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Imagine, Joshua Tree National Park, without a single Joshua tree…

December 12, 2016

Known for its iconic namesake the Joshua tree — Yucca brevifolia, which isn’t even a tree, but a member of the Yucca family — this Joshua Tree National Park has much to offer the visitor including hiking, wildflower and wildlife viewing, world-class rock climbing, and more.

Recent growth has been pretty significant, with visitation growing from 1,589,904 in 2014 to 2,025,756 in 2015 — an increase of more than 27% in a single year. With increased visitation, economic and environmental impacts come hand in hand, including traffic, graffiti, destruction of historic resources, mortality of desert bighorn sheep due to the proximity of domestic livestock, the spread of invasive species, and damage to fragile cryptobiotic soils. But perhaps the most pressing ecological issue is climate change, and how it is projected to fundamentally change Joshua Tree National Park.

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Lone Joshua tree near Geology Tour Road in Joshua Tree National Park, April 2016. Photograph by Matt Artz.

Many people associate Joshua trees with the iconic 1987 U2 album, The Joshua Tree. The famous Joshua tree that was featured on the back of the album cover was located about 100 miles from Joshua Tree National Park, and died in the year 2000 (although the site where it stood is still popular with fans of the band and the album). Joshua trees are in fact found across a wide area of the Mojave Desert between an elevation of about 1,300 to 5,900 feet. In fact, the world’s most dense Joshua tree forests are not even located within the borders of Joshua Tree National Park, but are found in the nearby Mojave National Preserve.

If deserts are known for one thing, it’s heat. But thanks to climate change, many of the world’s deserts are getting even hotter — specifically the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, parts of which are protected within the borders of Joshua Tree National Park. And climate change is threatening the very namesake of the park — not with extinction necessarily, but certainly with migration. According to some climate models, Joshua trees could be gone from 90 percent of their current range by the year 2100, including complete elimination from Joshua Tree National Park.

Can there still be a Joshua Tree National Park without the iconic Joshua tree?

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Going, going, … almost gone? Dying Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park, April 2016. Photograph by Matt Artz.

As sad as such an outcome would be, the answer is: yes. Just as the Joshua trees would hopefully slowly migrate to a more favorable climate, other species could migrate into the park and make it their new home. And many of the park’s other attractions — rock climbing, hiking, sightseeing, etc. — would still be available for tourists.

Millions of people would continue to visit the park for various reasons, but at a certain point in time, when those who remembered how it used to be have long passed from this earth, the ubiquitous question will be:

“Why do they call it Joshua Tree National Park?”

And as much as I would hate to see my beloved Joshua Tree National Park become a monument to man’s environmental hubris, it could become one of our most powerful tools in educating our grandchildren, our great grandchildren, and subsequent generations about the importance of living sustainably and protecting the environment.

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