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California Grants Joshua Trees Temporary Endangered Species Protections


The western Joshua trees, iconic trees that have graced the Mojave Desert for some 2.5 million years, are in need of protection from climate change. So says a group of environmentalists who filed a petition under the California Endangered Species Act. This week, the state granted a temporary protection to the plants while it reviews the case. That means for the next year or so, it is illegal to cut down, damage or remove a Joshua tree without a permit or special permission. This marks the first time ever a plant has been protected under the California Endangered Species Act primarily because of climate change. Brendan Cummings is the conservation director with the Center for Biological Diversity and the author of that petition, and he joins us now.


BRENDAN CUMMINGS: Thank you for having me on the show.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brendan, you live in Joshua Tree the town, in the Mojave Desert. So what is so special about the Joshua tree?

CUMMINGS: I think one of the first written descriptions of it well over a hundred years ago captured it best. It's simultaneously beautiful and grotesque. There's something incredibly Seussian (ph) about it. They transport you to a different world where you can forget all the horrible things going on in the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, what is climate change doing to these plants?

CUMMINGS: As it gets hotter, we're seeing less reproduction in Joshua trees. If you visit Joshua Tree today, the adult trees you see in the population sprouted when the climate was about, on average, 1 degree Celsius cooler than it is today. Now, the young trees - ones that are, like, 10 to 20 years old - if you map out where they are relative to the adult trees, it's about half the area. In other words, even under the mid-range scenarios that assume we as a society get it together and address our emissions, we're likely to lose three-quarters to 80% of our Joshua trees. And under current scenarios, we lose all of them.

And additionally, another threat is invasive grasses, which have completely changed the fire regimes in the Mojave. Forty, 50 years ago, if a bolt of lightning hit a Joshua tree, it would burn that Joshua tree, maybe the shrub next to it, but that would be about it. Now that same lightning strike burns not just the Joshua tree but the grass below it, which carries the fire to the next tree and the next tree and the next tree. And fires are now thousands of acres.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let me ask you this. The Joshua Tree National Park is pretty sizable - around 800,000 acres. Some people who live in the region feel that that's enough to protect the trees, and some see what you're doing as government overreach and that protecting the trees is bad for the local economy.

CUMMINGS: While Joshua Tree National Park does a great job at protecting the trees within the park, it's insufficient. The western trees - about 40% of their range is on private land that has virtually no protections from development. In terms of the economic impacts of protection, in the Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley area, one of the driving forces for the economy is tourism. People come to Joshua Tree for the very purpose of seeing Joshua trees. If we don't adequately protect them, we're going to lose that which makes this place attractive to tourism. But moreover, if we can do what's necessary to protect Joshua trees, we will really be doing what's necessary to improve the quality of life in our desert communities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brendan Cummings is the conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Thank you very much.

CUMMINGS: Thank you.