Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park

Preserving Death Valley

Although the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 formally protected millions of acres in Death Valley, the park's unique biologic and geologic assets continue to face degradation from numerous sources. Air pollution, invasive species, water mining, and overgrazing burros are just a few of the many threats to this fragile desert ecosystem. 

The California Desert Protection Act

This 1994 act established more than 6 million acres of new wilderness and a new park area—the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve—while at the same time fortifying the protection of Death Valley and Joshua Tree by expanding these national monuments and giving them national park status. The act outlined protection for millions of acres of diverse landscapes, including volcanic lava flows, sweeping sand dunes, high mountain ranges, conifer forests, high desert sagebrush plateaus, and vast lowlands separated by rugged mountain ranges.

Invasive Plants

Plants imported from elsewhere in the world now flourish in Death Valley National Park—sometimes at the expense of native species. The salt cedar tree, for instance, is a source of intense frustration for environmentalists; it is replacing the native cottonwood and willow trees around springs and disrupting ecosystems. The giant cane, or arundo, is a perennial plant that crowds out native vegetation near rivers and springs. Biologists are currently developing plans to control invasive species such as these, while restoring native populations of plants.

Air Pollution

You might think that the remote location of Death Valley National Park would help keep its air pure and pristine. However, winds bring pollutants from metropolitan centers, industrial areas, and transportation corridors to the West. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emitted by power plants and cars in Los Angeles reacts with other molecules in Death Valley to form sulfates and nitrates, which result in acid rain. The park has an air quality monitoring station near Furnace Creek that measures ozone, wet and dry acid deposition, visibility-reducing particles, and meteorological data. A system for forecasting high ozone days is in development.

Light Pollution

Although Death Valley's skies are fairly dark compared to skies in more populated areas of the United States, they are still affected by noticeable glows from Las Vegas and the central valley. The National Park Service obviously has limited influence over the neon glows from Las Vegas; however, it is trying to reduce the amount of local light pollution from within the park by encouraging the use of outdoor light fixtures that direct light to the ground rather than sideways or upwards. There is also a strategy in place to eliminate outdoor lighting wherever possible. A plan to adopt these measures is currently being developed for Death Valley National Park. Collecting data on the current state and general trends of nighttime visibility is also important to solving the problem of light pollution. As a result, night sky conditions are monitored at the park annually by a team of scientists.

Water Mining

Many of the larger cities within the boundary of Death Valley's regional ground water flow system—including Las Vegas and Pahrump—are experiencing some of the fastest population growth in the United States. Consequently, the region's water resources are straining under the pressure. Several of Death Valley's larger springs derive their water from a regional aquifer that extends as far east as southern Nevada and Utah. Today's climate is hotter and drier than it was thousands of years ago, however, and does not provide enough precipitation to recharge the aquifer at the rate the water is being withdrawn.

Devils Hole Pupfish

These tiny inch-long fish live in what is considered one of the smallest vertebrae habitats in the world! They have managed to survive these severe conditions—high heat, warm, mineral-rich water with limited food sources, for over 20,000 years. Human interference has at times, nearly eliminated their spawning area and well-meaning researchers have accidentally reduced their numbers. But they remain an extraordinary example of adaptation and endurance. Although their numbers have been reduced to less than 50 adults, they continue to swim and breed within the turquoise aquifer that rises to the surface at Devils Hole. 

Overgrazing Burros

Beginning in the late 1800s, a small number of burros escaped or were turned loose by prospectors. The burros quickly adapted to the desert conditions and flourished, reaching a population of nearly 3,000 animals. Although they may look cute and harmless, burros are actually quite destructive to the desert ecosystem. They gather in large herds and overgraze the scant plant resources. Furthermore, biologists have discovered that burros are driving bighorn sheep from their own grazing areas and reducing the populations of this prized species. Convinced that the needs of the native bighorn are paramount, the National Park Service has embarked on a program to reduce burro populations, which now number more than 100.