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Joshua Trees Could Take 200 to 300 Years to Recover From Shutdown Damage

A former park superintendent says it will take centuries to regrow some of the iconic plants destroyed during the 35-day furlough

(Photo by Gina Ferazzi/Los AngelesTimes via Getty Images)
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The recent government shutdown—the longest in United States history—lasted 35 days, but its effects on federal institutions like Joshua Tree National Park could last hundreds of years.

Unlike past government shutdowns, the national parks remained open with very limited staff and few non-essential personnel to look after them. It was impossible for the eight law-enforcement rangers on duty to fully police a park the size of the state of Rhode Island with 30 separate entrance points, reports Jared Gilmour at The Sacramento Bee . A month without the National Park Service’s full workforce left many national parks and monuments vulnerable to unmonitored visitors. That meant overflowing garbage cans, filthy or disabled toilets and only a handful of on-duty rangers to enforce the rules.

At Joshua Tree, many of its iconic namesake trees were damaged. Joshua trees live up to 150 years on average in the Mojave Desert in Southern California, but at least one is believed to live up to 1,000 years. Damaged trees may take up to 300 years to completely recovery, reports Liam Stack at The New York Times

Former Joshua Tree ranger John Lauretig, who now leads the nonprofit Friends of Joshua Tree, tells Stack that some people took the opportunity to flout the rules. They used off-road vehicles in sensitive areas, camped illegally all over the park and even chopped down some Joshua Trees, which are currently being considered for inclusion on the endangered species list.

A small crowd gathered last Saturday near the park for a “Shutdown the Shutdown for Joshua Tree National Park” rally, reports Shane Newell at The Palm Springs Desert Sun. The rally was originally organized to call for an end to the government shutdown, but when it ended Friday, the rally pivoted to talk about the short and long-term impacts the shutdown had on the sensitive park.

“What's happened to our park in the last 34 days is irreparable for the next 200 to 300 years,” former Joshua Tree National Park superintendent Curt Sauer said at the rally.

Assessing damage to the long-living Joshua trees is top priority. Ironically, Joshua trees aren’t actually trees at all, but a member of the yucca family, which makes determining their age difficult because they have no rings to count. Instead, Stack reports, they are assessed by height.

In dry years, they can grow half an inch or not at all, while in wet years they can add several inches. According to the park, the average Joshua tree is estimated to be 150 years old, but larger trees may be much, much older. The 40-foot-tall tree in the Queen Valley forest is estimated to be hundreds of years old.

“It was just a few vandals or people acting out of ignorance that caused these problems,” Lauretig says. “Hopefully it’s not malice. Maybe they just didn’t see them [the Joshua trees].”

Soon after the government shutdown began, a troop of volunteers did what they could to collect trash, clean toilets and keep an eye on the park, but it was not enough. By January 8, about two weeks into the shutdown, the damage in the park became overwhelming and park superintendent David Smith told Kurt Repanshek at National Parks Traveler that the park would close completely to protect its natural resources.

“There are about a dozen instances of extensive vehicle traffic off roads and in some cases into wilderness,” he said. “We have two new roads that were created inside the park. We had destruction of government property with the cutting of chains and locks for people to access campgrounds. We’ve never seen this level of out-of-bounds camping. Every day use area was occupied every evening… Joshua trees were actually cut down in order to make new roads.”

However, the park changed course and did not close, instead it did some budget shuffling, using Federal Land and Recreation Enhancement fees to bring in extra staff, reopen areas that had been closed to the public and kept the park open.

The park fully re-opened on Monday with full staffing, but advocates are worried that a similar shutdown may happen again, even as soon as mid-February when the 3-week resolution that re-opened the government expires. Locals and park advocates worry that a cycle of government shutdowns could take its toll on the park's resources and the businesses that rely on serving park visitors.

“The local community is fed up with our parks being held hostage and the fact that it’s open and partially staffed is not good for the park, it’s not good for the public and it’s not good for the local community here,” Lauretig said at the rally, reports Gilmour. “If the government doesn’t fund or staff the parks appropriately, then they should just close the parks to protect the parks and protect the people.”

The damaged park, however, may not have hundreds of years left to recover its lost trees. According to recent studies, by the end of this century, climate change will make most of Joshua Tree National Park uninhabitable for its namesake tree.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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