Update: Joshua Tree Petition Granted For One Year While Officials Conduct Study

Image: Joshua Tree National Park/NPS

by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

On Tuesday, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to accept a petition that will grant the Joshua tree, the famous twisty-limbed yucca plant native to the Mojave desert, endangered species status for one year while the state conducts a study. The plant is now considered a “candidate species” under California law, meaning that until the state finishes its study and determines whether or not the species will be designated as “threatened,” it will be illegal to damage, remove, or cut down a Joshua tree without a proper permit. This decision comes after a fierce battle between conservationists and solar power companies.

Why This Matters: The Joshua tree, which has made its home in the Mojave desert for 2.5 million years, is facing a climate crisis that has become more severe each year. Studies have found that even the most resilient desert plants may suffer major habitat loss, even if a sharp reduction of carbon emissions were to occur. As climate change accelerates and causes more widespread wildfires, remaining Joshua trees will continue to face this dual threat

In August, 1.3 million Joshua trees were burned by the Dome fire, which spread over 43,000 acres of the desert, a loss that devastated conservationists and desert lovers. “I lost the center of my world last week. I’m feeling a kind of vertigo of the soul,” wrote Chris Clarke of the National Parks Conservation Association. 

However, conservationists found unexpected opposition from solar power companies, fueling debate between environmentalists, who want to see species protected but also acknowledge the desperate need for sustainable energy. This ruling from the California Fish and Game Commission is a win for conservation, but the debate as to which issue should take priority rages on. 

Two Sides of the Same Coin: Brendan Cummings of the Center of Biological Diversity (CBD) submitted the petition to have the Joshua tree declared a protected species, citing the “existential threat” climate change presents to the trees as well as the tree’s exceptionally slow rates of reproduction of these trees. The CBD’s petition argues that without immediate action, the Joshua tree could be extinct within a century. Local government leaders worry, however, that a “threatened” designation could stop residential development, hurting the economy and homeowners. The state government is worried more about meeting their renewable energy goals like reaching 100% clean energy by 2045. As Shannon Eddy, the executive director of the Large-Scale Solar Association (LSSA) puts it, “in order to achieve these goals, there needs to be a lot of solar energy—more than has ever been built before. 

The California Fish and Game Commission’s decision isn’t a total loss for solar power; companies were left with a small concession. Eddy explains, “They basically took 10 million acres and set aside 4.9 million for permanent conservation, while identifying 388,000 acres for potential renewable energy development,” she says. And “to develop on those 388,000 acres, it’s extremely difficult.” 

Pros and Cons: As solar power grows around the globe, conservationists have seen it both harm and help ecosystems. In the United Kingdom, a joint project by conservation group Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and alternative-energy firm Anesco planted flowers in the margins between solar panels. They hope to attract bees and butterflies to the solar farm, which will in turn support the threatened bird population in the region which saw declines of up to 93% in the past 40 years. 

But in California, researchers from UC Berkeley and UC Riverside found that just 10-15% of planned or operational solar farms were in environmentally “compatible” regions. Researcher Rebecca Hernandez expressed frustration, “We would hope that if a developer was on the ground and saw that, oh, this is a really important area for migratory birds, maybe we should look at that Walmart commercial roof down the road, and collaborate with them rather than putting it here.”


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