June 14, 2005

National parks face problems

REPORT: Air pollution, non-native grasses and expanding suburbs are threatening resources.

By JENNIFER BOWLES / The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA)

Report Card
Overall conditions of natural resources, according to The National Parks Conservation Assocation:
Joshua Tree National Park: Fair
Mojave National Preserve: Poor
Death Valley National Park: Fair
To get a copy of the report: http://www.npca.org/stateoftheparks/californiadesert

National parks in the California desert rate fair at best when it comes to protecting their unique landscapes, historic buildings and cultural resources, according to a report issued by the National Parks Conservation Association, a watchdog group.

Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks along with the Mojave National Preserve face a litany of threats and a lack of funding to do much about them, the group said.

Wedged between burgeoning Southern California and the Las Vegas area, the parks are experiencing air pollution from urbanized areas, the spread of non-native grasses that increase the chance of fires, and swelling suburbs that could deplete the parks of water needed for wildlife, the group said.

"Certainly, you can't blame air quality on the lack of sufficient staff, said Howard Gross, the association's California desert program manager. "But you can say we don't even have an air-quality monitoring station in Mojave National Preserve to have a sense of what the problem is out there."

The goal of the report, Gross said, is to help highlight challenges, stimulate discussions and help guide future decisions of the parks, which were expanded under the 1994 California Desert Protection Act.

"Here we are a decade after the passage of one of the most important public-lands legislation," noted Gross. "It's a good time to look at where we want to be a decade from now."

Park managers didn't dispute the report's findings.

"We would be able to address many of the issues sooner if we were funded to the level that our business plan calls for," said Curt Sauer, Joshua Tree superintendent.

That plan notes the park's $4.2 million annual budget is short by $2.6 million, he said, adding that many parks and federal agencies are experiencing the same shortfall.

Help could be on the way. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, an author of the Desert Protection Act, recently co-sponsored new legislation that would allow Americans to give money to the National Park Service through a voluntary checkoff on their tax returns.

"It is absolutely critical that these parks receive the funding that they need so that we can preserve them for future generations," Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement about the desert parks.

In Joshua Tree, non-native plants have invaded the world-renowned climbing mecca, growing between the spindly Joshua Trees and other native plants and increasing the chance of fire.

"The fire is going to be able to run," Sauer said. Studies could help figure out how to prevent them from taking over the park, he said.

The Mojave National Preserve, which gets less than 50 percent of the funding needed, is facing questions over whether to use groundwater for hunting purposes and threats from the proposed airport 13 miles from its border in Nevada, said Larry Whalon, the preserve's resources chief.

"Those are the kinds of issues that are going to plague our night sky and air quality," he said.

Sauer said he hoped Joshua Tree could get more funding to gain a better understanding of its historical, geological and Native American resources.

"We need to capture what went on in the past before it goes away," he said. "It's part of our heritage."