5. Cultural Landscapes
Ian: Where Two Deserts Meet is an official podcast of Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree National Park acknowledges the Serrano, Cahuilla, Mojave, and Chemehuevi people as the original stewards of the land on which the park now sits. We are grateful to have the opportunity to work with the indigenous people in this place. We pay our respects to the people past, present, and emerging who have been here since time in.
Ian: Hello, I'm Ian.
Donovan: And I'm Donovan.
Ian: And we're both park rangers here at Joshua Tree National Park. Where Two Deserts Meet is a podcast where we investigate topics that often require a bit more detail and sometimes the help of an expert in the field to gain perspective. Through interviews and investigation, we bring you the unique details, research, and stories that make Joshua Tree National Park remark. Speaking of, what is remarkable is the number of cultural landscapes that reside within Joshua Tree National Park that most visitors don't know about. Now, I know the idea of a cultural landscape probably sounds pretty unfamiliar to most people. Imagine if you were told that even just driving through the park for an hour, you likely passed multiple cultural landscapes. You'd probably wonder if you missed that part of the park map.
Donovan: I mean, even just talking about it, I'm starting to think that I might have missed one or two here and there on the park map as well. Could I drop a finger randomly on the park map and it would be part of a cultural landscape? Is Hidden Valley a cultural landscape? Skull rock, even Oyster Bar. Okay. Well, sometimes it just feels like every time when I'm explained to what cultural landscapes are, there's always more to unpack.
Ian: All right. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. I totally understand. Cultural landscapes may be confusing at first, but they are certainly important to the National Park Service, and that's because the spaces where the works of nature and humans combine provide a sense of place and identity. They map our relationship with the land, yet the subtle details are not as easy to find as one may think. An important sign of Joshua Tree National Park's history is the historical structures and artifacts found tucked within the rocks and the different areas of the park provide diverse resources, often causing human life to gather in areas that provide essential needs, leaving behind vast amounts of historical evidence. This evidence on the landscape can take many forms. A common one within Joshua Tree National Park is homesteads and the large amounts of materials used in mining operations that may have been left hidden within the land where Joshua Tree National Park exists.
Donovan: Wait a second. Ian, you are telling me that if I go wandering through the park, I might come across some historical treasure. Last I check, the visitor centers don't have treasure maps.
Ian: All right. why well, yes, but no. Well, one of the amazing things about cultural landscapes is the collection of archeological evidence. They hold those artifacts and items. Are more than just historic trash. They also have significance by simply being within the context in which they are found. That context is an essential part of what a cultural landscape is. While there is no secret treasure or map, even a simple hike on a trail found on the park map can reveal hidden stories.
Donovan: And of course, if you do find something, you must leave it where you found it. In order to preserve that context. For example, visitors could potentially come across a surely useless rusty can in a seemingly random part of the park. But what a lot of people don't realize is that that can has been left there on purpose. That's because that can, being left where it was last used provides context as to who might have used that area before. It reminds me of one of those most common principles of leave no trace, which is take only pictures, leave only footprints. This not only applies to natural resources, but cultural and historical ones as well.
Ian: Totally. And with Joshua Tree National Park's vast history, there are quite a few cultural landscapes found within the park, but you know what? We should talk to Joshua Tree National Park's very own historical landscape architect, Genna, she's awesome and will have a lot to share on this subject.
Genna: I'm Genna Mason Bjornstad. I'm a historical landscape architect at the park here, and I'm the lead for the Historic Preservation program. A cultural landscape is a place that represents an important thing in history. It could be associated with a person. It could be associated with an event in history or could be representative of a design, a theme in Joshua Tree. We have quite a few cultural landscapes that are associated with the mining that took place in the park. There's the Lost Horse historic Mining District. There's the Northern Pinion Historic Mining District. There's the Pinion Mountain Mining District. There's also the Keys Ranch Historic District, which is associated with the mining, but it's more of a habitation site where there was a family living and home studying. Here we have five that are currently documented with a cultural landscape inventory. We have two more cultural landscape inventories in the works right now, and there are many other cultural landscapes within the park too that have not been fully documented, but have been recorded either as archeological sites or parts of them, but we'll get there.
