Our first day on site at Joshua Tree National Park opened with sun and clear skies, a pleasant surprise after a night of wind and torrential rain In the desert. The sun was a nice contrast to a cold night, and combined with a warm breakfast was a solid start to a day dedicated to an interesting problem.
When we think of invasive species, we usually envision some tough, warlike plant species directly attacking the native vegetation.
Drawing by Oliwia
Plants such as creeping ivy come to mind, which slowly strangle native trees in many parts of North America. And while this is one, very problematic means by which invasive species can destroy a local ecosystem, our first work site was evidence of another scenario.
A few years ago, lightning started a fire in a part of Joshua Tree National Park.
Drawing by Oliwia
Normally this wouldn’t be a problem. There are many ecosystems which depend on fire as a vital part of the biological process. Often plants (especially California natives) are specially equipped for wildfire, and sometimes even need it to thrive to their best potential. One example is California sage, whose leaves contain special oils to allow it to burn up completely, so that its roots may start a new plant from scratch, instead of attempting to fix a badly injured plant.
What was unique about this fire was the abundance of invasive species that were covering the desert hills. These dry grasses allowed the fire to grow to an unnatural intensity, and the wildfire effectively ravaged the land until it could be contained.
Even years later, the burn area remains uninhabitated by vegetation, a visible scar in the landscape where plants are unable to grow because they simply have no means of getting across the rocky expanse. Our work site for days one and two revolved around this burn site, in hopes of giving the vegetation there a boost. Aside from restoring the land to its natural condition, this would also help local animal species as well as contain unnatural rates of erosion in the area.
Our task was to plant native species in various plots along the hills. Working with park rangers, we dug eighteen inch holes into the dirt of the rocky slope, dirt being a severe misnomer. Unfortunately, finely (and in most cases not so finely) crushed rock would probably be more accurate. This turned the entire digging experience into an exciting game of hide-and-go-seek with buried rocks, with which the desert earth is abundant.
Lunch break provided a much needed break. Basking on the warm desert rocks, food had never tasted so good, and we enjoyed an unusually clear view of the Coachella Valley.
Tomorrow we will be finishing up work on the burn site.