Additional protected Joshua trees in California could be cut down under the bill

In summary

Environmentalists warn that a California Democrat's bill “bulldozes” the state's new law that protects endangered Joshua trees from commercial development. But lawmakers say their impoverished desert region desperately needs the economic boost.

Democratic Assemblymember Juan Carrillo has mixed feelings about the Joshua trees scattered across his sprawling desert district in Southern California.

“The Joshua tree is an iconic symbol of the high desert,” he told CalMatters. “We have to save this. We have to preserve it.”

At the same time, he is a former planner for the city of Palmdale and knows that efforts to protect the trees will make it harder to build residential and commercial buildings in his economically disadvantaged Mojave Desert district.

With that in mind, Carrillo has introduced legislation, Assembly Bill 2443, that would give commercial developers a break from the state's newly adopted protections for one of the state's most iconic – and endangered – trees. In a state known for its environmental activism, it is perhaps surprising that the bill passed its first committee last week over the objections of nearly all of the state's major environmental groups.

The legislation follows Gov. Gavin Newsom's signing last summer of the first law protecting Joshua trees, which can live hundreds of years.

According to government estimates, an estimated 4 to 11 million Joshua trees grow across the vast area of ​​Southern California, including Joshua Tree National Park. Climate models suggest that by the end of the 21st century, much of the species' range may no longer be viable due to droughts and wildfires. But the California Fish and Game Commission, which sets state protections for endangered species, was at an impasse in 2022 over whether to officially declare the species endangered.

Last year's law sets limits on how many trees can be cut down and requires developers to pay a fee for each tree they remove unless they acquire and restore habitat to mitigate ecological damage. Fees collected by the state are used to replant trees, save habitat and purchase new land for Joshua tree sanctuaries.

The law allowed cities and counties to set lower fees for small projects such as housing and public works. Carrillo's bill would allow local governments to offer the same benefits on large commercial and industrial projects.

Assemblymember Juan Carrillo joins other Assembly members in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the State Capitol on June 1, 2023 in Sacramento. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo

The bill's future is uncertain as state lawmakers consider the state's rising budget deficit. (The bill's legislative analysis declares the fiscal impact of Carrillo's bill as “unknown.”) Carrillo's bill must next pass the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where thousands of controversial — and potentially costly — bills are in the so-called “suspense file.” died.

Meanwhile, the California Building Industry Association, which supports this year's bill, has donated at least $300,000 to campaigns of sitting lawmakers over the past two years. By comparison, the Sierra Club, an opponent, only donated around $19,000 during the same period.

Why environmentalists oppose the Joshua Tree Act

Last year's bill received reluctant support from environmentalists. In 2019, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned state officials to classify the Western Joshua trees as “threatened” under the state's Endangered Species Act, even though they are not protected under the federal version of the law. The listing would have led to a stricter ban on development in the thousands of square miles where Joshua trees grow in California, including the fast-growing Carrillo County cities of Palmdale, Lancaster, Hesperia and Victorville.

Compromise legislation last year provided the first protections for Joshua trees while setting rules for the development.

In a recent letter to the Legislature, Brendan Cummings, conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity, called Carrillo's bill a dangerous bill that “bulldozes through last year's bill and the state's Endangered Species Act.”

“The bill is unnecessary, overbroad, counterproductive and … would destroy the delicate and carefully crafted compromise,” he wrote.

Importantly, reducing fees for commercial and industrial development projects would eliminate more than half of state funding, Cummings wrote.

Critics say full protection of the species would pose a major obstacle to achieving the state's ambitious goals of expanding housing and building renewable energy projects in an area that includes parts of Inyo, Kern, San Bernardino, Los Angeles counties , Riverside and Mono.

Carrillo said he supports last year's legislation.

Learn more about the lawmakers mentioned in this story.

“But the problem I saw with this was that the agreements would only apply to single-family homes, multi-family (apartment) buildings and some public works projects,” Carrillo said. “It did not include commercial and industrial development.”

Carrillo said it is critical for commercial development to grow next to his district's famous Joshua trees.

“Local governments deserve an equal opportunity for economic development in the region,” said Carrillo, who was elected in 2022. “The High Desert has been forgotten for decades, and that’s one of the reasons I decided to run for office.”

Anna Harden

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