It’s been an up-and-down month for Joshua trees in the region.
At Mojave National Preserve in California, thousands of the iconic desert plants recently won permanent federal protection, thanks to a land transfer that added 3,100 acres to the park 90 miles southwest of Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, in Mohave County, Arizona, a Las Vegas businessman is defending himself from allegations of a “Joshua tree massacre” on about 100 acres of private property he’s clearing for agricultural development.
Al Barbarich, who owns the land about 95 miles southeast of Las Vegas and hopes to establish a nut and fruit orchard there, said his permit to clear the land did not require him to save any of the Joshua trees. But he said he arranged to have about 100 of them dug up and replanted at homes, a school and other locations in the area — all at no cost to those who received the plants.
“We tried to do something nice for the neighbors and the community,” he said.
Some area residents didn’t see it that way. In online posts and a Feb. 12 story in the Kingman Daily Miner newspaper, the developer was accused of wholesale Joshua tree murder.
Barbarich acknowledged that some plants were destroyed as the land was cleared, though he couldn’t say how many. He said a lot of the Joshua trees shown piled up in the photos posted by his critics were older plants with little hope of being successfully transplanted.
The negative publicity is “unfortunate,” Barbarich said, because he felt like he was trying, at his own expense, to do the responsible thing. “We wanted to preserve the trees to the extent that people wanted them,” he said.
FROM PRIVATE TO PROTECTED
The additional Joshua trees now under the protection of Mojave National Preserve in California were also once subject to the whims of private development.
The plants are growing on what used to be scattered pockets of private land within the boundaries of the 1.6 million acre desert preserve. Over the past decade, the nonprofit Mojave Desert Land Trust has been buying up such “private in-holdings” and selling or donating them to the National Park Service.
The latest land transfer, completed earlier this month, involved 110 scattered parcels ranging in size from 5 to 320 acres.
Frazier Haney, conservation director for the trust, said most of the land is located in Lanfair Valley near the eastern edge of the preserve, an area “really rich in Joshua trees and Mojave yucca.”
Haney said the trust purchased the property from “a variety of willing sellers” over the past nine years. The group paid a total of $1.5 million for the land and received $1.4 million from the park service in return.
That money will be used to buy other private property within the preserve and other desert parks in California, Haney said.
“Scenic views, sensitive habitat and historic resources that might otherwise be lost are now protected in perpetuity for all to appreciate and enjoy,” Greg Gress, regional realty chief for the park service, said in a written statement.
Haney said private in-holdings are not governed by the same rules and protections as the surrounding park land. Gradually eliminating the patchwork of in-holdings simplifies management of the entire preserve, he said.
‘STRICTLY WILLING SELLERS’
But Haney stressed that the trust isn’t trying to force private landowners off their property, some of which dates to the days of homesteading in the area roughly 100 years ago. “It’s strictly willing sellers,” he said.
Since it was founded in Joshua Tree, California, in 2007, the conservation group has donated more parcels of land to the park service than any other trust in the country, Haney said.
Mojave National Preserve has gained more than 30,000 acres — and countless Joshua trees — through the trust’s efforts.
Haney said more than 1,300 private parcels remain within the boundaries of the preserve, though, “so we’ve still got a ways to go.”