A California couple is facing an $18,000 fine after bulldozing 36 Joshua trees from a piece of land where they plan to build a home, according to the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office.
It's illegal to remove or kill the tree because it's a candidate for the California Endangered Species Act, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).
So when a resident in the area noticed that local property owners were bulldozing and burying Joshua trees, they placed an anonymous tip to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to report it, according to the department. A responding officer went out to the property shortly thereafter and found a hole with Joshua trees buried inside.
The property owners, Jeffrey Walter and Jonetta Nordberg-Walter, were apparently trying to make way for new construction on a home, according to The Los Angeles Times.
"I think a lot of people value these trees as a natural part of the community. A lot of people were really shocked to see someone who knew what they were doing knock over 36 of these and buried them," Capt. Patrick Foy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife law enforcement division told NBC News. "Many neighbors have gone to great lengths to preserve these trees, and I think it was shocking and upsetting for them to see something this egregious happen."
The investigation into the bulldozing of the trees began in February, but on June 7, a thirty-six-count misdemeanor complaint was filed in the Superior Court of California in San Bernardino County against the couple for the alleged unlawful removal of the trees, according to the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office.
“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 CDFW Law Enforcement Division in a statement.
Now the couple is being required by the Superior Court to pay an $18,000 fine — $9,000 each, according to the 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 comes at a time when people are particularly concerned for the well-being and preservation of the park and its wildlife. In 2019, Joshua Tree National Park visitors had been "illegally off-roading, cutting down trees and spray painting rocks," according to The Washington Post.
Earlier this year, the Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit conservation organization that works to protect endangered species, found that while the the most visible threat is the direct killing of Joshua trees by developers, climate change and fire are also responsible for pushing the species closer to extinction.
For those planning to visit or build in the area, it should be considered that taking a Joshua tree is a misdemeanor which carries a fine and penalty of up to $4,100 and/or six months in jail, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Walter and Nordberg-Walter have been granted eligibility to earn credit toward their $18,000 fine by volunteering at the Joshua Tree National Park or the Mojave Desert Land Trust, according to the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office.