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Lawmakers decide on the fate of iconic, irreplaceable Joshua trees: 'It's been a long journey to get here'

"We can finally move on from the debate."

Lawmakers decide to protect Joshua Tree

Photo Credit: iStock

One of California's most recognizable and at-risk trees has just received special legal protections to ensure its longevity.

The Western National Joshua Tree Conservation Act was passed in the state legislature as part of a recent budget agreement. This act prohibits the unpermitted killing or removal of the Joshua tree and necessitates the development of both a conservation plan and funds to help protect the species. 

This legislation is significant because it marks the state's first legislation to protect a climate-threatened species. The western Joshua tree has a limited range between Joshua Tree National Park and the San Gabriel Mountains and has been under persistent climate threats in recent decades. 

A 2019 study by UC Riverside revealed that, as things stood at the time, a mere 0.2% of the habitat in Joshua Tree National Park would remain viable by 2070. With a best-case-scenario and the most minimal warming possible, only 19% of the land area would be viable. 

Warmer and drier conditions limit the tree's ability to sprout and survive. The annual precipitation in the park has dropped by 39%, while average temperatures have risen upward of 3 degrees between 1895 and 2016. 

Although the legislation doesn't address the climate threat, it does protect the western Joshua tree from another persistent threat: development. Close to 40% of the western Joshua trees are found on private land, which has succumbed to home builds and development pressure. 

Other unlikely opponents include renewable energy companies, which had plans to build solar arrays and increase California's green energy economy. 

"It's been a long journey to get here," Brendan Cummings, the conservation director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said. "We can finally move on from the debate over whether Joshua trees should get protection to focusing on actually implementing measures to help ensure that they get through the very difficult decades ahead."

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