Tourism Tension in Instagram Age: $1 Billion in AZ Taxes, Challenges to Preservation

PHOENIX – Tourism continues to expand in Arizona, a boon for jobs, development and tax revenue, but the growth presents challenges to preserving the natural beauty drawing visitors to the state.

“It just really appears that there is a problem as far as people management,” said Alicyn Gitlin of the Sierra Club. “But it’s a fine line because you want people to have access to this place that belongs to all of us.”

The tensions between economic driver and environmental impact are revealed in the numbers of dollars and people, both of which reach into the millions. Tourists generate jobs and tax revenue, some of which is spent on advertising to lure even more tourists and build the roads and other infrastructure needed to accommodate them. Selfie culture and social media increases such strains as littering and overuse on the most picturesque sites, and visitors forego the excitement of exploring the unfamiliar in favor of social media likes.

In 2018, for the first time in Arizona history, more than 45 million tourists generated more than $1 billion in state tax revenue, surpassing the record set the previous year by 8%, according to the Arizona Office of Tourism. These visitors help support about 200,000 jobs and provide $7.4 billion in earnings for Arizona workers.

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Flagstaff is one of the primary destinations for visitors, enticing tourists with its craft beer scene, connection to lunar missions, Route 66 nostalgia, proximity to Lowell Observatory and, above all, its status as a portal to Arizona’s natural splendors. The city’s proximity to the Grand Canyon, the nation’s largest ponderosa pine forest and the red rocks of Sedona is a large part of why visitors from across the globe spend more than $500 million each year in Flagstaff, according to a 2017-18 tourism study from the Arizona Office of Tourism.

Debbie Johnson, director of the Arizona Office of Tourism, said tourism spending in Arizona reduces each resident’s tax burden by more than $1,300 per year.

“Tourism revenue is a big chunk of their government provided services,” Johnson said. To maintain their same level of service for residents “in Coconino County, it would be $3,000 more a household.”

In Flagstaff, 5 million annual visitors provide 8,000 jobs, said Meg Roederer, spokeswoman for Discover Flagstaff, the city’s tourism agency. And much of the money collected from the bed, board and beverage tax that tourists pay is spent developing infrastructure to help absorb the increased traffic.

“If you’re dining in our restaurants, if you’re staying in our hotels, you are going to be contributing to our economy,” Roederer said. “Our parks and recreation department gets a portion of it, public art … and arts and sciences education programming for students.”

Some of the money also goes back into the city’s visitor center, tour guides and media operation Roederer said.

Where’s that Tree I Saw on Instagram?

Gitlin, conservation coordinator for the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, worries the promotion of natural wonders in Arizona could threaten the picturesque wilderness tourists are clambering to see for themselves.

“People are seeing more photos online and they are going to specific locations instead of wandering and distributing themselves around,” Gitlin said. “There are a few sites that tend to get a lot of impact.”

Gitlin was hesitant to give examples, lest the publicity attract further traffic to the sites, but she did mention End of the World, a popular campsite in Coconino National Forest. The often promoted site sits at the end of a 29-mile road, which Gitlin warns makes proper safety and etiquette even more of a priority.

People crave the experience being sold to them through marketing and advertising, she said. When everyone gravitates to the same locations, the heavy foot traffic may trample the local flora or lead to increased litter.

The power of marketing can pressure local infrastructure beyond its capabilities.

“Flagstaff started marketing itself as … Arizona’s winter wonderland,” Gitlin said. “And all of a sudden, all of these people came up and they wanted to play in the snow. There’s really not a lot of infrastructure to direct people to places where they can safely play in the snow. And so what they end up doing is crowding the highways, crowding the roads, and participating in unsafe activities.”

For Gitlin, this advertising problem isn’t limited to tourism boards. The rise of selfie culture and social media plays a huge part in tourists flocking to iconic wilderness sites.

“I’ve heard of hiking guides who have said their clients come in, and they’re like, ‘Where’s the tree?’” she said. “You know, the tree that everybody’s got the picture of on Instagram?”

Some people have noticed this problem and have creatively utilized social media to address it.

“A lot of people I know have recently started using ‘#somewhere,’” Gitlin said. “Which is, I think, a really nice way of inspiring people to go out and explore on their own.”

She noted that the plugged-in culture can also negate the whole point of visiting these spots for tourists, too.

“That’s not why you’re here – to get to get that one picture,” she said. “People need to visit these areas and be able to turn off their electronics and be in nature. I mean, there’s so many health effects that are being shown from being in places where you’re surrounded by natural landscapes.”

Leave No Trace

With the Museum Fire burning more than 1,800 acres in the Dry Lake Hills area north of Flagstaff and limiting access to many sites in the Coconino National Forest, Gitlin said overcrowded areas are an even greater problem.

Still, many of the strains tourists put on nature can be mitigated through education.

“It’s a tricky question, because you want to get people into nature. You want them to learn to love it,” Gitlin said. “But you also want them to love it in a way that’s going to leave it better than when they came.”

She wants to see schools teaching respect for nature at an early age; she is even more eager to see adults practice good stewardship.

Simple things like sticking to paths, “picking up your trash, taking time to look at the stars, instead of having to have a campfire every time you’re outside,” would go a long way, she said.

“If you do have a campfire, make sure that you have ample water and a shovel on you that you’re able to put it out,” she added. “Put your hand on it and make sure that it’s cool to the touch before you leave it, not leaving it burning overnight.”

Discover Flagstaff is aware of the potential problems with increased tourism and seeks to be proactive, promoting “eco-tourism,” a sustainable approach to visitation.

“As far as preservation of our area and responsible tourism, we do market a ‘stay and play responsibly’ messaging for our visitors,” Roederer said. “If you pack it in, you pack it out, you leave no trace.”

Discover Flagstaff’s website touts many of the city’s environmental accolades, from its water-saving practices to its designation as the U.S. city with the cleanest air by the American Lung Association. Flagstaff is also the first International Dark Sky City, a recognition of its efforts to curb light pollution. The website also maintains a list of eco-friendly attractions, hotels and restaurants.