Ian: All right, let's quickly break all that down. Defining a cultural landscape is all about looking at the interaction of historical or manmade resources and the chunks of natural landscapes they exist in and even possibly change with their presence. It takes a lot of work to determine where the cultural landscape ends and the natural and largely undisturbed landscape begins. This process of defining helps to identify things like developments, significance, natural register of historic places, and other valuable information. The landscapes can illustrate many things though, and they can even paint out broad patterns of American history that are more recent than people may imagine, like Mission 66 architecture.
Genna: Mission 66 historic districts that incorporate areas of development from the Mission 66 building program time when throughout the park service there was a lot of construction going on in development in national parks to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the Organic act. And in Joshua Tree, we have the Cottonwood Mission 66 Historic District, which incorporates the Cottonwood Ranger Station and the housing area and the campground as well. And also our entrance monuments are from the Mission 66 era entrance monuments.
Ian: Do you mean the signs that everyone likes to take their picture in front of?
Genna: Yes. We are kind of inventorying everything that's associated with that historic period. or even the things that aren't associated with it, just so that we can understand what's in that landscape altogether. And you know, the cultural landscape inventory itself is kind of a framework for standardizing and identifying what is within that landscape we are looking for. The NPS has identified 13 different characteristics that are part of a cultural landscape that can kind of incorporate everything that is in there. It includes circulation networks, like roads and trails. It includes natural systems and features, the topography, buildings and structures, constructed water features. Vegetation, that's an important one for cultural landscapes. Small scale features, the archeological sites, the cultural traditions. That's one that can be a little bit less obvious on the landscape. The arrangement, the cluster arrangement of things on the landscape too. Views and vistas, and social organization and land use. Some of these kind of overlap a little bit. Landscapes…as small as just the landscape around a house, for example. Or it can be a whole neighborhood, a whole mining district. I think the Lost Horse historic mining district is over 8,000 acres. There's a lot out there and there's a lot of different features that take a while to access because you have to hike to all of them. Well, some of them you can drive to, but it involves a lot of data organization too and keeping track. What we've looked at, where we've been and a lot of research to make sure that we're identifying things that are historic versus things that are not historic. What is actually associated with that period in time. The period of significance and what has been added afterward. The rule of thumb is that if it's fifty years or older, we need to evaluate it for historic significance which the significance can be one or more of the four criteria. If it's associated with an important person in history, an important event. If it has the potential to yield future data, like archeological information or a historic style of design or a method of construction. If it's representative of that, and of course some of these things can, some historic buildings or cultural landscapes can be associated with more than one of these criteria.
Ian: Keeping a comprehensive inventory of all historically significant landscapes is very important to the National Park Service. The information from the service-wide cultural landscape inventory, or CLI, is useful at all levels of the Park Service. If we zoom out to a national or regional perspective, it's useful for planning efforts and budget decisions. On a park to park level, it helps managers plan and prioritize projects and how to spend funds. It also serves as a record of management decisions and helps with informing and enhancing interpretive programs like Joshua Trees Keys Ranch Tour. Now, while the Keys Ranch is a set of historical structures that you actually need a Ranger guided tour to visit, there are an abundance of others located inside the park.
Genna: We have a lot. We have just around 200 that are fully documented, but there are a lot more out there too and for historic structures. We're talking about anywhere from a full building, like for example, the Black Rock Nature Center, which is a young historic building all the way to a small retaining wall that could be along a historic road that is now used as a trail in the park. There are a lot of things involved in maintaining the historic structures in the park. Research and understanding the history of those structures and how they've been maintained to this point is a really important factor in that. And working together with other divisions to try to make sure that we're taking care of these things appropriately. And then also we do a lot of preservation projects. For example, out at Keys Ranch, we do a lot of stabilization work on the fences and the structures. The buildings out there understanding the full history. Why it's there, how it was constructed, what it was constructed with, who made it, and what's changed since it was constructed. Those are all important things to be thinking in informing us about how we can continue to take care of them. And it's all part of the integrity, the historic integrity of these features. The integrity is kind of the authenticity. How accurate is it today to how it was historically for that period of signific.
