Letter From the Desert: Nipton, California

I remember when I used to watch the mountains to the west. I would count the minutes as their shadow crept eastward along the valley floor. Nighthawks would swoop above the patch of fenced-in land behind my house. They would catch the handful of mosquitoes the desert could barely manage to summon after each monsoon.

I fed the feral cats for a while that year. I judged them no real threat to the scant few local birds, and I needed the company. There was a tortoise shell male, head-butting sweet until I tried to pick him up one day. He never quite forgave me. July came, and with it the emergence of palo verde root borers, one of North America’s largest beetles at four inches in length. The cats needed me less for a few weeks. The night air filled with the sound of crunching.

“That whole summer,” I told la mujer que amo this Saturday, “I don’t think I was outside for a single sunrise.” “We shall remedy that in the morning,” she said.

From my little house the shadow of Clark Mountain seemed to sweep across the floor of the valley each evening, slowly as it left the foot of the mountain in mid-afternoon and then gaining speed. I was twenty miles from the summit. At the midpoint of the shadow’s travels, the separation between dark and light seemed knife-edged. At a mile away, the edge had softened. When it reached me, it was nearly imperceptible: a slow shift from too-warm and blinding to breezy to twilight and a positively chilly 96 degrees F.

And then I would watch the silent traffic on distant I-15, trails of red and white lights against the growing blackness.

This weekend’s visit was prompted by a friend’s birthday, one of those nice round numbers that prompts celebration and reflection. In attendance? A dozen of his friends and family members, many of whom had never met before. All were engaging and I found not a single one of them annoying, an circumstance which usually means the annoying person there was yours truly.

We engaged in laughing, storytelling, political griping, talk about environment and books and plants and dogs and tortoises and snakes and art. There was a point where musical instruments were pulled out of hiding: a guitar and a banjo and a mandolin, a ukulele, drums and other drums and yet another guitar and a toy accordion. There was boisterous universal misremembering of lyrics by Bob Dylan.

And there was the view toward Cima, about twenty miles south just past a low pass.

I avoided this valley for years, due not to sad memories but ecstatic ones. When I moved here I left a splintered life five hundred miles west, across miles of creosote and dust and corporate cotton fields, and rousing myself in the mornings took effort, especially after nights of fitful, displaced dreams. But in the afternoon the light would change, and I would find myself returning to the valley from the east after an errand somewhere, and the beauty of the place would strike me like a hammer to the chest. “I live here now,” I would think, and the thought left me gasping at my good fortune.

And then came years fighting a 4,000-acre bird-killing monstrosity, and losing. As did the birds. I did not come back for years after it was built, though I did obsessively chronicle its rise and subsequent sort-of fall. At one point, there were seven such projects proposed in California. The serious problems with the technology, which I hammered on until the rest of the world started paying attention, were part of the reason only one was built. A collapse in the price of photovoltaic solar in 2011 was probably a bigger reason, but I like to think my work had something to do with stopping Brightsource Solar’s California portfolio at one.

Anyway, I didn’t go back for about five years. The project seemed profane in my imagining, an insult to the life-altering beauty I had found in the place. I could not bear to see it for myself. And then, in 2016, just before a former president created the Castle Mountains National Monument nearby, on my way to check out the potential new monument, I saw it for myself. I drove into the Ivanpah Valley. I pulled over at Nipton Road. I gazed out across the west side of the valley at the three hellfire-blazing units of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.

I took a long, leisurely, coffee-fueled piss in the ISEGS’s direction, aided by the prevailing wind. I felt a little better. I headed across the valley toward Crescent Peak.

It’s an eyesore. Literally. It hurts your eyes. It resulted in hundreds of displaced and possibly dead tortoises, and untold thousands of dead birds. It doesn’t work: right now it’s not so much an efficient solar power plant as a hugely inefficient sun-assisted natural gas plant. It blinds drivers and pilots. Its power costs about four times the current going rate for other solar. It was pointless and best avoided.

It’s also 4,000 acres out of more than 300,000 in the Ivanpah Valley. There are a lot of other things upon which to rest your dazzled eyes.

