It’s an April afternoon in hallowed ground—“JTree,” as the climbers like to call the place. The fabled Joshua trees are in bloom, as are the globe mallows, the Mojave kingcup cacti, and the desert dandelions. A lone coyote trots across Park Boulevard and vanishes into a chaos of rock. If you look carefully, in the distance, you’ll see the telltale remains of a prehistoric supercontinent called Rodinia, with its remnant lodes of pinto gneiss. Closer by, Skull Rock bristles with tourists and their selfie sticks, cars clot the entrance stations, and in many places, invasive mistletoe chokes the creosote. Still, up on Sheep Pass, during a rare pause between the caravans of Sprinter vans, you might just hear the susurrus of yucca moths’ wings as they carry pollen between Joshua trees.

All of this—800,000 acres of contradiction—coexists at California’s Joshua Tree National Park. Here, untrammeled beauty survives beside concrete curbs that rim the crowded loop road; paved and striped parking lots abut chimneyed outhouses under a cloudless azure vault. And then there are cars. Lots of them. And the people inside them, who number in the millions.

Perhaps most vulnerable—at least in the climate scientist’s eye—is Yucca brevifolia, the park’s namesake. Biologists predict the near-certain extirpation of the park’s Joshua trees before the century’s end under a “business as usual” scenario. Wildfire, formerly rare or nonexistent in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, is now a year-round threat, thanks to the red brome and cheatgrass invading the Morongo Basin’s soils. Then there’s the air, which—choked with dust and car and truck spew—is some of the worst in the national park system; rarely is the vista from Keys View the advertised 100 miles into Baja California—more like a half or quarter of that. Ravens puncture the soft carapaces of juvenile desert tortoises, an endangered species endemic to the Mojave, and motorists strike the adults, which appear to speeding drivers as slow-moving rocks. Visitors pilfer rolls of toilet paper from the vault toilets or toss them into the sewage below. They heist or hew entire Joshua trees or decorate them using spray paint and pocketknife; boulders and interpretive signs, too. They drive off-road, creating furrows that will persist for decades and shredding the bacteria-rich cryptobiotic crust. An Andy Goldsworthy wannabe, or perhaps a hyperactive 10-year-old, has erected about 100 small cairns out by the Hall of Horrors, carbuncles in an otherwise unblemished landscape. Why do people do these things? While nobody knows why, they’re by-products of the park’s newfound popularity.

This article appears in Issue 22 of Alta Journal.

How to manage the onslaught of visitors and preserve this special place for generations to come—as we reckon with climate change, no less—is the central challenge facing the park’s small staff.

Finding the right balance will mean answering exhausting questions: What’s the appropriate number of cars to let in? Are more roads needed? How to save the Joshua trees? Protect wildlife? Protect visitors? Should there be a reservation system?

Tenacity is required. Endurance is needed. Let’s start with the park boss’s legs.

joshua tree national park, california, desert, david smith, hidden valley, alta journal, monzogranite boulder
David Smith, Joshua Tree National Park’s superintendent, sits atop monzogranite boulders in the Real Hidden Valley area.
Gregg Segal


David Smith, the park’s superintendent, lies prone on a padded table in the Twentynine Palms office of the Hi Desert Physical Rehabilitation Group. A knotted calf is bedeviling Smith’s 50-mile running weeks, which he relies on to work out the kinks of a stressful job tending to the second largest of California’s 28 national park units—and one of its busiest. Smith’s physical therapist wields a device resembling a dough scraper, applies massage cream, and bears down on Smith’s left calf.

A youthful 55-year-old, Smith seems to enjoy this very much, being stretched out Superman-style while someone sees to muscles snarled from 40 years of running: running cross-country in his youth, running trail marathons in his adulthood, and running this particular tract of land for the Department of the Interior. Joshua Tree, formerly a forgotten national monument lying in plain view of Southern California’s and Las Vegas’s hordes, has been found.

