Respecting our Desert Elders— Ancestors of the Leafy Type By Robin Kobaly
08/01/2012 08:55PM ● Published by Denise Brown
When I was in grade school, I used to walk from the bus stop to my family’s rural desert home everyday after school. I remember passing one big, majestic plant native to our area called Wild Plum or Parry Abrojo (Ziziphus parryi). It was about 15 feet tall and wide, with a trunk nearly two feet across. I sort of befriended that plant and the California Thrasher that always sang from its upper branches as I passed by. When I went off to study botany in college, I sort of forgot about that touchstone of my early childhood.
Years later, I ended up moving back to the same Morongo Valley neighborhood, and there waiting to greet me was that same wild plum in one of the few lots that was still undeveloped. It looked exactly the same. By that time I was in my forty’s, and noticeable changes had occurred in me, but the wild plum had not changed. I started wondering how old it must actually be if 40 years made no difference in its stature. If it were already full grown when I was a tot, then it must be no less than eighty years old, but likely much more. Could this sentinel of my neighborhood be over a hundred years old?
The way I found out broke my heart. One morning I awoke to the sound of a bulldozer down our street, and I looked out to see my familiar wild plum being ripped from the earth. I ran down the street to see what remained of that majestic plant. I ended up salvaging the uprooted trunk, and realized I could count the annual growth rings exposed in the split wood. Over 350 rings. It amazed me, even after studying desert plants for my master’s degree. How much longer might this ancient plant have lived? Even the bulldozer operator felt bad, and said he could have easily gone around it, as it was in a location that they couldn’t build on anyway. He said he wished he had known.
This one experience influenced the next chapter of my life. That very day, I decided to develop a new program called “Saving The Ancients” under our environmental education non-profit, The SummerTree Institute. I ended up chasing bulldozers to salvage the trunks of as many desert plants as possible, had them sliced, sanded, and polished so ecology students could help us count the annual growth rings of as many sizes and species of native plants as we could find. In this way, we could get an idea of how the size of a given desert plant relates to its age, without having to cut it down or use a core boring tool to count its annual growth rings to determine its age.
We were astonished. Junipers over 1000 years old, wild plums over 400 years old, oaks over 500 years old, ironwood trees over 800 years old, and even the smaller creosote bushes several hundred years old. But because none of these plants reach great size in order to survive the extremes of our arid climate, no one realizes how old they are. When one of these ancients is removed from its community, it takes five centuries or more to replace their contribution to that ecosystem. And yet we think nothing of blading tens of thousands of acres of these ancient desert plants for a renewable energy project whose lifespan is optimistically up to 20 years. With this technology changing so fast, by the time they finish building one of these massive projects, the technology will already be out of date.
Invariably, the organisms that make the biggest impact on any ecosystem are those that live the longest. We are just realizing that the anchors of our desert ecosystems are the long-lived plants that we see above ground, and the long-lived, complex soil community connected below ground to those ancient desert plants. It is not the plants’ roots that absorb most of the water and nutrients from the soil, but the microscopic soil partners that live on those roots that do the work. This is a life-long relationship, and if the host plant dies, the root partners die. These root partners are part of a host of lower organisms that also cement soil grains together to create a crust across undisturbed desert soils, and pre- vent choking dust storms whenever stiff winds blow. Ancient plants supported by ancient soils, and ancient soils supported by ancient plants. One cannot survive without the other, and breaking that living connection between the two requires many centuries to reform.
So what? Who will know or care if thousands of acres of ancient plants and their ancient soil partners die in some remote stretch of desert? There’s lots of desert out there, plenty to spare. Remember when we used to have so much water that we let the faucet run the whole time we brushed our teeth? There was so much water—then! And there’s so much desert—today...
So little value is put on our remaining stretches of California desert because we are so little aware of its contributions. But contribute it does, from carbon sequestration by its ancient soil communities, to the erosion control of its intact soil crusts that prevent PM10s from whipping up into the desert air we breathe, to the centuries, even millennia of food, cover, and homes provided by just one individual ancient plant across its lifetime for all manner of wildlife, from bighorn to bunnies, and to the solace of a pristine landscape that stretches as far as you can see.
It is not a stretch to say the blading of thousands of acres of pristine desert for one 25-year energy project removes an ancient community that will take at least 1000 or more years to recover, if ever, de- pending upon rainfall. We risk destroying a 1000+ year resource for a project that we know will be obsolete in 25 years or less.
It just doesn’t make sense. So how do we meet our renewable energy goals without destroying valuable landscapes while our technology catches up with our needs? Put the same effort and money into something like roof-top solar. The ground under our existing roofs has already been bladed, and these roofs are “solar fields” in waiting. The transmission lines are already in place. Roof-top solar units can be quickly changed out as the technology improves, all without any more impact to the desert landscape, and all leading to many long-term jobs dispersed through- out each of our communities. And the residents who live below these future “roof-top solar fields,” from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, can continue to take their children out to the still-pristine Mojave and Colorado Desert wildlands for the next 1000 years to view a landscape full of ancient plants, and to find solace, stars, beauty, and renewal.
Robin Kobaly is the executive director of the SummerTree Institute, and a biologist.