Joshua Trees Are Officially Protected in California
California’s Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act is the state’s first law aimed at protecting a species threatened by climate change
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After years of failed efforts to protect the Joshua tree as an endangered species, California lawmakers voted to permanently safeguard the native plant.
The Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act was passed on Tuesday, June 27, as part of a state budget agreement. In addition to banning the removal of Joshua trees without a permit, the legislation also creates a fund to protect the species and mandates consultation on the rule’s implementation with Native American tribes. Governor Gavin Newsom, who introduced the bill, is expected to sign off on the deal sometime this week. Up to 9.8 million Joshua trees live in the state.
“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,” said Brendan Cummings, the Center for Biological Diversity’s conservation director, in a news release. According to the nonprofit, the law will be the first in the state geared toward protecting a climate-threatened species.
The Joshua tree is native to the southwestern U.S., growing in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona as part of the Mojave Desert ecosystem. It’s not really a tree, but rather a “monocot in a subgroup of flowering plants that also includes grasses and orchids,” according to the National Park Service. Known for their gnarly branches and spiky leaves, Joshua trees grow up to 40-feet tall in Joshua Tree National Park. Following spring rainfall, white-green flowers bloom on the ends of their branches.
The trees are often uprooted by developers as neighborhoods, roadways, and warehouses pop up in the desert areas of Southern California. The species is also threatened by wildfire and climate change. In 2020, the 43,273-acre Dome Fire burned more than 1.3 million Joshua trees. Despite their adaptation to the desert, the trees also die during periods of prolonged drought.
Joshua Tree National Park and the surrounding area was once home to the Serrano, Chemehuevi, Cahuilla, and Mojave tribes, according to the park service. For centuries, these groups have made use of the Joshua tree by weaving its leaves into baskets and sandals, as well as eating its flower buds and seeds.
In September 2020, the California Fish and Game Commission protected the trees on an interim basis in response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity. But last year, the commission deadlocked on whether to permanently protect the species under California’s Endangered Species Act.
As the popularity of Joshua Tree and its surrounding towns has grown, the community’s namesake vegetation has been razed to meet an increased demand for housing. The new law seems to recognize this issue by streamlining permits for new construction, while requiring the relocation of trees. A relocated Joshua tree must be “placed in a location and with proper orientation to improve its survival” under supervision by a desert native plant specialist, the law says.
Previously, scientists have predicted that Joshua trees will barely survive through the end of the century due to warming temperatures. By 2100, just .02 percent of the tree’s habitat in Joshua Tree National Park will remain viable without mitigating climate change, according to a 2019 study published in Ecosphere.