Discover the New, Preserve the Old

Gitlin said government involvement has led to some positive changes in northern Arizona. She cites the rearrangement of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon from a frustrating parking lot into its current configuration as one such success.

“Grand Canyon created a different system where they built a visitor center that was back off the rim,” Gitlin said. “People had to get out of their cars and walk through a plaza and walk by some beautiful monuments and landscape areas.”

This allowed the flow of tourists to be better directed, offsetting problems with overcrowding. It also had other benefits.

“I see people slowing down, taking their time, they’re in a better mood. They’re looking around, they’re enjoying themselves,” Gitlin said. “That is a really good success story. Because it’s an example of where, instead of trying to promote convenience and failing on it, they went a totally different route and promoted an experience.”

Businesses like those on Discover Flagstaff’s website also play an important role in educating visitors. Hotels touting their eco-friendly water practices remind customers to pay attention to their consumption habits, while outdoor companies teach consumers to be good stewards of the land, Gitlin said.

Improving Business, Personal Practices

Still, more could be done.

Gitlin wants to see bike companies teach trail etiquette, including staying on trails, to their customers. She also said companies could work sustainability into their business models.

“I would love to see someone start a business in Flagstaff, that rent out sleds, and you get a deposit back when you return it because we have a huge issue is broken plastic slides all over the forest,” Gitlin said.

Otherwise, Gitlin wants tourists to use the information available to protect the natural beauty that attracts them, especially if it means putting an end to her biggest pet-peeve.

“Throwing their orange peels down,” Gitlin said. “It drives me nuts.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Climbing in Joshua Tree National Park: Breaking Bones and Belaying Friendships

JOSHUA TREE, Calif. – Sitting on well-worn couches in a living room lined with climbing guidebooks, Todd Gordon and Tucker Tech reminisce on a friendship that has lasted nearly 40 years and rock climbing careers that have lasted even longer.

They’re swapping tales in the house where Gordon, 64, lives with his family on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, in the desert of south-central California. Tech, 61, owns a house nearby, but it lacks water and electricity, which is what you might expect from a former dirtbag.

Todd Gordon’s living room in Joshua Tree, California, is filled with guide books – several of which he wrote. (Photo by Tim Royan/Cronkite News)

Gordon, pulling back an old Ironman triathlon hat to expose wispy gray hairs on a balding pate, ventures three decades into the past, reminding his friend about one of the many times he fell off a large rock face.

“Yeah, I broke four ribs, almost tore my ear off,” Tech replied, adjusting thick glasses.

Gordon, a retired school teacher and part-time climbing guide, and Tech – who, when asked about his profession, says only “Whatever comes my way” – have just finished landscaping the front yard in preparation for an upcoming wedding. In the next room, Gordon’s kids play video games.

Gordon speaks quickly – and loudly. Tech, in sandals – he refuses to wear real shoes unless he’s on a job site – and a long-sleeved gray sweater, is more measured. Clutching a beer in his hand, he enunciates each syllable as he recalls pioneering the climbing scene in Joshua Tree.

“We were doing more obscure routes and putting up new routes,” Tech said.

“A lot of people want to climb the classics and, yeah, we did all the classics,” Gordon said. “It’s like, how many times can you see the same movie?”

Gordon’s house sits at the end of a labyrinthine dirt road so uneven that it scratches the undercarriage of the average sedan. The house stands on one of the many rolling hills in Joshua Tree, flanked by an above-ground pool that is being drained and sits on top of a basement climbing gym, now used mostly for storage. It’s about the closest anyone can come to the national park without building on government land.

Todd Gordon takes a break from yard work in preparation for an upcoming wedding. Over the years, Gordon’s basement was converted into an indoor climbing gym by visiting climbers, but it’s now used mostly for storage. (Photo courtesy of Dean Neugebauer/Cronkite News)

Joshua Tree National Park is a geological marvel. Ranging from 1,000 to 5,500 feet above sea level, it sits at the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, dotted with towering granite formations scarred red by the sun and rising out of the arid ground as if poised to pierce the sky. Cholla cactus, with sharp, barbed spines that stick to whatever they touch, surround the eponymous Joshua trees that stand like sentinels over the land, as if to remind people who’s in charge.

For the climbers who filter in and out of the region throughout the climbing season, the 1,238-square-mile park is welcoming, one of the world’s climbing meccas. Each granite slab, boulder and rock face is a problem to solve, a chance to conquer nature or be one with it. The routes have such names as “Acid Crack,” “White Rastafarian” and “Strawberry Contraceptives,” and regular climbers memorize every path up the rocks, revere every chalk-smeared, large-grained granite handhold and foothold and work to perfect every minute body movement to maximum efficiency.

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Every Saturday and Sunday morning, dust-flecked climbers gather in a space between the campsites at Hidden Valley, near Intersection Rock – an iconic granite pluton a few miles into the park – for a get-together known as Climber Coffee, a tradition started by climbers in Yosemite National Park and adopted in Joshua Tree.

Park rangers drag jerry cans filled with donated coffee from dirty pickup trucks and set them on plastic picnic tables covered with the pages of old park guides. Climbers then line up to fill their sticker-coated thermoses and titanium mugs, talking about the latest “project” they’ve “sent” – the routes they have successfully climbed – or seeking belaying partners for the day’s climb.

A few of them sink into collapsible nylon chairs to play chess on a foldable magnetic board perched on a rock. A dog that looks more like a wolf zigzags through the crowd, dragging a makeshift leash of climbing rope attached to a carabiner on his collar. A 20-something blonde woman in yoga pants asks a ranger not much older than her, a suntanned woman with a taut brown ponytail and green uniform, about the invasive species endemic to the park, mustard. It spreads rapidly, destroying native plants.

In the distance, a solitary climber is trudging past the Joshua trees with a crash pad, a portable safety cushion to break a climber’s fall, strapped on his back. He heads in the direction of the Outback, a cluster of challenging boulders – “bouldering problems,” in climber parlance – adjacent to the Hidden Valley campgrounds.

For Gordon and Tech, this landscape is a rock-climbing Eden.

“Vast, endless rock climbing,” Tech said between pulls on his beer. “If you want to do first ascents, you can never be shut down. It’s endless rock and variety.”

But paradise is becoming popular.

