August 28, 2014

Dozens of desert tortoise sterilized


By Caroline Bleakley
KLAS-TV Las Vegas


LAS VEGAS -- It might seem odd the desert tortoise, an endangered species, needs population control, but that's what wildlife experts are recommending.

A two-day clinic to teach veterinarians how to sterilize tortoises ended Thursday.

Wildlife experts say so many people have had desert tortoises as pets, the population has gotten of out control. The belief is if they work to reduce the amount of captive desert tortoises, it will help the endangered ones in the wild.

"What's happened is we have an unusual situation where we have too many in a captive situation and people have numerous tortoises and they breed. These desert tortoises won't be able to breed anymore after these surgeries," said Mike Senn, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Veterinarians like Mary Lee are learning how to sterilize tortoises at two-day clinic.

"I'd say it's pretty urgent," Dr. Lee said.

She frequently sees desert tortoises at her Las Vegas clinic because so many are kept as pets. The problem is they breed easily in backyards. It's difficult to tell whether they're male or female until they're at least 10 years old, and they can live as long as 100 years.

"We have a large number of tortoises from one individual. It started with three tortoises about 20 years ago and when we checked two weeks ago, he had 54," Senn said.

Because of budget cuts, the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center is closing at the end of the year. That means when tortoises aren't wanted as pets anymore, there's no place for them to go.

Senn says says about 70 tortoises are being sterilized at the clinic, but homes have only been found for half of them and they can't be released into the wild because they may spread disease to other tortoises listed as endangered since 1989.

The clinic is aimed at ultimately reducing the number of captive tortoises.

"When we have to manage the captive populations, like when we had them going to the center, it was a very, very high cost," Senn said.

The two-day sterilization clinic cost about $35,000. The funding came from Clark County. It's money raised through fees paid by developers when they build on desert land.

August 27, 2014

Death Valley Mystery Solved

Santa Barbara Team Discovers Wind and Ice Behind the Racetrack’s “Sailing Stones”

HOW THE HECK? A sailing stone leaves a trail after it scooted along The Racetrack. (Scott Beckner)

by Matt Kettmann
Santa Barbara Independent


In a landscape dominated by marvelous natural oddities, no location fascinates more visitors to Death Valley National Park than The Racetrack, a cracked-earth playa where rocks big and small magically move from place to place, leaving distinctly smooth tracks across the otherwise uniform lake bed as their only evidence. For decades, if not centuries, the phenomenon mystified even the most diligent researchers, becoming a standard passage in geology textbooks, prompting more than one dozen scientific inquiries, and provoking all manner of possible causes, from tricks by frat boys to the handiwork of little green men.

The mystery is no more, thanks to Santa Barbara native Jim Norris, who ​— ​along with his cousin, Richard Norris, and a team of mostly S.B.-based volunteers ​— ​discovered through a mix of amateur investigation and lucky happenstance exactly how these stones sail. In a paper published this week in the scholarly journal Plos One, Norris and company reveal how last winter ​— ​amid a very rare convergence of freezing temperatures and a standing playa pool of recent rain and snowmelt ​— ​they documented football-field-sized sheets of windowpane-thin ice being floated by wind across the slick, muddy playa and pushing the rocks, some as far as 700 feet.


“We watched it happen,” said Norris, who started monitoring Racetrack movements in 2012 as part of a “recreational science” experiment and was on-site for routine equipment maintenance in late December when the event occurred. “The sheets of ice start ramming into the stones and bulldozing them along. It’s all ultra-slow-motion.” The discovery, which has been sought scientifically since at least 1948, when the first academic paper was published about the rocks, is quickly making waves in the annals of popular science, with reports published this week in the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, and Nature, among other publications.

Norris first visited The Racetrack in the 1960s with his father, the late Robert Norris, who was a professor of geology for many years at UCSB. The younger Norris, a graduate of Vieja Valley, San Marcos High, and San Diego State, became more intrigued in 2008, when he started scouring existing reports. He enlisted his cousin Richard, a paleobiologist at UC San Diego, in the completely self-financed hunt, and they set about equipping research-ready rocks with GPS tracking devices, which are one of the things that Norris makes for his engineering company, Interwoof. The first rocks were laid in early 2012 with National Park Service blessing, and the team made trips there every six to eight weeks.

