January 19, 2017 • Death Valley, Calif.
After a couple of high-profile acts of vandalism in Death Valley National Park over the last few months, in which knuckleheads in cars went off-roading on sensitive terrain at the Racetrack Playa and Badwater Basin, the National Park Service announced increased measures to limit access to these areas. It seems sad that there’s insufficient awareness of the value of preserving land within national parks; there are dozens of places in Southern California to go off-roading legally and inflict all the damage your heart desires.
Joshua Tree National Park, even closer to Los Angeles, has suffered several acts of vandalism that have made news over the last year, with rangers even closing areas with ancient rock art after it was spray-painted. A young European painted murals advertising her Web presence, and one guy even hauled in construction materials and built his own tower.
Part of the problem may lie in our zeitgeist, where ignorance and belligerence are treasured and cultivated as valuable assets. Part of it also has to do with population pressure. Located near one of the biggest cities in the world, it’s no wonder there are more and more people in the Joshua Tree and Death Valley. Sadly not everyone has a sense of the value of preserving nature in these few miniscule tracts that remain.
I had a personal confrontation with the power of new media on my favorite backcountry hiking route. For fifteen years I never saw anyone else on it, save the odd ranger on patrol, but a few years ago things suddenly changed: every time I go, there are half a dozen or more hikers, usually in boisterous small groups, often not prepared for the desert backcountry, hiking in hot pants and flip-flops without water. I finally asked one of them why they’d chosen this route, and was informed that it's on a travel website, complete with a trail name that someone invented. Slowly the route is filling up with the detritus of humanity and the markings that our species seems insistent on leaving: toilet paper, unnecessary stacks of stone and cairns to mark trails that are already self-evident, used tampons, inukshuks, empty water bottles.
Even complaining about it feels like shouting at the wind. For now the most reasonable solution for me personally seems to be to find routes farther away from the road, and accept that popular places are going to be spray-painted, trammeled, cairned, and otherwise marked. Hopefully the National Park Service’s efforts will contain the damage of population pressure to limited areas.