In recent years, interest in rock climbing has grown, going from the fringe hobby of hippies and mountain-men to mainstream. “Free Solo,” a documentary chronicling the first ascent by Alex Honnold, a professional outdoor climber, of El Capitan in Yosemite without a rope for safety, won an Oscar for best documentary feature earlier this year. Climbing will, for the first time, be part of the Olympic games in 2020.

And climbing gyms seemingly are everywhere – the first climbing gym, Vertical World, opened in Seattle in 1987. Now, there are 478 in the U.S. More than 5 million people in the country participated in indoor climbing in 2017, according to a report by an outdoor-industry group, while more than 2 million participated in the outdoor disciplines of traditional, ice climbing or mountaineering with a similar number participating in bouldering or sport climbing.

Scores of new visitors have descended upon Joshua Tree National Park in the past few years. From 1990 to 2014, annual visitors to the park typically numbered 1 million to 1.5 million, according to the National Park Service. In 2015, visitation broke 2 million for the first time, and last year, the number nearly reached 3 million.

“There’s a lot more going on than just the climbing,” Todd Gordon said of treks to his favorite rock faces. “They’re outdoor experiences, they’re mental experiences, they’re spiritual experiences. There’s a lot going on, but you got to have the catalyst. The catalyst is the climbing.” (Photo courtesy of Todd Gordon)
Tucker Tech is a frequent target of Todd Gordon’s good-natured ribbing. “Tucker, he’s one of the only true dirtbag climbers. And he did go a year without bathing. … But he says he wiped himself off with wet paper towels. Does that count now?” (Photo courtesy of Todd Gordon)

Jaime Gangi, who manages Phoenix Rock Gym, the first climbing gym to open in metro Phoenix, has been climbing for about 20 years. She noticed the rise in interest in the sport.

“Now, we do birthday parties, big church groups, camps and school field trips,” said Gangi, 39. “And our member base is way bigger. So you get members and families that come in.”

Growth is welcome, she said, but it comes with downsides.

There are “people who aren’t that experienced thinking they know what’s going on; they might be safe in this environment,” said Gangi, gesturing to the color-coded routes on the indoor wall. “But they don’t know the difference of how that’s not safe out there, and you get these lay people outside climbing who pretty much have no reason being out there.”

Gordon agrees the ranks of occasional climbers, with more confidence than experience and skill, crowd the park.

“It seems like most people that are out there, they’re not climbers. There’s just so many tourists out there since Facebook and Instagram came out,” Gordon said. “Before, if you wanted to go climb, you’d have to go climbing. Now if you want to climb, you go to the gym.”

According to John Lauretig, executive director of Friends of Joshua Tree, a nonprofit that conducts search and rescue operations in the park and partly funds Climber Coffee, most issues with climbers moving from gyms to the outdoors involve poor outdoor etiquette, such as leaving trash when camping. For him, climbing safety isn’t the biggest problem his organization has encountered in its searches and rescues.

“We probably average 30 to 60 calls per year, and a lot of those are not climber-related,” Lauretig said. “Most of them are people unprepared for the temperature.”

About 80% of the rescues that Friends of Joshua Tree conducts are due to poor planning for the desert, such as forgetting to eat or pack water before a hike, Lauretig said. Other calls come from parents after their children climb rocks and can’t get down. Of the remaining calls, there are only some rescues due to falls sustained by climbers, which often result in serious injury.

Instagram influencer Meg Kee, 34, belays as Todd Gordon leads the first climb of the day. Kee hopes to get a license as a climbing guide. (Photo by Tim Royan/Cronkite News)

It’s not just beginners who face dangers in what is unquestionably a dangerous sport. Even for seasoned climbers like Gordon and Tech, the risk of injury or worse is always in the back of their minds. Gordon says risk is part of the appeal. He calls it “the bad-boy factor.”

“If you do something wrong in tennis or golf, you don’t f—–g die,” Gordon said. Climbing “is unforgiving for idiots.”

Gordon has climbed in Europe, Yosemite, Nevada and, of course, Joshua Tree, over his long career. He is credited, along with his wife, Andrea, for the first ascent of “Sexy Grandma,” now considered a classic climbing route in Joshua Tree. He and Tech also are responsible for the first ascent of an equally famous route with a risqué name, “Dos Chi Chis.”

Anyone searching through the Joshua Tree classics on Mountain Project, an online database of climbing routes, has a good chance of seeing a first ascent by Gordon or Tech within a couple of clicks. Searching Gordon’s name on the site yields 597 routes, while searching for Tech yields 183 routes. They were the first to ascend or modify the routes or the routes were simply named after them. Both men claim vastly more first ascents than those listed online.

Gordon has only had a few minor injuries, like a broken wrist and a gash in his face that needed a few stitches. He remains surprised that he lived to see his 35th birthday, he said.

“Then, when I got to 40, I could kind of see that I’m not going to die,” Gordon said.

“Yeah, at that point you’re smart enough,” Tech said. “You’re no longer getting the near-death experiences on a regular basis.”

Tech has had his share of close calls.

“When I was first climbing, I had no trouble taking 30-foot falls and just going, ‘Yeah, survived another one,’” he said of his 20s.

About 30 years ago near Elephant Rock in Yosemite, Tech was traversing steep terrain when he pulled on a rock pillar that collapsed, striking him with the full force of its weight. He fell 50 feet.

“I managed to walk away from it, but I ruptured my pleural cavity and barely made it up the hill – I had to hike a mile on a fourth-class hike to get to my camp,” he recalled.

Tucker Tech met Todd Gordon in the early 1980s in Yosemite Valley. “I would only go there for two weeks at a time and he would go there for decades at a time and just live there, Gordon said. (Photo courtesy of Todd Gordon)
For climbers, Tucker Tech was the guy to meet if you needed to get safety equipment fixed or were looking for homemade climbing gear, friends say. (Photo courtesy of Todd Gordon)

Tech has also fallen off a boulder into the ocean, losing consciousness face down in the water; luckily, his brother was nearby and came to his rescue. The next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital, annoyed as a nurse repeatedly searched for a vein to place an IV.

