TEHACHAPI, Calif. (KERO) — It’s a piece of nature that goes hand in hand with California: the Joshua tree. They only grow in a small handful of places across the world, and one of those spots is not far from Tehachapi in the Mojave Desert. That’s why when one local woman says she found a bunch of them cut down in eastern Kern County, she wanted answers and reached out to 23ABC.
What’s usually a place of joy, is now the opposite for Julie Weigel.
“This is not normal for the dirt to look like this. It's really sad and it angers me,” said Weigel. “As you can see, they’re pretty good-sized tracks. They’re not a little tractor. It’s a big bulldozer.”
Bulldozer tracks and leftover debris now cover the area she goes hiking at.
“Who's doing this, and why? It’s not right.”
Those are questions she continues to ask in a location just southwest of Mojave off of Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road, where it’s common to see Joshua trees. But in one place that you can only get to by a dirt road, those unique tree-like plants are visibly absent.
The east side of this dirt road has a number of Joshua trees. But on the other side, not so much.
“They were at least 50 foot long piles, at least 20-30 foot high, just piles and piles of Joshua trees,” explained Weigel.
Pictures Weigel said she took of the piles back in February show the damage. She says all those trees were still standing just weeks before the pictures were taken. She estimates hundreds if not thousands were cut down, and all that’s left is what you see scattered across the dirt.
“This huge mound of where the Joshua trees were, are now this fuzzy mulch Joshua tree that you can just see that they’re trying to hide.”
Part of Weigel’s anger stems from the fact that Western Joshua trees were granted temporary endangered species status back in September 2020. They remain on the list in the most updated version from July 2021. Some say climate change is one of their biggest threats since they require colder temperatures to help with pollination. However, even with that endangered status, that doesn’t mean they’re fully protected.
What is a Joshua tree?
Known as the park namesake, the Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia, is a member of the Agave family. Until recently, it was considered a giant member of the Lily family. However, modern DNA studies led to the division of that formerly huge family into 40 distinct plant families. Because of these studies, Joshua trees now have the more accurate Agave family designation.
Like the California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera, the Joshua tree is a monocot in the subgroup of flowering plants that also includes grasses and orchids. Don’t confuse the Joshua tree with the Mojave yucca, Yucca schidigera. This close relative can be distinguished by its longer, wider leaves and fibrous threads curling along leaf margins. The Joshua tree provides a good indicator that you are in the Mojave Desert, but you may also find it growing next to a saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert in western Arizona or mixed with pines in the San Bernardino Mountains.
Some researchers think an average lifespan for a Joshua tree is about 150 years, but some of our largest trees may be much older than that.
Many birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects depend on the Joshua tree for food and shelter. Keep your eyes open for the yellow and black flash of a Scott’s oriole busy making a nest in a yucca’s branches. At the base of rocks you may find a wood rat nest built with spiny yucca leaves for protection. As evening falls, the desert night lizard begins poking around under the log of a fallen Joshua tree in search of tasty insects.
Brendan Cummings is an environmental lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity in California.
“Anyone who digs up a Joshua tree, bulldozes a tree, is now illegal under state law unless the person doing it either gets a specific permit for the state which has rigorous conditions or it falls under a narrow exemption that occurs during this year-long candidacy period.”
To help meet California’s renewable energy goals, state officials are allowing 15 solar energy projects, each managed by multiple companies, the option to “take” or remove any Joshua trees that would be in the way of their development. Those companies were selected since they had already started their work before that temporary protection was granted. The projects can or already have taken place in several counties, including Kern, before Joshua trees can reach permanent endangered status.
Cummings was critical of the decision last year and feels the same now.
“The threat of climate change really is an existential threat to the species and so the only way we’re going to save Joshua trees is to get to 100% renewable energy,” said Cummings. “If the solution to climate change is to cut down the habitat, cut down thousands of climate threatened trees that’s not really the solution.”
Where did the Joshua tree get its name?
By the mid-19th century, Mormon immigrants had made their way across the Colorado River. Legend has it that these pioneers named the tree after the biblical figure, Joshua, seeing the limbs of the tree as outstretched in supplication, guiding the travelers westward. However, this tale is not substantiated in the historical record. Some evidence suggests that the biblical figure Joshua, and the Joshua trees, represented the Mormon conquest of the desert. Instead of the branches resembling outstretched arms in prayer, perhaps the tree's sharp, blade-like leaves brought to mind the arrayed forces of Joshua's army.
So the question is: who did it?
23ABC first made the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) aware of what was going on back in February. At that time, they said, “the matter is under investigation, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has a longstanding policy not to comment on investigations.”
23ABC followed up with them again in July but and they never responded.
23ABC also submitted a public records request to CDFW for the documents related to the authorization of removing Joshua trees around that location. After four months of waiting, they responding by referring us to that document that lists those 15 solar projects.
23ABC also reached out to the Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Department. Their executive director said the construction is part of the Terra-Gen Sanborn solar project. They also said construction has been ongoing for months. But on that list of approved solar projects which allows the take of Joshua trees, it includes one for Terra-Gen, but it’s for the Edwards Air Force Base solar project. Sanborn is not on the list.
When 23ABC asked for clarification about that specific spot marked on a map of the Sanborn project, the planning department said “an intertie connecting line is part of the project. This completes our comment on this matter.”
23ABC then asked for further clarification about that connecting line, including it was an area labeled as “gen-tie study." According to the map, it’s the furthest point west of the Sanborn project but does not extend to the construction in question. 23ABC never got a response.
So without a clear indication of who's responsible, it could also be a case of breaking the rules.
“In that area, the only entities currently lawfully allowed to remove Joshua trees, to remove live Joshua trees are the solar companies," explained Cummings. "If it’s happening outside of those solar projects then that’s likely illegal removal.”
23ABC also reached out to Terra-Gen about the project in question and if they’re building on that area of land where the Joshua trees were cut down, and they issued the following statement:
Terra-Gen and our teams on the ground in Kern County were made aware of your September 28 story, "Joshua trees found cut down near Tehachapi." Consequently, and in accordance with our company policy as it relates to matters like these, we asked our teams to conduct a thorough internal review. Following our investigation, we definitively concluded the area you identified and the trees removed are not connected in any way to Terra-Gen. To be clear, this land is not near any of our projects.
As a company, we pride ourselves in adhering closely to all established regulatory and approval processes for every project we have undertaken in the region and beyond. Anything less is unacceptable.
Terra-Gen appreciates the efforts by KERO to keep its viewers and readers apprised of important local stories; however, this article concerns us because it implied our company is responsible, which is not the case.
As for Weigel, she said it’s likely her favorite hiking spot will never look the same. Joshua trees take decades to grow, so if the area was to go back to how she knew it, she may not be around to see it.
“It's not as easy as just going out and planting an oak tree. It’s, you know, sad.”
There is currently an assessment going on by the state to see if Joshua trees will be placed on the permanent endangered species list or be removed from that temporary status. That decision is expected sometime this fall.
If they are placed on the permanent list, it becomes increasingly harder for any of those trees to be allowed to be cut down.
The penalties for cutting down a Joshua tree or destroying an endangered plant can be costly.
According to Fish and Wildlife, for unlawful take of an endangered, threatened, or candidate species that penalty could be a fine not less than $25,000 or more than $50,000 for each violation.
Recently a couple living near Joshua Tree National Park were not punished as severely as that, they were fined $18,000 for cutting down 36 trees on their property.
Also, removing or damaging plants from property that a person does not own without permission may constitute trespass and/or petty theft. Depending on how much is removed it could also result in time behind bars