The Joshua Tree is Us

For hundreds of years, the Joshua tree has been a source of inspiration for not only Americans but people all around the world. Its branches reaching to the sky reminded early settlers of the biblical story of Joshua raising his arms in prayer. My prayer, today, is that it’s not too late to save this American treasure so that future generations may likewise be inspired by its majestic beauty.

Born of the Pleistocene epoch, Yucca brevifolia has outlived mammoths and saber-toothed tigers. But without dramatic action to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, Joshua trees may not live into the next century.

But prayer is not enough to prevent the Joshua tree from extinction. It’s also going to take robust action to defend the Joshua tree. Last week, WildEarth Guardians filed suit against the Trump administration to force it to do its job – to safeguard the Joshua tree under the Endangered Species Act.

The lawsuit stems from a petition to the Interior Department that WildEarth Guardians’ filed more than four years ago, asking it to invoke the ESA’s protections for the Joshua tree.

Since the time of our initial petition, the situation for the Joshua tree has become even more dire. This June, scientists from the University of California, Riverside released a study which found that even under the best case scenario–meaning with bold, aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions–only one in five Joshua trees will survive the next 50 years. Without such steps, the population will be virtually wiped out.

In the midst of such apparent hopelessness, I remain faithful in the power of the public voice. After all, there’s a long history of inspired citizens and a caring government protecting the Joshua tree. In August of 1936, in response to the relentless advocacy efforts of Minerva Hoyt, a southern Californian resident enchanted by the Joshua tree, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued an Executive Order designating what would later become Joshua Tree National Park—which just this past week celebrated its 25th anniversary.

I am not naïve. Even if marshalling science and engaging in legal action extend the Joshua tree a lifeline, these acts alone can’t save it. What will save the Joshua tree are its millions of fans–famous musicians, poets, writers, and mystics among them–who speak out and who refuse to allow the loss of such a beloved and irreplaceable figure of the natural world.

When the very icons and namesakes that define our national parks can no longer survive, we have a problem that should alarm every citizen of our great nation. Sadly, that is the reality we’re facing not only with the Joshua tree, but also with the disappearing glaciers of Glacier National Park and the declining Saguaros of Saguaro National Park.

If we are to save the Joshua tree, as well as countless other species that are suffering due to the climate crisis, there is little doubt we need a new president. A president who will appoint a cabinet that will cherish and celebrate the beauty and diversity of nature.

I’ve been around long enough to know that sometimes presenting the mere facts isn’t

enough. Logic alone can’t move the human heart. But beauty and diversity held as moral imperatives can.

For 2.5 million years, the Joshua tree has survived on this planet. We desperately need new leaders to take dramatic, bold action to protect our endangered web of life and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The fight for wild nature is now a battle against time, and it’s one we can’t afford to lose.

John Horning is the executive director of WildEarth Guardians, which protects and restores the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health of the American West.  

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