The skyline along the east side of the valley, for instance, in the hour just before sunrise, which la mujer que amo and I and perhaps the dog watched the next morning as we headed a few hundred yards up toward the state line. The sky lightened in discontinuous stages: gray, then pink, then indigo, then pink again and green and blue.

I turned back westward to see if the sun had lit up Clark Mountain. It had. And there before me were 4,000 acres of subtle, shimmering reflection, transmuted by distance and warm rising air into something better than what I knew those acres to be.

“This time of day,” I told la mujer que amo, “I can almost see why some people think that thing is pretty. Almost.”

The sun came up, and the plant’s heliostats started to turn, and the boilers at the tops of each tower began to build toward their hellish white blaze.

Fuckers.


Hey, for those of you in the Morongo Basin this weekend, I am joining my friends Jacqueline Guevara and Kiim Stringfellow at 6 pm Saturday to give talks about desert stuff. It’s free, though donations to keep the venue alive will be accepted. It’s at the Beatnik Lounge in Joshua Tree, 61597 29 Palms Highway. See you there.

Letter From the Desert: Defending All Our Desert Relatives

Desert dandelion
February 25, 2019

Yesterday, Saturday September 7, was California Biodiversity Day. That either means a lot to you or hardly anything at all. Biodiversity, or its long-form version “biological diversity,” is one of those indispensable terms for which there really is no useful synonym. It does not, however, have a spot in the roster of the most poetical expressions in the English language.

Here’s a definition: biological diversity is the amount of variety within a group of organisms on levels ranging from the very small-scale (genes) to larger (species) to even larger (ecosystems). The more differences there are among the living things in a forest, or a conference room, or a Petri dish, the more biologically diverse that place is.

I know. Still not an inspiring term. Looking to other languages isn’t much help: it’s “biodiversité” or ““biodiversidad” or биоразнообразия, pronounced “bioraznubraziya,” a straight literal translation with the Russian words for “bio” and “diversity” stapled together. German does, in addition to “Biodiversität,” offer the synonym “Artenvielfalt,” which means something close to “manifold species,” But that’s less precise and only a little more interesting.

It’s a bit ironic, because the pedestrian term “biological diversity” describes one of the most inspiring phenomena the universe has to offer. Somewhere between 3.6 and 4 billion years ago living things appeared on Earth. From that first group of living things all of us have descended. Redwood trees, sea stars, bubonic plague bacilli, hybrid tea roses, eels and members of the Republican National Committee, Beethoven and tube worms and ocelots and Komodo dragons: all literally related to each other by ties of common descent. (I was going to say “consanguinity” but some of our relatives are bloodless.) Life exuberantly reproduces generations with slight variation and those variations are sorted and remixed and sifted out, and after a mere few billion years our family has changed the planet’s atmosphere and built gigantic mountains out of limestone and split into millions of different subgroups, all different and diverging and entwining lines of descent from our single-celled common ancestor: Big Mama.

The biodiversity of a place is that place’s richness in the number of those lines of descent represented there.

Anyway. When I first heard the word it was in the middle-1980s, and I was drudging through a job watering office plants in Washington DC, and one of my clients was the DC office of the World Resources Institute, and one of the policy guys there had a poster on his door which was substantially similar to this:

… though it was advertising a conference rather than adorning the cover of a book. I admired the poster, the policy guy told me to take it, and it hung on my various walls for close to a decade afterward. Design-wise, the poster pretty much expressed the 1980s-90s vision of what biodiversity meant. Two examples of humid forest (the background and the vignette with the toucan and bromeliad), one even more humid biome (the seafloor-reef thing), and a seasonally brown grassland with a bison in the background. Classic rich ecosystems.

That younger, less desiccated version of me might have been a little surprised to learn that the term “biological diversity” was first used not to describe a coral reef or tropical hardwood forest, but a desert: the Arizona Upland portion of the Sonoran Desert near Tucson. One hundred and three years ago, University of Minnesota botanist J. Arthur Harris published an article in The Scientific Monthly in which he described the Sonoran Desert’s startlingly rich flora, saying close to the end of the piece:

The bare statement that the region contains a flora rich in genera and species and of diverse geographic origin or affinity is entirely inadequate as a description of its real biological diversity.

