By Mark Gutglueck
The California Fish and Game Commission on February 8 voted unanimously today to postpone the decision on whether to protect the western Joshua tree under the California Endangered Species Act.
The commission decided to wait and see whether a new legislative bill, the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act, becomes law.
The California Fish and Game Commission took up the issue after the federal government declined to list the western Joshua tree as a protected species and the Center for Biological Diversity in October 2019 petitioned the California Department of Fish & Wildlife to list the Western Joshua tree as a threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act.
Wednesday’s deferral represents at least the third time the commission has balked over the question of whether to give the tree official protected status, as environmentalists consider the plant that once proliferated in the California, Arizona and Nevada deserts to be a bellwether of the survivability of a host of indigenous plants and animals in the desert region. Conversely, those involved in the real estate, development, investment and financial industries assert that the level of protection being sought for the trees will cripple any further conversion of the desert landscape to residential, commercial or industrial use.
This tugging of the commission along one tangent coupled with the pulling in the exact opposite direction has resulted in a paralysis both side have expressed dismay over.
It was thought that a determination on the issue might be forthcoming in June 2022, but at that time the commission postponed until October making a decision on whether to list the western Joshua tree as a threatened or endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act. In October, the commission once again delayed settling the question.
Since 2019, the commission’s staff has been reviewing the scientific record relating to the degree to which development and climate change are impinging on the environment of the Joshua Tree.
In October 2020, the species became a candidate for listing under the California Endangered Species Act. That decision will be made by California Fish and Game Commission.
In preparation of the anticipated July 2022 decision, the commission heard testimony from 222 people, including some politicians who advocated against providing the tree with the protection that environmentalists, botanists and other members of the scientific community say the species will need to survive.
In April 2022, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife released a peer-reviewed report and recommendation assembled by Dr. Cameron Barrows of the University of California Riverside, Dr. Erica Fleishman of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, Dr. Timothy Krantz with the University of Redlands, Dr. Lynn Sweet with the University of California, Riverside and Dr. Jeremy B. Yoder from California State University Northridge.
According to Barrows, Fleishman, Krantz, Sweet and Yoder, the outlook for the plant, known by its scientific name Yucca brevifolia Engelm, is grim. “The population size and area occupied by [the] western Joshua tree have declined since European settlement largely due to habitat modification and destruction, a trend that has continued to the present,” the report states. “Primary threats to the species are climate change, development and other human activities, and wildfire. Available species distribution models suggest that areas predicted to be suitable for [the] western Joshua tree based on 20th Century climate data will decline substantially through the end of the 21st Century as a result of climate change, especially in the southern and lower elevational portions of its range.”
Nevertheless, the scientists said, “the department does not currently have information demonstrating that loss of areas with 20th Century suitable climate conditions will result in impacts on existing populations that are severe enough to threaten to eliminate the species from a significant portion of its range by the end of the 21st Century. The effects of development and other human activities will cause western Joshua tree habitat and populations to be lost, particularly in the southern part of the species’ range, but many populations within the range of the species are protected from development, suggesting that a significant portion of the species’ range will not be lost by development alone. Wildfire can also kill over half of western Joshua trees in areas that burn, and wildfire impacted approximately 2.5% of the species’ range in each of the last two decades, but wildfire does not appear to result in loss of range, only lowering of abundance within the species’ range.”
Barrows, Fleishman, Krantz, Sweet and Yoder stated that “the evidence presented in favor of the petitioned action, the scientific evidence that is currently possessed by the department does not demonstrate that populations of the species are negatively trending in a way that would lead the department to believe that the species is likely to be in serious danger of becoming extinct throughout all or a significant portion of its range in the foreseeable future. The department recommends that the commission find that the recommended action to list [the] western Joshua tree as a threatened species is not warranted.”
During the two-day public hearing the Fish and Game Commission held on the matter in June 2022 at which it failed to come to consensus on extending the requested protection to the tree, then-Assemblyman Thurston Smith and Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe, sought to capitalize on Barrows’, Fleishman’s, Krantz’s, Sweet’s and Yoder’s prediction that the Joshua Tree will survive into the 22nd Century by piling on with requests that the commission not grant the protective status.
“Listing the western Joshua tree as threatened would have permanent economic impacts on my constituents,” Smith said.
The commission should stand down and let politicians enact protection for the tree, Rowe suggested.