Visitation has nearly doubled since 2014—when Smith was named superintendent—from about 1.6 million to almost 3.1 million a year. Yet the park’s annual congressional appropriation is $7.2 million—an increase of just 18 percent over the same period—an amount that hasn’t kept up with the costs of increased use. To close the shortfall, a slew of nonprofit organizations top off the park’s coffers with donations, and volunteers provide nearly $1 million worth of free labor each year.

Joshua Tree’s operations consist of three entrance stations, 170 miles of roads, more than 200 miles of trails unspooling from 32 trailheads, nine campgrounds containing 523 campsites, 10 picnic areas, the park headquarters, four visitors’ centers, an unreliable radio network, a too-small firefighting operation, policing, search and rescue, an aging fleet of vehicles, and 95 vault toilets, along with a $60 million maintenance backlog.

On the park’s busiest days, visitors wait in a two-mile-long queue along Park Boulevard, boxing in residential driveways and pissing off the locals; a bigger main entrance has been in the works for half a decade and will cost many millions owing to the innumerable surveys, cultural and environmental assessments, and studies required for new builds on federal land (land taken from the Serrano, Chemehuevi, Mojave, and Cahuilla people and 11 other Native tribes).

To the north, the city of Twentynine Palms—where the park’s administrative campus sits adjacent to the actual 29 palms—has built a new 4,100-square-foot park visitors’ center as part of its Project Phoenix, an initiative to revitalize downtown. The town accomplished this in a fraction of the time it would have taken Smith’s team to approve, send out to bid, and build the same facility.

Still, Smith would like to build for the future—a new 30-mile bike trail that’s in the long-term plan; a new visitors’ center at Cottonwood; and a new residential learning center, possibly in Queen Valley, whose costs are being covered by a nonprofit donor.

joshua tree national park, california, desert, skull rock, alta journal
Skull Rock is one of the park’s best-known formations and an Instagram favorite.
Gregg Segal


The park has always played as a kind of mondo bizarro theater, the National Park Service’s Grand Guignol. In 1973, the musician Gram Parsons’s corpse was stolen from a Los Angeles airport, driven to the vicinity of Cap Rock, and torched, supposedly according to Parsons’s wishes. Elsewhere in the park, climbers stud the formations by the hundreds of thousands; some lose their footing and crater onto boulders, leaving “grisly blood stains and tufts of matted hair,” as climbing writer John Long put it in his essay “The Only Blasphemy.” Non-climbers wander lost atop the corrugations of granite, and occasionally fall off of them, through them, or between them and either perish or survive and write books about their ordeals. Visitors go missing and turn up as bones in Smith’s domain, 80 percent of it designated wilderness, rife with thorn and cliff, rattlesnake and abandoned mine, with either no surface water or too much of it, as summer monsoons trigger flash floods that overwhelm park roads and campgrounds. Thirsty bees swarm the campsites and parking lots in the warm months, looking for anything moist. Musicians, junk artists, anchorites, and authors have migrated to the area (like Ken Layne, publisher of Desert Oracle).

Historically, the park’s visitation was low, given its location on the fringes of Greater Los Angeles. Established in 1936 by President Franklin Roosevelt as a national monument to preserve the Joshua tree and the Mojave yucca—its champion was a woman by the name of Minerva Hoyt—the sanctuary spanned the Mojave and Colorado Deserts and the ecotone between them, its famous twisted trees named, as folklore has it, by Mormon argonauts reminded of a biblical passage that described Moses’s right-hand man, Joshua, raising his arms in prayer. Only 31,000 visitors explored the refuge in 1941. By the ’50s, attendance had nearly tripled. Eventually, the area became a wintering ground for the postwar leisure class and a new group of users, rock climbers, who plied the hulking monzogranite formations while awaiting the reemergence of Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows from their mantles of snow. In 1990, four years before the Clinton administration made the monument a national park, attendance topped one million visitors for the first time.

