Joshua Tree National Park Is More Popular Than Ever—But Its Namesake Trees Are Facing Extinction


In a wilderness area at the northwest corner of Joshua Tree National Park, ecologist Lynn Sweet treks across the high desert as raucous pinyon jays swoop overhead. She navigates carefully across the landscape of blackbrush and fragrant junipers to inspect the stump of a Joshua tree. Much of the tree’s trunk, branches, and dagger-shaped leaves are sprawled across the desert floor—most likely the casualty of a gust of wind that snapped it like a toothpick.

This past May, outside the Joshua Tree National Park just south of the Twentynine Palms Highway, a 150-acre fire ignited on conservation land owned by Mojave Desert Land Trust when a man flicked a lit cigarette butt into dry brush while hiking. The fire burned close to the border of a plot that Dr. Sweet studied in her 2019 paper. The fire charred and killed acres of trees. Over 100 miles away as the roadrunner sprints, one of the densest woodlands in the world of eastern Joshua trees, Yucca brevifolia jaegeriana, were destroyed this past August during the catastrophic Dome Fire, a 43,273-acre fire in Mojave National Preserve that was estimated to have killed over a million Joshua trees.

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