Urban transplants threaten to lose local populations in the Southern California desert

Morongo Bassin, California – Along a dusty highway winding through the Southern California desert, Eric Wilson checks out the list of fruits and vegetables available from his nearby farm.

He’s been selling cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes and other locally grown produce since April at the Morongo Valley Fruit Market, a small grocery store he and his wife took up earlier this year.

Despite being in what Wilson calls his “food desert”—the nearest grocery store is 15 minutes away in the neighboring Yucca Valley—Wilson is initially dismissed as yet another outsider seeking to improve the quiet community.

Eric Wilson and his wife Jarden Ramirez at their farm market.Michael Rubinstein for NBC News

“People assumed I was from Los Angeles,” said Wilson, who grew up in Cathedral City, about 30 minutes away. “I was called yuppie because of the organic prices.”

Once a small village of cowboys and homeowners, Morongo Basin is undergoing rapid change amid an influx of urban residents seeking an escape from city life during the pandemic. They come to the sunny desert hoping to find fresh air, cheap houses, and Instagram-worthy wallpapers.

But what’s affordable for residents of Los Angeles, Silicon Valley or New York is out of reach for many old residents, who say transplants are bogging down local residents and disrupting a fragile ecosystem.

“It’s a culture clash,” said Sarah Kennington, of the Morongo Pond Conservation Society. Everyone loves [Joshua Tree National Park]Everyone loves desert, and if you’re mature, that’s fine. But it’s not where it was decades ago.”

The Morongo Basin is located more than 100 miles outside of Los Angeles, within the Greater Mojave Desert. It borders Joshua Tree National Park and includes the valley communities of Morongo, Yucca, Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, Pioneertown, and others.

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