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Getting Young People To Our Desert National Parks

Cottonwoods in fall color at Big Morongo Canyon Preserve | Photo: Matt Artz, some rights reserved
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Young people from the Coachella Valley set out on their first backpacking trip in Joshua tree. | Photo: Seth Shteir
Young people from the Coachella Valley set out on their first backpacking trip in Joshua tree. | Photo: Seth Shteir

During the hundredth anniversary of the National Park Service, it’s good to reflect on those who had the foresight to preserve our air, land, water, wildlife, and historic and cultural sites for future generations.  And the first birthday of our newly created desert national monuments underscores the importance of protecting land for people and wildlife.

Which makes it especially important to get outside with those future generations and introduce them to these special places. Over the past year I had the good fortune to work with several youth groups in our national parks and newly created desert monuments.

Late last year I led two bird walks at Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, one of them with an overnight backpack in Joshua Tree National Park, for Coachella Valley youth. The trips were organized in cooperation with the Hispanic Access Foundation and Por La Creacion, a Coachella Valley faith-based environmental group.

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is part of the newly created Sand to Snow National Monument. We went there to watch birds in celebration of the approaching first birthday of our desert national monuments. Some of the young people on the trip had lived in the Coachella Valley for many years, but really hadn’t explored the stark, magnificent beauty of the desert or its lush oases.  During the bird walk, they got the opportunity to discover the new national monument and enjoy its natural beauty.

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is one of the ten largest willow and cottonwood riparian areas in the state. The new Sand to Snow National Monument connects the Preserve with the western edge of Joshua Tree National Park and the high, snow-capped peaks of the San Bernardino Mountains. The Preserve already provides food, water and shelter for more than 240 bird species; now, the monument designation will also benefit young people, outdoors enthusiasts, and the local economy.

As I handed out binoculars to the youth in the parking lot I was struck by the leafy, beautiful cottonwood trees. They flourish here because the Preserve is a place where water — the liquid gold of the desert — is pushed to the surface by the underlying rock layers. The stately cottonwoods attract insects that are food for many species of birds. Their heart-shaped leaves tremble in the wind.

As we walked down the boardwalk we saw huge thickets of honey mesquite, whose bloom attracts many species of bees. Honey mesquite has a long tap root that can reach water deep beneath the surface of the earth. We also saw red willow, a water-loving plant used by Native Americans as a natural remedy — its bark contains salicylic acid, a substance similar to aspirin. 

The younger you get to know the parks, the more you'll recognize their value. Kids at Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve | Photo: Seth Shteir
The younger you are when you get to know the parks, the more you'll recognize their value. Kids at Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve | Photo: Seth Shteir

We saw a variety of birds. A Say's phoebe settled on a dead tree in a field of alkali goldenbush. A ruby crowned kinglet darted through the trees, showing off his red crest.  A common raven soared in the skies overhead while a western bluebird made a soft call, “few, few,” as it searched for insects on the ground.

The backpacking trip that capped off the October bird walk was in the Malapai Hill area of Joshua Tree National Park — a landscape punctuated by a large black basalt formation that towers over jumbled rocks and sandy desert washes. The trip — the participants’ first backpack ever — was organized in celebration of the National Park Service Centennial. The youth learned about backcountry logistics, safety, the National Park Service Centennial, and what it feels like to camp beneath the stars under a full, beautiful orange moon, with hot chocolate provided. Though I definitely lost points as the trip leader for leaving the dark chocolate bars in the back of my car, everybody had a terrific time. The kids were able to bring home their own backpacks and other equipment donated by the outfitter Adventure 16.

After the trip, the group visited the community of Joshua Tree and, thanks to Joshua Tree Art Gallery owner Fred Fulmer, were able to see some beautiful paintings — some of which were inspired by the national park they had just visited.

These two trips were certainly the highlight of my National Park Centennial year; hopefully, for that was true for the young hikers as well. Experiencing these special places has been an important part of my life, but for me the greatest gift of all is to watch the smiles and expressions of wonder on the faces of young people who may now be inspired to protect these lands in the future.

Banner: Big Morongo Canyon Preserve in the Sand to Snow National Monument. Photo: Matt Artz, some rights reserved

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