Feedback | Has Climate Change Separated Us from the California Desert?

Firefighters helped shake off the huge Sequoia with foil, including a 2,000-year-old General Sherman tree, less than a mile from the park’s main entrance, down a paved path. It’s a top draw for the park’s roughly 1.2 million visitors, none of whom ever enter the backcountry.

As August drew to a close, the Overwhelmed Forest Service closed (temporarily) every forest operated in California. Rangers intercepted backpackers who took months to walk the 2,5050-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which traverses some remote deserts to the west.

This is the second year that the federal agency has closed large tracts of land in California. You can only call the first one unprecedented. The second begins to look routine.

Maybe a blessing off the forest and the park. Public land deserves a break from crowds, which has forced major national parks like Yosemite to take shuttle buses. Even backcountry sites can retire from relatively few people like me, who flee from these crowds for backpacking, climbing or fishing in more remote areas.

But the desert is as much a position of aspiration as there is a quality in California’s restless innovative reputation. This is the place where “some buried but indomitable skeptics get upset that things work better here, because here, under a lot of bleached sky, where we go off the continent,” writes Joan Didion.

Muir, a Scottish immigrant, returned to Sierra Nevada from across the continent. His pastoral thinking helped to give birth to the conservation and environmental movement of the nation and to bring the generation back to the outside world which is irrationally discarded in modern times. He stressed that the desert deserved to be protected.

For decades, the environment and conservation movement hit this message home when they blocked access to roads, mines, logging and housing in the rest of the desert. These efforts have saved more than 15 million acres of desert in California alone. Yet the focus on rescuing the remaining wildlife depends on the notion that there are “indefinite” deserts that we can preserve forever – or at least multiple generations. The widespread impact of climate change has dispelled that illusion.

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