From time immemorial, a group of dedicated environmentalists watched over the delicate, ecological balance of flora and fauna in the Coachella Valley. Every day of their lives depended on maintaining the fragile ecosystem of the desert.
Of course, they didn’t call themselves environmentalists. They called themselves the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.
Modern environmentalism in the valley started with its first environmental disaster when San Francisco lawyer John Guthrie McCallum bought his first parcel of land in 1885 and later hired an engineer to design an aqueduct to bring water from Whitewater River to feed his growing fruit orchards. The orchards were almost destroyed by torrential rain in 1893, and then were obliterated by an 11-year drought that began the following year.
• READ NEXT: Check Out the Rest of the Desert Dreamers Series.
McCallum died intestate before he could see his daughter, Pearl McManus, realize his dream by helping to transform the sleepy Indian village into an international destination, but one could argue that a pattern was set that would preface future environmental disasters in the valley. Unlike the Cahuilla, who accepted their environment for what it was and took only what they needed to survive, the new wave of settlers sought to bend the desert to their will. And quite often, the desert fought back with droughts, floods, and fires. And the Salton Sea.
Not all the newcomers wanted to remake the desert.
In 1916, long before hippies decided to go “back to the land,” a German draft dodger arrived in Palm Springs, built a palm frond hut, stripped to his birthday suit, and practiced lebensreform, a 19th century German philosophy that advocated living in sync with nature. William Pester was known as “the Hermit of Palm Springs” and became a must-see for visitors and celebrities such as Zane Grey and Rudolph Valentino. He made his meager living selling walking sticks to tourists and charging for his photograph. While Pester’s passive environmental activism didn’t stop a single golf course development or air conditioner installation, he might have been responsible for some nascent awareness of the crime of unchecked development, described by future flower power balladeer Joni Mitchell, “They paved paradise/and put up a parking lot.”
When Joan Taylor dropped out of Stanford University and moved to the desert in 1965, her first gig didn’t suggest a lifetime of environmental activism. “I worked for Desert Riders,” she says, referring to horseback riding, cowboy garb-wearing old-timers famous for their chuckwagon cookouts. “I was their head wrangler.”
Desert Riders may not have been environmentalists, but repairing trails was among Taylor’s duties. She came to realize in her work that “there were threats to wonderful places.” She became head of the local Sierra Club chapter in 1970 – in time to witness the ecological misdeeds of one of the most rapacious developers the desert has ever known: Mike Dunn. In the early ’70s, Dunn built a road (still called Dunn Road) from South Palm Springs to Highway 74. His dream was to create a 40,000-person development replete with a resort, golf course, and retail stores. It was to be called Palm Springs Atajo, and the city of Palm Springs was ready to bless it with the correct zoning. Taylor actually witnessed Dunn dragging tires behind his pick up truck to hide his bulldozer tracks from the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. Luckily, the BLM gated the road, and lawsuits against Dunn effectively halted his hijacking of the wilderness.
But it only banked Taylor’s fire.
Though generous with praise and credit to others, Taylor’s nearly 50 years as an activist has produced extraordinary results. Realizing early on that the Coachella Valley contained disparate and contrary political and social views, she has specialized in coalition building, bringing together unlikely bedfellows. She founded Friends of the Desert Mountains with Buford Crites, and they, in turn, enlisted then-U.S. Rep. Mary Bono to back legislation that made a national monument of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains. But Taylor wasn’t finished. There were still pockets and islands of land that needed protection, so she got Sen. Diane Feinstein on board. Eventually, Feinstein put a proclamation in front of President Barack Obama, who signed it in 2016 and created the 154,000-acre Sand to Snow National Monument, as well as the Mojave Trails National Monument.
Now, in addition to working on renewable energy initiatives, Taylor is involved through the Sierra Club in long-range planning for the Salton Sea. While she endorses several actions at the sea, including the state’s 10-year plan, which would reduce the sea by a third and keep the largest part of the sea intact in the north. She says, “It is complicated from the standpoint of the vision for the future. If you want to fill it up again, then you’re going to have to pump water out. Who’s going to take it? And the costs of pumping polluted water out and fresh water in are enormous.”
Taylor says that much of her passion comes from having grown up on the streets of San Francisco. “People who come from cities as I did say, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’ We don’t take it for granted.”
“People who come from cities as I did say, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’ We don’t take it for granted.”
