California grants new protections for Mojave Desert’s iconic Joshua trees – Press Enterprise

Joshua Trees sit silhouetted against the sky on Thursday, January 6, 2011 east of the of the Mojave National Preserve. (File photo by Stan Lim, The Press Enterprise/SCNG)

The Mojave Desert’s iconic western Joshua trees are getting new protections under California law. But not everyone is happy about it.

Built into Assembly Bill 122 and its counterpart, Senate Bill 122, the state budget agreement bills, the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act marks the first time California has put a permanent law into place protecting the trees.

Under the law, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has to create a conservation plan for the trees, development projects are required to avoid the trees when possible, and developers must hire a desert native plant specialist to oversee tree relocations or they must contribute to a new Western Joshua Tree Conservation Fund.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the merged budget bill Tuesday, June 27, establishing permanent protections for the trees. Temporary protections have been in place since September 2020 under the California Endangered Species Act.

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Today, there are fewer than 10 million Joshua trees in California. They occupy an area of land larger than the state of Connecticut. But they reproduce slowly, and under specific conditions that are rapidly disappearing due to climate change.

A paper published in June 2019 by researchers at UC Riverside’s Center for Conservation Biology predicts that at least 80% of the Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park will be wiped out by 2100. In the worst-case scenario, the 160,000 acres of land in Joshua Tree National Park capable of supporting the iconic trees will drop to just 37 acres.

“I’m grateful the Newsom administration and lawmakers agree that western Joshua trees are an irreplaceable part of California’s natural heritage that has to be protected,” Brendan Cummings, conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity, is quoted as saying in a statement issued by the organization, which had previously asked the state to list Joshua trees under California’s Endangered Species Act.

“This groundbreaking law will help ensure these wonderful trees remain part of California’s Mojave Desert landscape forever,” Cummings said.

Although environmentalists cheered the new law, officials representing Mojave Desert communities expressed frustration over what it could mean for economic development in the region.

“San Bernardino County greatly values the Western Joshua tree as an iconic symbol of the Mojave Desert and actively supports efforts to protect and preserve the species,” the county wrote in an unsigned news release issued Tuesday. But the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act “fails to properly balance protection of the species with the needs of our residents and business community, thereby threatening the quality of life in our deserts.”

The county had offered amendments that would have struck “vital balance between protecting the Western Joshua Tree and preserving a reasonable quality of life for San Bernardino County residents today and into the future,” but most were not included in the final version of the act.

“The bill still imposes very high costs on residents, businesses, and local agencies,” the statement concludes. “This will discourage the building of much-needed homes, stifle economic investment, increase development costs in the region, and significantly harm the county’s Mojave Desert communities and residents.”

On Tuesday, Assemblymember Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, took to the Assembly floor to attack the act, saying desert residents had been “deserted” by it.

“There’s never been a bill that’s been more impactful to my desert community,” he said. The bill will “permanently affect development in my desert community, where many find the last vestige of affordable housing.”

According to real estate website Redfin, the median price for homes sold in the High Desert city of Hesperia between April 1 and June 29 was $426,500. In the desert city of Palmdale in the same period, it was $432,000. In contrast, according to real estate firm CoreLogic, in April, the median home price for Southern California (including Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties) was $800,000.

Joshua tree sprouts are covered under the new act, Lackey said.

“Even small projects are going to be costly for my constituents, who live among a plethora of these shrubs masquerading as a tree,” he said. “Development under (the bill) will be limited to those with economic resources, which would change the culture cultivated within my communities.”

Lackey’s 34th Assembly District includes Apple Valley, Barstow, Big Bear Lake and Twentynine Palms, plus parts of Palmdale, Highland, Hesperia, Lancaster and Victorville.

The city of Hesperia — which features a western Joshua tree on its logo — opposed the new legislation. Mayor Brigit Bennington sent a letter of “regretful opposition” to the Assembly on June 5. The city requested the Legislature amend the legislation to allow local governments to permit multifamily, commercial and industrial projects and to adjust the number of trees that could be impacted for public works projects, among other proposed changes.

“Rural communities are forgotten in this institution,” Lackey said. “This will surely worsen the state’s ability to grapple with its housing shortage by depressing development and frustrate the communities’ ability to meet regional housing goals set forth by this body.”

Cody Hanford, joint executive director of the Mojave Land Trust, thinks concerns over the new law’s impact are overblown.

“The tree was a candidate species for the California endangered species act for the past two years, where it received a higher level of protection than this current bill affords, yet we saw plenty of large-scale development, new homes, business and roadwork during that time,” he wrote in an email. “Development projects must always consider a number of factors in the desert including water, health and safety, and environmental impact. Incorporating the western Joshua tree into those development assessments is the right thing to do and well within the capabilities and capacity of those project proponents.”

And not every desert politician agreed the new law is a bad one.

“The Western Joshua Tree Preservation Act represents the best possible outcome for the preservation of the western Joshua tree and the economic growth of our high desert region,” Assemblymember Juan Carrillo, D-Palmdale, is quoted as saying in a statement issued Thursday, June 29. “This bill strikes a balance between safeguarding our natural heritage and fostering sustainable development. By requiring individuals to obtain a permit from the Department of Fish and Wildlife before removing a western Joshua tree, we ensure that every effort is made to protect this iconic species.”

The Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act is an alternative to listing the tree under the California Endangered Species Act, which both Lackey and Carrillo said would have greater economic impacts than the law.

“We have pursued an alternative approach that prioritizes both conservation and sustainable growth,” Carrillo’s statement concludes.

Carrillo’s 39th Assembly District includes Adelanto, Victorville, Hesperia, Lancaster and Palmdale.

Staff writer Jeff Collins contributed to this story.


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