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Preventative Search and Rescue volunteers work to prevent disaster on the JTNP trail

More than 3.27 million people entered the gates of Joshua Tree National Park last year and predictably, not all are prepared for the harsh desert climate. The park’s Preventative Search and Rescue (PSAR) program aims to help visitors on the trail before they need rescuing. Reporter and avid hiker Heather Clisby met with JTNP Park Ranger and PSAR Coordinator Anna Marini to learn more …

With clicker in hand to count bodies, Preventative Search and Rescue (PSAR) Volunteer Ann Murdy is on the Hidden Valley trail loop, greeting hikers with a friendly opener.

I am tagging along with Murdy and JTNP Park Ranger and PSAR Coordinator Anna Marini to learn more about the PSAR program and how it works. The covid era brought a flood of first-timers to our national park who are not used to being in a place so wild that there is no cell service, no water, and no electricity.

“We don’t have resources in the park. You can’t just go to a concession stand and buy what you need to buy. You have to be prepared before you enter Joshua Tree, That was I think, a big deal for a lot of people. It’s a wake-up call of, ‘Wow, nature is scary.’” said Marini. “So I think a lot of people, unfortunately, had a hard time during that. Maybe they went on one bad hike and are struggling to come back out of that but I think we’re always trying to encourage people to plan ahead and prepare as much as possible and we really learned what that meant during that covid era.”

Marini joined the JTNP team in late 2020 as a ranger and noted a need for more safety-based messaging. And while different versions of preventative efforts were around, she developed the full-time PSAR program in 2021. Marini works with each of the 30 volunteers and their schedules to try to have at least one PSAR volunteer on the trail or at a trailhead every day of the week with more volunteers around on busy weekends. The volunteers greet visitors, answer questions, make sure they have water, provide maps, and offer suggestions about where to go next. Volunteer shifts can be anywhere from 3-8 hours, usually a morning or an afternoon although some volunteers enjoy two shifts a day. At maximum, PSAR has all popular trails covered with five volunteers out. 

Once they reach cell service at the conclusion of a shift, each volunteer fills out a patrol log using their phone and a QR code. They track how long they were on the trail, which trail they were on, the number of people they talked to and the number of ‘preventative actions.’

“The preventative actions number is a big number. That is when – you don’t necessarily have to see a change in behavior in somebody, but you definitely want to write down that number of people that you gave preventative language to, you suggested a different trail, you suggested water, things like that. So, along with that, we’re counting dogs, and drones, all those kinds of things that we might see,” said Marini.

The PSAR volunteers are also doing a bit of trail maintenance as well – setting up rock liners in confusing spots or trimming back those sharp, grabby branches of the Catclaw acacia.

In meeting the JTNP visitors, the PSAR volunteers get an understanding of where they are coming from. Ever since covid brought all the coast-dwellers to the desert, there has been an increase in those from San Diego, Los Angeles and the lower desert. On that day in mid-February, we came across a steady stream of Canadians – all in shorts. And come summer, we can certainly expect the usual crowd of Germans who seem to love our dry heat.

Beyond visitors from Palms Springs or Phoenix, most visitors have very limited grasp of what they need to not get lost or sick while out exploring in the desert. This is where the PSAR volunteers ever-so-elegantly get involved.

Marini answers questions on the Hidden Valley Loop trail.

“What’s a benefit of having somebody out at the trailhead before somebody starts their hike is encouraging them to go back to their car and repack their bag, grabbing some salty snacks, grabbing some water, maybe an extra layer, or a headlamp. So we catch people a lot of times. And then sometimes we do find people – like say, we’re on the Split Rock Trail – it’s a little bit longer than that Hidden Valley one-mile loop and they really could use some water. But it’s also, when they do run out of water, and they’re not too far away from their vehicle, it’s kind of a good lesson. And that sounds maybe a little harsh, but people then understand why they need to be more prepared. You know, they don’t want to be thirsty out on that trail next time, so they’ll learn from that.”

And while the Hidden Valley Nature Trail is an easy one-mile loop, I noted that the great majority of hikers did not bring any water at all.

Still, not everyone is open to chatting with a stranger-ranger. Marini advises her volunteers to be open and receptive but also realize that not everyone will meet the gaze and want to talk.

“I usually try to approach it as a conversation instead of ‘You should do this!’ or ‘Don’t do this!’ because no one is receptive to that kind of language. So I try to encourage a conversation and say, ‘Hey, what’s your plan for the day?’ I think a lot of people get confused and see that the backpack that I am currently wearing looks like I will be out here for many days, but that’s because I have rescue stuff in here. But not everybody has to look like me, but just carrying something is usually helpful.”

Marini helping out on the trail.

Another aspect of the volunteer gig is being the eyes and ears for the rangers, who are notoriously short-staffed in the park. (The rise in visitors, sadly, did not spark an increase in staff or budget.) Murdy explains:

“I know that a few times there’s been a few issues here and I reported that to Anna and it was taken care of right away. This had developed into a big ditch and I had watched a lady fall, or I came up and she had fallen and hurt herself. In the middle of all that, taking care of her, I turned around and another person fell so, you know, they filled it in right away so they took care of that so that was good. And some of us will actually come out and sweep the steps a bit but, that’s endless!”

Reporting from the Hidden Valley Trail for Z107.7, I’m Heather Clisby.

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Heather Clisby has been working in journalism and communications for over three decades, includings stints at newspapers, magazines, blogs and radio stations. A native of Long Beach, California, she can usually be found guiding tourists in Joshua Tree…

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