— Joan Taylor
Assistant Research Ecologist, UC Riverside Center for Conservation Biology
Last August, California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment, written by researchers from UC Riverside and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, contained some worrisome predictions for the Coachella Valley. Not surprisingly, the long-range forecast calls for more extreme heat days and a rise in average temperatures.
Cameron Barrows, an assistant research ecologist who coordinates the UCR Center for Conservation Biology’s Desert Studies Initiative, has devoted his career to understanding how species adapt and thrive in such an extreme environment. He and his wife have lived in Palm Desert for more than 33 years. To Barrows, the desert is endlessly fascinating. “I am passionate about science and using science to understand how plants and animals live and thrive in extreme environments,” he says. “We have excessive heat; persistent drought; and invasive weedy, non-native plants. And we have fragmented the valley floor into exceedingly small remnants of natural habitats. Yet so far, the native animals and plants persist. Understanding how those creatures defy what textbooks would predict would be a trajectory to extinction is fascinating, and represents a story about how people and other native animals and plants might continue to coexist.”
Barrows has become a relatively well-known ecologist because he involves residents in the fact-gathering process. “We have engaged many dozens of residents of the Coachella Valley to join us as volunteer ‘community scientists,’ so we can collect the breadth of information needed to understanding the ‘health’ of the Coachella Valley’s natural environments,” he says. “A complicated network of factors can create stress on the functioning of natural systems. For each stressor, there is a solution; it just takes people to take the time to get informed — not only from the internet — to get outside and see what is happening. If you want to make a difference, become a community scientist through the Friends of the Desert Mountains, a nonprofit we partner with to identify causes and solutions.”
Though Barrows marvels at the resilience of some desert species, he points out that a study of Joshua Tree in which he participated showed that while some wetter, cooler areas of the park may sustain the eponymous trees and even allow new growth, they have identified areas of the park where climate change may completely denude the landscape. “If people become serious about reversing the effects of climate change, those refugia will allow Joshua trees and the plants and animals associated with them to continue to persist in the park,” he says. “However, if we do nothing and proceed as if nothing is going wrong, eventually Joshua trees will no longer be [among] the park’s inhabitants.”
Executive Director and Chief Biologist, Bighorn Institute
When James DeForge was working on his Ph.D. through the University of California, Davis, on Southern California’s bighorn sheep, he wanted to see what was going on with the native mammals in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains. Unfortunately, as he had also discovered while studying the sheep in the San Gabriel Mountains as an undergraduate at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, carrying out field work was next to impossible: California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife wouldn’t allow him anywhere near the animals.
Undaunted, he gathered a group of veterinarians and biologists in 1981, and the next year formerly established the Bighorn Institute on 300 acres of land donated by the Bureau of Land Management. DeForge and his colleagues would use the land to introduce a captive breeding program to study and mitigate the 90 percent mortality rate among infant lambs in the wild. From a population high of an estimated 1,200 in 1973 to a low of 280 in 1996, the sheep — declared an endangered species in 2004 — were succumbing to a host of evils from Coachella Valley urbanization, from livestock viruses to being chased by dogs to getting hit by cars.
Fish and Wildlife signed off on the institute’s captured breeding program on one condition: “They told us that if we lost a single lamb, they were shutting us down,” says DeForge, now the institute’s executive director and resident research biologist. “Luckily, all 36 lambs lived.”
While the institute has enjoyed considerable success (and exceedingly long hours) with 127 lambs released into the wild and the local population up to 800, DeForge points out that the challenges are considerable. He says that the city of Palm Springs has finally endorsed a policy that keeps dogs off hiking trails near sheep habitats (bighorn sheep think dogs are coyotes and, therefore, predators and will flee the area), but it has proven to be a never-ending slog convincing the city of La Quinta to erect state-mandated fencing to keep the sheep from venturing onto golf courses and busy streets.
One of the successes of which DeForge is most proud is the institute’s self-reliance. The nonprofit organization is neither affiliated with any government agency nor funded by any government source. Bighorn Institute funds its programs through individual contributions, private foundations, and public sector grants. The institute’s guardianship of the desert bighorn sheep is a success they’ve managed on their own.
Senior Environmental Specialist, California Environmental Protection Agency, Regional Water Quality Control Board
“Yesterday, I went out to Bombay Beach to take an algae sample,” says EPA scientist Jeff Geraci, a 38-year-old Palm Springs native who has spent most of his working life studying the Salton Sea since graduating from the University of California, Riverside. “I had to walk 250 yards to reach the water.”
