A resident of Morongo Basin, Calif., noticed something unnerving earlier this year on a nearby property: Dozens of Joshua trees were being bulldozed and buried — all to make way for new home construction.
So, the concerned resident, who has not been identified by authorities, called the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and an officer went out to the property and found the trees buried in a hole in February. The resident had already told Jeffrey Walter and Jonetta Nordberg-Walter, who are building a home on the lot, that the trees should not be cut down after seeing them marked for removal, the Los Angeles Times reported.
But the couple did not heed the warnings. Now, they must pay an $18,000 fine.
“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,” said Nathaniel Arnold, deputy chief of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife law enforcement division, in a news release distributed this week by the San Bernardino County district attorney.
“We’re pleased to see the citizen tip led to a successful disposition and 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,” Arnold said.
This is only the latest uproar over the plight of the western Joshua tree. California wildlife officials are considering whether the trees should be protected under the state’s Endangered Species Act, as researchers have found the trees are dying off due to hotter and drier conditions, the Associated Press reported.
In August 2020, California’s Dome wildfire tore through more than 43,000 acres of the Joshua tree woodland in the Mojave Desert, killing an estimated 1.3 million Joshua trees, according to the National Park Service.
In addition, there have been other incidents in which people have destroyed or tampered with Joshua trees. In January 2019, Joshua Tree National Park temporarily closed as some visitors had reportedly been felling Joshua trees and making new roads through the park, The Washington Post reported. In May 2016, singer Beth Orton spray painted a Joshua tree for a music video, LAist reported.
But the couple’s February removal of the 36 Joshua trees on their property was particularly egregious, Capt. Patrick Foy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife law enforcement division told The Post. “I’m personally unaware of another case like this,” he said.
Reached late Wednesday, Jeffrey Walter said he wanted privacy for him and his wife. “My wife has received threats on Facebook by misinformed wackos,” he said via text.
Walter then referred The Post to his comments in a Hi-Desert Star article published Wednesday. “We did not know there was a moratorium on (removing) Joshua trees,” he told the paper. “Nobody told us.”
Walter told the newspaper that his wife’s family has owned the property for 60 years, and the couple had just recently moved from Portland, Ore., to Morongo Basin to build on the lot. On Feb. 11, the couple rented a backhoe and hired a man to uproot Joshua trees in the area they wanted to build.
Walter also told the Star that he thought the trees he had removed were small. “When it says 36 trees, a lot of them are that size,” he said while holding his hands roughly a foot and a half apart, the Star reported.
But Douglas Poston, the supervising deputy district attorney with the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office, told the Los Angeles Times that “it doesn’t matter if it’s a foot tall or 20 feet tall, it’s under that protection.”
On June 22, Walter and Nordberg-Walter agreed in court to each pay $9,000 for the trees. They are eligible to earn credit toward the fine by volunteering at Joshua Tree National Park or the Mojave Desert Land Trust, according to the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office.
“I would hope that the person that would otherwise take, remove, bulldoze a Joshua tree would understand that they are facing fairly significant criminal liability for doing so,” Poston told the Times.