Have you seen the dead zones in Joshua Tree National Park? They are a growing problem. Fortunately there are rangers and volunteers (like Friends of Joshua Tree) who are working to repair the most impacted areas.
A large number of volunteers turned out October 13-15 to help out with trail restoration at the Echo Rock area as part of a climber event called Climb Smart. They did an amazing job.
Restoration work can take years to complete, but sometimes it can get undone rather suddenly.
A good example is at the start of the Barker Dam trail. You cross a wash and then get to a hundred yard long section of trail that has a low fence made of rope on either side. This fence keeps people from trampling the small fragile plants in this area.
I remember a number of years ago when a few inches of snow fell in the national park on a Friday. The next day Barker Dam was bustling with visitors and the trail in the roped off section turned to mud. In order to keep their shoes from getting muddy most hikers walked on the slightly higher ground outside of the fence. You can still see the damage done that day:
There is a success story just a hundred yards away, however. The old Barker Dam day use parking area used to be in a wash, and then traffic was redirected to the new paved day use area and the wash was re-vegetated. Now the plants in the wash are maturing into large shrubs and it looks completely natural.
A funny thing can happen to the rock and stump trail boundaries. Visitors will kick them or even pick them up and move them because they see them as a trail obstacle! I seriously have seen people undoing the hard work of trail crews and volunteers in the mistaken belief that they were helping “rebuild” the trail!
Fortunately there is a solution that isn’t hard. As visitors kick the stones and logs out of their way, we can just as easily put those items back into position. The quicker we do the touch up work, the easier it is to remember where the trail goes. If too much time passes and too many stones and logs get kicked aside, then we can forget which way the trail goes, and another restoration effort will eventually be needed.
Our actions can have a positive ripple effect. Just a few stones or sticks moved can change the course of hundreds of hikers, which in turn can lead to a plant not getting trampled that otherwise would have. Think about the one plant you helped. How many pollinators visit that plant? How many rodents and rabbits and birds eat its seeds and fruit? How many animals have hid under it for protection from sun or predators? If you save one plant, you have helped many animals.
A negative ripple effect can also take place. Not only are dozens of animal species impacted by just one lost plant, but there is an erosion issue as well.
Plants keep soil together by holding it with their roots. If a plant dies, then the roots will decompose and the rainstorms will wash away the soil so plants can’t grow there anymore. Then nearby plants no longer have a plant buffer around them and they erode more quickly as well, leading to a negative feedback loop. More erosion leads to fewer plants. Fewer plants leads to more erosion.
We can become the deciding factor by tipping the scales in a battle of erosion vs plant growth. If we encourage a plant to grow, then its root system will develop. More roots lead to less erosion in the next rainstorm, and more water that is absorbed rather than running off. More water absorbed into the soil leads to more plant and root growth, which leads to more soil formation, which encourages new plant growth, etc.
So the next time you see a cute plant in Joshua Tree at risk of being trampled, look around you. Often times you will see a rock or log that used to protect it has gotten moved a few feet away. If we all take a minute to think about helping just one plant every time we hike or climb in Joshua Tree, the positive ripple effects will be enormous.