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The Fight to Save the Joshua Tree Has a Surprising Foe—the Solar Industry

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 9/13/2020 Daniel Modlin
a palm tree: Ernst Haas/Getty © Provided by The Daily Beast Ernst Haas/Getty

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. 

In October of last year, Brendan Cummings of the CBD submitted a petition to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), recommending that the western Joshua trees move toward protection under the state Endangered Species Act. This April, CDFW accepted the recommendation and on Aug. 21 held a hearing to determine whether, in fact, the Joshua tree would or should be upgraded to candidate species status.

Cummings spells out the rationale for the Joshua tree to be listed. “Climate change represents an existential threat to western Joshua trees. Even in the absence of climate change, the convergence of factors necessary for recruitment (read: reproduction) results in successful establishment of new seedlings only a few times in a century.” Cummings cites pollution, climate change, and drought, as inhibitors to the Joshua tree life cycle. This would all lead to the extinction of the Joshua tree within the century. 

Recently, nature gave us an eerie prelude. On Saturday, Sept. 5, a fire caused by lightning strikes and exacerbated by high temperatures as well as a lack of rainfall (read: climate change) burned more than 1.3 million Joshua trees in the Mojave National Preserve.

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.”

On the other hand, Scott Kulkhe, the Project Manager of Big Beau spoke to the environmental tensions at play. “It’s a balancing act,” he told The Daily Beast. “We need to cite these projects somewhere, and in the process we try to invoke as little environmental damage as possible.”

The argument that Kulkhe and solar companies make is best put by Shannon Eddy: “There is a tension between needing to build more solar projects than anyone ever has before in order to meet goals by 2045, and to do it sustainably. We are beyond the question of whether or not they are needed, and we’re moving into territory where we have to decide where they will go. Some will go in the desert, some on farmland, some on rooftops. But this is a process that will require everyone to work together—and it will likely require difficult decisions.” 

For example, Eddy continues, “for homeowners, that may mean seeing projects in their viewsheds. For conservationists, it could mean seeing projects in desert areas. For county planners, it will mean ameliorating myriad local perspectives about where projects should and shouldn't go. The climate-conservation nexus, when it comes to renewable energy siting, is profound and complex, and could emerge as one of our greatest collective challenges.”

Eddy is correct, but that’s not to say there aren’t other options.

In fact, many believe the tension between fighting climate change quickly, and doing so sustainably is a “false choice.”

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.

Importantly, Hernandez and Grodsky hope this study’s data will prove that future solar projects should be built somewhere other than pristine desert lands; as preferable locations, they list vacant parking lots, atop closed landfills, and in places closer to city centers with already disturbed environments. 

But Eddy doesn’t think it’s possible to build in just those places alone, given how much solar energy is needed, and how quickly. 

She mentions the Desert Renewable Conservation Plan (DRECP), a joint effort between the US Departments of Fish and Wildlife, Land Management, and California Energy Commission to identify areas in the desert appropriate for utility-scale development of solar, as well as wind and geothermal projects. Eddy calls the plan a “win for environmentalists,” because it allocated much more Bureau of Land Management turf to conservation than to solar. “They basically took 10 million acres and set aside 4.9 million for permanent conservation, while identifying 388,000 acres for potential renewable energy development,” she says. And “to develop on those 388,000 acres, it’s extremely difficult.”

However, Hernandez says the DRECP was “not a clear win for environmentalists.” She told The Daily Beast that the DRECP actually doesn’t take into account the land on which many environmentalists believe solar projects should go, like atop closed landfills or on already disrupted lands. Hernandez also wondered about new technologies that might make solar energy gathering and transmission more efficient in order to limit the amount of panels that would need to be planted in the first place. 

At the 11th hour, three days before the hearing, the LSSA launched a last-ditch campaign to push back the final decision on Joshua trees, citing the loss of economic opportunity and the need for renewable energy now.

It worked.

On Aug. 20, the CDFW had its hearing for the Joshua tree. Representatives from both sides stood up and made their case for development versus immediate conservation.

The Big Beau Developers argued that if the Joshua tree were listed as an endangered species, their project would never be completed. 

The choice for Charlton H. Bonham, the Director of the CDFW, and the rest of the committee was between a greener future with Joshua trees and a greener future without them.

While the committee agreed that Joshua trees should be considered for listing, the decision was pushed to a later date so that both sides, environmentalists and developers, could collaborate on a way to continue development on Mojave lands that both sides were happy with.

This collaboration will come to fruition in the form of a 2084, which under the CDFW authorizes “taking of candidate species.” Taking means cutting, or really, is a euphemism for killing a candidate species.

And so, 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. These projects might be our only hope of moving away from fossil fuels and slowing global warming before it’s too late.

Let’s hope it’s worth it. 

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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