There have been some bad falls at Joshua Tree, too. He and Gordon remember them well.

“That one time,” Gordon said, “you hit your head and it wouldn’t stop bleeding and our friend who’s a doctor …”

“Well, he was a vet,” interrupted Tech.

“Yeah, that’s a doctor,” Gordon said.

“For me it is,” Tech said, laughing. “He grabbed an ACE bandage and a bunch of used tampons and that was good.”

Gordon said he remembers touching Tech’s head, feeling the bandage give way with a squishing sound and seeing a pool of blood forming on the ground.

“Your head’s all caved in. We’re going to take you to the doc,” he told Tech.

But Tech refused. He walked around with a bunch of dried blood on his head for a week or two.

“I washed my clothes,” Tech said. “And it looked like in Saving Private Ryan, the opening scene in D-Day.”

The two friends leaned back and laughed as if this was the funniest story ever told.

Climbing culture includes a variety of subcultures and styles. Different methods of climbing include bouldering, traditional (trad), sport, free solo and top rope, which are differentiated by the techniques and equipment used. But climbers also have different lifestyles.

Climbers practice several styles of rock climbing. Here’s a look at some of the most popular ways to climb. (Video by Tim Royan/Cronkite News)

Some outdoor climbers, like Gordon, climb after work, on weekends or during planned vacations. Others, like Tech, take a different approach.

“In Joshua Tree, you had the weekenders that had jobs, and you had the dirtbags like me that lived in the campgrounds,” Tech said. “And we’d save a site for them.”

Dirtbag is the appellation given by the climbing community for someone who foregoes a stable job and normal life to dedicate nearly every waking moment to climbing. Dirtbags live outdoors or in their cars for weeks or even months, camped at places like Joshua Tree.

It’s hard to say where the term dirtbag comes from, but Outside magazine traces its origin to the old-school climbers of a previous generation who lived in Yosemite Valley throughout the season, funding their lifestyles with odd jobs in the national park and adhering to expert thriftiness.

One such climber is James Lucas, a living legend and the subject of the Cedar Wright documentary “The Last Dirtbag.” Lucas, 37, spent nearly 15 years living in caves or his beat-up Saturn to climb full time. In college, he camped out in the woods near the campus of the University of California-Santa Cruz so that he wouldn’t have to spend money on rent – he preferred funneling his finances toward climbing trips.

He learned to be as frugal as possible, occasionally stealing food, wearing down his shoes and ropes – working to earn just enough money to replace them before they became unsafe to use – and buying gasoline for trips with the extra money he earned placing bolts in climbing routes.

Lucas is a top-tier climber and one of the few to ever free-climb – climbing with a rope used only for protection – the Freerider route of El Capitan in less than 15 hours.

He says his frugal former lifestyle – he now is an assistant editor at Climbing magazine – is a large part of what made him such a skilled climber. Still, he’s conflicted over the term dirtbag.

“I always thought of it as derogatory,” he said in a soft voice, a surprising tone coming from someone with the confidence to climb at the level that he does. Now “it seems more like gentrification, almost like it’s hip to be a dirtbag and to be extra thrifty. In the past, it was more of a necessity.”

Gordon, a former elementary school teacher, was always friendly with dirtbags, but “I wasn’t part of that whole scene.”

“Every single day, I put a tie on and went to work,” he said.

Gordon met Tech in the mid 1980s in Yosemite Valley.

“I would only go there for two weeks at a time and he would go there for decades at a time and just live there, Gordon said.

Tech was known for living in Camp 4, which is a famous camp and meeting spot for climbers to this day. Tech was the guy to meet if you needed to get your safety equipment fixed, Gordon said, or even if you wanted some homemade climbing gear.

“He’s a lot more well-known climber than I am in many respects,” Gordon said.

Gordon bought a house in Joshua Tree in the early ’80s. Though he was as dedicated to the sport as Tech, he would cram his climbing into his free time, including the summers off he enjoyed as a teacher. Gordon eventually met his wife, Andrea, who worked in the same school district, and had three children: Beck, who is now 14, and the twins Von and Lake, 13.

Gordon would see Tech in the winter months when Yosemite got too cold.

“I’d see him in the campground. I’d see him walking around and see him in town,” Gordon said. “It’s a pretty small, incestuous climbing community, and if you climb a lot, you see the same people around.”

They became friendly and started climbing together.

Gordon said he occasionally was mistaken for a dirtbag because of being dusty from climbing and hanging out with friends like Tech.

“I owned a car, I owned a house. I didn’t dirtbag,” he said, his voice gaining speed. “That’s insulting to real dirtbags.”

“Well, it’s insulting to people who aren’t dirtbags as well,” said Tech, scratching his gray beard.

“Tucker, he’s one of the only true dirtbag climbers,” Gordon said as Tech grabbed another beer from Gordon’s fridge. “And he did go a year without bathing. … But he says he wiped himself off with wet paper towels. Does that count now?”

Gordon says Tech’s tales of dirtbagging are the archetypal stories that have made dirtbagging hip and trendy these days.

“Tucker, he’s like the king of the dirtbags,” Gordon said. “He’s the dirtbag that other dirtbags looked up to.”

Tech, who now lives in a house without electricity or running water a few winding dirt roads over from Gordon, claims he was drawn to the dirtbag lifestyle for the same reasons he found climbing so appealing.

“The rushes, the near-death experiences, the wildness of being 20 or 30 feet out over a piece of gear and if you blow it, you get seriously hurt, perhaps killed,” said Tech, his eyes growing intense.

For Tech, a full-time job was a distraction from climbing. Instead, he would find temporary work in construction, roofing, trenching and other manual jobs. Although some dirtbags had better skills and could land higher paying jobs, Tech was happy to earn just enough to climb again.

“For the most part, people who are committed to climbing most of the time just want to avoid doing any full-time work,” Tech said.

In some ways, thriftiness became a sport in itself.

“When I was in search and rescue at Yosemite one year, I only made $610,” Tech said. “It was a contest in the spring with these young girls coming in. We’d wander around and when they got a job in the right place, we’d schmooze and get free burgers in one place, free pizza in another place. We could live there practically for free.”

