Drive just a couple of hours southeast from L.A., and you’re enveloped in a pristine, stark landscape with Zen-like beauty — the high desert of the Morongo Basin and the surrounding foothills. The wild-lands here encompass a million-plus-acre patchwork of public, nonprofit, and private lands. Stacks of monzogranite formed 100 million years ago rise above otherworldly, bristly Joshua trees and incongruous palm oases. It’s possible to see a coyote, a roadrunner, and a desert tortoise all within the same week. Casual hikers who venture off-trail sometimes get and stay lost for days.
Trek through the cascade of ecosystems that rise from the desert-floor rocks of Indian Cove Campground to the stream habitat of Big Morongo Canyon Preserve and the pinyon pine- and juniper-dotted foothills of Pioneertown Mountains Preserve, and it’s easy to assume the desert is doing just fine, thank you. But it’s not.
From the spread of invasive species to graffiti, dumping, and human overuse, the desert needs more than voices. It needs hands.
Here is your guide to giving back to L.A.’s increasingly popular high desert as you allow what the poet Wendell Berry called “the peace of wild things” to flow into your soul in this treasure of the American Southwest.
Conservation volunteer options for visitors
Here are three sterling options for sweat equity in the high desert and its adjoining foothills. There are other worthy nonprofits and community groups in the Joshua Tree area, but these organizations are leaders in desert conservation and have staff focused on volunteers.
The Wildlands Conservancy is a nonprofit dedicated to the dual mission of preserving wildlands and connecting children to nature. The conservancy oversees the largest nonprofit nature preserve system in California. Through strategic purchases and gifts of over 600,000 acres of land to federal agencies, the conservancy spearheaded the creation of the Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow national monuments. These continuous lands form wildlife corridors that help vulnerable species survive by protecting their seasonal ranges.
The conservancy has a strong volunteer program and lists options and contacts on its website, www.wildlandsconservancy.org (go to “donate,” then “volunteer”). Visitors to the Morongo Basin might want to visit one of the three preserves within easy driving distance: Pioneertown Mountains Preserve, Mission Creek Preserve, and Whitewater Preserve. Individuals and families with kids 10 and older who are interested in volunteering are encouraged to call the main office ahead of time to find out about joining events or arrange for custom volunteer work projects. Restoration of conservancy lands and removal of invasive plant species such as wild mustard, fountain grass, and tree tobacco are ongoing priorities.
“There are always things to do for volunteers,” said Jack Thompson, Desert Regional Director. “There is a great draw from the citizens of Los Angeles to the desert right now. Getting involved with conservation organizations broadens volunteers’ views of threats the desert faces and helps them learn how they can make a difference.”
Mojave Desert Land Trust
The mission of the Mojave Desert Land Trust is to protect the Mojave Desert ecosystem and its scenic and cultural resources through land acquisition and stewardship, awareness and discovery, and protecting conservation investments. Recently, the trust gave 3,000 acres of formerly private lands it had purchased within the Mojave National Preserve boundaries to the preserve in order to protect the ecosystem. To date, MDLT has protected over 60,000 acres of high-priority desert habitat. To build awareness of California’s new desert monuments, the trust just partnered with the Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council and the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce to offer a set of four national monument patches that girl scouts can earn by visiting the monuments or participating in other activities.
Visitors to the Morongo Basin are encouraged to take advantage of hands-on learning and volunteer opportunities with the trust. Activities for visitors can range from maintenance of the native plant nursery to day or overnight stewardship and monitoring trips to land parcels. “Working with your hands in wide open, gorgeous landscapes brings a feeling of accomplishment, serenity, and belonging among people who are as passionate as you are,” said Missy Boyd, Education and Outreach Coordinator. “There is a community feeling as each volunteer brings their own education and life experiences to the table.”
To volunteer with the trust, visit their website, www.mdlt.org, click “get involved,” and then select “sign up” under the “Become a Volunteer” paragraph to fill out a volunteer interest profile. Adam Henny, Volunteer Coordinator, will then contact you.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is the region’s North Star, the defining physical, spiritual, and economic driver for the Morongo Basin. Spanning nearly 800,000 acres, the park attracted nearly 2.5 million visitors in 2016, a record for the park. Due to training and liability requirements, the only conservation volunteering option available for visitors to the park is National Public Lands Day, which will take place on Saturday, September 30, 2017. To sign up to participate in family-friendly vegetation projects within the park, email Ranger and spokesperson George Land at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So plan a trip, play, and immerse yourself in a conservation experience. The desert will pay you back. “The desert is fragile place,” said Thompson. “Without advocates, it wouldn’t have the kind of character it has to deepen people’s lives.”
This article is a part of the April / May 2017 issue of Whole Life Times.