Today, tourists arriving in a million or so automobiles, spending about $11 million a year to pass through the park’s toll booths, underpin the wicked problem keeping Smith awake at night: how to stay true to the 1916 Organic Act, the National Park Service’s foundational document, with its mandate “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

It’s up to Smith to titrate access and protection, freedom and control, a fraught business guaranteed to please no one. He figures he’s buying the park five years if only he can expand the main entrance, add more parking, and persuade folks to visit before and after the noonday crush.

Back at the Hi Desert Physical Rehabilitation Group, he genuflects into a set of lunge squats. He asks whether he’ll need a follow-up visit. The therapist shrugs.

Not really. Prior to the calf massage, Smith had run on a treadmill, clicking out a seven-minute pace with little hitch in his giddyup. But he’d made a comment while lying on the table, about how he’s trying to be more proactive about taking care of himself. “You know, if John and I are going to spend the next 30 or 40 years together,” he says, reflecting on a recent conversation with his husband, “it would be nice if we could walk.”

Smith makes the appointment. Park therapy.


“Just imagine if you’re running a restaurant,” says Smith to his small audience, the flecks of gray in his black beard hinting at gravitas. “About two and a half times as many people come into your restaurant. And you have the same number of waiters and busboys and hostesses. What do you do?”

It’s Tuesday morning in the High Desert. Smith of the gammy calves awoke early to run six miles through the flowering creosote. Now he is addressing six businesspeople from Joshua Tree, the once-tiny and now-overrun community athwart the park’s busiest entrance. White, mostly trending to old, four of them women, they listen raptly as Smith tells the story of how the National Park Service’s advertising campaigns, its exhortations to fill the parks on its hundredth anniversary in 2014, Americans’ sudden infatuation with all things plein air, and COVID-19’s tendency to drive people outdoors have combined to put a crimp in America’s best idea. The group has assembled at the Institute of Mentalphysics, a warren of rectilinear flagstone cells, a peaked worship shrine, and weathered redwood buttresses designed by the institute’s founder, an Englishman with a silk-robe fetish named Edwin Dingle (a.k.a. Ding Le Mei), along with Frank Lloyd Wright and Wright’s son Lloyd. According to the institute’s website, several vortices grace the property, one of which must be hovering over Smith now, because he’s extemporizing with preternatural concision at about 160 words a minute.

“So we’ve not caught up with this yet,” Smith says to the Joshua Tree Six, referring to the park’s record-breaking double-digit annual growth, and gestures vaguely toward the park’s vehicle-occluded west entrance.

He tells them what he’s done: Of the 140 people who work in the park—40 of them seasonally—in any given year, he’s subsidized the salaries of roughly 50 of the full-time staff with non–congressionally appropriated funds; he’s made expeditious use of about 100 volunteers (equal to about 15 full-time employees). He cites the Organic Act reflexively as a way of outlining the double bind he’s in and to justify, say, the doubling of the parking lots and the extraordinary use of herbicide to save the park’s few remaining Joshua tree refugia. He’s hired a preventive search and rescue coordinator to anticipate and thus reduce the time-consuming and expensive scrambling of humans and equipage. These interventions help, but they’re like adding FasTrak lanes to the 10: they’re meant to ease the burden of crowding, not stem the growth.

A middle-aged black-haired woman wearing square glasses and black canvas slip-ons asks whether other parks are suffering similarly.

“Nothing quite like Joshua Tree,” Smith says. “We’re exceptional. But we’re at the end of the spectrum for that.” He cites the new timed-entry reservation systems at Acadia, Rocky Mountain, and Arches National Parks, which some critics accuse of favoring the privileged, but stops short of saying that his park is fated to adopt such a system. (Joshua Tree has already announced a backcountry-permit plan to address congestion in the overloved wilderness, especially on the Boy Scout Trail.) Meanwhile, the climbing lobby, including the Access Fund, the American Alpine Club, and Friends of Joshua Tree, is against a proposed climbing management plan, concerned that Smith and his colleagues are shaping a policy that reinterprets the 1964 Wilderness Act—and there’s been talk of litigation if the plan’s restrictions are too onerous.

