Grotesque Tree Is Noble Cause for Joshua Joe

Times Staff Writer

Avenue R-2, at the east edge of Palmdale, is a road to nowhere.

The pavement ends, and suddenly there is the desert. For miles almost nothing is visible but Joshua trees--grotesque, towering shapes that rise over the rugged landscape like sentinels.

From her windows in the last house on the street, Lenise Burns looks out every day at the trees, and sees the vanishing history of her town.

"We figure we've only got another year to enjoy them," she said, peering out from her newly built tract home. "We've heard there are more houses going up here."

The small drama at the edge of the Harmony Homes development typifies the change that is occurring in the Antelope Valley.

Simple Dirt-Road Town

Years ago, before Joe Sage became known as Joshua Joe, before big developers began hauling the Joshuas to the dump like so many empty beer kegs, before there was even a Joshua Elementary School, Palmdale was a simple dirt-road town at the edge of the Joshua groves--a gas-and-eats stopover on California 14 through the Mojave.

Not so any more. Today Palmdale is California's fastest-growing city, according to a study released this year. Palmdale and nearby Lancaster, another boom town, now total more than 100,000 residents, and the population of the Antelope Valley has swelled to 150,000.

That figure is expected to double in 25 years.

Amid a forest of new homes and commercial centers and signs promising further development, many longtime residents are now asking, "What about the Joshua trees?" Bulldozers paving the path for growth have chopped down the trees by the thousands, threatening what some residents consider the very flavor of the desert life style.

The trend has spawned a sort of cactus-roots preservation movement. Lancaster recently adopted an ordinance blocking the wholesale removal of Joshua trees and other desert flora, and a similar ordinance proposed for Palmdale is now the focal point of community lobbying campaigns.

Los Angeles County, meanwhile, is drafting an ordinance of its own to preserve Joshua trees in unincorporated parts of the valley.

"You'll see Joshuas in varying densities from Palmdale and Lancaster out through Palm Springs, Twentynine Palms and out as far as Arizona," said Sage, a former Palmdale planning commissioner who began the push for a Palmdale ordinance two years ago.

The way Sage tells it, Joshua trees are an important part of the valley's character. Although in the vast desert there is no danger of their extinction, the bulldozers have substantially diminished their numbers in and around the towns. In Palmdale especially, where they are as much a part of the terrain as the tumbleweed, the loss has been considered painful.

"The Joshua tree is part of our city logo," Sage said. "The Chamber of Commerce had it as a logo for a while. . . .

"When I wake up in the morning, with those trees out there saluting the day, I kind of wax poetic," he said. "They're so picturesque . . . just fantastic. We have some tremendous patches of them."

Keeping a High Profile

With a T-shirt exhorting an end to tree chopping, Sage is part of a faction that wants to keep a high profile for the Joshua tree, to have trees dotting yards and apartment landscapes and highway medians. Sage works with Palmdale's Joshua Tree ad hoc committee and keeps a thick notebook of literature and telephone numbers to aid the fight. He talks rancorously of the trucks that have been spotted carrying the trees to the city dump, up over the ridge near the San Andreas fault.

"They don't give a hoot about the trees," he says.

Developers are hoping that ordinances planned by Palmdale and the county will be flexible enough to permit growth no matter how it affects the Joshua trees. David Aaker, vice president and manager of the Palmdale Chamber of Commerce, said: "There has to be growth. . . . If we lose Joshua trees for construction, that's part of the bill. I don't think it should be an emotional issue."

At the same time, Aaker concedes that "busloads, I mean literally busloads" of visitors travel to the valley each spring to see the Joshuas and the poppies in bloom. "Personally, I rather enjoy them," he said of the trees.

In fact, few detractors take the view--openly, at least--that one early pioneer, Capt. John C. Fremont, did when he first saw the Joshuas nearly a century ago. Fremont branded them "the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom."

Bite your tongue, John.

Matter of Appearances

Could they really be (and no one will admit it) . . . ugly ?

"They do take some strange shapes," said Bill Truesdell, chief of visitor operations at Joshua Tree National Monument in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. "Some of them do look like bottle brushes. Ugly? No."

Still, their appearance is a part of the issue.

Growing in slanted, twisted shapes, Joshua trees almost defy biological sense. They show little regard for gravity or symmetry. Some have six or seven branches, others only a trunk. In some cases the branches start to grow skyward and mysteriously twist straight back down to Earth, as if called by Lucifer.

It is a good bet, some might say, that Joyce Kilmer never saw a Joshua tree. And yet the Joshuas have some historical importance in the Mojave Desert, activists say. It was here, according to historians, that the Joshua tree was given its name--by a band of Mormons traveling up through the Cajon Pass back to Utah in 1857.

They were thought to be passing through Victorville, summoned by Mormon leader Brigham Young, when they imagined the strange shape of some trees as "a bearded Old Testament prophet . . . leading them into the Promised Land," said Palmdale librarian Terri Parr.

Palm by Another Name?

The trees also played a role in the naming of Palmdale when Early German and Swiss settlers--presumably unaware of the Mormons--mistook them in the mid-1880s for palm trees. What they were seeing was later classified as part of the lily family. A few years ago, botanists changed their minds and lumped them in with the agaves, a family that includes the yuccas and the sentry plant.

