SACRAMENTO, Calif. June 28, 2023 — California lawmakers passed the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act, permanently protecting the iconic and imperiled species.
The new law cleared the Assembly 54-15 and the Senate 31-8 as part of the state budget agreement. It’s expected to be signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom this week and take effect July 1.
Western Joshua trees have been protected on an interim basis, as a candidate species under the California Endangered Species Act, since September 2020. Under the new law, they will remain a candidate species, receiving the protections of both statutes.
“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 and a Joshua Tree resident. “This groundbreaking law will help ensure these wonderful trees remain part of California’s Mojave Desert landscape forever.”
The new law will be the first in California specifically focused on ensuring protection of a climate-threatened species. The statute provides the trees with protections comparable to those they would receive under the California Endangered Species Act, but with additional permitting mechanisms to address renewable energy and housing projects in their range. It also requires the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to prepare a conservation plan for the trees by the end of 2024.
Earlier this year the state Fish and Game Commission postponed a decision on whether to permanently protect western Joshua trees under the state endangered species act, waiting to see whether the bill proposed by Newsom’s administration became law. In June 2022 the commission deadlocked 2-2 on whether to make that protection permanent and agreed to reconsider the listing decision after seeking more input from California Tribes. Tribal input has strongly supported protecting western Joshua trees.
“The California Endangered Species Act is our most important biodiversity protection law, and western Joshua trees clearly qualify as threatened,” Cummings said. “As the first species in the state to be protected because of climate change, they deserve the special measures contained in the new conservation act.”
The provisions of the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act include:
- Prohibiting unpermitted killing or removal of the trees.
- Requiring a conservation plan for the species.
- Creating a fund to acquire and manage lands to protect the species.
- Creating a permitting regime expected to be faster and cheaper than the state endangered species act.
- Requiring regular reviews of the species’ status and the effectiveness of the permitting regime and conservation plan.
- Requiring consultation with California Native American Tribes on the law’s implementation.
In 2019 the Center filed a petition to list Joshua trees under the state’s Endangered Species Act. In September 2020 the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended that Joshua trees be temporarily protected during a yearlong study, and the commission agreed. In April 2022 the department recommended against permanent protection of the species, shrugging off concerns from independent scientific peer reviewers.
Without legal protection, climate change could wipe out western Joshua trees, which already are failing to reproduce at drier, lower elevations. Recent studies show the trees are already dying off because of hotter, drier conditions, with very few younger trees becoming established. Even greater changes are projected over the coming decades.
Scientists in 2019 projected that Joshua trees will be largely gone from their namesake national park by the end of the century. An earlier study projected the species will be lost from virtually its entire range in California.
Prolonged droughts are expected to be more frequent and intense over the coming decades, shrinking the species’ range and leading to more tree deaths. Higher elevations, where some Joshua trees might survive increasing temperatures and drying conditions, are at risk of fire because of invasive nonnative grasses.
Western Joshua trees are also threatened by habitat loss and degradation. Outside of Joshua Tree National Park, off-road vehicle use, cattle grazing, powerlines and pipelines, housing projects and large-scale energy projects are destroying habitat. Approximately half of the western Joshua tree’s range in California is on private land, and only a tiny fraction of that habitat is protected from development. Projections show that virtually all those trees will be lost without increased legal protection.
Joshua trees come in two distinct species: the western Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) and the eastern Joshua tree (Y. jaegeriana). The two species occupy different areas of the desert, are genetically and morphologically distinguishable, and have different pollinating moths. Only the western species is covered under the new law.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.