MORONGO VALLEY - Weeds met their match here Saturday, when volunteers from Friends of Giant Rock, Marines from the Single Marines Program in Twentynine Palms and Bureau of Land Management firefighters brought their trash bags to Big Morongo Canyon Preserve.
The weed pullers focused on a large field west of the preserve's nature center, where they pulled cheatgrass and red brome, carrying the invasive grasses to two roll-off Dumpsters for disposal.
Especially after the Paradise Fire of 2005 that also destroyed a historic barn west of the canyon entrance, invasive grasses have begun crowding out native plants and altering Big Morongo Canyon Preserve's fire regime.
Wind-blown nitrogen pollution from metropolitan areas seeps into the soil and fertilizes the invasive grasses. The cheatgrass and red brome flourish, filling canyons, hillsides, fields and the spaces between large cottonwoods and California fan palms.
Summer lightning strikes can ignite these grasses, causing vegetation fires that can burn hundreds, sometimes thousand of acres of wildland.
The weed pullers worked up an appetite during their morning activity, which they sated with pizza, while listening to a talk about the ecological significance of Big Morongo Canyon and its relation to Joshua Tree National Park.
Participants learned the preserve is an important source of water for animals migrating to and from the park, especially bighorn sheep.
As if on cue during the presentation, a herd of about eight bighorn sheep appeared at the crest of the Yucca Ridge Trail east of the education center where the hungry volunteers were eating lunch.
During the break, Seth Shteir from the local office of the National Parks Conservation Association explained how America's public lands are fundamentally democratic.
"Anybody can strap on a backpack and a pair of hiking boots, take along some cool drinks and explore these places of wonder, places of inspiration, places like Big Morongo Canyon, that we helped restore today," Shteir told volunteers.
Activities like Saturday's restoration project help foster appreciation for public lands, Shteir explained.
"The volunteers here today have really contributed in a very special way to preserving these places for future generations."
One of hundreds of volunteer events celebrating National Public Lands Day, the restoration was a partnership among the Bureau of Land Management, Friends of Big Morongo Canyon and the National Parks Conservation Association.