Commentary: Joshua Tree National Park is more popular than it ever has been. A record number of visitors came to the Park in 2016 — more than 2.5 million people — and the crowds so far in 2017 have been significantly larger. 404,545 people visited Joshua Tree in March 2017, the largest monthly visitation in the Park’s history.
There’s a good side to the record crowds: Park visitors spent more than $123 million in neighboring communities, according to a National Park Service survey, and that spending helped employ 1,700 people in nearby communities.
Though the local economy depends on visitors, 2.5 million people in a year is too much of a good thing, as local facilities are being stretched to the breaking point. (Our colleagues at SoCal Connected will be covering the problems caused by sheer numbers of visitors in a segment to be broadcast in July.) Even if 99 percent of visitors to Joshua Tree behave themselves in a manner that’s above criticism, that still means there are tens of thousands of people coming to the Park each year who are making things worse for Joshua Tree, its neighbors, and the plants and animals they live with.
So for the vast majority of those of you who want to avoid causing inadvertent harm to Joshua Tree National Park, or unnecessary inconvenience to the Park’s neighbors, here are four handy guidelines for you to follow when you visit.
Incidentally, there are probably some visitors who can’t or won’t be persuaded to change their behavior. A couple years back, returning from a hot and dusty hike in the Covington Flat area of the Park, I found my way blocked by a fashion shoot crew whose expensive gear was blocking the only road back into town. One of the crew came up to my window to let me know they’d be there for the next half hour or so.
I explained that the crew was blocking the only road linking the several dozen residences in the Covington Flat area with town. I was met with a shrug. I asked what would happen if someone up the road needed to get to work, or if an ambulance needed to get to the houses up the road. Another shrug. After several minutes of such discussion I said that I would be driving forward in 90 seconds, and it was their choice whether their gear was in the road at the time. That’s when they moved, snarking bitterly the entire time.
In my rear view, after I passed, I saw them setting back up to block the road again.
Admittedly, that was an extreme bit of entitlement on their part, and admittedly, my response was not the kindest I’ve ever mustered. Still, it’s a cautionary example in both directions. You don’t want to be like those people, and locals like me don’t want to have to choose between being hard-assed or being put-upon.
So let's avoid that! Here's how.
1) Follow The Park’s Rules
Disregarding seemingly arbitrary rules handed to you by a uniformed representative of the government can be a fine thing. But it’s one thing to drive 15 miles above the limit on the freeway nearest your house. It’s another to drive 15 miles above the limit on a winding two-lane road through a National Park teeming with wildlife.
Even if a rule seems trivial and arbitrary when obeying it would impede you from following your whims in the Park, keep in mind that there are 2.5 million people waiting in line behind you each year to break exactly the same rule. As an example, consider the forbidden act of hanging your hammock from a Joshua tree that locals are using Instagram to clamp down on. When millions of people show up in your neighborhood every year, there gets to be a point where there are no trivial violations anymore.
And thanks to years of underfunding of the National Park Service, Joshua Tree is understaffed enough that there may not be a ranger around to tell you beforehand what’s cool and what’s not. Which puts the onus on you, as an ethical tourist, to find out what the rules are beforehand.
Fortunately, the Park Service’s Joshua Tree website offers a list of rules for camping, for bringing your pets to the Park (short version: dogs must be on leash at all times, and stay within 100 feet of a paved or dirt road) (even shorter version: don't), and for interacting safely with wildlife. They also offer a page of general advice on “Leave No Trace” ethics, which means that the landscape is the same when you leave as it was when you arrived.
And since the Park boundaries are necessarily somewhat arbitrary, and landscapes and wildlife outside the Park can be every bit as sensitive to your intrusive behavior, you may want to consider following Park rules outside the park as well.
2) Leave the City in the City
One of the biggest complaints locals make about the influx of tourists is noise. What many of us locals love most about the desert at night is the lack of human-caused sounds. In my neighborhood, even during the day, you can often make out much of a normal conversation being held a block away. You can hear sounds you might never have thought existed, like the flutter of bats’ wings and the sound of a rabbit scratching behind its ear.