Smith talks about the importance of adaptation; how he and his crew are keeping it together with thrift and pluck, sometimes borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.

The six nod.

“I guess we could do bake sales,” says Smith. “But I’m a lousy baker, so that’s not going to really pay off.”

Smith’s spiel is over in about 45 minutes. One man, a real estate agent, wonders whether Smith is doing too good a job; whether he’s destined to be promoted and reassigned elsewhere.

Smith smiles and tells the man that he’ll be ending his park career at Joshua Tree. When will that be? He doesn’t say, but it’s likely to happen in less time than it would take the National Park Service to build a visitors’ center.

joshua tree national park, california, echo t, desert, rock climbing, alta journal
Smith descends a rock face at Echo T, a site that offers formations and routes for climbers of all skill levels.
Gregg Segal


Long before Smith worked in Joshua Tree, he camped and climbed there. He was born in Oceanside, California, in 1967, the son of a Vietnam War vet and a PacBell switchboard operator, and lived in Carlsbad. In the same year, 416,000 people visited the monument. From San Diego County’s northern coast, Joshua Tree lay about 140 miles to the northeast, much of that on two-lane blacktop and the old Highway 395, which bisected the Inland Empire. In 1968, Smith’s mother, Adrienne, filed for divorce. She and the boy remained in Carlsbad and moved in with her parents, who took an active role in his upbringing.

Smith played with trains and read lots of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, fished with his grandfather, attended church each Sunday and catechism every Wednesday. He respected his elders, threw no tantrums, and always followed the rules.

In 1975, Adrienne remarried, and the family of three moved to the small inland town of Vista. In high school, Smith, an International Baccalaureate student, ran cross-country, served on the school board, and edited the school newspaper. He began rock climbing at about that time, which is what took him to Joshua Tree.

Thinking back on those years, Adrienne says, “David seems to have the determination to conquer all that he wanted to.” She also says, “He just kind of flowed with the crowd.”

Not entirely, though.

“I knew I was gay,” Smith says. “But growing up in San Diego County, I didn’t have a lot of role models. I mean, there was Liberace. ‘Am I Liberace? I don’t think I’m Liberace.’ ” Smith told no one—not even his mother, with whom he was very close. “I would never have discussed any kind of pain I was having. It would have made [her] feel sad.” He dated girls and figured he’d eventually marry a woman.

He applied to one school only, UC Berkeley, because he remembered scenes from The Graduate. He was the first in his family to attend college. He received Cal and Pell grants but mostly paid his way by tending bar and waiting tables. He took courses in development studies and forestry. One friend remembers seeing him in the Marin Headlands analyzing owl scat for two days.

He was 19 when he met John Evans at an anti-apartheid rally on campus. Evans, the son of a Presbyterian minister, had attended outdoorsy prep schools and had backpacked all over California. On their first date, they discovered a common interest in travel and adventure, and both wanted to adopt children. “I was like, Wow, this is the guy for me,” Smith says. Evans felt the same.

In 1991, postgraduation and pre-career, they loaded Evans’s pickup with bikes, backpacks, skis, beach chairs, cookware, and their dogs and road-tripped across the Lower 48 for four months, racking up over 20,000 miles across 47 states and 50 national parks. “As we went from monument to battlefield to forest,” Smith wrote in a 2014 issue of the journal Ranger, “we noticed that, by far, the happiest people we were meeting were park rangers.” Or, as Evans put it, “We’d meet beautiful folks in beautiful places who seemed to have a beautiful life. And we said, ‘We want that.’ ”

