Defending the Desert: Death Valley

Joshua Tree | Death Valley | Mojave

Surprise Canyon

Surprise Canyon contains one of the Mojave's few perennial streams, harboring a lush, cascading oasis and rare desert wetlands. Located in Inyo County, it is also home to rare and endangered animals and an important stopover area for migratory birds. Its upper stretch is located within Death Valley National Park while the Bureau of Land Management administers the lower portion. Currently, these agencies are conducting an environmental review that will determine whether vehicles will be allowed to winch up seven steep waterfalls, eroding streambanks, scarring rock surfaces, damaging vegetation, and spilling antifreeze and gas as they go.

Threats to Death Valley's aquatic habitats and wildlife

In Death Valley National Park, groundwater feeds seeps, springs, and a rare desert river that are crucial for sustaining plant and animal life. In fact, the survival of the endangered Devil's Hole pupfish depends upon groundwater levels in its limestone cavern remaining high enough to keep its only spawning shelf submerged. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in 1976 that the water necessary to protect the pupfish was reserved when Devil's Hole was added to Death Valley in 1952.

However, water levels pupfish numbers have declined over the last decade in the face of new growth and water use east of Death Valley in the Amargosa and Pahrump Valleys. This increased demand on the region's aquifer does not bode well for dependent ecosystems or the pupfish. While Death Valley managers are attempting to ensure sustainable use of groundwater, they do so with limited staff and capabilities. Failure in protecting the federal water right for the Devil's Hole pupfish will also have wide-ranging impacts to many of Death Valley's uniquely-adapted plants and animals that are dependent on the same aquifer.


Death Valley National Park operates with approximately half the funding needed to manage and protect its 3.4 million acres. Because of this funding shortfall, 40 percent of approved park positions remain vacant. The park's most pressing needs are in the area of law enforcement, natural and cultural resource management, and facility maintenance.

The park has only 14 protection rangers, down from 23 a few years ago, to assist visitors in a timely manner or adequately protect artifacts, plants, and animals from vandalism and poaching.

Death Valley also lacks resources to develop strategies to reverse the population decline of the endangered Devil's Hole pupfish, a barometer for the condition of other threatened and endangered aquatic species in the Death Valley region. Cultural resources are also at risk as no maintenance program exists for the vast majority of Death Valley's backcountry mining and homesteading sites, many of which are on the threshold of falling apart, becoming lost history, and safety hazards.

Current maintenance staffing levels only allow for addressing emergency roadwork and have resulted in a deteriorated road network with many areas that the local tow truck operator refuses to serve. In addition, the park's visitor center is antiquated and the leaky roof needs to be replaced. Lastly, Death Valley icon Scotty's Castle is in a state of disrepair and funding is desperately needed for cleaning, preservation, and curation of castle furnishings and artifacts.


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