Hard to believe it’s been almost 6 months since we first started at the USGS office in Boulder City. Bridget and I were talking about how it’s such a weird feeling that today is our last day -it’s a bittersweet mix of sadness, thankfulness, and some disbelief that it’s really over after today.
The past few months have been so busy that we haven’t reported on the blog in a while! Between visiting all 3 gardens every other week and side projects added on outside of that, there’s been little time to get to our laptops to type up our entries. But two highlights outside of our Joshua Tree Garden upkeep duties were helping out on a Mojave plant survey project back in early March, and collecting data on periderm-stripping of Joshua Trees across the Mojave (periderm is what Joshua Tree “bark” is called since it is a monocot). Periderm-stripping is when rodents such as rabbits and squirrels chew off the tree “bark” for nutrients when they aren’t able to get enough from their typical food sources. This is likely linked to climate change with fewer plants –rodent food sources– surviving as they receive less rain.
We were also able to make a few more weekend trips, including the Grand Canyon and back to Zion again to hike Angel’s Landing! It’s been so much fun to adventure/hike/camp with Bridget over the months and become such good friends through all of that, our long drives, and living and working side by side.
I’m keeping this post short and sweet, but I need to say a few more thank-yous to our mentors: Chris, Lesley, Todd and Sara. I’ve felt that throughout this time, our mentors have all cared so much about making sure we’re learning as much as possible, giving advice for our future careers/grad school, and encouraging and thanking us for the hard work we’ve put into the Joshua Tree Genome Project. They’ve taught us a lot about research, the desert ecosystem and what it’s like to work at the USGS, which has been so valuable.
Planting Joshua Trees has been quite the group effort and a lot of fun to work with people involved in different facets of the Joshua Tree Genome Project.
The week prior to planting involved meetings with the team, including Chris Smith, Karolina Heyduk, Jeremy Yoder and his graduate student Kate, and of course our USGS mentors Todd Esque and Lesley DeFalco. Basing their experience off of last year, they were concerned that there weren’t as many plants with 3 or more blades because those have shown to be more likely to survive once planted in the gardens. With that in mind, it was harder to choose the number of gardens to plant these seedlings in based on the likelihood that there would be fewer to survive. After assessing how many seedlings we had at each blade stage and their health rating (1-3), we decided on planting at 3 of the 4 gardens planted last spring. One of the gardens was easy to rule out since none of the seedlings survived there due to poor soil for Joshua Trees.
With this information decided, Bridget and I got busy tagging seedlings and getting them into the database, so that we can track each individual plant through the experiment. Lesley was then able to dedicate each plant to a specific garden. The two USGS Biological Science Techs, Caitlin and Sharon, helped us move each crate of Joshua Trees out of the greenhouse, so they could “harden off,” or acclimate to the full spectrum of temperature fluxes that the greenhouse tempers. You wouldn’t think such small stature Joshua Trees could weigh that much, but factoring in the nearly foot-long plant bands full of soil that they were contained in and then having 25 of those packed in each crate, they actually weigh quite a bit! In teams of two, we lifted and shifted the crates using a dolly and wagon, making sure to keep the order of crates the same out in the shade house as they were in the greenhouse. Our final step was to flag each plant for the garden they had been designated to – Pink for Cactus Mine (Local Nevada Garden), Yellow for Ridgecrest (Ridgecrest, California Garden), and White for Turkey Farm (St. George, Utah Garden).
We were ready to go for an early start on Monday morning!
Day 1: Monday – 7am – USGS Greenhouse – Boulder City, NV
Yawning and not mentally ready for the day, Bridget and I roll up on this lightly breezy morning (as they usually are in the desert) with many layers, hats, 2 water bottles a piece and a hearty lunch. We hook up the 500 lb water trailer to the back of our truck and drag the hoses to start filling it up while we wait for the U-Haul truck to arrive to load up the plants. The back of our truck is stuffed with buckets of gloves, watering cans, shovels, extra flags and foam pads to kneel on as we plant (the soil starts to feel harder and harder as the day goes on). All the crates with at least one pink flag are loaded –we create an assembly line of people lifting and carrying crates over to one person arranging them into the back of the truck. Then we all load up into our vehicles and we’re off to Cactus Mine!