The concept of biodiversity may not have first occurred to biologists in the context of deserts, but the terminology apparently did.

Nonetheless, 1.03 centuries later, the notion that deserts have biological diversity worth noting is often regarded as counterintuitive, if not dismissed altogether. That’s likely due to a persistent gut assumption that biodiversity and biomass are the same thing. “The place is barren; how can there be more than four species there? Biodiversity is howler monkeys and orchids and vines and freshwater snails in Alabama. The desert is just a 100,000 square miles of kitty litter.”

California’s deserts make up 28 percent of the land area of the state. California’s deserts make up 38 percent of the known plant diversity of the state. A portion of California is known far and wide as a biodiversity hotspot. That portion is called the California Floristic Province, and it laps over into Oregon and Baja, with just a sliver of the Nevada side of Tahoe, as shown in the red overlay here:

You will perhaps have noticed that the California Floristic Province, declared one of 33 global “biodiversity hotspots” by Conservation International in 1996, excludes the state’s deserts. And yet those deserts host a disproportionate number of the state’s plant species, with expert desert botanists predicting that number will grow as about a hundred new species are discovered each century. There is an area in the Mojave National Preserve that has been called the center of shrub diversity in California, and California is nothing if not shrub-diverse. An acre of the Mojave Desert can have more species diversity than an acre of old-growth redwood forest.

Think of living things as books. The Redwood Forest Library has many times more books than the Mojave Desert library. But the Mojave Library has more single copies of rare books. There are not a few rare books in the Redwood Library as well, but most of the shelf space is taken up by thousands of copies of the same dozen books.

Desert mariposa lily, Calochortus kennedyi

I’ve been thinking about this this past week because pressure is once again building for industrial development in the deserts, which constitute the largest intact North American ecosystem south of the boreal tundra. I spent some of last week writing comments on a ludicrously large solar facility in southern Nevada that would obliterate excellent desert tortoise habitat with as many as 900 juvenile torts on it right now. There is once again a move to build a giant commercial airport in the Ivanpah Valley to serve Las Vegas. Gold mines are starting up again, and every month there’s a new suburb proposed for old-growth desert habitat somewhere.

And the Green New Deal, as good and overdue an idea as it is, is a huge potential threat to the desert and its biological diversity, not only because of utility-scale solar projects like the one I wrote comments on, but also due to new transmission lines and wind turbines in sensitive mountain habitats and the ongoing demand for rare earth metals for electronics and lithium for batteries.

We saw something like this a decade ago, and though we did not lose we lost far too much. The desert has an order of magnitude more defenders now than it did then. Random people are far more likely to grant that the desert has value beyond being a potential mine or landfill. We’ve done good work in the last decade.

We’re gonna have to keep at it, I guess is what I’m saying. The desert and its manifold species need more help than ever.

Mojave poppy bee, a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection. Zach Portman photo.

Letter From the Desert: Toloache, la Llorona

The dog and I walked out last night, well past dark. We pointed ourselves east. The stars overhead shone brilliantly, but on the horizon in front of us was an incongruous dark. As we walked that dark horizontal band began to flash. White explosions due east, then northeast, then southeast. Some were muted and blurred; some sharp and outlining layers of cloud.

A thunderstorm then, and distant. I started counting seconds after one bright flash, an old habit. Sound travels at five seconds per mile. The lapse in seconds between lightning and thunder divided by five thus equals whether or not you should start heading home. I stopped counting at 60. I waited another minute, then two. No thunder came. Just the southeast wind off the Gulf, a cry from a barn owl flying westward, and the usual scent of toloache blooming after nightfall on a torrid day.

There is a song I have known my whole life, perhaps oddly given my background. Or perhaps it’s to be expected, given my background. It is one of the best-known folk songs of Mexico, one of those exultant minor key deals from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Todos me dicen el negro, Llorona
negro pero cariñoso
Todos me dicen el negro, Llorona
negro pero cariñoso
Yo soy como el chile verde, Llorona;
picante pero sabroso
Yo soy como el chile verde, Llorona;
picante pero sabroso

It’s not unusual for the song to play in my head at random times. Tonight it does for two reasons.

