Saturday, July 13, 2024

Joshua Trees Inching Towards Endangered Species Protection as Landmark Bill Passes

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An iconic and spiritual symbol of Southern California’s high desert, Joshua trees draw millions of visitors to their National Park home and the surrounding environs. But the tree’s very existence is being threatened by climate change and development—specifically property developers—and indigenous communities and conservationists have been looking to get it on California’s list of Endangered Species. Such a classification would offer a higher level of protection. So far, to no avail.

However, in a big win for the trees, new legislation was just passed that will allow for protection of the trees and some development. The Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act would create a conservation fund, require consultation with the Native American tribes and for California to create a conservation plan by the end of 2024, and require companies to obtain a state permit before they can cut down any Joshua trees.

Though this is not a direct line to the endangered species list, since development permits are still accessible, the law does give protection and future support for the region. 

Brendan Cummings, the Conservation Director at the Center for Biological Diversity, kickstarted the movement and resulting bill, which he’d been working on this since 2019 when he submitted a petition that contained “more than you would ever want to know about Joshua trees.”

Since then, he says it has been a “rollercoaster of uncertainty” to get the bill approved. There was a deadlock in the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2022, almost halting progress entirely. Now, he waits for Governor Newsom to sign it in the next few days; just a little later from its expected July 1 debut. 

“It’s unique,” Cummings tells Los Angeles of the legislation. “It’s the first time the state has ever protected a species due to climate change… we need to proactively protect them.”

He views the legislation’s special properties like the trees’ own physical attributes — they spread far across a wide region. As Cummings explains, “It’s an iconic species, but it’s also an inconvenient species,” in that the land the trees sits on is some of the last cheap real estate in California. Also, about half of Joshua tree park is on private property, which is “subject to development pressure.”

A tricky aspect of getting this bill passed was the way opposing players framed their viewpoints, which Cummings describes as under a “progressive rubric”—in which it’s claimed that protecting the land is actually harmful to potential clean energy plans and affordable housing.

“If you protect Joshua tree, you’ll destroy the last place you can build affordable housing…[and] develop renewable energy,” Cummings paraphrases, adding, “It boils down to, ‘Protecting it will cost us money.’”

There’s also what he dubs “The AirBnb Phenomenon,” in which visitors claim to love the park, yet don’t think about how “that brand new hipster house” sprouted up after “they mowed down Joshua trees to put it there.”

Cummings keeps his head up, however, as he believes that “this bill does a great job of spurring the ground climate action we need,” but that if we do not address our greenhouse gasses, Joshua trees will be endangered regardless. 

“I have hope for Joshua Tree,” he adds.

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