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Challenging Summer Field Conservation

June 30, 2022

By James Danoff-Burg, Director of Conservation

Restoring habitats across the Coachella Valley is a glorious opportunity to care for our nearby nature. We, here at The Living Desert, have been blessed with the ability to repair degraded habitats in ways that benefit many endangered species including the desert tortoise, desert pupfish, Sonoran pronghorn, and monarch butterflies. It enriches our souls and aids the recovery of immeasurably valuable animals.

However, field restoration activities are strenuous! We are lifting, pulling, cutting, digging, and moving water, trees, soil, and rocks on a regular basis. Essentially, we are terraforming on a small scale and in remote areas. We often do so at least an hour’s drive away from the nearest shade or paved road.

During the eight months of paradise in the Coachella Valley, where temperatures allow us to, we clamor for field work. However, what does a devoted team of field conservationists do when the temperatures push 120˚ F (49˚ C) and there is no shade for miles? That’s the challenge our team is confronted with each year, from June to September.

Well, the short answer is we must work differently! We do different projects, at different times of the day, and in different locations, than the rest of the year.

A great example is our effort to restore the ecological health of desert tortoise habitats in the Orocopia Mountains. This expanse of land was degraded many decades ago by the Desert Training Center in the 1940s, to prepare the US military to fight Rommel's troops in North Africa, during WWII. The habitat has been recovering, but the impacts of climate change over the last few decades has slowed this process. The Living Desert's conservation team is working to accelerate it by planting species that are insufficiently abundant or, in some cases, have been lost. The threatened desert tortoise will then have a series of what we have been calling "Tortoise Restaurants" that they can patronize. These will be enriched areas with plants that we will grow, outplant, and then tend.

When it was cooler, we did rigorous field work in these lands, located southeast of Joshua Tree National Park. We surveyed the land to determine the best places, most in need of enrichment, with extra tortoise browse and shelter plants. We also surveyed the plant communities that were present in these designated areas in two different seasons. Then, we collected seeds and vegetative cuttings from the landscape in a way that would not deplete the seeds needed for natural regrowth, or take away too much potential food from the native seed-eating animal species.

These arduous field efforts are not things that we can safely conduct in the summer! Our desert is a great place to roast oneself, and we have no shade under which to work. As such, we have shifted to less-strenuous work that we can do on our grounds, in shaded areas, or, ideally, even in air-conditioned locations.

We are currently working with our awesome volunteers to sort, clean, and prepare the seeds that we have collected from over a dozen species. Next, our team will begin the planting and germination of these plants, starting in early July. We estimate that we will begin germinating upwards of 1,000 plants in the next few weeks; a massive effort. These, mostly perennial, plants will be ready for outplanting by early 2023 and, possibly, even by late 2022. 

Summer is often a time of plant care for us, as in the above example. However, we also focus on data analysis, scientific writing, and grant searching. These latter three efforts happen all year round, but intensify as we come into the summer. 

Special consideration is due to our grant proposal writing work. The conservation work that we do at The Living Desert is a year-round endeavor, and the funding to do so comes thanks to the generosity of our federal, state, and non-profit donors. Summer is our opportunity to "write the future" by conceptualizing, crafting, and submitting proposals. 

I generally take the lead on these proposals, as is demanded by my role as Director of Conservation at The Living Desert. However, I am VERY proud of how well the conserevation team has been learning this process. I am also proud of the many successes that we have had this year! Since August of last year, we have had the single most successful competitive conservation grant-writing year in the history of The Living Desert. We have received over $1.6 million dollars in field conservation awards and a separate award of at least $640,000 that will enable us to install 64 car chargers in the The Living Desert parking lot for guests and staff!

Given the extreme heat we have in the Coachella Valley in the summer, we cannot be out in the field doing the things that get us the most excited, including field surveys, removal of invasive species, outplanting, tracking animals, and the like. 

Nonetheless, even in these conditions, the conservation team at The Living Desert is still just as productive, protective, and connected with our natural world!

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