Speak Out for Joshua Trees
At their last meeting, California's Fish and Game Commission continued the question of listing the western Joshua tree as a candidate for protection under the California Endangered Species Act. The new meeting is set for Tuesday, September 22, 2020 at 8:30 a.m., and the potential listing will be the only agenda item.
The deadline for written comment on the proposed listing is Friday, September 18, 2020 at noon PST. The Center for Biological Diversity has created an easy to use public comment form that we highly recommend.
The meeting's agenda is available HERE.
Feel free to post or forward the alert via social media.
If you want to join the virtual meeting on Zoom, or testify at the meeting, information on how to do so is available HERE.
Please read the comments below prior to submitting written comment or joining the meeting on Tuesday. Thank you for your support for our desert!
From Brendan Cummings at the Center for Biological Diversity:
The Commission will be making two related decisions:
First, whether Joshua trees meet the legal threshold for candidacy (agenda item #3). The Commission closed the record on this part of the decision at the August meeting so they will not be taking public comment before proceeding to a vote. They will deliberate for a bit, maybe hear from the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) and their lawyers, and then vote. The expectation based on Commissioner statements at the end of the last meeting is that we have the votes to win this. If so, this will be a big victory regardless of what happens with the next item on the agenda.
Second, assuming Joshua trees advance to candidacy, the Commission will vote on whether to adopt any “take” exemptions that would apply during the year-long candidacy period (agenda item #4). This action, called a “2084” based on the portion of the Fish and Game Code that authorizes it, would exempt (subject to conditions) various activities from the prohibition on killing or removing Joshua trees that would otherwise apply during the candidacy window.
The Commission will take comment on the 2084 exemptions, so this is where the public will be able to participate even though there is no comment opportunity on the candidacy decision itself. Obviously, I would prefer no 2084 take exemption at this stage but based on the August meeting that does not seem like a realistic outcome. In that context, my hope is that the 2084 exemption is crafted narrowly and requires avoidance when at all possible, transplant rather than bulldozing using the best known protocols when avoidance it deemed impossible, and mitigation (i.e. land acquisition for protection) to address any loss of Joshua trees and their habitat that does occur.
We know based on the last meeting and conversations that have taken place since then that a 2084 will almost certainly encompass some subset of large-scale renewable energy projects. The specifics of what those projects are, and what the mitigation requirements will be, will hopefully become clear and made public by the end of the week, but possibly not until the Commission meeting itself.
While San Bernardino County and other entities (developers, mining interest, etc.) also want to be covered by a 2084, I believe it is less likely that they will be covered by the 2084 adopted at this meeting. Given they will be advocating strongly for inclusion, this is the area where it is most important for there to be strong public testimony in opposition.
It’s important to note that we ultimately want the County, Yucca Valley and other jurisdiction to be part of a Natural Communities Conservation Plan (NCCP). Their motivation to launch a planning process and adopt such a plan is that this that would allow some take of Joshua trees. So while ultimately take exemptions will be available to the County and Yucca, any such take should be conditioned on actual conservation planning with meaningful mitigation. At present, these entities are seeking more of a blank check to take Joshua trees via the 2084 process, which likely would not meet legal standards.
Additionally, while I am opposed to a 2084 for any additional new development (such projects should seek individual 2081 permits), I believe there may be room for a 2084 developed over the coming months and adopted at a future Commission meeting that covers certain residential activities for things like trimming or moving Joshua trees for limited maintenance and construction activities on already developed lots. The key to this working would be clear standards that ensure avoidance wherever possible and that any relocation of trees on or off a property site be done according to protocols designed to maximize survival of the tree. Given the County and local jurisdictions do not have these standards in place, it is premature to grant an exemption at next week’s meeting.
Since public testimony will not be allowed on the candidacy determination, you will only be able to comment on the 2084 (again, assuming we win the candidacy vote). My suggestions on public comment would be to include things along the following lines:
Thank the commission for the candidacy vote.
Highlight the need to protect as much habitat as possible from development given threats to the species (fire, climate).
Give your thoughts on why counties and local jurisdictions should not be given coverage under the 2084 at this time (they are not ready for it, can’t be trusted, rubberstamp permits, etc.).
Note that any individual development projects can always apply for a 2081 permit and should not get special treatment here.
Share your thoughts on where renewable projects should be sited (rooftops, parking lots, degraded lands, etc.) rather than on Joshua tree woodlands.
State that any 2084 should be as narrow as possible since we won’t really know what lands are the most important to protect until we have a recovery plan and develop an NCCP.
Demand that any 2084 that is adopted contain real mitigation requirements that result in the actual acquisition and permanent protection of Joshua tree habitat at a suitably high mitigation ratio.
Anything else that seems appropriate.
Assuming Joshua trees advance to candidacy, that is by no means the end of the protection effort. The next step is that the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) conducts a year-long status review of the species. During this window we will need to make sure they are provided with all relevant info on the science and threats to the species. Once DFW completes its status review and makes its recommendation, the Commission will again hold a public hearing and vote as to whether to designate the species as Threatened. This meeting would likely occur in late 2021 or early 2022. At that point, the 2084 exemptions will no longer apply and any take would need to be authorized via an individual 2081 permit or a regional NCCP.
And of course, we will need to continue to monitor development activities in our communities and wildlands to ensure that the take prohibitions and/or the terms of the 2084 are actually being complied with…..