Last updateMon, 23 Mar 2020 12pm

It’s hard to believe that about two weeks ago, I was at a Joshua Tree art opening, socializing and having a good time. Today, that night feels like it was months ago.

Like many of you, I have been isolating at home—here in Morongo Valley, in my case—and I have only ventured out to the mailbox and grocery store as of late. I’m seeking respite and human connection online via Facebook and through phone calls with family and friends.

Among my local acquaintances, I’ve noticed a lot of crankiness about out-of-towners in AirBnBs who are staying here to ride out the pandemic. There’s a real “don’t come here; go home” vibe, and a locals-only feeling within the high desert communities right now. While Joshua Tree National Park closed all roads to vehicles, bicyclists and hikers can still go in—yet I’ve seen online "reminders" to tourists that Joshua Tree park is CLOSED, so please stay away.

Otherwise, things up here seem similar to things in the Coachella Valley, based on what my friends and co-workers down there tell me. Last week, my husband, Shawn, went to Stater Bros., and while it wasn’t too crowded, the store was lacking in paper products, bread, cleaning supplies like bleach, and big bottles of ibuprofen. (He did score a small bottle—just in case.) Posted signs indicated a one-per-person allowance of rice, milk, what bread was left, tortillas and a few other things. A handful of shoppers wore masks, with one person carefully covered from head to toe—in sunglasses, a mask, gloves and long sleeves. All store employees were wearing gloves. Shawn carefully wiped down all our groceries when he got home.

Non-essential businesses are not open, of course—but auto-parts stores are deemed essential, and their busy parking lots reflect that folks are happy about this. Fast food drive throughs remain open, and there are lots of them along Highway 62. You can order a pizza to-go at Domino’s—but you don’t go inside; they slide it out the door to you.

Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace has cancelled all shows through late April—but the legendary spot is offering takeout food four days a week. Tourist-trap eateries like the Joshua Tree Saloon are also offering takeout, as well as beer or wine to go. Joshua Tree’s popular Crossroads Café went further than most, offering free essential food packages on March 22 and 23 as a “way to give back to our loyal community.”

Meanwhile, I’ve been catching up on TV via our DVR. I tuned into an episode of Ancient Aliens on the History Channel from a couple of weeks ago. To my surprise, the show featured Landers’ giant rock and George Van Tassel’s Integratron, with some commentary from our own Ken Layne of Desert Oracle fame. Pretty cool.

Less cool: I also watched MSNBC’s On Assignment With Richard Engel: The Outbreak, which originally aired on March 8. It was a thorough, inside look on how the coronavirus started in China, covering what happened there before COVID-19 spread to other countries like Hong Kong and Singapore—and how their governments all fought to contain it. It was eye-opening and scary. I was glad I watched it, but I went to sleep disturbed and cranky.

The next morning, I woke up and dragged myself out of bed—it’s been like that a lot lately—to do my usual a.m. exercise-bike routine. As I climbed on my stationary bike and readied myself for a sweat, I looked outside—and saw a beautiful rainbow creeping up out of some dark storm clouds. During my workout, the rainbow slowly grew until it was full, and then stayed—in a brilliant blue sky—for more than half an hour. It helped remind me: It’s best to focus on the little things, breathe and stay in the present moment. It’s all we can really do right now.

Later that day, as I walked my dog to my mailbox, I ran into a new neighbor, out on our unpaved road. He had his truck and a shovel and was digging up and moving rock obstacles—to make driving easier for all of us.

That’s another comforting thing to remember: We are all in this together.

Oh, and to the dude out on the street in Yucca Valley selling “I SURVIVED CORONAVIRUS 2020” T-shirts … here’s to hoping we do, my friend.

Published in Features

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.”

Published in Environment

You may never have heard of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, but it is a place of global importance. At the very southwestern tip of the mainland, it is vital to the survival of virtually the world’s entire population of emperor geese and Pacific black brant, as well as other bird species from multiple continents. It’s also important habitat for caribou, brown bears and marine mammals.

But if the Trump administration gets its way, the roar of diesel engines will soon drift across this landscape as bulldozers scour a new road across the fragile tundra.

Development here would set a terrible precedent for all the places across America that Congress has designated as wilderness areas—the highest level of protection for public lands. If a road is built through Izembek, what would prevent acts of future destruction in our Joshua Tree National Park, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park?

In January, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an agreement to transfer about 500 acres of high-value habitat within Izembek and its designated wilderness to the King Cove Corp., which has long sought to build a road connecting the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay. Zinke’s move dovetails with the Trump administration’s goal of selling off and giving away federal lands for development.

The for-profit King Cove Corp. was established by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which allowed such corporations to select lands to be managed for the benefit of shareholders. The corporation has advocated for the road for decades because of its potential to boost commercial fishing and seafood processing. Last year, independent Alaska Gov. Bill Walker sent a letter to the Trump administration describing a purpose of the road as the “movement of goods and people between King Cove and Cold Bay.”

In recent years, however, the purported purpose of the road has changed: Proponents started selling it as a “lifesaving” measure for ambulances to drive the more than 40 miles from King Cove to the jet-capable runway in Cold Bay. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that, even in good weather, such a trip would take 90 minutes to two hours.

There are alternatives, but the King Cove Corp. and its supporters have rejected every single one of them. The corporation was given a taxpayer-funded, multi-million-dollar hovercraft that could successfully transport ambulances across the bay—less than 27 miles—in just minutes, but it chose to give it away to the nearby community of Akutan, which used it for a couple of years to transport mail and seafood workers. The corporation also was not interested in a proposal to start a marine ferry, something that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined would be more than 99 percent dependable.

King Cove will accept only a road, even though it would destroy wilderness on an isthmus containing a biologically rich lagoon. This was the first area in America to be recognized as a “wetlands of international importance” by the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for conserving wetlands.