First is the concert la mujer que amo and I went to on Saturday; a band specializing in Mexican folk music, and they played La Llorona.

The second is the toloache, its eight-inch white trumpet flowers bowing their heads in the wind off the Sea of Cortez.

No sé que tienen las flores, Llorona,
Las flores de un campo santo
No sé que tienen las flores, Llorona
Las flores de un campo santo
Que cuando las mueve el viento, Llorona
Parece que están llorando
Que cuando las mueve el viento, Llorona
Parece que están llorando

Toloache, known in English as “sacred Datura,” among other things, and in Dog Latin as “Datura wrightii,” is one of the few herbaceous plants able to bloom here in the depths of summer. Pollinated mainly by the tobacco hawkmoth, Toloache’s flowers open at night, reflect all available light with their bright white corollas, and emit a sweet fragrance. Hawkmoths arrive and pollinate the flowers, then lay eggs on the leaves. Their larvae — tobacco hornworms — eat the leaves as they grow. A partnership.

Should you attempt to emulate those hornworms, or should you heed the periodic rumors percolating through the teenaged population of your small rural city, or should you be naïve enough to take the Datura-based writings of Castaneda the Fabulist as non-fiction, you will likely regret it. Or your most dearly beloveds will. All parts of the toloache are poisonous. They contain atropine, scopolamine, hyoscyamine, and other related alkaloids. Consuming toloache can cause hallucinations, euphoria, sexual arousal, delirium, blindness, cardiac arrest, respiratory paralysis, and death. It is unsurprising that the plant is generally considered to possess immense power. Toloache has been used in medicine both traditional and modern. It has been used in religious and cultural ceremonies, rites of passage in which passing away is one possible outcome.

The wind gains strength. Toloache blossoms bob and weave. I decide the storm is across the Colorado, possibly as far east as Wickenburg. It stretches north to south along a startlingly large amount of the horizon. I will later look online and find that not only is my guess correct about Wickenburg, but that in fact the storm stretches from Tucson, east through the Cabeza Prieta and Gila Bend, northward to Kingman. All through that part of the state, washes start flowing. Dry desert tinajas fill with rainwater.

The song “La Llorona” is based on a part of Latin American oral tradition that likely predates the European invasion. According to the legends, the weeping woman (la Llorona) is a supernatural figure, sometimes a ghost and sometimes not, who has been driven to something like madness by the loss of her children. In some versions of the story she herself killed the children in a fit of rage against the betrayal of their father, and she has been condemned to search for their spirits until she finds them, which will never happen. In other versions she has lost her children in a war or a massacre or other such disaster. In whichever case, her grief drives her to capture children in the mistaken notion that they are her own. The prospect of being nabbed by la Llorona has been used for centuries to frighten children into obeying their parents.

I wonder whether a new version of the story will arise in years to come, with a blameless la Llorona who merely chooses the wrong year to migrate north. She only wanted to escape the wars and the violence, to bring her children to a place where they could grow maiz and chiles and play in the grass. But monsters at the border stole her children for themselves.

We have become monsters. We are the Argentinian generals who stole the children of murdered leftists. We are our great-grands who kidnapped the children of the Lakota and the Hopi and the Paiute. This is how we will be remembered. This is how we will live on in stories. Children disobeying their parents will be told “the Americans will come.”

And there’s this: The old scare-the-children monster stories never mention whether the monsters’ bad behavior might not have been quietly deplored by some sectors of the monster community, some of whom even went onto monster Twitter to point out that the bad actors did not represent their views. Really, it’s as if such dissenting monsters never really existed at all.

Tonight, I content myself with thinking that one of those mothers might just be pulling her children through a desert dry wash right now. She is in the Cabeza Prieta: the administration’s renewed focus on the border at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has merely pushed migrants into the harder part of the desert to cross. Earlier in the day she found plastic water jugs that had been placed there by friendly locals, then destroyed and dumped out by la migra. En el plan alternativo, the coyote had told her there was a tinaja here in this low range of hills that sometimes had water in it.

