Joshua Tree National Park received some good news in August thanks to an announcement by the Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) that it had “purchased 40 acres of pristine desert within Joshua Tree National Park. The acquisition lies in an area where MDLT is helping preserve the border of the National Park.”
The press release went on to say: “The MDLT plans to eventually convey the land to Joshua Tree National Park. To date, MDLT has acquired 10,004 acres within JTNP, of which 80 percent has been conveyed over (to) the National Park Service. MDLT has donated more tracts of land to the NPS than any other nonprofit since 2006.”
Park Superintendent David Smith told the Independent that the land trust has been a strong friend and partner to the park over the last decade.
“That land is down in the southern part of the park in Riverside County, in the Little San Bernardino mountain range,” Smith said. “It’s an isolated little pocket that did not have road access to it, but any inholding within the park boundary holds the potential for (outside private) development.”
“Inholding” is a legal term for any private property that sits within the boundaries of a national park.
“Ever since the founding of the National Park Service back in 1916, the very first director of the NPS determined that inholdings pose a significant threat to the parks,” Smith said. “Although it is highly unlikely that someone would put a house there, or do drilling there, the mere fact that it exists poses a potential threat to the sanctity of the park. That parcel is in an area that’s all wilderness, so for someone to potentially develop that area using mechanized tools and machinery would violate the whole spirit of the Wilderness Act. For the park to acquire a plot like that helps protect the wilderness, and it’s within the long-term mission of the NPS to acquire in-holdings (whenever possible).”
National parks generally consider acquiring land parcels when they’re part of a wildlife corridor that would help protect animals that are migrating; inholdings inside a park that someone might develop; or places that have significant recreational opportunities for park visitors.
The JTNP is enjoying yet another record year of visitor attendance, despite the government shutdown that began on Dec. 22, 2018, and continued through Jan. 25, 2019.
“I’ve never seen so many people climbing on the rocks here as I have over this past year. It’s a spectacular park for getting on the granite,” Smith said. “We’ve seen such a big jump in visitation over the last five years, going from 1.3 million to 3 million visitors per year. That was concerning to the management team here, but we’ve got some long-term plans in place to make sure that the infrastructure we have in the park can deal with that number of people.”
Major projects currently in the works include a new visitors’ center in the southern portion of the park down at Cottonwood, for which construction should begin in 2021 or 2022; a new entrance station in Joshua Tree, which will create four entrance points to increase the flow of traffic going into the park; and major infrastructure fixes up at the Black Rock Campground, which, Smith told us, will involve improved access to the Samuelson’s Rocks.
“Samuelson’s was one of the properties that MDLT had acquired for the national park,” he stated. “I think they got it a couple of years ago. This was an historic site in the middle of the park that was an inholding. It’s a significant location of rock art. Well, I guess rock art might be a bit of a stretch; it (features) prophetic sayings that were inscribed on the rocks about 100 years ago by (John) Samuelson, who was kind of a socialist/pioneer/desert rat. We’re planning on building a visitor plaza that can help guide visitors out there, (and) provide much more parking at that location and a lot more interpretive waysides and exhibits. Hopefully, if somebody doesn’t make it into our main visitor center, they can stop off at the Samuelson’s trail head and get a good feel for why Joshua Tree is special and how to protect it.”
Established in 1994, JTNP should see the actual conveyance of this new 40-acre plot completed within the next few years.
“First, we have to make sure that there are no hazardous materials on the site. Then, we have to make sure that the property belongs to MDLT and that there are no other existing claims to its ownership out there,” Smith said. “Eventually, it has to be approved on up the chain (at the NPS). There is a law … that states the NPS has the authority to take in small chunks of property like this one, especially when it’s within the boundary of the park. For bigger chunks of property, or ones that are not actually touching or within the park boundaries, we actually have to get a law passed to make it part of the park. But this case is an administrative action, which is a lot easier than passing a public law.”
In the meantime, all park visitors have access to the newly purchased area—if they’re determined enough to trek out to the isolated area, which offers some amazing and pristine views.
“MDLT manages their properties as if they are national park properties, so it’s open to visitors now,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t recommend hiking out there right now, because it’s hotter than Hades. But I would say: Come back in the fall or early winter. I love that chunk of the park. It’s very seldom visited by anyone, and it does have some stunning views of the Coachella Valley, looking down toward the Salton Sea (in the east) and all the way up towards San Jacinto (in the west). It’s just a stunning chunk of property.”
Finally, the Independent asked Smith if—even as the park he oversees welcomes new land acquisitions such as this one—he worries about the possibility that the current federal administration, or future ones, might lead the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., to sell off or otherwise harm Joshua Tree National Park.
“The current laws that exist, like the Organic Act of the National Park Service and others, protect these places for posterity,” Smith said. “That’s the whole intent. So these places are going to be around forever. Regardless of the administration, throughout the history of this agency, every single administration has honored and supported that, and helped protect it. That’s every single administration. So I don’t have any fears, because I really do have a lot of trust in our system of government and the laws that the president and Congress have passed to protect our parks.”