We pull our truck up to the side of the garden to be in position for when we’re ready to water. We start by rolling out transect tapes to mark out as straight of lines as possible –Bridget and I know the straighter the lines, the easier it is to find plants once many have died because it makes the rows of plants less clear. Meanwhile, the auger is giving us trouble when we’re trying to start it for digging holes, so everybody grabs a shovel and we start digging by hand – a much slower process. They finally get the auger going, and we pop in our turquoise ear plugs and follow in their path as crates are opened up and plants are laid out into the holes for the planters to then take over the final step. After a long day, we’re treated by a beautiful sunset that seems to fully surround the sky around us and the mountains around our fading desert valley. We drive out with a near-full moon rising, most of the plants in the ground, and some peace of mind that we’ve got a much smaller bout to finish in the morning.
Day 2 – 7 am – Same location as last entry!
We roll up in the same fatigued mental state as the previous day, but with slightly declined physical states this time, including sore arms, tired backs and achy knees (don’t worry, we’re young, so we’ll bounce back!) Luckily, we finish up the planting around lunchtime; only leaving consolidating plants into fewer crates for the remaining gardens and picking up stray tags and flags and any other remains from our planting effort. Bridget and I hook up the fire hose to the water tank and spray the plants as gently as possible to avoid blowing them out. After that, we’re ready to head out with a little more time to recuperate and pack for our camp-out in Ridgecrest the next day.
Day 3 – 6 am – you get it by now
You can only imagine the toll on our mental and physical states by Day 3 with the hour earlier start tacked on…at least we have a four-hour drive to mentally prepare!!
I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect, but I’ll admit we were tired!
With the process down pat from two days of practice and a head start on drilling from Lesley, Todd and Karolina staying overnight to start that before the rest of our crew arrived that morning, Ridgecrest went so smoothly that we finished planting in one day!!
We patted ourselves on the back for that one. It shifted our plans for the following day, so that Bridget and I would join Lesley and Karolina camping out at Utah the following night to get another head start before the planters would arrive there, too.
Day 4 – 7 am – Ridgecrest Common Garden – Ridgecrest, CA (switching it up right when you get the hang of it)
Lots of driving today. The end!
Just kidding. After recording the positions of the new Joshua Trees in the garden and watering them one last time, we headed back to Boulder City. We loaded up the U-Haul one last time with the only remaining crates marked with white flags. It was a bittersweet moment..kidding again!!
We re-organized the cab of our truck that was in disarray after a few days of throwing equipment and various clothes/food randomly across the back seats. And with that we set off for St. George, another 3-hour drive to end the day. Which, Bridget and I decided, deserved a peanut butter chocolate milkshake -even though it was only about 50 degrees out 😊
We set up traps at the garden, then went right to bed, the gentle hoo-ing of owls lulling us off to sleep.
Day 5 – 7am – Turkey Farm Common Garden – St. George, Utah
LAST DAY! Woohoo!
After checking traps first thing to make sure any caught rodents wouldn’t get too cold (none were caught today though), we got to work clearing an area for our new Joshua tree garden. Today, Bridget and I decided to volunteer to take over digging holes with the auger. We’d regret that one later! Mostly kidding…
The Utah garden has very sandy soil, but after getting a few inches down, it is very hard to dig past as the soil layer becomes harder. After my first go at it, where I only got a few holes to the necessary depth, Bridget found that by rotating the auger around and around for a few minutes could finally get the hole dug through that hard layer. We finished digging after a few hours, with shaky hands and tired wrists and forearms from holding the vibrating handles steady. The rest of the crew arrived and handled planting, while others got started on clearing Salsola away from the garden fence. Once planting was finished and lunch was had, we all jumped in on the Salsola removal, taking another few hours, but ending with the garden in great shape for Bridget and me!
Lesley and Todd graciously treated us to smoothies on our way out. This was especially nice when we hit standstill traffic that added an hour to our trip back home due to lovely construction and people heading to Vegas for the weekend! Just what the doctor ordered!