With the sea evaporating, Bombay Beach is being stranded further and further into the desert. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of people here over years,” he says, “so it’s frustrating and sad to see what’s happening.”
Sixty years ago, the Salton Sea was being touted as a sportsman’s paradise, a winter water playground for fishing, sailing, and water skiing only a short drive from Palm Springs. The sea had been accidentally created in 1905 when a levee broke and the Colorado River poured unchecked into the Salton basin for almost two years. (The basin is part of a depression left by Lake Cahuilla, an extinct, 2,000-square-mile, prehistoric body of water.) But the sea’s allure was short lived. Agricultural runoff and pollution, diversion of the Colorado River, and a host of other factors, including evaporation, have contributed to its decline and current state as one of the California’s looming environmental disasters.
Even in his collegiate days, Geraci knew he wanted to be part of the solution, to be one of the scientists who solved the puzzle. His “aha” moment came thanks to his wife. Several years ago, they were out exploring the shoreline when she kicked what looked like a chunk of concrete. Geraci examined it and thought it was strange. He took it home and what he found inside was a revelation. It was composed of gypsum and other detritus indicating a crust was forming on the seabed.
• READ NEXT: Can Artists Save the Salton Sea?
Since that time, Geraci dove many parts of the lake and found the crust both on the north and south end. (A full mapping of the sea’s crust has frustratingly been put on hold because the lake has been so shallow, and he and his colleagues have been unable to launch their 23-foot research vessel.) Geraci suggests that sulfides in the water become oxidized, and when they sink, they bind with other dense objects on the seabed — from rocks and concrete chunks to ancient oyster shells and beer cans from the ’70s. The result is a mostly impenetrable barrier between the toxic silt underneath and the air. Though Geraci points out that many of the health problems associated with toxic particulates in the air have been blowing in the wind from Lake Cahuilla long before alarms were raised about the Salton Sea’s polluted dust storms, it will worsen from year to year if unabated.
The state’s 10-year plan focuses on creating a much smaller sea, perhaps one third of its current size, to be served by smaller feeder ponds. Conversion to wetlands and habitat restoration would be part of a longer-term initiative.
The significance of Geraci’s discovery could potentially hasten restoration and save hundreds of millions of dollars. The crust would act as a lid on what would otherwise be hundreds of thousands of acres of airborne dust and dried agricultural poisons.
“We’re talking about major areas that could be potentially untouched, saving tons of water and money and effort, and focusing those on another area where it’s really needed,” Geraci told Palm Springs Life in 2017. “I have a lot of faith.”
Minerva Hamilton Hoyt
The Belle and Benefactor of Joshua Tree National Forest
Today, Minerva Hamilton Hoyt might be considered an unlikely environmental activist. The daughter of a wealthy and influential Mississippi family born just after the Civil War and wife of a physician who moved to Pasadena became an important member of the prestigious Garden Club of America and fought mightily to protect desert flora. It’s important to note the historical context. In 19th-century Europe, protected private lands were associated with the aristocracy. In this country, conservation and the creation of public lands and parks were projects of wealthy and conservative politicians such as Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, who became the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905. Now, these issues are generally associated with liberal or progressive politics.
Hoyt fell in love with the desert when she visited in the late 1890s and many years later recalled to the Los Angeles Times, “Over 30 years ago, I spent my first night in the Mojave desert of California and was entranced by the magnificence of the Joshua grove in which we were camping.” But in the early days of Los Angeles, when newcomers were building mansions, the landscaping of these homes (especially Spanish Revival) were populated with native desert species such as the Joshua trees. Hoyt found that many of her favorite spots in the desert were completely denuded of growth by residential landscapers. Outraged, Hoyt went on a one-woman crusade, presenting a traveling show of desert flora across the United States and abroad. The show drew so much attention that the California State Park Association hired Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., whose father had designed New York’s Central Park, to survey the state’s important horticultural areas, and the first person he sought out was Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, who immediately recommended protection for the area that would become Joshua Tree National Park.
At that point in 1928, however, the protected land was only a theory. But Hoyt lived within the circles of power all her life. In 1930 she created the International Desert Conservation League and filled its ranks with industrialists, politicians, museums directors, and — not surprisingly — the aforementioned Pinchot. She enlisted her friend, Henry Harriman, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to present President Roosevelt with an album of photographic landscapes of the proposed park. Despite her connections, it was a hard sell, even to an aristocrat like FDR, who had been raised to value protected lands. Hoyt continued pushing, and in 1936, Roosevelt made the 800,000-acre Joshua Tree National Monument a reality.