- Preserving the Desert: A History of Joshua Tree National Park by Lary M. Dilsaver
The thirty-five-day federal government shutdown of 2018–19 will long be remembered for the chaos and confusion it sowed. For those who cherish America's public lands it will be forever associated with images of campers running amok in California's Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP). According to reports in the Washington Post, the temporary suspension of entrance fees and absence of JTNP personnel attracted a surfeit of visitors who cut fresh roads, carved out new campsites, vandalized property, and felled some of the park's iconic Joshua trees. It was a stark reminder of how fragile—and vulnerable—many of the units managed by the National Park Service (NPS) are and the challenges the agency faces when it comes to balancing the preservation needs of the physical environment with the recreational needs of tourists.
For geographer Lary Dilsaver—arguably the foremost expert on national parks in the country today—the headlines that placed JTNP in the national spotlight probably struck a familiar chord. In his latest contribution to the national parks literature, Dilsaver offers readers a detailed account of Joshua Tree's evolution from brainchild of desert lands activist Minerva Hamilton Hoyt in the early 1930s to a controversial national monument riddled with private inholdings and state lands in 1936 to a popular destination that covers more than 790,000 acres and attracts millions of visitors each year. Along the way Dilsaver deftly reconstructs the social, cultural, and political context within which decisions were made, recalling, for example, the ambivalence with which desert landscapes were treated when first proposed for protection—considered wastelands unworthy of national park status by even some NPS officials—and the fierce decades-long battle that homesteaders, [End Page 238] developers, legislators, prospectors, mining corporations, and others waged to prevent the NPS from gaining control of the area. That acts of vandalism, woodcutting, and even arson have been perpetrated in the past at JTNP is perhaps not surprising given the parties involved and stakes at risk.
The volume begins with a series of exquisite photographs—thirtyeight plates in all—showing scenes of the monument (and, later, park) between 1936 and 2015, followed by several outstanding color maps. The narrative that comes next is organized chronologically and divided into three parts that are further subdivided into eight chapters and an epilogue. After a brief introduction to the region's geology, flora and fauna, settlement, and development, Part I, "Saving a Desert Garden," focuses on the nascent movement to protect the California desert, placing special emphasis on the enthusiastic leadership of Minerva Hoyt as well as changing perceptions of desert environments on the part of the NPS and the general public. Part II, "Managing a Desert National Monument," recounts the first twenty years of NPS stewardship and the struggles the agency faced cobbling together lands from private landowners, mining concerns, railroad companies, and the State of California. As Dilsaver points out, Joshua Tree was considered "a second-level unit of the national park system" during these years for three main reasons: "First, it was desert and still suffered from the lingering stigma that the dominant American culture attached to such lands. Second, it was a monument and not a park. Third, the NPS had only begun establishing units based on representation of biological or historical resources a decade earlier. Most senior officials in the NPS began their careers when the criterion for establishing a park was unparalleled magnificence" (233). In Part III, "Protecting a Desert National Park," Dilsaver documents the fortunes of the future national park through a period of maturation, stability, and expansion. In particular, he considers the management and research implications of sweeping federal legislation, most notably the Clean Air Act of 1963; the Wilderness Act of 1964; the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969; the Endangered Species Act of 1973; and the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, signed by...