Loving Joshua Tree | Earth Focus | Season 5, Episode 4 | PBS SoCal

Loving Joshua Tree | Earth Focus | Season 5, Episode 4 | PBS SoCal

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Welcome to the High Desert, home to an abundance of wildlife, protected trees, and a ton of tourists. With over three million visitors a year, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the hottest travel destinations in the country, but the surge in popularity is tearing at the very fabric of life in this small community. Now the residents of the High Desert are facing a conundrum. How do they support the tourism that sustains the local economy while also preserving the desert they call home? [music] Earth Focus is made possible in part by a grant from the Orange County Community Foundation. Over the past two decades, Joshua Tree has ascended to almost mythic status for its unique trees, spectacular plants, and majestic rocks.

While the place has a long history of attracting artists and outlaws, now a younger generation is falling in love with the desert through social media. They're flocking to Airbnb's that have sprung up to support the trend. With people pouring in like never before, there are bound to be consequences. Is social media killing the desert? It's easy to see why some could come to this conclusion, but falling in love with the desert from afar and feeling compelled to visit is nothing new. There's actually a long history of desert image-making that has compelled people to visit for generations.

The original desert influencer was an LA socialite, Minerva Hoyt. After falling in love with Joshua Tree's, she worried they were headed for extinction as people dug up and destroyed tons of desert plants. She created exhibitions to show off the desert's natural beauty. She also commissioned photos that convinced FDR to create Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936. The very next year, Randall Henderson launched Desert Magazine, which celebrated the Mojave for decades. Hot on its heels came the golden age of the Western.

From 1940 to 1960, more than 50 movies and TV shows were filmed in the High Desert. It was the instant camera that first allowed travelers to document and share their images in a heartbeat. While the technology has changed, one thing hasn't, the desire for that famous desert backdrop. Today, you can see desert lovers in their natural habitat at the station, a roadside shop just outside the gates of Joshua Tree National Park.

It provides a backdrop for thousands of travelers taking pics for the gram. The station, it was just a building in town that had always been there. When we first started coming out here in 2004, it was like a tire station. It was just a series of mechanic shops, tires, empty, and we're like, "Wow, what can we do with that?" A lot of the changes that I've noticed since we've moved out here, there definitely is way more an influx of people.

We saw it because of the interest in the National Park, because we can see our visitorship every year, and just all of a sudden, it just spiked. It was like, "Wow, 3 million people are going through that entrance right up the road from us." I think now with the younger generation, it's become about content, we provide a backdrop for that. That's what we do. We create an environment that lends itself to that.

It's just like, all of a sudden, everyone was discovering it. They found it because they could post it like, "First one here," and it's like, "[?]." Yes, come on. Taking a picture of something that's no new thing.

It's just sort of in the '60s, people were very excited because, oh, this first time we have an Instamatic, or I'm doing a Polaroid, or it's very easy to share photographs with your friends, and family at home. That was the first time, so there was a big surge of crazy things to take pictures of back then. Now with Instagram, again, it's almost like having the Instamatic for the first time again. That's what I think. That's why people are so into it. In terms of social media, I think that it spreads specific places much more quickly, maybe than we used to see because people can geotag, and it draws a lot of interest to go into a specific place.

I don't think it's any different than the representations of the desert that have happened for years and years and centuries. I think that this place has captivated people for a long time. What social media does is it's an accelerator in terms of spreading the word. Because Joshua Tree is so close to such major population centers, that really drives visitation, I think.

When visitation tripled here, which happened in a really short period of time, about five years, the park and the staff here, were very much in reactive mode. We were also seeing a real change in some of the behavior in our visitors. You only have a few bad apples, but those bad apples can have a big impact. I would separate that even more into those who are unintentionally damaging the park versus those who might be intentionally damaging the park. When I started working here in the '90s, I probably talked about graffiti a handful of times. Since 2016, we've had 880 documented incidents of graffiti in the park.

We have to give a little credit to social media because in the last 10 or 15 years, like it really has promoted this romantic image of the Joshua Tree and Joshua Tree National Park and having a desert experience. Man, the downside is really rough to watch on places. Five or 10 years ago, there were a string of music videos that were filmed in the desert where people would come out, even on private property, and wrap Joshua Trees up in bows or spray paint them. Because they wanted it to look a certain way, or the music festivals that have been promoted by social media and promoted by the success of Coachella. The music festivals have had some real impacts. You think about what it must be like at night to be in a very dark and very quiet place for a bat or a bird, the wildlife here.

