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Marines and sailors spent their morning March 20 serving the community at Joshua Tree National Park, Calif. The removed the Sahara mustard plant that was choking out national wildlife.

Photo by Pfc. Michael T. Gams

VMU-1 spends day saving natural ‘back yard’

20 Mar 2009 | Pfc. Michael T. Gams

The largest group of Marines and sailors to ever volunteer at Joshua Tree National Park, Calif., spent their morning March 20 cleaning their “natural back yard.”

Nearly 140 Marines and sailors from Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 took time out of their busy training schedule to help beautify and preserve the natural landscape on Pinto Basin Rd. from mile marker 13-24 within the park.

The service members spent the morning removing invading, exotic weeds that have been introduced to the park accidently by visitors and are attacking wildflower fields.

Lt. Col. Richard Jordan, the commanding officer of VMU-1, said his family uses the park year-round.

“I wanted to get the Marines outdoors; show them how close and how nice the park is, and also be able to serve the community,” he said. “We decided we could work for a couple of hours, and then have a picnic as a unit.”

Once the idea became a plan, 2nd Lt. Rebecca Tilton, the intelligence officer of VMU-1, and Rachel Sandlin, the family readiness officer, worked hand-in-hand with park officials to plan a day serving the community and bonding as a unit, Jordan said.

Unit personnel met at 8 a.m. at the Combat Center to make the journey to the park. Once they arrived, they were taught about one of the biggest threats to the landscape, the Sahara mustard plant, and why it was necessary to remove it from the ecosystem.

Most often thought to have been brought to Southern California during the transport of date palm-trees in the 19th Century, Sahara mustard is causing untold damages to the desert ecosystem, said Gloria Gillette, a retired park ranger.

These invaders not only take what little water the natural foliage can soak up, they provide fuel for flash fires,  said Curt Sauer, the park superintendent.

Before the exotic species arrived, the desert landscape was made up of clump grasses which kept the fires, often started by lightning, small, he said. Now with the new blanket grasses, fires can easily destroy 10,000 to 16,000 acres of wildlife.

The volunteers began removing the plant anywhere they saw it. They continued weeding for three-and-a-half hours until they had mountains of black trash bags filled with pulled Sahara Mustard.

After gathering at the Hidden Valley picnic area, they were able to enjoy their food with their families in the serenity of one of the most beautiful desert landscapes of Southern California.

During their lunch, Jordan spoke to his unit, followed by a thank you speech from Sauer.

Sauer stressed that the nation’s parks are owned solely by American citizens and that Americans need to take the time to experience the breathtaking beauty these parks hold.

“My hope is that the Marines who volunteered see how nice the parks are and come back to visit, hopefully bringing their friends and family,” Sauer said.

This kind of service can provide future generations with the same great parks that we enjoy today.

 “Taking care of these parks does your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren a huge favor,” said Gillette. “It helps them be able to see the same natural landscape we do.”

The Marines enthusiastically did anything they could to help.

“It was a good opportunity for VMU-1 to show the community that we care,” said Lance Cpl. Califf Matheson, an aviation operations specialist with VMU-1. “We’re interested in helping.”

VMU-1 is slated to complete more community service projects before they deploy next year, said Jordan.

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Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms