The endangered Joshua tree is getting some reinforcements from the legal system. A California couple agreed this week to pay an $18,000 fine for digging up 36 Joshua trees on their California property that sits just north of iconic Joshua Tree National Park.
The drama began in February when a neighbor of Jeffrey Walter and Jonetta Nordberg-Walter called in a tip to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that the couple was using a tractor to mow down the trees. According to a news release from the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office, they were clearing land they owned to build a house.
After seeing that some other trees appeared to be marked for removal, the neighbor also warned Walter and Nordberg-Walter that they weren’t allowed to remove them. (The San Bernardino County district attorney has told press that the couple thought smaller Joshua trees were totally fine to dig up.)
When a state wildlife officer came to the property, Walter and Nordberg-Walter had left, but he found “a freshly dug and refilled hole” that had three dozen trees in it. (That’s one way to dispose of the bodies.) The couple was charged with the unlawful removal of the trees, and the case concluded with the $9,000-a-piece fine last week.
“I would hope that the person that would otherwise take, remove, bulldoze a Joshua tree would understand that they are facing fairly significant criminal liability for doing so,” Douglas Poston, supervising deputy district attorney with the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office, told the Los Angeles Times.
The wizened, otherworldly-looking Joshua tree became the first plant to receive temporary protected as an endangered species due to the threat posed by climate change. A petition submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity to the state’s Fish and Game Commission, which was approved unanimously, argued that prolonged drought and rising temperatures are putting the trees at risk. Recent research backs this up; findings published in 2019 shows that if current emissions trends continue apace, only 0.02% of the trees’ current habitat will be suitable for them by the end of the century. Even if the world makes some serious changes, less than 20% of their habitat for the trees. Raging wildfires are also posing a huge threat: Last August, the Dome Fire burned an estimated 1.3 million Joshua trees.
Not everyone in the region, however, is a fan of protecting the trees. There’s been some pretty stiff local opposition to granting Joshua trees additional state or federal protections, due largely to concerns over how it would impede economic development and construction. Last year, pretty much the entire city government of Yucca Valley, a small town north of the national park, came out against the proposal before the Fish and Game Commission. As the Guardian reported, city officials cited a local law requiring that people file a permit before cutting down a Joshua tree as evidence that the trees had enough protection, but public records obtained by a local activist showed that none of the 147 permit requests to cut down a tree in 2020 were denied.
Because of the new protections, messing with Joshua trees carries some serious ramifications. “Taking” the trees is a misdemeanor, and comes with fines of up to $4,100 and/or six months in jail per tree; the maximum fine for Walter and Nordberg-Walter could have been more than $147,000, a far cry from the $19,000 they were fined. Meanwhile, Yucca Valley recently passed limited permitting for homeowners looking to remove Joshua trees. The lowest cost of removal for younger trees is $1,050 per tree, so legally removing the 36 trees the couple bulldozed would have run them more than $36,000. The disparity in math worries some activists.
“Anytime the fine for operating illegally is less than the cost for complying with the law, you’re sending the wrong message,” Steve Brown, the director of Mojave Watch, a watchdog organization in the region, said in an email. “In this case, the message to developers in the Mojave Desert is if you get caught (and you may not), the odds are you will pay less than if you complied with the requirements of the California Endangered Species Act.”
It certainly seems that at one point the couple didn’t have a high regard for the trees. Brown sent along an undated Facebook screenshot of a thread discussing the couple’s charges. “You obviously have never been to Joshua tree and seen the thousands of those cactus,” an account with the name Jonetta Walter replied to one user who brought up Joshua trees. “They are not endangered.”
Regardless of what went down on Facebook, Walter and Nordberg-Walter opted to forgo lawyers and, per the district attorney, have been cooperative with the investigation and already paid part of their fines. The couple has been placed in a pretrial diversion program that will allow them to avoid jail time and allow them to work off even more of that dollar amount by volunteering at Joshua Tree National Park or with the Mojave Desert Land Trust.
“That’s unacceptable,” Brown said of the community service provision, “especially at a time when we’ve lost miles of protected Joshua tree forest to wildfire, large scale development is rampant, and climate change and drought are taking a toll on these trees, wildlife, and desert habitat.”
The district attorneys’ office said if the couple pays off their fines and follow the terms of their probation, the charges will be dropped; if not, they will be prosecuted.
“If you kill a Joshua Tree and if the evidence is there we will prosecute,” Poston told CNN. “It’s a crime. You don’t have to like the law, but it’s the law and we take it very seriously.”