Donovan: Now, if we had the opportunity to put visitors who come to Joshua Tree National Park into a time machine, we would show them a cultural landscape in its historic state, but we don't have a time machine, so preservation is the next best thing, and that is exactly what Genna is here to do. Her work has allowed us to, well, let's just say change the clock of time.
Genna: There are four treatment types and that's throughout the whole NPS that are called out in the secretary of the interior standards for the treatment of historic properties, and they include preservation, which I also use as the blanket term for all of these. So don't be confused. There's rehabilitation, there's reconstruction, and there's restoration. If you think of these as a clock, that's a good example that they use in historic preservation school, a lot preservation. As that clock is moving forward, we're constantly moving it back to a certain time, and hopefully it's just small adjustments that don't have to happen often. That clock is going to move forward a lot faster, and then suddenly we have to really shift it back. For rehabilitation, we're moving that clock forward a little bit. We're adapting that location or that building to modern uses. Still, this happens a lot when it's a structure that we're building or a cultural landscape that we are using for modern day uses like a visitor center. There are a lot of historic visitor centers in the National Park Service, and they have to be compliant with modern standards for accessibility or for IT equipment, things like that. There are some adjustments that have to be made. Then there's restoration. You're moving that clock back pretty drastically. Restoration is when you're removing those things from the landscape that have been added after that period of significance to restore it to its historic appearance. And then reconstruction. This is where we've completely lost the clock, and we need to create a totally new clock that looks and acts just like the old. So maybe it's lost a fair amount of that authenticity, but at least we still have something that is representative of it. Overall, we use preservation the most, and it definitely depends on the cultural landscape or the site that we're working on. Actually, most of our cultural landscapes are preservation treatment. Even within a building or a cultural landscape, you can have more than one of those preservation treatment types. A lot of times zones will be called out for addressing needs in a certain area. At Key's Ranch we have the visitor access road and then the parking area. And that is an area that we treat differently than the main Ranch complex, which is predominantly preservation efforts, but the access road in the parking area is more of a rehabilitation. We need to have a vault toilet there. We need to be able to take care of visitor needs out there too. We use the preservation treatment on most of the structures at Keys Ranch. We're trying to stabilize existing fence lines or stabilizing the buildings out there for the visitor access to the site. That area where we drive through and park and there's a vault toilet that's not historic. That would be rehabilitation. We don't have many examples, if any, of reconstruction. I think that it's a treatment that is much less frequently used than it was at one time. But for example, out at Keys Ranch, there was an Adobe barn that used to be in front of the machine shed, and it started to collapse throughout the Keys occupancy of the site. It was in pretty poor shape, if not completely collapsed by the time that the Park Service acquired the location. We have chosen to not reconstruct the Adobe barn. For a while, there was kind of a little camper trailer and another little road section that was added to the center of the ranch complex for a caretaker to camp at. That was not historic so that was later removed. That is an example of restoration.
Donovan: Okay. So just to review, we have: Preservation, which is stopping the clock or turning it back slightly in order to view something in its state of historical significance. Rehabilitation is moving that clock slightly forward. An example of this would be bringing an older building up to code for modern use. Restoration is moving that clock back drastically, attempting to restore something's historical appearance. And lastly, reconstruction, which is essentially creating a whole new thing, but it can still represent a particular time in history and its uses preservation adaptations over time, but it must in order to overcome new obstacles and challenges.