In late November 2013, a brief rain and snowstorm formed a three-inch-deep pool on the playa, which was still there when the Norris cousins arrived in late December. Surprised by the pool and unable to enter the playa due to the “complete slop” of mud that sat on the surface, the cousins worked the northern part of the area and noticed that the pool seemed to be blowing uphill toward the playa’s mudflats as the winds increased. Soon, their rocks were actually moving for the first time.



“We started documenting it hard, not really understanding exactly what it meant,” said Norris, who determined what was happening over the next couple of days and subsequent trips, thanks to more observations and camera footage. “I think other people have probably been there when it happened, but they can’t tell,” said Norris. “It’s slow and so far away and at an oblique angle.”

The news throws a wrench into theories related to magic, magnetism, or Area 51. “I’ve even seen a wonderful photograph of a horned lizard pushing a stone,” said Norris, with a laugh. “It’s pretty amazing what the public will come up with.” But most in the scientific community figured the phenomenon was somehow reliant on ice and wind, so the Norrises had also erected a weather station as part of their project and were prepared to spend more than 10 years before reaching any conclusions. But despite the technology, had they not been on-site to witness the sheet ice bulldozers, the Norrises might still be scratching their heads, even with data in hand, especially since the movement occurred with relatively light wind rather than the hurricane force gales widely suspected.

Norris admits feeling “a little wistful” at having pulled the curtain off of Death Valley’s beloved mystery and knows there will be some public dismay. But he hopes it may shed light on processes elsewhere in the universe ​— ​important planetary scientists, for instance, have researched The Racetrack before ​— ​and he believes knowing is more important than supposing. He explained, “It’s hard to be a scientist, and I’m just an amateur scientist, and not want to figure stuff out and not get joy out of going, ‘Wow, that’s how this works!’”

August 26, 2014

The gates are open! Tens of thousands of stranded 'burners' flood into Burning Man site after festival is reopened following rare storm

Deserted: Tens of thousands of people should have arrived to create a make-shift city in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. But after Monday morning's rains, the site was empty until today.

By Alex Greg and Ted Thornhill
UK Mail Online


Tens of thousands of so-called 'burners' were flooding through the gates of Burning Man this morning after the event was reopened following a rain storm that left Nevada's Black Rock Desert looking more like a swamp on the festival's opening day.

Vehicles were allowed into the event's entrance on Highway 34 northeast of Gerlach from 6 a.m. Tuesday, organizers tweeted just after 1 a.m.

Festival goers, or 'burners,' responded to the good news with excited tweets such as 'time to get back on the road,' and 'all roads lead to #burningman.'

Yesterday, incredible pictures taken from the air showed the astonishing number of people stranded in the desert after rare heavy rains prevented them entering the site of the annual festival.

By Monday, it should have resembled something from a post-apocalyptic Mad Max movie, a teeming mini city growing out of the sand.

But standing water turned the playa 90 miles north of Reno into a quagmire and police barred ticket holders entry to the free-spirited week-long arts event.

Hundreds of vehicles massed outside the gates waiting for the weather to clear up, with some posting messages on Twitter about their predicament using the hashtag #strandedman.

Festival-goer Jordan Kalev arrived at the event by plane and took pictures of the site as he flew over showing the sheer volume of traffic massed at the entrance and the soggy state of the ground.

Around 70,000 people were left anxiously waiting for the event to start, with many driving back to Reno rather than queue in the desert.

Several hundred people who arrived on Sunday were told to remain in place in their camps but those who came to the gates for the 10 a.m. opening on Monday were turned away and told to keep an eye on social media.

'Black Rock City has shut down following rainstorms that left standing water on the playa, leaving it undrivable,' said Jim Graham, a festival spokesman, in a statement issued on Monday.

Highway patrol officers turned back festival goers who have paid upwards of $1,000 on the black market for tickets to the event, which last year saw a record 68,000 people spend a week in the desert for the annual art, music and everything else festival.

Rudy Evenson, who works at the US Bureau of Land Management, who operates the Black Rock Desert site Burning Man uses said that the festival would not get underway on Monday 'because there was too much rain. When it dries out they'll let people in again.'

The downpour began at 6 a.m. on Monday and continued for several hours, only dumping a tenth of an inch of rain, enough to make the muddy flats unfit for vehicles to drive on.

'We're going to make the best of the situation,' Charlie Lucas, of Portland, Oregon, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

By midday Monday, hundreds of people had gathered outside a tribal smoke shop just off US Interstate 80 in Wadsworth east of Reno where they were buying camping permits at the lake that sits on the Pyramid Lake-Paiute Reservation.

