Donna and Larry Charpied are taking me on a hike through a desert wash in Joshua Tree National Park. The California park is one of the most iconic in the country, known for its eponymous trees, the spiky, beautiful cactus that is really a member of the lily family, so named because westering 19th century Mormons believed its arms were gesturing towards the Holy Land, just like the prophet in the Old Testament. Because of recent rains, the wash is profuse with color. “There’s a chuparosa bush,” Donna says, pointing to a lovely outburst of red along the banks. Larry identifies a cluster of chia –the original version of yesteryear’s “chia pet” craze. All around us is the scent of creosote, proud with rain, and desert lavender, so pure, so essential. In the clear turquoise skies above, a hawk rides a thermal, and from a nearby cottonwood tree, some quail sing their desert song. “This is America’s gift to her citizens,” Donna says, taking in the infinite expanse. “But if the court rules in favor of the dump, it’s over.”
The dump she’s referring to—or landfill, as proponents prefer to call it—has been planned by Kaiser Ventures, LLC, which owns an old iron ore mine at the southwestern edge of the park, on Eagle Mountain. In the late '80s, Kaiser made plans to turn the old mine into a repository for garbage from five Southern California counties—as much as 20,000 tons of it arriving every day via truck and rail for as long as 80 years. To facilitate the plan, they applied to the federal Bureau of Land Management for a necessary land exchange. Twenty years later the project has been approved by all necessary agencies, but remains in limbo as suits challenging it wind their way through the courts. The latest chapter in this state and federal saga should conclude soon, as the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit is expected to rule any day now on an appeal filed by Kaiser to overrule a decision in a case won by the Charpieds and environmental groups on a suit they filed in 1999. Depending on what side the court comes down on, the Eagle Mountain landfill could soon join the ranks of world's largest garbage heaps, on a par with the now-closed Fresh Kills in Staten Island, New York. And, in the view of the Charpieds and an array of other environmental organizations, the park’s ecosystem would be severely imperiled, along with the Colorado River aqueduct which runs past the proposed dump site and supplies Los Angeles with drinking water.
The Charpieds learned how to file legal briefs from a how-to book and typed out the first one on an old Smith-Corona typewriter in the small trailer where they live. The first judge to hear the case, in San Diego, agreed with the couple, finding that the analysis of the dump’s environmental impact on the surrounding area was flawed. The ruling was appealed and for the next two decades, the Charpieds would take the battle through a maze of community boards and state and federal agencies, acquiring a pro bono lawyer on the way. They've poured over $100,000 of their own funds into the fight, hard-won profits from their organic jojoba farm in the small berg of Desert Center, adjacent to Eagle Mountain and the park.
They started the farm 25 years ago, from two seeds that they call Adam and Eve, taken from a local plant whose latitude and longitude are a house secret. In addition to farming, many of those years have been consumed with various hearings and trials, and although that’s not how they envisioned the simple life, they wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, as often happens, there were things in their upbringing that pointed the way to the path that has transformed them, along with a range of allies, into the unofficial guardians of Joshua Tree National Park.
Donna, now 55, grew up in a working class neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the youngest of four children. Her father was a machinist who told her to always use her head and her hands. Though there was no overt political activism in her family, she has fond memories of a great aunt who frequently warned people to “watch what you drink in the water—everybody’s getting sick.” Growing up asthmatic, she watched California weather reports on television and vowed to live there some day. In 1977, two years after making the move, she met Larry, who had been living in California since he was a child. His father was a career navy officer and would often take his family of nine on trips into the California wilderness. “He’d put us into the back of his pick-up,” Larry says, “and drag us across the desert. That’s how I learned about the land. I remember going through old tailings at a diamond mine—that’s where I met my first tortoise.”
In 1980 they bought a ten-acre parcel in Desert Center, parked their small Airstream trailer on it, and moved in. They got jobs as day laborers, working side-by-side with the many immigrants who toil in California’s fruit and vegetable fields, to learn about farming. And they studied the jojoba plant, an ancient desert bush that produces berries that render an oil that’s used in cosmetics and lubricants and as a replacement for sperm oil in plastics and other products. They became experts at jojoba cultivation and they tilled the arid land. After Adam and Eve reproduced, their plant family grew and they were harvesting their crop (in mid-summer, when the temperature is often 120 degrees), processing the beans in a home-made “still” (behind which are now stacks of environmental reports and legal filings), bottling the precious oil by hand, and selling it at farmer’s markets around the region. It was hard work but they were living their dream and they acquired the contented and weathered look of people who work in the elements and do not want to work elsewhere. Along the way they had become the world’s first certified organic jojoba growers and processors. Even better, their backyard was Joshua Tree National Park.