Genna: Because we're often trying to mimic the processes of maintaining a structure or a landscape that would've been happening naturally if people still lived there. Say for example, when the keys family was at this location, they would've had animals grazing. Those animals would've been trimming back vegetation because they're eating the vegetation. We don't have as many critters. We certainly don't have livestock out at the park eating that vegetation. We have to go in and mechanically remove some of the vegetation or trim it back so that there's a distance between the shrubs or the trees and the structure.
Ian: However, mechanical removal, as Jenna mentioned, can be a tricky task for areas of the park that are considered wilderness. In many of our heads, there exists an idea of wilderness that offers escape from the bustling development of the surrounding areas. One where visitors are rewarded with dark night skies, amazing views, natural, quiet, diverse floor, flora and fauna, and the opportunities for adventure. As charming as that may be, there's actually a legal definition and method for designating lands as wilder. All right, so here's a quick lesson on wilderness. Wilderness areas are the most protected public lands in America. They were created by the Wilderness Act of 1964, and its newly established category of federally managed public lands. Wilderness can be managed by not just the National Park Service, but also the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Fish and Wildlife Services, and the United States Forest Service. The idea was that wilderness areas would forever be preserved as large roadless tracks where mechanized vehicles and equipment were not permitted, where evidence of modern human occupation would not be allowed. And where future development would not be considered. However, today only about 5% of the entire United States is protected as wilderness. About 85% of Joshua Tree National Park is managed as wilderness. While historic structures that may attract visitation are not generally recommended for wilderness areas, their presence does not make an area ineligible for designation. They do, however, make historic preservation an interesting task to say the least.
Genna: One of the major differences in how we treat those structures and landscapes is just that we can't use mechanized tools out there. We can't access these with vehicles or with helicopters, things like that, unless absolutely necessary. There's a whole process of the minimum requirements analysis that we go through to determine whether or not one of the prohibited uses in wilderness is justifiable. It is kind of cool that it really encourages us to use some of the more traditional construction methods out at these locations too. If we're doing a preservation or stabilization treatment, we're using hand tools, which takes some skill. I don't think that we see as much reconstruction happening in the park service as a treatment, but more of the preservation and trying to just maintain the existing fabric. A historic building or a site, but it is definitely situational. Every historic structure or cultural landscape has a different treatment plan and approach overall, and that there's a lot involved in determining the course of moving forward with those.
Donovan: Conserving these historical structures has adapted over the years, but unfortunately, sometimes treatments or methods can only go so far along with many other fields in conservation. There are several issues these cultural landscapes face.
Genna: There are a lot of layers to this question. First of all, we have just the passage of time and kind of the wear and tear that happens from just general weathering to exposure to things decay change over time and that's kind of the broad catch all. Within that, we have pest management issues. There's a lot of really active termites out here. Other things that we deal with out here are kind of the extreme weather conditions. In a desert, we have an extreme climate to begin with, but then with climate change, everything is accelerating and we're having more drastic windstorms and sporadic torrential rainstorms that can do a lot of damage really quickly. I think in our park specifically, it's kind of challenging to measure the effects of climate change so far because we don't necessarily see sea level rise or something like that, where it's a real obvious measure of that climate change happening. Some of the other things that we deal with are visitors as well. One person can do a lot of damage, whether they know that they're doing damage or if it's completely unintentional. Another thing that we deal with that could impact and does impact our historic structures. The wildfires can also contribute to that…once a fire goes through an area. Then if we get heavy rains, a slope could just completely wash out. Up in the Lost Horse historic mining district, there are a lot of very steep slopes up there and a wildfire went through quite a few years ago at this point. And so, there's a lot of vegetation that's grown back, but maybe not as much as there was pre-fire still. And I was up there just a few months ago and, after a rainstorm, had noticed that there was a lot of sediment that had moved down slope and is now resting against one of our historic structures up there. It's one of those things that could be kind of difficult to notice unless you have a knowledge of that location or information about it; photos, evidence that of what the conditions were. And that's another thing that we do to maintain these sites is monitor the conditions. We are constantly, going back to locations and recording the conditions, looking at whether or not there are impacts to the site. If there were previously noted impacts, like pests or increased visitation to a site, we're looking at if there's a change, if there's new impacts, anything like that, we try to think of all the potential factors that could be affecting these locations, but I'm sure we're missing some. For example, with the issue with termites, generally higher temperatures, maybe the termites aren't going dormant for as long. I'm not an entomologist, so I don't know but it's one of those things that I think about and wonder are there are going to be effects on these things that we're just not thinking of right now, that I don't know about, or that could be really difficult to observe or measure unless there's some sort of specialist out there.
