The Mojave Desert Land Trust's new 227-acre parcel—seen here looking west from the Institute of Mentalphysics—is part of an important wildlife corridor, said MDLT executive director Geary Hund. Credit: Courtesy of MDLT

The Mojave Desert Land Trust has acquired a 227-acre parcel of important wildlife habitat that was previously owned by the Institute of Mentalphysics, near Joshua Tree.

Roughly 80 percent of the $780,000 cost was covered by grant funds from the state of California, with the other 20 percent provided by the MDLT via a combination of other grants and private donations.

It was the latest action in the land trust’s ongoing effort to guarantee that a valuable wildlife corridor/habitat linkage will be protected in perpetuity to enable the movement of both animal and plant species through regions stretching from the Morongo Basin to the west, and Joshua Tree National Park and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center to the north and east.

“It ensures that the property will never be developed,” said Geary Hund, executive director of the MDLT, during a recent interview. “It will be permanently preserved as wild land, which in and of itself is a good thing, because it’s a large chunk of Joshua Tree woodland—and as we know now, the western Joshua Tree is imperiled by a number of threats to its long-term existence. So it’s really good that we’re able to preserve this Joshua Tree woodland.

“But what’s most important is that (the parcel) is part of an important habitat linkage or wildlife corridor between Joshua Tree National Park and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms,” Hund continued. “At first glance, it might seem odd that we would be connecting a national park to a military base, but much of the military base is not used for military actions that cause disturbance to the habitat, and they do manage wildlife on the base. So even though they do some pretty significant training there—including bombing in certain areas—much of the base is managed for its habitat. Therefore, it’s very important from a conservation standpoint that the two areas have been connected together to help ensure that both areas remain more ecologically sound. The habitat linkages help to maintain genetic variation, which is important to maintaining a healthy wildlife population. They provide for the migration of plants and animals in response to climate change, or as a source for repopulation after a catastrophic event.”

Hund offered an example of the value of habitat linkages.

“Say you had a big brush fire on the Marine Corps base, or even in Joshua Tree National Park, that burned a pretty big area. Afterwards, animals and plants—via their seeds—can move through the corridor and repopulate the area that was damaged by the wildfire. So, linkages are very, very important. Scientists for many years, going all the way back to the 1940s and 1950s, have recognized the relationship between the size of an area and how many species it can support. So, if the national park became effectively an islanded habitat, or the Marine Corps base became an islanded habitat without connections to other areas, certain species might eventually become locally extinct. The areas, even as big as they are, might not be big enough to support, say, the tortoise long-term. But the two areas linked together by a wildlife corridor would be big enough. So that’s why we’re so focused on protecting these wildlife corridors—and this property is smack-dab in the middle of an important wildlife corridor.”

The parcel, which is north of Highway 62 and west of Joshua Tree, is known to be part of a popular migration route for a variety of animals, including coyotes, bobcats owls, badgers, desert tortoises, red-tailed hawks, jackrabbits, ground squirrels, desert iguanas and side-blotched lizards. Also, plant species such as Joshua trees, silver cholla, burrobush and creosote thrive in the area.

The Independent asked if the land-trust team had seen any evidence that repopulation migrations were taking place since the summer blazes that charred lands on the western edges of this wildlife corridor.

“What we see are animal tracks in ravines that run through the properties and go right up to the highway on both sides,” Hund said. “So we know that animals are crossing Highway 62—not frequently, but they do cross. And we know that movement across is still occurring, so how that immediately affects the recovery from the fire, we’re unable to tell yet—but it does illustrate that these linkages are functioning. They are allowing the passage of wildlife from one side to the other.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average annual temperature in Southern California has risen by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century. The warming has had a negative impact on plant and wildlife sustainability in the region—especially when it comes to Joshua trees.

“Studies—including the landmark one done by Dr. Lynn Sweet—show that Joshua trees in lower-elevation areas are hardly reproducing at all anymore, because conditions have become too warm and dry,” Hund said. “Now you have periods of drought followed by periods of heavy rain. Those periods of drought can result in the death of young Joshua trees, or even prevent their germination in the first place. So, as a result of the climate models and the field data that’s been collected, on the most extreme end, predictions indicate that only 1-2 percent of the Joshua trees would be left in the Joshua Tree National Park. That’s pretty significant.”

Hund and his MDLT colleagues are committed to doing all they can to help the embattled plant species avert extinction.

“We’re working long term on ensuring that there’s an interconnected system of reserves across the desert, so that all of these large protected areas like parks, monuments and wilderness areas are all connected by wildlife corridors or habitat linkages, so the desert ecosystem will have an opportunity to remain intact and viable long-term,” Hund said. “Regardless of climate change, (the wildlife corridors) are important because of species-area relationship and the potential danger of losing species if you have extensive habitat fragmentation. Just isolation alone could result in insufficient genetic variations for animals to adapt to change over time. People think of mutations as a bad thing, but actually, mutations can be beneficial—for instance, if you have a desert tortoise that has a mutation that allows it to be more resilient to drought. You want those genes to circulate throughout the desert tortoise population and not just be limited to Joshua Tree National Park.”

Is the MDLT eyeing any other land parcels in this developing wildlife corridor—and what other wildlands protection priorities are they pursuing?

“We are planning to buy another piece of land in the vicinity of the IOM,” Hund said. “We have received a preliminary approval from the California Wildlife Conservation Board to (pursue the purchase of) some 80 acres, which will then be protected on the same side of Highway 62. So it is a constant effort.”

Hund said local residents also benefit from the MLDT’s stewardship of our region’s wildlands.

“We are a conservation organization,” he said. “We buy these lands primarily to protect wildlife habitats and connectivity, but what’s really interesting is that this is an identified area that’s considered a gateway to the Joshua Tree National Park. It’s been prioritized in planning processes to remain as open as possible. Also, it’s been identified as being important to the Morongo Basin to keep open space between the communities. So it has become a community amenity, because it is protected open space that the communities can use to preserve the rural character of the communities, plus provide multiple benefits for both people and wildlife.”

The recently obtained 227 acres will still receive support from the former owners, too.

“The IOM has a real affiliation with that landscape, because it’s the viewscape for their facility,” Hund said. “They’re very interested in working together with us to do a joint fundraiser and to help us in our efforts to provide future stewardship and management of the land. That would include everything from the control of non-native plants to restoring native vegetation and, where necessary, managing visitor use and off-road vehicle incursions. … We do make (our lands) available for what we call ‘passive recreational use,’ so there will be some sort of non-motorized vehicle access to this property, like hiking or potentially mountain-biking and horse-riding.”

Hund said the land trust’s goal is to protect open space while also allowing communities to grow in a healthy manner.

“We really focus on the big undeveloped open spaces, and there’s still a tremendous amount of available land for both planned development and housing,” he said. “We don’t really take away from potential development, because there are a number of desert lands that are adjacent to these properties that are still available for housing. We see it as a really nice combination of (wildlife) protection and smart growth, if you will.”

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, after he and his wife Linda moved from Los Angeles to Palm...