91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Joshua trees are dying. This new legislation hopes to tackle that

Gnarled, tall and all-seeing.
Sean Gallup
Getty Images,
Gnarled, tall and all-seeing.

The iconic spindly plants are under threat from a variety of factors, including climate change and development, and the California legislature is stepping in to help.

What is it? Some think the scraggly branches of the Joshua tree resemble something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Children's books aside, the Joshua tree is a yucca variety that's related to spiky agaves.

  • Joshua trees are known for residing in their eponymous national park in southern California, but are also found throughout the Mojave desert, and have become an iconic symbol of the high desert.
  • They can grow to be up to 70 feet tall, and are seen as one of the desert's most valuable 'apartment buildings.' A variety of species depend on Joshua Trees for food, shelter, and protection, including moths and beetles, woodpeckers and owls, wood rats and lizards.
  • What's the big deal?

  • As climate change continues to push temperatures into extremes worldwide, the Joshua tree, which requires a cold period to flower and has been subject to wildfires and a decades-long megadrought, is struggling to adapt. New property developments have also fragmented the Joshua trees' habitat, threatening their survival.
  • Conservationists, indigenous tribes, politicians and nature lovers alike have been fighting for stronger protections of the Joshua tree for several years, seeking a spot for the gnarly-branched plant on California's endangered species list to no avail.
  • Opponents to this protected status included local politicians, building developers, and labor unions, who claimed the possible restrictions could threaten jobs and economic development.
  • Member station KCRW's Caleigh Wells reported on a different resolution that came about last week – the California state legislature passed the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act.
  • The new law will create a conservation fund for the Joshua Tree, and will require the state to develop a conservation plan. Companies will also have to obtain a permit from the state to cut down or relocate existing trees.

  • Want to listen to the full story on Joshua Trees? Click the play button at the top of this page.

    What are people saying? There is plenty of debate on the conservation efforts for the species.

    Here's Kelly Herbinson, the co-executive director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust, who spoke to Wells about the current state of Joshua Trees:

    What we're seeing right now is unprecedented. [The Joshua Trees are] mostly brown, there's little bits of green left, but they really are sort of these zombie forests.

    We're having significantly increased wildfires across the desert region everywhere.

    And Brendan Cummings, conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the petition in California that started this whole debate.

    Managing a species in the face of climate change, it's something that's been talked about for 20, 30 years... But it's not really been implemented on a landscape scale, anywhere yet that I'm aware of. And so we're entering into somewhat uncharted territory here.

    So, what now?

  • The new law is seen as a compromise between the two parties – development permits are more affordable and accessible than they would have been if California regulators had declared the Joshua tree endangered.
  • This icon of the Mojave desert will get a small push in its fight to endure the triple threat of rising temperatures, wildfire and development.
  • Learn more:

  • Western tribes' last-ditch effort to stall a large lithium mine in Nevada
  • Global heat waves show climate change and El Niño are a bad combo
  • A meteorologist got threats for his climate coverage. His new job is about solutions
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.