March 6, 2010

Park battles desert invader

By Kurt Schauppner
Hi-Desert Star

JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK — With the annual wildflower season just beginning to blossom, officials from Joshua Tree National Park and the Morongo Basin Conservation Association are taking up arms against a desert invader, the Sahara mustard.

Volunteers are being sought to remove the plant from the Pinto Basin inside the national park.

Work teams will gather at 8 a.m. today and the next two Saturdays in March at the Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center at 74485 National Park Drive in Twentynine Palms.

Participants are asked to bring water, gloves, snacks, hats, sunscreen, pruners and clippers.

According to the National Park Service, invasive plants like the fast-growing Sahara mustard suppress native wildflowers by taking all the soil moisture needed for spring germination.

They create a continuous fuel source by connecting desert habitats, worsening the size and intensity of wildland fires.

Invasive plants are are considered a poor source of nutrition for native wildlife, including the desert tortoise.

“It’s become a pretty big problem for the last five years,” park science coordinator Victoria Chang said Monday of the Sahara mustard. “We’d like to contain it as much as possible.”

Chang said Sahara mustard tends to germinate before native species.

“They tend to get a head start, which is why we try to battle against it,” Chang said.

Sahara mustard is not the only invasive plant causing worry in the national park.

Chang said park officials also are worried about the tamarisk, a large desert tree that is an opportunistic non-native plant that establishes itself in riparian habitats and sucks up all the water.

“It comes out very easily and will crowd out native plants,” she said, noting that park officials use a cut stump method and federally approved herbicide to attack tamarisks.

“It is an ongoing battle,” she said.

Fountain grass is another invader being battled in the park, Chang said.

The grass is sold as an ornamental plant and spreads after being planted in people’s back yards.