Climbing with her children, who have become so quiet and tractable that it panics her, she finds a thin layer of dry mud at the bottom of the hole. Mierda. There is no hope. Nothing but the shriek of that lechuza, that barn owl, as it flew past just now. She closes her eyes, dead tired. She weeps.

La pena y la que no es pena, Llorona 
todo es pena para mí
 

A drop of water lands on her hand. A tear? No, too cold. Did she imagine it? The thunder answers her. Rain comes. Water begins to trickle down the rock. The wet air brings the sweet scent of toloache to her as she watches the tinaja fill.

It is not enough. It is never enough. But it is something.

Letter From the Desert: Big Galleta Grass

This past winter’s wealth of rain and snow in the Mojave were transmuted, as generally happens, into abundant flowering annual plants in the Mojave. And as generally then also happens, that abundance of flowering Mojave Desert plants was transmuted in turn into an exuberant swarm of small Mojave Desert animals. There are Gambel’s quail. There are desert iguanas stuffed to obesity on the flesh of flowers. There are ground squirrels, both your bog-standard rock squirrel and the adorable and fearsome white-tailed antelope squirrel, devourer of expensive plants, slayer of irrigation hardware.

But mostly, there are rabbits. Technically, I should say rabbits and hares; we see about one jackrabbit for every thirty or so Audubon’s cottontails. I generally see two or three jackrabbits in a typical day. I leave the resulting arithmetic as an exercise for the reader. On opening the front door for our morning walks, the dog and I usually see at least three cottontails within a leash’s length. Under the cars. Behind the potted cacti. Reclining languorously in the wheel ruts.

The teachings of St. Malthus the Problematic suggest that these rabbits will quickly run out of their preferred foodstuffs, and that various troubles will inevitably follow. There will be hunger. There will be depredation of any plant that is even faintly edible. There will be civil strife among the rabbit populace. And then the denouement: an unpleasant downward trend in rabbit numbers, benefiting the local coyotes who have apparently been asleep on the job until now.

We would seem to be in the second of the above stages: there are rabbit-sized bites missing from the pads of prickly pear cacti in the neighborhood. We have watched as cottontails carefully eat just the petioles of Datura leaves. Rabbits sample the flesh of chollas, the (I am guessing) acrid stems of senna and indigo bush, the more palatable parts of annuals that have been dried and brown for months now. They’re even nibbling on the damn bursage.

The big galleta grass thrives, ungrazed.

It’s counterintuitive. On the one hand, you have a very much overlarge population of hungry rabbits. On the other hand, you have a succulent-looking grass, unarmored and nontoxic, responding to last month’s monsoon rains by putting out tons of new leaves per square mile. A random careless assumption would suggest that these two presences are unstable in combination. But no. If that old puzzle about the farmer figuring out how to accomplish a stream crossing with a fox, a goose, and a bag of beans instead had one of our local coyotes, a local rabbit, and a bale of big galleta grass, he could apparently just leave them all in the boat and go off to have a few beers.

We can reach two conclusions from this state of affairs:

  1. These rabbits clearly do not understand Spanish.

  2. There is some inherent quality of big galleta grass that damps the rabbits enthusiasm for eating it.

That’s not to say no animals find the grass palatable. Introduced species of grazing livestock are quite fond of it, for instance. As evidence for this, here’s a photo of our household’s resident dwarf Holstein, preparing to chow down:

She would happily spend hours noshing on blades of big galleta grass.

Despite my above reference to rabbits’ influency in Spanish, there is no particular evidence that the species’ common name derives from the Spanish for “cookie.” Merriam Webster suggests guieta (“gutter” in Spanish, and “guess” in Catalan) as a possible alternative origin, which in either language makes even less sense than “cookie” but is just so damnably evocative that I can’t help but appreciate the possibility.

