New desert town no home to the fringe-toed lizard

Massive development could doom the dunes

  • The Joshua Hills development could dry up the area's palm oases.

    Matt Weiser
  • The Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard

    Cameron Barrows
  • map

    Daine Sylvian

THOUSAND PALMS, Calif. - Walking through the Coachella Valley Preserve, Cameron Barrows is all activity. The preserve manager stuffs his pockets with trash, points out an endangered desert pupfish paddling in a palm-shaded oasis, and turns grumpy at the sight of tracks in the sand from a trespassing ATV. This is the last natural dune habitat in the valley, home to the threatened Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard, and Barrows patrols it like a mother hen. Only after scaling a rise to gaze across rippling white dunes does he grow quiet and still.

To the north lies a 9,000-acre tract of desert where developers hope to build a new town. Dubbed Joshua Hills, it will bring a heavy menu of development: 7,000 homes, 12 golf courses, three hotels, a World Trade Center University, grade schools, shopping centers and 3 million square feet of office and industrial space. Groundwater pumping could endanger Coachella Valley Preserve's palm oases, and the project would devour a natural corridor linking the preserve and Joshua Tree National Park, three miles to the north.

That corridor is crucial to sand movement that maintains dunes in the 17,000-acre heart of the preserve - the only remaining home for the fringe-toed lizard.

"In a word, it's a disaster," Barrows says of Joshua Hills. "They're going to armor all the sand dunes with golf courses. It's a huge, huge potential problem, effectively destroying this habitat here."

Sustainable development?

Barrows, who is the regional director of the nonprofit Center for Natural Lands Management, oversees the Coachella Valley Preserve as part of a joint venture with federal and state agencies and The Nature Conservancy. The preserve was created in 1986 specifically to protect the lizard and the last of the Coachella Valley's dune habitat. Sand dunes once covered 100 square miles, but development in the nearby snowbird cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Palm Desert eliminated all but five square miles, nearly all of which now lies within the preserve.

Barrows says any development in the gap between the park and the preserve could halt sand movement, and any efforts to tap groundwater there could dry up the 11 natural palm oases in the preserve. In a land of relentless sun and heat, these spring-fed water pockets are essential to wildlife for miles around, including desert bighorn sheep, kit fox, bobcat, mountain lion, great-horned owl and numerous rodents and lizards. One oasis in the preserve is among the last havens for the endangered desert pupfish, which swims in the shadows of cattails and native California fan palms.

"It's a very important preserve," says Al Muth, director of the University of California Deep Canyon Desert Research Center. "Whether or not (Joshua Hills) is a good project is a social judgment, but I can tell you it's in the wrong place."

The Coachella Valley's population increased by 35 percent from 1990-2000, most of it sprawling east and north from Palm Springs. Much of the growth has included thirsty projects such as golf courses, lush landscaping and gushing "water features" adorning the gates of exclusive subdivisions. Environmentalists say another new community with a dozen golf courses is the last thing the valley needs.

"This is the type of outdated, water-hogging development that is currently causing problems in the Coachella Valley," says Daniel Patterson of the Center for Biological Diversity. "We don't need another one."

But Joshua Hills developer Richard Oliphant, CEO of California Intelligent Communities, says his project will provide a crucial "third leg" for the valley's agriculture and tourism-based economy. The World Trade Center Association, parent to the 300 World Trade Centers around the globe, has committed to building a 2,500-student business school campus at Joshua Hills. Oliphant, the former mayor of nearby Indian Wells, predicts the university will lure high-tech businesses, shifting the winter tourism economy into year-round productivity.

This is the second time around for Joshua Hills, which was first proposed in 1999. The project met heavy opposition then, so it's now restyled as what Oliphant calls a "self-contained green community." Plans include a network of paths and trails to discourage short automobile trips, lighting designed to preserve night skies, a fleet of electric cars for use by residents, and a system of shuttles linking neighboring communities.

"We understand, being this big, we can't help but have impacts," says Oliphant. "What we're trying to do is minimize impacts on the surrounding environment."

The project sets aside three mile-wide habitat corridors between the national park and preserve to ensure sand and wildlife movement. And, Oliphant says, each of the 12 golf courses includes only half the turf of an average course, in order to reduce water consumption. The project does not depend on any new wells "at the moment," he says. Instead, he proposes tapping existing wells at the edges of the project.

Barrows isn't encouraged: "Whether you take the water from one end of (the aquifer) or the other end, (it) still gets lower. It's all the same water table."

Barrows also says the project's habitat corridors aren't adequate for animal migration or sand movement: "He's missed all the important sand corridors and put golf courses and buildings on them." Barrows is also concerned that the golf courses may bring foreign species that could devastate the dune ecosystem. Argentine and red fire ants, often introduced by large turf plantings, could eliminate the native harvester ants that are an important food for the fringe-toed lizard.

Barrows and other environmental advocates have offered to buy the Joshua Hills site and suggested other locations instead. Oliphant has so far demurred, saying no other sites of sufficient size are available.

Sand trap

Oliphant expects to file a formal development application with the county later this summer, but that could just be the beginning of a long battle. Riverside County's revised general plan, now being drafted, envisions the site as open space and rural housing and aims to center development around existing cities. The area's county supervisor, Roy Wilson, also opposes the plan, calling it "leapfrog" development.

Joshua Hills could also derail a multispecies habitat conservation plan that area agencies are working to develop with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says Bill Havert, who oversees the plan for the Coachella Valley Association of Governments. The plan has been in the works since 1995, with an eye to balancing development and protecting 30 plant and animal species, including the burrowing owl, desert tortoise, peninsular bighorn sheep and Palm Springs pocket mouse. The corridor and preserve are so important as habitat that, if compromised by development, federal wildlife officials might not approve the habitat conservation plan. That would likely stymie any other developments which would have to prove compliance with the Endangered Species Act on a case-by-case basis.

Add it all up, and Joshua Hills would seem to be a long shot. But people concerned about the Coachella Valley Preserve and the fringe-toed lizard aren't taking any chances.

"I don't think (Oliphant) has the faintest idea of the kind of opposition that is out there," says Joan Taylor of the Sierra Club's Tahquitz Group. "This development is so big that the opposition is going to be equally big. There's a lot of public sentiment that this is outrageous."

Matt Weiser writes from Yucca Valley, California.

You can contact ...

  • Cameron Barrows, regional director, Center for Natural Lands Management, 760/343-1234;
  • Richard Oliphant, CEO, California Intelligent Communities, 760/776-9900.
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