The debate over whether to list the western Joshua tree as threatened or endangered under the California Endangered Species Act has turned into somewhat of a brawl in recent weeks, with politicians taking sides and activists and developers ending up in confrontations.

On Thursday, Aug. 20, an up-or-down vote from the California Fish and Game Commission will decide whether to make the gangly-yet-iconic plant — a species endemic to the Mojave Desert — a candidate for full listing.

The process of listing this particular charismatic mega-flora at first seemed to be somewhat of a slam dunk and would mark the first time a species was protected with its primary threat being climate change. But after staff at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended green-lighting the petition, and not long before the commission was set to vote in June, a groundswell of opposition appeared.

The vote was postponed until August to allow for more public input. If the commission approves the petition, then the species gets full protections for a year while it’s studied. At that point, another vote would decide whether it deserves full listing.

Yucca Valley Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Drozd said that if the petition is granted, “that’s horrible for our town.” He said the community has “growing pains” from an increase in residents, traffic and tourism and needs to be able to widen roads, install a sewer system and otherwise develop without a crush of red tape and associated permitting costs.

“A town should rule itself if it’s doing it responsibly. We probably could do better, but nothing’s perfect,” Drozd said, adding that he’s also in favor of developing a regional habitat conservation plan.

“I personally do not oppose protection of Joshua trees, but there is little regard for private property owners,” he said.

Environmentalists cry foul

For now, Yucca Valley has a native plants ordinance, but local environmental activists argue it has done nothing to protect the species.

Ernesto Nevarez, a High Desert resident, recently filed a public records request with Yucca Valley to obtain copies of permits allowing for the removal of Joshua trees. Nevarez shared documents with The Desert Sun. By his estimation, people filed 147 applications to kill, trim or relocate Joshua trees in Yucca Valley in the first seven months of the year, and zero were denied.

“The only skill exercised was to rubber stamp all applications without any question nor changes,” he wrote to state regulators.

Brendan Cummings, the conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a Southwestern-focused environmental group, authored the petition to list the western Joshua tree. Some local activists allege that fear of what listing would mean for the ability to remove Joshua trees has led developers to rush to get rid of them, but Cummings cautioned against drawing too strong a conclusion without further data on the rate of removals.

He did, however, agree that local ordinances haven’t done much to protect the trees.

“You either get a permit that’s rubber-stamped, or you bulldoze and cut them down and don’t get a permit,” Cummings said.

And activists such as Christina Sanchez — a High Desert resident who gives lessons about local ecology — have taken it upon themselves to watchdog developers they suspect of illegally removing Joshua trees.

“It’s a little scary. I do kind of fear for my life,” she said, explaining that she was followed home one day after recording video at one such work site.

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to a request for information on police reports filed on the matter.

Things get political

As the fight heated up, politicians jumped into the fray.

Assemblymember Chad Mayes, I-Rancho Mirage, agrees that climate change is real and impacting species. But, the former Republican says there should be a separate process for handling the listing of species threatened by somewhat slower-moving climate change and not rapid habitat destruction.

To do so, he recently rewrote a bill that was initially about wildfires to make it take on the endangered species listing process and the Joshua tree. The proposed legislation — AB 235 — would’ve allowed the Fish and Game Commission to withhold protections during the candidate stage if there were overwhelming economic concerns.

At the time, Mayes said he might push to get the bill done in advance of the commission’s August vote, but on Friday, he admitted it was dead.

Environmentalists initially raised alarms about the bill because it was drafted with broad language that would’ve impacted the process for every species. When The Desert Sun initially broke the story of his bill in July, Mayes said he had no intention of ripping up the act. Instead, he wanted to ensure that economic interests were given a fair shake.

But it was too ambitious of a plan to finish it so quickly, he said, especially with pandemic-related legislation up for discussion.

“Something like (AB 235) is going to take a full legislative session to get it done,” Mayes said. “It’s not something that we can get done within just a few months.”

The California Endangered Species Act also has significant support in the highly Democratic state, and Mayes, who said it’s obvious that the commission will approve the petition, faces an uphill battle to change it, no matter when he introduces a bill. While some local politicians oppose the Joshua tree’s listing, for example, at least one statewide heavy hitter has come out in support.

On Aug. 12, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sent a letter to the executive director of the California Fish and Game Commission, which she said “signals my strong support for the proposed designation.”

“Joshua Trees embody the spirit of the California desert,” Feinstein wrote, “and it is crucial that we preserve their unique, iconic beauty for future generations and for the health of fragile desert ecosystems.”

Mark Olalde covers the environment for The Desert Sun. Get in touch at, and follow him on Twitter @MarkOlalde.

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