The species that grows in the Mojave region exists nowhere else on Earth, according to Truesdell of the Joshua Tree National Monument. The taller ones grow to 40 feet or more. Many are said to be more than 1,000 years old, and once every couple of years the Joshuas produce a whitish blossom two to three feet tall--if they feel like it.

"It's a very bizarre tree," commented developer Craig Harris, president of Lomita-based Harris Homes Inc., which has cleared away enough Joshuas to build 1,500 homes and apartments in the Antelope Valley. "It's not a beautiful tree like the pine or something.

"Most people don't care about the Joshua trees."

Long ago, the aesthetic debate over the trees was purely an intellectual exercise, like critiquing a Dali painting.

A Historical Viewpoint

In the town-history section of the Palmdale Public Library, the 1953 book, "A Natural History of Western Trees," by Donald Culrose Peattie, paints a grandiloquent picture of the Joshua: "There are some who love it from the moment they first behold it, silhouetted, perhaps, against some desert sunset sky, with the snows of far-off peaks still flashing their signals, and the twilight filled with the last cry of the day birds. . . . At such a moment the Joshuas lose their gauntness and take on a spiritual quality. . . .

"But for others," the author warns, "the first sight of this vegetation is abhorrent and the strangeness never wears off."

In recent years, the question of aesthetics has become more pressing. Botanist Warren Houghton of Antelope Valley Community College called it "one of the big issues around. You can't pick up the newspaper without somebody saying something about the Joshuas."

The Lancaster ordinance, adopted in 1983, now requires an independent botanical report to be prepared every time a developer plans to tear desert vegetation. Depending on the finding, the builder may be forced to save anywhere from 5% to 50% or more of the desert plants, said city spokesman Susan Davis.

The law has done little to slow Lancaster's rapid growth, however, and conservationists have criticized its effectiveness in saving Joshua trees.

A Few at a Time

"They're only saving them when it's convenient to the developers," said activist Elyze Clifford. "They save the trees one or two or three at a time."

Clifford said activists regard the Lancaster law as too lenient because it applies only to certain geographic areas, known as "vegetative management zones," and it gives city officials discretion over which trees will be preserved. A $45,000 city study is being launched to consider tightening the restrictions in sensitive areas near Antelope Valley College.

"They just go around grading," Clifford complained. "The fact of the matter is, when these homes go up and the people move in, it takes 15 years to grow a tree over their heads. And these people and their children are just sweltering."

In Palmdale, preservationists are trying to take a tougher approach. Initially, they talked of trying to save at least four trees per acre, and they still hope that a forthcoming ordinance will save at least one tree per acre. They have also envisioned a Joshua tree "bank," where trees could be stored and transplanted to new developments.

However, such ideas have run into recent difficulty, preservationists conceded.

Part of the problem is the temperamental nature of the trees. They thrive only in loose, porous soil that does not retain water.

Soil Is a Problem

"I'd love to have one in my yard," one homeowner said. "But I'd have to change the soil. They don't like to get their feet wet."

Joshua trees also have needle-like spines, which are regarded as dangerous to children. The root structure, containing large, water-storing tubers, is difficult to transplant, said Mike Payne of the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California.

Developers forced to save four trees per acre easily might have to deal with 400 trees to build some 100-acre residential tracts, Payne said. Builders are reluctant to leave them in yards, and transplanting is risky. What if many of them die? Payne wondered. Would the law make developers responsible for replacing them?

"They're a very difficult tree to work with," Payne said.

The tree bank idea is now on hold. The draft ordinance, after lobbying by builders, no longer would require the preservation of four or even one tree per acre. Instead the law, due for adoption in January, talks of saving "the maximum number feasible."

"It's been watered down to the point where it's almost worthless," said former city botanical consultant and retired forest ranger Tony Baal. "It has no teeth."

Looking for Revision

Activists are hoping to revise the law once again before its adoption. Meanwhile, many are frustrated over the heretofore voluntary tree preservation efforts in Palmdale.

Baal said he quit his work as a city consultant partly because Joshuas he inspected and marked as worth saving were not being spared. Over a two-year period, Baal said, he marked 430 trees.

He ended up moving only 27 of them.

"Most of them, I believe, are gone," he said.

Today Baal operates what he believes is the town's only tree spade, a $25,000 hydraulic device, attached to a pickup truck, that uproots and moves Joshua trees. He charges a fee for the service, but often he gets calls from people in town who are simply angry, he said. They have seen another Joshua tree go off to the dump.

"I've received over 400 calls . . . from people disappointed--or outraged," he said. "I've seen too many trees go by the boards without being saved."

Paradoxically, Joshua trees can be a friend to the developer, according to preservationists. Along with other desert vegetation, they are said to help prevent "dust bowl" problems in dry seasons, and they survive with little water or maintenance.

"It'll cost you $900 to $1,500 to bring in a palm tree," said Phil Wood, president of Palmdale's 100-member Westside Homeowners Assn. "But you can transplant a good sized Joshua for $60."

Signs of Progress

Meanwhile, the houses and stores keep going up. A regional airport for the valley is now in the works. Palmdale is planning its first major mall, a seven-acre project scheduled to open in the fall of 1989.

And the Joshuas are still falling.

"They're really neat . . . not really a cactus . . . something different," said homeowner Lenise Burns, who left Granada Hills to settle in Palmdale earlier this year. But she said she recognizes the cost of progress. "When I first came out, I kind of liked the fact it wasn't like the city," Burns said. "Now I'm kind of looking forward to the new mall."

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