Then all of a sudden there's blaring music and bright lights. It's disorienting for wildlife that are trying to deal with some of the effects of climate change in an already extreme environment. In some ways, the Park Service, I think, has done well to lean into social media, and look at ways we can really provide more educational information for our visitors.

Continuing the inspiration of place is important, whoever is behind the camera. Our challenge is to inspire the stewardship to go along with that. I think collaborating, getting our message out there, finding some way to connect with people in a similar fashion is kind of where we're trying to thread the needle with the park service. The desert is just absolutely beautiful and when you can capture that so easily now on a phone versus back in the day where you had film, and you came out and you shot rolls of film you didn't know what you had until you went back and developed it. The people that it attracted, it still seemed to be that really great person.

Yes, there are some outliers. There's going to be a party, there's going to be a wedding, there's going to be something that shouldn't be in a neighborhood. Generally, the people that just really want to be in the desert, they just want to come out here and unwind and reconnect and then recharge. We see these people all day every day at our store and we talk to them. Could you stop it? Could you stop Instagram? Are we going to stop TikTok? I just don't think that it's possible at this point to kill social m.. or to stop people from showing images.

I think while we cannot stop the influence of social media and influencers, I do think that we all need to be ready and hold people accountable when there's impacts that we can't tolerate. The phrase you hear a lot is the desert is being loved to death. There are so many more people these days that are interested in the desert.

I probably enticed more than a couple dozen people to come see the desert for the first time, and probably a lot of the people that did that kept coming. I can't point fingers about the desert being overcrowded or anything .. There are problems with the way the systems are set up here where it's really difficult for people to travel here sustainably as much as they might like to. We have a paucity of hotel rooms here. Joshua Tree National Park is not set up to accommodate all of the people that want to camp there on a given night in the season. The season is increasingly 12 months long.

There are frictions that have come up, the biggest one really being just the lack of housing. The fact that people who have been speculative investors for the most part, but also people that live in town have been buying up the housing stock and turning it into short-term rentals. As tourism continues to boom, the lack of housing is leaving the community with fewer and fewer options. Tiffany Hopkins is struggling to stay in the desert as short-term rentals swallow the housing market. I've lived here for 33 years.

I work at a cafe in Joshua Tree called Crossroads. My son's 13. He's autistic. He's semi-verbal, not non-verbal, but semi-verbal. After his father passed, it got worse. Trying to deal with it without his father around and trying to learn how to raise a teenage boy has been very challenging for me. The overrun of the Airbnb's has just pushed people out, bought people out.

The cost of living is outrageous. It's city prices in a very small town. There are over a thousand Airbnb's. That means over a thousand people don't have housing. Tiff is a rock star, first and foremost.

She's a really tough, tenacious, practical person. Survival is tricky for everybody, but she does it with such style and grace. I know that she's had a tremendously difficult time maintaining a steady living situation out here. She's had to move out of the basin at least twice that I know of because her house was sold to be an investor property as an Airbnb or a short-term vacation rental.

When I got kicked out, my landlord knew what was going to happen, and she had this property. She was like, "Tiffany, it's going to be a lot more, but I have this property if you want it." She knew about my son. She was very sympathetic to my situation. I was very lucky. It was like that. It was 30 days. I had no money.

I had $600 in my bank account. It's crossed my mi.. that I might have to move out of here because if the landlord sells this property, there's no way I'm going to find another place that I can afford. There's no way. It's out of control.

People can't find housing, and I'm not going to be .. with my child. If I have to move, I will. I don't want to because this is my home. I talk about my community a lot with my customers because people ask me questions about, "What should I do this? What do you guys do here?" This and that, and whatever.

I talk about the community a lot. I'm very boisterous about how the locals feel about what's happening within the Airbnb's and I don't hide it at all. I also don't want to take it away from anybody. I love that people come here to enjoy the beauty of the desert.

I really do because it is beautiful, but it's almost a pandemic in itself. If there's no awareness, then there's no solution. For Hilary Sloane, another local resident. The short-term rental market is a double-edged sword. The income she makes from her rental keeps her afloat, but she sees the toll it's taking on her community. I decided to make a vacation rental around 2016.

