Opinion: If you’re sad about Joshua trees, wait until you hear about the bristlecone pine


Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton; it is Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, and I doubt I’m the only Dodgers fan who thinks the team has already won this year’s real World Series. Let’s take a look back at the week in Opinion.

Regular readers of this newsletter understand that I harbor something of an obsession for trees, especially California natives that thrive in environments most humans regard as “harsh.” So it was with curiosity and sadness that I read this piece on the special threat posed by climate change to Joshua trees, a distinct yucca plant (not really a tree, but certainly treelike) confined to a narrow elevation range in the desert Southwest. But the Joshua tree can be saved, say the authors, even if climate change eventually means no more of the photogenic plants in Joshua Tree National Park.

Other trees face a similar peril, including one I’ve written about here as recently as three weeks ago when wildfires were sweeping toward groves of 2,500-year-old giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada. Those trees are still being protected by exhausted firefighters, even if you don’t hear about it much because, as with so many other things having to do with climate change, we desensitize so easily to news of prolonged catastrophe. What a chilling way for humans to “adapt” to global warming.


So I don’t expect many of us to give much thought to another imperiled conifer that marks California as a singularly rapturous place for biodiversity, because this tree exists only on the most remote, inhospitable mountain slopes of the arid West. But the grim future faced by the Great Basin bristlecone pine is all the more heartbreaking because of their age: A forest of them near the California-Nevada border contains many specimens confirmed to be more than 4,000 years old, including one tree in the aptly named Methuselah Grove that is the oldest known single living organism on the planet (although there are certainly older bristlecone pines that have yet to be studied, owing to their habitat’s extreme remoteness).

Why am I going on and on about trees? It just so happens that this week I visited the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains, which from Los Angeles is about a five-hour drive that takes you through the Joshua tree habitats of the Mojave Desert and the desiccated Owens Valley, a place starved of its water because the city of Los Angeles owns much of it. The bristlecone pines in California sit between 9,000 and 12,000 feet in elevation, safely away from other less hardy plants that could compete for resources. This is where climate change comes in: Warmer temperatures mean that upstart plant species more capable of migrating may move up the mountain slopes, competing for the meager resources upon which the bristlecones have subsisted for thousands of years. There’s evidence this process has already begun.

The threat to these pines is not as immediate as that faced by Joshua trees or sequoias. Bristlecone forests are ancient, far less prone to wildfires and wildly remote, so it’ll be many generations until they shrink to the point of frightening scarcity. But the clock for these 4,000-plus-year-old ancients is ticking, and it’s all because of a few hundred years of pollution and overconsumption by one species — us.

As for why you should care about the fate of a tree seemingly so peripheral to our existence, I’ll quote the editorial board from its piece last July on the perilously declining numbers of chinook salmon in the Sacramento River:

“Saying California can lose the wondrous migrating chinook, a keystone species that for eons has enriched the soil of inland regions and sustained an ecological web that includes black bears in the Sierra and orcas in the Pacific, because there is still a pink fish called by the same name, is a little like saying it would be no big deal to lose the redwoods or the giant sequoia, because after all, there are other trees in other places.

“Perhaps we can give up the Western monarch butterfly — also an endemic California migratory species, and also, like the winter-run chinook, down to its last few thousand or so individuals — because there are other butterflies in other states. Perhaps we can lose everything that makes California’s natural environment special.”


What he wants Dave Chappelle to understand about the color of queerness. Op-ed columnist LZ Granderson says the comedian has major blind spots on intersectionality: “In his new Netflix special, when he said the rapper DaBaby, who has been criticized for homophobic comments, ‘punched the LGBTQ community right in the AIDS,’ Chappelle could have easily subbed out ‘LGBTQ’ for ‘Black’ because no group contracts or dies from the virus more than Black people. And not just queer men. Black women account for nearly 60% of new HIV cases among women. Speaking of which, when ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was forcing queer people out of the military, robbing them of their careers, no group was hurt more by this policy than Black women. Most of the trans people killed and their deaths ignored? Black. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.” L.A. Times

We need a third party to inflict pain on the Trumpified GOP. Joe Biden isn’t governing from the center, dashing the hopes of anti-Trump Republicans who once believed there could be a political home for conservatives in the president’s coalition. What’s more, says columnist Jonah Goldberg, asking Republicans disgusted by Trump to vote for Democrats simply won’t work. The best option, he says, is for a conservative third party to emerge and make Republican candidates feel a little pain for their fealty to the former president. L.A. Times

Los Angeles once came close to draining Mono Lake. How that was prevented ought to be a model for us now. A landmark California Supreme Court decision in 1978 limiting the right of the city to divert water from streams feeding the ancient lake culminated in an agreement just this week on a plan that turns Los Angeles into an environmental guardian. Says the editorial board: “If California is to save the two great rivers that drain its largest watershed, the governor should note the successful conclusion of the Mono Lake dispute and free the water board to issue mandates. Only then will the parties come to the table truly ready to deal.” L.A. Times

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A letter to the cyclist who rode by the Atwater bridge on the L.A. River: Daniel Polansky, a volunteer homeless outreach worker, was consoling an unhoused person whose companion had just died when a cyclist riding past him on the L.A. River Bike Path hollered at him for blocking a lane. He writes: “Things shouldn’t be like this. I took your behavior as evidence that you, like many of my neighbors, view unhoused people exclusively as nuisances, similar to bad traffic on the 5 or our most recent oat milk shortage.” L.A. Times

California should not erase Junípero Serra. But it doesn’t need to honor him. Statues of the newly canonized saint and founder of 18th century Spanish missions throughout New Spain — including what’s now California — are being toppled throughout the state. California cannot erase Serra, says the editorial board, because he is a key figure in our history. But there’s a difference between studying Serra and honoring him, so it was appropriate for Los Angeles to announce the renaming of its Father Serra Park and for the state to replace a memorial to him in Sacramento with one honoring Native Americans. L.A. Times

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