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‘Like witnessing a birth in a morgue’: the volunteers working to save the Joshua trees | Trees and forests
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‘Like witnessing a birth in a morgue’: the volunteers working to save the Joshua trees | Trees and forests

A grid of eight burned trees


TThe trees aren’t exactly impressive. They are slim and spiny with limbs that grasp small poms of sharp leaf leaves. Or maybe Salvador Dalí. Even the name. Joshua treeIt sounds awkward.

On a wet and chilly December morning, I stood at a makeshift encampment in the Mojave national preserve in San Bernardino county, California, listening as a group of strangers fretted over the trees’ precarious future. Cima Dome, an imposing mound with a wide slope that once contained the remains of the Mojave national preserve, is located within the preserve. DensestJoshua tree forest around the world

That all changed in August 2020 when lightning struck the area. Dome fireThe fire smashed through 43,000 acres of Cima Dome, and burned approximately 1.3 million Joshua trees. Given that Joshua trees – which technically are not trees but a species of desert succulent – are native only to the south-western US, the Dome fire represented an outright disaster to their survival.

Looking out that morning, I saw seemingly endless fields of the trees’ scorched and tortured carcasses. This was a terrible sign of the future: 2019 Ecosphere journal studyIt was found that only 0.02% would survive if carbon dioxide levels were to remain at their current levels.

A grid of eight burned trees

A year and half later, a large group of volunteers has joined the National Park Service to plant Joshua trees.

In early December, the plan was for 1,500 seedlings to be planted over the next few weeks. The 18 people who spent their time (or days, depending on the case) with the trees were civilians from all walks and members of the Arizona Conservation Corps. A group of women brought two packs of camels to carry the baby Joshua trees across some of the more dangerous terrain. Joshua trees have a life expectancy of approximately 10 years. 150 yearsIf everything goes according to plan, these saplings can be a fixture of the preserve long, long.

Brendan Cummings was among those present. He is the Center for Biological Diversity’s conservation director. This national non-profit is focused on saving endangered plants and animals. Cummings, a tall and wiry man with a thick head and pepper hair and a pensive disposition, is leading the effort to list the tree under the state’s Endangered Species Act. “What they’re doing could be the model for what climate restoration will look like,” he told me on the phone a few weeks prior.

A man with white hair in a jacket, a bearded man man in a safari hat
A young man with long hair stands for a portrait, an older woman in a fur hat and large jacket stands for a portrait

  • A group of volunteers visited the Mojave National Preserve in December 2021 to plant 1,500 eastern Joshua Tree seedlings. Pictured: Volunteers Avery Arp and Nancy Fite.

The threat isn’t just wildfires. The climate crisis, invasive grasses and poor migration patterns for the trees’ seeds all contribute to the species’ imperilment. Human development – the trees have been cleared out to build anything from new neighborhoods to solar farms – isn’t helping matters. The threats are so diverse that it can be hard to determine how many trees are at risk. This is something land developers love to highlight.

Cummings disagrees. “You don’t need to know whether there were 500 passengers or 2,000 passengers on the Titanic to know that the entire population was threatened when they hit an iceberg,” he said as we stood near the basecamp on that frigid winter day.

A large bush-like tree

After about an hour’s wait – the camels were ultimately unwilling to saddle the load of supplies, “living up to the stereotype of being recalcitrant”, as Cummings put it – the volunteers were split into small groups and directed to designated sites. They would then plant the green seedlings, which, if everything went according to plan would eventually replace the blackened husks and trees that line the landscape.

TAlthough they may look very similar, there are actually two types of Joshua trees: eastern and western. Most easterns are found on federal land, and are not being threatened by developers. Cummings’ work as a conservationist focuses on the western variety. “Most of the range of the eastern species is on federal land, which is never going to get bulldozed,” he said. “About 40% of western Joshua tree habitat is on private land, and most of that will ultimately get developed.”

An erect solar panel behind a fence

Cummings’ fight to save the western species picked up steam in September 2020, when the California fish and game commission accepted a petition he authored to offer endangered protections to Joshua trees for one year (since extended to May of 2022), during which the agency is conducting research into the plants’ long-term viability. These protections made it possible. IllegalYou cannot damage or remove Joshua trees without a permit. (That ban didn’t apply to everyone: the commission approved an exemption allowing solar projects in Kern and San Bernardino counties to continue removing Joshua trees during construction.)

