By KATHLEEN RONAYNE Associated Press
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California officials are weighing whether to list the iconic Joshua tree of the west as a threatened species, a designation that would make it harder to remove the trees for housing, solar power or other projects. development projects.
Known for its unique appearance, with pointed leaves at the end of its branches, the desert plant is found in the national park that bears its name about 130 miles (209 kilometers) east of Los Angeles and runs through a stretch of desert to death. Valley National Park. There are two types of trees, the east and the west, but only the west is considered.
The California Fish and Game Commission took hours of public comment Wednesday and scheduled a vote for Thursday. If the tree is listed as a threatened species, killing one would require special approval from the state.
The state has never listed a species as threatened based primarily on threats from climate change, said Brendan Cummings, director of conservation for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The center applied in 2019 for the western Joshua tree to be listed as threatened, saying higher temperatures and more intense dry spells brought on by climate change will make it harder for the species to survive until the end of the century. He also argued that wildfires and development threats damage the ability of trees to live and reproduce.
The state’s current drought, which scientists say is part of the worst mega-drought in 1,200 years, is likely affecting the trees’ ability to survive, Cummings said.
“We are probably witnessing a single large-scale mortality event at this time,” he told the commission.
But the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has recommended against listing the species as threatened. The department acknowledged that areas suitable for growing Western Joshua trees are likely to decline due to climate change by the year 2100. But it said in an April report that the tree remained “abundant and widespread,” which reduces the risk of extinction.
“The question is not, ‘Will climate change be bad for Joshua Tree?’ The question is: ‘How bad will it be and how fast?’ And the truth is, we don’t know yet,” said Jeb McKay Bjerke, who presented the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recommendation to the commission.
It’s unknown how many Joshua trees exist in the state, but it could be between 4.8 million and 9.8 million, he said. It was a “close call” for the department not to recommend listing the species as threatened, he said, and three of the five outside reviewers who were asked to review the department’s recommendation disagreed with the conclusion.
About 40% of the Joshua trees in the state are on private land. Many of the comments focused on housing development and solar projects in the region. Several state and local politicians and union workers said listing the species as threatened would make it difficult to advance needed projects, including those that aim to combat climate change by boosting renewable energy.
California has established a requirement that 100% of its electricity be produced from non-carbon sources by 2045.
“We believe these types of projects are the best tools to combat climate change and protect the future of the Western Joshua Tree,” said David Doublet, director of land use planning for San Bernardino County, which has a high concentration of trees and many sources of solar energy. Projects
San Bernardino County, which includes Joshua Tree National Park, recently increased the penalties for illegally cutting down Joshua trees: a $20,000 fine and six months in jail for the third offense. County Supervisor Dawn Rowe urged the board not to list the species as threatened, saying county and local governments were better prepared to put restrictions in place and respond to illegal removal of the tree.
“We are your partner in the conservation and preservation of the species,” he said.
But many other speakers argued that the state has no time to waste listing the species as threatened, as the state faces warmer temperatures and more extreme droughts and fires, all of which can damage trees. Kelly Herbinson, executive director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust, said Joshua trees are a “keystone” species of the desert, with other species depending on their survival.
“Climate change is a threat that we haven’t had to deal with yet and I understand that we are struggling to find the best way forward, but it is happening and it is happening now,” he told the commission.
In 2019, the federal government refused to list the tree as a protected species.
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