The road would set a precedent that threatens all wilderness areas and undermines bedrock environmental and conservation laws, including the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Worst of all, the residents of King Cove would not be made any safer; the gravel road would be unreliable, given the fierce storms of winter.

In a 2013 letter to then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Pete Mjos, a longtime physician with the federal Indian Health Service and medical director for the Eastern Aleutian Tribes, wrote, “With all due respect to my many friends and former patients in King Cove, I submit that the proposed road is the Great Irony—that construction of this road to ostensibly save lives, and for health and safety, in reality poses grave dangers, and is a very real threat to life itself.”

This January, nine environmental and conservation groups, including The Wilderness Society, filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Zinke’s land exchange with the King Cove Corp., arguing that it violates the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

These groups will not be silent as the Trump administration attempts to destroy wilderness and sell off our public lands for development. I hope all Americans support our efforts to preserve places like Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for future generations, and for all those species whose survival depends on wild places remaining wild.

Jamie Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is president of The Wilderness Society, which works to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness.

Published in Community Voices

November 2017 features twilight planetary pairs—one in the morning, and one in the evening.

Venus and Jupiter will appear close together low in the east-southeast morning twilight glow for a few mornings around Nov. 13, about 40-45 minutes before sunrise. In last 10 days of the month, Saturn and Mercury will appear within the same binocular field low in the southwest evening twilight glow, 40-45 minutes after sunset.

Of the morning planets, dim, distant Mars rises in a dark sky all month, improving from 2.6 hours before sunup on Nov. 1, to 3.5 hours at month’s end. Mars glows at magnitude +1.8 to +1.7, about as faint as it ever gets. Brilliant Venus, of magnitude -3.9, rises in ever brighter twilight, 1.3 hours before sunup on the 1st, and about 45 minutes hour before sunup on the 30th. Watch for Venus’ rising 16 to 34 degrees to the lower left of Mars as November runs its course.

On Nov. 2, binoculars readily show the star Spica rising in the twilight glow 3.5 degrees to the lower right of Venus. The other morning planet, Jupiter, at magnitude -1.7, is lost in the sun’s glare well below Venus in first few days, but from Nov. 8-18, may be found in the same binocular field as Venus. The two bright planets appear closest on Monday, Nov. 13, with Jupiter just one-third of a degree to the upper right of Venus. This month, on Nov. 29, Jupiter will rise in a dark sky just more than two hours before sunrise. As Venus rises in twilight that morning, Jupiter will appear 17 degrees to the upper right of Venus and 17 degrees to the lower left of Mars, midway between them.

Bright stars in morning twilight feature the huge Winter Hexagon of bright stars moving into the west. Sirius, the Dog Star, is its brightest and southernmost member. Orion’s red Betelgeuse lies inside the Hex, and Leo’s Regulus, high in the south-southeast to south, trails behind it. Bright Arcturus in the east-northeast to east, and Spica in the east-southeast to southeast, round out the list of 10 stars of first magnitude or brighter visible in all of November’s dawns. An 11th star, Vega, rises in the northeast late in the month, far to the lower left of Arcturus.

Around Nov. 21, our Spaceship Earth is heading directly toward the star Regulus. Go outdoors in the morning, and visualize our planet’s motion around the sun, and the motions of faster-moving Venus, the next planet inside Earth’s orbit, and slower-moving Mars and Jupiter, the planets next outside our orbit. If we could look “down” from “above” the solar system, the planets would appear to revolve counterclockwise around the sun. All the morning planets are ahead of us. Venus is moving even farther ahead, and will pass on the far side of the sun in January 2018. We’re gaining on Jupiter and Mars, and will overtake them next year.

Bright stars in evening twilight in all of November include the Summer Triangle, with Vega, Altair and Deneb passing west of overhead; and Fomalhaut, mouth of the Southern Fish, low in the southeast to south-southeast. Quickly slipping out of view early in the month are Antares, in the southwest to the lower right of Saturn, and Arcturus, in the west-northwest. Rising into view are Capella in the northeast, and Aldebaran in the east-northeast.

Evening planets: Saturn (magnitude +0.5) on Nov. 1 sets in a dark sky 2.7 hours after sunset, and telescopes reveal its rings tipped as much as possible, 27 degrees from edgewise. But Saturn sets ever earlier, sinking close to brighter Mercury (magnitude -0.4 to -0.1) in the latter half of the month. Mercury appears to the lower right of Saturn, by 10 degrees on Nov 17, and 7 degrees on Nov. 20. On Nov. 23, Mercury reaches greatest elongation—22 degrees from the sun and 4.7 degrees below Saturn. Thereafter, Mercury appears to the lower left of Saturn, by 4 degrees on Nov. 24, and 3 degrees on Nov. 28. This is quite an unfavorable appearance for our solar system’s innermost planet, as it remains mired low in twilight.

The moon is full on Friday, Nov. 3, and rises north of east a few minutes after sunset. Two nights later, on Sunday, Nov. 5, the waning gibbous moon rises in the east-northeast within two hours after sunset. Using binoculars, look for the reddish-orange star Aldebaran, eye of Taurus the Bull, close to the moon’s upper right. That night, the moon will gradually creep eastward against the background stars, away from Aldebaran. By an hour before sunrise on Monday, Nov. 6, the moon and star will be in the western sky, with the moon 6 degrees above the star.

Follow the moon daily an hour before sunup. On Nov. 8 and 9, watch it leap over the line connecting the Twins (Pollux-Castor) to Procyon. On Nov. 11, it stops just short of Regulus, heart of Leo. That morning, binoculars will show Regulus just east of the fat crescent moon. As seen from Palm Springs through a telescope that day, the leading bright edge of the moon covers the star at 8:55 a.m., and the moon’s trailing dark edge, invisible in daylight, uncovers it at 10:01 a.m.

