Written by Adam Fairbanks
Photographed by Alexis Fairbanks
After three days of driving across the country, in which Alexis and I completed
one novel, listened to almost the entirety of our music libraries, and exhausted our data
for the month, we arrived at our first destination: Joshua Tree National Park, in southern
California. After arriving at our motel, which my sister was surprised to find contained a
mini fridge—apparently Greek hotels don’t provide such basic amenities—we drove out
for our first evening in the park.
Joshua Tree National Park, though relatively young—established Halloween of
1994—encompasses 794,000 acres and two distinct desert ecosystems in southern
California. The lower, dryer, Colorado Desert has been home to Native Americans,
western gold miners, and homesteaders alike. The more elevated, wetter Mojave
Desert—beginning around 3000’ above sea level—is currently home to the park’s
namesake: the Joshua Tree. Typically ranging from 15’-40’ tall with an average lifespan
on 150 years, this awkwardly branched, spindly, spikey tree can reach 90’ tall, and the
oldest tree is estimated to be over 1000 years old.
The sandy road that led southwest from the town of Joshua Tree up to the West
Entrance of Joshua Tree National Park wound between the crumbling remnants of the
Little San Bernardino Mountains, which loomed out of the desert on either side of us.
The sun had begun its decent as we drove into the park, and gave the naturally sand
colored rocks a rosy hue. On either side of us short bushes and desert scrub plants
sprouted from the sand. Among them, standing taller than everything except the large
piles of boulders that rose from the sands, were the park’s namesakes: the Joshua trees.
At the entrance of the park they were small, standing no more than ten feet high and
sprouting green and yellow leaves near the ends of their branches that looked like a
bushel of wide pine needles. The further we travelled into the park, however, the larger
they grew. They had no uniformity to their shape. Some grew straight into the air, only
branching out once or twice near the top of their twenty-foot trunks. Others branched
apart abundantly and early, creating a mass of tangled spiny limbs that began not four
feet from the ground.
Found exclusively in the Mojave Desert, the Joshua tree (yucca brevifolia) is
pollinated solely by the Yucca moth, whose larva use some of the tree’s pollinated seeds
as food, while the rest are scattered to the sands by wind and small mammals. In order to
flower, however, Joshua trees need to undergo a dormant period during cold weather.
Unfortunately, due to rising temperatures and frequent drought across the southwestern
United States, these necessary cold periods and wet seasons are becoming more and more
scarce, and effective blooming periods for the Joshua tree’s flowers are beginning to
become few and far between. According to ecologist Jim Cornett, 2013 was an explosive
blooming period for the trees, the likes of which he hasn’t seen since he began studying
them in 1988. He hypothesized that this was a desperate attempt at pollination on the
part of the Joshua trees due to the two years of drought that came prior.
For those lucky seeds that are pollinated and dispersed, germination is just the
beginning of their struggle in the arid Mojave climate. Joshua trees aren’t really trees at
all; they’re succulents, a class of plant that stores water—similar to a cactus. It’s quite a
handy trait to have in a climate that gets barely more than a quarter inch of rain per month
and whose ground temperatures can reach upwards of 180 degrees during summer
months. However, young Joshua trees don’t have the extensive root network and water
storing capabilities of adult plants, and are therefore much less likely to survive
particularly hot, dry years. It doesn’t help that the tree only grows about 2” to 3” per
year, and can take between fifty and sixty years to mature. Cornett has noticed “almost
no replacement of old individuals by younger trees… We haven't had a new, young
Joshua tree emerge on our Wickenburg study site in almost 30 years, and there have been
a number of trees that have died… They're just not getting the kind of environmental
conditions that they require to survive.”
The alarming disappearance of the Joshua tree doesn’t only mean the loss of
another bizarre looking cactus. While at first glance a desert ecosystem may seem a
barren wasteland, in reality it is teeming with life. The loss of the Joshua tree would also
mean the eradication of the Yucca Moth, whose larva feed on the seeds of the trees.
Twenty-five desert bird species would lose places to roost. Small mammals—including
the scores of mice that dart across the road at night at the sight of headlights causing
panic in less calm drivers—and reptiles that sought the plant out for shelter and food
would starve and become easy pray for vultures and eagles. Eventually, a once beautiful
and fragile ecosystem will collapse, all because rising temperatures—a direct result of
increased greenhouse gasses—prevented mature Joshua trees from flowering, and young
Joshua trees from surviving.
In addition to the effects that global climate change has on the park, local urban
encroachment is also putting Joshua Tree’s animal and plant residents at risk. One
evening Alexis and I travelled out to Key View, a spot famous for providing the backdrop
of dazzling night sky photography near the southwestern border of the Park. When we
arrived, however, it wasn’t the twinkling lights of stars that I first noticed, but those of
the city of Twentynine Palms, nestled in a valley only six miles from where we were
standing. In pitch darkness, the human eye can detect the light of a struck match from
two miles away. Alexis and I were looking down at a city of more than 26,000 people.
The light from the city made viewing the viewing the Milky Way difficult, and we had to
recede further back into the park in order to capture it with a camera.
Lights from cities aren’t only hurting photographers, however. Desert ecosystems
are home to a large population of nocturnal animals who become active at night rather
than in the day in order to avoid the extreme temperatures brought about by the sun in a
cloudless sky. As city lights grow brighter and closer, they begin to disturb the day-to-
day cycles of bats, mice, and other small mammals. They reduce the range of these
animal’s habitats, driving them further from the city lights and concentrating them
towards the center of the park.
Joshua Tree National Park is a place of sweeping landscapes, of tremendous
sunsets that stretch across entire horizons, and is a world teeming with life, if one only
looks for it. Many people would expect a desert ecosystem to be fairly resistant to
change, but in reality, they are some of the more fragile ecosystems on the planet as they
exist in such extremes.
One of my favorite things about Joshua Tree National Park is the freedom that it
affords its visitors. Nothing captured that sense of freedom for me more than when, on
our first evening after thirteen hours of driving—and more than a few frustrated
exclamations of road rage from myself—Alexis spotted a pile of boulders thirty yards
from the road, pulled over, and asked me, “Hey, do you want to climb those?” I definitely
did. In the fading light of the day, without hesitation or question, Alexis and I climbed to
the top of the pile of boulders. I sat at the peak and watched streams of white headlights
and red break lights wind their way towards the exit of the park, and deeper into the
desert, respectively. Joshua Tree never closes, allowing guests to witness its wonders in
both the day and the night.
A place of such beauty is in danger, and in need of our protection—especially
since we’re creating the threats. Being labeled as a National Park isn’t enough to
protect these ecosystems anymore; we need to change our behavior on a
national—if not global—level if we want to protect these beautiful lands for future
generations to experience and learn from.