In Joshua Tree, jobs were always hard to come by for Tech. Historically, the area has been economically depressed, although he thinks that’s changing. Still, when he was forced out of Yosemite by increasingly stringent park rules in the early 1990s, Tech moved to Joshua Tree full time.

“What happened is they started rigidly enforcing the 14-day (camping) limit on everyone with cars, and there I was with no one to climb with,” Tech said. “So, I went one year just soloing everything I could solo … and then I ran out of stuff I could solo, and I had to come here to get partners.”

Gordon remembers when the park began the 14-day limit on camping because it meant even more visitors to his already popular house.

“All the dirtbags couldn’t stay there, so they kind of had to go somewhere else,” he said of the 30 or so dirtbags who wintered in Joshua Tree National Park’s campgrounds. “Tucker kind of just started hanging out in my house and I started climbing with him; I climbed with them every single weekend for about 10 years.”

Gordon said his hospitality and outgoing personality had already earned him the nickname “The Mayor of Joshua Tree,” a title he finds flattering, if a little silly.

The Joshua Tree climbing community began converging at his house simply because he was the only climber to actually own property in the town and, of course, because he was friendly and easy to get along with. That led to many climbers living part time at Gordon’s house even before the dirtbags moved in.

“Anybody who wanted to could stay there,” Gordon said. “There were two other bedrooms and if you wanted to stay on the sofa, you could. It was great. There was a little donation thing if they did laundry or stayed there. Some people would take money out of it – it was really supposed to be my money, but it ended up being a community thing.”

Gordon doesn’t find this arrangement odd.

“If you’re sitting at a table and you have a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter and you make a sandwich for yourself, you’re going to say ‘You want a sandwich?’ You know?” Gordon said. “That’s one thing about the climbing community – they share everything.”

Gordon and Tech don’t climb together as much as they used to.

Gordon said Tech became “all beat up” in his old age and doesn’t climb as much these days. With Gordon, who can never seem to resist a playful jab at his friend, it’s hard to tell if this is true.

Still, their diverging lifestyles have finally caught up to them.

“He lived in my house, so I saw him every single day,” Gordon said. “But once I got married, he had his own place and everything.”

Gordon’s climbing schedule has shifted now that he’s retired and married with children. Rather than climbing weekends and evenings, he now goes out almost every day with new climbing partners while his kids are in school.

On any given day, Gordon will wake up early and check his calendar amidst the scattered papers on his dining room table for the names of that day’s climbing partners. He’ll sit beside the sign in his kitchen that reads “You’re the friend everyone wishes they had,” and field calls from high school friends he’s still in touch with, musicians from his band, the Mojave Zevon Project, and give climbers directions to the rock face du jour.

And despite his reservations about the arrival of the “social-media climbers,” as he sees many of the newcomers to Joshua Tree, Gordon is always available to climb with people who want to enter the sport.

He keeps a box filled with climbing shoes and harnesses of all sizes to loan out to anyone who expresses an interest in the sport, as well as those he’s successfully roped into climbing with him.

He’ll dismiss objections from the inexperienced while flashing a grin: “You’re a primate, you can climb,” he’ll say, sounding rehearsed. “It’s in your DNA, all you’re missing is a tail.”

To witness Gordon climb is to believe this. It’s as natural as breathing for him. Every movement is fluid and precise, more like swimming up the rock than climbing.

As for the crowds, Gordon said his pioneering spirit keeps them from bothering him, since he’ll go to the places they don’t know about and avoid any rock face that has a group already on it.

“But that doesn’t happen to me,” he said. “If other people are getting up at 6 a.m., we’re getting up at five. I’m always the first one. I don’t like climbing below other parties. It’s really, really dangerous and if they’re slow, they’ll slow you down.”

For Gordon, climbing transcends its designation as a sport.

“There’s a lot more going on than just the climbing,” Gordon said.

“They’re outdoor experiences, they’re mental experiences, they’re spiritual experiences.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Nature’s ASMR: How Deep Listening Could Help Save the Environment

PHOENIX – Saguaros and cardons tower against a soft gray sky as a family of quail tiptoes through the brush. Flowers glisten with raindrops. Under a tree, a man stands motionless. His eyes are closed, and he’s smiling softly.

Garth Paine is listening to Mother Nature.

Paine is an associate professor of digital sound and interactive media at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. He co-leads the Acoustic Ecology Lab, where he studies how sounds can help understand the environment and potentially help predict climate change.

At the Desert Botanical Garden, there are sounds of birds singing, critters tapping and insects chirping. There also are the sounds of cars zooming down Loop 202 and noise from airplanes overhead. These sounds all contribute to what Paine calls the sonic environment of the garden, which is in Papago Park.

Born in Sydney and raised in Tasmania, Paine is infatuated with sound. As a child, he said, he loved going into the wilderness by himself, whiling away the hours watching and listening to the world around him.

He later became a sound engineer for the national broadcasting network in Australia and started composing music with the sounds he recorded in nature.

“Throughout my life wherever I’ve gone in the world, I’ve made time to do field recordings to just kind of sit down, be still for a few hours and listen to the world,” Paine said.

His passion for environmental sounds inspired him to study them as a scientist.

“As somebody who goes out and listens to the environment on a very regular basis, I’ve heard changes in the environment and I’ve felt the changes in the sound quality because you literally feel them with the body, and I’ve been conscious that the acoustic ecology is changing.”

He’s now pioneering multiple projects to help communities understand their own environments through sound, and working to understand how sound could be a tool for predicting changes in the climate.

The Listen(n) Project

Paine spends a lot of time recording in Joshua Tree National Park in California, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona and on other public lands, recording for his music and the Acoustic Ecology Lab.

“It struck me talking to people who live near those places that they were also very concerned about climate change and climate impact and they felt somehow disempowered because they were not in the cities, they couldn’t march in the marches,” he said. “They felt like there wasn’t a lot they could do.”

Thus the Listen(n) Project was born.

Six years ago, Paine and his team began holding listening and field-recording workshops and “soundwalks” in these communities. From those, he recruited a team of citizen scientists to record in the same location every month, and from this work he created the Listen(n) Project.