Within two years, they’d found seasonal work as interpretive rangers at Dinosaur National Monument, which straddles northern Utah and Colorado. It went that way for five years: gigging each season for the National Park Service in far-flung locales with no guarantee of full-time permanent work. Then, in 1998, Evans scored his first permanent job, as a law enforcement ranger at Joshua Tree. A year later, the park brought on Smith as a full-time interpretive ranger. And there it was: it had taken seven years, but they’d done what they’d set out to do. In 2001, Smith was offered an interpretive specialist position with the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail; the job was based in Oakland, so they migrated from the desert to the Bay Area, ​​where, seven years earlier, they had exchanged vows in an unofficial ceremony in Berkeley’s Tilden Park. They bought a $100,000 fixer in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. They attended Alameda County’s new-parenting class, and nine months later they adopted a nine-month-old boy, Dante; a year and a half later, a baby girl, Jakiah, also nine months old. Smith naturally morphed into the fun dad, the Disneyland dad. The kids called him Papa. Evans, whom they called Daddy, was the un-fun dad, the rule-making dad—albeit the dad who learned to style their hair best.

In 2005, the couple accepted positions—Smith as a district naturalist, Evans as a district ranger—in Grand Canyon National Park. In 2010, Smith was selected for the prestigious Bevinetto Congressional Fellowship, a two-year leadership development program, which took the family to Washington, D.C. In 2011, Smith was given the keys to Kansas’s Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park, his first superintendent job. Then, in 2014, Smith and Evans returned to Joshua Tree, this time with their children.

Dante and Jakiah are out of the house now. Dante is working in Twentynine Palms and considering a career in the U.S. Navy; Jakiah left the area to attend chef school. The Evans-Smith house is quieter than it has been for years, but Smith’s place to the south is anything but.


Smith would prefer to spend more time in the park, walking the trails and talking to visitors, but he spends the majority of his working hours indoors, running to meetings or Zooming into them. He also conducts numerous tête-à-têtes, some impromptu and others scheduled, with the six members of his management team, whose smarts he lauds regularly and whom he proclaims he couldn’t survive without.

In federal compensation–speak, he’s a GS-14, two shy of the top rung. He earns about $140,000 a year, a salary he characterizes as “ungodly.” Ask the members of the management team, and members of the advocacy community, ask his husband, Evans, whether they’d want his job, and they laugh. Which is to say, no way do they want his job.

It’s already been a long day. He drove to the nearby Marine Corps base to recruit new staff—military personnel and federal employees with intact background checks are fast hires—but no one was interested. He also sat through a 90-minute PowerPoint presentation by a National Park Service comptroller and an appropriations specialist during which he was told that he could not expect budget increases to solve his funding problems. The appropriations expert encouraged everyone on the call to “get more creative.” Smith also learned that he’d continue to be hamstrung by legislation that forces him to spend 55 percent of entrance-station revenues every year on deferred maintenance projects rather than on basic operations, such as additional full-time employees. “I think it’s disingenuous,” he says of the comptroller’s explanation, which is less about addressing the park’s needs and more about Capitol Hill’s politics.

Afterward, Smith attended a Twentynine Palms Rotary Club meeting—he was the youngest in the room. Rotary Club meetings always involve lunch. Smith handed me a cheese quiche, and we listened to the aging Rotarians debate about how to grow their ranks and decry the rising cost of housing.

Back at the office, he met with his chief ranger, who was concerned about staffing shortages for the coming Easter weekend. His interpretive operations manager pressed him to choose between plastic and cedar for the National Park Service arrowhead sign for the new visitors’ center in downtown Twentynine Palms. Smith was told that the wood was twice as expensive but would have more pop for Instagram selfies than the plastic. Smith went with wood.

