WASHINGTON COUNTY — Devastated by fire in the mid-aughts, a once lush Joshua tree forest is now full of woody skeletons. However, multiple groups still have hope for this critical habitat.
And they got to work.
The Bureau of Land Management’s habitat rehabilitation project began on Nov. 30 in the Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Area and is expected to be completed by Dec. 7.
BLM wildlife biologist John Kellam coordinated the project to plant nursery-grown native plants in 25 acres of critical Mojave desert tortoise habitat damaged by fire.
On Saturday, the bureau hosted a community project day near Beaver Dam Wash’s Woodbury Desert Study Area, with volunteer work coordinated by Fred Armstrong, Conserve Southwest Utah’s stewardship coordinator.
“As (the) climate is changing and as habitats are changing due to man-caused fires, it’s extremely important that we give a hand to rejuvenate or restore these landscapes, “Armstrong told St. George News.
The Joshua Tree National Natural Landmark along the Mojave Desert Joshua Tree Scenic Backway, where the project was located, was designated by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior in 1966 as it was the “most exemplary example of that species in the northern extremes of its range,” said Dawna Ferris-Rowley, BLM Manager of the landmark and the Beaver Dam Wash and Red Cliffs national conservation areas.
In 2006, the Jarvis fire burned over 50,000 acres, devastating the area’s Suessian yucca trees, Kellam said. And while mature Joshua trees still adorn the landscape, gnarled and sometimes charred remains litter the ground.
“You can see the skeletons, if you will, of Joshua trees, and that’s why we thought, ‘We will do our best to plant some Joshua trees as well as other species that benefit tortoises and other wildlife,’” Ferris-Rowley said.
There were nearly 50 volunteers from Conserve Southwest Utah and The Nature Conservancy. The Conservation Lands Foundation from Las Vegas, Nevada, provided lunch, Kellam said.
Kellam hired approximately 30 people from the American Conservation Experience to contribute, with crew members interested in public service traveling to Southern Utah from across the U.S., said American Conservation Experience Associate Director Jessica Kervin.
“A lot of East Coast people, I think, come to see the landscapes of the West, specifically Utah — it’s just so unique,” she said.
Additionally, several BLM staff members were on-site, including Blanche, the “bark ranger,” who reportedly provided moral support.
Armstrong said the project was a success in an email sent to the volunteers and shared with St. George News.
“John Kellam told me that our project yesterday was the largest and most smoothly run and properly carried out project that this BLM office has ever seen,” he wrote. “Kudos to you.”
Participants planted approximately 55 Joshua trees, 161 globemallows, 179 desert marigolds and 62 beavertail cactuses — 457 plants in total, Kellam said. He expects approximately 3,000 plants will be planted by the project’s end in the Beaver Dam Wash and Red Cliffs national conservation areas.
While the group initially planned to plant hundreds more Joshua trees, only 100 seedlings survived. However, they’ll be easier to water next summer, Armstrong said.
“They may need our help to get established like the first restoration planting we did this year,” he wrote. “It would mean a bit more walking, but we still have good road access for delivering water.”
The seeds were harvested from local plants and grown in containers by Lake Mead National Recreation Area’s Song Dog Native Plant Nursery in Nevada, Kellam said.
The crews dug about 500 holes before Saturday, placing flattened chicken wire cages and bamboo stakes over them to prepare for planting. The project isn’t for the “faint of heart,” Ferris-Rowley said.
“You got to be willing to accept a lot of failure,” she said. “And we’ve been so discouraged — you work as hard as you can with the crews helping. … We feel it’s worth the effort.”
“It’s gardening on steroids,” Kervin added.
The project is part of the Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Area Habitat Rehabilitation Program to study the effectiveness of planting mature, nursery-grown native plants in containers on a large scale, Kellam said.
The BLM’s objective is to re-establish shrubs, forbs (flowering plants) and grasses that benefit the Mojave desert tortoise and other wildlife, creating “fertile islands” that can act as seed banks, Kellam said.
“Our goal is that these plants will grow and mature and flower and seed, and then they can just keep reproducing on their own,” he said.
The work could also reduce the amount of brome grasses, like cheatgrass, which can cause high-intensity wildfires, he added.
Additionally, Kellam said they hope to increase plant survivorship via research, use the information to increase the scale of future habitat restoration efforts and mitigate the impact of wildfire on tortoises and other species.
When the program began in 2016, the BLM planted over 5,000 gallon-sized plants across a 100-acre plot in the Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Area in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ferris-Rowley said.
“So now we’ve figured out what plants survive — how to plant them, where to plant them, and we think we’ve had a really high survivorship,” Kellam added. “Some of our projects have some of the highest survivorships in the Mojave.”
“We learn from our mistakes and so every subsequent project has gotten better and better,” he continued. “And within the Red Cliffs (National Conservation Area), our average one-year survivorship is around 65%, which is shocking.”
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