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Joshua Tree National Park without Joshua trees? The fight is on to protect the beloved plant

Oct. 31, 2022 Updated Mon., Oct. 31, 2022 at 7:29 p.m.

A view of the Milky Way arching over Joshua trees at a park campground popular among stargazers in Joshua Tree National Park in California in 2017.  (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
A view of the Milky Way arching over Joshua trees at a park campground popular among stargazers in Joshua Tree National Park in California in 2017. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
By Casey Schreiner Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES – The noble saguaro cactus may take the cake for the most globally iconic desert plant in the Southwest, but it would be impossible for a Southern Californian to imagine a desert landscape without Joshua trees on the horizon.

To help keep the twisty, spiky Yucca brevifola part of the desert, a petition to protect it under the California Endangered Species Act was submitted back in 2019, but the California Fish and Game Commission – which decides which of these petitions move on to protection – can’t seem to agree on what to do.

There isn’t exactly a shortage of Joshua trees right now, however. In addition to protections within the 800,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park, the western Joshua tree’s range extends far out into Palmdale and Lancaster and north along the Eastern Sierra and into Death Valley.

But according to advocates of protection, it’s not the current range that’s the issue but future threats. The plant is facing both development pressures in growing desert towns, along with hotter, drier climates, increased wildfires and invasive plants. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the plant’s low rate of reproduction means it can only migrate a few hundred yards each generation. At that rate, the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the petition to protect the Joshua tree, estimates the species could lose 90% of its range by 2100.

It is perhaps this ambiguity that keeps holding up the decisions – if the designation moves forward, the Joshua tree would be the first species to earn protection in the state due to climate change.

A decision in June was deadlocked and punted to this month, and now it is deadlocked once again and delayed until February.

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