Closedown Leads To Vandals’ Destruction Of Joshua Trees

The Sentinel has received multiple reports of vandalism at Joshua Tree National Park in California in recent days.
One account held that due to the U.S. federal government shutdown and the lack of park ranger staffing, motorcyclists and some off-roaders exploited the situation to cut down Joshua trees so they could drive into areas where vehicles are banned. In so doing they were said to have done damage to sensitive species and habitat.
One issue in this regard is that relating to Joshua trees themselves. Known variously as the Joshua tree, the yucca palm, tree yucca, palm tree yucca and by the scientific name Yucca brevifolia, these are plants with a range that coincides generally with the geographical reach of the Mojave Desert, where it is considered one of the major indicator species of the region. It occurs between 1,300 feet and 5,900 feet in altitude. Young yucca trees go through multiple stages of development. That youth consists of an extended period of time that a century ago exceeded the average human life expectancy.
Yucca brevifolia can live five centuries or more. Trees take roughly sixty years to mature. Though Joshua trees are fast growers for the desert such that new seedlings may grow at an average rate of three inches per year in their first ten years, for the next fifty years or so their expansion reduces by about half to one-and-a-half inches per year. The tallest of the species will reach as high as 50 feet. Most top out at only about half that tall. The trunk consists of thousands of small fibers. It lacks annual growth rings, making it so other determinants of a tree’s age must be used.
The yucca palm has a top-heavy branch system, coupled with a deep and extensive root system, and roots reach out or down as far as 36 feet. New plants can grow from seed, but in some populations, new stems grow from underground rhizomes that spread out around the parent tree. If a young Joshua tree can survive the harshness of the desert to maturity, it can live for hundreds of years, with some specimens believed to have survived a millennium. Whether the plant can make it through its youth and adolescence to adulthood is a sharp question, though, as the mortality rate for young plants is high.
That is why the vandalism that occurred early this year is alarming and disturbing.
A ranger who is patrolling the park without pay told the Sentinel that there is no question that the government shutdown is having a deleterious impact on the trees.
He said, “Of just what I know of, there have been over a dozen examples of vehicles cutting new roads into pristine areas that have been purposefully preserved for decades in the park. These pirate roads have damaged cherished wilderness. People have knocked down trees or cut locks to go through barriers. We can replace the locks. The trees are irreplaceable anytime this generation.”
On 8 January, the National Park Service announced it would be temporarily closing Joshua Tree National Park “to allow park staff to address sanitation, safety, and resource protection issues in the park that have arisen during the lapse in appropriations.” The announcement further stated, “Park officials are identifying the additional staff and resources needed to address immediate maintenance and sanitation issues and will utilize funds from the park fees to address those issues per the recently updated National Park Service contingency plan during a lapse in appropriations. While the vast majority of those who visit Joshua Tree National Park do so in a responsible manner, there have been incidents of new roads being created by motorists and the destruction of Joshua trees in recent days that have precipitated the closure. Law enforcement rangers will continue to patrol the park and enforce the closure until park staff complete the necessary cleanup and park protection measures.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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