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The effort to restore Joshua trees after Mojave wildfire faces grim odds

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This month a wildfire burned through 130 square miles of Mojave National Preserve in California, torching cacti, pinions, junipers and the iconic Joshua trees. Hotter and drier conditions from a warming climate are also stressing Joshua trees, so in the wake of a past fire, biologists and volunteers began racing to restore them. But as NPR's Christopher Intagliata reports, that effort faces grim odds.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA, BYLINE: Three years ago this August, lightning sparked a fire in this desert wilderness between LA and Las Vegas. The flames destroyed some 1.3 million Joshua trees, transforming one of Mojave National Preserve's most spectacular forests into a grotesque graveyard.

DEBRA HUGHSON: It's sort of like a forest of skeletons, sort of a charred forest of skeletons.

INTAGLIATA: The preserve's deputy superintendent Debra Hughson says this higher elevation part of the park, called Cima Dome, was supposed to be a climate refuge for Joshua Trees - cool and wet enough for the succulents to hang on in the midst of human-caused climate change. Then the fire came.

HUGHSON: You get a major stressor like this, it just erases the chalkboard.

INTAGLIATA: What she means is the dense Joshua tree forest - it might never come back. It could transform into a grassy savanna instead.

HUGHSON: But, again, it's taking its own course, and it will show us where it's going.

INTAGLIATA: Hughson trained as a geologist, and talking to her, you get the sense she takes the long view. But scientists here are intervening in that long arc of change with an ambitious effort to replant Joshua trees. A little ways down a dirt road, Erin Knight, a biological science technician here at the Preserve, walks me through a grove of bleached and blackened Joshua trees burned in that fire three years ago. Their branches once stretched up to the sky. Now they hang down and sway eerily in the desert wind.

ERIN KNIGHT: There's a lot of dangling, dead, yellow limbs.

INTAGLIATA: It's weird. It almost seems like a bunch of, like, dangling light fixtures.

KNIGHT: Yeah, kind of - our own little chandelier here in the desert (laughter).

INTAGLIATA: There are small chicken wire cages scattered all through here where volunteers have planted baby Joshua trees. They name them, too, and Knight looks one up by checking a number on the cage.

KNIGHT: So its name was Bratislava, and it was planted on November 6 last year.

INTAGLIATA: Sometime between now and then, it died. In fact, a lot of the baby Joshua Trees here are dead. Only a fifth of the roughly 1,900 they've planted since 2021 are still alive.

KNIGHT: Brian, did you see any live ones here?

BRIAN: I think you said there's one over here.

KNIGHT: Oh.

INTAGLIATA: We all circle around a spiky little bud. It looks like the top of a pineapple. This one's alive. Knight says its name is Lychee.

KNIGHT: And the person that planted this - I really like her, so I'm so glad that one of her plants is surviving (laughter).

INTAGLIATA: If she's listening out there.

KNIGHT: Her name's Anthea. She always brings her corgis out here. She is just very awesome, very passionate. Yeah. So, Anthea, your plant is growing.

INTAGLIATA: In another corner of the park, we pull into an old railroad town called Kelso. Behind an old schoolhouse, there's a small, beige building with bright teal doors reading boys and girls. The girls' room - it's now a lab.

CHRISTINA SANCHEZ: But this is our seed lab, so we're going to go inside and see what we've converted. This is where we're sorting all of the Joshua tree seeds.

INTAGLIATA: Seed technician Christina Sanchez pulls over a big bucket full of cream-colored Joshua tree fruits that she and her team have collected.

SANCHEZ: This is what they sound like - sounds like a little rattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA TREE FRUIT RATTLING)

INTAGLIATA: She breaks open one of the brittle fruits, revealing the seeds inside - flat, little, black hockey pucks. And she throws all that into a big seed cleaning machine.

SANCHEZ: This is going to be really loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF VACUUM WHIRRING)

INTAGLIATA: She kicks on a Shop-Vac blower, and the seeds whir through a maze of tunnels in the machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF VACUUM POWERING DOWN)

SANCHEZ: So whatever comes out of this little hatch, we dump in here.

INTAGLIATA: The viable seeds will go into a big chest freezer. She opens it up. It's full of labeled jars holding roughly 300,000 Joshua tree seeds.

SANCHEZ: So this is the future of the species.

INTAGLIATA: Right in this little freezer here.

SANCHEZ: Deep freezer. Yeah. This is holding our future.

INTAGLIATA: Outside the seed lab, I asked Debra Hughson if preserving the seeds is a hopeful gesture given that only 20% of the Joshua trees they've planted in the burn zone have survived.

HUGHSON: So that's a few hundred that we've managed in a landscape that had 1.3 million. And so you can do the math.

INTAGLIATA: Hughson says restoration in the Mojave Desert is not for the faint of heart.

HUGHSON: It's a tale of failed experiments. OK, well, this didn't work. Another paper on - well, that didn't work. OK, well, we tried this, and we failed miserably. And the stories of success are very rare.

INTAGLIATA: Still, she says there are other reasons to plant these Joshua trees.

HUGHSON: You know, psychologically, there was a lot of people that got a lot of good feelings and satisfaction from helping with the Joshua Tree planting. And to try to help makes you feel better about yourself and more hopeful about the future, and that in itself is a valuable thing.

INTAGLIATA: The planting continues this October. The goal is to get 2,000 more Joshua trees in the ground over the next two years. And with a little luck, maybe a couple hundred of them will put down roots. Christopher Intagliata, NPR News, Mojave National Preserve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
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