In August 2020, the Dome Fire burned through more than 40,000 acres of Joshua tree forest on the Mojave National Preserve, leaving a graveyard of blackened trees. An estimated 1.3 million Joshua trees were lost.

But conservationists are determined to help repair this fragile ecosystem. As part of that undertaking, in December 2021, the US National Park Service, along with several volunteers, began an effort to plant thousands of Joshua tree seedlings. Interviews with NPS project organizers, volunteers and experts including botanist Bruce Baldwin of the University of California, Berkeley, highlight the Joshua tree’s ecological importance as well as the challenges to its recovery in the face of climate change.

Plants that live in extreme desert environments are often viewed as tough, hardy species. “But they can be vulnerable to climate change in the sense that they can often be close to their ecological tolerance limits,” says Baldwin, curator of UC Berkeley’s Jepson Herbarium, which focuses on the native flora of California. “Additional climate change in the direction of more extreme heat and drought could potentially be catastrophic for some plants.”

Joshua trees are recognized as two separate species by many scientists. The Dome fire decimated one of the largest concentrations of the Eastern species (Yucca jaegeriana) when flames tore through the northern Mojave National Preserve near the California-Nevada border. In 2020, the California Fish and Game Commission temporarily designated the western species, Yucca brevifolia, as endangered, due to threats of human-caused habitat destruction and climate change. The commission is now considering making that status permanent with a final decision expected in June 2022.

A large number of eastern Joshua trees are protected because they grow in a national preserve, but both species face drier, hotter conditions and an ongoing threat of fire, which is exacerbated by the presence of a highly flammable invasive grass, red brome, in the deserts and chaparral of the Southwest.