Joshua Tree National Park, in southern California's Mojave Desert, is recognized worldwide for its austere beauty, wilderness character, and surreal trees that are its namesake.
Soon it may also be recognized as the next-door neighbor of the world's largest landfill.
After a decade of debate, Riverside County officials are poised to a vote on whether to allow the 2,000-acre Eagle Mountain Landfill to be constructed in and around an open-pit mine surrounded on three sides by the park. The landfill would take up to 20,000 tons of solid waste from the Los Angeles area each day.
The Eagle Mountain controversy, underscores a growing problem: Whether it involves landfills abutting parks or shopping malls cropping up next to Civil War battlefields, the Park Service has little recourse against threats that originate on adjacent private land.
In the Eagle Mountain case, the Park Service signed an agreement with the landfill developers that it believes will help minimize negative impacts. "The agreement gives us limited control over how the landfill is managed instead of being left with no influence at all," says Mike Soukup, the agency's assistant director for natural resources, who is based in Washington. "We are not happy this project is here and would rather see it go away. But the reality is that MRC had no obligation to include us. What we have is better than nothing."
But Joshua Tree's park superintendent, Ernesto Quintana, disagrees with that sentiment and says his authority to negotiate with the developers was usurped by his superiors in Washington.
Under the agreement, the developers would donate $1 per ton of trash (a "tippage fee") to a private foundation. That money would be used primarily to preserve habitat in other parts of the Mohave Desert. Part of it also will be given to the Park Service for monitoring endangered species.
Some critics say this part of the deal looks like a pay-off. But their main concern is still the proposed location. "You couldn't pick a worse place to put a mega-scale garbage dump," says Brian Huse of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "If you permit this dump to go in here, what does that suggest for other parks?"
Ecologist Jerry Freilich, who worked at Joshua Tree for 10 years, says the dump will inevitably do harm. He says the availability of trash to scavenging wildlife, the earth disturbance, and the withdrawal of groundwater will have a ripple effect across the park ecosystem. For example, ravens drawn by the dump will also prey upon young desert tortoises, a threatened species.
Kay Hazen, of the Mine Reclamation Corporation (MRC), one of the landfill developers, says her company is committed to identifying problems and correcting them as they occur. Ms. Hazen also points out that it will put an old iron-ore pit to good use and provide a long-term, market-driven answer to California's solid-waste problems. "Southern California is fast approaching a waste disposal crisis," she says. "The wave of the future is having large, regional landfills that take up the burden as the smaller, neighborhood sites shut down because they are full or leaking."
MRC estimates that over a thousand jobs will be created and hundreds of millions of dollars will go to government coffers.
At this point, the project's future hinges on approval from county commissioners, favorable economics, and a land exchange in which MRC will trade 2,800 acres of its land for 3,500 acres of public land now administered by the Bureau of Land Management. BLM says it will support the swap.
Standing in the way of the landfill is a raft of citizen protesters organized by Larry and Donna Charpied, local organic farmers. Recently, they filed a legal challenge to the BLM land swap and the Park Service's agreement with MRC, winning a promise from Vice President Al Gore's office to investigate the matter. "From the very beginning we have felt the deck was stacked against us, that Eagle Mountain was a done deal," says Ms. Charpied.
Critics have raised concerns about the fact that MRC lobbyist Ann Wexler served on the board of the National Park Foundation, along with retiring Park Service director Roger Kennedy. The agency acknowledges that Ms. Wexler discussed the Eagle Mountain Landfill with Mr. Kennedy, but says Kennedy took no active role in negotiations.
Currently, more than a million people visit Joshua Tree each year; that's expected to grow to four million within a few decades. "We don't know whether the notoriety of having a large landfill next to Joshua Tree will inhibit that potential," says Robert Buster, chairman of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. "I don't want to commit us to something we will have to live with for the next hundred years and possibly regret."