In a charred moonscape, a band of hopeful workers try to save the Joshua tree
"The Country since leaving the Colorado has been a dry rocky sandy Barren desert." – Jedediah Smith, 1826.
Early western explorers who ventured into the Mojave Desert, like Jedediah Smith, often mischaracterized it as a barren landscape, devoid of life.
Yet a closer inspection of these sweeping landscapes reveals soil-hugging carpets of springtime flowers, native grasses and fragrant shrubs, alongside the more obvious cacti and succulents.
Where the desert lives up to its stereotype is after a wildfire.
In the shadow of last month's York Fire in California's Mojave National Preserve, almost nothing is left amid the rocks and sand, except the charred carcasses of Mojave yuccas, Joshua trees, and chollas. The soil is a mottled brown and black, and some plants have been reduced to mere silhouettes of char on the ground.
The moonscape is the result of a fire that burned quickly and widely, engulfing roughly 130 square miles of the preserve – including picturesque Caruthers Canyon, a boulder-strewn spot popular with campers.
"Caruthers Canyon is the prettiest place we had. It was a beautiful little pinyon-juniper forest up there," says Debra Hughson, who is the preserve's deputy superintendent. "When the pinyon-juniper burns, it doesn't come back. Not in my lifetime. Not in your lifetime. Maybe never."
There may be no going back
This latest wildfire comes as a reminder of the unpredictable future facing some of the desert's most iconic residents. Warmer, drier temperatures are already stressing the preserve's spindly Joshua trees. Models predict those warming trends will leave Joshua trees with fewer suitable places to live. Scroll forward in time, Hughson says, and their range shrinks: "It melts like an ice cube on a hot sidewalk." On top of that, in recent years wide-ranging wildfires are also pushing the succulents into greater peril.
"They're already living on the edge," Hughson says. "What we're doing here globally is we're cranking up the temperature, and here we're also cranking down the rainfall, the precipitation." Joshua trees, she explains, are having a hard time keeping up with such swift climate changes. "Then you get a major stressor like this, that just erases the chalkboard."
What she means is the park's dense Joshua tree forests may never come back after a fire. A grassy savannah might rise up to replace them, with a few Joshua trees scattered throughout as a reminder of what once was.
Nowhere is that potential future on greater display than along Morning Star Mine Road, which cuts across the northern reaches of the preserve. On one side of the road there is a Joshua tree forest so dense it looks like a green wall at a distance, with a rich understory of drab greenish-gray bushes. On the other side there's a graveyard of blackened Joshua trees with sun-bleached buds. The ground is mostly bare, aside from patches of grass, and the color palette is black, white and shades of tan.
The road was a firebreak during the 2020 Dome Fire. Flames destroyed an estimated 1.3 million Joshua trees on Cima Dome, an area that was once the park's grandest example of dense Joshua tree woodland. The area's relatively high elevation was supposed to serve as a sort of sanctuary – a climate refuge where Joshua trees could continue to thrive amid hotter, drier conditions elsewhere in their range. Then, the fire came – an unexpected destabilizing force that casts that long-term trajectory into question.
Hughson trained as a geologist. She talks about the future of the Joshua tree and what might happen at Cima Dome as if she still assesses these seismic ecological changes at the tempo of geologic time. "In the end," she says, "the desert is going to tell us what it's going to be and it's going to show us what it's going to be."
Replanting hope in the desert
Scientists are not waiting to see what the desert becomes. They're actively intervening with an ambitious years-long project to replant some 4,000 Joshua trees at Cima Dome.
Biological science technician Erin Knight walks through a graveyard of dead Joshua trees, near the remains of an old cattle operation called Valley View Ranch. Some of the plants have toppled to the ground. Others still stand, but they're falling to pieces; the branches that once stretched up to the sky now dangle and sway eerily in the desert wind.
"Kind of our own little chandelier here in the desert," Knight jokes.
Small chicken wire cages are scattered throughout the grove. This is where volunteers have planted baby Joshua trees, in hopes of resurrecting the century-old giants that perished here. Knight crouches down near one of the cages, and checks a numbered tag.
