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Remember the Timbisha the Next Time You Revel in Wild Death Valley

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There has been some good news for Death Valley National Park. The National Parks Service recently announced much-anticipated proposals to enhance the wilderness values at the three-million acre park.

Faced with a growing number of visitors eager to rough it, administrators have established new limits on the size of camping groups, on the extent of commercial and non-commercial use of this rugged landscape, and on the location and timing of specialized recreational activities like sandboarding, canyoneering, and caving. By instituting greater managerial control of these and other uses, the Wilderness and Backcountry Stewardship Plan expects to make this wild land a little more wild.

However paradoxically the notion that human management of wilderness is essential to preserve it as wilderness, that's not the most striking aspect of the Park Service's report. It wasn't too long ago, after all, that most Americans thought the harsh Mojave Desert contained nothing worth protecting. For most it was but a vast wasteland, a place of threat (its name is not a misnomer), to be hurried through, or to be gouged of its mineral riches. It's hard to find anyone back in the day who thought it should be preserved for its own sake.

How and why our cultural and environmental perceptions of this now-massive desert park have changed is one of the subjects of a new history I have co-authored with the late UNLV historian Hal K. Rothman. "Death Valley National Park: A History" offers the first comprehensive analysis of the park, sets the people who have inhabited it -- Native American, prospector, and park ranger -- into their varied historical contexts, and traces the complicated reactions this gritty terrain has generated over time.

One of these responses is also the oldest. For the Shoshone people, especially those known as the Timbisha, who for millennia have roamed the place we now call Death Valley, its basins, foothills, and mountains have never been wasteland or wilderness. They were (and are) simply home, a source of food and shelter, art and culture, a spirit world into which their communal life has been deeply interwoven.

This tight weave was rent with the 19th-century arrival of explorers, treaty makers, and the U.S. Army, as well as legions of miners, land speculators, and some settlers; their presence and claims slowly unraveled the capacity of the Timbisha to maintain their historic relationship to the desert.

As early as the 1920s (as seen with this brochure), Los Angeles tourists helped propel Death Valley into a major destination. | Photo: Courtesy of Special Collections, Honnold/Mudd Library, The Claremont Colleges
As early as the 1920s (as seen with this brochure), Los Angeles tourists helped propel Death Valley into a major destination. | Photo: Courtesy of Special Collections, Honnold/Mudd Library, The Claremont Colleges

No less disruptive, Rothman and I argue, was the arrival of the National Park Service itself, which secured control over Death Valley in 1933 when President Hoover declared it a National Monument. His proclamation set aside almost two million acres "for the preservation of the unusual features of scenic, scientific, and educational interest," warned against anyone vandalizing, injuring, or removing "any feature of this monument," and from locating or settling on any its land.

Effectively exiled, the Timbisha would not regain a homeland inside park boundaries until the 1994 California Desert Protection Act added a million acres to Death Valley and compelled NPS to cede some land to them.

Consistent with the agency's belief that wilderness is the antithesis of civilization, a place apart that people can visit but not live, park administrators also have fought for the past eighty years to restrict mining and other non-recreational activities inside Death Valley. Although not entirely successful in this quest, the Mining in the Parks Act of 1976 helped close many shafts and pits, and block the development of new ones.

Corralling the burgeoning burro population, killing off invasive plants and trees, and stabilizing the endangered pupfish, an ice-age relict living within Salt Creek's brackish waters, have critically defined the Park Service's managerial efforts.

These stewardship projects require money, but that's been in too-short supply, a shortage that is puzzling given that Death Valley National Park is the largest unit in the park system outside of Alaska. Its cash-strapped administrators and rangers have had to get creative, to do more with less, which in this era of steep budget cuts and sequestration has had an ironic consequence. As other parks experience diminishing staff and dwindling financial resources, Death Valley can serve as a model for how to work lean.

It has become a template in another sense: as the earth warms, changing the dynamics of life everywhere, there is no better place within the park system than Death Valley to teach others how to adapt to a hotter, often drier world.

Whether our current conception of wilderness as refuge will survive these fiscal and climatic crises is unclear. What is clear is that these forces have not yet impacted the public discussion of what is presumed to be wilderness' inherent value, as reflected in the Park Service's new plans to insure that Death Valley's wildness is enhanced.

This commitment is mirrored as well in President Obama's proclamation identifying September as National Wilderness Month. This is the perfect time, he asserted, to "reflect on the profound influence of the great outdoors on our lives and our national character, and...recommit to preserving them for generations to come."

What the president did not say, the Park Service does not easily concede, but which the troubled history of Death Valley demonstrates, is that this preservationist impulse has not always been an unalloyed good.

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