Clerks at the smoke shop said they had no idea how many permits had been sold, only that they were 'overwhelmed' and did not have time to talk.

'We're going to make good of a bad situation,' Shaft Uddin of London told the Gazette-Journal. 'I hear Pyramid Lake is beautiful, and apparently there is going to be a big party.'

By Monday afternoon, yellow Volkswagen buses, countless recreation vehicles and at least one school bus painted to look like a cheetah with whiskers on the hood began packing campsites along the lake.

Close to a dozen of those first arrivals took off their clothes and entered the lake, the newspaper reported.

Nudity is allowed at Burning Man as part of the celebration of art and self-expression.

But within an hour, a park ranger at Pyramid Lake had asked the campers to put their clothes back on. 'How can you not know that it is not OK to be naked in public?' the ranger asked.

Hundreds of travelers searching for oneness with nature and celebration of self-expression inf act spent their first night in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart or Reno resort casino.

But most were taking it in stride and were largely optimistic - as so-called 'Burners' are apt to be - that the gates to the counterculture event would reopen Tuesday.

'You take it as it comes,' said Mark Vanlerberghe, who left San Jose, California, in an RV that he ended up parking Monday at the Wal-Mart for the night when he heard the access road to the remote festival site was closed.

'You're going to the desert and you know there's weather to deal with,' he said. 'I guess that's part of being a Burning Man. Don't get stressed about it.'

Dozens of RVs and vans bound for Burning Man were parked at the Wal-Mart at the Three Nations Plaza, and nearly a hundred more across the street by sundown at the Grand Sierra Resort along U.S. Interstate 80 just east of downtown Reno.

The blinking casino lights and video billboards gave off a pink twinkle not unlike the various light shows at the weeklong desert gathering that culminates with the burning of a large wooden effigy the night before Labor Day.

But the yellow stripes on the blacktop pavement with 'Wrong Way' signs weren't exactly what the seekers of paradise on the playa had in mind on their way to soak up the various theme camps, art exhibits, all-night music and guerrilla theater, along with a decent dose of nudity and a bunch of other stuff that's just plain weird.

'We're just trying to stay positive,' said a woman from Oakland, California, who identified herself only as 'Driftwood' while hanging out in the Wal-Mart parking lot with a group of first-timers from Texas.
'Positivity can raise everything up.'

Barbara Quintanilla of Houston said the rain delay was the least of their worries in an RV with friends who didn't initially know whether the camper used diesel or regular gas, made a wrong turn out of Texas and ran over a sign post. Their destination is 'Planet Earth,' she said, 'The Eighties' Camp.'

'My friends believe that making it a longer trip will make you better,' Quintanilla said. 'We have a list of 27 things we need to get at Wal-Mart.'

Traveling companion Bill Sanchez of Houston said the voyage so far 'has been brutal.'

'We made a 2,000-mile trip and none of us had ever driven an RV before. It would only go 35 mph up hills,' he said with a smile at the plaza on land owned by a Nevada tribe.

'But through hard work and dedication, we will achieve our dreams.'

Jahliele Paquin and Jeff Difabrizio were in their third mode of transportation on the way to their first 'Burn' from their home in Canada's Northwest Territories.

They flew from Yellowknife to Regina, Saskatchewan and bought a van they drove to Reno, where it broke down Monday and they rented a car for the rest of the trip.

'We're kind of thinking like we'll get there when we get there,' Paquin said.

Jeff Cross of Orange County, California was in a different group with Texans Adam Baker and Chelsea Coburn making their second trip to the Black Rock and were determined the weather wouldn't deter them.

'It's the best festival in the world,' he said while unloading provisions at their RV outside the Wal-Mart Monday night. 'And there's no cellphones, no internet, no money or corporate sponsors.'

'You have to have a lot of supplies,' Coburn said. 'It's a lot of work, but it makes it more gratifying.

Indeed in recent years, devotees of Burning Man have become irritated with the expansion in popularity of the free-spirited event.

The festival dates back to 1986 and is based on ideals of community and inclusion - but visiting the ad-hoc city that rises from the desert each year has become a status symbol for the tech elite.

The one-upmanship of San Francisco tech nouveau riche, with their luxury accommodations and chef-prepared meals, is at odds with the spirit of the festival, say some longtime 'burners.'

The festival began as a counter-cultural gathering of free spirits on a beach in San Francisco and has evolved into a 10-day phenomenon spread across seven square miles of Nevada's Black Rock Desert.

Participants 'dedicate themselves to the spirit of community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. They depart one week later, leaving no trace,' the Burning Man website explains.

