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The Woman Who Saved The California Desert

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Minerva Hoyt and Joshua Tree National Park | Photo: NPS (inset), Christopher Michel, some rights reserved

We Californians sometimes love the desert a little too much. It shows when stunning blooms bring traffic jams of tourists to trample the wildflowers, or when weekends in December mean it's impossible to find solitude on many trails in Joshua Tree National Park.

But there was a time when Californians' love for the desert caused damage that didn't mostly go away on Monday morning. There was once a natural wonder in the California desert — one you may not have heard of — that was essentially destroyed 90 years ago because people wanted desert plants for their own gardens.

One Pasadena-based environmental activist was horrified at that destruction. Her response forever changed the way Californians look at the desert, and earned her a permanent place in the pantheon of California environmentalist women we're honoring this week to mark International Women's Day.

It was called the Devil's Garden. A plain in the northernmost extension of the Coachella Valley now occupied mainly by wind turbines and Highway 62, the Devil's Garden was a botanical wonderland. Well-watered by runoff from the San Bernardino Mountains, plants in the Devil's Garden grew in lush profusion. There were chollas and hedgehog cacti, prickly pears, barrel cacti taller than a man, millennia-old yuccas, and shrubs, perennials, and annual wildflowers in abundance.

Until the 1890s or so, the Devil's Garden grew essentially unmolested for centuries, known mainly to the Cahuilla and Serrano people who lived in the area. But the advent of the private automobile changed all that. Within the first few years of Southern California's automobile age, what had been a relatively isolated desert landscape was suddenly within a few hours' drive of more than a hundred thousand people.

That might not have been a problem, except that many of the more affluent members in that swelling SoCal population were suddenly enamored of desert plants, which seemed well suited to Los Angeles' Mediterranean climate. At first one by one, and then in larger shipments, cacti and other plants from the Devil's Garden made their way to coastal private gardens, as well as public parks such as White Park in Riverside. By the mid-1920s, when the (relatively) high-speed U.S. Route 60 was established a few miles south of the Devil's Garden, the area was all but denuded of its desert flora.

Minerva Hamilton Hoyt was horrified by this. An avid gardener and doyenne of Pasadena society, Hoyt understood well the appeal desert plants held for Southern California gardeners. But she also greatly valued the landscapes where the plants truly belonged: the California desert. Hoyt had spent a whole lot of time in the Southern California deserts by the end of the 1920s, seeking solace in the open vistas and compelling desert vegetation. She'd fallen in love with the deserts soon after arriving in Pasadena in the late 1890s as a newlywed. After losing an infant son, and then finding herself a widow in 1918, her sojourns in the desert became more than just recreational. 

As Conservation Chair of the California chapter of the Garden Club of America, Hoyt advocated that desert landscapes be protected as parks. She coordinated a series of impressive displays of desert plants at East Coast garden shows in the late 1920s, which stoked interest in wild deserts. In 1930, capitalizing on new awareness of desert vegetation, Hoyt founded the International Desert Conservation League, which almost immediately racked up an international success: Mexican President Pascual Ortiz Rubio established a 10,000-acre cactus reserve at Hoyt's urging near Tehuacan.

The United States President, Herbert Hoover, wasn't quite as compliant. Hoyt had been tapped by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to represent the deserts on the State Parks Commission, which was charged with recommending new parks in California. Hoyt recommended that parks be established in the Death Valley area and in the mountains west of the Imperial Valley, which would eventually become Anza-Borrego Desert State Park — though the story of the wrangling and political infighting that finally resulted in Anza-Borrego's establishment could be a whole book on its own.

But the rampant poaching of desert plants from the Devil's Garden worried Hoyt. And commercial interests were starting to eye the forests of Joshua trees as a source of cheap, lightweight wood for various uses. So along with Death Valley and Anza-Borrego, Hoyt recommended that a huge swath of land from the low desert near the Salton Sea stretching northward into the Mojave Desert be protected — a million-plus acres that she called Desert Plants National Park.

Hoover wasn't averse to declaring desert parks. He established Death Valley as a National Monument using his powers under the Antiquities Act in February, 1933, and did likewise for Saguaro National Monument in March, just hours before Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the oath of office. But during his administration, Hoover had put Hoyt off when she'd asked him for help establishing her envisioned Desert Plants National Park. That may have been out of the fiscally conservative Republican's reluctance to designate too many public parks.

FDR proved more sympathetic, in part due to the strong pro-park sympathies of his Interior Secretary, Harold Ickes. The two saw designating National Monuments as an effective economic stimulus, useful during the depths of the Depression. But the National Park Service wasn't convinced. One fact-finding visit by the Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, Roger Toll, led to a proposal to protect only the densest groves of Joshua trees and a few rock formations, around 140,000 acres in total. Hoyt protested, quickly and effectively, leaning on Ickes with all the socialite leverage she could muster.

Hoyt's leaning in worked. In 1936, FDR designated Joshua Tree National Monument at 825,340 acres — significantly larger than the present day Joshua Tree National Park. (A lot of the original monument was withdrawn for mining during World War Two, and most of those withdrawals are yet to be restored.)

Joshua Tree, upgraded to National Park status in 1994, will always be the achievement for which Minerva Hamilton Hoyt is most remembered. But count her contributions to protection both Death Valley and Anza-Borrego, and Hoyt's contribution to the desert is truly staggering. More than 3 million acres of the California desert were protected in the 1930s as a result, at least in part, of her fierce love for the desert.

That's quite an inheritance.