Kicking Off National Park Week By Getting Dirty At Joshua Tree National Park

A morning's work near Joshua Tree National Park erased part of an old dirt Jeep road from land valuable for wildlife habitat and replaced it with a footpath with less of an impact on the landscape. If all goes as planned, the land will be added to Joshua Tree. Kurt Repanshek photos.

Joshua trees long dead stood once again, lending more depth to a landscape that, though looking parched and dusty in spots, still provides rich wildlife habitat.

Proof of that could be seen in a desert tortoise, the dirt on its shell evidence that it had recently emerged from its burrow, and a bit later in the form of a black-tailed jackrabbit that darted by at top speed.

Though this landscape falls just beyond the northern border of Joshua Tree National Park, it's only a matter of time before the nearly 960 acres becomes part of the park. Known as the Quail Mountain tract for a 5,814-foot mountain that already is part of the park, this parcel was acquired by the non-profit Mojave Desert Land Trust last fall and is waiting for the day Congress -- hopefully not too far off -- approves its attachment to the park.

Lack of a transfer date didn't seem to matter Saturday to the 50 or so volunteers who turned out for a land restoration party sponsored by the National Parks Conservation Association and Nature Valley, the granola bar and trail mix maker that is in the second year of what officials describe as a long-term effort to support the national parks.

Toting buckets, shovels, picks, rakes, and gallons of water for a morning under the hot sun that quickly pushed the temperature into the mid-80s, and encouraged and joined on the work lines by Lost actor Josh Holloway, the volunteers set out under the watchful eye of Cody Hanford to, as one volunteer later put it, "disappear a road."

Their task was straightforward, if not simple: help prepare the land for the day it is added to the national park and becomes a vital wildlife corridor, one with trails that will show off its wonders to the public.

"We use vertical mulch, horizonal mulch," Mr. Hanford, a land stewardship specialist who works with the land trust to infuse vigor into weary, mistreated land, told his charges before unleashing them. "We put things from the desert back."

The acreage needed the ministrations.

A desertscape of geologic rubble, hills, and washes sprinkled with gangly Joshua trees, creosote bush, desert mallow, desert sunflower, and peppermint-scented chia, and too many other shrubs, cacti, and wildflowers to quickly list, the parcel just south of the town of Joshua Tree long had been the playground of dirt-bikers, off-roaders, and campers. When the land trust was finally able to purchase the acreage for about $1.6 million, it knew there would have to be some sweat and sore muscles invested to erase the scars and get ready for the day when the Park Service, which has in the past indicated great interest in the land, would be able to take the parcel.

"This isn't a usual restoration effort. We don't normally have a check-in table," Nancy Karl, the trust's executive director, joked with the volunteers before they had broken a sweat. But the work at hand, she added, was quite typical for the non-profit.

"We buy land, we save it, and we pass it on," said Ms. Karl. "We bought this land because it's adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park."

David Lamfrom, NPCA's desert program manager in California, told the volunteers that their efforts would do more than simply restore a landscape.

"Actions we take here today are going to have a ripple effect," he said, one that will show the public that the Southern California desert "is not a wasteland, it's a wonderland."

"We will move to protect the land today, and today we will be part of a movement," said Mr. Lamfrom.

But first they had to massage the landscape. Jeep tracks would have to be pinched down into narrow trails that would invite hikers, trail runners, and equestrian use, and old berms would have to be knocked down and waterbars installed to better reward the desert when rains came. In response, the habitat that is used by the tortoises (a threatened species, by the way), jackrabbits, badgers, bighorn sheep, mountain lion, and mule deer would recover from the wear and tear and become even more productive.

"We want the community to use this, and use it correctly," said Mr. Hanford as he dispatched teams to various areas to begin their work.

With a turnout roughly three or four times as large as those the land trust's normal volunteer opportunities attract, old berms quickly vanished under digging shovels and smoothing rakes. Other crews, meanwhile, lightly scrapped into the Jeep track a trail about 18 inches wide that followed a series of small flags placed to show the volunteers where their new footpath should run.

A few weather-grayed Joshua tree trunks, dead for more than a decade since a wildfire raced across the hills and flats, were taken from the landscape and "planted" upright along the trail, a landscape architect's slight-of-hand to make it appear as if they had died standing up. Likewise, dead branches of cresote bush were "replanted" to help erase the Jeep track and serve as Mr. Hanford's "vertical mulch."

By noon, 50 yards or so of the old Jeep track had vanished thanks to contouring and "revegetating" that removed the previous scar. In its place was a meandering footpath, one that perhaps was too well-defined but yet inviting with its new footing in the desert.

"It looks a little bit like a garden path," agreed Jim Barry, who has lived next to the tract for about a decade and volunteers regularly on restoration projects. "But it has to be to keep people on it. We've got to make it easy for them to stay on the trail. You've got to have one narrow path to keep people on, or everything (away from the trail) gets smashed."

Ann Murdy, a retiree who has volunteered the past 15 years for the Park Service at Joshua Tree, wasn't too afraid of wielding a pick to poke a hole along the trail to "plant" a creosote bush. Later, when asked after lunch whether many of those newcomers who had turned out for the project would show up for future events, she wouldn't hazard a guess. But getting them out the first time is key, she said.

"Bringing people in makes them feel part of the park," said Ms. Murdy. "They need to realize it's theirs. It (the park) is a pleasure, and a responsibility."

That's the sentiment at Nature Valley, which has committed as much as $400,000, and possibly as much as $500,000 this year, to the NPCA for "National Parks Project" events that will take place in various corners of the National Park System this summer.

Stephanie Hu, an associate marketing manager for the company, said customers believe Nature Valley should be involved in the national parks.

"Our consumers are very passionate about nature and the outdoors," she said as the Quail Mountain trail came to life. "People care about this. We want to bring awareness to this. We want to bring funds to this."

Funds are something the Park Service lacks, and something that Corporate America can leverage. Under its agreement with NPCA, the granola maker will provide a minimum $400,000 for this year's program. Another $100,000 could be generated by consumers scanning Universal Product Codes from specially marked packages online.

That additional cash seems easily within reach. Already more than 400,000 follow Nature Valley's Facebook page, and more than 3,000 nature photos, many taken in national parks, have been uploaded to the page by those fans.

While bringing Josh Holloway to the event Saturday more than likely was to harness his appeal with generations younger than the greying Baby Boomers, his connection to national parks goes back to his boyhood growing up in Georgia when family vacations ended up more than a few times in the Smokies.

"Thanks for being out here and doing something that's so important to me and so important to everbody," he told the volunteers after they chowed down on BBQed chicken and beef. Noting society's ubiguitous tether to cellphones and videogames, and their distractions, he said the country needs to reconnect with nature, to find the peacefulness that's inherent in it.

Later this year Nature Valley and NPCA will team up against to help build the Duck Brook Village connector trail at Acadia National Park; work on projects to protect and improve wetlands for wildlife and plant species at Biscayne National Park; launch projects to protect migration corridors for wildlife in Grand Teton National Park; do habitat restoration work in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that will benefit endangered fish and other species, and; work to protect migrational routes for Yellowstone National Park pronghorn antelope.

Comments

We've had a few posts on our family travel blog www.FamilyTrek.org this week about National Parks week. One of our followers shared your post with us on getting dirty in Joshua Tree and we included the link in a post wrapping up the week. We're just a few hours from Joshua Tree! We're going to have to take your story as a guide!