“After the commission receives the report, it can complete the process to make a final determination whether or not to list the Joshua tree as threatened or endangered under the California Endangered Species Act,” said Rachel Ballanti, deputy executive director of California fish and game commission.

Even though the protection was temporary, it was precedent-setting. This was the first time a species of plant was protected due to a climate change threat.

“Climate change is creating a much hotter and much drier desert environment, and that is restricting species’ ability to reproduce,” said Cameron Barrows, one of the Ecosphere study’s authors and an ecologist with the University of California, Riverside. Joshua trees have been affected by drought, which has made the soil too dry for saplings to thrive. As a result, we’re left with a species that skews quite old. It’s sort of akin, as Barrows explained, to a community with a senior center but no elementary school: “You would immediately realize the community has a very short lifespan.”

This isn’t Cummings’ first conservation rodeo. He was also part the successful push to get a polar bear Listened as endangeredBush administration. Despite being on thin ice for many years, the bear’s survival rate is still low. Recent estimates indicate that the species could soon be extinct. All other traces of the incident have been removedBy the end the century.

Cummings was amused when I asked him if he thought this made all the talk about government protections irrelevant. He shook his head in amusement, clearly anticipating the question.

A group of people kneeling and planting succulents, a close-up image of gloved hands planting a succulent

“If you look at the modeling for say, polar bears in Alaska, if we halt global warming in the next 20 years, even in that optimistic scenario, polar bears have about an 80% chance of extinction,” he said. “However, if you reduce other threats that kill polar bears – oil development in their habitat in the Arctic Refuge, trophy hunting – the extinction risk drops from 80% down to about 50%. You have a significantly greater chance of a species surviving, if you can reduce those other threats.”

He explained that the same principle applies to Joshua trees.

It’s not exactly a sunny outlook, but coming from a man who’s dedicated his life to the preservation of the natural world, it’s probably the most clear-eyed view we’ve got.

A map on a wall covered in vines

Cummings can only dig in the meantime. Crouching over a sapling, Cummings and the other volunteers were given a quick run-down on planting the dozen eastern babies they had been assigned: why, for example, it’s important to build a berm around the sapling (it helps to retain water), or why only half of the saplings are encased by small chicken-wire cages (a maze of regulations prohibit the use of fencing, so they’re conducting a mini-field experiment to evaluate whether the barriers will improve life expectancy). “A lot of red tape to navigate,” explained Nic Anderson, the unofficial supervisor and a researcher with the Great Basin Institute, an environmental group working closely with the National Park Service.

Soon, the volunteers were putting their baby plants in the soil under the watchful eyes of thousands of Joshua trees. It was a hopeful, but also eerie sight. It was like witnessing a baby’s birth in a morgue.

Hands hammer wire, a large bush-like tree

Chris Clarke is an associate director at the National Parks Conservation Association. He is another environmental group. I had the opportunity to speak with Clarke. Clarke explained how the Dome fire didn’t just impact the trees, but also the antelope squirrels that eat their seeds, and the ladder-backed woodpeckers that look for insects in their limbs. The desert night lizards, which seek shelter under their stumps. Tortoises. And jackrabbits. Also cottontail rabbits. “There are lots of animals that depend on the Joshua tree forest for food,” he explained. “The Joshua tree is really the linchpin of the ecosystem.”

The group had planted all 12 of its saplings in the ground within two hours. The rain had started to fall and temperatures were dropping into the 40s by this point, so the tree-huggers headed back to base. It was a modest effort, and one that even in the best-case scenario, won’t come to approaching the scale of devastation wrought by the Dome fire. The process was both therapeutic and restorative for all those involved.

A person in a ranger hat caresses a burned tree bark

And maybe the dead trees aren’t so dead after all. Though the Mojave national preserve staff had initially believed every tree was dead, they’d suddenly noticed a handful of natural new growths sprouting from the husks of the charred trees (though it’s macabre, imagine a baby limb on a decaying corpse). As Cummings and I strolled through the forests near the basecamp, he couldn’t help but eagerly point out any unexpected saplings. Even after 16 years living among the trees in the town of Joshua Tree, he’s still amazed by them.

“You walk through the burned Cima Dome and feel a little hopeless,” Cummings said. “But dig a hole and plant a new tree in the ground and suddenly it feels a little less hopeless.”


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