Rare riparian conservation area damaged in Heritage Fire

For immediate release
March 15, 2022

Contact: Jessica Dacey, Director of Communications
Phone: 760-820-2275
Email: [email protected]

Photo: Thomas Egan

Rare riparian conservation area damaged in Heritage Fire

A fire burning in the Oro Grande area of San Bernardino County has entered conservation lands belonging to the Mojave Desert Land Trust. The full extent of the damage is unknown as firefighters are continuing to tackle the 500-acre blaze along the Mojave River.

The fire breached the protected wildlife haven known as Palisades Ranch on March 14. This 1,647-acre property spans 3.5 miles of the Mojave River and has 600 acres of cottonwood-willow riparian habitat. Its rich plant community and presence of surface water attract around 40 special-status wildlife species, making it one of the Mojave Desert’s most important habitat areas.

Early reports show the fire has damaged sections of the riparian area and dense cottonwood-willow tree canopy. Compounding the loss is the fact that it is bird nesting season. Bird surveys in 2020 detected a western yellow-billed cuckoo in one of the cottonwoods, which are important nesting and foraging habitat for this federally threatened species. Two pairs of federally threatened least Bell’s vireo were also identified during the bird surveys. In 1998, the population size for this species was estimated at 2,000 pairs. The surveys also recorded one of the westernmost breeding season records of a Lucy’s warbler, a special status species. Other nesting species included ash-throated flycatcher, bushtit, marsh wren, and Nuttall’s woodpecker. Very few records exist for some of the species recorded in this area, indicating they are at the limits of their normal ranges.

The fire may have also impacted beaver dams on the property which are helping to create wildlife habitat and raise groundwater levels by impounding water.

Palisades Ranch was acquired by the Mojave Desert Land Trust in October 2018 with the goal of making it a sustainable and resilient oasis in the West Mojave. The former ranch is a complex desert river ecosystem in need of restoration. Former agricultural fields have become overgrown and invasive plant species such as perennial pepperweed are seriously impacting the native plant population. These invasive species also helped fuel the fire’s spread and increased temperature intensity.

The Mojave Desert Land Trust aims to restore this important habitat. An environmental services firm, SWCA, was retained to help plan the restoration. Among other things, they have mapped the vegetation and soils, modeled the hydrology, measured the depth to groundwater at various locations, and conducted bird surveys. Groundwater well data and soil surveys will inform which plants can be grown and how the riparian system should be managed.

Other animals that will benefit from the restoration of the property include long-eared owl, vermillion flycatcher, Mohave ground squirrel, southwestern pond turtles, Mohave tui chub, Mojave River vole, and Mohave shoulderband snail. The ranch’s upland habitat supports the threatened desert tortoise.

In the long-term, the Mojave Desert Land Trust also hopes to introduce compatible public access opportunities on the property for the high desert community, particularly the nearby cities of Victorville and Barstow. The ranch lies within a 30-minute drive for over 350,000 residents.

“It is heartbreaking to learn about this fire and the damage to the area and neighboring lands. The riparian area of Palisades Ranch provides rare habitat for a variety of bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian species in the Mojave Desert. The fire is potentially devastating to the wildlife and native plants within this prized ecological area. We are grateful to San Bernardino County Fire Department, CalFire, and Victorville Fire Department for their rapid response and their efforts to contain the burn, as well as other agencies that have assisted. We remain in close contact with the authorities and will assess the site for damage once it is safe,” said Joint Executive Directors Cody Hanford and Kelly Herbinson.

Note to editors:

Photos can be found here and a recent video of the property can be viewed here.

The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with the mission to protect and care for lands with natural, scenic, and cultural value within the Mojave Desert. Since its founding in 2006 the land trust has conserved nearly 120,000 acres, conveying more tracts of land to the National Park Service in the last decade than any other organization. In addition to acquiring land, the land trust established a seed bank to ensure the preservation of native species. MDLT operates an onsite nursery at its Joshua Tree headquarters which propagates native species for ecosystem restoration. MDLT educates and advocates for the conservation of the desert, involving hundreds of volunteers in our work. For more information, visit mdlt.org.