Is Joshua Tree National Park being loved to death?

A Joshua tree inside Joshua Tree National Park. Officials there are worried that record visitor numbers are threatening the fragile desert environment.
A Joshua tree inside Joshua Tree National Park. Officials there are worried that record visitor numbers are threatening the fragile desert environment.
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

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Joshua Tree National Park set an attendance record last year. In 2016, more than 2.5 million people visited the park — 60 percent more than just two years earlier.

“It is overwhelming for the staff right now,” said Jane Rodgers, the park’s chief of cultural and natural resources.

Last year was the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, whose "Find Your Park" campaign could be partially responsible for driving people to Joshua Tree. The number of visits to national parks nationwide hit a record in 2016.

But Rodgers said Joshua Tree began seeing an uptick in visitors a few years earlier, and she believes Southern Californians are becoming more aware of the park due to social media. She also says more people are learning how to rock climb in urban climbing gyms and flocking to Joshua Tree to scramble outside on the park's boulders and iconic rock formations.

The record number of visitors is posing all types of challenges. Trash cans need to be emptied more frequently, and pit toilets need to be pumped out almost twice as often. It’s difficult to keep the visitors center's gift store stocked. Actually, it’s difficult to get into the visitor’s center, period, because it gets so crowded.

There’s also been a spike in rock graffiti and incidences of people letting their dogs run off-leash — a national park no-no.

But perhaps the biggest problem is the parking.

Joshua Tree has about 2,000 parking spots, but on busy days 7,000 cars drive into the park, Rodgers said.

“If you do the math, there’s simply not enough room for everybody,” she said, laughing.

That means people end up parking off-road, crushing fragile desert plants and cryptobiotic soil, a living biological crust that holds dirt in place, prevents erosion and allows plants and flowers to take root.

“When you damage these areas, those scars and that damage lasts for a very long time,” Rodgers said.

The park’s current solution is to have staff babysit parking lots throughout Joshua Tree. For four hours every other week, senior administrators, field biologists and budget analysts traipse out to parking lots throughout Joshua Tree and tell people where not to park. They also take turns collecting visitor fees at entrance stations.

In other words, taxpayer money is going to pay for senior park staff to direct traffic and hand out maps.

“It’s imperfect,” Rodgers said. She explained that federal bureaucracy does not allow the National Park Service to quickly hire new employees. It takes 30 to 90 days to fill a job, and Joshua Tree doesn’t have the budget for parking assistants, anyway. Hence the rotation of senior staff.

The park also relies heavily on volunteers from the Joshua Tree National Park Association. Its executive director, Meg Foley, said her nonprofit can hire much more easily than the park service. When park staff recently told her how stressed they were about the exploding visitor numbers, she quickly hired three temporary employees who now work behind the counter at the park’s visitors centers.

Foley has also had to make adjustments herself. The National Park Association now runs more of its environmental education trips outside the park, because finding parking inside has become too difficult, even if participants carpool.

In the long term, Joshua Tree National Park is working on a visitor capacity study, and a traffic analysis that it hopes to complete this year. The park will also begin a visitor shuttle this fall provided by the local Morongo Basin Transit Authority, which will bring people to popular areas. Also under consideration is a reservation system for all park campsites, which would eliminate the annoying phenomenon of people driving slow loops around a full campground at 11 p.m., headlights beaming, as they search for a campsite.

So are there any upsides to the increased visitation?

“My personal view is that it’s a good thing,” said Kenji Haroutunian, president of the local rock climber’s advocacy group Friends of Joshua Tree. “In order for people to care about preserving open space, they have to care about it in a visceral way. They won’t care if it’s a page in a textbook or a campaign online in a place they’ve never heard of. People internalize it, take ownership of it, when they’ve experienced it in real life.”

For the park's superintendent, David Smith, it's more complicated. “While we are delighted so many people are enjoying the park and the unique landscape it has to offer," he wrote, "we are challenged by being loved to death."