The strange and beautiful sight of western Joshua tree forests are an iconic part of the Southern California desert. The spiky and twisted trees are strangely separated from their closest neighbors which makes them occupy large swaths of land. This land is also ideal for developing solar generation and transmission projects; a key element of the state's effort to prioritize renewable energy sources.

Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration proposed the first legislation focused on protecting the climate-threatened species while also permitting development across Southern California’s sunniest desert parcels. The bill authorizing the new act could be passed and signed as part of regular budget votes by the end of June.

Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act would prohibit anyone from importing, exporting, selling, or removing the species without a state permit. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife would be empowered to allow the taking of a western Joshua tree as long as certain conditions are met.

The proposed legislation was designed after input from conservationists, lawmakers, tribal leaders, property owners, renewable energy companies, labor organizations and the construction industry, Newsom’s office said.

What is at stake is the survival of more than 1 million of the environmentally sensitive bending and twisting trees amid a landscape of construction, development and change. The species already face a potentially lethal climatic scenario unfolding across their ancient desert landscape. Conservationists predict that without special state protections, western Joshua trees could lose 90% of their range by 2100.

The current legislation was presented after the California Fish and Game Commission failed to act on a 2019 petition to list the western Joshua tree as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act. Unlike the federal Endangered Species Act, the state law protects recognized fast-disappearing species on private lands, unless exemptions can be obtained via lengthy, often costly reviews. However, the commission could still choose to list the trees as threatened at a future date, or decline to do so.

The western Joshua tree is widespread on both public and private lands in urban and rural communities and the permitting process for the iconic species is more complex than for any species currently listed under the California Endangered Species Act, according to state wildlife authorities.

“This approach creates a specific conservation program for the western Joshua tree. That is a huge milestone,” said California Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham in a briefing to the state’s Fish and Game Commission in February when the legislation was introduced. 

However, harmony isn’t expected to come easy. Brendan Cummings, conservation director of the Center for Biological Diversity and an author of the petition, said “Compromise is always painful.”

“But at the end of the day, I’ll be happy if this bill passes,” Cummings said in a statement.

The new legislation could benefit construction projects underway. Currently, a trio of solar energy projects in the southern California desert is expected to add more than 1 GW of power to the state’s electrical grid. They are the first to be approved as part of the Dept. of the Interior's Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) announced in December 2021. The plan focuses on 10.8 million acres of public lands in the desert regions of seven California counties.

The construction of the massive Oberon Solar Project in eastern Riverside County was approved in 2022 by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). When completed, the project will generate up to 500 MW of renewable energy and include 500 MW of battery storage. 

Two other projects located in the same area, Arica and Victory Pass, also have a green light. These projects are slated to generate 265 MW and 200 MW, respectively, and could include up to 400 MW of battery storage. San Francisco-based Clearway Energy Group, the owner of both projects, estimates the pair will cost approximately $700 million to construct.

"The solar and storage industry is encouraged by this proposed legislation and appreciates the work of state leaders to maintain California's clean energy leadership and protect the iconic Joshua tree," said Sean Gallagher, senior vice president of policy for the Solar Energy Industries Association in a statement after the Feb. 8 announcement of the new legislation.

Wildlife commissioners lauded the proposed legislation as an “elegant solution” to the construction and environmental conflicts that in San Bernardino and Kern counties over whether the trees should be eliminated for private development. In October 2020 a coalition opposed to protecting the western Joshua tree, including the High Desert Association of Realtors, filed a lawsuit in Fresno County Superior Court seeking to overturn the tree's candidate status.

“This proposal also recognizes the critical role other extremely important state interests play—the role of renewable energy projects in reducing greenhouse gas emissions … the role public works projects play in providing essential public services and current housing needs in California," Bonham said.

The new legislation would provide the species protections comparable to those it would receive under the endangered species law, but with additional permitting mechanisms to address renewable energy and housing projects in its range.

The Newsom administration’s plan could face future challenges. Opponents of the petition warn that listing the western Joshua tree as endangered could derail projects, both private and renewable energy being developed to help California’s climate change goal of shifting the state’s electricity system off fossil fuel by 2045.

But members of the renewable energy industry believe helping to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions would also help slow climate change and any threats it poses to other sensitive desert species.