Mojave Mirage; What You See -- Or Remember -- Is Not Always What You Get

California State Route 62 | Photo: Caveman Chuck Coker/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Everything has changed.

Driving into the Mojave Desert, after an absence of 40 years, my wife and I were struck by the density of the human presence. It's not that we expected nothing to have happened in the intervening decades but we were unprepared for the extent of the transformation.

Subdivisions claw their way up once cactus-studded ridgelines; gas stations, hotels, and restaurants crowd alongside what had been a dusty two-lane sweep of road, CA 62. RVs and pickups now rocket down the four-lane highway, before pulling into ubiquitous trailer parks jammed with snowbirds and full-time residents; desert sprawled.

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This false-color satellite image of Palm Springs, Cathedral City, and Palm Desert shows vegetation in red and bare ground is represented by varying shades of blue-green. "The lush grass of the heavily irrigated courses acount for most of the bright red areas in this image." | Photo: Courtesy NASA

Even the shuttered automobile dealerships and half-empty strip-malls, ghostly remains of the 2007 economic collapse, reinforced our unnerving realization of the thickening concrete imprint on this formerly clean, open, and sparse landscape.

How thick is reflected in the speed with which the desert -- Mojave and Sonoran -- has urbanized. Cruise the I-10 corridor that splays along the southern border of Joshua Tree National Park. Its growth rates are staggering. Palm Desert, a mere 6,171 the last time we had been in the area, had jumped to 23,650 by 1990 and to nearly 50,000 in 2010. Indio blew up from 49,116 in 2000 to more than 76,000 ten years later; the 42,647 who called Cathedral City home in 2000 a decade later had swelled to more than 51,000. In the "City of Eternal Sunshine" (that would be Coachella), 40,000 have hunkered down, and Palm Springs now tops 44,000 people.

All these bodies, new and old, need shelter; they need water and energy; they require streets, stoplights, and schools, fire and police departments, hospitals. Work and shopping, entertainment and culture, no less than areas to recreate and play (golf, mostly): these make up but a partial list of the infrastructural requirements we demand of anyplace we inhabit.

Joshua Tree National Park | Photo: The City Project/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The collective impact of these pressures can be intense for such an arid land. Trying to slake the unquenchable human thirst in a parched region is hard enough, for example, but it becomes a great deal more difficult when you mix in the conflicting ambitions of politicians and bureaucrats; developers, tribal leaders, and environmentalists, and ordinary residents.

Getting these interests, among many others, to agree on an equitable distribution of white gold, let alone to advance rigorous conservation measures that might sustain these still-booming communities well into the 21st-century, will take time and patience.

But whether there is time enough isn't clear. So I wondered while standing at the Oasis Visitor Center at the north entrance to J-Tree, listening to a canyon wren welcome the early morning light. One ornithologist likens the bird's seductive call to a "cascade of musical whistles," yet outside its lyrical song there wasn't a lot of water visible as I swung my binoculars to the west, focusing in on the San Bernardino Mountains; only the very highest peaks -- notably, San Gorgonio -- glistened.

Evidense of snowmelt draining into the desert | Photo: Chris Clarke/KCET for Flying to the Solar Zone: Thoughts & Shots From Above
Had this been a wet winter, there would have been a deeper snowpack and at much lower elevations; with the warm spring sun its melt already would have been tumbling down through the steep, sharp canyons cutting into the range's eastern slope, before spreading across the alluvial fans and then seeping underground to replenish the Mojave's sand aquifers (a slow transfer that the San Jacinto Mountains replicate for the Sonoran).

Not this year. To date, Southern California has received less than half its normal precipitation, with Pacific storms shifting well to the north; should this drier pattern persist across the century, as the most recent climate models predict, then local groundwater supplies will be in considerable jeopardy.

Add to this disquieting thought another: the American West in general has experienced a mild winter; the Sierra and Wasatch report below-normal snowfall. Most worrisome for those who live in the Mojave are the Rockies, where the ski season has been abysmal. However far away it may be, this range is more valuable to the metro desert than the nearby San Bernardinos and San Jacintos: its distant high-country snowfields are the source of the Colorado River, which since the 1930s has supplied the region with a steady flow through the California Aqueduct. The Metropolitan Water District, which operates the aqueduct's 242-mile-long network of dams, pumps, canals, tunnels, and pipes, provides the bulk of the water that residents of Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and Indo consume.

