In the fall of 2017, my wife, Judy, and I paid a camping and hiking visit to Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. This was a pilgrimage of sorts because while we had camped and hiked in many national parks, we’d never experienced an environment so haunting and pristine as that vast ecosystem where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet.
We wanted to experience a place very different. We were not disappointed. It was definitely off the beaten track and not too crowded. Not everyone wants to go to a spot so dry that you must haul your water to the campground. The scenery was like being on another planet.
Our interest in Joshua Tree National Park was sparked by a book a friend had loaned to me. “Rightful Heritage: Franklin Roosevelt and the Land of America” by Douglas Brinkley examines the conservation ethic of our 32nd President. It was under Franklin Roosevelt that millions of acres of forest, seashore and wildlife refuges were preserved.
Dealing with the ravages of the Great Depression and confronting war-making German and Japanese regimes did not keep Roosevelt from engaging in his abiding goal of preserving nature for future generations. It was under Roosevelt that the Civilian Conservation Corps reclaimed millions of acres of forests and developed trails and park structures that are still in use today.
FDR set aside Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936 after an appeal from a Pasadena woman, Minerva Hoyt, who was concerned about cactus poachers. She had witnessed people removing desert plants to their gardens in Los Angeles.
Joshua Tree is under threat again because of the actions of the 45th President, Donald Trump, whose government shutdown has furloughed the rangers who protect our national parks. People have cut down some of the trees and driven vehicles over fragile desert terrain.
There are always going to be people who want to trash the environment, abuse wildlife and steal artifacts. With the National Park Service standing down, our “rightful heritage,” the valued outdoor treasures that we should be protecting for those who come after us, are open to exploitation.
Roosevelt and Trump were both from New York state and were born into wealthy families. But their similarities end there. Roosevelt lived a life of service. Exploring the Hudson Valley as a boy, he was raised with a conservation ethic. Sometimes he listed his occupation as “tree grower.” Trump has dedicated his life to real estate development and making money any way he can. His past is littered with bankruptcies and unpaid bills.
Under Roosevelt, Harold Ickes served 13 years as Interior Department secretary, longer than anyone who has ever served in that post. A former newspaper reporter, Ickes was considered the most environmentally-minded Interior Department secretary ever.
Trump appointed the most anti-conservation Interior Department secretary in U.S. history–Ryan Zinke, who stepped down in disgrace last month after a series of ethics violations. It was Zinke who opened federal waters and lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to oil and gas exploration.
Franklin Roosevelt worked to set aside places like Joshua Tree National Park so that generations, yet unborn, could experience them. With people like Trump in office, their very existence is under threat.