Western Joshua Trees: To Protect or Not to Protect?

  • Posted on 23 March 2021
  • By Ed Piersa

That is the Question: Should western Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) receive legal protection in California? 

Joshua Tree by Christopher Michel

Joshua Tree by Christopher Michel (CC BY 2.0)

In September 2020, western Joshua trees were granted candidate status under the California Endangered Species Act. This was considered a controversial decision, so why then did the California Fish and Game Commission unanimously vote on it by a count of 4-0?
According to Brendan Cummings, conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity, climate change and invasive grasses have created this need. Per Cummings, we are likely to lose all Joshua trees based on our current trajectory. This is despite the environmental protections offered by the nearly 800,000 acres of Joshua Tree National Park.
Why do Joshua trees even matter? For starters, they provide food and shelter for animals and insects. This makes them an important component of the Mojave Desert ecosystem. Not surprisingly, the loss of these trees would damage said ecosystem. This, in turn, could create further ecological problems down the road (e.g., the loss of other species, animal migrations, etc.).
Biodiversity loss should not be taken lightly. According to the 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service, approximately one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction in the near future. Biodiversity loss impacts the entire ecosystem, which includes humans.
There are also economic consequences to be considered should Joshua trees become extinct. If that were to occur, tourism to Joshua Tree National Park could be severely impacted. This, in turn, would have a domino-like effect on other businesses, including local hotels and restaurants, that benefit from this tourism.
But what is the other side of the economic coin of protecting western Joshua trees? Opponents argue that protecting these trees could delay local solar energy projects. Such a delay would prove counterproductive to California’s attempts to eliminate fossil fuels from the state electricity system by 2045. Not to mention it would impact the local workforce as well.
There is also the fact that 40% of western Joshua trees are located on private land. This means that private landowners and real estate developers would be directly impacted by such a law. They would not be able to remove western Joshua trees from their lands, for example.
Ultimately, the question should be if protecting western Joshua trees and economic development need to be mutually exclusive concepts. Is it possible to protect these trees while relocating Californian development and solar projects? Would the environmental benefits outweigh the financial costs? Is there some kind of middle ground to be found here?
We’ll find out what the state thinks when the California Fish and Game Commission makes their final determination regarding western Joshua trees later this year.

Ed Piersa (he/him/his) is an avid vegetarian, crummy tennis player, and passionate Sierra Club volunteer. During his travels, he has lived in New York, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Denver, and El Salvador.


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Should the trees be protected? Ya! Why is this question even coming up? The trees are of great value to the desert ecosystem. But they are also iconic as a tree can be , right up there with California Oak, Sequoia, Coastal Redwoods and the ancient Bristlecone Pine trees of the White Mountains. These wonders of nature must be protected .

We can find so many other places to put solar panels. I question why we need solar "farms" at all. Why not put solar panels on all the flat topped buildings in California? Why do we not use space already wasted rather than damage the desert?

I say protect the trees. Even on private lands. If people want them removed, fine. But do it so they can be replanted in another area that will support them. They have equipment that can remove large oak trees, they can hire these people to remove...relocate these to federally protected areas. I say this, because these are among my favorite plants. And they only grow in one region, at very specific elevations. So yes, protect them all. And solar contractors can find a new spot that is Joshua tree free to continue to build.

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