By Nov. 11, you’ll want to look low in the east-southeast 40 to 60 minutes before sunrise each morning for a week, to follow the progress of the Venus-Jupiter pair. That morning, Jupiter appears 1.9 degrees to the lower left of Venus. On Sunday, Nov. 12, Jupiter appears just 0.9 degrees directly below Venus. Their closest pairing occurs on Monday, Nov. 13, with Jupiter now only one-third of a degree to the right of Venus and slightly higher. Jupiter is getting higher each day, Venus lower.

On Tuesday, Nov. 14, Jupiter appears 1.3 degrees to Venus’ upper right. By that morning, you can find faint Mars 6-7 degrees below the moon. On Nov. 15, find the crescent moon within 7 degrees to the lower left of reddish Mars and within 7 degrees to the upper left of blue-white Spica, forming a beautiful triangle with them. Some 17-19 degrees to the moon’s lower left, find the Venus-Jupiter pair still within 2.3 degrees apart. On Thursday, Nov. 16, in possibly the prettiest scene, Jupiter and Venus are 3.3 degrees apart, within 6 degrees to the lower right and 9 degrees below the moon. On Friday, Nov. 17, the moon’s final morning, look about 40 minutes before sunrise to spot the very thin old crescent within 5 degrees to the lower left of Venus. Jupiter will be 4.4 degrees to Venus’ upper right. Since the new moon occurs the next day, Nov. 18, at 3:42 a.m., a sighting of the moon on the morning of Friday, Nov. 17 will be about 22 hours before new.

Start looking for the young moon in the early evening on Sunday, Nov. 19. About 40 minutes after sunset, find the thin crescent very low in the west-southwest, with Mercury about 8 degrees to its left and a little lower. Saturn will be 12 degrees to the moon’s upper left and 8 degrees to the upper left of Mercury. The moon’s age will be nearly 38 hours after new. On the following evening, Nov. 20, seeing the moon should be very easy, as it sets in a dark sky nearly two hours after sunset. You still need to look early in twilight to catch Mercury, 8 degrees below the moon. Saturn will be 2 degrees to the moon’s lower left.

On the night of Nov. 21, Earth passes between the sun and the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster. Within an hour after sunset that evening, face east-northeast—opposite to the sun’s direction below the west-southwest horizon—and watch the Pleiades emerge and ascend in the deepening twilight. The scene is well described in lines by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

To celebrate the occasion of the Venus-Jupiter pairing, members of the Astronomical Society of the Desert are offering sky watches on Monday, Nov. 13, and the next four mornings, as the crescent moon passes through the gathering of three planets and a star, and the Venus-Jupiter pair grows wider each day. The sessions will be held from 5:15 until 5:45 a.m., on the pedestrian bridge crossing over Tahquitz Creek, at Camino Real between North and South Riverside drives, three blocks north of Cahuilla Elementary School. The session is dependent on sky conditions. If the sky is clear, we’ll be there, with telescopes and binoculars.

The website of the Astronomical Society of the Desert has a listing of our evening star parties at two locations. The primary, more accessible location is at the Visitor Center (VC) of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument (on Highway 74, within four miles south of Highway 111 in Palm Desert). Sessions are scheduled there on Saturdays, Nov. 25 and Dec. 23, from 5 to 8 p.m. Sawmill Trailhead (SMT), our high-altitude site (elevation 4,000 feet—wear warm clothes), will have star parties starting at dusk on Saturdays, Nov. 11 and Dec. 9.

This year’s Night Sky Festival at Joshua Tree National Park will be held Nov. 10-12. For details, visit Also, check out the Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center in Twentynine Palms, at

Wishing you clear skies!

Robert C. Victor was a staff astronomer at Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing sky watching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs. Robert D. Miller did graduate work in planetarium science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.

Published in Astronomy

The natural beauty of Joshua Tree National Park has inspired people from all over the world to transform their visions of the park into art—and the goal of the fifth annual Joshua Tree National Park Art Exposition is to show off some of this amazing work.

This year, six artists (actually, seven; two work as a pair) from the Coachella Valley are among the 63 chosen to have their work displayed throughout September as part of the exhibit at the 29 Palms Art Gallery. A panel had to choose among 290 pieces submitted by 120 artists from the United States and beyond. The rules required that the artwork depict or be inspired by Joshua Tree National Park. Only one piece from each of the 63 artists will be displayed, with winners being honored at an awards reception at the gallery on Saturday, Sept. 16, from 5 to 8 p.m. Works include oil and acrylic paintings, watercolors, mixed media, photography, ceramics, assemblage and metal sculptures.

Many of the artists will also participate in the Art Market on the lawn at the 29 Palms Inn during the Art Exposition weekend celebration, on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 16 and 17, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event will feature live music, food and beverages, art demonstrations, a mural project, ranger talks and nature walks. All events are free and open to the public.

“Each year, we are amazed at the quantity and quality of artwork submitted,” said Vickie Waite, the artist liaison and executive assistant for the Joshua Tree National Park Council for the Arts. “We are honored that these artists have chosen to share their vision and their artwork with us and to participate in this event celebrating our national park. It just keeps getting better every year.”

The participating artists from the Coachella Valley are as diverse as the works in the show itself.

Hunter Johnson, from Palm Springs, aims at preserving the past through photography. His photographs have been featured in galleries and museums across the country, including the Palm Springs Art Museum.

Robert Miramontes, from Desert Hot Springs, is a California native and has spent nearly his entire life photographing Joshua Tree National Park. He has accumulated more than 25 years of Joshua Tree National Park photography into seven books.

Andrea Raft and Aaron Sedway, from Indio, are a mother and son passionate about recording the natural world. Andrea is a Coachella Valley mixed-media artist, and Aaron is a sports and nature photographer. They combine their work of photography and mixed-media painting, and are currently showing their work at Coda Gallery in Palm Desert.

Doug Shoemaker, from Palm Springs, was selected as artist-in-residence at Joshua Tree National Park in 2014. “My interest and focus as a realist painter, using the medium of watercolor, is to explore various elements that can be seen as ‘ordinary and uneventful,’ but full of richness, complexity, and beauty,” he said.

