends we had made three years earlier. We had to decline the invitation to volunteer with the maintenance division, as we needed to be closer to a medical facility than was possible at Big Bend.

Joshua Tree National Park

Color photo of current entrance sign to Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Monument became a national park in 1994 when the U.S. Congress passed the California Desert Protection Act. Image attributed to Bachelot Pierre J-P, Wikimedia Commons

And so we headed west to the California coast, in what was nominally “home.” That day’s drive had begun in Flagstaff, Arizona, and ended at the Cottonwood Campground of Joshua Tree National Monument.
We returned to Joshua Tree in October to begin a six-month tour as maintenance volunteers at Cottonwood. At the far southern end of the Park, Cottonwood was the only campground, within the main boundaries of the park that had water and flush toilets. That and the fact that we had a dump station meant that we hosted the majority of RV visitors. Cottonwood also had lovely group campgrounds.

When we started, the only residents of the Cottonwood housing area were a single interpretive ranger who spent most of his off time hiking or working on his latest book on the park, and a maintenance worker, with his family, who really wanted a full-time employee, not a couple of volunteers. Most VIPs were campground hosts, or worked the visitor centers, handing out maps and collecting fees. The maintenance division at Joshua Tree had never had volunteers and there was a slight resistance to our introduction. The concern was that volunteers would be taking jobs from paid employees. However, since there was no money in the budget for a paid employee, we were grudgingly accepted.

It turned out that Jim and my husband Ed became fast friends, traveling out to the well to test the water and adjust the chlorine, feeding the generator that supplied power to the housing area and the visitor center, and maintaining the campground in pristine condition for the visitors. I was allowed to work with power tools! I painted the entrance sign shown above, as well as the vacant houses in the employee housing area.

Confusion and Dehydration: A Duck in the Desert

It was the following spring, on Mothers’ Day, that a man, crying in the middle of the campground road, was devastated when his girlfriend killed his baby duck and wandered off into the desert. His concern was for his dead duck (although why someone would bring a duck to a desert park was beyond my imagination), who, he claimed, had never hurt anyone. It was, he said, the sweetest little duck you could ever meet.

Our concern was not for his duck, but for the woman who hiked off across the desert, carrying no water or sun protection. A missing person in the desert is a cause for great concern. Dehydration does kill, but first, it confuses. 

Since we did not have a resident law enforcement ranger that year, I joined Jim in the park pickup to check the ladies rooms in the campground and the visitor center. While in the truck, I was able to monitor the park radio traffic as word spread that the missing woman had stomped the man’s duck. “The man’s what?” was the common response. 

Law enforcement finally arrived (we were almost an hour from headquarters) and took over the search, allowing Jim to return to his family and me to return to mine, who had driven up from Carlsbad for the holiday.

The Fragile Desert: Care and maintenance for National Parks

Joshua Trees of Joshua National Park

Joshua Tree (15077639060)

The park is named for the Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) native to the Mojave Desert. Image attributed to Christopher Michel [CC BY 2.0], Wikimedia Commons
The following year we were on the road again, volunteering at Mammoth Cave National Park, where the chief of maintenance at Joshua Tree was now the assistant superintendent. Once again, the maintenance staff resisted the introduction of a volunteer into their ranks, but Ed was a Marine, with the work ethic that said when there was a job to be done, you did it. It didn’t take all that long for him to earn their respect and become a member of the family.

But Joshua Tree called us back, and Ed wanted to live somewhere that had no snow, so we returned for a season and stayed for 18 months before we bought our home in Twentynine Palms on the northern boundary of the Park, right next to Indian Cove.

It was during this second visit that we realized visitors had no idea of the reality behind the beauty of the park. It was Easter weekend and all campgrounds in the park were full, including the group campgrounds at Cottonwood, when a couple came into the visitor center to pay their camping fee. 