When you visit an environment that quiet, then proceed to set up speakers on the patio of your weekend rental and play music loud enough that you have to shout to talk, you shatter that quiet for a surprisingly long distance. You also deprive yourself of what you presumably came out here to experience first-hand: the desert. In the city, music can be a shelter against those constant urban sonic intrusions. Out here, your music is the intrusion.
Desert life is also a little slower than in the city. It’s less impatient. We locals are a bit less likely to tailgate when we drive, a bit less likely to complain when overworked restaurant servers take ten minutes instead of two to come back with our coffee. And we’re not the ones on vacation.
At least in theory, you come out here to see the desert. If you don’t slow down and breathe while you’re here, you won’t see the desert. Nothing worth seeing in the desert happens when visitors are rushing around with their shoulders all tense.
3) Remember: The Desert is Not a Theme Park
Nor is it your blank canvas, as Beth Orton learned too late, nor is it an unpopulated film set, as my friends with their expensive fashion shoot equipment on La Contenta Road seemingly failed to learn at all.
The desert, in Joshua Tree and elsewhere, is an interwoven set of communities, human and animal and plant, that existed long before you decided to show up. People are born here, live here 24/7, and occasionally die here, generally living lives that have nothing to do with you.
Visiting Joshua Tree and enjoying yourself is a wonderful thing. I did it myself long before I moved here, as did many of the Park’s other neighbors. We hope you have a great time while you’re here.
But this isn’t empty space. We are not Westworld, or Burning Man, or even something in between.
That picturesque abandoned-looking cabin you can’t help but explore? It probably belongs to someone. The sloping plain south of Route 62 between Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, with long expanses of creosote and homes that sometimes make the pages of architectural magazines? Private property, all of it, some of it with houses inhabited by people who get tired of tourists walking across their yards. (Those occasional “No Trespassing” signs are not ironic décor.)
Even that flat expanse of boring gravel that looks like a good place to park is a complex, changing system that your actions can easily damage.
There is no empty space out here for you to fill with your grand plans and fantasies. The desert is already full. Keep that in mind, come out here in a spirit of curiosity to see what’s actually out here, and you will likely enjoy your time here all the more. As will we.
4) Give Something Back to the Community
The Joshua Tree community depends on tourism for much of its economic activity, and your coming here to spend money in our restaurants and stores is much appreciated. But if you really want people to be glad you’re here, there are a few small things you can do to make your contribution to the community a bit more direct.
This doesn’t have to mean volunteering, though there are certainly organizations out here that could use your time. It could mean something as simple as tipping your server twice what you usually would if they’re being worked hard. Or making sure, when you’re in a long line to get into the Park, that you don’t block someone’s driveway for ten minutes.
One big way you can make a difference is by choosing locals to rent lodging from. There are some who see AirBNB as a destructive corporation distorting the housing market in favor of rich investors, and others who see it as a way for nice people to make a little bit of extra money to help pay the bills. In Joshua Tree, both of those views are true. If you rent from a person who lives in town, your money will tend to be spent here again and again. If your host owns six investment vacation rental properties out here which he manages from his home in Thousand Oaks, only that portion of your rent that funds the cleaning fee will stay in town. Ask your prospective hosts if they live in town.
There are other ways to lend a hand to our community as well, from bringing a few resellable items of clothing out here from the city to donate to local non-profit thrift stores, to dropping a few bucks on local community service organizations. (We have a bunch out here, working in fields from social services to environmental protection to the arts.)
And there’s a way to contribute to the community that will cost you nothing: treating people like they’re actually human, rather than backdrops or even obstacles to your vacation, often feels pretty damned generous and restorative. Try striking up a polite, friendly conversation with a local. Some of us are pretty good at putting aside our desert rat introversion for a time. Some of us love to talk about the landscape, share anecdotes and tall tales, or just generally have friendly human contact with visitors.
You are, after all, someone who’s come to experience the desert we love. So we have something in common right there.
Banner: Joshua Tree National Park | Photo: Alan Eng, some rights reserved