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California delays final decision on protecting western Joshua tree

A deadlocked state commission pushed a final decision on permanently protecting the trees to October.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The western Joshua tree will retain its interim status as a protected species after the California Fish and Game Commission was deadlocked on adding the tree permanently to the state's threatened species list and continued a final decision until October.

The commission was split 2-2 at a hearing Thursday on the petition by the Center for Biological Diversity to permanently protect the trees under California's Endangered Species Act, or CESA, according to Brendan Cummings, the conservation director with the organization who argued at the hearing.

"We didn't win, but we certainly didn't lose," Cummings said. "One way or another, it will happen."

The conservation group asked the state commission to put the trees on its endangered species list in 2019, after the Trump administration declined to provide federal protection to the trees.

The growing popularity of Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California has spurred a building boom in the town of Joshua Tree and adjacent communities, according to the center. As a result, many of the namesake trees have been cut down to make way for vacation rentals and second homes.

Protection under CESA makes it illegal to cut the trees down for real estate development without a special permit. Although two commissioners were in favor of making the trees' interim protection permanent, two others wanted more time to explore alternative regulatory schemes given the opposition of businesses that see protection as detrimental to economic development and job growth, according to Cummings.

Aside from construction, the trees face threats from climate change and wildfires.

Joshua trees are dying off because of hotter, drier conditions, with very few younger trees becoming established, the center said. In 2019, scientists projected the Joshua tree will be largely gone from its namesake national park by the end of the century.

About 40% of the western Joshua tree’s range in California is on private land and only a small fraction of that habitat is protected from development the center said in a statement Thursday.

“Developers and local officials seem indifferent to killing off one of the main reasons people come to the Mojave Desert, but the state can put a stop to this reckless bulldozing,” Cummings said in the statement. “If commissioners ultimately fail to protect these fragile trees, they’ll also be abandoning the communities and livelihoods that rely on them.”

California law requires listing decisions under CESA to be based solely on the best available science, the center said, and economic considerations are not to be considered in determining whether to protect a species. The two commissioners who voted against listing focused on the economic implications, and first sought a delay in the vote before ultimately voting against protection.

By October, the fifth, now empty seat, on the commission could be filled, Cummings said, which could create a new dynamic for a final decision.

A California judge in February rebuffed an attempt by a group of business organizations to prevent the western Joshua tree from being included on the state’s list of endangered species.

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