By Mark Gutglueck
Two Joshua Tree landowners, who relatively recently moved to Southern California from Oregon, have been fined $18,000 for the wholesale destruction of 36 of the trees that their new town is named after.
Jeffrey Walter and his wife, Jonetta Nordberg-Walter, are attempting to construct what is described as their dream house on a ten-acre property located right off Prescott Avenue in the town limits of Joshua Tree she inherited from her father. In the course of clearing land to accommodate the home they are building, the couple began uprooting Joshua trees.
In February, they had hired a backhoe operator to clear a swath of the property, activity which included uprooting chaparral and Joshua Trees.
A nearby landowner saw the mayhem.
Joshua trees, known by their scientific name yucca brevifolia, are a protected species in California. Their destruction on both private and public land is prohibited throughout the state.
Their neighbor called the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which dispatched one of its officers to the area.
That was on February 11.
Initially, the Department of Fish and Wildlife agent was thwarted in documenting what was going on because it took him three hours to find the subject property and the Walters had their contractor bury the trees on the property. This made it so that the destruction of the trees was not visually apparent when the agent arrived.
Nevertheless, he persisted in his investigation and continued to reconnoiter the Walter property.
The officer was provided with crucial assistance by the individual who had phoned in the report. The Department of Fish and Wildlife agent was able to get close enough to the Nordberg-Walter property because of the cooperation of the informant.
That individual, the Sentinel is informed, was motivated to make the call and render further assistance because he had previously been prevented from doing extensive construction on his property because doing so would have required taking out Joshua Trees. Permits for doing that are prohibitively expensive, and generally require that the trees not be destroyed but transplanted, which is an arduous and expensive undertaking.
Ultimately, the agent was able to catch the Walters red-handed in the act of destroying Joshua trees. This gave the Department of Fish and Wildlife probable cause to come onto the property and conduct a search. That search entailed bringing in a backhoe and unearthing at a spot where it was believed the Walters had buried several of the tree that had been uprooted. Ultimately, the agent found 36 trees that were destroyed.
Both Jeffrey Walter and Jonetta Nordberg-Walter maintained they were unaware of the California law protecting Joshua Trees. Department of Fish and Wildlife agents were skeptical of that claim, based on the way they had buried the trees that were uprooted almost immediately.
Nevertheless, once the investigation and action of the Department of Fish and Wildlife was under way, the Walters came across as being cooperative, officials said.
The investigative file on the matter, documentation, reports and evidence were turned over to the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, which then initiated a prosecution of both Walter and Nordberg-Walter.
The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office filed 36 misdemeanor charges each against Walter and Nordberg-Walter, one for each tree, an overall total of 72 charges.
The case against the couple was adjudicated in the courtroom of Judge Shannon Faherty at the Joshua Tree Superior Court. Walter was assessed a fine of $9,000 and Nordberg-Walter a like fine of $9,000.
There is some variance in perspective with regard to the matter.
Some believe what Walter and Nordberg-Walter did was inadvertent, and reflected no ill intent or effort to evade the law. They are recent newcomers to California and, in addition, the law relating to the removal of Joshua trees is a new one. The “taking” of a western Joshua tree became a criminal act in September 2020, when the California Fish & Wildlife Commission made the tree a candidate for endangered or threatened species protections. That statute made it illegal to disturb, move, replant, remove or kill western Joshua trees. Such action is designated as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $4,100 fine and six months in jail.
To some, Walter and Nordberg-Walter got off easy. For $18,000 and a minor blemish on their records, they will now be able to proceed with developing their property, which they legally would not have been likely to be able to do. Moreover, what amounts to a $500 fine per tree is less than what would have been a far more extensive cost if they had applied for permits to transplant them and then executed upon actually transplanting them.
Based on fees determined and set by the state, a permit to relocate a Joshua tree 13.123 feet tall or smaller on developed property costs $175. To remove the same size tree from developed land will cost $525. To relocate a Joshua tree taller than 13.123 feet from developed property costs $700. A Joshua tree that is less than 13.123 feet high growing on undeveloped land can be relocated for $625 and removed for $1,050. Those are permit costs. In addition, the cost of actually relocating a Joshua tree in such a way that it will survive can be quite expensive, as much or more than $1,200 for mature trees. Younger and smaller trees are less expensive to transplant.
By Mark Gutglueck