The state vote had been twice delayed due to a late surge of opposition from the renewable energy industry and local elected officials in the high desert and San Bernardino County. They argued that shovel-ready, clean energy projects would be halted and that the development of housing and public infrastructure around towns like Yucca Valley would be made more challenging.
At Tuesday’s virtual meeting, which was attended by more than 100 people, Chuck Bonham, director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, called it a “false premise that we need to choose between renewable energy — and the development of renewable energy — and the protection of the Joshua tree.”
An exception to the rule
The commission then voted 3-1 to allow an emergency exemption under section 2084 of the Fish and Game Code for 15 solar projects in Kern and San Bernardino counties to continue with their plans to remove Joshua trees during construction. As justification, the commissioners pointed out that the sites had already completed the permitting process under the California Environmental Quality Act and that climate change needed to be urgently addressed via more renewable power.
Brendan Cummings, who authored the petition to protect the western Joshua tree in his role as the Center for Biological Diversity’s conservation director, said, “The listing comes with substantial on-the-ground repercussions, which I do not take lightly.”
But, Cummings said he had hoped the negotiations over the 2084 exemption would lead to a greater degree of mitigation.
“If we must accept the short-term 2084 to advance to candidacy, I begrudgingly accept that,” he said.
As the sole vote against allowing the renewable companies to remove Joshua trees, commission Vice President Samantha Murray said she was glad to see the species move toward more protection but wanted to make sure that such an emergency exemption did not open “a backdoor to folding in economics into our decisions.”
“I appreciate the work of my fellow commissioners and staff that we were able to advance Joshua trees to candidate status,” Murray said, “because I really believe our job is not to just protect species that are about to blink out in a matter of months.”
The exemptions did, however, include several provisions that environmentalists supported, including a fund that will be paid into by the energy companies removing Joshua trees. Bonham said that effort will reap millions of dollars for other mitigation work. Additionally, the companies must complete a census of Joshua trees on their properties, which he said will create sorely needed data.
The renewable energy industry had pushed hard for its projects to receive the exemptions, framing the sacrifice of some Joshua trees as necessary to address the existential threat posed by climate change.
“We need to look no further than the last two months to truly appreciate that California’s grid is operating at the edge of its capacity,” said Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Large-Scale Solar Association. “This particular regulation is necessary to avoid a situation where advancing the Joshua tree to candidacy due to the threat of climate change would render those projects that combat climate change no longer viable.”
Some public commenters disagreed, arguing that solar should be placed on already developed areas including parking lots and rooftops. Chris Clarke, the associate director of the California Desert Program at the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, said that regardless of whether Joshua trees are lost to real estate development, wildfires or construction of renewables, “it makes little difference to the trees and the wildlife depending on them.”
Other industries quickly jumped on the window of opportunity presented by the discussion around the 2084 exemption to request that they also be allowed to remove Joshua trees. A group of realtors asked that the construction of single-family homes be given an exemption, as did a representative from the High Desert Corridor highway and rail transportation project.
Only the 15 solar projects were ultimately included in the emergency exemption.
Also in opposition, a representative on behalf of state Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, called in after the Joshua tree had already been listed as a candidate species to request that it not be listed.
Climate change is here
Cummings said Tuesday’s meeting was the first time he saw a California agency make an emergency regulation based on climate change, and Bonham called the decision to allow the renewable development “an emergency not because of economics” but because of the need for clean power during a “climate crisis.”
While it remains to be seen whether this evolution in thinking will have impacts that go further than Joshua trees, the implications of climate change on the now-temporarily protected species are clear.
Several speakers during Tuesday’s meeting invoked the recent Dome Fire, which torched more than 43,000 acres of Joshua tree habitat in the Mojave National Preserve, as evidence of how the plant is already threatened by hotter, drier weather.
James Cornett, a desert ecologist, has studied both western and eastern Joshua trees for decades at 10 test plots around the Southwest, including one that was largely incinerated in the Dome Fire.
Even before the fire, only two of the sites — including the now-burnt Cima Dome location, which hosted the eastern variety of the plant — were holding steady or doing well, the rest having trouble growing new Joshua trees. Of the 127 Joshua trees on the Cima Dome site, only four appeared to survive the fire.
“No doubt the fire spread was assisted by the unusually dry vegetation resulting from a warming climate and frequent drought,” Cornett said.
After the final votes in Tuesday’s meeting, Cummings said that he would always like to see more done on questions of climate change and biodiversity, but environmentalism must still contend with politics. While some industries might still try to challenge the listing itself, he does not expect any side of the debate to sue over the deal struck with renewable companies, a rare agreement reached in such a contentious debate.
“Overall, it was a good day for Joshua trees,” Cummings said.