California Enacts Permanent Protections for Joshua Trees
The Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act has passed in California. The act is the first legislation in the state to protect a species from climate change. It prohibits any person or public agency from importing, exporting, removing, owning, buying or selling western Joshua trees or any of their parts, and the legislation requires the Department of Fish and Wildlife, along with Indigenous tribes and the public, to establish a conservation plan for the species.
The act passed as part of a budget agreement in California and is expected to be signed by Governor Gavin Newsom this week and take effect as law on July 1.
“The California Endangered Species Act is our most important biodiversity protection law, and western Joshua trees clearly qualify as threatened,” Brendan Cummings, conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “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.”
Western Joshua trees are native to California and other southwestern states. In California, they span from the Joshua Tree National Park area to the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains. These outlandish “trees” are actually monocotyledons, or monocots, a type of grass-like, flowering plant.
But Joshua trees face many threats, including wildfires, habitat loss and climate change. A 2019 study found that in a moderate emissions mitigation scenario, the plant’s habitat within Joshua Tree National Park could still shrink to about 14% of the original range by the end of the century. In a business-as-usual scenario, the Joshua tree’s livable habitat within the national park would almost entirely disappear.
Worsening droughts will limit their range, and invasive grass species that are prone to higher fire risks also make the Joshua trees vulnerable. Further, the species faces degradation from development.
The Center for Biological Diversity first petitioned for Joshua tree protections, under California’s Endangered Species Act, in 2019. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife set temporary protections in September 2020 but denied permanent protections in April 2022. The Biden administration denied protecting the species under the federal Endangered Species Act in March 2023, Reuters reported.
The Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act will require a conservation plan to be created and implemented, and a fund will be established for buying and managing lands for Joshua tree conservation. It also makes killing or removing the trees a crime.
“Given the impacts they’re already feeling from climate change and other threats we have to do so much if we want to keep these iconic irreplaceable trees as a part of our landscape,” Cummings said, as reported by The Guardian.
The legislation protects the Western Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) specifically, but not the Eastern Joshua tree (Yucca jaegeriana).