Couple caught burying protected Joshua trees to build home

Couple caught burying protected Joshua trees to build home
‘It doesn’t matter if it’s a foot tall or 20ft tall,’ the trees are protected, prosecution says

A couple from California received an $18,000 fine after they removed 36 Joshua trees that were on their property in order to carry out building work, according to authorities.

Jeffrey Walter and Jonetta Norberg-Walter were discovered to have culled 36 Joshua trees, prompting a 36 count misdemeanour complaint being filed against them. Each Joshua tree pulled out allows for a potential fine of $4,100, with the addition of potential jail time. However, under the agreement, the pair are liable for just $9,000 each.

Some of the money has already been paid, and some can be worked off through volunteering for the Joshua tree National Park, according to a court agreement made on 11 June.

A criminal prosecution will be initiated if the couple violate the terms of the ruling, according to the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office.

The fine was handed down to deter other people from doing the same, according to local authorities, as Joshua Trees are an important landmark in the California wildlife environment.

“Most California citizens who reside in Joshua tree habitat revere these iconic desert species, more so now than ever because of its degraded population status. We hope it serves as a deterrent to others who may think it is acceptable to unlawfully remove Joshua trees to make way for development,” said Nathaniel Arnold, the deputy chief law enforcement officer at of California’s fish and wildlife division said in a statement.

Despite their name, Joshua trees are not actually trees, but succulents, officially called Yucca brevifolia.

Authorities launched the investigation on 11 February after neighbours noticed the plants were being destroyed by the couple. They had seen a tractor being used to cull the plants and alerted the relevant wildlife authorities, The LA Times reported.

A neighbour reportedly attempted to speak to the couple and tried to convince them to stop destroying the trees, as according to California regulation, they are endangered and protected under law.

According to a San Bernardino county prosecutor, Douglas Poston, the couple is believed to have thought they could unearth Joshua trees if they were considered to be small enough, however, this is not the case.

Mr Poston told the Times: “That’s not accurate, obviously. It doesn’t matter if it’s a foot tall or 20ft tall, it’s under that protection.”

The situation with Joshua trees has become worse in recent years. In 2019, when Joshua Tree National Park staff came back to work after the government shutdown, they arrived back to vandalism and graffiti. A long-serving park official, who has since retired, said the damage to the trees was “irreparable” for the next two centuries or more.

The climate crisis has also been a contributing factor, as it rising temperatures are creating terrible conditions for the species.

“Over the past couple of millions of years, we’ve had multiple ice ages with warming periods in between, and the Joshua trees have survived that,” Cameron Barrows, an ecologist told the Guardian in 2019. “But right now the warming is happening so quickly – and it’s getting hotter than any of those previous periods.”