Martha Villegas, from Cathedral City, grew up in Mexico and studied art in Casa de la Cultura in Mexicali, and continued art studies at the Universidad de Baja California. “The use of vibrant, saturated color on my paintings is a representation of what I consider life in its full expression.” She teaches and is a member of the Artists Council of Palm Springs Art Museum.

Ehrick Wright, from Rancho Mirage, does work that includes paintings, drawings and pastels inspired by the bizarre landscape of rocks, hills and canyons found in Joshua Tree National Park.

The Joshua Tree National Park Art Exposition is presented throughout September by the Joshua Tree National Park Council for the Arts, in partnership with the 29 Palms Art Gallery. For more information, visit Below: "During the Storm" by Doug Shoemaker.

Published in Visual Arts

Christina Benton loves the road. She loves it so much that she took her three home-schooled kids on a 64-day, 5,704-mile RV journey across the country in the middle of the winter.

Starting in January in their hometown of Charlotte, N.C., they visited dozens of national parks—all the way to Santa Monica, Calif., and back.

Why national parks? To deeply educate Joshua, 13; Averie, 10; and Nathaniel, 6, Benton says, and to raise awareness about a serious problem the parks face—a lack of visitors who look like her family.

Before her trip, Benton, whose alter ego is Nomadic Mama of 3, contacted regional directors in the National Park Service to express her concern about the lack of diversity she saw during her travels. She said the directors shared her concern, and referred her to several people and organizations working on the issue. One was Teresa Baker of African American Explorations, the founder of African American National Parks Event, to be held this weekend, June 4-5. Baker’s campaign focuses on getting African Americans into national parks and having them submit photographs of the outings to the event’s Facebook page.

We asked Baker to interview Benton, who recently launched a travel magazine, GO Places Magazine, and plans to launch a travel magazine for kids, GO Places Jr.

How was the road trip experience?

(It) was truly amazing for me and my children. Our goal was to make it coast to coast, and we wanted to hit as many national parks as we could along the way. We were lucky enough to make it to Carlsbad, White Sands, Sequoia, Lake Mead, Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, Red Rock Canyon and Four Corners Monument in the Navajo parks. The places we have seen, the people we have met and the cultures we have experienced have been life changing. My kids are getting a hands-on, active and involved education they could not get in the classroom, and I am learning right along with them. Of course, we have our moments. Traveling with a 13-year-old, 10-year-old and 6-year-old in a 200-square-feet RV, there is bound to be some bickering, but overall, the experience has been amazing.

How many national parks had you visited before this trip?

Great Smoky Mountains was my first taste of the national parks, because I was born and raised nearKnoxville. My family enjoyed picnics (in the park), but not much more than that. No hikes or camping. But even the short visits sparked a love of the outdoors. … I can say that my love peaked when I had children. I knew when they were babies that I wanted to show them the world and take them on amazing adventures, and a large part of that included the great outdoors. When I divorced a couple of years ago, I bought an RV, and the kids and I hit the road for some real outdoor adventures. We had been to 43 sites within the National Park system prior to this road trip. All were on the East Coast, so we have been extremely pleased to earn passport stamps from the Southwest and West Coast. Each and every site was a learning experience. We really love the Junior Ranger program, and we make sure to participate wherever it is offered.

What are your favorite parks?

I asked my children this as well, so this answer is from all of us. I have to say that two national parks from this most recent trip tied for my favorite. Sequoia National Park: The drive up the mountain to this park was treacherous, especially in an RV, but it was so worth it. To understand your place in the world while you’re standing so insignificant among those mighty trees—it put things in perspective. Now I know huge, and it is amazing. My other favorite park from this past trip was Lake Mead. There’s something about a lake so pristine in the middle of the desert that will make you stand in awe.

Joshua: My favorite park was the White Sands (in New Mexico), because it was interactive, and the sledding down the dunes was really fun. Also, Carlsbad Caverns were really fun, and required a lot of physical strength to get through.

Averie: I liked the Sequoia National Park because of how big the trees were, how pretty the snow was, and how the mountains looked in the background.

Nathaniel: White Sands was so epic because you could sled all the way down, find a path to run back up and sled down again. It was the most fun in the world.

What message would you like to share with others who may be hesitating to do what you are doing?

The landscape of this country that we live in is absolutely amazing. We often think international travel is the key to being “cultured” and “well-traveled,” but starting at home in your own backyard is actually the key to a well-traveled person. … We have natural wonders of the world right here in our own parks, and people of color do not seem to be taking advantage of this. Not knowing how or where to start is no excuse. I’ve offered many times, and I’ll offer again to be a hiking buddy, camping buddy or park-tourist buddy, as well as offer any advice and guidance (within the scope of my experiences) on where to start when exploring the national parks and the great outdoors.

What kind of reactions did you receive from people you encountered?

We had a unanimously positive response when people learned what we are doing. Many expressed how they wish they could do something similar or are planning to do just that. The percentage is roughly equal between the positive reactions of people of color to non-people of color, yet I notice a huge disparity in the national pParks, the RV parks, and the outdoors in general. I can say I have never had any problems with any group of people while visiting national parks.

Have your kids made any mention of the lack of diversity in your travels? If so, how do you feel it has affected them if at all?

The kids have not mentioned the lack of diversity, but have, in fact, noticed. In conversations about our experiences, the kids (my older ones) have made a note about being the only brown people in the park at that particular visit. … Collectively, it is a conversation that we have. I do not believe it has affected them in any kind of way other than helping to (disprove) the idea that brown people don’t participate in the outdoors.

What are your plans once your travels come to an end?

I hope to continue to work with individuals on the same journey, such as you (Teresa Baker), Audrey Peterman, Rue Mapp and others. In addition, I will continue to write about the topic in the travel magazine I publish, as well as my travel blog. In the future, I hope to create opportunities for gatherings and meetups in the national parks and other outdoor spaces with people of color. I am in the initial phases of planning RV camping meetups in several of the national parks for 2017.

