In a surprise decision potentially spurred by late arriving opposition from the solar and wind industries, the western Joshua tree will have to wait at least another month to receive legal protection under the California Endangered Species Act. The California Fish and Game Commission on Thursday chose, for the second meeting in a row, to continue the discussion instead of giving the item an up-or-down vote.
The beloved, high desert species will once again be up for listing under the act in a meeting on a yet-to-be-decided date, sometime between Sept. 17 and 23 when the commission faces a deadline to act. At that time, the commission will almost certainly advance it to the next stage in the process, as all four members who are eligible to vote indicated on Thursday that they believed the petition to protect Joshua trees had already passed muster.
If that happens, the tree would become a candidate species and would have legal protections until the commission made a final decision in a year’s time.
Also by September, the commission plans to hash out a deal to allow developments, including a dozen or so solar and wind projects that were already nearly fully permitted, to move forward with an expedited review process. This would free those projects up from needing the typical, longer reviews associated with removing threatened or endangered species.
“We got clear indication from all the commissioners that they acknowledged that (the petition) meets the standards,” said Brendan Cummings, conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity and the petition’s author. “We’re going to have to wait a little, but it seems that protection is inevitable.”
Cummings’ group filed the request in October 2019, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in April recommended that the commission accept the listing. Originally scheduled for a vote in June, the commission heard a crush of public comment and decided to hit pause until Thursday.
In the interim, local politicians as well as industry groups ranging from wind and solar developers to mining interests came out in force against the listing.
Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association, on Thursday said that the uniqueness of the western Joshua tree listing – it would be the first species protected under the act due mainly to threats from climate change – set a dangerous precedent.
“If the petition is granted, the floodgates will be open to list any species today that would be impacted someday by climate change,” Rader said, adding that the “vast majority of the California desert is already off limits to wind and solar development.”
Supporters, and several commissioners, disagreed that renewable energy and species conservation were at odds.
“As (carbon dioxide) concentrations increase each year, the Joshua tree has become a symbol of our failure to address climate change,” Cummings said.
Nearly 100 members of the public called into the online meeting to comment, the majority of them speaking in favor of listing the tree. They lamented the perceived lax enforcement of environmental regulations in San Bernardino County and shared stories of their personal connections to the gangly species.
“If we don’t have Joshua trees, the businesses will suffer because we have a lot of visitation that’s reliant on tourism dollars,” said Meg Foley, a Morongo Valley resident.
Local elected officials, meanwhile, were largely unified in their opposition.
Everyone loves Joshua trees, San Bernardino County Supervisor Dawn Rowe said. “My concern, however, is that the sweeping regulations will halt economic development,” the supervisor continued, arguing that lower-income communities in her district might have trouble wading through a state permitting process for removal.
Rowe called on the Center for Biological Diversity “to have a little bit of empathy for the unintended consequences that the listing under (the California Endangered Species Act) would have for us.” If the petition were denied, she pledged that the county would strengthen its own local regulations.
That sentiment was echoed by other jurisdictions, including Palmdale. A representative of that city government called into the meeting to say a Joshua tree ordinancealready exists in their jurisdiction and has led to the successful relocation of 500 trees, making a statewide listing unnecessary.
Nearby, the city of Yucca Valley has been at the heart of Joshua tree controversy recently, as a growing number of high desert locals have claimed they saw Joshua trees being cut down in advance of expected state-mandated legal protections.
High desert residents have been circulating photographs such as this one of Joshua trees that they say have been cut down recently.
Morongo Valley resident Ernesto Nevarez obtained copies of public records showing that out of 147 applications to remove, trim or relocate the trees in Yucca Valley in 2020, none were denied. He recently wrote to the town, saying they “pencil whip all permit requests and the Town Council rubber stamps the actions.”
Yucca Valley Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Drozd recently told The Desert Sun that the community does its part to protect the species through a local ordinance and that listing would hurt the construction of an important sewer project.
But the Fish and Game Commission took notice, and Eric Sklar, its president, warned local politicians that “it is disturbing, some of these things we have seen and heard about what has been allowed to happen” and that it hurts their “credibility” at the negotiating table.
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