Water, Air Quality, and Cultural Treasures at Risk in Desert Parks

Date:   June 14, 2005
Contact:   Howard Gross, NPCA California Desert Program Manager, 760-366-3035, 760-219-4916 (cell)
Kelli Holsendolph, NPCA, Phone: 202-454-3311

Water, Air Quality, and Cultural Treasures at Risk in Desert Parks

Washington, D.C. - While the California Desert Protection Act in 1994 provided a critical step toward better desert conservation, a little more than a decade later resources such as water, air quality, and the desert’s heritage are threatened, according to a new National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) State of the Parks® report released today. The NPCA assessment of Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park, and Mojave National Preserve points to rapid regional population growth, development of surrounding lands, and insufficient park funding as central causes.

The California desert parks lie between two major metropolitan regions—southern California and southern Nevada—that have grown considerably in recent decades. Riverside and San Bernardino counties, which encompass Joshua Tree National Park, are two of the fastest growing counties in the country. With a population of 1.7 million, Clark County, home of Las Vegas, continues to grow at a rate of 5,000 people each month.

“Skyrocketing population growth in and around the desert region has meant increased demands on the region’s most precious commodity—water,” said Howard Gross, NPCA California desert program manager. “More people have also meant more cars and trucks. This growth is a leading threat to the parks’ water resources and air quality.”

According to NPCA’s new report, potential land development also threatens resources in the parks. Joshua Tree faces the possibility of becoming neighbor to the world’s largest garbage dump—the Eagle Mountain Landfill—with railroad cars and trucks delivering 20,000 tons of garbage each day to the site for 117 years, if built. The proposed Ivanpah airport just north of Mojave, along with associated development, represents significant threats to the park’s naturally quiet soundscapes and dark night skies. The potential for a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, just 50 miles northeast of Death Valley’s border with Nevada could further deplete groundwater resources and introduce a myriad of unknown threats. Developers are likewise proposing new cities of 60,000 housing units east of Death Valley and 15,000 units south of Joshua Tree that would further strain the desert region's water supply. This proposal would also fragment Joshua Tree from nearby wilderness areas.

“Parks are not islands unto themselves,” noted NPCA State of Parks Vice President Jim Nations. “The developments and activities adjacent to them often impact the resources within them.”

Despite the best efforts of park staff, insufficient budgets hinder the parks’ ability to protect their resources. As noted in the NPCA study, limited funding and staffing shortages in the desert parks prevent sufficient understanding of the impact of groundwater withdrawals. Current funding levels at Mojave and Death Valley, in particular, do not provide for staffing to collect air quality data consistently over time. Presently, there are no air-quality monitoring stations at Mojave.

“California’s parks lack the funds needed to adequately monitor, manage, and protect their resources,” said Gross. “While external factors like growing populations and land development strain resources in the parks, internal factors like budget constraints leave resources vulnerable.”

Budget constraints similarly jeopardize the desert’s rich heritage. Artifacts are susceptible to theft and vandalism because current funding allows the parks to do only a fraction of what is needed to understand, preserve, interpret, and protect cultural relics and historic structures. Historic structures at Joshua Tree are threatened by vandalism and looting, as well as fire and weathering. Death Valley has more than 200 historic structures but does not have the staff needed to adequately assess the condition of most of these structures. Mojave has never had any staff to care for its museum or archival collections. As a result, none of the collection items have been catalogued.

NPCA launched the landmark State of the Parks® program in 2000 to assess the health of national parks across the country.


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