He’s now at his stand-up desk dispatching emails. “One Toke over the Line” is wafting from his laptop. It’s on his 100-mile-run mixtape, one of the many vintage songs he’s selected for ultramarathons. “I find the Ramones much better for, like, a regular-marathon
beat,” he says and commences to chant, “Beat on the brat, beat on the brat, beat on the brat with a baseball bat…

As I listen to Smith tap out more emails—“I’m on number 79. I’m so awesome!”—he mentions the chicken potpie he ate at the Rotary Club. “It tasted really, really good. There was one vegetarian quiche, but I had to give it to the guest.”

“Wait a second,” I say. “I thought there were two quiches.” Neither Smith nor I eat meat.

“No,” says Smith, fingers still moving on his keyboard. “I believe I violated all my tenets now. I’m destined for life in purgatory.”

His phone rings. It’s a local radio newscaster, a Rotarian, following up on Smith’s mention of a radio-collared bighorn sheep that had fallen prey to a mountain lion. “Yeah, you know,” Smith explains to the journalist, “when you have mountain lions predating on ungulates like bighorn sheep, it’s an indication of a healthy relationship between the prey animals and predator animals.”

The office, which is on the smallish side for a chief executive, features the usual assortment of mementos, scalloped wooden plaques in the shape of the Park Service arrowhead logo, awards, photos, a child’s crayon art. Running shoes, hiking boots, tube socks, and climbing gear are strewn on a shelf of a built-in bookcase. There is also a porcine backpack hanging from a peg for search and rescue missions. These objects all pale, however, compared with the six-by-four-foot park map adjacent to Smith’s desk. It is festooned with small sticky notes denoting mildly bad to horrific events of the first three months of 2022: “Horse injury.” “Car fire.” “Body recovery.” “Extrication.” “Climbing fatality.”

In fact, two climbers have been killed this year, the latter of whom died just a week ago. There was an all-hands debrief of the incident this morning. Smith describes the meeting as “painful,” and he walked out of it convinced that the park needs cellular service, which would mean approving a cell tower within its bounds.

Jane Rodgers, the park’s chief of science and resource stewardship, pokes her head into Smith’s office. He motions her in. They talk about money and a vacant position. Smith tells Rodgers about the climbing-fatality meeting.

“So I have been a die-hard opponent of cell phones at Joshua Tree,” he says, “because I think that the visitor experience is benefited by not having cell phone use in the park.” He takes a breath. “And it was made apparent to me that from a rescue standpoint, the lack of cell phones is hindering our ability. And I started thinking, What is the desired visitor experience?”

Rodgers sees where Smith’s going and supports the idea, as will the other members of the executive team when Smith proposes park-wide cellular service a short time later. The cell provider will pay for the tower and other hardware—Smith and team are eyeing Belle Mountain, which is in the park but outside its designated wilderness area—while the park will be responsible for peeling away the considerable red tape to approve the project.

joshua tree national park, california, desert, hidden valley nature loop trail, alta journal
Smith shares his favorite hikes with a group of visitors on the Hidden Valley Nature Loop trail.
Gregg Segal


On another day, the ranger in Smith feels like ranging. We jump into his black 2019 Tesla Model 3. He aims the car at a vacant side road and guns it to 80-something before throttling back to a reasonable 50. Soon we arrive at the Split Rock Trail, a popular two-mile loop on the park’s east side. It’s about 3 p.m. It’s hot in the direct sun. Smith wears his gray and green uniform—shirtsleeves, slacks, and a flat hat. A black SUV pulls up next to us. Four doors open, and its occupants spill out.

It’s the vacationing Hollander family: mom, dad, and their two thirtysomething sons. Smith begins chatting them up immediately.

“Oh god, Bob Evans country!” he says after the Hollanders inform him they’re from Ohio. He explains the joke and they laugh. They like him.

Mr. Hollander, a short, stocky, mustached man, confesses his fear of straying from the trail. He’s read recently about a seasoned Joshua Tree hiker from Boston who zigged when he should’ve zagged; it was days before the man was found dead wedged between two boulders.

