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

he trees are not exactly imposing. Slim and spiny, with limbs that grip small poms of sharp leaves, they look like something a child might dream up. Or maybe Salvador Dalí. Even the name, Joshua tree, sounds kind of awkward.

On a wet and chilly December morning, I stood at a makeshift encampment in the Mojave national preserve in San Bernardino county, 캘리포니아, listening as a group of strangers fretted over the trees’ precarious future. Within the preserve is Cima Dome, a broad-sloping mound that, until recently, contained the densest Joshua tree forest in the world.

That changed in August 2020, when a lightning storm ignited the Dome fire, which ripped through over 43,000 acres of Cima Dome and burned about 1.3m 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 harbinger of things to come: ㅏ 2019 Ecosphere journal study determined that, if carbon emissions stay at current levels, 단지 0.02% of the species would survive.

지금, a year and a half later, a wide-ranging group of volunteers are working alongside the National Park Service, which manages the preserve, to replant Joshua trees.

When I visited in early December, the plan was to plant 1,500 seedlings over the next several weeks. 그만큼 18 people spending their day (or days, 일부 경우에) with the trees included civilians from all walks of life, members of the Arizona and Nevada Conservation Corps, and a group of women who brought along two pack camels to help carry baby Joshua trees through some of the more treacherous terrain. Joshua trees typically have a lifespan of 150 연령; if all goes according to plan, these saplings will become a fixture of the preserve for a long, long time.

Among those assembled was Brendan Cummings, the conservation director with the Center for Biological Diversity, a national non-profit focused on saving imperiled plants and animals. Tall and wiry with a thick head of salt and pepper hair and a pensive demeanor, Cummings is spearheading an attempt to list the tree under the state-level 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.

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. Because the threats are so varied, it can be difficult to calculate exactly how many trees are in danger (something land developers love to point out).

But Cummings believes that fact is beside the point. “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.

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. There they would plant the spiky green seedlings that, if all went according to plan, would over the course of a few decades replace the blackened husks of trees that now line the landscape.

hough they look pretty similar, there are in fact two different species of Joshua trees: western and eastern. The majority of easterns are located on federal land and are not under threat 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,”그는 말했다. “About 40% of western Joshua tree habitat is on private land, and most of that will ultimately get developed.”

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. Those protections made it 불법적 인 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.)

“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 캘리포니아 Endangered Species Act,” said Rachel Ballanti, deputy executive director of California fish and game commission.

Though temporary, the decision was still precedent-setting: it marked the first time a plant species was given protection as a result of a climate crisis 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. In the case of Joshua trees, drought has left the soil too dry to sustain saplings. 결과적으로, 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.”

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

I asked Cummings if, given this fact, all the conversation around government protections really matter in the first place. He nodded his head in amusement; clearly he was expecting the question.

“If you look at the modeling for say, polar bears in Alaska, if we halt global warming in the next 20 연령, even in that optimistic scenario, polar bears have about an 80% chance of extinction,”그는 말했다. “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.”

The same thing, he explained, 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.

그동안, all he can do is dig. 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, 예를 들면, 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 enough the volunteers were packing their infant plants into the soil, all under the mournful gaze of the thousands of burned Joshua trees. It was a hopeful sight, but also an eerie one: like witnessing a birth in a morgue.

I got to talking with volunteer Chris Clarke, an associate director with the National Parks Conservation Association, another environmental group. 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. And the desert night lizards that seek shelter under their stumps. And tortoises. And jackrabbits. And 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.”

After about two hours, the group had all 12 of their saplings firmly planted into the ground. By then the rain had picked up and temperatures had dipped into the 40s, and the caravans of tree-huggers decided to head 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. But the process was therapeutic for the humans involved as much as it was restorative for the ecosystem.

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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