Nothing but ice and coffee is for sale so attendees must bring enough food and water to sustain themselves.

Tens of thousands of likeminded burners frolic around the temporary city instilled with the principles of Burning Man, which include gifting, decommodification (no advertising or transactions), radical self-reliance and radical inclusion.

Art installations, music, free classes, costumes, sharing of love, opinions, food and discussion is the order of the day at Burning Man.

So it's unsurprising that the new wave of annual attendees from San Francisco with very different ideas about the experience has some devotees up in arms.

A man who attends the festival annually with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs told The New York Times that the camp they establish costs $25,000 per person - but not for the models who are flown in on private jets from New York.

'We have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning. Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert,' he said.

Regular attendees haul camping gear or drive rented RVs to the desert and pay $300 to camp for 10 days, using portable toilets and freshening up with wet wipes.

And flying in the face of the festival's tenets of 'radical self-reliance,' and 'communal effort,' some camps come complete with 'sherpas,' or hired help.

According to The New York Times, there are up to 30 sherpas waiting on 12 attendees who fly in on private planes and are then driven to their camp in luxury RVs and fed meals prepared by teams of top chefs.

Sherpas handle the rest - costumes, which are a big part of Burning Man life, drugs, and any other whim.

'The tech start-ups now go to Burning Man and eat drugs in search of the next greatest app,' Tyler Hansen, who worked as a sherpa, told The New York Times.

'Burning Man is no longer a counterculture revolution. It's now become a mirror of society.'

Elon Musk, a founder of PayPal, recently said that Burning Man 'is Silicon Valley' and that creator of the HBO show 'Silicon Valley' Mike Judge couldn't possibly understand the tech world because he hadn't been.

It's not only tech types - DuJour reports that socialites, heirs and heiresses and Hollywood starlets have also been attending in style, including Lady Victoria Hervey, shipping heir Stavros Niarchos, Alexandra von Furstenberg and Francesca Versace and a New York Wall Street tycoon who spent $1 million on a custom RV.

Money-making endeavors at the festival are also on the rise, with concierge companies offering packages including flights, transfers, food, camps with electricity, food, water and wifi, private toilets and even a 'customized art car' for wealthy burners.

This year's festival sold out within an hour.

After it moved from San Francisco's Baker Beach, the inaugural Burning Man in Nevada drew some 80 people in 1990.

The first 1,000-plus crowd was in 1993, and attendance doubled each of the next three years before reaching 23,000 in 1999. The crowd was capped at 50,000 under a five-year permit that expired in 2010.

August 25, 2014

Surplus of tame tortoises an Arizona wildlife crisis

When they see the faces of these desert-dwellers, many fall in love with them, but now owners are surrendering them in record numbers.

A 1-year-old baby tortoise recently
turned in to Game and Fish.
(Photo: 12 News)

A uniquely Arizona pet problem is becoming a crisis for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The Sonora Desert tortoise is a typical animal for our state but an atypical pet. Hundreds who have chosen to commit to raising these reptiles have been forced to return them, and it's overwhelming agencies like Game and Fish.

"Right now in the system we have about 300 tortoises that need good homes, so we're kind of in crisis mode right now," said Ranger Amy Burnett.

It's a shell game finding room for newcomers at a north Phoenix Game and Fish facility where many of the surrendered creatures are being kept.

The Sonoran Desert tortoise is not an endangered species, but a booming pet population is putting them at risk of a life in captivity without loving families. Burnett says three or four were turned in just last week.

Many come from people who were raising one before real life got in the way.

"It's a heartbreaking thing when you see them come here, tears in their eyes, and you try to comfort them," said Daniel Marchand, curator at the Phoenix Herpetological Society, a private sanctuary which takes in surrendered reptiles.

But PHS can no longer take in tortoises due to the scope of the current problem.

Releasing them in the wild is not the answer, because one tame tortoise with a virus can kill an entire neighborhood of wild Sonoran Desert tortoises.

Then there's the issue with people finding tortoises in the wild and turning them in to Game and Fish.

"We don't want people turning in baby tortoises," said Burnett. "They're probably wild tortoises, so we want them to leave them in the wild. Obviously, if they're in the middle of the road, move them to the side of the road, but please don't turn in baby tortoises. Let them be in the wild so they don't have to be in captivity."

People "rescuing" wild tortoises, experts say, is a major part of this issue. They say you can easily figure out whether a tortoise is wild or someone's pet that got away by trying to pet its head. If it lets you, it's tame. A wild tortoise will pull back from you.

