Seeing Beyond the Joshua Trees in the East Mojave

Smoke-filled sky over burning Cima Dome landscape

On August 15, 2020, the summer monsoon finally rolled into California’s East Mojave highlands. But the thunderstorm did not bring rain. Lightning struck near Deer Springs, igniting fine fuels—in the desert, mostly grasses—that had flourished since cattle grazing permits were retired in 2002. When the Dome Fire started in the Mojave National Preserve, it was only one of many fires in the largest wildfire season in California history. Because fires were raging elsewhere in Southern California, requests for assistance were denied. When the fire was fully contained on August 24, it had burned 43,273 acres, killing approximately 1.3 million eastern Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia var. jaegeriana).

The news outlets that covered the desert fire focused on the death of this charismatic species, which had become the poster child for the effects of climate change in the Mojave Desert. The Dome Fire story fit neatly into narratives about California’s “new normal” under climate change. The predictions of longer and more intense fire seasons elsewhere in the state were beginning to look true for the desert as well. The news stories revolved around the Joshua tree as a symbol of what would be lost under the new fire regime.

Smoke cloud covers sky over East Mojave landscape with many Joshua trees
A smoke cloud rises over the Dome fire in the East Mojave in August 2020. Photo by JT Sohr, National Park Service, August 2020.

Yet, what these stories missedin their love of Joshua treeswas the historical ecology of the East Mojave, a story in which more than a century of grazing desert understories erased centuries of what had preceded it: Nuwu (also known as Nuwuvi or Southern Paiute) landscape management. As I dug into historical archives for my research on land use policy and conservation in the East Mojave, it became clear how grazing reshaped the landscape in ways that made people think the Eastern Mojave should never burn.

Before the Love of the Joshua Tree

The Joshua tree is a popular culture icon, reflected in music videos and Instagram posts. The plant’s rising fame has been accompanied by a tourism boom for Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP) and the California desert more broadly. Between 2013 and 2019, visitation to JTNP doubled. The Park’s sudden popularity seeded worry among park managers that JTNP was being “loved to death” and encouraged others to try to save the Joshua tree at all costs.

In 2019, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the federal government to protect western Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia var. brevifolia) under the Endangered Species Act. They argued that the subspecies (distinct from the Eastern Mojave variant) is under threat from increased development pressure and climate change, especially in areas around Joshua Tree National Park and in northern Los Angeles County. While the petition was unsuccessful in listing the Seussian plant at the federal level, their efforts did raise greater awareness of Joshua trees’ plight.

Black Joshua trees on a burned East Mojave landscape with large granite rocks
After the fire, the skeletons of dead Joshua trees mark the Cima Dome landscape. Photo by Barbara Michel, National Park Service, 2020.

When Cima Dome (itself an impressive geological feature) burned a year later, media coverage unsurprisingly focused on the impacts on the charismatic flora. The fire destroyed a quarter of Cima Dome’s impressive stand of Eastern Joshua trees so dense that some had called it a “forest.”

Cima Dome rests in the East Mojave Highlands. Unlike the rest of the Mojave and much of California where winter rainfall predominates, the East Mojave Highlands has a bimodal rain distribution with a precipitation peak in both the winter and summer. The bimodal rainfall, including summer monsoonal thunderstorms, also shapes plant communities, creating a unique ecology that sweeps across the higher elevations of what is today Mojave National Preserve. Botanist Joseph McAuliffe calls these areas the East Mojave Highlands.

Round top of Cima Dome with rocks and cacti
The East Mojave’s Cima Dome. Photo by author, March, 2018.

For McAuliffe, the East Mojave Highlands are characterized by high elevation—the reason the area receives the tail ends of summer monsoonal precipitation which travels north from the Gulf of Mexico. This summer precipitation supports C4 grasses like black grama grass (Bouteloua eriopoda) and big galleta grass (Pleuraphis rigida). These grasses, adapted to growing during the hot desert summers, thrive on summer rainfall. The dense stands of bunchgrasses are also fine fuels that carry fires across the landscape. Historically, Nuwuvi peoples shaped the landscape into grasslands through low-intensity fires.

Though Native-initiated fires in the East Mojave are hard to quantify because of the confounding presence of lightning-initiated fires, Nuwuvi (or Southern Paiute) peoples likely used them to manage game and basket plants. Fires, as Kat Anderson argues in Tending the Wild, were “the most significant, effective, efficient, and widely employed vegetation tool of California Indian tribes.” The East Mojave grassland is similar to other Nuwuvi homelands in present-day Nevada and Utah, where Native fire use in sagebrush plant communities has been documented. In the 1930s, Nuwuvi people told anthropologists that they used ground fires, cutting off lower branches of trees to keep fires small and managed, to capture rabbits during the summer. Yet, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Nuwuvi people were forced onto reservations or moved away from traditional villages to work for wages, these practices became increasingly impracticable.