“That has really empowered people in those communities because they feel they have a role in the stewardship of those lands,” Paine said. “They’re much more conscious about then having something to say about that.”

Almost 50 citizen scientists contribute to Paine’s recordings.

“It’s spiritual. It’s science, and it’s a process of rehumanizing us in an overly technological society,” said Jennifer Kane, who has been a citizen scientist in Joshua Tree National Park since the Listen(n) Project began. Learning how to listen has empowered her understanding of the environment, she said.

This project is ongoing, and Paine and his team continue to conduct listening workshops and train citizen-scientists to contribute data to the EcoSonic Project.

-Video by Chloe Jones/Cronkite News

In field-recording workshops, citizen-scientists are trained to record the outdoors in surround sound. This data is contributed to the EcoSonic Project, and participants can use the recordings however they like. If time permits, Paine will add a workshop on composing music.

A Growing Database of Sound

Originally, the recordings from the Listen(n) Project were used only for music.

“I started to think about how we could use those recordings as a big data set to develop tools that would actually allow us to show transformation (of the ecology of an environment),” Paine said, “and if possible tools that will help use predict impact based solely on sound recordings.”

The EcoSonic Project began two years ago in collaboration with the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, which studies and supports the 30,000-acre McDowell Sonoran Preserve in northeast Scottsdale.

The purpose is to create a psychoacoustic model that can act as a baseline for environmental sound. What sets EcoSonic apart from other psychoacoustic studies is that it focuses on psychoacoustic properties of environmental sound. It looks at preferential sound qualities of natural environments, like reverberation from plants, and looks at ways to maintain these qualities in environments over time.

Paine defines psychoacoustics as the way sound is interpreted in the brain. The problem is that everyone’s brain perceives sound differently.

“Everything we hear is a construction, and this really comes to the core of the phenomenology and of psychoacoustics,” he said. And because everyone interprets sound uniquely, the challenge is measuring these subjective variables in an objective way.

Garth Paine studies the ecology of sound and how it helps us understand our environment. His work currently looks at the potential of sound to help predict climate change. (Photo by Chloe Jones/ Cronkite News)

Paine does this by analyzing sets of recordings, and he listens for various psychoacoustic properties, such as loudness, to create a model showing how these properties change based on, for example, the weather. To graph the data into a model, Paine fed the system information about psychoacoustics and the corresponding weather of those psychoacoustics when they were recorded.

“When I got the first graphing of that data, out of the model I was stunned because I was like, ‘Wow, it’s like so clear,’ like I had not for a second thought that the correlations were going to be so strong.”

To do the first predictions, Paine said, his team fed weather data in the model and asked what the psychoacoustics would be like the next day.

“The 24-hour trends were so close that I literally sat and stared at it for 10 minutes because I was like, this could actually be really powerful,” he said. “It was also a validation of what I’ve felt in my body for a long period of time being out in the world.”

Paine believes what he’s found is a connection between how changes in sound in everything from national parks to cities could be predictors of climate change. That change is heard before it’s seen, he said.

Paine hopes this model eventually will predict psychoacoustics of environments in the far future, and analyzing those sounds could provide information about the physical environment in that future.

A Link Between Sound and Climate

Sonic environments differ depending on the physical environment. A sound reverberates when it bounces off a surface and echoes to another location. Reverberation is more likely to occur off hard surfaces, so an urban environment with concrete and buildings will be much noisier than an environment with lush vegetation, which absorbs sound.

“One of the most exciting parts of what Garth is doing is that he is tapping into a part of the environment that we can’t sense,” said Sharon Hall, an ecosystem and urban ecologist at ASU. Animals, for example, are sensitive to sound and vibration, she said.

“What we don’t know yet is how the things that we’re doing in the environments – they could be slow kinds of changes, like climate change, or it could be kind of fast changes, like urban development,” she said.

But all of those changes, Hall said, will change the sonic environment “in ways that affect animals and even plants that we have no idea about now.”

In downtown Phoenix, for example, the soundscape is rich with noise of vehicles and the light rail; on First Fridays, add music and revelers. These sounds echo off structures to create a louder, busier sonic environment.

Natural sonic environments are more muted, with fewer human noises, and plants absorb a lot of sound. That’s why it’s important to listen.

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Paine said changes in sonic environments potentially could be heard years before corresponding physical changes are apparent.

“We hear things before we see them. … We hear the bird before we see it, but also actually we hear change before we see it,” he said. “Reduction in species count, we can hear that possibly a couple of years before we actually start to be able to count it in the behavior of the environment.”

With his work in the Listen(n) Project and EcoSonic Project, Paine is listening for sonic changes in environments, and hopes to see correspondence with physical changes, and while more time is needed to establish results, Paine said the results so far are promising.

The Power of Listening

Standing beneath a tree in the Desert Botanical Garden, Paine is tranquil.

“That plane is very obvious to us, right?” he asked, pointing to the sky. “The traffic on the freeway over there is also really clear, and what we can hear is that the plane masks the freeway.”

The plant life in the Desert Botanical Garden absorbs sound, Paine said, yet the reverberation from concrete can still be heard.

He talked about the difference between listening at the garden and listening in Joshua Tree before the sun rises, recounting how he lays on the earth there, completely still, completely present. With all of his attention directed toward his listening, Paine said he could hear tiny bat wings flutter, a woodpecker wake up and begin to steadily thrust its beak into wood.

“I like to say that listening makes the world remarkably richer. It really does.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Joshua Tree National Park Celebrates Expansion in a Sea of Blooms

JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK – Joshua Tree National Park is exploding with color after unusually heavy winter rains, just in time to celebrate the park’s expansion.

Right now, visitors can see poppies, bluebells, fiddlenecks, and the huge, white, beehive-like blooms of the park’s famous trees.

A federal bill signed into law earlier this month adds 4,518 acres to Joshua Tree National Park, and increases protection for more than 1 million additional acres elsewhere in California, Utah and New Mexico. Death Valley National Park, which straddles eastern California and Nevada, gets 35,292 new acres under the bill.

