California lawmakers have passed a historic bill (Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act) to permanently protect the western Joshua tree, making it the first law in the state aimed at safeguarding a species threatened by climate change. The legislation, part of the state budget agreement, is expected to be signed by Governor Gavin Newsom and take effect on July 1, 2023.
Conservationists have welcomed the move, recognizing the tree’s significance as an irreplaceable part of California’s natural heritage. The new law maintains the western Joshua tree as a candidate species under the California Endangered Species Act, providing similar protections while allowing certain permitting mechanisms for renewable energy and housing projects within their habitat. It also requires the development of a conservation plan by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife by the end of 2024.
The western Joshua tree faces multiple challenges, including climate change, wildfires, and habitat loss due to construction. Increased development around Joshua Tree National Park has resulted in the destruction of trees. Furthermore, hotter and drier conditions have led to their decline, with very few young trees surviving. Stricter protection measures are needed, as 40% of the tree’s range in California lies on private land, with only a fraction currently protected. Preserving these unique trees is crucial to prevent their disappearance from the landscape.
The provisions of the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act include:
- Prohibiting unpermitted killing or removal of the trees.
- Requiring a conservation plan for the species.
- Creating a fund to acquire and manage lands to protect the species.
- Creating a permitting regime expected to be faster and cheaper than the state endangered species act.
- Requiring regular reviews of the species’ status and the effectiveness of the permitting regime and conservation plan.
- Requiring consultation with California Native American Tribes on the law’s implementation.