SOURCE: The Daily Beast

DATE: September 13, 2020

SNIP: It’s difficult to describe how beautiful Joshua trees are, but when you drive into Joshua Tree National Park and see vast canyons filled with gangly arms, raised in haphazard directions, it hits you: this tree is different, this tree is special.

What you might not know is this: the Joshua tree is also an endangered, threatened species.

Well, at least, it should be.

The science put forth by the Center of Biological Diversity (CBD) is difficult to argue with. However, the effort to save the Joshua tree ran into an unlikely foe. It wasn’t oil or mining companies undercutting conservation. At the recent hearings to determine whether or not the Joshua tree was to be listed as a protected species, one adversary stood out—solar companies. 

California is on the forefront of fighting climate change, however. The state’s renewable energy goals include a requirement for 100 percent clean electricity by the year 2045 and a goal of reducing planet-warming emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050. But, in order to achieve these goals, there needs to be a lot of solar energy—“more than has ever been built before,” says Shannon Eddy, the executive director of the Large-Scale Solar Association (LSSA), which represents utility-scale solar developers and owners. Solar companies in the Mojave, like EDF, which is in the process of developing a massive solar farm called Big Beau, believe fighting climate change through the production of renewables is more urgent than desert ecology sustainability efforts.

The Daily Beast obtained EDF’s permits for California Native Desert Plant Harvesting scheduled in July on the Big Beau project site. These were obtained a month before the CDFW hearing and the possibility that after the hearing removal of the trees would be exorbitantly expensive or impossible loomed large. Regardless, in July, EDF permitted the harvesting of over 200 Joshua trees. While this won’t necessarily lead to their direct endangerment, it’s an interesting paradigm for a solar energy company that markets itself as striving towards “providing future generations with the means to power their lives in the most economic, environmental, and socially responsible ways possible.”

A paper recently published in Nature, written by Dr. Steven Grodsky, an Assistant Research Ecologist and Dr. Rebecca Hernandez, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Air and Water Resources at UC Davis demonstrated that the way some solar companies have been removing native plants has had negative effects on perennial plant structure and covering plants, inhibiting regrowth of plants bladed, and stunting that of plants mowed, and thereby, the stability of the surrounding ecology in the Mojave desert

Grodsky and Hernandez also pointed out that while their study focused on Mojave Yucca, the tree is in the same genus as the Joshua tree, making it easy to extrapolate their findings to the Joshua trees.

Joshua trees remain an unlisted species, and likely, even when they are listed (if they are), there will be a workaround for developers to mow them down in order to make room for large scale solar projects.