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In the early part of the 20th century, environmental pillaging in the region the Charpieds would call home went unchecked. Legions of cactus-crazed thieves descended on parts of the California desert, hauling its treasures back to Los Angeles by the truckload. Tourists were setting Joshua trees on fire as signposts for travelers, a strange form of communication that reached its peak with the torching of a seven-hundred year-old Joshua in the western Mojave early in the 20th Century. Enter Minerva Hoyt, a Pasadena socialite who became quite taken with desert plants while seeking solace in the drylands after the death of her husband in 1918. She would sleep outdoors, soothed by the “primeval and eerie” night winds in the Joshua trees and the “pungent odor” of the juniper. “The desert possessed me,” she said, “and I constantly wished that I might find some way to preserve its natural beauty.” So she put a show together, with the help of scientists, botanists, taxidermists, and scene painters, and took it on the road. First the caravan of cacti, flowers, birds, and animals traveled to New York, then Boston, and a year later, London. It was Hoyt’s intent to lobby for the establishment of desert parks around the world, and especially in her beloved Mojave Desert, domain of the besieged Joshua tree. In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President, and with Mrs. Hoyt nearly out of funds, the freaky vegetable caught a break: Thanks to Hoyt's campaign of letter-writing and cocktail party diplomacy, Roosevelt established Joshua Tree National Monument by proclamation a few years later, preserving 825,340 acres of stunning desert terrain forever. Soon Minerva Hoyt became known as the “apostle of the cacti.” In 1994, with the signing of the federal Desert Protection Act, the monument became a national park, which accorded the unique wilderness broader protections and a higher status as a protected area.
Kaiser Ventures has a different view of the dump. “The project as it stands is the most exhaustively reviewed, most carefully scrutinized, most heavily conditioned and as a result, the most technically superior project of its type in the state—perhaps anywhere,” says Terry L. Cook, executive vice president and general counsel for Kaiser. “We agreed to extraordinary mitigations totaling nearly $200 million, including $21 million in air mitigations and $6 million a year to establish an environmental mitigation trust for the purchase of open space and habitat and to fund environmental research. The National Park Service will receive 10 cents on each $1 per ton charged the project for research of its own design.” He also adds that the landfill will provide economic benefit to the area, providing jobs and stoking local commerce, although the park itself has been shown to be a significant source of income for Riverside and San Bernardino counties—and anything that threatens it could alter that equation.
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The proposed dump at Eagle Mountain isn’t the only threat that Joshua Tree National Park faces. According to Ken Cole, a biologist and geologist for the US Geological Survey, the park’s namesake tree which isn’t really a tree may soon fall victim to global warming. Some studies now show that within the next 50-100 years, the park will become too warm to support Joshua trees. “What do we have here without them?” asks park geologist Joe Zarki.
Meanwhile, as America and the world grapples with how to deal with climate change and the possible triaging to come, the Charpieds and Kaiser Ventures await the important ruling from the 9th Circuit Court in California. Three years ago, US District Judge Robert Timlin ruled in favor of the Charpieds and others who contested Kaiser’s proposal, striking down the company’s original request for the land exchange. The problem, he said, was that the Bureau of Land Management failed to fully investigate how the exchange would impact bighorn sheep and the desert ecosystem.ii Kaiser appealed the ruling. A few months later, the Joshua Tree National Park Association presented the Charpieds with the annual Minerva Hoyt Desert Conservation Award for their leadership in the battle to prevent the construction of the Eagle Mountain dump. There was a party for them at the desert home of Huell Howser, the popular California talk show host who is known for his down-home style of covering the state’s wilderness treasures.
When the party was over, they happily headed south through their beloved park, then east on Interstate 10, and then north again toward the sandy soil in which they have cultivated and spread their roots. The guardians of Joshua Tree just like to be at home with their plants, their dogs, and their view of the desert that stretches forever in every direction. As the sun set, they sat down in a small garden patch, near a Joshua tree and a date palm, surveyed the mountains and the purple shadows falling across them, looked toward the heavens where Venus was reflecting brightly that evening, and offered a prayer of thanks. To many people and things and forces, to the elements and the beauty and the songbirds that greeted them in the mornings and the coyotes that sang them to sleep, and most of all to Minerva Hoyt, the apostle of the cacti, for lighting the path, and doing what she could to preserve the mighty and sacred Joshua tree. And now the baton has been passed. “The dump would have happened a long time ago if it were not for the Charpieds and others like them,” says Ernie Quintana. “There is only so much that government agencies can do, and then it’s up to citizens to get involved and do the rest. A mega-dump next to Joshua Tree National Park is not the legacy we want to leave.”