All and all, though, it really was a satisfying week of good ol’ fashioned manual labor and teamwork to get a big project done! Working side by side in the soil and getting to talk about life and our backgrounds that led us to the environmental science field was a lot of fun too, and I’m glad we go the chance to work together on such an important project that we all care so much about!
How has it been over a month already? I have no idea. Time flies when you’re getting settled into a new place, a new job, and have so much exploring to do outside of work, too!
The past few weeks have had a heavy focus on data entry. We’ve needed to enter our records from the assessments we do at the gardens each month that rate the health status (1-3) and herbivory severity (1-5), as well as record the number of live blades each plant has, number of dead blades, and any notes.
At the Cactus Mine and Ridgecrest gardens, the assessment doesn’t take very long between Bridget and I because many of the plants didn’t survive – there are only 23 seedlings still alive at Cactus Mine and 20 at Ridgecrest. Meanwhile, the Utah garden has a whopping 284 seedlings that are alive and —for the most part—well! This does mean a lot more crouching or kneeling, back up to standing, then shifting over to the next plant, and back down again, for Bridget and I as we assess about 140 plants each! Although it’s more uncomfortable for a longer period, it’s exciting to have one of the gardens flourishing! We are thinking the trees are doing so well here because it gets the most rain and is also the coolest out of the three. At the other end of the spectrum, Ridgecrest is the hottest and driest.
Joshua Tree seeds have evolved to rely upon rains to germinate, which makes sense why the wettest garden would be performing the best. Unfortunately, looking at current and predicted climate trends, this is concerning because these rains that the Joshua Trees depend on to create new generations are not happening as often. Nevada officially declared a drought in 2002 that has continued to current times. Drought.gov provides information on current and historical (since 2000) drought conditions: currently, 68.1% of Nevada is in a severe drought, 24.2% is in extreme drought, and 7.5% is classified as exceptional drought.
Coming from a place of excess water, the idea of droughts and declining water source levels scares me. Along with this comes frustration that we are not doing enough to reduce water usage. At the individual level, around Las Vegas/Henderson/Boulder City, some houses have grass-covered lawns –one right outside of work even has sprinklers spraying their grass. It would be much better if they planted more native desert species and removed water-consuming grass. At the industry level, resorts use a lot of water mostly from hotel guests, who use more than 63 gallons per day on average, according to this article by Sam Bruketta, 2020. Although many resorts have been working to reduce water usage, such as MGM Resorts, which has reduced water use by 25% since 2007 (Bruketta, 2020). However, a truly unnecessary use of water is the Bellagio Resort fountains, which have been scrutinized for losing about 12 million gallons per year from evaporation (Bruketta, 2020). A different type of industry, is one of the biggest sinks of water, from watering grass on a larger scale than the individual homes mentioned earlier: golf courses. According to the Las Vegas Water District website, golf courses in Southern Nevada use an average of 725 acre-feet per year. My brain has a hard time imagining what this means… The Water Education Foundation website states that one acre-foot is approximately 326,000 gallons of water, and would cover one football field in a foot of water. So, for a visual of what an average Las Vegas golf course would use in a year, it would be enough to fill a 725 foot deep, football field-sized swimming pool! That is an insane amount of water.
The site also mentions that California households use about ½ – 1 acre-feet of water on average per year: about 163,000-326,000 gallons of water per year, each. That estimate brought my thoughts to the lifestyle I had this summer while living in a dry cabin in the woods of Alaska where I was working at the time. I’d never heard of a dry cabin before starting my housing search, but it was the cheapest option —for good reason— because they are cabins without running water, which means no toilet, no shower, no faucets of any kind. I was scared to live like that for three months having never been in a situation like that (besides short term circumstances when camping out for a few days). However, it made me realize how much water I use and waste under normal circumstances with the luxury of indoor plumbing —leaving the water running while washing hands, doing dishes, taking showers, or even flushing the toilet— everything!
How the water situation worked in a dry cabin, was we had two clear, five-gallon jugs that we’d fill up at the water-filling station in town, and set up on the counter over the sink which drained into a five-gallon bucket that we’d dump outside. And unfortunately, we did have a few times when we didn’t realize the bucket was nearly full, and spilled over some foul smelling water with chunky food bits/oily residue onto the floor as we scooted it out from under the counter to dump… Aside from those “oh crap” moments, overall, living in a dry cabin really wasn’t so bad!
