Yucca Valley Takes Stand Against The Joshua Tree Protection Act

The Yucca Valley Town Council has unanimously gone on record as opposing state legislation aimed at preventing the destruction and removal of Joshua Trees.
The Western Joshua Tree Protection Act was was formulated and presented to the California Legislature earlier this year by Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration after the California Fish and Game Commission in June 2022 deadlocked 2-to-2 on whether to confer endangered species status on western Joshua trees, known by their scientific name, Yucca brevifolia.
The petition for the Yucca brevifolia’s endangered listing and the protections that would come with it was made by the Center for Biodiversity in 2019. In September 2020 the California Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended that Joshua trees be temporarily protected while 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 undertook the completion of a peer-reviewed report and recommendation relating to the western Joshua tree.
According to that report, released in April 2022, the outlook for the plant, while less than encouraging, is not absolutely critical.
“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,” Barrows, Fleishman, Krantz, Sweet and Yoder collectively stated. “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 [the California Department of Fish and Wildlife] 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.”
There was some dissent from that conclusion. Dr. Krantz indicated in June that he was not in consonance with the recommendation that had been put out under his name and the collective aegis of his colleagues.
“The western Joshua tree is already very much a threatened species,” Krantz told the Sentinel.
The June 2022 vote was not definitive in that the California Fish and Game Commission is a five-member panel. Staff with the commission indicated that the matter would be reheard upon the appointment of a fifth commissioner. In the meantime, commission staff sought input from California’s Native American tribes. In October, following the appointment of a fifth commissioner, the commission again voted to delay a decision on the listing to see if legislation related to the tree would move through the legislature.
On February 7, the Newsom Administration laid out its proposal for the Western Joshua Tree Protection Act, which it introduced without any authorship assistance or sponsorship from state senators or Assembly members. If passed into law, the act would authorize removal of western Joshua trees only if specific conditions are met, including the avoidance and minimization of impacts to include transplanting of the trees rather than removal and destruction where possible and the inclusion of an option for payment of fees calculated to mitigate specific impacts by specific projects, the depositing of fees in the Western Joshua Tree Mitigation Fund and the requirement that the Department of Fish and Wildlife deploy the fund, in collaboration with Indian tribes and others, to address threats to the western Joshua tree, including, but not limited to, acquiring, and conserving western Joshua tree habitat.
The act would further require the Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop and implement a western Joshua tree conservation plan in collaboration with the California Fish and Game Commission, governmental agencies, California Native America Tribes, and the public. Under the act, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would be required to incorporate of traditional ecological knowledge into the conservation plan and co-manage the strategy for ensuring the species’ survival through consultation with California Indian tribes and facilitate the relocation of western Joshua trees to tribal lands upon a request from a tribe. The act would authorize the Department of Fish and Wildlife to delegate to a county or city the ability to approve the removal or trimming of dead or dying trees, subject to conditions, and an option to pay fees, pursuant to Department of Fish and Wildlife oversight, with express California Department of Fish and Wildlife authority to revoke any delegation. The act as drafted includes annual reporting to the Fish and Game Commission about the effectiveness, performance, and success of the program, with specific deadlines for accountability and flexibility to increase fees as necessary in accordance with open public processes.
On March 8, 2023, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it will not list Joshua trees under the federal Endangered Species Act. The federal government’s opting out of the process for the protection of the species, environmentalists said, intensified the importance of the state taking action.
In that timeframe, the Western Joshua Tree Protection Act was being considered by both houses of the state legislature. It was referred to the Appropriations Committee on April 24. A Western Joshua Tree trailer bill accompanying it would set aside funding for the implementation of the act.
Yucca Valley Town officials have expressed the view that the act would prove overly restrictive in seeking to protect the western Joshua Tree and potentially act as a precedent in creating unworkable restrictions with regard to other species. The mitigation and permitting costs for both public or private property owners could prove prohibitive and indiscriminately prevent future development, town officials maintain.
On April 18, the Yucca Valley Town Council received an update regarding the proposed Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act from Town Manager Curtis Yakimow, and considered whether it should share with the state legislature “the Town’s concerns and position with the appropriate parties as there may be an opportunity for some modification of the legislative language through the budget hearing process,” according to that evening’s meeting agenda. As a consequence of that discussion, the town council voted unanimously to oppose the Western Joshua Tree Protection Act, action which Yakimow recommended. According to Yakimow, the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act will impose requirements and fees on private individuals, property owners, corporations and governmental entities that are not backed with science. He said that the passage of the act absent prior efforts to coordinate conservation efforts and fines with local governmental agencies “is neither good public policy nor good governance.”
In a press release, the Town of Yucca Valley stated, “local regulations continue to be an effective regulatory tool that would assist in preserving the western Joshua Tree through public review and transparency of related native plant permit requests.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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