In a likely precedent-setting decision, the California Fish and Game Commission on Tuesday voted 4-0 to approve the western Joshua tree for the next stage of protection under the California Endangered Species Act. This marks the first time the state law has been used to give protection to a species that is mainly threatened by climate change.
The species — one of two types of the iconic desert megaflora — is facing massive habitat loss due to warming temperatures that are pushing its livable habitat farther north and into higher elevations. Scientists predict that Joshua Tree National Park could be devoid of its namesake plant by the end of the century.
The western Joshua tree now receives protection under the act for the next year as the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife studies whether the species is indeed at enough risk to need full listing as threatened. At the federal level, Joshua trees were denied protection under the Endangered Species Act, a decision that is being challenged in court by an environmental group.
The state vote had been twice-delayed due to a late surge of opposition from the renewable energy industry and local elected officials in the high desert and San Bernardino County. They argued that shovel-ready, clean energy projects would be halted and that development around towns like Yucca Valley would be made more challenging.
At Tuesday’s virtual meeting, Chuck Bonham, director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, called it a “false premise that we need to choose between renewable energy — and the development of renewable energy — and the protection of the Joshua tree.”
With more than 100 people listening in to the meeting, a debate was underway over whether to allow 15 renewable energy projects that had already made it through permitting processes to begin construction and remove now-protected Joshua trees from their construction sites.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Mark Olalde covers the environment for The Desert Sun. Get in touch at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @MarkOlalde.