There is another warning sign, this too spotted at the Oasis Visitor Center. The site is so named because of the springs that once broke the surface here, a consequence of an impermeable barrier known as the Pinto Mountain fault: it blocks the underground flow of water coming off of the Queen Mountains, forcing it upwards to spill across the stony soil.

The native peoples who gathered around the springs -- the Serrano, Chemehuevi, and Cahuilla -- made good use of this critical resource to cultivate crops; water that as well nourished California Fan Palms whose wood fiber and fronds they wove into baskets; and that sustained the animals they ate.

Understanding its value too were Anglo-American surveyors, explorers, and '49ers that before the Civil War pushed across the desert. By the late 19th-century, others began to set up camp in the area, hoping to exploit its mineral riches. Tapping the springflow to wet their whistle, cool their animals, and fill their casks and canteens, or more industriously siphoning off its icy rush for mining operations, inevitably altered what the Serrano had called Mara, "a place of small springs and much grass." It became much less bountiful and bucolic.

Minerva Hamilton Hoyt in the 1920s. | Photo: Courtesy National Park<br />
Service.To protect such stressed ecosystems, and the larger landscape of which they are a part, drove the indefatigable Minerva Hamilton Hoyt to advocate for a desert national park. Dubbed the Apostle of the Cacti, she earned this sobriquet for defending what most of her contemporaries dismissed as a wasteland, the disposable desert. Where some contemporaries saw only the sparkling riches that should be gouged out its mountains; where others plucked its flowers, and dug up Joshua Trees and other prickly mementos of their outback sojourn, Hoyt bore witness to a beauty integral to itself.

Preserving what she described as the Mojave's "silence and mystery" demanded a political solution. And shortly after the 1916 creation of the National Park system Hoyt started orchestrating a groundswell of support for congressional action to preserve her beloved terrain. Exhibits on desert flora and fauna; newspaper articles celebrating the stark beauty of this much-ignored environment; a letter-writing campaign to secure the requisite votes; coalition building: Hoyt's campaign was a classic example of how self-interest and public service can bring about social change; how a person of deep pockets and considerable skill can bend political power to her will.

Hoyt's chances of success, after more than a decade of activism, increased in February 1933 when during his final month in office President Herbert Hoover set a precedent for Joshua Tree with the creation of Death Valley National Monument. His successor, Franklin Roosevelt, a conservationist at heart, proved sympathetic and shrewd. He waited until August 1936, just days before the Labor Day start of his campaign for a second term, to invoke the powers given to him under the Antiquities Act, unilaterally establishing Joshua Tree National Monument. (The two national monuments would become national parks in 1994, courtesy of the California Desert Protection Act).

Alas, the newfound protections that park rangers brought to Joshua Tree's original 825,000 acres did little to save the Mara oasis. Instead, the creation of the national monument may have hastened its demise: the site drew even more visitors and residents to the desert, leading to accelerated pumping of local groundwater; by 1942 the spring had dried up. To recreate its life-giving flow, today the Park Service pipes water to the site, a trickle designed to feed a landscape that cannot function on its own.

The loss is not just ecological. It's also human. The original inhabitants of Joshua Tree, the agency concludes, had left the oasis by 1913. Their departure led a Smithsonian archaeologist to erase them from cultural memory, as if they had been swept away in a sandstorm: "Intrinsically, it is of little import who exercised sovereignty in this tract," he wrote in 1925; "to all purposes it was empty."

J. Smeaton Chase knew otherwise. In California Desert Trails (1919), a poetic meditation on his explorations of the deserts of Eastern California ("this bit of pure Arabia that has somehow fallen into our territory"), he offered up this sharp critique of the casual American displacement of The Other:

I do not know who owns the land, and, what is of more account, the water; but when I come upon these abandoned settlements of the Indians, at places where they would no doubt have wished to remain, I take them for links in an old but lengthening chain of wrong.

In the desert, some things never change.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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