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Protected Joshua Tree Scorched in California Desert

posted: 12/02/15
by: Danny Clemens
Joshua tree
Jeff Foott/DCL

A legally protected and culturally iconic tree was set on fire in Joshua Tree National Park on Saturday evening, officials say.

Just after 8 pm, park rangers received a report that a Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) within park boundaries was burning. The visitors who reported the fire attempted to extinguish it with water bottles, and firefighters successfully prevented the flames from spreading to nearby vegetation.

The tree, however, could not be saved; authorities chopped down the scorched remains out of concern for safety.

Because no lighting was reported in the area, officials have determined that the fire was human-caused.

While the Joshua tree species is not federally protected, National Parks Service regulations specifically prohibit the "destroying, injuring, defacing [or] disturbing" of "natural, cultural and archeological resources" -- trees included -- within the boundaries of any national park. Furthermore, the tree is protected throughout the southwestern United States by various local ordinances.

"These iconic trees are the tangible symbol of the park, and of the California desert. The loss of any Joshua tree saddens me," Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent David Smith laments in a news release.

Amongst scientists, there is concern that the Joshua tree could disappear almost completely by the end of the century as its habitable range shrinks. The now-extinct giant sloth, which would feed on the tree and leave its seeds behind in its waste, was once important in helping the trees migrate as climates shifted.

Without the sloth, it is unlikely that the tree can naturally migrate substantial distances to more suitable conditions in the face of rising temperatures.

Park staff are still actively investigating the incident; anybody with information is asked to call 760-367-5500.

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