Action alert: Help protect the Joshua tree

Photo: Brandy Dyess/MDLT

(This article was updated on September 21, 2020)

We are at a critical juncture for the western Joshua tree. It may seem impossible to imagine the southern California desert without its signature Joshua tree forests, but without adequate protective measures to address impending threats, it’s a very likely scenario. Below is information about the threats facing the western Joshua tree and details of how you can help.

In 2015, hundreds of Joshua trees were bulldozed to make way for a 2,000-acre solar energy project in the West Mojave. This scenario is repeating itself across the desert landscape as many more large-scale utility projects gain approval on both public and private lands. In August, the California Fish and Game Commission is considering a recommendation to list these western Joshua trees under the California Endangered Species Act.

To date, development has resulted in the elimination of hundreds of thousands of acres of western Joshua tree habitat, with the potential that over a million more acres could be lost.

Development isn’t the only threat facing the Joshua tree. It is also being negatively impacted by climate change. Scientists recently projected that it would virtually disappear from Joshua Tree National Park by 2070. In many areas, older Joshua trees are not being replaced by new ones because the climate is no longer suitable for their establishment.

Climate change has also resulted in another threat. Due to drought and higher temperatures caused by climate change, the fire season is now longer and fires burn with greater intensity. In addition, atmospheric carbon dioxide is accelerating the growth of invasive non-native grasses and mustards, increasing the fuel load.

A unique chance to protect the Joshua tree

At a meeting on September 22nd, 2020, the California’s Fish and Game Commission will decide whether to accept a recommendation from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to grant these imperiled plants protection under the state’s Endangered Species Act.

There are two species of Joshua tree. It’s the western Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) that is currently being considered for listing as a threatened species. The two species are geographically, genetically and morphologically distinct, and each is pollinated by a different species of moth.

The range of the western Joshua tree in California is boomerang-shaped from Joshua Tree National Park, westward along the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains, northward along the southern Sierra Nevada, and eastward towards Death Valley National Park. That range has been predicted to shrink dramatically due to a constellation of threats.

Western Joshua tree western population indicated in blue, eastern Joshua tree in teal. The Tikaboo Valley (22) is where both types grow. | Map modified by Chris Clarke from CI Smith et al.

You may wonder why the western Joshua tree needs such strong protection. Though legislatively well protected on public lands, they remain vulnerable on 40% of private lands that make up their range. At the state level, protection is limited to “unlawful harvesting” under the California Desert Native Plants Act. Regionally, only the cities of Hesperia, Victorville, Palmdale, and Yucca Valley have ordinances in place with varying standards for protection. There are too many threats to the continuation of the species for these ordinances to be considered adequate protection.

The status of the western Joshua tree requires a consistent standard of protection that applies across its range. This is what a state listing with California’s Endangered Species Act can accomplish.

CESA would not block all development projects within the tree’s range. Permits to remove Joshua trees would require impacts to be minimized and mitigated. For small developments, including individual homes, this could potentially be accomplished by avoiding the trees. A single take permit can be applied for by an individual residential owner, or the prospective builder of an energy project, or an entire region. Take permits can be authorized regionally through a Natural Communities Conservation Plan. This would provide individual landowners with a streamlined review and permitting process, if they could not avoid all the Joshua trees on their property.

Take action

In its September 22nd meeting, the California Fish and Game Commission will be discussing the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recommendation to advance candidacy of the western Joshua tree as a “threatened species” pursuant to the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).

If the vote is “Yes”, the western Joshua tree will be designated a candidate and a yearlong review will be triggered to determine whether the tree will be formally protected under CESA.

How you can help

As a member of the public you can make a public comment at the September 22nd meeting. Public comments are typically around 1 minute each. Register to make your comment on Tuesday September 22nd at 8:30 am prompt. The agenda is here. Go here for instructions for participating and how to watch the livestream.

Joshua trees will be the only thing on the agenda of this Commission meeting, so hopefully you will not have a long time to wait to make your comment.

Talking points

At this stage, the most important messages we need to get across to the Commission is about development projects and the kinds of take permits that might be allowed. Here are a few things you could add to your comment.

· Thank the commission for the candidacy vote.

· Highlight the need to protect as much wildlife habitat as possible from development given threats to the species (fire, climate).

· Note that any individual development projects can always apply for a 2081 permit and should not get special treatment here.

· Share your thoughts on where renewable projects should be sited (rooftops, parking lots, degraded lands, etc.) rather than on Joshua tree woodlands.

· Give your thoughts on why counties and local jurisdictions cannot be given coverage under the 2084 permit at this time. Factors to consider: according to a public records request reported in The Desert Sun, The Guardian and the Hi-Desert Star, take permits are being rubberstamped.

· State that any 2084 permit should be as narrow as possible since we won’t really know what lands are the most important to protect until we have a recovery plan and develop a Natural Communities Conservation Plan.

· Demand that any 2084 that is adopted contain real mitigation requirements that result in the actual acquisition and permanent protection of Joshua tree habitat at a suitably high mitigation ratio.

· Anything else that seems appropriate.

Thank you!

Photo: Brandy Dyess/MDLT

The Mojave Desert Land Trust is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization protecting lands with natural, scenic, and cultural value within the Mojave Desert.

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