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Creek Running North

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July 07, 2005

Burn

Rob Fulton, the manager of the California Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx, sent along this photo of a burning Joshua tree forest along Black Canyon Road, right in the midst of my usual haunts down that way. Rob confirmed my suspicion that - despite the reflexive complaints by conservative desert rats that the Park Service caused the fires by removing cattle from the Mojave National Preserve - much of the area that burned along Wild Horse Canyon Road was still being grazed.

I'm heading down there at the end of the month. I feel like my heart has been cut out.

Fires like this don't always spell the end of a Joshua tree forest. I've walked through a few such forests burned anywhere from three to 15 years previous, and there is almost always a bunch of resprouting in the first few years after a fire. Sometimes a tree is killed outright. Sometimes a tree will be killed to ground level and then in a few seasons send up crown prouts from its base. In Bulldog Canyon Utah, a 1993 fire blackened a swath of that state's only Joshua tree forest. I walked through it in 1997. Many of the killed trees - perhaps as many as half - had little rosettes of leaves clustered around their bases, new shoots from the surviving tissues underground. In another 40 years they might be pretty good-sized.

But Joshua trees are only part of the Joshua tree woodland. There are cacti in the undergrowth that take lifetimes to mature. And the cryptobiotic soil crust - perhaps the real keystone "species" in the desert, at least where the damn cattle haven't trampled it - might take centuries, if there are no more fires, which thanks to the red brome brought in by the cattle there damn well will be.

It's not just the Mojave, of course. I read an article yesterday in the Tucson Citizen that forecast a bleak future for saguaros, palo verdes and other vital plants in the Sonoran Desert:

Because desert plants are not accustomed to living with fire, ecologists say native vegetation in some of the areas charred by this year's wildfires may never completely recover. Desert plants have grown far apart for at least 10,000 years and there hasn't been an opportunity for fires to spread, said Mark Dimmitt, director of natural history with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. But since the 1970s, areas below 3,000 feet in elevation have been invaded by nonnative grasses that are filling bare spaces in the desert and allowing blazes to spread, Dimmitt said. While fires have been in the desert for only a few decades, it would take native vegetation hundreds of thousands of years to develop resistance to flames. That means scorched areas of the Sonoran Desert, such as where the Cave Creek Complex fire started northeast of Phoenix last month, won't recover, Dimmitt said. "Most of the plants there are going to die," he said. "Probably 80 percent of them will be killed by the fire."

It seems we may be witnessing the extinction of entire ecosystems. This is not just about endangered species anymore. The world is unraveling.

Posted by Chris Clarke at July 7, 2005 01:29 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.faultline.org/cgi-bin/mt-tb.cgi/1170

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Comments

"It seems we may be witnessing the extinction of entire ecosystems. This is not just about endangered species anymore. The world is unraveling."

Yeah, that about sums it up.

Posted by: tost at July 7, 2005 10:10 PM
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I'm so sorry, Chris.

Posted by: dale at July 8, 2005 11:06 AM
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Devastating conclusion, but I can't argue with it. There's a very good chance that I will get to witness the conversion of Penn's Woods into Penn's Savanna if I live long enough. (Might "Harquahala" have something to say on this?)

Posted by: Dave at July 8, 2005 11:59 AM
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If only we could get the reporters and bloggers all breathless about the London attacks to care about this stuff, too...

Posted by: Dave at July 8, 2005 12:01 PM
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