Both Smith, who was voted out of office in November, and Rowe were driven in their advocacy against granting the tree protection by their close affiliation with and support by the real estate, investment, development and financial communities.
If the tree-huggers have their way and the western Joshua tree is designated as a threatened or endangered species, those restrictions would place trees on a higher plane of importance than humans, many desert landowners maintain. They say there are plenty of Joshua Trees, and they resent already existing restrictions on making improvements to land if that development will require removing Joshua trees. People have to go through all sorts of red tape and paperwork just to chop one down, desert property owners say.
It was pointed out that there are up to 9.8 million Joshua trees in California, and they cover some 5,500 square miles.
At present, the State of California imposes a permit fee of $175 to relocate a Joshua tree 13.123 feet tall or smaller on developed property. To remove the same size tree from developed land costs $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.
“The hell with those rules,” some people who live on land they own in the desert say. Some have, successfully in certain cases and unsuccessfully in others, removed trees quietly without permits. Those who get caught can pay a hefty price. Jeffrey Walter and his wife, Jonetta Nordberg-Walter, who live in the aptly-named unincorporated San Bernardino County community of Joshua Tree, in February 2011 removed 36 Joshua trees from property Jonetta had inherited from her father during ground-clearing preparations to build a home. Despite the fact that the backhoe operator they had hired to do that clearing had buried the trees almost immediately upon knocking them down, an eagle-eyed neighbor, who had himself previously been prevented from doing extensive construction on his property because of the Joshua trees that dotted his land, saw what was happening and called authorities. He allowed the responding Department of Fish and Wildlife agent to get close enough to the Nordberg-Walter property to monitor what had happened. The long and the short of it was that Walter and Nordberg-Walter were hauled into court and each was hit with hit with $9,000 fines, or $250 apiece for each downed and destroyed tree, a total of $18,000.
Some believe what Walter and Nordberg-Walter, who were recent newcomers to California, acted inadvertently, reflecting no ill intent or effort to evade the law.
Others believe the couple’s acts of mayhem on the trees was premeditated and deliberate, as evinced by their instructions to the backhoe operator to bury the trees. Those who see it that way think Walter and Nordberg-Walter got off easy. For $18,000 and a minor blemish on their records, they were able to proceed with developing their property, which they legally would not have been likely to be able to do. Moreover, what amounted 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.
During last year’s hearings, State Fish and Game staff told the commission that the trees reproduce very slowly and only under relatively precise conditions.
The more than 900-page staff report the commission reviewed before the June hearing had conflicting information about the survivability of the trees. Some of the report’s citations indicated the tree is in danger. While staff did recommend against listing the trees as threatened, subsequent reviews of the recommendation found errors within the cited materials upon which that recommendation relied, and sixty percent of the recommendation’s peer reviewers disagreed with its conclusion.
According to a study published in June 2029 by the UC Riverside’s Center for Conservation Biology in conjunction with other scientists, at least 80 percent of the Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park will be extinct by 2100.
Dr. Timothy Krantz, one of the authors of the April recommendation against listing the tree as endangered indicated in June that he was not in consonance with that recommendation.
“The western Joshua tree is already very much a threatened species,” Krantz told the Sentinel.
It was noted that the model used in Barrows’, Fleishman’s, Krantz’s, Sweet’s and Yoder’s April recommendation was based upon 20th Century climate data, which did not reflect the acceleration in global warming.
Ultimately, the commission split on a vote as to whether to give the species protected status, thereafter agreeing to revisit the issue in October. In October, the issues had yet to be cleared up.
Some of the testimony given during the June hearing by those advocating against granting the protection appeared to have had an effect opposite to what was intended. Commissioner Jacque Hostler-Carmesin, who was one of the two votes against listing the species as endangered, nevertheless indicated, in consonance with her commission colleagues, that politicians could not be entrusted with determining what protections the trees should be provided.
“California is facing a complex confluence of issues stemming from climate change, including the need for more renewable energy and the need for more habitat protection for imperiled species,” said Kelly Herbinson, the joint executive director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust. “Unfortunately, these two goals are sometimes at odds. The future of our species depends on both, and we are pleased to see the Gavin Newsom administration and the Fish and Game Commission working to find creative solutions to these issues. Preserving the western Joshua tree and its habitat is central to our mission at the Mojave Desert Land Trust. We will be evaluating the proposed bill and advocating for legislators to ensure the language and budget provide impactful and sustainable avenues that secure the long-term protection of the western Joshua tree.”
By Mark Gutglueck