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A tale of three women conservationists

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sethshteir | Aug 08, 2011 12:00 AM

In the beginning, there was only water as far as the eye could see, according to the Chemehuevi Indians, who once traversed the rocky peaks and steep slopes of what is now Joshua Tree National Park. Ocean Woman, afloat on a woven boat with wolf, mountain lion and coyote, created the land by rubbing dead skin from her body and sprinkling it over the primeval sea.

In this ancient story, a woman creates the desert land that is protected by Joshua Tree National Park from her own body.  In contemporary times, three women worked tirelessly to understand and protect what is now Joshua Tree National Park. This year, Joshua Tree National Park will celebrate its 75th Anniversary. I'd like to commemorate that history by honoring the contributions of three women who are key to its preservation. 

Elizabeth Crozer Campbell

Elizabeth Crozer Campbell

There is no evidence that Elizabeth Crozer Campbell received formal archaeological training, but that didn’t stop her from becoming an archaeological pioneer.  Campbell moved to 29 Palms in 1924 with her husband Bill.  He was a WWI veteran and a victim of a mustard gas attack who thought the desert would improve his health. The Campbells built Roughley Manor, an elegant house located just North of Joshua Tree National Park’s Oasis Visitor’s Center, which is now one of the area’s most popular bed and breakfasts.  

Elizabeth and Bill’s passion for archaeology led them to explore archaeological sites in what is now Joshua Tree National Park and to the establishment of the desert branch of the Southwest Museum, where Elizabeth served as Director.  During one trip, they discovered an arrowhead, flecked with brown, sand and cream tones, along a desiccated ancient water channel in the Pinto Basin in Joshua Tree National Park. This distinct triangular point and other associated artifacts found in the wash were believed to be between 4,000 and 8,000 years old and indicated the presence of a culture of nomadic hunters who did some seasonal plant gathering. They came to be known as the Pinto Culture and are the oldest presence of humans in Joshua Tree National Park.

The discovery of the Pinto Culture is only a small part of Elizabeth and Bill Campbell’s legacy. During the 1920s through 1940s, the Campbells revolutionized theories on desert cultures and discovered archaeological sites that have yet to be fully analyzed. Their artifact collection, which consists of field notes, photos and 65,000 lithic, ceramic and organic artifacts, tell scientists a great deal about the prehistory of Joshua Tree National Park.

Minerva Hoyt

Minerva Hoyt

Around the same time, Minerva Hoyt, a wealthy Pasadena socialite with a green thumb, fell in love with the desert landscape. Hoyt was captivated by desert plants’ remarkable adaptations that allowed them to thrive in a land with little rain and harsh sunlight. Minerva traveled throughout the California desert and observed firsthand the widespread destruction of cacti and Joshua trees by vandals and people who sold these iconic plants for gardens in urban areas.

She founded the International Deserts Conservation League to build support for creating desert parks that would protect unique desert flora and fauna. Hoyt was also appointed to serve on the California State Parks Commission, although there was little doubt she wanted a national park unit to protect the scenic California desert. Minerva hired well known ecologists and biologists to prepare reports on the natural resources of what was to become Joshua Tree National Monument. After being introduced to President Roosevelt, Roosevelt asked the National Park Service to prepare a recommendation for a park.  On August 10, 1936 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the 100 mile long and 50 mile wide Joshua Tree National Monument.

Senator Dianne Feinstein

Over 50 years later, in 1992, Dianne Feinstein was elected a California Senator. She recognized the California desert’s remarkable biodiversity, spectacular scenery and outstanding recreational opportunities and promised her first action would be to introduce the desert bill, which had previously been championed by former Senator Alan Cranston. The resulting California Desert Protection Act of 1994 [PDF] created the Mojave National Preserve and transformed Death Valley National Monument and Joshua Tree National Monument into National Parks.  It also designated 3.5 million acres of Bureau of Land Management wilderness and added 234,000 acres to Joshua Tree National Park. 

The list of protected lands was vast, but even more incredible was the tenacity displayed by Feinstein, Congressional advocates, environmentalists and other supporters in the face of fierce opposition. It’s a long story that begins with desert grassroots advocacy- organizing, countless media tours, stunning landscape photography and even introducing desert tortoises to legislators- and ends with a pitched battle and subsequent passage of the legislation on Capitol Hill. 

Feinstein’s bill has proved to be visionary. It has done more than preserve the landscape, it has transformed a region. Specifically, the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 addressed regional planning, left a conservation legacy for future generations and is the source of a powerful economic engine. According to the report The Economic Benefits of California Desert Wildlands: 10 Years Since The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 the benefits of the bill are more than preserving species and scenic landscapes, but include recreation, off-site benefits, scientific research values, educational benefits, ecosystem service benefits, and passive use values and are estimated at a value of more than $1.3 billion per year in the California desert region. 

Joshua Tree National Park’s history is replete with birth, growth and creation. According to one of the Chemehuevi creation stories, what was once the dead skin of Ocean Woman was transformed into the starkly beautiful mountains and canyons of this national treasure. What was once unprotected land is now preserved unimpaired for future generations. In contemporary times, three women understood the value of what is now Joshua Tree National Park, explored its rich history and worked to protect it. We are glad for that on the park's 75th birthday.

 Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

 Seth Shteir is California desert field representative for the National Parks Conservation Association. 

Paul Smith owner of the Twentynine Palms Inn and President of the California Wilderness Coalition, also contributed to this article.

Images courtesy the National Park Service.

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