In early 2016, President Obama created three, new, protected wilderness areas in the Mojave Desert. Those of us who do not live in California and Nevada (and even some who do) might have wondered why anyone would bother protecting what a lot of folks think of as a barren wasteland. But those folks have never stopped their cars on the road between LA and Vegas or visited Death Valley or Joshua Tree.The Mojave is the smallest of the four deserts in the Americas, and it contains some of the largest stretches of untouched wilderness left in the US. It exposes so much of our geologic past to the naked eye that you feel as if you have stepped into a time machine. The stark beauty and colorscape, the silence and the sensation of being truly away from the manmade world have turned the Mojave into a national treasure. There are so many reasons why protecting it is important... go on out there and see for yourself why this magical place should remain untouched and kept safe.
The Mojave People
Hayikwiir Mat'aar, now called The Mojave Desert, is the region that travelers pass through between LA and Vegas and is considered the 4th largest desert in North America. It was once the home to the people the desert is now named after, the Mojave tribe... or 'Aha Makhav'. This group of people, their history mostly lost now after their oral traditions were disrupted by European settlers, once occupied lands that stretched between an area north of Hoover Dam and below Parker Dam along the Colorado river. Their population in total was estimated by the intruding government to be around 4,000 people broken into 22 different clans. By the time they were 'assimilated' by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and broken into two reservations, 18 traditional clans had survived. By the estimates as of 1963, there were 988 members of the original population left.
While there are many ancient species in the Mojave, none is as venerable as the King Clone creosote. Considered to be one of the oldest living organisms on earth, this creosote ring is estimated to be 11,700 years old. Using both radiocarbon dating as well as measuring the distance of annual growth, the plant was first identified by Frank Vasek, a professor at UC Riverside. It is a single clonal colony plant that reaches up to 67 feet in diameter. It currently sits on protected land in the central Mojave.
The Mojave Yucca is the cousin of the Joshua Tree and often mistaken for it. You can tell the difference by its coarser, 'hairier' build and the fact that it rarely branches. In fact, if you see one that has branched, that means it is likely over a century old. Like the creosote bush, this is a clonal plant that grows outward in a ring. When you see such a ring, you can date it by averaging 30 years a foot. There are Mojave Yucca rings that have been estimated at many, many thousands of years old. These ancient rings were growing not long after the last ice age ended.
The Buckhorn Cholla, Galleta grass, Mormon Tea, Turpentine Broom and Blackbrush are all ancient in their own right. Galleta grass is an insignificant weedy looking clump of grasses but it provides a nursery for many other plant and animal species in the harsh environment -- holding down the sands and protecting seeds from winds. Each bunch can live over a 100 years, and the many species it nurtures can live even longer.Next time you are out in the high desert, keep your eyes open for these unassuming plants. They have seen millennia pass by.
Exposed Geologic Past
Between 570-225 million years ago, much of what we now know as the Mojave was covered by a shallow sea. These waters would fluctuate, and each fluctuation would deposit thousands of feet of sediment. Then, between 225 - 65 million years ago, huge uplifts changed the landscape, revealing all the sediments of the previous Paleozoic Era and evaporating all the waters. This left layers of salt, gypsum and other minerals that became an eventual mecca for humanity to mine. During the Cenozoic (65 million years to today) Era, massive tectonic activity warped the land. Volcanos, lava flows and violent twisting created some of the amazing sights you see now in Joshua Tree, Death Valley and the Mojave National Preserve. If you drive east past Barstow on I-40 you will see black, igneous lava flows still stretching across the land -- looking as if it had just happened. South of Baker you can see crops of cinder cones ( small volcanic vents ) still stained black and red. In Death Valley at Ubehebe Crater, the last activity was only 3,000 years ago. In terms of geologic time that might as well have happened 10 minutes ago!
An endemic species is one that is only found in a specific area, and can live nowhere else. There are over 200 endemic species in the Mojave. When the weather is just right, more endemic species can be found here than anywhere else in the US. Notably and most famously, the Joshua tree only grows in this one area in the entire world. Other dominants (meaning you can easily find them as they are everywhere in this desert) include the creosotebush, brittlebrush, desert holly, and white burrobush.Among the other plants found nowhere else are the Silver cholla, the Mojave Prickly Pear, the Beavertail Cactus and the Many-Headed Barrel cactus. The Kelso Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve harbors seven species of endemic insects. The Mojave Ground Squirrel, the Amargosa Vole, the Mojave Patchnose snake, and the Mojave Rattlesnake are some of the animals that live here and nowhere else.