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Can millions visit Joshua Tree National Park and not destroy it? The answer, it seems, will depend on whether or not a strategy for sustainable tourism can be developed and put in place. Reporter Mike Lipsitz has more on Saturday’s meeting on the subject…

Organizers hurriedly set up extra seats as nearly 150 people filed into the Yucca Valley Community Center for Saturday’s talk on “sustainable tourism.” Sponsored by the Morongo Basin Conservation Association, the presentation was held in conjunction with the nonprofit’s annual meeting and celebration of its 50 years of local environmental activism.

The Morongo Basin Conservation Association advocates for a healthy desert environment that nurtures the region’s rural character, cultural wealth, and economic well-being. Often working behind the scenes, the all-volunteer organization is noted for a number of important victories that have contributed significantly to the preservation of much of the natural beauty that abounds in Morongo Basin.

Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent David Smith and Chris Clarke, the California Desert associate director for the National Parks Conservation Association, voiced their concerns over the impact that three million or more visitors will have on the desert. Smith noted that when Joshua Tree National Monument became a national park in 1994, no one envisioned one day that brand would attract hundreds and thousands of Germans, French and Belgians. 

“It’s 2020 and we have a lot of people living in the California desert, as more and more people appear on this planet, more legislation is needed to preserve it. It’s not possible to preserve the park for future generations and allow all who want to visit to do so without restrictions.”

Though the concept of sustainable tourism is in its infancy, Clarke called for a strategy to educate people about the desert’s fragility, and the challenge to allow for all to enjoy it in a sustainable way. Clarke, whose group is dedicated to preserving national parks, said “The desert has long been a resource colony for the outside world,” Clarke said. “We’ve been the place where people go to get gold or borax.”

What can be done now to lessen the impact of so many visitors to Joshua Tree National Park? Smith suggests locals plan to visit the park weekdays and away from peak tourist periods; and above all else, enjoy the park from the road as off road vehicle activity is not allowed anywhere in the park.

In terms of maintaining sustainability inside the park, Smith said it’s sometimes necessary to build up infrastructure to protect the natural resources.  For example, he said, more developed areas better support larger numbers of people, thereby preserving pristine and more vulnerable areas. He referenced the popular Hidden Valley Nature Loop as potentially being able to welcome more people.

“I’d rather see people going in that loop and having an experience with lots of people that they are comfortable with (rather) than having people trek… out to the Pinto Basin dunes in numbers that are not sustainable in an area that’s much more fragile,” Smith said. 

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