I was still rebuilding this. It was a really beat up old cabin, and I put it on Airbnb, and it rented immediately every day. The park still had around a million visitors, but it was getting busier, and I needed another income. I had left LA and left my work there, so it seemed very natural just to rent this out. When I came out, I had some income, some savings, but it's not there anymore and I'm older.

What kind of job am I going to get? Especially here, there are no options. The Airbnb or vacation rental, all of the different formats offer a chance to continue your life. To have security.

Personally, this keeps me solving. We're surviving out here because of the economy of tourism and short-term rentals. Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, Twentynine. We have different challenges. The biggest problem that's showing up here is that corporations, maybe an LLC, come in and they buy 20, 40, 60 houses. They don't understand this area.

There is so many issues. When you come out here you don't understand about permitting. You don't understand about the Joshua Tree and how Precious it is. It takes a while to know what the desert's about, but when you've got 20 you can't do that. One of the other big complaints is people are losing their neighborhood.

They don't know their neighbors. Particularly, if they're not here, if they're not on the property. I know my neighbors, we walk together, we check in on each other. If there's a problem, they loan me their truck, or I go get them. There's still community, even if they have a vacation rental. The way I personally introduce people that are coming here to this place is with notes in a notebook.

With lots of communication, with books all around the house about the local artists, about hikes, about first aid. So if you come out here, if you can do research, if you can talk to your host and see what they're offering you in information. There are a lot of informed people out here. For Chris Clarke, the host of the podcast 90 Miles from Needles, the real problem is the desert's lack of social infrastructure, which has led to a tourist economy that feels like it takes more than it gives. Hey, welcome to 90 Miles from Needles: The Desert Protection Podcast. Glad you're tuning in.

-I'm Chris Clarke. -And I'm Alicia Pike. I've told you the story before about being at a party, and this writer was telling me that her friend had taken her around to show her all the houses he was buying, and that he had bought like 20 houses in that week. He had no intention of living in any of them.

They were all going to be vacation rentals, and they were all going to be ways of taking money out of the tourism economy of Joshua Tree and sending it back to New York City, where this guy lived. Since then, we've had all of these increasing tensions about short-term rentals and the way that they've displaced residents and it doesn't have to be that way. People moved out here because housing was cheap and land was cheap, and it's not anymore. That's just a fact.

The days of getting your own apartment in Joshua Tree for 600 a month are long gone. So while there is a lot of community consternation over the vacation rental industry out here, I have a very personal connection as to why it's such an important facet of our economy. I started cleaning Airbnb's in the summer of 2016. When I first moved out here vacation rental cleaning was not a work option. There weren't enough vacation rentals at that time.

As I watched it become an option, I realized that was very good work, and I know a lot of people, personal friends. A lot of people in the High Desert make their living off of the vacation rental community through handyman service, pool service, maintenance work, cleaning services, concierge services, guiding services. There's so much that relates to the people that come out here. The desert is becoming beautiful because somebody is interested in making money off of it.

I'm making money off of it, but I'm self-employed. There's some autonomy in that, but exploiting the desert for profit is one of those variables that you can literally take and tie back to everything that's going on here. For me, that really bothers me. I try very much so to use education, and promoting love for nature, and stewardship of nature into that wherever I can. I do my best to provide the data to educate them to be the best tourists that they can be.

[music] We have two things going on that seem to have created the Airbnb issue. One is that it's been very difficult to build large-scale accommodations in the Morongo Basin. Two, and maybe more importantly, is that the increase in visitation of the desert has skyrocketed.

These two things have crossed, and that's produced the demand to buy up private houses and turn them into Airbnb's. The little street, the dirt street that I grew up on, over the years almost every house on that street has turned into an Airbnb, and there's no community left on that street. Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms have incorporated as separate towns within San Bernardino County. Joshua Tree is not a town. It's not a proper designated municipality of any kind. It's just a name for that little strip on the 62.

All of this land out here that's outside of Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms town is all under county jurisdiction, and there's no short-term rental cap within the county limits. When we think about California broadly, what we hear is that there aren't enough houses. We need to build more houses to address the housing crisis and the affordability crisis. When you look at Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley, there's lots of houses being built. It's not a question of supply, but a recognition of the use of those homes isn't meeting the needs of the community too. It's meeting the needs of..

