By Peter Barnes
The California Fish & Game Commission met on February 8th. At the top of their agenda was continued discussion about listing the western Joshua tree under California’s Endangered Species Act (CESA) as an endangered species. The western Joshua tree was first put forward as a candidate for listing as endangered in 2020. Since that time, the Commission has had many discussions and public comments about the topic without resolving the issue one way or another.
At the February meeting, the Commission heard a summary of newly proposed legislation called the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act. The proposed bill addresses concerns that the western Joshua tree needs some level of protection but that listing it as an endangered species is too restrictive and expensive for communities where the tree is native. Under the legislative proposal, obtaining a permit to trim, take, or remove a dead or living Joshua tree is streamlined, and the costs for these actions are lower than under current CESA regulations.
If the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act moves forward, the costs for dealing with Joshua tree removal or trimming would be dependent on the location and size of the tree. For Phelan and Piñon Hills residents living south of Highway 18, it would cost $2,500 to remove a tree 5 meters (about 15 feet) or taller, $500 for trees between 1 meter (about 3 feet) and 5 meters, and $315 for any tree smaller than 1 meter. Residents living north of Highway 18 face lowers costs, $1,000 for trees taller than 5 meters, $200 for trees between 1 and 5 meters in height, and $125 for smaller trees.
While these costs do not include the cost of applying for the permit and other associated relocation costs, which can cost more than the permit, they are much less than current permitting costs under CESA regulations, which start at over $6500 for the removal of one western Joshua tree in unincorporated areas. Depending on the project, there may be separate mitigation or relocation costs. Even those permits have been suspended for most projects since May of 2022 and referred to the California Department of Fish & Wildlife.
The proposed legislation would also utilize The Western Joshua Tree Mitigation Fund, which would collect the permitting fees and use them to purchase land specifically for conserving and relocating western Joshua trees. This is a crucial piece of the proposed Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act because the Fish & Game Commission does not have the authority to provide for the purchase of land specifically for the conservation of plants and animals on the Endangered Species list.
After hearing the details of the legislation, which would be attached to the 2023-2024 annual budget for California, the Commission voted to postpone making a decision on the status of the western Joshua tree until late summer. That gives them time to see if the legislation moves forward or not. If the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act becomes law, the Fish & Game Commission can vote to list the tree as an endangered species but follow the regulations set down by the legislature. They will also be responsible for developing a conservation plan for the western Joshua tree, which must be implemented by June 2025. If the legislation does not pass, the Commission will decide at that point whether to officially list and regulate the process for removing or trimming western Joshua trees themselves under the standards of CESA, which would most likely be more expensive than the costs proposed in the bill.