Graffiti at Keys Ranch, Joshua Tree National Park. Photo by Matt Artz.

Joshua Tree National Park — More People, More Impacts

Tourists come from all over the world to enjoy the beauty and magic of the desert in Joshua Tree National Park. Having spent most of my life within a two hour drive, I have visited this park hundreds of times, and it never gets old. Known for its iconic namesake the Joshua tree — Yucca brevifolia, which isn’t even a tree, but a member of the Yucca family— this park has much to offer the tourist including hiking, wildflower and wildlife viewing, world-class rock climbing, and more. (1) (2)

Rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park. Photo by Matt Artz.

Originally designated Joshua Tree National Monument by President Roosevelt in 1936 and initially consisting of 825,000 acres, the monument was elevated to National Park status in 1994 as part of the Desert Protection Act, and total acreage was expanded to more than a million. (2) In 1941, the first year that records were kept, 31,285 people visited the monument. This had increased to 320,100 by 1960, 545,357 by 1980, 1,233,935 by 2000, and 1,434,976 by 2010. Recent growth has been pretty significant, with visitation growing from 1,589,904 in 2014 to 2,025,756 in 2015 — an increase of more than 27% in a single year. (3) And some of the monthly numbers suggest that 2016 visitation might increase by 10–20% over 2015’s record visitation. (4)

Of the surrounding communities, four scattered along on the northern and western borders of the park — Morongo Valley, population 3,552 (2010) (5); Yucca Valley, 21,132 (2013) (6); Joshua Tree, 7,414 (2010) (7); and Twentynine Palms, 25,768 (2013) (8) — provide the easiest access to the main park entrances and attractions. How do these and other nearby communities such as Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs benefit economically from tourists visiting the park?

Hikers in Joshua Tree National Park. Photo by Matt Artz.

According to a National Park Service report, visitors spent $58,798,000 in Joshua Tree National Park and nearby communities in 2010. More than 80% of this spending was on “lodging, food, and beverage service” and “other retail.”(9) Increased visitation has resulted in increased economic benefits. By 2014, the cumulative benefit to the local economy had increased to $97 million (10) and by 2015 it was estimated to be more than $128 million. (11)

The primary driver of the local economy is Twentynine Palms Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command. One of the largest military training centers in the US, more than 8,000 people resided on the base in 2000. (12) The economic impact of the base on the surrounding community was estimated to be $1.7 billion annually with the base supporting 24,300 jobs. (13)

Desert bighorn sheep near Barker Dam in Joshua Tree National Park. Photo by Matt Artz.

In addition to economic benefits of Joshua Tree National Park, there are other impacts to the surrounding communities and the park itself due to increases in visitation. For example, graffiti has become a huge problem on the boulders in the park, including the high-profile Casey Nocket and bon vivant cases, as well as at historic resources such as Barker Dam and Ryan Ranch. (14) (15) (16) (17) (18) Pneumonia, spread from domestic sheep and/or goats in nearby communities, has been discovered in the desert bighorn sheep in the park, resulting in high rates of mortality. (19) (20) Invasive species such as fountaingrass and tamarisk remain a persistent problem, and increasing numbers of hikers and explorers are damaging the fragile cryptobiotic soils found in many areas of the park. (21) (22) It’s clear that these and other threats to the park are likely to increase as park visitation continues to grow.