The Joshua Tree is an iconic symbol of the West.
It holds a fascination for the millions of tourists who flock to its native land in the Mojave Desert every year, which is why some want strict protections enacted for the plant.
The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a petition with the California Fish and Game Commission to list the tree as a candidate for further study to see if it qualifies as an endangered species and needs protections under the state's Endangered Species Act.
“It will protect it in several ways," said Brendan Cummings, the conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity, "There’s both affirmative conservation mandates as well as prohibitions.”
On the affirmative conservation side of the equation, the listing would require the state to create a conservation plan to protect the tree. Cummings said that part of the effort could act as a model for species that are threatened by climate change.
“Because even under the best-case climate scenarios, the Joshua tree is going to lose probably over half of its range in the state," he said, "We need to figure out how to protect the areas where it is most likely to remain.”
The second part of the protections would protect individual trees from being removed or destroyed without a permit from the state.
Cummings said under current law local jurisdictions make rules about trees that are not on federal land. He said so far most have done an "abysmal job" of protecting the trees from being bulldozed or chopped down to make room for development.
San Bernardino County officials, the Yucca Valley mayor and the water district have all said the petition is not a good idea. In a joint legal brief to the commission, they said there is no evidence that the Joshua trees are threatened.
Cummings disagrees with that statement, calling it a type of "soft climate denial," because they're not accepting future projections that the climate will be too warm for the trees.
“There is a wealth of evidence showing the threats to the Joshua trees,” he said.
The problem according to Cummings' group is that adult trees matured in a Mojave Desert that was one degree cooler on average than it is right now.
He said studies show that Joshua trees are declining in numbers and are failing to reproduce, which means when adult trees die off there are fewer juvenile trees to replace them.
In addition to that threat, Cumming said development on private land will destroy trees there.
Plus, wildfires in the desert are more of a threat then they used to be because invasive grasses now allow fires to spread.
Cummings said two of those problems could be addressed by limiting emissions. Emission controls on vehicles and power plants would help reverse climate change and lowering the level of smog from Southern California would help stop the depositing of nitrogen on the Mojave Desert, which is fueling the growth of invasive grasses.
“If current emissions trajectories continue, if current land-use policies continue, we will likely lose most – if not all – of our Joshua trees,” he said.
Cummings said there are ways to protect the Joshua tree from dwindling away.
“If we can protect, those trees in the areas that are most resilient to the warming that is inevitably coming and we combine that with proactive land management, as well as emissions reductions we can actually save Joshua trees,” he said.
But local jurisdictions have voiced staunch opposition to the petition. They say it will complicate residential property ownership and could hamper development.
Curtis Yakimow is the town manager for Yucca Valley. He was very clear that the town and its residents are not against protecting the Joshua tree, but they are opposed to the petition.
The biggest problem with the petition, Yakimow said, is there is a lack of detail and clarity about what the rules will mean for homeowners.
“It is interesting that a lot of folks may not understand just the number, the sheer volume, of Joshua trees that exist in the town of Yucca Valley, almost on every single residential and every single commercial property we have multiple Joshua trees,” he said.
This means, even the simplest project, like putting in a swimming pool or a sidewalk, requires them to be removed.
Yakimow said if the commission agrees to put the tree on the candidate list then restrictions go into place immediately, which means homeowners will have to go through the state to get a permit to remove a tree.
Since the regulations could take months to figure out, he said it is effectively a moratorium on homeowners removing trees.
Plus, the town already has protections in place for Joshua trees and five other native plants that Yakimow said provide "identity" to the area. The native plant ordinance requires homeowners and property owners to apply for a permit if they need to move a protected plant species.
If the plant can be transplanted back onto the property, that is the preferred solution, but if it can't, then it will be destroyed.
Yakimow said most people in town want to protect the trees but they also don't want regulations that are onerous.
"We love these trees. We love to see them in our area that's why we moved here," he said, "It's the fabric of our community, along with some of the other native plants we have."
Yakimow is concerned about the impact climate change is having on Joshua trees - and the rest of the Mojave Desert - and wants to maintain the environment that is supporting those native plants.
But this petition and resulting regulations have too many uncertainties. He said town officials have asked the state for clarification on those regulations but so far haven't received an answer.
Both Cummings and Yakimow agree on one thing: the importance and uniqueness of the Joshua tree.
“A pine forest can be beautiful but feel somewhat monotonous versus a Joshua tree woodland just has a certain magical chaotic quality to it,” Cummings said.
“Depending on what time of day or night or afternoon, each time you look at it, it may look completely different,” Yakimow said.
Brendan Cummings, conservation director, Center for Biological Diversity; Curtis Yakimow, town manager, Town of Yucca Valley
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