A California couple who mowed down 36 protected Joshua trees to clear their land for a new house have been fined $18,000, a punishment the authorities hope will discourage others from uprooting the iconic desert plants.
A nearby landowner reported seeing Jeffrey Walter and Jonetta Nordberg-Walter bulldoze the land and bury the trees in a hole in February, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement on Tuesday.
The couple, who live in nearby Riverside County, wanted to clear the land and build a home on their property in Joshua Tree, Calif., just north of Joshua Tree National Park.
The couple told the authorities they thought they were allowed to remove smaller trees, Douglas Poston, the supervising deputy district attorney of the office’s Morongo Basin division, said in an interview on Wednesday.
A wildlife officer went to the scene after receiving the report from a neighbor and used a backhoe to unearth the buried trees, the prosecutors said.
The spiky trees, which are technically succulents, were granted temporary protection last year under the California Endangered Species Act. That means it is illegal to disturb or kill the trees, which are mostly found in the Mojave Desert in the Southwest.
The average Joshua tree lives around 150 years, according to the National Park Service. The tallest trees grow to over 40 feet tall.
The couple were charged with 36 misdemeanors for felling the trees, the district attorney’s office said. The office issued the $18,000 fine on June 22.
California’s maximum punishment for killing a Joshua tree is six months in jail and a fine of $4,100 per tree, the prosecutors said.
“The fine was low because of a lack of criminal history,” Mr. Poston said. “The defendants were cooperative, lacked sophistication and made an early admission of fault.”
The couple have already paid part of the fine, the office said. They can earn credit toward the fine by volunteering for Joshua Tree National Park or for the Mojave Desert Land Trust organization. The prosecution will dismiss the case against the couple if they fulfill all of their pretrial diversion requirements.
Mr. Poston said the couple were “kind of elderly” but not retired. The pair did not return emails or phone calls on Wednesday.
This is the first time Mr. Poston has prosecuted a case involving Joshua trees, he said.
The species has had a difficult few years. The National Park Service estimated that up to 1.3 million Joshua trees were killed when the Dome fire burned the Mojave Desert in August last year. Several of the trees at Joshua Tree National Park were graffitied and chopped down in 2019.
Experts say climate change — along with its ensuing droughts and wildfires — is threatening the very survival of Joshua trees, The New York Times reported last year.
State officials will decide sometime this year whether the trees should be permanently listed as a threatened species, the California Fish and Game Commission said.