Smith nods and points to one of the two trailheads, the one that takes the loop clockwise, reassuring Mr. Hollander that it’s well marked and not to worry.

The Hollanders depart, and Smith walks toward the other trailhead. Suddenly, someone catches his eye. He swerves.

“Oh! My! God! Who let you in here?” says Smith to a man emerging from a Tesla (another one). He’s barefoot, middle-aged, unshaven, wearing sunglasses, shredded khakis with leather patches on knees and ass, and a sweat-stained lime-colored shirt. His car’s boot is strewn with ropes and hardware. A climber. He’s flanked by two younger men, climbers by the looks of them.

The man is John Lauretig, a former Joshua Tree ranger and the current president of Friends of Joshua Tree, one of those “but for the kindness of strangers, we wouldn’t survive” organizations, this one heading up the local climbing contingent. The 30-year-old group’s 2,000 members donate around 2,000 hours each year, provide climber education and environmental cleanup, and have traditionally supplemented Smith’s search and rescue ops. Climbers constitute almost 20 percent of the park’s annual visitation, which makes the small nonprofit an influential lobbying force. Lauretig later tells me that while Smith is well-liked by his organization’s members, they’re anxious to learn whether he’ll support replacing compromised bolts driven into the park’s cliff faces. “I even asked David if he could create a climbing management plan that didn’t refer to the Wilderness Act,” says Lauretig. “He just laughed and said, ‘Nope.’ ”

The trail thrums with vacationers keen to meet a genuine park ranger. Smith exudes the brio of a Hornblower dinner cruise host. Eventually, he sees the Hollanders, rounding the loop from the opposite direction.

“Oh my gosh, how’s the hike? Isn’t it super beautiful?” asks Smith.

“I love it,” says Mrs. Hollander, leaning on her hiking staff.

“Oh my gosh, and it loves you,” says Smith. He points at the paterfamilias. “And he isn’t lost!” Mr. Hollander smiles proudly at Smith. He wields a spear-length staff and wears a hefty backpack.

The Hollanders laugh. They’re enjoying themselves. It’s not just the loop hike. They’ve found a friend.

Back at the trailhead, Smith next greets a family of three: Moshe and Nina Zilversmit and their young son, Theo. After giving the boy a high five for completing the loop hike—“I know lots of adults who couldn’t do that”—Smith asks him whether he was born in the United States. Theo says yes. Smith, crouching down to look him in the eye, tells him that he owns Joshua Tree National Park and 422 others. Moshe corrects Smith’s math: “You actually own 1/351,000,000 of the national parks.” Smith laughs, turns to Theo, and says, “This place belongs to you,” and then tells him why it’s so important to protect it. “Since I own this park just like you do, if I see litter on the ground, I’ll pick it up and throw it away.”

Smith would admit that there are no ready answers to the vexing challenges he faces. But maybe it just comes down to giving his all for the Zilversmits and the Hollanders: two named families among the otherwise nameless masses. People like them have always been part of the solution, helped along by a chance encounter with someone like a certain Ranger Smith, who’s working on behalf of them and their children’s children.


When Smith was a young seasonal ranger at Arches National Park, he received a distress call from a campground host. A baby deer had fallen into a rock crevice, and it couldn’t get out. It occurred to Smith that a fawn falling to its death was a natural event, and his training dictated letting nature take its course. Do nothing; let the animal die. But then he noticed the fawn’s mother. “She was making this kind of whining sound off to the side because she saw me next to her baby, maybe. And then I was thinking, you know, This is a couple of hundred yards from a campground. Did a child scare this deer?” He realized he was trying to justify the actions he already intended to take. He lowered himself into the rock crevice, picked up the animal, and righted it. The fawn went for its mother and began to feed. “And I know I did the right thing,” says Smith. “But it was probably contrary to what I should have done.” •

Brad Rassler lives and writes in the Tahoe Sierra.