Teresa Baker is the founder of African American Explorations, which encourages people of color to connect with nature and the outdoors, particularly national parks. She tweets@LoveOnNature. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Music and More

Cabaret 88: Joan Ryan

Winner of Broadway World’s Top Female Cabaret Artist award of 2013, Joan Ryan has a four-octave range which has led to leading roles in Little Shop of Horrors, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Footloose, Les Miserables and Nunsense. 6 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 2 and 3. $88. Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs. 760-325-4490;

Copa Events

Comedian Wendy Liebman performs at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Dec. 12 and 13. $25 to $35. The Nina Whitaker Holiday show takes place at 8 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 20. $30 to $40. Amy and Freddy return with their holiday show at 8 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 27; and 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 28. $25 to $35. All shows are 21 and older, with a two-drink minimum. Copa, 244 E. Amado Road, Palm Springs. 760-322-3554;

CV Symphony Presents ‘Holiday Magic’

A heartwarming holiday concert features the vocal talents of Patricia Welch performing seasonal favorites. 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 20. $25 to $25, with discounts. Helene Galen Performing Arts Center at Rancho Mirage High School, 31001 Rattler Road, Rancho Mirage. 760-360-2222;

Ensembles Concert

This choral concert includes chamber singers and jazz singers, directed by Tim Bruneau. 7 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 4. $5 to $10 goodwill donation. CSUSB Palm Desert—Indian Wells Theatre, 37500 Cook Street, Palm Desert. 760-773-2574.

For the Children

Support the music programs sponsored by the Steinway Society of Riverside County and OperaArts. This event includes a cocktail hour, special piano concert, dinner and an “opera” dessert. Enjoy an evening of classical piano featuring some of the Steinway Society’s youngest and most talented artists; it’s a fundraiser to support music programs for students in the Coachella Valley. 6 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 7. $125. Bellatrix Restaurant and Wine Bar, 75200 Classic Club Blvd., Palm Desert. 760-323-8353;

Palm Springs Opera Guild’s 31st Annual Vocal Competition

Young men and women between the ages of 18 and 32 compete and are reviewed by three esteemed judges. Each finalist performs two arias. Singers receive prizes totaling more than $20,000. In addition, an audience choice prize of $1,000 will be awarded. 3 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 7. Free. Helene Galen Performing Arts Center at Rancho Mirage High School, 31001 Rattler Road, Rancho Mirage. 760-325-6107;

Special Events

Coachella Christmas Parade

The city of Coachella presents its annual Christmas parade. 6 p.m., Friday, Dec. 5. Free. Sixth Street in Coachella.

Coachella Inauguration of Elected Officials and Christmas-Tree Lighting

The city of Coachella and the Coachella Chamber of Commerce invite the public to attend the inauguration of elected officials, immediately followed by the annual Christmas-tree lighting, where Mr. and Mrs. Claus will be present. Complimentary champurrado and pan dulce will be served. 5:30 to 7 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 3. Free. Coachella City Hall, 1515 Sixth St., Coachella. 760-398-8089.

Festival of Lights Parade

The holiday tradition in downtown Palm Springs features a host of marching bands, performing groups, and Santa and Mrs. Claus! Lisa Vanderpump will be the celebrity grand marshal. 5:45 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 6. Free. Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs. 760-325-5749;

Gourmet Food Truck Event

Try food trucks for lunch featuring burgers, barbecue, tacos, California cuisine, sushi and dessert. Outdoor seating is available, or bring a blanket. Dabble in the local farmers’ market; listen to music provided by The Coachella Valley Art Scene; enjoy a beer garden with some of the best craft beers from La Quinta Brewing Company and Coachella Valley Brewing Company. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the first Sunday of the month. Free. Cathedral City Civic Center Plaza, 68700 Avenue Lalo Guerrero, Cathedral City.

Indio International Tamale Festival

Food Network ranked the Indio International Tamale Festival as one of the Top 10. “All-American Food Festivals” in the nation. The festival is a special occasion that kicks off the holiday season and brings the entire community together. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 6 and 7. Free. Downtown Indio.

Santa Fly-In

Santa arrives at the Palm Springs Air Museum to meet children and give them goody bags. 1 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 13. Free admission children 12 and younger; regular admission $14 to $16. Palm Springs Air Museum, 745 N. Gene Autry Trail, Palm Springs. 760-778-6262;

Walk for the Animals 2014

The desert tradition includes a one-mile dog walk around the park, pet vaccinations and microchipping, blessing of the animals, police K-9 demonstration, dog and puppy adoptions, pet costume contests and more. The event proceeds benefit Animal Samaritans’ no-kill animal shelter and humane-education program. All dogs must be on a leash or in a carrier. 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 6. Free, but donations accepted. Palm Desert Civic Park, 73510 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert. 760-835-6465;

Walking Tour of the Inns

A self-guided walking tour of Palm Springs’ unique collection of boutique hotels and historic inns takes. The tour begins at any of the participating hotels, or at Palm Springs Art Museum, which will also provide free maps and flashlights. 4 to 7 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 11. Free. Neighborhoods between Ramon Road and Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs. 800-347-7746;

Winter Gathering Powwow

Tribes from all over North America will compete in dancing and drumming contests, with participants ranging from 6 to 65 and older. Various times Friday through Sunday, Dec. 12 through 14. Free. Spotlight 29 Casino, 46200 Harrison Place, Coachella.

Visual Arts

Joshua Tree National Park Art Exposition

Celebrate the beauty of Joshua Tree National Park and the art it has inspired, at the historic Oasis of Mara in Twentynine Palms. Various events are staged at five cultural venues in the Oasis of Mara. In addition, a special exhibit will be on display at the Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center. Various times Friday through Sunday, Dec. 5 through 7. Most events free. Oasis of Mara, Twentynine Palms.

