As the California Gold Rush was reaching a fevered pitch in the 1800s, many mine workers left the large mining operations and trekked out on their own, settling in the deserts of Southern California to dig for their fortune. Around that time, hundreds of mines popped up in Joshua Tree National Park, as lone prospectors lived in the desert and mined the rocks for gold, an activity that continued well into the Twentieth Century.
When the mines were spent, the men took what they could carry and moved on. Their shanty houses and unnecessary belongings were abandoned, left behind as future time capsules for those fortunate enough to stumble upon them. For years, only the most dedicated explorers of Joshua Tree could find these abandoned sites, but with the advent of the internet and social media, finding them has become as simple as opening an app. And with that increased traffic has also come an increase in thefts. According to the LA Times, Joshua Tree officials are now closing some of these mining sites to the public so they can take inventory of which artifacts have gone missing.
For many years, hikers who made the trek deep into Joshua Tree's southeastern corner might happen upon the former homestead and mine of a gold prospector long since departed. Often strewn across the floors and shelves of these homesteads were magazines, canned food, tools, and other vintage ephemera of the miner's era. So few people accessed the sites, though, that park officials never kept track of the artifacts. After a mention in a local paper, however, park officials noted a significant uptick in the amount of visitors to what are known as Carey's Castle and the El Cid Mine. Around that time, they also noticed many of the artifacts had gone missing.
Joshua Tree park officials didn't make any rash decisions at the time of the thefts, and even, according to park Superintendent David Smith, "bought some artifacts to replace the original ones." Then the replacement artifacts got stolen too. This is why we can't have nice things. In response to this second round of thefts, park officials are closing the two areas for "at least a month" while they figure out an "enforcement and surveillance strategy."
The park may need a more comprehensive strategy on monitoring mine sites, as Joshua Tree National Park boasts some 531 "mine features," according to a 2013 National Park Services report. At the time of that report, the NPS was in the process of trying to eliminate hazards at dozens of abandoned mines in the park (plugging mine shafts, erecting fences, posting warnings). In fact, vandals might get more than they bargain for when excavating former mine sites—in 2000, active dynamite was found underground at the El Cid Mine and had to be removed by professionals.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time the ugliest traits of the modern world have shown themselves in Joshua Tree. A French graffiti artist called "Mr. Andre" caught flak for tagging boulders in the park back in 2013 and portions of Barker Dam and Rattlesnake Canyon have been closed on and off over the past three years in response to an outbreak of graffiti. Fortunately, not everyone who paints in Joshua Tree is so destructive.
· Looting prompts closures at mining sites in Joshua Tree [LA Times]
· Interim Inventory and Assessment of Abandoned Mineral Lands in the National Park System [National Parks Service Report]
· Take a Lovely Video Journey Into Joshua Tree in Darkest Night [Curbed LA]