Nothing is Simple

by Cameron Mayer

Endangered species conservation remains controversial in the realm of environmental management. The case of the western Joshua tree in California’s Morongo Basin provides an example. This issue has been framed as a winner-take-all scenario wherein conservation interests or development proponents garner either complete victory or defeat in pursuit of their objectives. Each group of stakeholders has their own interest that will be affected by a permanent, state “threatened” designation for the western Joshua tree. It is worth exploring the complications and opportunities present in managing this species in light of a possible California Endangered Species Act (CESA) listing.
Complications in the management of threatened species range from social inequalities and community-based ties to local ecology, to techno-rational matters of policy discrepancies and evidence-based decision making processes. It depends upon never losing sight of community-centered values, sound sustainability-oriented actions, and collaborative proposals for moving forward in a way that is creative, flexible, and inclusive to as many stakeholders as possible. The saga of the western Joshua tree has come to a roaring head at a time when notable shifts are occurring within the locality well known for its famous flora, the Morongo Basin adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP).
This area is situated at a socioecological inflection point. Rapid and significant changes in the social, economic, and ecological fabric of this corner of the high desert has necessitated concomitant and unequally distributed alterations in how residents live, work, and interact with their local communities. Trends include an influx of short-term vacation rentals and home buying, ever-growing masses of tourists, and increased developmental pressures, all of which have and will continue to present impacts among stakeholder groups. However, the specter of adapting while leaving some people behind inevitably leads to change without progress.

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Urban sprawl in the Morongo Basin (including some obvious dust/smog issues as well).  Photo: Cameron Mayer

Issues like the western Joshua tree listing proposition have become a lightning rod for controversy with changes in the Morongo Basin that do not benefit everyone in the same manner. This is not to say that any or all the changes are inherently negative, but when people are differentially affected by change without recourse, resistance is bound to arise. Resistance, coupled with the emergence of a major environmental debate, has risen to the forefront of collective consideration.
The western Joshua tree, acting as a symbol of the Mojave, has very real impacts on one’s nature and community-based ties. When interviewed, some stakeholders made direct comparisons of Joshua trees to neighbors and friends. Others described feelings of sadness and disorientation at the prospect of losing a key member of the Morongo Basin community, reflecting the Joshua tree’s central role in fostering an enduring connection between people and their neighbors. Furthermore, Joshua trees are tied to the economic prosperity of the Morongo Basin as a tourist destination. Guests purposefully seek them out. The presence of the western Joshua tree is what sets the basin apart and fashions it into a legitimate destination. The western Joshua tree is intentionally embedded in the socio-economic fabric of the high desert. So much so in fact that the value of the land cannot be easily separated from it.
The western Joshua tree therefore carries as much weight in our minds as any other iconic species. It is to be expected to find staunch, logically-based, defenses exist against what some stakeholders believe is excessive overreach in terms of CESA restrictions.
Joshua Tree National Park is often cited to make the point that the western Joshua tree is already well-protected. The western Joshua tree is found in a high elevation refugium within the northwest portion of the park, a fraction of the total acreage. In addition to what is within the park, approximately forty percent of western Joshua tree habitat is found on private land. Climate change aside, the conservation of the species on private lands facing development pressures is complicated. The idea that the western Joshua tree is already protected at the local level relies upon conservation on public lands, anecdotal evidence of species health, and the prospect of hardships faced by the everyday Morongo Basin resident in the event of a permanent listing. The prospect of hardships boils down to a defense of property rights, a principle core to the notion of American individuality and associated freedom.

A struggling Joshua tree with clones leaning at its base (off of highway 62 in Yucca Valley).  Photo: Cameron Mayer

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The previously stated defenses suggest that the state officials are not the best stewards of faraway species. To some extent, the discussion is not about  what additional protections are appropriate, but revolve about who regulates them. There is a legacy of political conservatism in the Morongo Basin which translates into distrust of state and federal government coupled with a desire to handle matters locally. Other stakeholders mistrust local discretion on the grounds that local statutes are merely a facade for overt self-interest.

The back-and-forth over species stewardship is further sustained in part by debate on whether the best available science supports a threatened designation. In this light, it is unclear whether listing the species under CESA will be effective in combating the looming issue of climate change. However, it is argued that a listing will shed greater public awareness on the western Joshua tree’s plight, allow for direct funding and the purchase of conservation lands, and of foremost importance, greater restrictions on species taking. Environmental decision making is also hampered by a lack of range-wide population data on the western Joshua tree. Better data might lend clarity towards the status of the species and improve decision making.

There are several obstacles that make coherent debate difficult. Foremost is the absence of a single outlet speaking for the collective interests of the Morongo Basin, a development that could bring divergent groups to the discussion table. Efforts to reach a consensus have pitted those who view local government interests as obstacles towards collective threatened species management versus those who see external groups and environmentalists as essentially hijacking the procession of local affairs. The maintenance or disavowal of local input and decision making is the crux of the issue. The CESA process is considered by some to be faulty because it furthers a zero-sum framing of the debate in a process that creates polarization by requiring a simplistic yes or no listing decision.

Opportunities for remedying the situation and fostering collaborative species management might clarify the CESA permitting process, allow for remediation of unequal financial impacts of fines and permits, require transparency regarding mitigation funds and projects at the state level, utilize a one-to-one replacement ratio for impacted Joshua trees, and create a regional high-desert multiple species conservation plan. Furthermore, local community organizations, involved community members, and the nearby National Park might provide opportunities for collaboration at a local level that can then be scaled up to the state level.

As of this writing, it is anticipated that the newly introduced California Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act (WJTCA) presents a valuable, however less stringent, compromise. It would provide for collaborative, landscape-level conservation for the western Joshua tree while simplifying the complex permitting process for exceptional circumstances. It would require consultation with Native American Tribes, municipal and county governments, and the public in planning. Additionally a fund would be created to be employed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CADFW) towards mitigation of negative species impacts and/or the purchase of conservation lands.

Where there is a convoluted environmental issue or debate, such as that involving the western Joshua tree, there is an opportunity for crafting a better solution. Any solution that moves the needle forward in this matter must have certain qualities. It must be creative and flexible. Creative to manage the wants and needs of diverse stakeholders. Flexible to account for the always changing nature of conservation in the rapidly evolving American West.

Cameron Mayer is a late-blooming desert enthusiast, having discovered the Mojave six years ago while attending CSU Long Beach. Having recently finished his Master's thesis on the western Joshua tree conservation debate in the Morongo Basin, he now works as Project Director for Friends of the Amargosa Basin and resides in Shoshone, California.