On Arizona landscape, sign reads "Entering Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation"
Many Nuwuvi (or Southern Paiute) people were forced onto and continue to live on reservations. Photo by Thibaut Fleuret, October, 2014.

Nuwu people persist on reservations and in communities from Utah to southeastern California despite the ongoing impacts of colonization. The southwesternmost band of Nuwu peoples are the Chemehuevi, whose reservation is south of the East Mojave along the Colorado River. Chemehuevi elder Matthew Leivas, whom I’ve known for years through our work for the Native American Land Conservancy, told me about how his own relatives have managed the landscape. While he doesn’t doubt that Chemehuevis used fires, his own memories are of clearing out weeds and brush around the house. He grew up on the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation in Parker, Arizona, where his uncle always tended wild plants, even just on day trips to their ancestral lands. His uncle, he said, “always carried a shovel and an ax” to clean under a tree and clear out the brush to care for the land. Today, Leivas says, he continues this practice, even as he endures loving teasing from family and friends who say, “wherever you go you start cleaning.”

Leivas’s cleaning practices today mirror the Chemehuevis’ patch burning of the past, both clearing small areas and managing plants. But the Chemehuevis’ fires—Leivas described them as “well-controlled and limited”—all but disappeared during colonization and as cattle came to the Eastern Mojave.

Grazing the Fire Away

Native fires, and all large fires, came to a halt in the East Mojave between 1890 and 2000. Widespread grazing played a key role in this shift. While cattle grazing encroached on Nuwuvi lands and livelihoods, grazing also was often seen as beneficially preventing fire. In the 1970s, Carl Weikel, whose grazing permit for the YKL Ranch (formerly known as Walking Box Ranch) extended across Southern Nevada and into the East Mojave, argued that “proper grazing definitely lessens the chances of disastrous fires that could destroy such areas as the Cima Dome Joshua Forest.”1 Referencing how Joshua trees and shrubs like blackbrush (Coleogyne ramosissima) recover poorly from large and hot fires, his prediction seems eerily prescient today, when, only 18 years after grazing permits expired, a lightning-ignited fire burned down a quarter of the Cima Dome stand.

A cattle on the desert landscape stares toward the camera
A cow grazes on the East Mojave. Photo by Ken Lund, September, 2009.

Weikel’s grazing permit was previously part of the Rock Springs Land & Cattle Company, an enterprise at its height from the 1890s through 1910s, when the new Union Pacific Railroad allowed cattle transport from the Mojave to cities.2 At its peak, Rock Springs Land & Cattle Company maintained 10,000 cattle across 854,000 acres of land, the second largest landholdings in California. In 1928, a combination of financial problems and a drought pushed Rock Springs owners to split their holdings into four ranches. Though not the same dominant force, cows remained on the East Mojave Highlands in the smaller ranches, including Weikel’s.

In the late 1970s, new federal mandates led range scientists to revisit the effects of grazing on the East Mojave rangelands. In 1977, 43 percent of Animal Unit Months (a metric used to compare grazing allotments across different animals) of the Desert Planning Area were situated in the East Mojave, which was only a tenth of the planning area’s 12 million acres.3 The overgrazing in the East Mojave was noticed by range conservationists like Donald Heinz, who said in a 1978 survey, “When viewing the reprehensible damage done by grazing livestock on the East [Mojave] Desert, it is easy to conclude that domestic animals have no place there.”4

As a range conservationist, Heinz was concerned about woody encroachment, a controversial term used to describe a shift from grassland to shrubland as a result of grazing. The basic argument of woody encroachment is that cattle eating grasses allows for shrubs to outcompete grasses, while also preventing fires that could lead to restoration of grasslands. What is contested about the term is just how much grazing affects plant communities as well as whether this restructuring of plant communities is a bad thing.

Rock peaks of an East Mojave mountain range are surrounded by desert plants, including Joshua trees
Joshua trees grow near Castle Peaks in the Mojave National Preserve. Photo by author, 2018.