Supporters call the legislation a rare political compromise and a victory for wildlife. “It’s really, in this climate, an amazing act of bipartisanship,” said Chris Clarke, California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Wildflowers near Joshua Tree National Park with snowy peaks in the distance, March 22, 2019. (Photo by Bryan Mendez/LAist)

“The plants are larger than usual,” he said during a tour last week. “They’ll flower probably for a longer period and more profusely.”

The new parcels will be transferred to the park from the Bureau of Land Management and the Mojave Desert Land Trust.

Visiting the New Land

To explore one of the new sections of the park, drive up Covington Flat Road from Yucca Valley until you hit a dry riverbed (dry when the skies are blue, at least). Warning: It’s a deeply rutted dirt road. You’ll need clearance, so don’t drive your Prius. Park and hike up the riverbed as far as you like (and bring plenty of water!).

The best wildflowers right now are at the lower elevations of the park near the Cottonwood Visitor Center. If you take the park entrance near that visitor center, off the I-10, you can also avoid the long lines that often build up at the more popular entrance outside the town of Joshua Tree.

When it comes to wildflower selfies, curb your enthusiasm, Joshua Tree spokesman George Land urged. “It’s not a ‘Sound of Music’ moment,” Land said. “Try to resist the temptation to run out and twirl in the middle of [the flowers] so that someone can get you on Instagram.”

Desert ecosystems are fragile. Stay on trails when possible.

A popcorn flower in bloom in the Mojave Desert. (Photo by Bryan Mendez/LAist)

Also, unless you have a reservation, campsites are hard to come by. There are some walk-up sites, but you’d be lucky to snag one, especially on a weekend.

You can also hike in and pitch a tent in several areas of the park, without a reservation (check with a park ranger for details). But you have to be willing to carry your gear at least a mile in and pack out your trash. Plus there are no restrooms (so bring a poop shovel!).

Important reminder: there’s no running water anywhere in the park so you’ll have to stock up before you enter.

National park administrators have no immediate plans for building new amenities like trails or campgrounds on the new land additions, Land said. But he noted that the legislation allows the park to acquire land for a new visitor center, which will help accommodate the increasing stream of tourists.

Land said close to three million people visited Joshua Tree last year — more than double the number of visitors in 2011, when he started working at the park. “We’ve been discovered,” he said.

No Development. Ever. Permanently.

The Covington Flat area, one of the new park additions, has long been a popular hiking spot among locals. Until recently, it was also a popular playground for off-road vehicles, and the area has been explored as a potential location for housing. As part of the national park, off-road vehicles will be prohibited and the land will be permanently protected from development.

Stephanie Dashiell, project director of energy and land use for The Nature Conservancy, said wildlife stands to benefit most from increased protection in the newly added parklands. Canyons and washes provide a passageway for animals to cross from the higher elevations of the park into the Morongo Basin, which spreads out below it.

“Since I live close by, I can affirmatively say I have seen bobcats use this, and I’ve seen coyotes all the time,” she said, standing in a riverbed that is part of the park’s new territory.

A pencil cholla near Covington Flat, one of the areas newly added to Joshua Tree National Park under a 2019 federal bill. (Photo by Bryan Mendez/LAist)

Desert flora will also benefit. Wildflower blooms suffer when fragile desert landscapes are disturbed, for example, by vehicles and footsteps, according to Naomi Fraga, director of conservation programs at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. “A lot of invasive plants move in and they can outcompete [native] plants,” she said. Plus, wildflowers attract butterflies and other pollinators, and desert tortoises, which eat the flowers.

A flowering Joshua tree. (Photo by Bryan Mendez/LAist)

How the Legislation Happen?

Clarke, from the National Parks Conservation Association, said the California portion of the bill has been in the works for more than a decade.

With increasing development pressure on desert lands, conservationists developed a broad agenda for protecting key areas. The bill sailed through Congress — at a time of heightened partisan bickering — because stakeholders, including energy firms, housing developers and environmentalists, had been hashing out compromises for years.

‘Our stories need to be told’: Grand Canyon park enlisting Native input as it marks 100 years

FLAGSTAFF – The Grand Canyon, carved by water over millions of years, is a geologic wonder that has inspired poets to dream and scientists to ponder. Most of us are lucky to visit once or twice in a lifetime.

But for several Native American tribes, the Grand Canyon is their home.

“Most Americans think Native Americans are gone, but we’re still here,” said Carletta Tilousi, a Havasupai Tribal Council member who grew up in the Grand Canyon. “I’d like them to know that this was a home – is the home – of Native Americans, and our stories need to be told.”

In the late 1800s, the federal government sequestered the Havasupai to a side canyon until 1975, when they were given back some of their ancestral land.

The Desert View Watchtower is made of steel, concrete and stone. As temperatures fluctuate, the steel contracts and expands while masonry stays put and cracks. The park has hired conservators to address the issue. (Photo by Laurel Morales/KJZZ)

“It’s been a really long, bitter relationship with the park,” Tilousi said. “The park forcefully removed my family, my great aunts and my great grandfather. And that really made me personally very angry as a child.”

Today, the National Park Service is required to consult with tribes when making changes that might have an impact on their land or their people.

Grand Canyon National Park celebrates its centennial next year. To mark the occasion, the National Park Service is working with 11 tribes traditionally associated with the canyon to tell their stories, converting the Desert View scenic overlook and watchtower from a traditional visitor-services area into an cultural heritage site.

“I think Havasupai, we’ve been ignored for a long time and not given the opportunity to voice our concerns on lands that were occupied by our family members,” Tilousi said.

Only in the past decade has Tilousi been willing to sit down with park staff members. In those meetings, tribal leaders have asked the park for an opportunity to tell their stories.

When the concessionaire Xanterra Travel Collection dropped Desert View Watchtower from its contract three years ago, former Grand Canyon Superintendent Dave Uberuaga invited tribal leaders to help park officials design a cultural heritage site there.

“What is really forward-thinking … about this project is the way that the relationship is changing,” said Jenn O’Neill, partnerships and planning coordinator for Grand Canyon National Park.

Mary Coulter designed many of the buildings at Grand Canyon National Park, including the Desert View Watchtower in 1932. Coulter said the structure is not a copy of any one tower, but her take on the towers erected by ancient puebloans of the Colorado Plateau. (Photo by Laurel Morales/KJZZ)

“Recent superintendents have used those other authorities available to them to change the conversation (with tribal leaders) to do more listening and less speaking, and to really build the trust. I mean, this whole project is propped up on trust that we will do what we say we will do.”