Ian: As we start to get an idea of all the different environmental and wildlife considerations Genna must take into account for her preservation work, it feels a bit overwhelming, but at her core, Genna, like all of us here at Joshua Tree, is an admirer of all life and beauty in the park.
Genna: Look at about the little tiny flowers.
Genna: It's a lot blooming.
Ian: Yeah. This is actually coming out better than I thought.
Genna: Oh, I can't remember what these guys are called. They're super cool though.
Donovan: We walked around the Keys Ranch for about two hours. The Keys Ranch property where tours are held, sits on 80 acres, but the Cultural Landscape Index recognizes 1038 acres of land that is associated with the Keys family stretching from the Hidden Valley area all the way to Queen Mountain. As we walked through the ranch, Jenna pointed out intricate details that we wouldn't have noticed without her. There, she showed us hidden fixtures added to prevent the wind from opening doors and even the tiniest nails that have been added to keep the wooden planks on their frames. This collection of historical artifacts and structures is an important and complex project to handle, especially with the amount of wood being exposed to extreme weather such as snowstorms, triple digit temperatures, and mighty winds. Yet some areas still look just like the old photographs.
Genna: Yeah. So historically people would've used linseed oil to condition the wood, and it helps protect it from weathering and linseed oil, when used repeatedly, it can have kind of a photo reaction and turn really dark. Now, what we have been trying tongue oil, which is very similar but it doesn't have quite the photo reaction, and so it doesn't turn as dark. And we mix it with the citrus solvent to help paint it onto the wood surfaces, and that helps condition it and kind of breathe some new life into the wood. The schoolhouse and the guest house both have full treatments of a tongue oil application on them. The main house, parts of it used to be painted. You can still see some of that remnant green paint on there, but we have not conditioned the wood on the main house recently. And another treatment that we do on wood specifically where it has contact with the ground is borate treatment, which deterred termites and they help protect from some of the fungus or microbes that could be eating away at the wood, rotting the wood. We did have an issue once where we were putting new glazing putty on some of the windows, doing some preservation work, and we left the windows out on sawhorses, they were totally flat. The next day when we came out, there were all of these little bite marks on the putty, and there were little paw prints all over the glass, and it looked like a ringtail cat had been super curious and gotten into it. which was like, "oh no! All of our work has been ruined." But also, this is really cool.
Donovan: On my tour, I use a photo of Bill Key standing next to the main house to show how well the structure has been preserved. But some other structures, unfortunately, aren't as easy to be preserved. One that is constantly battling forceful winds is the outhouse located near the guest house. This past year, it was pushed over twice by strong winds causing the wood to break and shatter.
Genna: Some material that was already delicate, it can't withstand the forces of the winds that we're having these days. After we tipped it back up initially, that second windstorm came through. Unfortunately, it wasn't secured any more than it had been before and so it fell over again. And now, looking at it now, there's a few boards and some material that we're going to have to replace because it's completely broken and rotted. I think that climate change is definitely a factor here. The accelerated deterioration that can be caused by high winds and extreme weather events that we're seeing more frequently.
Ian: Like the passage of time or the movement of wind across the valley. We were starting to get the idea that these landscapes are constantly undergoing shifts and changes.
