On February 8, 2023, the California Fish and Game Commission (Commission) considered several items, including the petition to list the western Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) status review report; and comments received to potentially determine whether listing the tree as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) is warranted. The Commission decided not to vote on this issue and leave the comment period open for the California Native tribes.
This decision was made due to the fact that, on February 7, 2023, a trailer bill, the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act, was introduced to the California Department of Finance. The Act declared that the western Joshua tree is an iconic and ecologically and culturally important species that is an irreplaceable component of California’s natural heritage. Special attention was called to its significance to California Native tribes. The Act would require CDFW to consult with California Native American tribes and requires CDFW to:
- Include co-management principles in the conservation plan
- Provide for the relocation of trees to tribal lands for any tribe that requests that
- Support the incorporation of traditional ecological knowledge into the conservation plan
The Act also recognizes the importance of other extremely important state interests, including the role renewable energy projects play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the negative effects of climate change, the role public works projects play in providing essential public services, and current housing needs in California, including single-family, multi-family, and mixed-use projects.
The Act continues to state that CDFW may authorize take of western Joshua trees if avoidance and minimization of impacts occurs and the remaining impacts are mitigated. CDFW may require relocation of trees, whereas in the past they have considered this approach experimental. For the development of single-family residences, accessory structures, and public works projects, CDFW may delegate to the county or city the ability to authorize take of the tree if various conditions are met. The Act must be voted on by June 15, 2023, and signed no later than June 30, 2023.
Meanwhile, the western Joshua tree remains a candidate for listing under CESA. While awaiting a decision, the species is given the same protection as a formal listing and any take of the western Joshua tree must be mitigated pursuant to CESA on a project-by-project basis.
Summary of Features in the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act
- The Act would promote landscape-level scale conservation for western Joshua trees.
- The Act would require CDFW to develop and implement a Western Joshua Tree Conservation Plan in collaboration with the Commission, other governmental agencies, local agencies, California Native American tribes, and the public.
Permitting and Mitigation
- The Act outlines that the permitting and mitigation process would rely on simpler template permits and allow for the payment of in-lieu fees.
- The Act would provide the ability for the payment of fees that are calculated to mitigate for the specific impacts. The fees would be deposited in a Western Joshua Tree Mitigation Fund and the CDFW would be required to deploy the fund in collaboration with tribes and others to negate the threats to the tree through efforts including, but not limited to conservation.
- The Act would prohibit impacts to the tree except as authorized in the proposed law. The Act would authorize CDFW to issue permits for impacts to the tree only if certain elements are met, including avoidance and minimization of impacts.
- The Act includes a structure whereby by CDFW can delegate to a county or city the ability to allow for the removal or trimming or dead or dying trees and approval at a local level for public works.
Additional State Interests
- The Act recognizes the importance other extremely important state interests, including the role of renewable energy projects in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the negative effects of climate change, the role public works projects play in providing essential public services, and current housing needs in California.
- The Act would require CDFW to consult with California Native American tribes, include co-management principles in the conservation plan, provide for the relocation of trees to tribal lands for any tribe that requests that, and support the incorporation of traditional ecological knowledge into the conservation plan.
Reporting and Transparency
- The Act includes date-driven milestones to create accountability and transparency and requirements that CDFW report back to the Commission.