Regrowth of Joshua trees may take centuries
The partial government shutdown ended last week after 35 days, but conservationists have warned that its effect may be felt for hundreds of years in at least one part of the country: Joshua Tree National Park.
The Southern California park, which is larger than Rhode Island and famed for its dramatic rock formations and the spikyleafed Joshua trees from which it takes it name, had only a skeleton crew of workers during the shutdown.
With most of its park rangers furloughed, vandals and inconsiderate guests ran amok. Gates and posts were toppled, new roads carved through the desert by unauthorized off-road drivers, and a small number of the park’s thousands of Joshua trees were outright destroyed, conservationists said.
Pictures posted to social media showed trees that were chopped down or that appeared to have been driven over by cars. The sensitive ecosystem of desert and craggy rock formations that surrounds them was littered with garbage and other telltale signs of illegal camping.
Most visitors to the park were well-behaved, said John Lauretig, a former park ranger who now runs Friends of Joshua Tree, a nonprofit group that organized a small army of volunteers to help clean the park during the shutdown.
“It was just a few vandals or people acting out of ignorance that caused these problems,” he said, reflecting on the broken trees. “Hopefully it’s not malice. Maybe they just didn’t see them.”
The volunteer cleanup crew, which numbered about 100 people, cleaned bathrooms and repaired broken gates and fences. But, unlike those tasks, replanting and growing the park’s namesake Dr. Seussian trees takes a very long time.
“Because these trees are so big and they grow so slowly, it can take hundreds of years for a tree to mature,” Lauretig said. “We say they grow an inch a year, and in a wet year it might grow 5 inches or a foot, but in a dry year it might not grow at all.”
At a rally Saturday near the park, Curt Sauer, the former park superintendent who retired in 2010, agreed.
“What’s happened to our park in the last 34 days is irreparable for the next 200 to 300 years,” he told the crowd, according to The Desert Sun, a local newspaper. Sauer did not respond to messages seeking comment, nor did David Smith, the park’s current superintendent.
An online guide to Joshua trees published by the National Park Service identified them by the scientific name Yucca brevifolia, a form of yucca plant that is a member of the Agave family.
That taxonomy means it can be tricky to determine their age or to estimate the length of time it might take to a replace a destroyed specimen, Lauretig said.
“They’re yucca plants, so they don’t grow with rings, like a tree, so you can’t count their age that way,” Lauretig said. “All we can do is make estimates.”
According to the parkservice guide, the plants – which it says are valued for their “grotesque appearance” – tend to grow at a rate of one-half inch to 3 inches per year, so conservationists often use a Joshua tree’s height to guess its age.
Young ones can grow quickly for the first five years of their lives, only to slow down or pause for the next several years, the park said.
A small number of the thousands of signature trees in Joshua Tree National Park – shown here in 2016 – were destroyed during the partial government shutdown. Conservationists say replacing them will take time.