Disney Planet Possible: How Environmentalists Work to Protect SoCal’s Joshua Trees

JOSHUA TREE (KABC) – It’s the legendary star of the show at Joshua Tree National Park, and while Joshua Trees looks quirky, with torn, scratched limbs, they are actually quite special.

“This is a group of species that are only found in our region and further south, but not in Europe, Asia, Africa … nowhere else but here,” explained Dr. Cameron Barrows on the UC Riversides Palm Desert campus.

But Barrows said Joshua Trees has begun to disappear due to climate change.

“It’s not just warming, it’s actually drying up due to climate change, and there are only a few areas where Joshua Trees reproduces successfully, where we see seedlings come up and successfully grow,” Barrows said.

Although Joshua Trees can be hundreds of years old, they are already very picky when it comes to finding a place to thrive.

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In Joshua Tree National Park, there are plenty of them at the 4,000-foot level, but along Highway 62 through the town of Joshua Tree, below the 3,000-foot level, there are not that many of them. While they may seem healthy, you can not completely judge a book by its cover.

Barrows said due to climate change, many have stopped reproducing.

“It’s like you were driving into a community and you saw a senior center, but you did not see an elementary school,” Barrows said. “You get the feeling that this community will not be here in 50 years.”

At the west end of the park, Barrows said Joshua Trees is actually in pretty good shape.

He would refer to the area as “climate refuge”, a place where the effects of climate change appear to be deflected. He said right now we need to protect trees in such places.

“A lot of research suggests that by the turn of the century, Joshua Trees will be in a very small amount of their traditional reach,” said Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent David Smith.

He said that another major problem they face is forest fires. While they may be a rarity in the desert, forest fires have taken their toll on the healthy Joshua trees in the area.

So for the young trees, officials are doing what they can to protect them.

“It means going out there with rangers and staff, felling the exotic weeds that have never existed here, to create a fire break, so when the fire comes and it will come every summer, with the monsoon seasons and the lightning that the flames do not are tall enough to actually damage the Joshua trees, “Smith explained.

In addition to protecting the small Joshua Trees, other officials are looking at whether the trees at higher altitudes might be better suited to surviving warmer, drier conditions elsewhere in the Mojave Desert.

“We think there are populations within the species that naturally will already be better adapted to heat to drought stress,” said Dr. Jeremy Yoder, who is part of a team that collects fruit from Joshua Trees.

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They take seeds and plant them in a greenhouse in Nevada. The team then moves them back to gardens in harsher climates to see if they will do better than trees already there.

“It can help that population cope with the warming conditions as things move forward,” Yoder said.

Either way, environmentalists say we can not ignore what these trees are trying to tell us as they get harder and harder to survive.

“Back in the 19th century, miners took canaries down into the coal mines to test whether the air was good enough for them to be down there and mining, whatever they were. [mining] … most fun. So if the canary had to cool down, it was time to get out of the mine, and so species, biodiversity are in many ways the canaries for us, and they tell us that the environment is becoming more and more unable to support life, and it affects us directly, “Barrows explained.

See the rest of ABC7’s Earth Month coverage and more from Disney Planet Possible here.

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