California bill would protect native western Joshua tree

The proposed legislation would prohibit anyone from importing, exporting or removing the desert plant without a permit from the state

A Joshua tree is silhouetted against the sky at Joshua Tree National Park in California on May 19, 2020.
A Joshua tree is silhouetted against the sky at Joshua Tree National Park in California on May 19, 2020.Jae C. Hong (AP)

The western Joshua tree won’t be listed as threatened – yet – as California’s Fish and Game Commission again delayed a decision Wednesday after a bill was proposed to provide protections to the native desert plant.

The proposed legislation, the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act, was made public late Tuesday. Backed by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, it would prohibit anyone from importing, exporting or removing the tree without a permit from the state. It would also require the state to work with Native American tribes to draft a conservation plan for the tree by 2024.

“The western Joshua tree is iconic,” California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham said Wednesday. “It deserves special consideration through its own law.”

Bonham said the legislation would mandate protections for the tree while also simplifying the permit process for getting permission to remove it.

The bill states that “there is a critical need to immediately conserve the species while also ensuring timely and efficient permitting mechanisms for activities within its range.”

The proposal comes after the Fish and Game Commission, an agency that sets regulations for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to implement, has spent months deliberating on whether to list the tree as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act after advancing a petition on the issue in 2020.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the petition in 2019, says it needs to be protected from threats driven by climate change. While the center is pleased Newsom’s administration is taking up this issue with the proposed legislation, Brendan Cummings, the group’s conservation director, still wants to see the tree listed as threatened.

Cummings said the western Joshua tree is different from species already listed as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act because it still exists in large numbers. Despite this, he said “there’s a whole body of peer-reviewed published science” that show the threats climate change poses to the species.

“We just need to ensure that we’re protecting the right places long term and doing, probably, active management to help the species get through the very difficult decades ahead,” Cummings said.

The California Endangered Species Act, a decades-old law aimed at conserving plants and animals at risk of extinction, protects about 250 species listed as threatened. Species under consideration to be listed also receive protections.

The Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to postpone its decision, allowing for the tree to remain protected in the meantime, so it cannot be removed without permission from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“I see something that has the potential to really be CESA equivalent but that is less burdensome in the correct areas,” Commissioner Samantha Murray said, referring to the Endangered Species Act.

In June, some opposed to listing the tree as threatened made public comments about the impact the move could have on housing and solar projects in the region. In October, the commission voted to push back its decision to give more time for tribes to weigh in on the issue.

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