Joshua Tree is a playground: for rock climbers, for hikers, for L.A. hipsters looking for scenic Instagram shots. For us it was one of the most fun and kid-friendly parks we’ve been to yet; Graham was in heaven scrambling around on boulders and we spent most of our visit giving him time to do just that.
But this place also made us think a lot about the nature of conservation, partly because joshua trees so closely resemble the truffulas of Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax”, a book that seems more trenchant by the day; and partly because getting to Joshua Tree from Death Valley took us through some stark contrasts in land use: through rural towns with high poverty rates and little development, where the recreational land was focused almost exclusively on ORV use; to Palm Springs, a wealthy enclave where everything seems much more lush and green than a desert should be; past enormous solar and wind farms; and to Joshua Tree National Park itself, where visitation has doubled in the past four years, where striking scenery and proximity to L.A. has made it, increasingly often, a backdrop or a set piece.
I recently finished reading an incredible book on conservation called “Mountains Without Handrails” by Joseph Sax. The book focuses on how we use national parks, and how the NPS can achieve its dual missions: to protect our natural resources while also providing a way for people to experience and recreate on public lands.
Sax talks a lot about elitism and class differences in land usage, and it is utterly fascinating. The question at its heart is whether the NPS can prioritize certain types of nature experiences as being better, not just for the land but for the people who use it. In every decision it makes about how to develop public lands for recreation, the NPS must decide what kinds of recreation public land was meant for, and in doing so it risks seeming elitist in favoring some recreationists’ preferences over others’.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that spending time in the wilderness in quiet, low-impact ways—hiking, backpacking, even just sitting—can make us healthier, calmer, more reflective, and better stewards of natural resources. But these benefits require us to be conscious, to allow our surroundings to elevate our thinking and, essentially, mold us into better people.
It hasn’t often been easy for us to find a sense of presence on this trip. I’d like to say this is mostly because of the kids—indeed, hiking with a 2- and 4-year-old is often more about coming up with elaborate games and reward strategies than it is about contemplation. But even if we didn’t have Graham and Margie, I know it would still be difficult for David and I to be meditative in all our recreation. It’s a state of mind that requires practice and diligence; it’s something we’re getting gradually better at, but it’s a process.
It’s also, I think, the major thing that can suffer when a park is very crowded. Joshua Tree was crowded, and by a demographic we haven’t seen much of in the parks: large groups of young people, dressed very fashionably (and often poorly for hiking) and focused primarily on their hikes on taking pictures of each other.
I hope this doesn’t sound judgmental: Joshua Tree is extraordinarily photogenic and I can imagine that the impulse to pose in it (for people who like being photographed) would be strong. But it did make for an interesting hiking experience, with much more people-watching than is typical for our outdoor activities.
We definitely spent our time in the more popular spots; for those who stick to the less-trafficked areas of the park, I’m sure there’s still plenty of solitude to find. But in a way, being among the masses allowed us to reflect on a different aspect of the parks: how much are our public lands being relegated to pretty backdrops for photoshoots? We’ve talked to park rangers before who mentioned the “Instagram effect” of certain photogenic spots in the parks: the places that have seen the highest rise in visitor traffic in recent years are those that have the most location tags on Instagram. And public lands have seen a huge upswing in use as locations for music videos and fashion shoots, which logically inspires more of the same.
It’s wonderful that so many people are experiencing the parks, and it’s certainly possible that all these new visitors are having reflective, ponderous nature experiences as they sit gazing out upon scenic views and being photographed by a friend. But it also seems possible that culturally, we’ve come to think of our public lands not as sacred, pristine locations, but as pretty places to pose. And if all we’re doing is using the parks as backdrops, is it possible we’ll collectively care less about resource management, pushing instead for greater access to untrammeled wilderness, the better to pose in? Is it possible we’ll forget to see ourselves as protectors and crucial players in these delicate ecosystems, as we spend more time seeing ourselves looking cool onscreen?
I don’t know, and maybe if I were a more glamorous sort, I’d be super into the posing and our blog/Instagram would be more magazine-y, less nerdy. But I do think it’s worth considering how we can use public lands to make us better people, rather than just better-looking people.