Have you ever pulled weeds in a flower or vegetable garden? If so, I’m sure you’re familiar with the aching feeling that develops in the small of your back and hands after a few hours labor. Now, picture a garden two miles square with weeds as big as a St. Bernard. Just such a land lies on Joshua Tree National Park’s eastern border. After an hour and a half drive from our camp site to the edge of the Colorado Desert, we rendezvoused with members of the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management on the shoulder of state road 177.
Looking out over what, to the casual viewer, appears to be a desolate wasteland, we were tasked to remove an invasive plant known as Sahara Mustard from the desert. Introduced accidentally when Mediterranean date trees were transplanted to California, the plant interferes with native plant and animal life by consuming scarce resources and disrupting the region’s food-chain. After a quick lesson on plant identification, we set to work ridding this section of the desert of this interloper.
Working in 2-3 person teams, we walked in a line 40 abreast in a westerly direction removing the plant as we went. Ranging in size from a few inches to over three feet in diameter, we uprooted all the plants we crossed and shoved them in plastic garbage bags. Once the bags were filled, we hiked them back to the road for disposal by the National Park Service.
Plodding our way across the desert, we enjoyed convivial conversation among ourselves and with employees of the Park Service/Bureau of Land Management. Physical work under the hot western sun apparently attracts students with colorful personalities and stories to match. Besides conversation, we also enjoyed seeing some of the native fauna in a natural setting. Several of us commented on the presence of small lizards and geckos throughout the work site. Filling an average of 25 bags an hour, we managed to fill a Park Service trailer with about 115 bags of the invasive plant after about 5 hours work.
After parting with our Federal supervisors, we split into two groups and headed back toward camp. One group headed for a stop to shower in town, and the other went to Joshua Tree’s Visitor Center. Those who went to the visitor center learned about the climate, landscapes, and people that have defined experiences throughout this Park’s history. Those who showered became more popular back at camp.
Tonight, we are looking forward to a lesson on knot tying and around a camp fire. Tomorrow we will participate in a Park Service study on Joshua Tree’s desert tortoise and avian populations. In the meantime, we’re excited to spend another day in the shadow of Joshua Trees and rocky crags.