In addition to providing a venue to tell their own stories, the National Park Service also wanted to preserve existing cultural treasures, including Hopi artist Fred Kabotie’s murals inside the watchtower, which serves as the park’s eastern entrance. Architect Mary Colter modeled the steel and stone structure after towers erected by ancestral puebloan people of the Colorado Plateau. Built in 1932, it now is a National Historic Landmark.

“Every time I come in here, I see something new that I never saw before,” O’Neill said.

With the help of a grant, she said, the park hired conservators to clean the Kabotie artwork.

“They have spent the last three years cleaning with Q-tips and brushes every square inch of the murals,” she said.

Once the intertribal cultural heritage program is up and running, O’Neill hopes the rest of the park will follow suit.

“We don’t want to dispatch all things Native to the farthest corner of the park,” she said. “We want to create a program that works and is sustainable and then it will move into the larger park,” giving Native Americans a greater presence throughout.

Mable Franklin, who is Navajo, sees the heritage site at Desert View as a positive step.

“We actually are going to have a voice in the Grand Canyon again, and that’s one of the things I like about this heritage site,” Franklin said, although she’d like to see more.

Park officials only let Native artists sell their artwork under strict regulations. Artists are limited to selling only the crafts they’ve shown visitors how to create in cultural demonstrations.

“We would like to see our communities put their wares and generate revenue from that because in our community we have a lot of people that are vendors and that’s their way of life and that sustains them out here,” Franklin said.

For now, she hopes the 6 million annual visitors to Grand Canyon National Park will consider taking a side trip to Cameron Trading Post, about 30 miles east on the Navajo Nation, where artists earn a living selling their work.

Think you can escape pollution by going to a national park? Think again

LOS ANGELES – Mountains. Forests. Starry nights. Smog? Sadly, yes: The air in two popular national parks in California is as dirty as it is in Los Angeles — the smoggiest city in the country.

“When you think of national parks, you think of these as being really pristine areas, almost areas you want to go to get out of cities,” said David Keiser, an economist at Iowa State University, who co-authored new research, published Wednesday in Science Advances

“But in many ways, the airquality conditions are just the same there as they are in cities today.”


The dirt on dirty air

From 1993 to 2014, Los Angeles racked up 2,443 days in which air quality was so bad it violated federal safety standards for smog, also called ground-level ozone.

But Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks – a wonderland of rocky cliffs, icy mountain lakes and gigantic trees just east of Fresno – had even more smoggy days: 2,739.

Joshua Tree National Park was almost as bad, with 2,301 days.

“It’s a common misperception that because a place is labeled as a national park, there’s boundaries erected around it that prevent air pollution,” said Stephanie Kodish, head of the clean-air and climate program at the National Parks Conservation Association. There aren’t.

Where the pollution comes from

Both parks are downwind of the most air-polluted area in the country:

In Joshua Tree, the pollution blows in all the way from the Los Angeles Basin.

In Sequoia and Kings Canyon, it comes from big farms in the Central Valley and cities like Bakersfield, Fresno and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Smog – ground-level ozone and airborne particulates – forms when sunlight reacts with a volatile organic compound and nitrogen oxide from vehicle exhaust, power plants and factories. Volatile organic compounds are common in household products and fuels.

But in cities, air quality improves overnight. It doesn’t as much in nature, according to Annie Esperanza, the air-resources specialist for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

In urban areas during the day, nitrogen-oxide emissions contribute to smog. But at night, with the absence of sunlight, nitrogen oxide switches sides to help break down ozone, so that by morning, the air is cleaner.

But in national parks and other less-populated areas, there aren’t as many sources of nitrogen oxide around at night to break down the ozone. That’s because there are fewer people driving, so smog lingers day and night.

For healthy adults, high levels of ozone can make it hard to breathe, cause wheezing or respiratory infections.

One study found that breathing smoggy air for a day or two increased the risk of heart attacks for middle-aged adults without heart disease. And many studies have found hospital visits for heart and lung problems go up on days when air pollution is bad.

It’s even worse for kids and the elderly.

Fading from view

Beyond the health effects, smoggy days in national parks are just a bummer because they make it harder to see the epic vistas visitors came for.

Esperanza says on a clear day, you should be able to see more than 100 miles from an overlook on Sequoia and Kings Canyon’s steep, winding entrance road.

“When visibility is obscured, you can maybe see 25 to 30 miles,” she said.

Know before you go

The parks with the worst air quality try to warn visitors about air quality through Twitter handles, such as @SequoiaKingsAir.

You can also check air quality here. Just enter the name of the park you want to to visit, or click on it on the map, and real-time air-quality data will pop up.

These warnings may be working, because the researchers found that fewer people visit parks on smoggy days.

“It turns out a 1 percent increase in ozone levels results in a 1 percent decrease in visitation,” Keiser said.

Is the air quality improving in national parks?

Yes, but not as quickly as in other places.

Since the early 1990s, LA and other cities have made huge gains in cleaning up the air. But air pollution in national parks remains stubbornly bad.

Keiser, the Iowa State researcher, and his co-authors found that between 1993 and 2014, the average number of bad air days in U.S. cities fell from 53 to 18 days a year. Meanwhile, the number of smoggy days in national parks didn’t fall as much: from 27 in 1993 to 16 in 2014.

That means, as of 2014, national parks were nearly as smoggy as U.S. cities.

Part of the reason for the slower progress in national parks is that, for a long time, regulatory agencies weren’t focused on parks. A 1999 EPA regulation called the Regional Haze Program requires states to clean up the air in national parks, but it didn’t take effect until 2007, so there just hasn’t been as much time for things to improve.

“You have a longer history of targeting sources of pollution that have an effect on public health,” Kodish said. “It’s more recent that there have been targeted efforts to clean up pollution that’s harming parks.”

In other words, things that improve air quality for people living in cities – like forcing big emitters such as refineries to install modern pollution controls – may not work for the rural places where smog gets carried.