On October 15, a contractor's crew will begin removing as many as 800 teddybear cholla cactus from the vicinity of the Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park as part of a road upgrade project. The park plans to transplant the moved cacti to nearby areas once the project is completed, with a 75-80% survival rate. And at least some of those cacti will be moved so that visitors can more easily park their cars at the Cholla Cactus Garden.
The cacti will be transplanted as part of repairs and upgrades to the Pinto Basin Road, a major artery traversing the central section of the Park. In the works for some years, the repairs became even more urgent after violent storms in September 2011 washed out the road in several places, closing motorized access to the Park for more than a month. Overall the upgrades will widen the road by about two feet, and make the pavement a bit more resistant to wear.
At issue in the vicinity of the Cholla Cactus Garden are several sharp curves just west of the Garden's visitor parking area, which reduce drivers' sight distance and contribute to the possibility of accidents. The curves are perfectly safe in most conditions if you drive at around 35 miles per hour, but that's apparently asking too much of many travelers -- especially given the miles of more or less straight road on either side that seem to beg for acceleration. People unaccustomed to driving on desert two-lanes can often misjudge the abruptness with which alluvial fans and washes force curves in the road. According to the project's Environmental Assessment, road conditions at the Cholla Cactus Garden and down the road at Porcupine Wash have caused 19 auto accidents, including two fatalities, as well as 33 "personal property accidents."
Driving from the west end of Pinto Basin Road south of 29 Palms to the Cottonwood entrance of the National Park takes you over 35 miles of two-lane road that winds through canyons, rolls into and out of sandy washes, and follows the occasionally unpredictable contours of the desert landscape. Though a few people do use the road as a shortcut between the eastern Coachella Valley and 29 Palms, the majority of travelers on the road are there to see the park. You might think that slowing down would be the way to do that.
There's an odd behavioral quirk that many national park visitors exhibit, though, which will be familiar to some. It's especially true in desert parks, though you can see it in more verdant parks like Yosemite as well. People stop at "sanctioned" places such as scenic overlooks and visitor centers, and spend as little time as possible getting from one such sanctioned spot to another. I first really noticed this about 15 years ago at Arches National Park. I'd hiked to a spot about a mile uphill from a roadside viewpoint, and I sat there for an hour watching people pull in fast, jump out of their cars and snap a few photos for 45 seconds or so, and then zoom off to the next spot in violation of the park's generous speed limit.
Never mind that the location of Arches' pullouts is somewhat arbitrary, and that miles of gorgeous, strollable slickrock accessible from the road's wide shoulders separated any two given official pullouts. It seemed people were more interested in looking at what they were told they ought to look at than getting a feel for the landscape as a whole. I know that no one came by the place where I was sitting for the hour I spent there, despite its being essentially wheelchair accessible and gorgeous.
My first visit to Pinto Basin Road, in 1996, was on a cold September day when hardly anyone was in the park. Somewhere in the vicinity of the Cholla Cactus Garden I came upon a male tarantula crossing the road: I stopped my pickup in mid-lane with flashers on, got out with my camera, and gawked at the spider for something like ten minutes. No one passed from either direction. If the road had been conducive to faster driving, I might have missed the tarantula, or run it over. As it was the slow road, and the leisurely pace it forced on me, gave me an experience that ensured I'd remember that first visit.
And that wasn't even leaving the road. Ed Abbey said it best, in his book "Desert Solitaire," in a rumination about the National Park Service's desire to pave roads through what was then Arches National Monument:
"A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles."
That's still true, though the gender-specificity of Ed's pronouns could use some updating.
It's hard to argue with the need to make to road safer. It's even hard to argue with the need to make it wider, unless the Park Service were to ban vehicles above a certain size from the road, a move that would likely be criticized as unfair to Winnebago drivers. Soft shoulders on narrow desert roads almost guarantee accidents, as inattentive or bored drivers wander off onto the gravel and lose control of their vehicles.
The Park Service could make the road safer by figuring out ways to sharply reduce speeds for a half mile on either side of the dangerous spots, by adding little speed bumps or parking cop cars along the side of the road or by some other means, but those solutions would no doubt prove unpopular. Banning private cars from the road and instituting frequent free shuttles would work even better and be even more politically disastrous. Unpaving the road completely might work, though it would create other problems.
The Park Service says in the road project's Environmental Assessment that difficult driving conditions detract from the driver's ability to appreciate the desert landscape, and that surveys of visitor's perceptions of the Park's safety mention fast drivers on narrow roads. I'm not persuaded that making the road better will address either of those two problems, but I'm going against a hundred years of road-building mythos by saying so. It's pretty much received wisdom among engineers: you address unsafe drivers by making the road capable of allowing them to drive even faster. Few people heed Abbey as he says, elsewhere in "Desert Solitaire,"
Industrial tourism is a threat to the national parks. But the chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while.
And so straightening the road west of Cholla Cactus Garden makes a certain kind of sense. And moving the cacti out of the way of the road has a certain inevitability to it. The chollas that survive the transplanting process will be used to revegetate the old road alignment, so that's at least something.
What doesn't make as much sense to me is the parking lot part of the project. As part of the road upgrade, the Park Service plans to pave the parking lot at the Cholla Cactus Garden, in the process expanding it to the south by 20 or 30 feet. This will provide a few more parking spaces, including a few for the large recreational vehicles in whose interest the road is being widened.
Here's the view to the south of the current parking lot, courtesy Google Street View:
Note the chollas immediately on the other side of the current fence. The new parking lot would extend up to where those chollas start to get pretty thick. Everything between the fence and that thick patch of chollas would be pulled out, stored until the construction project is over, then transplanted somewhere else. That patch of chollas is much sparser than the one behind it, to be sure. Whether it's sparser because it's been up against the exiting parking lot for some decades I don't know. What effects a new, paved asphalt parking lot full of heat-reflecting cars dripping motor oil and gatorade onto the ground will have on the thicker chollas it's going to edge up to, I also don't know.
Of all the federal agencies I can think of, the National Park Service is the one I least enjoy criticizing. That's in large part because the NPS is the agency that attracts the true environmental idealists in the largest proportion. The BLM and the U.S. Forest Service and various scientific agencies get idealists, too, and some of them manage to make careers there, but the NPS is where people go if they want to spend their career protecting the land and getting people to love it, rather than facilitating timber sales or coal mines or large-scale grazing.
And so I'm hesitant to come down too hard on Joshua Tree for messing with the Cholla Cactus Garden. (I tried to reach Park spokesperson Joe Zarki while writing this to see if he could offer his views, but he's out of the office for the next few days.) The Park Service says that overcrowding at the Cholla Cactus Garden parking lot is a problem during peak periods, and that lack of room there contributes to the visitors' feeling of danger cited in the survey I mentioned above. That may well be true.
But there's something about the parking lot aspect of the project that bugs me beyond the usual problems with making it easier to drive through a National Park, beyond Abbey's exhortation in Desert Solitaire that:
You can't see anything from a car; you've got to get out of the goddamn contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you'll see something, maybe.
People stop at the Cholla Cactus Garden for any number of reasons: to stretch their legs, to eat a sandwich after a couple hours of driving, or because it's a sanctioned site, but mostly they stop there to see the cholla. Helping a few more of them do so safely is a worthy goal.
But it makes no sense to me to make it easier for people to leave their cars and see the cholla by removing the cholla to make more room for cars.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.