They complained about the sprinklers running all night and disturbing their sleep. The ranger found that fascinating since no national park, much less one in the desert, runs sprinklers in campgrounds. They had camped out of bounds, but near the main water line to the campground and the housing area. The line, older than it should be, had sprung a leak. The visitors just assumed it was a sprinkler. In a desert.
Our water was piped from a well way out on the desert floor into a huge 50,000 gallon water tank up on a hill overlooking Cottonwood. From there, gravity fed it into the campground, visitor center, and employee housing area. Part of Ed’s responsibility was to check the level of the water in the tank, test the quality, and ensure that it was full for busy weekends. He had done so just the day before.

The leak emptied the water tank.  That meant no water for toilet flushing, and no water in the visitor center or the housing. It would take days to refill the water tank and so we had to close the campground. There were around 16 employees living in the housing area at the time, and they had to ration what water was still left.
To the two campers, the National Park was very much like Disneyland. They expected to be safe and dry, and did not understand why the timers never turned off the water.

This sense that the maintenance of the park was done at night by unseen gnomes using magical animatronic powers seemed to be shared by a lot of park visitors. They felt that they would be perfectly safe allowing their dogs, or their ducks, to roam unleashed across the fragile desert landscape. They were never aware of the hours we spent driving the highway, picking up the roadside trash that they carelessly threw out of their windows as they traveled through this magnificent landscape. 

-And that was when the park was opened and fully staffed. God knows what is happening to that beautiful park now

Desert parks are fragile places. They need the protection that the Park Service provides. A set of tire tracks across virgin desert landscape will take decades to recover. Unlike forest land, the desert is unable to quickly reclaim a damaged landscape. During World War II, General Patton’s army practiced tank maneuvers just south and east of the park border. Those tracks are still visible from the air, and even on Google maps.

Threats to our National Parks: Climate Change and Ignorance

Most visitors don’t know that this park in particular is facing multiple challenges, including climate change. In “The disappearing Joshua trees of Joshua Tree National Park,” I wrote that:

According to the modeling done by Dr. Barrows and the UC Riverside Center for Conservation Biology, if the current levels of heat continue their increase, 90 percent of the current range of the Joshua trees in the park will be unsustainable by the end of this century. Joshua trees have a lifespan, on average, of 150 years. Some of the trees in the park are estimated at over 200 years old. They have deep root systems that will help them survive for some time to come. It is their replacements that are in jeopardy.

The Joshua tree has faced threats in the past. The 1980s saw the development of the cities of Palmdale and Lancaster that replaced 200,000 Joshua trees with homes, schools, and parking lots. Today they are being displaced in even greater numbers by the increasing growth of massive solar farms.

But no other threat to the Joshua tree is as great as that presented by our rapidly changing climate. Researchers have expressed surprise at how quickly we are seeing the changes in the desert southwest and how little time the plants and animals are being given to adapt. Most past climate changes have happened over a thousands of years, allowing plants and animals time to adapt and move into more suitable ranges. Those that happened more rapidly tended to wipe out large numbers of species.

Man has occupied the area encompassed by the park's 800,000 acres for 5,000 years, beginning with the Pinto man. The Serrano, the Chemehuevi, and the Cahuilla tribes followed, and then, in the 1800s came the cattlemen, miners, and homesteaders. Today the Park is occupied by a immense variety of plants, insects, reptiles, birds and mammals. Joshua Tree National Park maintains a large Flickr collection of photographs here. It is a great place for Sunday armchair travel.

At the time I wrote about the threat that climate changed presented to Joshua Tree, I had no possible way of imaging a greater threat to the park I loved. But there is, and he is one spoiled little man-child wandering lost in an office that is way too big for him, pressing unmarked levers to see what they do. He’s a man of staggering ignorance who has repeatedly failed to protect us and our nation’s precious natural resources. While he has done so much that is unforgivable, what he has done to the place I use to call home pains me greatly, even from 3,000 miles away. 

I want to see him punished. I want to see him devastated, just as he has devastated the country I love.