When one thinks of a desert, expanses of barren land hammered by the sun and devoid of life may come to mind.
But the Mojave and Colorado deserts contain plants and animals that have adapted and don’t exist anywhere else. Whether it’s the elusive bighorn sheep or the creosote bush – one of the oldest organisms on the planet – this region of California has a diverse ecology if one cares to look at it.
And a non-profit organization aims to make it so.
The Mojave Desert Land Trust announced this week that it has taken a significant step forward: it has conserved more than 100,000 acres of land since its inception in 2006 by acquiring plots from private landowners.
The exact figure – 101,327 acres, or roughly 158 square miles – includes more than 50,000 acres that were purchased by the group and resold to federal agencies that manage properties such as Death Valley National Park, the Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve.
âMDLT was started by a group of citizens concerned with preserving the incredible beauty, dark night sky and ecosystems of the Mojave Desert,â Geary Hund, MDLT executive director, said in a statement. âThese 100,000 acres tell the story of the Mojave and Colorado deserts. We are proud of every acre we keep.
Rocks scribbled by a preserved 1920s eccentric
The group’s first purchase came about a year after its inception in an area bordering Joshua Tree National Park.
According to the MDLT, sellers of 639 acres for sale on Nolina Peak – named after a yucca-like plant – wanted the land to be protected.
Although the 900 foot mountain area is home to many flora and fauna, it has been zoned for houses. Access roads, if constructed, would have resulted in “fragmentation of the surrounding slopes,” the association said.
Over 400 donors and a conservation foundation eventually raised enough money to allow MDLT to purchase the land in May 2007. A year later, the national park officially incorporated Nolina Peak into its boundaries.
The association not only works on the acquisition of private properties bordering federal protected properties, but also within them.
More than 2.6 million acres in national parks remain in private ownership, also known as inholdings, as of December 31, 2020, according to the National Park Service.
Nearly 12,000 plots of land have been identified for purchase, the NPS said, but federal funding was not available to purchase all of them.
Private lands in parks are “problematic” for rangers because of the potential for intrusion, erosion, pollution and constant boundary monitoring, the MDLT said.
Since 2006, however, the association has said it has sold more private land to the NPS than any other similar organization, with 25,801 acres ceded to date.
A one-time purchase was made in 2017 when the MDLT acquired a 60-acre parcel inside Joshua Tree National Park where eight boulders are located.
Although giant boulders are strewn throughout the park, these stones were carved in 1927 with the philosophies of an eccentric Swedish immigrant named John Samuelson.
Samuelson was reportedly working at a nearby gold mine and had a colorful past which he said involved a shipwreck on an African island and kidnapping by a tribe there who spoke to monkeys.
âSamuelson’s Rocks is truly one of the most unique historic sites we have in the California desert,â Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent David Smith said at the time. “It opens the door to a time when people were discovering the desert as a way to find peace and rejuvenation.”
Since its acquisition of Nolina Peak in 2007, MDLT has retained 10,290 acres in Joshua Tree National Park.
An oasis on the Mojave River
In addition to buying land, restoring it and selling it, MDLT also manages nearly 50,000 acres of land it has purchased for conservation.
One of the âmost exciting acquisitionsâ came in 2018 when it acquired a 1,647-acre âoasisâ along the Mojave River, the group said.
The property, known as the Palisades Ranch, was once intended for a development of 1,300 homes and a golf course. This was before the California Department of Fish and Wildlife identified it as a high priority acquisition in 2010 because of the habitat there.
The ranch sits on a rare 3.5 mile stretch of the Mojave River where the water actually flows above the ground unlike much of the tributary that travels underground.
The variable availability of water leads to a wide variety of habitats, known to attract around 40 species with special conservation status.
Last year, a rare and endangered bird – the western yellow-billed cuckoo – was heard during an investigation.
It is estimated that fewer than 2,000 breeding pairs of cuckoos remain due to the destruction of their riparian habitat, which is found at Palisades Ranch, among other places.
The MDLT said surveyors also spotted two pairs of the Lesser Bell vireo, a small bird about 4.5 to 5 inches that was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1986.
The association hired an environmental services company in 2020 to help plan the site’s restoration with the intention of presenting proposals to the public this year.
Daily Press reporter Martin Estacio can be contacted at 760-955-5358 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @DP_mestacio.