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California's plan to save the western Joshua tree, which is in danger due to drought

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Conservation groups have long fought for federal protection for the iconic Joshua trees that live in the Southwest. Earlier this year, that effort failed. Now, as Caleigh Wells from member station KCRW reports, California is taking an unprecedented step to save them.

CALEIGH WELLS, BYLINE: The town of Joshua Tree on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park is miles of light beige, flat landscape. These Dr. Seuss-like succulents with spiky arms twist up into the sky and call the Mojave Desert home. Joshua trees are dying - fast.

KELLY HERBINSON: What we are seeing right now is unprecedented.

WELLS: Kelly Herbinson is the co-executive director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust. She says western Joshua trees are dying from the worst drought in more than a thousand years.

HERBINSON: They're mostly brown. There's little bits of green left, but they really are sort of these zombie forests.

WELLS: Zombies meaning they look alive and well, but western Joshua trees are struggling. They're not reproducing like they used to. A decadeslong housing development boom in the desert has split Joshua trees into small island habitats that make it harder for them to reproduce. On top of that, western Joshua trees face a new threat.

HERBINSON: We're having significantly increased wildfires across the desert region - across everywhere, right?

WELLS: Wildfire, drought and development were the main reasons why environmentalists four years ago began advocating to add the western Joshua tree to California's endangered species list. There was a lot of debate. Finally, last year, the California Fish and Game Commission held its last public-comment meeting. In one corner were local politicians like California Assembly member Thurston Smith.

THURSTON SMITH: Listing the Joshua tree as an endangered species will have permanent economic damages to the livelihood of my constituents.

WELLS: Solar companies, building developers, the labor unions - which Martin de la Cruz represented at that meeting.

MARTIN DE LA CRUZ: This would take away a lot of the jobs that the solar companies provide for us.

WELLS: In the other corner were conservationists, tribes and politicians like California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who wanted to keep the species from disappearing. In the end, the western Joshua tree doesn't get listed, so the California legislature stepped in. And just last week, it passed a first-of-its-kind law that protects them. Brendan Cummings is the conservation director for the Center of Biological Diversity, which filed the petition in California that started this whole debate.

BRENDAN CUMMINGS: Managing a species in the face of climate change - you know, it's something that's been talked about for 20, 30 years, but it's not really been implemented on a landscape scale anywhere yet that I'm aware of. And so we're entering into somewhat uncharted territory here.

WELLS: Now, companies have to get a permit from the state to cut down or relocate a western Joshua tree. The law creates a conservation fund and requires the state to develop a conservation plan.

CUMMINGS: That sort of lays out - here's the things we've decided we need to do to give the Joshua tree the best chance of making it through the very difficult decades ahead.

WELLS: In the end, this new law is a compromise. The permits are easier and cheaper to get than if the state had listed the Joshua trees as endangered. That's a win for developers. But Cummings says it's better than requiring no permit at all.

CUMMINGS: Even decisions that are supposed to be purely scientific do not occur in a political vacuum. And the Joshua tree is not just an iconic species. It's an inconvenient species.

WELLS: Inconvenient because there are still a lot of the western Joshua trees for solar and real-estate companies to work around. But to California's leaders and to the millions of people who come to visit them every year, that's a small inconvenience to pay for a species worth saving.

For NPR News, I'm Caleigh Wells.

(SOUNDBITE OF AKEMI FOX SONG, "SO FINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Caleigh Wells