Saving the Joshua Tree
With their twisted stalks and otherworldly outlines, Joshua trees look straight out of an alien landscape or a Dr. Seuss book. But lucky for us, these amazing icons of California’s Mojave Desert are right here on Earth.
Unfortunately, without proper protection, they may not be here much longer.
You often hear that Joshua trees aren’t actually trees, but they’re as much a tree as a palm tree is. In the Yucca genus, they’re a type of grass-like flowering plant called a monocot. Joshua trees comprise two distinct species: the western Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) and the eastern Joshua tree (Y. jaegeriana). They live in different areas, are genetically and morphologically distinct, and are pollinated by different moth species.
Western Joshua trees live primarily in California, extending into Nevada east of Death Valley National Park. Eastern Joshua trees live in California in the Mojave National Preserve, as well as in Nevada, Arizona and Utah.
The most visible threat to western Joshua trees is direct killing by developers, who bulldoze them by the thousands to build roads, warehouses, power plants, strip malls and vacation rentals. But climate change and fire are also pushing the species toward extinction on a landscape scale. Recent studies show Joshua trees are dying off because of hotter, drier conditions, with very few younger trees becoming established in many areas. Even greater changes are projected over the coming decades, and scientists say these beautiful, fragile icons could be largely gone from Joshua Tree National Park by the end of the century.
Prolonged droughts are projected to be more frequent and intense over the coming decades, shrinking the species’ range and leading to more tree deaths. Higher elevations, where Joshua trees might survive increasing temperatures and drying conditions, are at great risk of fire due to invasive non-native grasses.
Over 40% of the western Joshua tree’s range in California is on private land, with only a tiny fraction protected from development. Current projections show that virtually all of this habitat will be lost without stronger legal protection for the trees.
The Center is working hard to save Joshua trees in the face of threats from climate change, fire and development.
After our 2019 petition to protect western Joshua trees under the California Endangered Species Act, the next year the California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously to make them “candidates” for protection. Under state law, candidate status gives species interim protections while a separate agency, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, analyzes their situation to recommend whether to advance them toward full protection.
In 2022 — after a judge rejected development interests’ attempt to overturn the trees’ candidate status — the California Department of Fish and Wildlife released a legally and scientifically flawed status review recommending an end to their interim protection. This would open the door to widespread destruction of one of California’s most beloved species.
The report acknowledged that climate change and other threats are harming western Joshua trees, but then somehow concluded that the species disappearing from its namesake national park (and most of the rest of its range) in the coming decades was “not significant.”
Luckily, in 2023 California lawmakers passed a law to permanently protect this iconic species: the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act. It bans unpermitted tree killing and removal, requires a conservation plan, creates a fund to protect the species, and more. It’s the first California law specifically focused on defending a species from climate change. Meanwhile, these trees continue to benefit from interim protections under the state's Act.
We’ll keep defending these trees from threats to their habitat, from wildfire to mining to development.