Edvard Pettersson

(CN) — California lawmakers on Tuesday passed a bill that will permanently protect the western Joshua tree. It is the first law in the state that is specifically aimed at ensuring the protection of a climate-threatened species.

The law was voted on as part of the state budget agreement and is expected to be signed by Governor Gavin Newsom this week, according to a statement from the Center for Biological Diversity.

“I’m grateful the Newsom administration and lawmakers agree that western Joshua trees are an irreplaceable part of California’s natural heritage that has to be protected,” Brendan Cummings, the Center for Biological Diversity’s conservation director, said. “This groundbreaking law will help ensure these wonderful trees remain part of California’s Mojave Desert landscape forever.”

Securing protection of the iconic trees has been a battle between environmentalists on the one hand and developers and farmers on the other. Last year, a state court judge rebuffed an attempt by business groups to stop the western Joshua tree from being included on the state's list of endangered species.

The state's Fish and Game Commission has been reluctant to put the trees permanently on the state's list of protected species, rather than on an interim basis as it has been since 2020. Last year the commission deadlocked on the issue, and earlier this year, they postponed a decision pending the outcome of the legislation proposed by the Newsom administration.

Under the new law, the trees remain a candidate species under the California Endangered Species Act.

The western Joshua tree will have similar protections as under the California Endangered Species Act, but with certain permitting mechanisms for renewable energy and housing projects within their range, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. The new law also requires the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to prepare a conservation plan for the trees by the end of 2024.

The growing popularity of Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California has spurred a building boom in the town of Joshua Tree and adjacent communities, according to the environmentalist organization, and as a result, many of the namesake trees have been cut down to make way for vacation rentals and second homes.

Aside from construction, the trees face threats from climate change and wildfires.

Joshua trees are dying off because of hotter, drier conditions, with very few younger trees becoming established, according to the center. In 2019, scientists projected the Joshua tree will be largely gone from its namesake national park by the end of the century.

About 40% of the western Joshua tree’s range in California is on private land and only a small fraction of that habitat is protected from development, the center has noted in its arguments for stricter protection of the trees.