Here are some things we do know about big galleta grass: Its botanical monicker is Hilaria rigida, though it did spend a few years recently identifying itself as Pleuraphis rigida. It’s green and growing right now in the Mojave Desert when almost everything else is either dead or dormant, or receiving supplemental water somehow. It hardly ever sets viable seed and it doesn’t like being transplanted, so if you want it in your yard you pretty much have to wait for it to arrive of its own accord. Where I live, it’s about the fifth or sixth most common native shrub.

Or pseudo-shrub, anyway. Big galleta grass lacks the permanent woody stems that define true shrubs, but it does have permanent above-ground brown stems that appear to be nothing but dead thatch until some rain falls. At that point, new blades of green grass emerge not from the roots, but from sections of those dead-looking stems a few inches above the earth. It’s a grass that acts like a shrub.

Big galleta grass and bursage fill a wash in the Yuha Desert, Imperial County

We also know that clumps of big galleta grass can be very long-lived, for grasses. In the late 19th century surveyor Robert Brewster Stanton took dozens of photographs along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon as he explored potential railroad routes. A century later, scientist Robert Webb rephotographed every single one of Stanton’s images, and found, among many other things, that some of the clumps of big galleta grass Stanton had photographed in 1889 were still doing just fine in the 1990s. Bristlecone pine longevity this is not, but for a life form we generally think of as ephemeral it’s pretty damned impressive.

Some of the grass’s traits are less amenable to photography. Big galleta is more adept at sucking up water from dry desert soils than most desert plants. It’s a supremely efficient photosynthesizer, able to close up its pores when the air is hot and desiccated and still turn water and stored CO2 into sugar and starch. It doesn’t taste like anything in particular, as I determined last week when I applied to the plant the oldest experimental method known to humans. I took a long blade, folded it on itself several times, then chewed on it for a while. It was not unlike chewing on a very thin hemp rope. There was plenty of fiber and not much else, aside from an aftertaste, which emerged on several minutes of chewing, that was faint enough that I might have been imagining it. The dog obviously finds it worthwhile with her sense of smell ten thousand times stronger than mine, but she hasn’t bothered to describe it to me.

Big galleta is also a nursery for a few important desert plants that eventually grow armored enough to make it without shelter, but which are vulnerable to rabbits and such in their first months of life. This list includes Agave deserti, one of two species of agave native to California, along with barrel cacti and a few species of cholla. Without big galleta grass there to provide such plants shelter as seedlings, there would be fewer agaves and barrel cacti and chollas. I assure you that fewer chollas would be a bad thing.

And there’s this: without big galleta’s ever-expanding network of roots seining the desert soil for every available molecule of moisture, which network thereby holds the soil in place, those soils would be a hell of a lot more likely to come aloft in the breeze, with all kinds of deleterious effects on human and rabbit and dog.

So it’s probably a good thing the rabbits don’t eat it, though I’ll be damned if I can figure out why.

Letter From The Desert: Joshua trees

Before we start, some news: I’m going to be writing these letters more than weekly to see how that goes. Eventually, if it turns out that I can maintain a pace of three or four missives per week, I may decide to institute paid subscriptions, at which point free subscribers will still get one letter a week, while paid subscribers will get all three or four per week. That decision is a long way off and you’ll get plenty of notice, and subscriptions will only be something like $5 a month. No action needed yet. Just, you know. Full disclosure.


So let’s talk about Joshua trees. My vegetative sensei has been in the news again, partly due to an unsurprising but bleak April study that predicts hard times ahead for the species, at least in its southern populations, and an equally unsurprising and equally bleak decision by the Department of the Interior not to do anything about it.

First, the study, which you can read here. Led by conservation biologist Lynn Sweet of UC Riverside, with whom I have the privilege of serving on the board of the Mojave Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, researchers did Joshua tree counts on selected plots in and near Joshua Tree National Park, then correlated the percentage of young trees in those plots with the local microclimates.

To continue with my oversimplification, the researchers found that tree populations in areas that had higher annual precipitation and dried out less during the warm season, which two conditions are related but not quite the same, were more likely to have higher populations of baby Joshua trees. Of less importance but still significant, the trees reproduced better in spots with lower maximum temperatures in summer and lower ones in winter.

