The War on Glamping in the Joshua Tree Desert

How residents are fighting back against recent luxury development proposals that could change the area for the worse.

Eric Hamburg retired to Wonder Valley from Los Angeles in 2015, looking for what many seek in the California desert near Joshua Tree: Quiet, peace and a dark night sky. Though he’d been visiting for half a century, the amateur astronomer became taken by the vastness of the open land after buying a home in 2021. It offered optimum stargazing conditions; sometimes, the light from the stars is so bright he doesn’t even need his telescope. 

But now Hamburg feels called to try to preserve what made his homestead so idyllic, as his beloved desert faces a number of massive development projects that, if built, could change the area and the ecosystem irrevocably.

One of the biggest projects—situated just a mile and half from where Hamburg lives—is the proposed Wonder Inn Luxury Resort, a massive 42,120 square-foot hotel with 106 rooms with accompanying restaurant, pool, spa, event facilities, and 205-space parking lot. If approved by the San Bernardino Planning Commission, the Wonder Inn would  commercialize about 25 acres of desert land that are currently largely dedicated to rural living.

Local backlash towards the resort has been swift, constant and passionate.

Hamburg and his neighbors, who have organized through his Stop Wonder Inn initiative, are deeply unsettled by the economic, environmental and cultural impact such a massive build could have. “Any development should preserve the character and history of this area,” says Hamburg. “We think [the developers] are just ignoring that.” 

Community members worry about the accompanying noise pollution, light pollution and traffic that would surely accompany the resort. Ecologically speaking, there’s also the potential impact on the endangered local desert tortoise population, the store of native Joshua trees and other vulnerable desert wildlife. And the group is concerned about burden that such a massive development could place on the already-underfunded fire department, law enforcement agency and the local water supply.

Beyond that, though, Hamburg says, “One of our key concerns is that this development is so inappropriate, but would also trigger more and more development and forever change Wonder Valley.”

Developers already own in excess of 130 additional acres and have floated tentative plans to eventually build a new neighborhood composed of around 20 villas.

The fight to stop Wonder Valley, however, is emblematic of larger changes in rural California.

“During the pandemic, when people were turning to places in California as a form of retreat, these projects started popping up like mushrooms in the rain,” says Chris Clarke, the Associate Director of the California Desert Program with the National Parks Conservation Association. “The pandemic amplified something already in motion, which is the colonization of the Joshua Tree area.”

Clarke offered crucial advice to another community group hoping to stop the development of a 75-site glamping compound on 640 acres of land zoned for rural living in nearby Flamingo Heights.

In April 2021, Flamingo Heights resident Caroline Partamian got a notice about a new development in the area, and she was shocked by the prospect of luxe glamping shelters, a possible music venue and a helipad being built in the massive field next to her house where she used to walk her dog.

“These projects are made by developers who don’t live in the area and who don’t have as much respect for it,” she says. “We feel there will be no more community to invest in in the future if these types of projects come about.”

She was quick to join her neighbors as they relayed their concerns to local leadership and developers and, soon, a petition against the project that Partamian helped circulate had garnered over 6,000 signatures.

Despite such clear local resistance to the project, the developers kept moving forward.

“The developers did come to a Homestead Valley Meeting last year,” says Partamian. “It was very heated. They still moved forward.”

“Every step the last two years have left us feeling ignored as a community by the folks who are doing this,” she added. 

The San Bernardino County Planning Commission finally met earlier this month to consider a conditional use permit application from the developers, which included a variety of semi-permanent glamping structures, a 10,000 square-foot restaurant, an art barn, a bar, a pool, a yoga deck, fire pits and the aforementioned heli-pad (for emergency use), but excluded the music venue.

About 30 community members drove an hour and a half one way to offer in-person comments to the commission while a group of about 50 others Zoomed in from Joshua Tree. They were shocked when the Flamingo Heights project was dismissed without prejudice by a typically development-friendly Planning Commission.

Partamian remembers the monumental—albeit perhaps fleeting—Flamingo Heights victory as distinctly emotional. The developers declined to comment on the dismissal, but have filed to appeal the decision.

Chris Clarke chalks all of this up to the huge economic incentive to develop the area, capitalizing off of the Joshua Tree tourism industry while neglecting to consider the needs or concerns of locals. “It’s a blank spot on the map that they see a way to tap into for money,” Clarke says. 

Adding insult to injury is the socioeconomic disparity between locals and the potential customer base to which luxury developments like Flamingo Heights and Wonder Inn would cater.

“This is a basin with a very high percentage of people living at or below the poverty line,” Clarke says.

He further notes that the region already suffers from officials’ reticence to cap short term rentals—which constitute about one-third of the housing stock in Joshua Tree. “The disparity between resources of people coming in to spend $350 a night on an 800 square-foot jackrabbit cabin that’s gotten a nice coat of paint and the people serving them breakfast is kind of galling,” he adds 

But now, some community members are cautiously entertaining the possibility that the Flamingo Heights decision will prove to be a predictor of Wonder Inn’s fate. That permit will be up for discussion before the Planning Commission on March 23rd. 

A sizable portion of Flamingo Heights residents plan show up to offer support to Wonder Valley as well, just as Wonder Valley community members extended support to them. It takes more than one village, after all, to protect a desert.

And the heart of the desert is really what’s at stake here if you ask residents of either Flamingo Heights and Wonder Valley

Still, fresh off the heels of their victory, Partamian is aware of the fact that there’s no real time to rest. “We went in [to the vote] knowing this wasn’t going to be the end of it, no matter what happened,” she says. “But it was such a beautiful day of feeling reminded why we live in this community, and why we are such advocates for the land here.” 

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