Genna: Yeah. Understanding that a landscape is not static, that it's constantly changing. There are those rapid changes where we are constructing things or a fire comes through and drastically changes the what's on the landscape. But there's also those subtle changes over time and in preservation, we're trying to kind of pause that clock and inhibit the change, I guess you could say. But approaching a cultural landscape, looking at it as this place that can really teach us and help us connect with the past that these places represent the history that we might not otherwise understand and appreciate. As a visitor coming to the park, we carry our own experience and our own expectations and our own thoughts on what it is to drive through a national park and see a place. If we go to a cultural landscape like Keys Ranch, we can hopefully think about how the people who once lived here experienced this place; That there wasn't a big main paved road out there. There wasn't cell service outside of the park, let alone inside, which we don't have. There is a completely different experience in understanding and expectations that were carried by the people who lived here.
Ian: Historic preservation offers us a chance to use a different lens and ask ourselves important questions like what is important in our history and what parts of our past can we preserve for the future? However, the lessons we can draw from the field often go further. It can be used as a tool to learn important aspects about ourselves and transmit our understanding of the past to future generations. In fact, Genna's work in the field of cultural landscapes informs thoughtful reflection on teachings from the…
Genna: From the historic preservation perspective, reusing and rehabilitating historic buildings has a lower impact on the environment overall than constructing a new location. I think looking at these historic sites can teach us a lot about living on the landscape with a small footprint. Something that visitors can take home from experiencing these sites is just the self reliance that people have had throughout time in fairly recent history too. I think a lot of the human ingenuity too. It's a lot easier for us to go to the grocery store and just buy some food rather than put in a lot of labor and time and care to grow it ourselves. We don't manipulate the landscape on our own property as much to collect our own water we rely on different sources. It's a part of what makes this place special, and it's unique and it's also very unique that it's being preserved as such. There are things that we might not even think about now that in the future we'll be able to look back on at these places and understand humans and how we've lived, how we've survived, how we've thrived at different times and places. We can look at these landscapes that we drive through in our fast cars on paved roads, and it's easy to forget that not too long ago people were relying on horses and carriages, mules and burrows to get around on these dirt roads or paths. I think remembering our recent history is really important. Part of what makes us human. I think one of the biggest things that people can do to help is to simply observe these places when they're experiencing them, to leave everything as they see it and take photos and take those memories with them. Stop and think and appreciate the place as it is. Take it in.
Donovan: With so many cultural landscapes within the park, it's almost impossible to visit Joshua Tree National Park without coming across one. While these spaces have a lot to offer, it's important to recognize that they need our help. They need us to give back just as much as they have given us to help preserve these historical places and their stories, we must take only photos and leave only footprints. Leaving historical items in their original context is essential to their preservation. Of course, all this talk about Desert Queen Ranch might inspire you to hop in your car and drive there during your visit to the park. But in order to help protect these spaces, it is important to consider what methods are utilized to help preserve them for future generations to enjoy. Rules and regulations are important tools of historical preservation. With that in mind, the Keys Ranch is closed to the public unless accompanied by a ranger. For more information on how to reserve a ranger-led tour, please visit our park's website. Where Two Deserts Meet is an official production of Joshua Tree National Park, co-hosted and written by Ian Chadwick and Donovan Smith, produced and edited by Donovan Smith. We would like to extend special things to Genna Mason Bjornstad for taking the time to talk with us. Sharon Lee Hart for letting us use her artwork titled Split as the Cover Art for Where two Deserts Meet and Bar Stool for their songs. Slow Lane Lover. Lockley Fells, and Feather Soft. For more information about the park and how to reserve a tour, please visit our park website at www.nps.gov/jotr. Happy trails.
In this episode of Where Two Deserts Meet we set out with Historical Landscape Architect Genna Mason-Bjornstad. With her guidance, we investigate how history can be traced across the landscape, the methods and efforts that go into protecting it, and how preserving these historic sites can help us learn from the past.