Calling climate change a factor in the decision, the California Fish & Game Commission today voted unanimously to formally review whether the Western Joshua Tree is an endangered or threatened species. The Commission also passed in a 3 to 1 vote an emergency rule to allow more than a dozen solar projects to move forward, provided the groups follow the Commission’s new take policy.
Under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA), the Fish and Game Commission can review whether new plant or animal species should be added to the endangered list. Today’s decision makes the Western Joshua Tree a candidate with the Fish and Wildlife Department undertaking a one-year review before a final decision is made.
Mike Yuan, Legal Counsel for the Fish and Game Commission, said today’s decision makes Western Joshua Tree “a candidate species that receive the full protections under CESA.” He also stated that the protections continue “until a final decision is made on its candidacy.”
The Fish and Game Commission was aware that any decision today may impact existing renewable energy projects. At the August hearing, the Commission asked staff to work with local officials, environmentalists, and energy developers to work towards an agreement. Today’s emergency rule is the collaboration of all groups.
This emergency regulation will allow 15 San Bernardino and Kern County solar projects to move forward during the candidacy period. The emergency regulation calls for qualified biologists to survey the proposed project sites subject to the Department of Fish & Wildlife before groundbreaking or removing any Joshua Tree. The compensatory mitigation ratio for impacts to western Joshua tree shall be at 1½ to 1 ratio. To meet the compensatory mitigation requirement, companies must pay $10,521.95 per mitigated acre of land to the Western Joshua Tree Mitigation Fund.
The projects receiving a take permit under the emergency rule include:
- Aratina Solar Farm, 8minute Solar Energy
- Bellefield Solar Farm, 8minute Solar Energy
- Big Beau Solar, EDF Renewables, Inc.
- Camino Solar, Avangrid Renewables
- Chaparral Solar, First Solar, Inc.
- Edwards AFB Solar, Terra-Gen Power Holdings
- Kudu Solar Farm, 8minute Solar Energy
- Rabbitbrush Solar, First Solar, Inc.
- RE Gaskell West 2, Recurrent Energy
- RE Gaskell West 3, Recurrent Energy
- RE Gaskell West 4, Recurrent Energy
- RE Gaskell West 5, Recurrent Energy
- Rubita Solar, SF Rubita, LLC
- Willow Springs Solar 3, First Solar, Inc.
- Windhub Solar B, First Solar, Inc.
While the public comment period closed on Western Joshua Tree candidacy at the August hearing, more than three dozen people spoke on the emergency rule. Local officials and energy providers spoke in favor of the emergency rule. Some commenters asked for expansion of the rule to include housing and transportation projects. However, most of the comments were from environmental groups calling for more stringent rules or opposing the rule altogether.
While the emergency rule was passed, the mitigation of Joshua Trees is just beginning. Conservation Director for the Center for Biological Diversity Brendan Cummings said, “Better siting and more take avoidance is needed going forward.”
The Center for Biological Diversity initially petitioned the Commission in October 2019 to list the Western Joshua Tree as threatened under California’s Endangered Species Act. Upon the filing, California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife developed an evaluation report. In April, the Fish & Game Commission approved the evaluation report, which allowed the petition process to continue.