Update: Storror, the parkour clothing company responsible for the videos described here, has removed the videos from YouTube and posted a lengthy apology on their Facebook page. We've included the full text of that apology at the end of this article.
In 2013, an Instagram-driven rash of tagging in Joshua Tree National Park's Rattlesnake Canyon forced the park to close the popular canyoneering area. In 2015, street artist Andre Saraiva, a.k.a. "Mr. Andre," tagged a boulder in the park, posted it to his social media accounts, then faced a firestorm of criticism until he eventually paid an undisclosed fine to the Park Service. In 2016, musician Beth Orton angered her numerous fans in the Mojave Desert when she defaced a Joshua tree and a cholla cactus to shoot a video for her song 1973.
If you were wondering what fresh social-media-inspired hell 2017 would bring for this beleaguered, overcrowded park three hours east of Los Angeles, you need wait no longer: an English parkour team has put out a couple of videos documenting an impressive list of rule violations during their visit to Joshua Tree. Some of their acts may have put other park visitors in peril, and at least one of those violations was committed with team members knowing they were breaking Park rules.
Parkour, a sportified adaptation of military obstacle-course training popularized in France in the 1980s and 1990s, is usually conducted in cities. But Joshua Tree's boulder-obstalce-rich landscape apparently proved too compelling for its own good.
A parkour exhibition team representing the UK-based sport clothing line Storror Parkour visited Joshua Tree in mid-May as part of a national promotional tour, and used the opportunity to shoot a couple of promotional videos for their team and their clothing line. In the process, they apparently built a large bonfire outside of a formal campground and flew a Go-Pro-equipped drone in violation of strict Park rules.
Campfires are forbidden in Joshua Tree National Park outside of designated fire rings and grates, a rule that is especially important this year, after abundant rains have promoted the growth of a thick cover of now-dried grass. Destructive fires in the Park are highly likely this year, and illegal campfires increase that risk dramatically. The team would seem to have gathered firewood in the Park, another violation in an environment where one campfire's worth of wood can take decades to grow.
The drone violation forms the focal point of one of the videos, entitled "It's Illegal To Fly Drones Here?!" (We're reluctant to provide more traffic to the videos, but you can Google them if you're that curious.) At the outset of that video, one team member announces at the Park's entry kiosk that drone flights are banned in the Park, then asks his teammate "Toby" whether he intends to fly the drone he's brought. "Yes," Toby replies. Farther along in the video, as the team perches atop a tall boulder in the Wonderland of Rocks area of the Park, the drone comes out and Go-Pro footage commences, including of the drone being attacked by harassed birds.
The drones video also includes footage of the team apparently bothering a snake, another violation of Park rules. And the set of both videos in and of themselves would seem to violate the National Park Service's prohibition on commercial filming without a permit. I've made an inquiry to the Park Service regarding whether Storror applied for a commercial filming permit; at this writing, they have not responded.
The second video, which focuses on stunts and close-up shots of Storror-branded clothing, is somewhat less troubling, though it's still a commercial filmed apparently illegally in the Park — and it features the parkour team members running up a trunk of a Joshua tree, which isn't a great idea for the tree's long-term health.
Each of these possible violations of National Park rules is a problem, but sadly not particularly unusual. Many are likely repeated by dozens or hundreds of visitors during the course of a season at Joshua Tree these days. But the combination of these videos' brazenness and — to be frank — their incredibly compelling production values has fans of Joshua Tree worried that the videos will spawn imitators. And that's especially troubling in a season when overwhelming visitor numbers have stretched Park staff to the limit. Geologists, archaeologists, maintenance staff and administrators have been forced to work trailheads telling non-parkour park visitors not to light fires or fly drones instead of doing the important work for which they were hired. Popularizing rulebreaking only makes that situation worse.
Casey Schreiner, a Los Angeles-based outdoor writer who publishes the popular website Modern Hiker, is no newcomer to the issues of visitors abusing Joshua Tree: he broke the story of Andre Saraiva's 2015 vandalism. Schreiner thinks the right thing for Storror to do would be to keep their videos from doing even more damage by spawning copycats.
"They should remove the videos and issue an apology," Schreiner said. "But honestly? I'd be surprised if they do."
Reaction among locals ranges from irate to resigned, ironic given that the communities surrounding Joshua Tree include a hefty number of climbers, runners, and other athletes who might be inclined to look favorably on a parkour team visiting the Park. But the record numbers of visitors, with 2.5 million coming through the Park gates in 2016 and 2017 already busier, have stretched locals' patience to the breaking point. Several dozen highly critical comments from Park neighbors ended up on Storror's Facebook page as news of the videos spread Tuesday, though they seem to be disappearing from the page as quickly as they are being made. Comments on a local visitor-oriented Facebook page ran uniformly opposed to the Storror team's antics.
Schreiner, who is in the business of using social media to promote responsible outdoor recreation, points out that Storror's videos provide an example of outdoor social media's great big downside. "In the end, I still feel like social media is a net positive for these places because it can be used to inspire people to visit public lands for the first time and potentially become stewards," he said. "But when you come across such flagrant disregard for the rules, it's pretty tough to make that case."
"I wish there were harsher penalties on the books for things like this," Schreiner added. "But if Mr. Andre was any indicator, they'll likely get away with a small fine. Hopefully the sponsor will do the right thing and dump them, drop the video, and issue an apology to their viewers."
My repeated requests to Storror for comment were not answered. We'll update this article if they respond.
UPDATE: Storror has responded. At 4:00 p.m. Thursday, May 25, the company posted the following apology on its Facebook page:
To the residents of Joshua Tree National Park and all those affected by our recent content and alleged crimes committed in the area, we apologise.
1. We were aware that the Joshua Trees are protected but did not fully understand the extent or severity of the protection. We caused no damage to the fallen trees and intended solely on the artistic use of a new and abstract obstacle. We understand certain damage is not always visible but must insist that these were not our intentions at all when we used the tree as a takeoff. As for the disruption of sand during a 'skid' displayed in one of the videos, we can confirm this happened on a designated trail 20ft from the carpark.
2. Drone laws across the world have progressed very sporadically and we understand that our reaction to the rule was ignorant and potentially offensive. Birds tend to circle drones out of curiosity but admittedly, the drone has potential to cause distress, similarly to the influence of a bigger bird of prey for example. We wrongly assumed the rule prioritised the residents and visitors of the peaceful park, thus moving considerably far from any inhabitance before flying the drone for a few shots of the breathtaking sunset. Capturing the incredible view was our only, and to some, selfish intention.
3. We were unaware that collecting wood from the surrounding area was not permitted and further apologise for lighting a fire away from designated camp grounds despite being aware of the risk and driving a considerable distance from the park. Since hearing stories of forest/bush fires, we fully understand the worry and distress this footage may have caused. We can confirm the fire was completely smothered and the imminent vicinity was soaked with roughly 4 gallons of water before we left the area.
4. Walking back to camp, we spotted the snake by the trail. Being who we are, we filmed the snake, documented the encounter and moved on. This happened over the course of roughly 15 seconds. WE DID NOT KILL THE SNAKE AND WOULD NEVER FATHOM SUCH AN ACT. A number of articles have unfortunately warped this information and further fuelled the anger expressed by those affected.
We intended no level of distress to anyone, and wanted to celebrate the beauty and diversity of the park through showcasing the sense of freedom everyone gets when they visit. We have taken the youtube videos down and would like to offer a final apology for having fun at the clear expense of the Joshua Tree community and those affected by our recent antics.
Banner: Joshua Tree National Park. Photo: Malcolm Manners, some rights reserved