Were Irreplaceable Joshua Trees Destroyed Because of the Government Shutdown?
A meme about damaged Joshua trees and the 2019 shutdown is a mixture of true and unverified information.
On January 10, 2019, the Facebook page "The Other 98%" shared a meme about Joshua trees which were purportedly destroyed due to the 2018-2019 federal government shutdown:
Atop two images of trees, text read:
During the shutdown, with Joshua Tree National Park open but no staff on duty, visitors cut down Joshua trees so they could drive into sensitive areas where vehicles are banned.
The destroyed trees are irreplaceable; they take sixty years to mature and live for more than 500 years.
Its claims were multilayered, saying that slow-growing trees were destroyed in Joshua Tree National Park as a direct consequence of the shutdown, and that if staff were present the trees would necessarily have been safe.
The image on the right side of the meme appeared in a widely-referenced January 8 2019 post published by National Parks Traveler, "Joshua Tree National Park To Close For Cleanup, Repairs To Vandalism, Illegal Roads":
[In the first week of January 2019], park staff closed its campgrounds to overnight use because of sanitation problems, but many visitors ignored that closure. With just eight law enforcement rangers working during the partial government shutdown it was impossible to cover all areas of the park, which is about the size of Delaware.That article did not specify how many Joshua trees were harmed in the described instances; so far, the extent of damage to Joshua trees in particular is unclear:
"There are about a dozen instances of extensive vehicle traffic off roads and in some cases into wilderness," Smith replied when asked about the damage in the park. "We have two new roads that were created inside the park. We had destruction of government property with the cutting of chains and locks for people to access campgrounds. We’ve never seen this level of out-of-bounds camping. Every day use area was occupied every evening.
"Joshua trees were actually cut down in order to make new roads.”
Amid reports of plundered Native American artifacts and chain-sawed Joshua trees, officials announced they would close the park entirely at 8 a.m. Thursday — the 20th day of the government shutdown. The closure, they said, would allow them to assess damage to the park and mount an intensive cleanup effort.
This is not the first time Joshua trees were damaged by less-than-conscientious park visitors. In 2015, a man was arrested for illegally starting a fire that ended up burning a large swath of historic trees and other vegetation in the Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua trees were also harmed in large numbers in the 1980s and 1990s:
During the 1980s, an estimated 200,000 Joshua trees were replaced by development in desert boom towns. Many more were removed later to make way for renewable energy facilities.The second portion of the claim is that Joshua trees take 60 years to mature and live for more than 500 years. It is true that the vast majority of Joshua trees take 50 to 60 years to reach maturity, but most sources indicate that their lifespans are not typically in the 500-year range.
In the 1990s, heavy rains triggered explosive growth of exotic grasses among the trees. Feeding off nitrogen-laden smog, the grasses left Joshua tree forests vulnerable to large-scale brush fires such as one that charred 14,000 acres in 1999.
The National Parks Service entry on Joshua trees maintained:
Some researchers think an average lifespan for a Joshua tree is about 150 years, but some of our largest trees may be much older than that.
The meme claimed that visitors to Joshua Tree National Park cut down Joshua trees during the shutdown of 2018-2019, and a source report indicated at least one Joshua tree may have been cut down during that time.Joshua trees do take five to six decades to mature, but their lifespans are not typically described as "more than 500 years."