An Uncertain Fate - Joshua Tree National Park

The government shutdown earlier this year wreaked havoc on our nation in more ways than one.  Joshua Tree National Park, like many of the national parks across the country remained open during the shutdown, a contingency plan developed in 2018 to keep a small amount of staff on payroll at all of the parks.

Joshua Tree National Park was forced to shut down its campgrounds due to “health and safety concerns over near-capacity pit toilets,” according to CNN. Although it appears many visitors visited the parks respectfully, with bathroom doors locked, trash cans full and main gates left open, the woods or an overfilled pit toilet were potentially your only options.

Unfortunately, waste was not the only issue.  Illegal roads, the cutting down of Joshua Trees and vandalism of federal property were among additional concerns.  A skeleton crew of workers struggled to maintain the park, which is bigger than the state of Rhode Island.  No one could have imaged the level of out-of-bounds camping that occurred.  It appeared Joshua Trees had been cut down to carve new off-road paths through pristine desert areas, reports noted.

Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park // image credit -  Sarah Dickenson

Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park // image credit - Sarah Dickenson

Although many people might not understand the magnitude of such vandalism, the Joshua Tree has not only become a symbol of the Mojave Desert in Southern California, but also a part of the local identity.  According to a former park super intendant it could take centuries to regrow some of the iconic plants in the park, if the Joshua Tree even has a few centuries left before they are gone from the park altogether.  Its ecosystem is fragile and already under attack from the threats of climate change. 

“By 2100, scientists predict that Joshua Tree National Park will lose almost all of its Joshua tree habitat to climate change. But the Joshua tree relies on other species to survive, and a new study on the relationship between Joshua trees and a type of symbiotic yucca moth piles on the bad news.  According to the study, yucca moths, which the Joshua tree relies on to reproduce, aren’t healthy in the few places where Joshua trees can survive the heat,” according to National Geographic.

Coupled with the threat of climate change the recent attacks on the Joshua Trees are particularly troublesome.  Joshua Trees take years to grow, in dry years the trees might only grow half an inch, while in wet years they can grow several inches, making it difficult to estimate just how old some of the trees are. 

Although the damage done to the Joshua Trees during the recent Government shutdown was likely committed out of arrogance, the reality is that the fate of the Joshua Tree as a whole is uncertain. The tree is currently being considered for the endangered species list and losing them is detrimental to the park’s ecosystem.  It’s strange to think of a time when Joshua Tree National Park might not actually be home to any Joshua Trees.  While it may take the park 200 - 300 years to rehabilitate from the damage caused during the shutdown, due to rising temperatures and heightened vulnerability the name-sake tree may only have another 100.

How Can You Help?

  • Volunteer at Joshua Tree National Park - keep our parks clean and trails safe!

  • Donate to the NPS - every penny counts!

  • Combat Climate Change in 4 simple ways

    • Renewable Energy - with costs dropping every day, renewable energy is the best choice for the environment and the economy.

    • Green Commute - carpooling, taking public transportation or bike riding are all great ways to reduce your transportation emissions.

    • Consume less, waste less and enjoy life more - get outside and spend time with your loved ones, opt for emailable receipts, say no to 1x use plastics like water bottles.

    • Vote!

Sources: The Smithosian // Vox // NY Times // National Geographic