She says this seedling was planted on Nov. 6 last year, and a volunteer named it Bratislava – the capital of Slovakia. Unfortunately, this one's dead, as are many others at this site. In fact, in the two years this project's been underway, 80% of the roughly 1,900 Joshua trees planted in the burn scar of the Dome Fire have died.
"Unfortunately, restoring Joshua trees is more of an art than a science, and sometimes it works out really well and sometimes it doesn't," Hughson says. Some of the baby Joshua trees have been eaten, especially those without a cage. Others die of thirst, though volunteers and scientists at the preserve make their best efforts to water the baby seedlings.
"There's been hundreds and hundreds of volunteers that have participated. We even had a camel train packing water into these," Hughson says. Restoration work in the desert, she explains, is not for the faint of heart.
"It's a tale of failed experiments," Hughson says. "Go look at the literature on restoration in the desert, especially the Mojave Desert. And OK, 'Well, this didn't work.' Another paper on, 'Well, that didn't work.' 'OK, well, we tried this, and we failed miserably.' And the stories of success are very rare."
Still, hundreds of these Joshua tree seedlings have survived. Knight's colleague Ryan McRae found one nearby. It's only a few inches tall, and looks like the top of a baby pineapple. Knight looks up its name, and says it's called "Lychee."
It's still tiny, and McRae points out one of the huge challenges of restoring a forest with two-inch-tall seedlings. "These Joshua trees only grow about 1.5 to 2 inches per year. So if you can imagine a 10-foot-tall tree or so, you can get an idea of how many years or decades it would take to get to that height." At a conservative 1.5 inches per year – it would take at least 80 years to return this area back to the way it was before the fire.
"We probably won't see it in any of our lives," Knight says.
Preparing for the future
Kelso is an old railroad town in another corner of the park near a giant field of sand dunes. Behind a 1920s schoolhouse, there's a small beige building with two bright teal doors reading BOYS and GIRLS. There's no sign from the outside, but the GIRLS room is now a makeshift field lab.
"This is our seed lab," says Christina Sanchez, a seed technician. "This is where we're sorting all of the Joshua tree seeds, and where we store them before they go to the nursery." The nursery is a facility near Lake Mead, where rows of pots contain baby Joshua tree sprouts, ready to be transplanted into the wild.
Sanchez pulls over a big bucket, full of cream-colored Joshua tree fruits she and her team have collected. She takes one out and shakes it: "Sounds like a little rattle," she says. The seeds are about the size of roma tomatoes, but they're brittle and hard. She breaks one open with a crack, and reveals the black hockey-puck-like seeds inside.
A curious contraption that looks like a cross between an ant farm and a pinball machine hooks up to a shop vac blower. It's a seed cleaning machine, and when Sanchez switches on the blower, the seeds flutter through the chutes inside.
From here, she'll dump the viable seeds into big jars, labeled with the collection site, and put them in a big chest freezer. The freezer is already half full of jars brimming with some 300,000 Joshua tree seeds.
"This is the future of the species," Sanchez says. "This deep freezer here, this is holding our future."
Many of the Joshua tree seedlings planted so far have died, raising the question whether collecting and storing seeds is a gesture of hope.
"We're going to lose a species if we don't try," she says. "We just gotta keep trying."
Debra Hughson acknowledges that the replanting effort is just a "drop in the ocean," given the massive losses of Joshua trees here in recent years. "That's a few hundred we've managed, in a landscape that had 1.3 million," she says. "So you can do the math."
Numbers aside, Hughson expresses skepticism that people really have much of a role in "rebuilding" wilderness. "I don't think that wilderness areas can be built. They can be designated, but nature created it," she says. "We seem to be capable of destroying it ... but we can't create something that we don't really even understand."
Even so, the replanting project continues in October. The goal is to get 2,000 more Joshua trees in the ground over the next two years, and as before, the preserve is relying on wilderness-savvy volunteers. That human aspect, Hughson says, might be one of the most compelling reasons to do what seems very difficult, if not near impossible, on an ecological scale.
"It makes us feel better. You know, psychologically, there were a lot of people that got a lot of good feelings and satisfaction from helping with the Joshua tree planting," she says. "And to try to help makes you feel better about yourself and more hopeful about the future. And that in itself is a valuable thing."
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