Action alert: Help protect the Joshua tree by August 5th

Action alert: Help protect the Joshua tree

Mojave Desert Land Trust
Jun 3 · 6 min read

Photo: Brandy Dyess/MDLT

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 how you can help by August 5.

Destruction of Joshua trees in Rosamond, California. Photo by Randy Widmer

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

On August 19, 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 now!

On August 19, 2020 the California Department of Fish and Game Commission will hold a public meeting during which they will vote on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recommendation that the western Joshua tree be advanced to candidate status to be listed as a “threatened species” pursuant to the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). (An original public meeting scheduled for June 25 was continued to August.)

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.

Your voice counts! Please take a moment to contact the members of the California Fish and Game Commission by August 5. You can send your comments by email or standard mail at the addresses below. Let the commissioners know that you support the recommendations of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and would like to see a YES vote for advancement to candidacy status under CESA.

California Fish and Game Commission, P.O. Box 944209, Sacramento, CA, 94244–2090


Talking points

Here are some talking points you can consider including in your message:

· This important species is under a barrage of threats, including climate change impacts, wildfire risk, and large-scale development projects. Four published studies have concluded that without intervention, climate change alone creates a high risk of losing western Joshua tree habitat almost entirely.

· The presence of the western Joshua tree benefits our economy. Its iconic presence attracts people to visit, live and work in the high desert. Its protection will encourage responsible development, preventing urban sprawl and overcrowding, increase property values, and preserve the rural quality of life which attracts people to our area.

· While some protection is provided by local ordinances, these are inadequate to respond to the multitude of threats that could lead to its disappearance. Not all Joshua trees are within National Park and National Monument boundaries. In fact, 40% of Joshua tree habitat is on private land, where it has only modest protection at best.

· We are at a critical juncture for the western Joshua tree. A collection of scientific studies predict the widespread decline of this iconic endemic species.

· Joshua trees don’t grow anywhere else on Earth. They attract visitors and new residents which, in turn, support our economy. In 2018, visitors to the National Park created an economic benefit of nearly $196 million both within the Park and its vicinity — that’s almost double the expenditure in 2014. For the local communities adjacent to the Park, 1,823 jobs were related to visitation.

· Attracted by the area’s scenic beauty and Joshua trees, the real estate market in the Joshua Tree region has steadily increased. New residents generally are not seeking a home in densely developed areas such as a subdivision, but instead are looking for a more rural lifestyle, ideally with proximity to the National Park, and Joshua trees are a very desirable feature.

· We recognize that the rapid growth of our communities and the dramatic increase in visitation at the National Park has resulted in its own issues such as traffic. These issues need to be addressed, but protection of the Joshua tree will help, not hurt our communities. Its listing will encourage local governments to develop a regional approach to conservation through a Natural Communities Conservation Plan. These plans focus on the conservation of large undeveloped areas, while encouraging new development on vacant land in already developed areas. This helps prevent sprawl and overdevelopment.

Photo: Brandy Dyess/MDLT