A Grand Adventure: American Art in the West

The epic 19th-century landscape paintings of Yosemite and Yellowstone by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran introduced the American public to the grandeur of the West. By the turn of the century, a new genre of Western art had developed. A Grand Adventurebrings together 40 significant classic and traditional artworks from private collections. The artworks span nearly 100 years, dating from the latter half of the 19th century through the early decades of the 20th century. The exhibit is on display through Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015. Included with regular admission prices. Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Desert, 72567 Highway 111, Palm Desert. 760-346-5600;

Submit your free arts listings at The listings presented above were all posted on the ArtsOasis calendar, and formatted/edited by Coachella Valley Independent staff. The Independent recommends calling to confirm all events information presented here.

Published in Local Fun

Last spring, Joshua trees put on a magnificent show in the Mojave Desert: Nearly all at once, nearly all of them bloomed, sprouting dense bouquets of waxy, creamy-green flowers from their Seussian tufts of spiky leaves.

The bloom was so sweeping and abundant—and such a contrast to the typical pattern, where only a small number of trees bloom in any given year—that it was called “a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.”

This spring, the bloom was far less flowery, and yet standing among the giant yuccas in late March, in the Tikaboo Valley north of Las Vegas, U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Todd Esque still had the sense he was witnessing something historic.

This, he suspects, is the leading edge of the entire species—“leading,” because the trees appear to be marching in the same direction in which the climate that suits them is marching, with an old, established population of Joshua trees flinging out new recruits in a distinctly northern pattern.

That’s exactly what scientists believe the shaggy beasts need to do—quickly—to survive in a warming world.

The pattern is obvious to the naked eye here, because it’s occurring where the Mojave Desert gives way to the Great Basin, where stands of Joshua trees fade to sagebrush. ”I get chills when I look at that population,” says Esque. ”We know from the paleo record that plants and animals have moved north and south by hundreds of miles—if not more—in response to climate change. To see it in our lifetime, at a time when it really matters if they can move or not, it’s neat.”

The news about Joshua trees of late has mostly been gloomy, so much so that some people have begun to imagine a future in which Joshua Tree National Park is without Joshua trees. Fires carried by non-native grasses have been picking off the plants. There is evidence that in the hottest, driest spots it occupies, the trees are already plodding down the road to extinction by failing to reproduce. One study projected that 90 percent of their current habitat could be inhospitable by century’s end.

And so Joshua trees face the modern mandate familiar to so many species: move or die. The same study projecting a 90 percent reduction in habitat also cast doubt on Joshua trees’ ability to migrate far enough quickly enough to keep them on the map in significant numbers. It found evidence that the Shasta ground sloth was once one of the plant’s major seed-dispersers. The sloth, of course, is extinct, and the trees now mostly depend on smaller creatures—squirrels and kangaroo rats—to spread their seed. The sloths, large mammals that they were, are assumed to have dispersed the seeds over greater distances than the rodents now do, meaning Joshua trees might be able to make small steps to new territory, but not the great leaps that may be necessary.

But really, says Esque, we don’t know how quickly Joshua trees are capable of moving, or even if they can move at all. It’s possible the new trees in the Tikaboo Valley represent a “static front,” he explains, “where they keep casting out young trees, but every 30 years, there’s a drought that might kill them, so the population can never really move.”

Nor do we know for certain that sloths dispersed seed across great distances, because we don’t know how widely the animals actually ranged. “There are a lot of questions, probably way more than answers,” he says. Which is why it’s so exciting that he and his colleague Chris Smith, an evolutionary biologist, may have discovered the trees’ forward march. If they can confirm that it is the species’ leading edge, they can begin to gain greater insight into its potential mobility, and with that its prospects for the future.

In March, Esque, Smith and a group of citizen scientists spent four days collecting data to do just that, by mapping the distribution of old and young Joshua trees in the Tikaboo Valley. As it happens, the Tikaboo is the only place scientists know of where the distinct eastern and western populations of Joshua trees meet and mingle. So they took tissue samples from the burgeoning population, too, in hopes of identifying whether either the eastern or western trees, or their hybrids, were winning the “race north.”

“As you move northward (in the Tikaboo), the big Joshua trees thin out, they get shorter and shorter, younger and younger, then you get to a point where there aren’t any anymore,” Esque explains. The youngest, he believes, are less than a decade old. “That’s the edge of Joshua trees as we know them. The potential is right there for the species’ migration.”

Cally Carswell is a contributing editor of High Country News, where this article was initially published. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment



Bring chairs, kick back and enjoy the start of summer! The movie will begin the second the sun goes behind our mountains. 6 p.m., Friday, May 9. Free. Mecca Community Park, 65250 Coahuila St., Mecca;


In preparation for June’s ShortFest 2014, the Camelot will host a program of the best of the “Shooting Stars” programming, featuring major Hollywood names appearing on screen or behind the camera. 7:30 p.m., Thursday, May 15. Free. Camelot Theatres, 2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs. 760-322-2930;



In Coachella Valley Symphony’s season finale, local physician and soprano Dr. Lisa Lindley headlines this gala event with selections from both the opera and pop worlds. This special evening will include a grand VIP reception and auction following the concert for those patrons who purchase a $125 ticket. All proceeds from the auction will go toward youth education programs. 7 p.m., Friday, May 9. $25 to $125. McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert. 760-340-2787;


Don't miss the dynamic sounds, the rich colorful costumes and the cultural celebration of the Mariachi Extravaganza. Embajadores Del Mariachi, Mariachi Sol De Mexico, led by Jose Hernandez, is a Grammy-nominated and platinum-selling group that has performed to sold-out audiences around the world for more than 30 years. Las Primeras Damas De Mariachi Reyna De Los Angeles is the first female mariachi ensemble in the United States. 7:30 p.m., Saturday, May 24. $20 to $40. Spotlight 29 Casino, 46200 Harrison Place, Coachella. 800-585-3737;


Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan has been in existence for 100 years and has been credited with revolutionizing the style of music. They've recorded albums, starred in more than 200 movies, and performed all over the world. 4 p.m., Sunday, May 11. $40 to $100. McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert. 760-340-2787;


Five-time-Grammy winning artist Pepe Aguilar is an impressive master of fusion with an undisputed capacity to inspire audiences. 8 p.m., Friday, May 2. $39 to $79. Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, 84245 Indio Springs Parkway, Indio. 800-827-2946;


The Rock Yard at Fantasy Springs brings music fans free, live rock shows. At 7:30 p.m., the full-throttle rock music fires up with cover band Rok of Ages and gets audience members out of their seats. At 9 p.m., the tribute band takes over and plays audience favorites. At 10:30 p.m., the cover band comes back out and continues the live music until midnight. Friday, May 2: Pat Benatar. Saturday, May 3: Tribute to U2. More shows to be announced; check the website for more information. Free; 18 and older. Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, 84245 Indio Springs Parkway, Indio. 800-827-2946;


Stayin' Alive offers the songs and sights of a full Bee Gees concert, singing blockbusters such as “Night Fever,” “Jive Talkin,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” “You Should Be Dancing,” “Nights on Broadway” and “Stayin’ Alive,” along with video clips, photos and dazzling imagery. 8 p.m., Saturday, May 10. $20. Spotlight 29 Casino, 46200 Harrison Place, Coachella. 800-585-3737;

Performing Arts


The Follies’ final edition, entitled “The Last Hurrah,” will conclude on Sunday, May 18. The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies has been seen by nearly 3 million patrons, and celebrates the music and dance of mid-century America with a cast ranging in age from 55 to 83 years young. Various dates and times through Sunday, May 18. $29 to $95. Palm Springs Follies at the Historic Plaza Theatre, 128 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. 760-327-0225;

Special Events


The deceptively barren Mojave Desert landscape is home to and resting grounds for numerous endemic and migratory bird species; more than 240 species of birds have been recorded in Joshua Tree National Park. Kurt Leuschner, professor at College of the Desert, will guide this three-day field class through the Mojave and Colorado deserts to identify common and rare birds. Leuschner’s focus will be on identifying individual species and separating summer and winter residents from true migrants. 6 to 8 p.m., Friday, May 2; 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday, May 3; 7 a.m. to noon, Sunday, May 4. $125 to $135. Black Rock Visitor Center, 9800 Black Rock Canyon Road, Yucca Valley. 760-367-5525;


“Save wildlife one beer at a time.” Enjoy a sampling of handcrafted beers, food and live entertainment, with participation by more than 50 local breweries and restaurants. Proceeds help The Living Desert. 6:30 p.m. Saturday, May 3. $35 to $125. The Living Desert, 47900 Portola Ave., Palm Desert. 760-346-5694;


Join Cabot’s Pueblo Museum for a fabulous cocktail and dinner celebrating the placement on the National Register of Historic Places and the preservation of the integrity of Cabot Yerxa’s history, pueblo and collection of artifacts. 6 p.m., Saturday, May 17. $150. Cabot’s Pueblo Museum, 67616 E. Desert View Ave., Desert Hot Springs. 760-329-7610;


The 21st annual Evening Under the Stars gala to benefit the AIDS Assistance Program (AAP) will feature a star-studded performance by fabulous female pioneers of the ’70s disco scene. Scheduled to appear are Linda Clifford, France Joli, Evelyn “Champagne” King, Maxine Nightingale, Pamala Stanley, Anita Ward, Martha Wash and the ladies formerly of Chic: Alfa Anderson, Luci Martin and Norma Jean. The event includes cocktails, dinner, dancing, and silent and live auctions, one-of-a-kind collectibles, marvelous merchandise and more. 5:30 p.m., Saturday, May 3. $395 and up. O'Donnell Golf Club, 301 N. Belardo Road, Palm Springs. 760-325-8481;

Visual Arts


Sculpture Taking Place: Cast, Carve, Combine allows families to wander Sunnylands Gardens and view local sculptors at work in this thematic family day; from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday, May 18. Plein Air in the Gardens admits artists for extended hours to paint, sketch or sculpt in the gardens. Pre-registration is required; from 7:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday, May 21. Free. Sunnylands Center and Gardens, 37977 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage, CA 92270. 760-202-2222;


The exhibit includes art works purchased by the Palm Springs Art Museum with funds provided by the Contemporary Art Council and other contributors since 1984. The acquisitions were created by contemporary artists who worked in California or were influenced by spending some time in California during their artistic careers. This is the first time these artworks have been on exhibition together. The exhibit is a celebration of the commitment of the Contemporary Art Council to growing the museum's collection of significant contemporary artists, and is a survey of art in California since the 1980s. On display through Thursday, July 31. Included with museum admission (free to $12.50). Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs. 760-322-4800;


Connect 2014 offers the opportunity for professional, emerging professional and serious advanced amateur photographers to study with legendary photographers, show portfolios in the celebrated Portfolio Review Program, and attend cutting-edge seminars. The program is intended to inspire, educate and instill or reignite passion for the art and commerce of photography. Various times Monday, April 28, through Friday; May 2. Prices vary. Hyatt Palm Springs, 285 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. 310-289-5030;

Published in Local Fun

Editor’s Note: On July 26, the Independent published a piece on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip, a project by Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein, both recent graduates of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. The goal of their road trip was to examine how people across the country are adapting their lives due to climate change.

On July 21 and 22, Howard and Goldstein spent some time at Joshua Tree National Park. Here’s their story on the park.

To read about their entire summer-long journey, visit

The desert has much to teach us about the marvels of adaptation. Relentless sun, little water, and summer temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit can make a forbidding world for non-desert dwellers. Yet hundreds of species conserve moisture and beat the heat in fascinating ways.

