Joshua Trees Need Your Help NOW

Author Chris Clarke is a journalist, writer, activist, and co-host on the new podcast, “Ninety Miles from Needles.” Clarke has been interpreting the desert for more than 30 years. He is joined by co-host, Alicia Pike, a talented co-conspirator, and by the community of activists and others working to keep the desert whole.

The state of California just slapped the faces of those of us who care about Joshua trees. In April, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) released a report claiming that Joshua trees aren’t being threatened by climate change, and that they are being threatened by climate change, but the threats won’t manifest for a while, but also that the threats are actually manifesting now but aren’t a big deal. Based on those claims, CDFW is recommending that the California Fish and Game Commission not add the western Joshua tree to the state’s list of Threatened species. This would mean ignoring science showing that the western Joshua tree might be basically gone from the Mojave Desert by the year 2200.

If you don’t think that makes any sense at all, you aren’t alone.

The nonsensical report from CDFW is the latest development in a years-long campaign to give the beleaguered trees some protection against the onslaught of development coming to the Mojave. An attempt to give the trees protection under the Federal Endangered Species Act in the middle of the last decade ran aground during the Trump administration and is currently making its leisurely way through the courts. As an alternative to federal protection, in 2019, Joshua Tree resident Brendan Cummings, who works as conservation director for the environmental group the Center for Biological Diversity, filed a petition to try to protect at least the western species of Joshua trees under California’s state version of the federal ESA.

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The western Joshua trees are what we have here near Joshua Tree National Park. They grow from here well into the desert portions of Los Angeles County, and then up through the western Mojave as far as the northern reaches of Death Valley National Park. They rely on cooler, wetter winters in order to reproduce – to flower, set seed, and have those seeds germinate and grow into sturdy little seedlings – and while the southern end of the Mojave Desert used to get strings of three or four such winters in a row back in the 1950s, they are now a thing of the past.

And that means that along with increasing wildfires, drought that causes wild animals to gnaw the trees’ bark off in search for water, and the insatiable appetites of developers for more desert land to bulldoze, the Joshua trees between Joshua Tree NP and Los Angeles are in deep trouble, with the rest of their kin not far behind.

Permanent protection would have required that municipalities and counties work out plans to regulate just how and where Joshua trees could be displaced by development, a tool for sensible planning to allow the trees, the wildlife that depends on those trees, and those aforementioned developers to coexist in the same desert. Predictably, the developers and their allies objected. I suspect that CDFW’s illogical and inconsistent report released in April is a result of pressure from exactly that crowd. Whether people wanted to build a 10,000-acre solar power plant or simply buy, bulldoze, build, and flip a Yucca Valley vacation rental for an owner in the San Gabriel Valley, the cost of treating the desert responsibly was apparently just too much to bear. So, the Joshua trees had to take one for the team.

All is not lost. The final say in whether to protect the western Joshua tree doesn’t lie with the CDFW, but with the California Fish and Game Commission, who will vote June 15 on whether to accept CDFW’s suggestion or to grant the trees permanent protection under California’s Endangered Species Act.

You can write to the Fish and Game Commission at fgc@fgc.ca.gov. Be sure to get your letters in by June. If you would rather sign an action alert, the Center for Biological Diversity has one on its website at biologicaldiversity.org – search on “western Joshua tree” once you’re there. And needless to say – or should that be Needles to say? — our podcast 90 Miles from Needles will be covering the issue and offering tips for activism in an upcoming episode in early May.

If you’re reading this publication, we know you love Joshua trees. They need your help today. They can’t wait much longer.

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