It's illegal to catch and keep wild tortoises.

Ranger Burnett is trying to turn this tragic trend into an opportunity for Arizonans. They're looking for adoptive families, but warn this is a major commitment. These desert-dwellers can live 75 years or longer.

They're pretty hands off, but require a yard, some specific surroundings, annual vet checkups, and microchipping. They hibernate in winter, from about November to April.

Experts say they have plenty of personality, though. We've heard they can recognize human voices, and in one case, a pet tortoise knocks on the back door when she hears her owner returning from work.

The problem is so big right now that Game and Fish is not charging for adoptions. To get what you need to know about adopting and caring for a desert tortoise, visit: http://www.azgfd.gov/w_c/captive_tortoise_care.shtml, or call the adoption specialist at (623) 236-7269.

August 21, 2014

Superior Court Releases Final Decisions in Cadiz Project Environmental Litigation

Rulings Confirm Sweeping Victory for Project

Today, Orange County Superior Court Judge Gail Andler issued final Statements of Decision ("SOD") in the six outstanding California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA") challenges to the approvals of the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project ("Cadiz Project"). The final SODs affirm the previously announced May 1, 2014 Minute Order issued by the Court, which denied all claims against the Project's environmental review and found that the Santa Margarita Water District ("SMWD") and the County of San Bernardino ("County") acted properly in approving the Cadiz Project and its permits.

"We are grateful for Judge Andler's decisions, which further validates what we have long believed: That Southern California water users can benefit from this immense, sustainable water supply without harming the environment," said Scott Slater, Cadiz CEO.

In accordance with California law, the Project went through a thorough and expansive environmental review and permitting process over 18 months from 2011 - 2012. After extensive public input and technical review, the Project's Environmental Impact Report ("EIR") was certified on July 31, 2012 by SMWD, the Lead Agency of the CEQA process. On October 1, 2012, the County Board of Supervisors, a Responsible Agency under CEQA, approved the Project's Groundwater Management, Monitoring, and Mitigation Plan under the County's Desert Groundwater Ordinance.

Lawsuits challenging these key approvals were filed in 2012 by various parties. Three cases were dismissed or settled in 2013 and six cases brought separately by the Center for Biological Diversity and Tetra Technologies (NYSE: TTI) proceeded to trial in December 2013 before Judge Andler. These cases alleged that the procedures followed and the quality of the analysis during the CEQA process were inadequate and sought a reversal of the core Project approvals. The final SODs set forth the basis for denying all of Petitioners' claims and validated the thorough environmental review of the Project.

August 20, 2014

A Line Is Drawn in the Desert

At Burning Man, the Tech Elite One-Up One Another

“If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it,” said the entrepreneur Elon Musk of Burning Man. A wooden yacht art car rolled through in 2012. (Credit Andy Barron/Reno Gazette-Journal via Associated Press)

By Nick Bilton
New York Times


There are two disciplines in which Silicon Valley entrepreneurs excel above almost everyone else. The first is making exorbitant amounts of money. The second is pretending they don’t care about that money.

To understand this, let’s enter into evidence Exhibit A: the annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nev.

If you have never been to Burning Man, your perception is likely this: a white-hot desert filled with 50,000 stoned, half-naked hippies doing sun salutations while techno music thumps through the air.

A few years ago, this assumption would have been mostly correct. But now things are a little different. Over the last two years, Burning Man, which this year runs from Aug. 25 to Sept. 1, has been the annual getaway for a new crop of millionaire and billionaire technology moguls, many of whom are one-upping one another in a secret game of I-can-spend-more-money-than-you-can and, some say, ruining it for everyone else.

Some of the biggest names in technology have been making the pilgrimage to the desert for years, happily blending in unnoticed. These include Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the Google founders, and Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon. But now a new set of younger rich techies are heading east, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, employees from Twitter, Zynga and Uber, and a slew of khaki-wearing venture capitalists.

Before I explain just how ridiculous the spending habits of these baby billionaires have become, let’s go over the rules of Burning Man: You bring your own place to sleep (often a tent), food to eat (often ramen noodles) and the strangest clothing possible for the week (often not much). There is no Internet or cell reception. While drugs are technically illegal, they are easier to find than candy on Halloween. And as for money, with the exception of coffee and ice, you cannot buy anything at the festival. Selling things to people is also a strict no-no. Instead, Burners (as they are called) simply give things away. What’s yours is mine. And that often means everything from a meal to saliva.