They then took historic climate data and a handful of climate change scenarios to map which parts of Joshua Tree National Park might still be expected to host populations of the park’s namesake vegetable at the end of this century. The results coincide pretty closely with the results of previous such exercises, except more pessimistic. Moderate climate change such as we might expect if all the nations of all the world stopped dithering and started to take urgent measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions would limit the trees to refugia in the higher, moister northwest end of the park. The “business as usual” scenario leads to maybe three trees on Eureka Peak.

The study doesn’t cover populations outside the Joshua Tree area, which can be expected to persist longer if they’re farther north, as for example in the Wee Thump Wilderness in Clark County, Nevada, shown here, with the atmospheric McCullough Mountains in the background. There be desert bighorn in them hills.

The authors further maintain that focusing management efforts on those pockets of Joshua Tree NP that will stay more hospitable to Joshua trees is a worthy goal, saying:

Rather than an ominous prediction of extinction, climate refugia provide land stewards with targets for focusing protective management, giving desert biodiversity places to weather the future.

That protective management is made easier if the federal government offers formal protection of a species, as for instance through listing under the Endangered Species Act. That’s why the group Wild Earth Guardians petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the tree as Threatened in September, 2015. (I wrote about that here and here.) And that’s why, seeing that USFWS was three years behind schedule in making its decision whether to grant the Joshua tree Threatened status, the group helpfully forwarded the UC Riverside study to the agency on August 5 of this year.

USFWS responded with a decision that was disappointing but again, not even a little surprising. They declared that the Joshua tree has enough protection already.

USFWS’ “12-month finding,” which took a mere 48 months to complete (to be fair, that’s better than the agency average for deciding whether to list flowering plants), offers the following rationalization:

Because the two species are long-lived, have such large ranges and distributions, mostly occur on Federal land, and occupy numerous ecological settings, we have determined that future stochastic and catastrophic events would not lead to population- or species-level declines in the foreseeable future. As a result, we have determined that neither Yucca jaegeriana nor Yucca brevifolia are in danger of extinction or likely to become so within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges. Therefore, we find that listing the Joshua tree as an endangered or threatened species is not warranted.

More on that “two species” thing in a minute.

That decision was reached despite abundant evidence, including that cited above, that climate change is threatening Joshua trees in the south end of their range. Though the trees are doing quite a bit better farther north, a 5°Celsius increase in average temperature would bring the climate of Goldfield, NV, just north of the trees’ range, to a point about the same as that in Twentynine Palms today. And 5°C is a conservative estimate of warming by 2100 in the “business as usual” scenarios commonly accepted by climate scientists these days.

Parenthetically, it’s no surprise that an agency in the He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named Administration would deny the risks involved in climate change, but this sort of denialism is a bipartisan trait. The last guy presided over denials of Endangered Species Act Protection for the American pika and the wolverine, both of which are likely more immediately threatened by climate change than the Joshua tree.

Nonetheless, people are paying a lot more attention to the Joshua tree listing denial than they did to the pika or wolverine, including earnest and mildly factually inaccurate editorials in major regional newspapers. In some ways, the climate issue is very convenient for the LA Times: were it not for climate change, the biggest existential threats to the Joshua tree would include habitat loss due to urbanization and renewable energy, and speaking out against either of those is not something the Times usually likes to do.

Then again, a third major threat to the trees is wildfire, and the Times does take brave stands against wildfires on frequent occasions.

An interesting side note: The USFWS also declared that it’s treating the Joshua tree as two distinct species, Yucca brevifolia and Yucca jaegeriana, and while that’s unlikely to change any botanists’ minds without peer review it certainly has prompted some interesting conversations, such as the comment thread on this tweet.

I’ve written a few things on that split and likely will again, but this is already long enough.


A bit more housekeeping: some of you have asked if it’s okay to share these letters with your friends and social media networks. Answer: It absolutely is okay, provided you make sure my name stays attached. Take a look at the icons below: click the one that’s a square box with an arrow shooting out of the top, and all will be revealed. Or at least some. If you encourage people to subscribe if they like what they see as for instance with the button above this paragraph, so much the better. And thank you!

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