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A California mayor on why the public isn't allowed to visit the super bloom of poppies in her city

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Every few years, a super bloom of desert lilies and dandelion, sage, morning glories and other wildflowers occurs in Southern California in the city of Lake Elsinore. The hills become blanketed with bright orange poppies. Because of the heavy rainfall a lot of the region saw earlier this year, another super bloom is expected this time around. Would you like to see Lake Elsinore's poppies in person? Natasha Johnson is the mayor of Lake Elsinore. Mayor, thanks so much for being with us.

NATASHA JOHNSON: Well, thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Well, would we be welcome?

JOHNSON: Unfortunately, we're not going to welcome you in person, but we will welcome you virtually. We have a live poppy watch feed that those anywhere - from local, state, nationally or even internationally - can look at. The access road and the trails have been closed for public safety reasons.

SIMON: Well, explain that to us. Why?

JOHNSON: Yeah. In 2019, when we saw our first super bloom, we attracted over hundreds of thousands of people in just one weekend. And the area that the poppies are blooming on are hillsides. Unfortunately, the hills are alongside the I-15 corridor, which is a major freeway, and there isn't adequate or suitable parking. So we, in 2019, were providing shuttles.

However, unfortunately, public safety came at too high of a cost. So the behavior of those that came were very - was unfortunate not only to the preservation of the poppies, but to local respect. We had basically paralysis of our entire community and certain neighborhoods that couldn't get out for just day-to-day life and going to work. The gridlock was incredible. Because even though we were offering shuttles, folks were trying to get in on another way. And it's an unpopular decision, but a popular one amongst my residents and who I respond to and who I'm elected by. So we had to make a tough decision.

SIMON: Am I wrong to read between the lines, the implication that not all visitors were well-behaved?

JOHNSON: Not only was the behavior - like, I used unacceptable. But we did have loss of life. We had a CHP officer die on the 15 freeway during a traffic stop by a DUI in the poppy season in 2019.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh.

JOHNSON: We also had some of our public works staff struck by a vehicle from those trying to queue out of the poppy parking. You know, a lot of folks are saying, Natasha, why don't you guys just figure out a way to monetize it? We're not trying to put money over our residents' quality of life and, most importantly, public safety.

SIMON: Did the behavior of any visitors - in addition to not being safe for human beings, did it hurt the wildflowers?

JOHNSON: Not only did it hurt, I think it's the reason why you haven't seen a larger bloom in the last few years. And it's starting to come back. It's still not the same spectacular color we saw in '19. And I think that - I am not an expert nor a botanist, but I do know that there were significant impacts to the preservation of the poppy, which is a protected flower, and people forget that.

SIMON: So if somebody wants to see this spectacular bloom, they got to go online?

JOHNSON: Yes, they can go online and view. And I know that's not as fun, but quite honestly, there are flowers blooming all over California. The Riverside Conservation Authority, they have actually posted all of those sites on their website, where you can check out flowers throughout our region in a safe way. And you don't have to worry about being restricted or parking or shuttles or anything like that. So there are options.

SIMON: Natasha Johnson is the mayor of Lake Elsinore, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us, and Happy Super Bloom.

JOHNSON: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALKING HEADS SONG, "(NOTHING BUT) FLOWERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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