—Joshua Tree National Park visitors’ map

Sweltering July is the off-season at Joshua Tree National Park, home to the unique ecological meeting point of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. We entered the park’s south entrance and spent the night under a full moon at the nearly empty Cottonwood Spring campground.

We woke up at 5:30 a.m. for a morning hike, and atop Mastodon Peak, we gazed out over a landscape full of contractions: The desert is smooth yet angular, monochrome yet motley, barren yet overflowing. But it wasn’t until later that afternoon driving west to higher elevations that we encountered the park’s namesake and perhaps the most paradoxical fixture on the landscape: the Joshua tree.

Face-to-face with a Joshua tree, it’s hard to decide whether it’s beautiful or hideous. Either way, though, there is much more to the Joshua tree than meets the eye. In a children’s book published by the National Park Service as an educational tool, author L.S. Lange describes the keystone species role the Joshua tree plays. The Gambel’s quail eats its seeds; the Scott’s oriole nests in its leaves and feeds on its nectar; loggerhead spike birds spear their prey on its sharp leaves; Yucca moths hatch in its seed pods; and termites live in the decomposing trunks.

What would Joshua Tree National Park be without the Joshua tree? The Park Service is trying to prevent us from finding out.

The Everywhere-Nowhere Tree

When we had asked Ken Cole, a retired U.S. Geological Survey ecologist who studied the species, where we could find the best Joshua-tree forests, he told us, “There just aren’t that many Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park.”

According to Cole’s 2011 research, there probably were Joshua trees in the southern part of the park 11,700 years ago. Paleoclimatological records suggest that the tree’s range shrank by 90 percent when the climate warmed up four degrees Celsius over 50 years, marking the end of the Pleistocene and the start of the Holocene. With the warming, an important seed-dispersing Shasta ground sloth disappeared. Trees now only occupy the highest altitudes of that original range, where temperatures are cooler.

“Joshua trees are very picky. They tend to hang around at 3,500 to 5,000 foot elevation,” Park Association employee Lacy Ditto told us.

In certain parts of the park, though, the Joshua trees are ubiquitous. After easing our minivan up a 2,000-foot climb into the Mojave, scraggly Joshua trees of all different shapes and sizes surrounded us—and at 40 feet stood the tallest Joshua tree in the world. Others stooped, overloaded with branches. Old, dead Joshua trees lay defeated on the harsh desert floor. Many trees were teeming with the remnants of pods that, after a very rare full bloom this spring, were dropping millions of seeds to vie for germination below.

Whether this rare abundance is a sign of regeneration or impending decline is the latest mystery of the Joshua tree.

Kirsten Howard hugs the world's tallest Joshua tree, which stands 40 feet tall.Bounty, or Last Chance?

This year’s bloom in Joshua Tree National Park was the most bountiful in decades—40 percent bigger than the next best bloom in the past 25 years. And this could be a good thing, since the species has been having a difficult time reproducing lately. Reproduction has dropped by about 30 percent throughout the park, and in the hottest and driest areas, the Joshua tree hasn’t been regenerating at all. In many parts of the park, the death rate of its namesake has been outstripping the birth rate for decades.

Why the trouble in paradise? Some point to the warmer nights in the winter. Some think the tree needs a cold winter frost to damage its growing tips, which jolts it into flower production. The fertility challenges may also be linked to the Yucca moth, an important Joshua-tree pollinator that could be sensitive to higher temperatures. No one really knows for sure.

Experts also aren’t sure whether the recent flowery outpouring of the Joshua trees in the park is cause for celebration or alarm. According to Josh Hoines, a National Park Service vegetation specialist, several anecdotal theories exist as to why the trees flowered so successfully this year. One is that there was a cold snap and some snow this winter. Another is that more rainfall allowed for extra resource accumulation—especially after two years of drought.

Hoines described a third possible explanation: “The most recent theory I have seen is that the climate has moved to the edge of the physiologic tolerance for Joshua trees, and they are putting out one last-ditch effort before they die.”

Climate models suggest we can expect an increase in temperatures around four degrees Celsius in the next 60 to 90 years—a similar rate of change to 11,700 years ago. Using scenario-based modeling, Cole and his research team predict that the tree’s range will constrict to 10 percent of its current area as temperatures rise.

“We think the change with global warming will be similar in scale to the last major die-off. Ninety percent of the current range may disappear,” Cole said.

Keeping the Joshua Tree

Amid media hoopla about the future of the Joshua tree and speculation as to what the big bloom could mean, many researchers and Park Service specialists are taking action to protect the species despite imperfect information. While researchers work to fill in important science gaps about the Joshua tree, vegetation specialists like Hoines are implementing ‘no regrets’ strategies. They collect and store seeds in a bank and use them to re-vegetate sites that are degraded. The park also runs a nursery where specialists grow the temperature-sensitive seedlings in a controlled environment before they are restored to the park. Park employees monitor long-term plots to better understand how the trees respond to climate change.

Some researchers are beginning to think about a more-controversial solution: manually relocating the Joshua tree. Cole’s study identified new areas that could provide an appropriate climate for the Joshua tree as the climate changes. Of these areas, those that fall within two kilometers of current Joshua-tree populations could be suitable for natural migration, where seed-dispersers might move the populations naturally. But most of the future favorable climates fall further than two kilometers away from current Joshua tree populations, and would require managed relocation: people dispersing seed or planting seedlings. Many of these suitable areas are already federally protected, so the plan may be feasible.

Whether or not it is palatable for the Park Service and other federal agencies to intervene in this way is another question—and they’re certainly trying out other tools in the toolkit first.

While these quiet efforts to protect the Joshua tree don’t often make headlines, careful research and management may be what ultimately prevent the doomsday declarations from coming true. If the Joshua tree leaves the park, it won’t be without a fight.

“The Joshua tree is not going extinct. We’re not going to let that happen,” said Ditto.

Read the full version of this piece, with more photos and graphics, at

Published in Environment

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