Re­growth of Joshua trees may take cen­turies

The Tribune (SLO) - - News - BY LIAM STACK

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.

TREVOR TONDRO NYT file

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.

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