JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK’S STILL GOT IT
Forum discusses meeting the challenge of continued JTNP popularity
In 2021, the year after the Covid shutdown, the number of guests coming to the park pushed past three million for the first time. The numbers hit that mark again in 2022. Even with the post-pandemic ability to travel widely, the endless string of headlights caused by the “Perseidapcocylpse” this August is further proof of the park’s continued popularity.
On September 27, Mojave Desert Land Trust hosted a forum on the effect of so many people visiting Joshua Tree National Park and the impacts on the sensitive natural environment within the park and the surrounding community.
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Chris Clarke1 of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) helmed the panel, featuring Jane Rodgers, the newly minted superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park; Steve Bardwell, President of the Morongo Basin Conservation Association; and John Garder, Senior Director of Budget & Appropriations at NPCA.
Rodgers kicked off the forum with the harrowing tale of dealing with the tsunami of visitors during the Perseid meteor shower—a yearly event—which went from an expected uptick in visitation to an unmanageable surge.
Bigger visitor numbers didn’t necessarily come as a surprise—the number of park visitors looking to experience the beauty of dark skies jumped from 5% to 48%—but this year it became the thing to do. A big chunk of the 23 million people living within the three-hour travel window to the park decided Joshua Tree was the place to be.
The plan in place for increased visitation for the event, Rodgers said, simply could not anticipate what happened this year. Four park staff members at the park’s entrance booths collected $160,000 dollars before the line of cars backed up, creating traffic snarls in town. At that point, it was decided to let people enter the park without collecting fees.
The West entrance let in 700 cars an hour, while the usually less popular Cottonwood entrance pushed that number to 820 cars an hour.
Rodgers said she deems any unexpected event like this one in which park resources are overwhelmed a “super event.” This year’s Perseids fit the bill. In a post-game strategy meeting, park staff examined the challenges caused by the sudden massive influx of tourists and analyzed how well their responses worked to reduce the harm to the park and the surrounding community.
Many park staff were furloughed during the slower summer season while some were sent to help out after the fires in Hawaii; the hiring challenges of the past couple of years also contributed to lower-than-normal staffing levels. Social media, influencers, and celebrity interest can all cause an otherwise unexpected surge of visitors.
JTNP was deliberately designed to be rustic and remote, Rodgers said, and self-reliance is key to staying out of trouble in an area with very little cell service and no water or other resources.
For the best, trouble-free park visit experience, Rodgers recommends using the official National Park Service app. The app is a surefire way to get accurate and current information on hiking trials and other park info. That can help guests avoid potential dangers while trying to find hikes or attractions featured on random hiking websites or apps.
Local Housing and Tourist Accommodations
Steve Bardwell focused on the housing crunch in the Morongo Basin and the complexity of developing enough housing stock to meet the needs of residents and tourists in an area of limited infrastructure in a delicate natural environment. Bardwell outlined several barriers to more housing construction, including the lack of sewer systems in most areas and access to water. Stricter rules around digging wells make building in some remote areas more complicated.
A change in local ordinances allowed homestead and recreational cabins to be converted to a single-family dwellings when the county dropped the requirement of a 750 square feet minimum space. The current code says ADU's have no minimum size, State codes, however, have a 150 sq. ft. minimum.
The surge in short-term rentals (STRs) created to accommodate park visitors wasn’t the only reason for the local housing shortage, but it had a significant impact. In counts of available housing units done by the county up until recently, STRs were counted as vacant units, distorting the actual numbers. Program 4, a section of the housing element of the San Bernardino County Wide Plan, may focus on the impact of STRs on local housing stocks on a community-by-community basis.
Development of large campgrounds with permanent structures in unincorporated County areas zoned as Rural Living (RL) should be considered resorts, Bardwell said.2 These glamping projects have permanent structures with plumbing, bars, restaurants, and other amenities. Bardwell says tourist accommodations like these can be built to minimize the impact on the environment and local communities, emphasizing the possibility of carbon-smart planning—concentrating this type of tourist housing in areas that will reduce miles driven and building with sustainable construction.
The Autocamp glamping resort, Bardwell said, is an example of good planning—it’s in a commercial zone near Highway 62. Instead of disturbing pristine land and native flora and fauna, it’s in an area with easily accessible services close to the park, minimizing tourist driving.
Bug Your Elected Officials
John Garder addressed concerns around the recent, narrowly averted government shutdown and the ongoing fight for federal resources for the nation’s parks. Garder works directly with Congress to advocate for support for the nation’s parks.
The threat of a shutdown is not over—the continuing resolution passed to keep funds flowing is a temporary stopgap. A shutdown is still possible right before Thanksgiving if there is no agreement on the budget, according to Garder’s latest NPCA blog post.
During the last government shutdown, national parks were ordered to stay open despite a lack of personnel, resulting in millions of dollars in damage to national parks and park resources.
The government shutdown is not the only threat to our parks, Garder said; the House of Representatives is considering a bill that would include “deep, historic cuts” of 12.5% of the current budget, totaling $433 million dollars. What that means on the ground is fewer personnel, possible closure of facilities, or reduced hours and furloughs of current personnel.
Even with the budget increases last year garnering money for 500 more park rangers nationwide, staffing levels were still 2,600 people short of staffing levels throughout the national park system a decade ago.
We need citizen advocacy, Garder said, “implore your member of Congress…they will listen to you if you take the time to call or meet with them at their local office. Write a letter to the editor, consider writing an op-ed in your local paper…to send a very clear message the park service needs their help.”
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In Twentynine Palms, which is incorporated, resorts are allowed in rural living. In unincorporated San Bernardino County, resorts are not allowed. However, to avoid the zoning restrictions, resorts sometimes apply as camping sites in San Bernardino County and hotel complexes sometimes apply as resorts in Twentynine Palms.