This Female Conservationist Fought to Save Joshua Tree As a National Park — and Won

John Muir may be synonymous with California's national parks, but Minerva Hamilton Hoyt — the female conservationist behind Joshua Tree National Park — has an equally impressive story.

A photo collage showing Mrs Minerva Sherman Hoyt and her exhibit of cacti and other succulent plants, Pasadena, California, early to mid 20th century with Joshua Tree in the background
Photo: Photo Collage by Mariah Tyler (Image Scource: Visual Studies Workshop/Getty Images;Emil Muench/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Most visit Joshua Tree National Park for its yucca-dotted desert beauty, with hiking trails and boardwalks to see these spiny tree-shaped plants up close.

But this vast swath of California desert does more than dazzle national park visitors — it holds the story of one of the state's most integral yet oft-overlooked California conservationists: Minerva Hamilton Hoyt. In fact, Hoyt is largely the reason this protected stretch of yuccas exists to this day.

Mrs. Albert Sherman Hoyt posing with cactus plant, South Pasadena, 1931
Mrs. Albert Sherman Hoyt posing with cactus plant, South Pasadena, 1931. Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection, Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Who is Minerva Hamilton Hoyt?

Hoyt wasn't born with a love for California deserts. She grew up in Mississippi and later moved with her husband to New York City, then South Pasadena in 1897. The latter is where her passion for the land took root.

"Her interest in desert plants grew into a passion for desert conservation and helping people understand the importance of desert ecosystems," said Joe Zarki, author of the 2015 book "Joshua Tree National Park" and vice president of the Joshua Tree National Park Association.

After Hoyt's husband passed away in 1918, she devoted her life to desert protection. She became so synonymous with desert conservation that, in the 1920s, renowned landscape architect and wildlife conservationist Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. sought her help with surveying land for California's first state park system.

"A goal of the effort was to identify the best localities to protect Joshua Tree," said Zarki. "Hoyt favored the stands of Joshua Tree among the scenic granite boulders of the Little San Bernardino Mountains (north of Palm Springs) as one area for state park preservation."

Mural of Minerva Hoyt Mural at Oasis Visitor Center in Joshua Tree National Park
NPS/Robb Hannawacker

Creating Parks in California's Desert

At first, Hoyt had recommended this portion of the yucca-dotted desert for state park status. By 1930, she realized national park status would lead to greater protection. So, Hoyt hired biologists and ecologists to help solidify her case.

"She recognized that people would only preserve the desert if they had a better understanding and appreciation of its values," said Zarki. "Many people at the time thought deserts were valueless wastelands that merited no protection at all."

That hardly stopped Hoyt. She put her work and wisdom into the world until the higher-ups paid attention, including President Franklin Roosevelt, who established Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936.

Rock formations in Joshua Tree National Park

Irjaliina Paavonpera/Travel + Leisure

The Road to National Park Protection

Hoyt recognized national monument status was a good first step, but it wasn't enough to protect the area from external threats like mining.

"Even after the creation of the national monument, its fate was not secure," said Zarki. "Hoyt continued to fight for protection of the area from threats posed by mining interests and land developers."

Hoyt rallied for national park protection until her death in 1945 — and she wasn't crying wolf. Even as a national monument, Joshua Tree saw nearly 290,000 acres removed for mining projects in the 1950s.

Fortunately, Hoyt's decades-long fight for the California desert paid off. In 1994, Joshua Tree became an official national park. It had nearly all of those 290,000 acres restored as part of the national park status. In the 1980s, the United Nations also recognized this diverse transition area between the Mojave and Colorado deserts as a Biosphere Reserve; this includes Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks.

"The long, sometimes lonely, efforts of [Hoyt] to achieve her dream have a heroic quality that is inspiring to this day," said Zarki. "What she achieved as a widowed female trying to persuade a world dominated by men should be an inspiration to women everywhere."

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