With the goal being to take as few trips as possible to the water filling station; using as little water as possible to wash hands, do dishes etc. was the primary way to achieve this. We were so careful to reuse water when possible and use the bare minimum amount we could to get the job done. Although I dreaded the idea of living in a dry cabin at first, I’m so glad I had that experience to teach me so much about conserving water, which I’ve tried to hold with me since then. It makes me wonder if everyone lived like that for even one week, what difference it could make on our water usage overall in the US, especially in dry regions like this, where we need to be doing more.
Hello! My name is Maddy Czymmek, and I’m one of two new interns with the Chicago Botanic Garden at the Boulder City USGS office. I’m working on the Joshua Tree Genome Project to understand how Joshua Trees are responding to climate change.
After a 36 hour drive from my hometown: Ithaca, New York, it was a week of adjustments (which was to be expected from moving across the country)!
In the past, when I’ve been driving to a new place and the scenery starts to change, excitement comes over me. 20 or so hours into my road trip, it finally started happening, after the flat landscapes of western Oklahoma, southern Texas and Eastern New Mexico finally started to change. First with a few distant plateaus, then the Sandia Mountains ahead of me that I soon caught up with. As the sun set, I kept peaking in my rearview mirror, watching the cloudless sky become a light pink; the mountains a pale purple. The following evening, I had a similar feeling of awe. This time, I was nearing the Black Mountains bordering Arizona and Nevada. I came around a bend and the view opened up to a sea of purple mountains, various shades of purple waves stretching out to the horizon. The sun was setting again, creating a hazy, endless look to the mountains around me. So there was that feeling again. Entranced by this beautiful view. And excited that this was part of my new home that I’d get to explore for the next 6 months!
The landscape here is such a change from upstate New York’s lakes and rolling hills covered with a mix of farmland and forests. Looking around the area, it holds so much I know nothing about: the geology of the mountains and rock formations and so many plants I’ve never seen before that I want to be able to identify. Although my main internship project is focused on Joshua Trees, learning about desert ecosystems and whatever I can about the greater Las Vegas and Mojave Desert region, including issues related to climate change, water scarcity, and land degradation are also a priority for me. Living here and exploring is a learning experience on its own.
So here I am, nearing the end of week 3. My co-intern, Bridget, and I are getting into the workflow of greenhouse seedling maintenance and checking the incubating seeds. The seeds are separated by matriline onto petri dishes and kept in the incubator while waiting for them to germinate. For anyone unfamiliar with what a matriline is: for this project, groups of related seeds from separate geographical locations were collected and are referred to as different matrilines. It’s been interesting to note differences among the matrilines even at the seed stage. One group in particular has shown noticeably slow germination, has had many seeds develop a cloudy sheen and yellow leakage underneath them, and multiple seeds that have germinated have had drooping or even mushy radicles –not to mention the rancid smell when we take the lid off the petri dish! On the other end, some have been producing beautiful radicles that are long and sturdy with root hairs.
This week, we were able to visit the Cactus Mine Garden (about 30 minutes from Boulder City) and the Ridgecrest Garden (about 4 hours from Boulder City)! I’ve always thought it was cool that there’s so much public land out West, while most of NY is covered in “No Trespassing” signs. But especially with Covid, they are noticing an increase in land use and degradation. That was clear at Cactus Mine, where there were ATV and motocross tracks across the land, trash –even a deserted jet ski– and holes in the garden fence from people shooting at it. I’m not sure what could help improve land stewardship practices, but it was disheartening to see. Not only is it frustrating for maintaining the garden, but also the surrounding habitat that is broken up and disturbed by this destruction and trashing.
To avoid ending on a heavy note, we got some rain in the desert this week! I’m not sure if I’ve ever been excited for rain in my life (back home, we usually get enough rain and cloudy days that it’s typically not something I look forward to). However, in the desert, especially since this area has been in a long drought, it actually felt like something to celebrate! We’re hoping that if we keep getting some rain, the wildflowers will pop for us in the spring, fingers crossed!