Although there is still considerable debate as to how much Joshua trees have benefited from grazing in the East Mojave, the way that cattle grazing supports shrubs is clear. When cattle eat grasses, shrubs thrive with the decreased competition. These shrubs serve as nurse plants to Joshua trees, making them more likely to survive. In a repeat photography study of rangelands farther north conducted in the late 1970s, range conservationists and ecologists concluded that “over the past 100 years . . . the decline of perennial grasses and influxes of Joshua trees and shrubs are undoubtedly a direct result of livestock grazing.”5 They argue that livestock grazing transformed the landscape, making a grassland into a shrubland and preventing fire through grazing fine fuels. Their study also raises the question: what kind of plant community should live on Cima Dome?

The Contested Landscape of Cima Dome

This question has often been hidden inside an ecological debate about what to call the plant community currently living on Cima Dome. McAuliffe argues that contemporary ecologists have been classifying the East Mojave incorrectly for years, in part because they use the visual presence of Joshua trees to indicate a plant community as a woodland or shrubland, “with little regard to the actual dominant species that independently occur in compositionally distinct assemblages.”

Ecologists using standard surveying practices were likely confounded by the impacts of grazing. When cattle are grazing, they chomp many perennial grasses down to the base, making it harder for botanists to identify them. Further, since many biological surveys are conducted in the spring to identify plants that grow in the winter, surveyors miss C4 perennial grasses, which grow predominantly during late summer. In contrast to these analyses, McAuliffe offers a fine-grained analysis of the understory to call the plant community a Mojavean Joshua tree mixed shrub savanna, where grasses play a prominent role in the plant community. For these landscapes, the structures of the grasses determine the greatest environmental changes in plant communities and landscapes, McAuliffe told me in a Zoom conversation this spring.

East Mojave landscape has some Joshua trees but is covered in grasses
Grass dominates this plant community in the East Mojave near the New York Mountains. Photo by author, 2018.

By ignoring the grasses that form the understory, these designations—woodland, shrubland—naturalize what was largely the impact of a hundred years of grazing history and its interactions with ecology as the natural result of ecology alone. Focusing on the historical effects of only the last one hundred years as the natural baseline for understanding desert ecologies, names like woodland and shrubland also erase the historical effects of thousands of years of Nuwu management of the East Mojave landscape that had helped keep the East Mojave grasses alive. Such erasure mirrors the impacts of Euroamerican settlement on Nuwuvi life, such as when homesteaders and miners guarded springs, preventing Nuwuvi people from returning to their villages, or when the federal government attempted to force Chemehuevis and Southern Paiutes onto reservations in Arizona, Nevada, and California.

Last year’s Dome Fire, then, raises questions beyond how to save the Joshua trees. It necessitates examining how regimes of the past century—like grazing—have shaped what ecologists thought the Eastern Mojave should be. Without the impacts of grazing today disappearing from the East Mojave landscape, it’s likely that lightning-ignited fires will return, but under new circumstances including a century of brush growth and the unpredictable effects of climate change on fire regimes. While mourning the loss of the charismatic Joshua trees, it also becomes possible to reconsider the ecology that brought them to popularity as not simply “natural” but as shaped by histories of ranching and Native dispossession.

Featured Image: The Dome Fire burns the Cima Dome landscape and its Joshua trees. Photo by JT Sohr, August, 2020.

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Jim André of the Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, who initially recommended Joseph McAuliffe’s work to me, as well as to Joseph McAuliffe for his valuable time and research. An earlier version of this paper received feedback from the participants at the Workshop for the History of Environment, Agriculture, Technology and Science in 2018. This research was funded by a UC Natural Reserves System Mildred E. Mathias Grant. All errors and opinions are my own.

Julia Sizek is a writer and Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and an Associate Scholar with the Native American Land Conservancy, an intertribal land trust. Her research concerns contemporary conflict over land use in the East Mojave, tracing the effects of land use policy on conservation, sacred site protection, and extraction. More of her work can be found on her webpage. Website. Twitter. Contact.

  1. Public Forum: Desert Soils, Water, Native Plants, Wildlife, Scientific Research and Education, Potential for Agriculture, Grazing, Man’s Impact on Resources, December 2, 1978, RG 49, Box 3, California Desert Conservation Area Files, National Archives and Records Administration at Riverside. 

  2. Mojave National Preserve, Rock Springs Land and Cattle Company: Cultural Landscapes Inventory, Kelso, CA: National Park Service, 2007 

  3. Planning Area Analysis, 1977. RG 49, Box 33, California Desert Conservation Area Files, NARA Riverside. 

  4. Letter from Donald H. Heinz to Chief Desert Planning Officer, April 30, 1978, RG 49, Box 34, NARA, Riverside. 

  5. Plan Impacts from the Proposed Plan Draft. Rg49, Box 35, CDCA File, NARA Riverside.