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Tracing Extremes across Iconic Desert Landscapes: Socio-Ecological and Cultural Responses to Climate Change, Water Scarcity, and Wildflower Superblooms

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Abstract

California’s remote Anza-Borrego Desert, like other desert landscapes across the southwest of the United States, is valued by scientists, resource managers, and tourists alike for its perceived exceptional extremity. We analyze how climate extremes shape biological, socioeconomic, and cultural life through one of the desert’s most iconic ecological events: spring wildflower superblooms. Quantitative data relating wildflower superblooms and tourist visitation to interannual climate variation are at the center of our analysis, with additional literature review and qualitative ethnographic data used to lend context and engage deeply with the significance of the quantitative findings for local communities. Monthly visitation rates tracked precipitation, peaking during the end of the winter growing season when wildflowers reach peak bloom. Visitation more than doubled during the wettest years, corresponding to wildflower abundance and superbloom media coverage. Wildflower superblooms and extreme environmental events are socially and culturally significant in the desert communities. They loom large in memory, shape regular seasonal activities and attachment to place, and feature in local conflicts over resource management and planning for sustainable futures. Overall, we demonstrate how gateway communities contend with the desert’s ephemeral nature, and how climate change creates new and different extremes in these iconic desert landscapes.

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Data Availability

National Park Service visitation data used in this study are freely available through the NPS Integrated Resource Management Applications (IRMA) Portal (https://irma.nps.gov/Portal/) and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park visitation data are available through direct requests to the park. Climate data for each park were accessed via the Western Regional Climate Center (https://wrcc.dri.edu/).

Notes

  1. As historians and social scientists note, the desert wasteland concept is often rooted in colonial logics of land use and resource extraction. For example, the environmental history of California is frequently written as the transformation of California’s natural landscape in a series of movements, from Native land use (Heizer 1998), to Native encounters with Spanish colonization (Hurtado 1998), to the forced incorporation of Native and Spanish lands that shaped the early dimensions of California’s continued history of boundaries drawn and disputed by immigration, disenfranchisement, and territory making (Merchant 1998). Ranching, agriculture, and mining drove the dramatic, large-scale appropriation, extraction, and processing of the land as a natural resource (Kelley 1959; Dasmann 1994), oftentimes with negative impacts on indigenous communities as well as native plant and animal species (Bryant et al.1990; Glenn et al.1999; Lovich and Ennen 2011; Bardsley and Wiseman 2012; Hernandez et al.2014). Later efforts have sought to preserve and restore nature to its “pre-human” (more accurately, pre-ranching or pre-settler colonial) state, often erasing indigenous histories of land management in the process (Rakestraw 1972; Reisner 1986).

  2. The 2010 Decennial Census records the Borrego Springs CDP total population as 3429. The 2018 American Community Survey estimates a total population of 2252 with a margin of error of ±605 (U.S. Census Bureau 2018b). There is some local disagreement as to precise numbers for year-round vs. seasonal populations. For example, the Borrego Springs Community Plan estimates the population as approximately 2700 year-round residents plus an additional 2000 seasonal or snowbird residents (2011). The Borrego Valley Stewardship Council estimates 3400 permanent/year-round residents and 5000 seasonal residents.

  3. Two popular promotional videos released by Copley Productions in 1957 encapsulate this sense of a desert paradise built on a narrative of endless water (Hazelip 1957). Likewise, and written near the end of this boom, a 1968 Bureau of Reclamation report projected that Borrego Springs’ population would increase from 1300 in 1965 to 30,000 by the year 2020 (Moyle 1968). Such high expectations were typical of this period in California’s history of water and land development (Hundley 1992).

  4. Interview participants included year-round residents, seasonal residents, weekenders, and stakeholders residing elsewhere, and were identified as local community leaders, resource managers and related practitioners, public officials, researchers, local business owners, and/or community advocates, broadly considered.

  5. Most visibly, a series of community workshops culminated in the formation of the Borrego Valley Stewardship Council in 2014, with a mission to foster a responsible stewardship ethic for cultural and natural resources, and balance economic prosperity with long-term sustainability and benefits to people and places. Since then, the Council has served as a “convening entity” sponsoring annual community planning-oriented workshops, hosting expert speakers, and organizing volunteer working groups to advocate for key projects at the municipal and county level.

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Acknowledgements

We thank A. Farahmand, J. Goeble, A. Kryczka, M. Matlock, and especially T. E. Huxman and V. A. Olson for critical feedback on early ideas related to this project, and D. Bates and two anonymous reviewers. We also thank the University of California, Irvine’s Water UCI initiative for early funding support and space to develop novel, trans-disciplinary research questions to form the foundation for the present study. Additional funding to Brooks came from The Wenner-Gren Foundation, a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, and an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellowship with the National Park Service. Additional funding to Winkler came from UCI’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. We also thank S. Theriault, D. Feldman, J. Dice, L. Hendrickson, M. Jorgensen and S. Coons for support, advice, and help with acquiring data for this study. Special thanks to the UCI Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Research Center staff and network. An earlier, abridged version of this article was published in the Sierra Club Desert Report, and is reproduced here with permission; we thank the Desert Report Editor in Chief, C. Deutsche, and reviewers for their feedback. Any use of trade, product, or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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Ethnographic data collected by Brooks are covered by a human subjects research agreement reviewed and approved by the University of California, Irvine. Per standard ethnographic research practice, these data are not made publicly available in order to protect the privacy and confidentiality of research subjects.

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Winkler, D.E., Brooks, E. Tracing Extremes across Iconic Desert Landscapes: Socio-Ecological and Cultural Responses to Climate Change, Water Scarcity, and Wildflower Superblooms. Hum Ecol 48, 211–223 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-020-00145-5

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