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RECAP: Earth Week Volunteer Event with the Mojave Desert Land Trust

RECAP: Earth Week Volunteer Event with the Mojave Desert Land Trust

Last month Four Wheel Campers (FWC) and Truma North America teamed up with the Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) for an Earth Week volunteer event, and from bird walks to habitat restoration projects, attendees spent three days immersing themselves in nature. 

MDLT is a 501c3 nonprofit based in Joshua Tree, California, and their mission is to help preserve and protect the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. Since 2006, MDLT has conveyed more tracts of land to the National Park system than any other non-profit in the country, and in addition to numerous ongoing restoration projects, they offer programs and events to help educate and involve the community in desert conservation initiatives. 

Sunrise on the bluffs at Palisades Ranch, photographed steps from camp.

The event was held near Victorville, California at Palisades Ranch, a 1,647-acre former farm that was acquired by the MDLT in 2018. Palisades Ranch is located on the Mojave River, and it is notable for being one of the few locations where water flows above ground year-round. The Mojave River supports rich habitat and attracts 40 federal and state-listed special status species, including the Mojave fish-hook cactus, desert tortoise, least Bell’s vireo, western yellow-billed cuckoo and the San Emigdio blue butterfly. MDLT’s goal is to help restore Palisades Ranch from long-term impacts by off-highway vehicle (OHV) trespass, agriculture, invasive plants and fire, and they are in the early stages of a comprehensive restoration plan for the property.

Palisades Ranch is home to dozens of avian species.

After orientation, a safety briefing and happy hour on Thursday afternoon, we kicked off Friday morning with a bird walk led by Gjon Hazard, an ornithologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). We spotted several raptors, including a sharp-shinned hawk, along with a lone phainopepla, a pair of western bluebirds, various hummingbirds and brown-headed cowbirds.

Volunteers explore the Mojave River during a bird walk with USFWS biologist Gjon Hazard.

Walking along the Mojave River and into the foothills also provided an opportunity to learn more about native and invasive plants. MDLT is renowned for their seed bank, and Palisades Ranch has a small garden with a handful of native species. During her presentation in the field, ecologist and MDLT project coordinator Yanina Galvan pointed out some of the more problematic invasive flora, like Russian thistle and tumble mustard, which volunteers would be tasked with removing the following day.

After a lunch break, we enjoyed yet another presentation by Peter Sanzenbacher, a biologist with USFWS whose current focus is protecting the Mojave desert tortoise. The bluffs and steep desiccated cliffs (aka “palisades”) at the ranch provide habitat for the Mojave desert tortoise, which was recently listed as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). The biggest threats to their survival include habitat loss, vehicle collisions and predation by ravens, and their populations have been declining steadily over the last few decades. Mojave desert tortoises are considered a keystone species, meaning they have a higher influence over the ecosystem than other species, per USFWS. 

Vertical mulching is a form of habitat restoration that helps naturalize areas impacted by humans; our goal was to disguise unauthorized OHV tracks in the area.

Saturday morning was all about habitat restoration, ranging from vertical mulching to removing invasive plants near camp. Vertical mulching involves digging holes in the soil and using them to “plant” dead, downed vegetation, and it is primarily used to cover up damage and disruptions to the natural landscape caused by humans. In addition to restoring the area and installing fencing, MDLT is also working to educate local communities about recreating responsibly with OHVs, helping to ensure that sensitive desert ecosystems are protected for years to come.

A volunteer removing tumble mustard, one of several invasive plants that compete with native grasses and flowers.

After lunch, we donned sun hats and gardening gloves and spent several hours removing invasive plants, including Russian thistle and tumble mustard. After just one hour of uprooting pesky mustard plants, our progress could be seen in the form of several piles standing over five feet tall. Some volunteers started hauling the plants away in wheelbarrows, dumping them in a site with other invasives that would later be sprayed with herbicide. With the mustard and thistle extirpated from the landscape, we finally got a peek at a handful of native plants, which were subsequently flagged. In the long-term, MDLT aims to promote the re-establishment of cottonwoods and willows that are found closer to the river, as well as arroyo willow and screwbean mesquite bosque, among other native plants.

Truma North America co-sponsored the event, and we used their C30 portable refrigerator/freezers to keep all of our beverages ice cold.

We camped on an expansive field tucked between the Mojave River and the bluffs, and the adjacent shade structure was the perfect gathering place for presentations and meals. In addition to both monetary and product donations to MDLT, FWC and Truma provided dinner and drinks for all volunteers and MDLT staffers. We ordered from several fabulous local eateries, including Ultragalactik Tacos, Fratelli’s Pizzeria and Bosko, and we offered wine and beer in the evenings as well.

On a personal note, as rewarding as it is to help preserve and protect our treasured outdoor spaces, connecting with like-minded folks is perhaps my favorite part of these events. These events attract a certain type of person, and these are the kinds of people who leave me feeling inspired — and grateful for the shared experiences.

Volunteers helped MDLT in the beginning phase of their restoration project at Palisades Ranch, just outside of Victorville, California.

Thank you MDLT and Truma for being wonderful partners on this event, and thank you to our dedicated volunteers for your time and hard work. Be sure to sign up for the FWC newsletter or check the Events page for more volunteer events, and we look forward to seeing you at the next one.

Photos and words by Elisabeth Brentano

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