A 560-acre forest of Joshua trees west of Lancaster, the legacy of an Antelope Valley rancher who collected guns, railway memorabilia and acres of desert land, has been acquired by the state and will become part of a nearby public park, officials said Monday.
The forest is one of the area's largest remaining concentrations of Joshua trees, which have been chopped down by the hundreds and replaced by forests of houses under construction as the high desert urbanizes.
One species of the tree grows only in the Mojave desert and has been rapidly disappearing because of urbanization, said Gordon McDaniel, an administrator of the state Department of Parks and Recreation.
The Kern Joshua tree found in the Antelope Valley is smaller than Joshua trees in low desert areas such as the Joshua Tree National Monument near Indio, state ecologist Jim Barry said.
In a transaction that was finally completed in recent weeks, the land was willed to the state by rancher Arthur Ripley, who died two years ago at the age of 88. It represents one of the largest single land acquisitions in the Antelope Valley in more than 20 years, McDaniel said.
State officials said they plan to build a fence around the land in the vicinity of Lancaster Road and 200th Street West to protect it from off-road bikers, trash-dumpers and woodchoppers who have been a problem in the area but have not done any major damage. The fence will cost about $75,000 to build, McDaniel said.
The land will become part of the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, a state park five miles to the east, McDaniel said. Rangers from the Poppy Reserve will supervise the forest, but it may ultimately be designated a separate park by the State Park and Recreation Commission, he said.
The newly designated parkland represents only a small part of the thousands of acres acquired over the past 40 years by Ripley. The son of a locomotive engineer, he was a "rough and ready" devotee of the West with a penchant for guns and railroad memorabilia, said Lauren Handley, 88, a friend and lawyer who drew up Ripley's will.
Ripley drove around the Antelope Valley buying parcels of land that struck his fancy during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, when the land was cheap and abundant, Handley said.
"He chiefly was a dealer and trafficker of land," Handley said. "He was very enthusiastic and devoted to the area up there."
Ripley decided during the last 10 years of life that the Joshua forest would go to the state upon his death to preserve the desert plant life, Handley said. Ripley never married and had no relatives, Handley said, so he gave his other possessions to friends, charities and museums.
"He was the last of his line," Handley said. "It took a long time to draw up his will because every time he had a new idea about who he wanted to give things to. . . . He was very public-spirited."