Legislation would ban the removal of western Joshua trees

Sabin Gabra
Staff Writer

A law to protect the western Joshua tree, a native desert plant, and make it illegal to import, export, sell, or remove the species without a state authorization was introduced Feb. 7 by California Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

The Western Joshua Tree Protection Act would provide the species protections similar to those provided under the statute protecting endangered species but with extra permitting  procedures to deal with renewable energy and housing developments in its area. 

Lawmakers passed the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act, after the California Fish and Game Commission declined to take action on a petition from 2019 that attempted to label the tree as threatened under the California Endangered Species Acts.    

“There was a vacancy on the Commission and there were only four commissioners,” Deputy Director of Fish and Wildlife Jordan Traverso said. “In October 2022, that vacancy had been filled by Commissioner Anthony Williams. He was so new he recused himself from voting on the Western Joshua Tree until he was familiar with the issue.”  

According to recent research that suggests they are dying off due to hotter and drier circumstances, Joshua trees may be mostly extinct from the Joshua Tree National Park by the end of the century without state safeguards. 

Climate change is another factor, creating record droughts and stressing existing stands.  Increased rain at other times combined with the growth of invasive species, also presents a danger from fire,” Jay Jones, professor emeritus of biology and biochemistry, said. “When the invasive grasses die, it allows fires that may erupt to spread more widely, putting more Joshua trees and other native vegetation are at risk.” 

The proposal is the first piece of law in California with an explicit goal of preserving the safety of a species that is threatened by climate change. By the end of 2024, the department must create a range-wide conservation strategy for the species, conduct regular evaluations to make sure the plan is working, and communicate with impacted tribes.

“The bill reflects a value for this native species,” Jones said. “A sense of value for other elements of the ecosystem, common to indigenous people, has been largely lost in contemporary American culture.” 

Newsom and his administration’s intervention demonstrates a contentious reality. Petition opponents warn that listing the western Joshua Tree could scupper private property improvements and renewable energy initiatives intended to help California achieve its climate change goals of completely transitioning the state’s electricity system off fossil fuels by 2045.

“I strongly endorse renewable energy but there are other locations where solar and wind farms may be placed,” Jennifer Clarke, professor of biology, said. “Whereas the Joshua tree has a limited range with special requirements.”    

The destruction and loss of habitat pose a threat to western Joshua trees as well. Outside of Joshua Tree National Park, habitat is being destroyed by off-road vehicle use, livestock grazing, powerlines, pipelines, and large-scale energy projects.

“The Bill is far too restrictive and it takes individual rights and choices away from individual citizens and property owners,” Mayor of Twentynine Palms McArthur Wright said. “Further, this will prove to be very costly. We live in a low-income area, most of the citizens would not be able to afford the cost of a permit.”

The Joshua tree is a keystone species that provides nesting habitat and crucial cover for a broad range of insect, reptile, small mammal, and bird species. If the trees are not preserved, these species would lose a valuable resource. 

“If it were removed the ecosystem would change drastically and the bill protecting the Joshua tree not only protects a species, but also an ecosystem,” Clarke said.

Sabin Gabra can be reached at sabin.gabra@laverne.edu.

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