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

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Jhe trees are not exactly imposing. Slender and spiky, with limbs clutching small, sharp leaf pom-poms, they look like anything a child might imagine. Or maybe Salvador Dalí. Even the name Joshua treelooks a little clunky.

On a cold, wet December morning, I stood in a makeshift camp in the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County, California, listening to a group of strangers worry about the precarious future of the trees. . Within the reserve is Cima Dome, a wide-sloped mound that until recently contained the densest Joshua tree forest in the world.

That changed in August 2020, when a thunderstorm ignited the Dome Fire, which tore through over 43,000 acres of Cima Dome and burned approximately 1.3m of Joshua trees. Since Joshua trees – which technically aren’t trees but a species of desert succulent – are only native to the southwestern United States, the Dome fire represented a real disaster for their survival.

Looking out that morning, I saw seemingly endless fields of burned and tortured tree carcasses. It was a terrible harbinger of things to come: a 2019 study in the journal Ecosphere determined that, if carbon emissions remained at current levels, only 0.02% of species would survive.

Now, a year and a half later, a large group of volunteers are working alongside the National Park Service, which manages the reserve, to replant Joshua trees.

When I visited in early December, the plan was to plant 1,500 seedlings over the next few weeks. The 18 people who spent their day (or days, in some cases) with the trees included civilians from all walks of life, Conservation Corps members from Arizona and Nevada, and a group of women who brought two camels to help carry baby Joshua. trees through some of the most dangerous terrain. Joshua trees typically have a lifespan of 150 years; if all goes as planned, these saplings will be an integral part of the reserve for a long, long time.

Among those gathered was Brendan Cummings, director of conservation for the Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit focused on saving endangered plants and animals. Tall and wiry with thick salt-and-pepper hair and a pensive demeanor, Cummings is spearheading an attempt to list the tree under the Endangered Species Act at the US level. ‘State. “What they’re doing could be the blueprint for what climate restoration will look like,” he told me on the phone a few weeks ago.

A white-haired man in a jacket, a bearded man in a safari hat
A young man with long hair represents a portrait, an older woman wearing a fur hat and a large jacket represents a portrait
  • In December 2021, a group of volunteers traveled to the Mojave National Preserve to plant 1,500 Eastern Joshua tree seedlings. Pictured: volunteers Brendan Cummings, Avery Arp, Anthony Chesney and Nancy Fite.

The threat is not just forest fires. The climate crisis, invasive grasses and poor tree seed migration patterns all contribute to the species’ endangerment. Human development – ​​trees have been cut down to build anything from new neighborhoods to solar farms – doesn’t help matters. Because the threats are so varied, it can be difficult to calculate exactly how many trees are at risk (something real estate developers like to point out).

But Cummings thinks that fact is irrelevant. ‘You don’t need to know if there were 500 passengers or 2,000 passengers on the Titanic to know that the whole population was at risk when they hit an iceberg,’ he said as we stood near base camp on this freezing winter day.

A large bush-like tree

After about an hour of waiting – the camels were ultimately unwilling to load the load of supplies, “living up to the stereotype of being recalcitrant”, as Cummings put it – the volunteers were divided into small groups and directed to designated sites. There they planted the spiky green seedlings that, if all went according to plan, would within a few decades replace the blackened pods of the trees that now line the landscape.


JAlthough they look very similar, there are actually two different species of Joshua trees: western and eastern. The majority of Easterns are located on federal lands and are not threatened by developers. Cummings’ work as a conservationist focuses on the western variety. “Most of the eastern species’ range is on federal land, which will never be bulldozed,” he said. “About 40% of western Joshua tree habitat is on private land, and most of that land will eventually be developed.”

A solar panel erected behind a fence

Cummings’ fight to save western species accelerated in September 2020, when the California Fish and Game Commission accepted a petition he drafted to offer endangered Joshua trees protections for a year. (since extended to May 2022), during which the agency conducts research into the long-term viability of plants. These protections made it illegal to damage or remove Joshua trees without special permits. (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.)

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

Although temporary, the decision still set a precedent: it was the first time that a plant species had been protected due to a threat of climate crisis.

“Climate change is creating a much hotter and much drier desert environment, which limits the ability of species to reproduce,” said Cameron Barrows, one of the Ecosphere study authors and an ecologist at the University of California at Riverside. In the case of the Joshua trees, the drought left the soil too dry to support the young trees. As a result, we end up with a species that skews quite old. It’s a bit like, as Barrows explained, a community with a senior center but no elementary school: “You would immediately realize that the community has a very short lifespan.”


JThis isn’t Cummings’ first conservation rodeo. He was also part of the successful effort to have the polar bear listed as endangered under the Bush administration. Yet all these years later, the bear is still on thin ice, with recent estimates warning that the species could be wiped out by the end of the century.

I asked Cummings if, given that fact, the whole conversation around government protections really mattered in the first place. He nodded amusedly; clearly he was expecting the question.

A group of people kneeling down 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 stop global warming within the next 20 years, even in this optimistic scenario, polar bears have about an 80% chance of extinction,” did he declare. “However, if you reduce the other threats that kill polar bears – oil exploration in their habitat in the Arctic Refuge, trophy hunting – the risk of extinction drops from 80% to around 50%. You have a lot more chances of a species surviving, if you can reduce those other threats.

The same, he explained, applies to the Joshua trees.

It’s not exactly a sunny outlook, but coming from a man who has dedicated his life to preserving the natural world, it’s probably the clearest view we have.

A map on a wall covered in vines

In the meantime, all he can do is dig. Crouched over a sapling, Cummings and the other volunteers got a quick glimpse into planting the dozen or so eastern babies assigned to them: why, for example, it’s important to build a berm around the sapling (it helps retain water), or why only half the saplings are enclosed in small wire mesh cages (a maze of regulations prohibiting the use of fences, so they conduct a mini-experiment on the field to assess whether the barriers will improve life expectancy). “Lots of red tape to navigate,” explained Nic Anderson, the unofficial supervisor and researcher at the Great Basin Institute, an environmental group working closely with the National Park Service.

Soon the volunteers were packing their seedlings into the ground, all under the mournful gaze of thousands of burned Joshua trees. It was a sight full of hope, but also disturbing: like witnessing a birth in a morgue.

Hands hammering the wire, a large bush-like tree

I had the opportunity to speak with volunteer Chris Clarke, associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association, another environmental group. Clarke explained how the Dome fire has not only affected the trees, but also the antelope squirrels that eat their seeds and the ladder-backed woodpeckers that forage for insects in their limbs. And the nocturnal desert lizards that seek refuge under their stumps. And turtles. And the hares. And cottontail rabbits. “There are a lot of animals that depend on the Joshua Tree Forest for food,” he explained. “The Joshua tree is truly the linchpin of the ecosystem.”

After about two hours, the group had the 12 saplings firmly planted in the ground. By then the rain had resumed and temperatures had dropped into the 40s, and the tree-loving caravans decided to return to base. It was a modest effort, and one that, even at the best of times, will not approach the magnitude of the devastation wrought by the Dome fire. But the process was therapeutic for the humans involved as well as restorative for the ecosystem.

A person wearing a ranger hat strokes burnt tree bark

And maybe dead trees aren’t so dead after all. Although Mojave National Preserve staff at first believed each tree to be dead, they suddenly noticed a handful of natural new shoots sprouting from the charred tree pods (although that’s macabre, imagine a baby limb on a rotting corpse). As Cummings and I hiked through the forests near base camp, he couldn’t help but eagerly point out any unexpected saplings. Even after 16 years of living among the trees in the city of Joshua Tree, he still marvels at them.

“You walk through the burnt-out Cima Dome and you feel a little desperate,” Cummings said. “But dig a hole and plant a new tree in the ground and suddenly it looks a little less hopeless.”

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