Joshua Tree, cattle ranching, and climate change

Dawn at Joshua Tree 5

As part of our “dammit we will love the southwest since we are stuck here” plan, Eric and I visited Joshua Tree National Park over the weekend. Having grown up hiking where copious amounts of water runs right over the ground, I’m pretty skeptical of the desert. (If skeptical = terrified.) But Joshua Tree was an incredibly gorgeous and alien landscape. The Joshua trees, which are really overgrown yuccas, form twisted and alien shapes, while the momzogranite cliffs loom above.

Since we don’t know anything about the desert, we went on a few short nature walks to read the interpretive signs. I *heart* interpretive signage – it told us how to identify the two major types of yucca besides the Joshua Tree, the difference between a pinyon and a juniper, and six of the major desert adaptation used by local animals.

But the most interesting thing on the signs had to do with local climate. Apparently Joshua Tree was wetter before the 1940s, making cattle ranching possible. Then the climate shifted, springs dried up, and ranching became impossible. Does anyone know anything about this? The shift seems too early to have to do with fossil fuels – is there a decadal-scale natural variation in the United States southwest? I have not been able to find any information so far.

Ice at midday in Wonderland of Rock

Sadly, like so many neat things, Joshua trees don’t look like they’re going to make it into the next century. Chris Clarke at Creek Running North has covered this pretty thoroughly, between invasive grasses that increase the severity of fires and climate change & poor dispersal (yet another reason to grieve for the giant ground sloth). So if you’re in the southwest, go to Joshua Tree NOW.

I’d like to say that I’m not always this filled with gloom, but actually I am. Have a photo of an inappropriately shaped rock formation to cheer you up!


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