Appreciating the Subtleties of Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent Mark Butler, credit National Park Service
Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent Mark Butler, credit National Park Service

Mark Butler patrolled the winding mountain trails of Yosemite National Park’s backcountry as a National Park Service Wilderness Ranger fresh out of high school. It was a life changing experience for Butler, who was captivated by the beauty of Yosemite, the challenge of the work, and the satisfaction he gained from helping people explore remote wilderness. For 33 years after that summer job, Mark went on to serve the National Park Service in an incredibly diverse array of jobs ranging from maintenance worker, carpenter and utility system operator. He also worked as a physical scientist, environmental compliance manager, and Chief of the Division of Project Management at Yosemite National Park, before finally moving to his current position as Superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park.

“The different positions I’ve held have given me the ability to understand a wide variety of interests and concerns that come from park partners, visitors and staff,” reflected Butler. “Because of this broad perspective, I can work to promote partnerships, reconcile differences between park divisions, and provide balanced leadership.” Joshua Tree National Park has benefited from Butler’s exemplary leadership since he was appointed Superintendent in February 2011.

Superintendent Butler enjoys Joshua Tree National Park’s historic and cultural sites like the Key’s Desert Queen Ranch and the Wall Street Mill. He also finds the ecology of the Mojave/Sonoran Desert transition zone fascinating and is amazed by the diversity and beauty of the park’s oases. He is also impressed by Joshua Tree’s outstanding recreational opportunities and its reputation as a world-class climbing destination.

“As a rock climber, I have really enjoyed the rock formations in the Wonderland of Rocks,” says Butler. “But what’s really incredible about Joshua Tree National Park is that because it has such an open landscape hikers can explore almost anywhere, providing that they are well prepared and respectful of the desert ecology.”

One highlight during Superintendent Butler’s tenure at Joshua Tree National Park was a tour he gave to then Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, to Cap Rock and Hidden Valley. There the Secretary developed a connection with Joshua Tree National Park’s fragile and intense desert landscape. Following this tour, Butler arranged for the Secretary to hear from Basin residents, and local families of active duty Marines, about the importance of the park. “Hearing Basin residents and families express their appreciation for the park was very inspirational,” recalls Butler. Another memorable occasion was an evening hike to White Tank with his wife, Cathy. “There was a full moon rising and we were in awe of the beauty of the desert,” says Butler.

Superintendent Butler thinks that one of the most important resources of Joshua Tree National Park is the ecological diversity of the transition zone between the Colorado and Mojave Desert portions of the park. The park’s vast Joshua Tree forests are also iconic and unique.

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park

“One of the things that I find most interesting about Joshua Tree National Park is the subtleness of the place. On the surface it looks very harsh and very threatening, but when you look at it more closely, you can really discover a tremendous amount of fragility and beauty,” says Butler. “At first glance people think the desert is a harsh, barren and lifeless landscape, but in reality, it’s not. I really think that all park visitors can benefit greatly by attending a park interpretive program or a Desert Institute class to be introduced to and learn more about the desert. This will help them begin to understand and appreciate it.” Butler believes that because there is general lack of understanding about the desert, there has been a long history of threats to Joshua Tree National Park.

“One of the key challenges facing the park comes from the increasing level of large-scale urban and industrial development occurring adjacent to the park’s boundary,” said Butler. Development along the park’s boundary is a concern because it can lead to fragmentation and disruption of wildlife habitat and wildlife migration corridors, resulting in increased levels of genetic isolation among the park’s desert dwelling animals, like mountain lion, coyote, bobcat, bighorn sheep, mule deer and numerous varieties of insects, arachnids, and birds. Development immediately adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park may also be a significant factor in how the park responds to climate change, especially if wildlife corridors that give animals room to roam in order to find food, water, shelter and mates are impeded. Butler concludes that because of these ongoing threats it will be very important for the park to continue to work proactively with all communities on its boundary and within the region to encourage land use and development policies that can help protect the park.

“I think that so much of what has threatened the Joshua Tree National Park in the past is the consequence of people not having visited and experienced its wonder,” says Butler. “A majority of the visitors to the park quickly become desert lovers who appreciate the uniqueness of the landscape and are interested in seeing it protected. They are a key part of the solution by ensuring that this place is preserved and protected for present and future generations.”

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