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Grotesque Tree Is Noble Cause for Joshua Joe

January 03, 1988|DAVID FERRELL | 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.

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