Life in the desert is a delicate balancing act, and so is the way forward. Recently, when Joshua Trees were removed for new construction, California passed the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act in 2023. It was a first step to preserve the trees as an essential part of the landscape for generations. The question now is if the community can come together to protect J.. just as it's done for its natural beauty.

[music] We have a rough consensus in general about the fact that we need to do something about it, but we have lost ground and lost some time as a result of the pandemic. People have opposed some of the most sensible ways of approaching tourist de.. like AutoCamp in downtown Joshua Tree. AutoCamp went to the Morongo Basin Conservation Association and said, "We want to do this right.

Tell us how." That was a great thing that more developers should be doing that. I don't know that I'd want to spend a whole lot of money to stay in an Airstream in a parking lot, but there are people that do and that's the right place to have it. It's downtown, you can walk to the saloon, you can walk to the grocery store, you can walk to the place where there's ice cream, which is exactly where you'd want to put that kind of thing. The land's already disturbed, it's a vacant lot in a town.

As opposed to being essentially pristine land well outside of city limits that would just constitute leapfrog sprawl. There are things that live in the High Desert or the Mojave Desert that don't live anywhere else. Joshua Trees are the most well-known example, but there are all kinds of different lizards, snails, some birds. You have more diversity there than you have of all plant species in old-growth redwoo.. The thing is that to the untrained eye, a lot of these don't look that different.

In the last 15 years, the Joshua Tree was found to be too different, very closely related, but nonetheless distinct species. It's just really a question of how close you look. You can miss a lot of the diversity unless you're keyed into it. I've heard it explained that the desert is an underground forest and I love that image. We see the plants across the landscape, but what we don't see is the root system that goes down into the soils.

These plants are pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, pulling it down to the roots. The deserts actually sequester carbon in the soil. The way to protect that is to not disturb the soil. When you think about development in the desert, there's a lot to consider. Part of it is from a climate perspective and where you're disturbing soils. Part of it is from how do you protect plants and animals and wildlife corridors.

I think that there's a tremendous opportunity with the love that the desert has inspired. We need to find a solution that meets the needs of the community and the visitors who come to Joshua Tree. [music] If we're talking about how people can approach wanting to visit here in a sustainable way, if you're staying in a short-term rental, tip the person that cleans.

I know that's going to be near and dear to your heart. Take care of your service people. Anyone who's serving you when you are traveling, be it the airline attendant, be it the waitress at the Grandma's Country Kitchen. Every single person who is serving you on your journey deserves respect at a bare minimum, and anything you can do above and beyond that is culturing community and fostering goodwill. Joshua Tree is in this pivotal point where we can culture an environment where there's symbiosis and reciprocity. Thinking about that when you are traveling, it can just change someone's day and elevate the whole experience for everybody, All of us, whether we're an owner, whether we're a shopkeep..

whether we're a visitor, we need to step out of ourselves and extend our humanity to each other. What I would say to people coming to this area and how they could experience either the national park or the local communities, is basic in some ways. Plan ahead.

Think about where you're going and what you're going to n.. and what you might be bringing to that community. Think about what is special about this place. Why are you coming here? What is different about this place, and how can you be in that space and not impact it? Think about the people who lived here for thousands of years who were removed from this place, and are now living on reservations surrounding the national park. Learn about those people.

Learn about our tribal communities. Learn about how they might have once lived in this space and moved through the park and bring that to your experience. There's no going back.

Visitors will keep flocking to the High Desert for that special moment, but to really preserve what's special about the place requires thinking about tourism in a new way. Not as the thing that's killing the desert, but as the thing that might save it. What people that are coming out to stay in Airbnb's or enjoy the desert, stay in the local campgrounds, can contribute back to the local community here is just an awareness that somebody else lives here. This is their whole existence. I might mean that in terms of the local residents, or I might mean that in terms of local wildlife. Don't leave your trash on the ground. It's the little things that count.

Those things that you do in your own community for your own neighbors, bring that same mentality out when you visit the desert for the people that you see around here. [music] Earth Focus is made possible in part by a grant from the Orange County Community Foundation.

2024-04-18 09:28

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