In recent years, the competition for who in the tech world could outdo who evolved from a need for more luxurious sleeping quarters. People went from spending the night in tents, to renting R.V.s, to building actual structures.

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.) “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”

His camp includes about 100 people from the Valley and Hollywood start-ups, as well as several venture capital firms. And while dues for most non-tech camps run about $300 a person, he said his camp’s fees this year were $25,000 a person. A few people, mostly female models flown in from New York, get to go free, but when all is told, the weekend accommodations will collectively cost the partygoers over $2 million.

Continue reading the main story
This is drastically different from the way most people experience the event. When I attended Burning Man a few years ago, we slept in tents and a U-Haul moving van. We lived on cereal and beef jerky for a week. And while Burning Man was one of the best experiences of my life, using the public Porta-Potty toilets was certainly one of the most revolting experiences thus far. But that’s what makes Burning Man so great: at least you’re all experiencing those gross toilets together.

That is, until recently. Now the rich are spending thousands of dollars to get their own luxury restroom trailers, just like those used on movie sets.

“Anyone who has been going to Burning Man for the last five years is now seeing things on a level of expense or flash that didn’t exist before,” said Brian Doherty, author of the book “This Is Burning Man.” “It does have this feeling that, ‘Oh, look, the rich people have moved into my neighborhood.’ It’s gentrifying.”

For those with even more money to squander, there are camps that come with “Sherpas,” who are essentially paid help.

Tyler Hanson, who started going to Burning Man in 1995, decided a couple of years ago to try working as a paid Sherpa at one of these luxury camps. He described the experience this way: Lavish R.V.s are driven in and connected together to create a private forted area, ensuring that no outsiders can get in. The rich are flown in on private planes, then picked up at the Burning Man airport, driven to their camp and served like kings and queens for a week. (Their meals are prepared by teams of chefs, which can include sushi, lobster boils and steak tartare — yes, in the middle of 110-degree heat.)

“Your food, your drugs, your costumes are all handled for you, so all you have to do is show up,” Mr. Hanson said. “In the camp where I was working, there were about 30 Sherpas for 12 attendees.”

Mr. Hanson said he won’t be going back to Burning Man anytime soon. The Sherpas, the money, the blockaded camps and the tech elite were too much for him. “The tech start-ups now go to Burning Man and eat drugs in search of the next greatest app,” he said. “Burning Man is no longer a counterculture revolution. It’s now become a mirror of society.”

Strangely, the tech elite won’t disagree with Mr. Hanson about it being a reflection of society. This year at the premiere of the HBO show “Silicon Valley,” Elon Musk, an entrepreneur who was a founder of PayPal, complained that Mike Judge, the show’s creator, didn’t get the tech world because — wait for it — he had not attended the annual party in the desert.

“I really feel like Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man, which is Silicon Valley,” Mr. Musk said to a Re/Code reporter, while using a number of expletives to describe the festival. “If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it.”

Non-tech Burners who have been may “get it” but don’t like all this excess, and are starting to push back. This month, the Key Group, a Swiss luxury concierge service, announced that it would be offering a Burning Man Concierge Service that seemed more like a cruise liner vacation than a week in the dusty desert. (The company did not respond to a request for comment.)

Among the dozens of options offered by the Key, there is the “establishment of a camp with electricity, water and satellite Internet Wi-Fi connection,” “cooks and fresh buffets for every meal” and — not a small task by any means given the distance from the real world — the “possibility of ordering goods and products from outside Black Rock City every day.”

When the website Burners.me, which blogs about the festival, posted a link to the Key’s site, the Burning Man community seemed generally confused as to whether such extravagance was actually real or if someone was playing a joke. When it turned out to be quite real, people railed against the service, and the Key removed the Burning Man concierge option from its site.

Of course, you won’t likely see pictures on Instagram or Facebook of the $2 million camps, chef-cooked meals, the Sherpa helpers and concierge services, or private and pristine toilets. That would mean that the tech elite actually cared about money — which would just go against the entire Burning Man spirit.

August 19, 2014

Westerners fear monumental land grab by Obama administration


By Kelly David Burke
FoxNews.com


Utah officials are scrambling to prevent the Obama administration from locking down thousands of acres of land in their backyard, as federal officials consider up to a dozen possible national monument designations – all in western states.

The Antiquities Act gives U.S. presidents the authority to unilaterally declare public lands as national monuments at the stroke of a pen, with no input from the public unless they choose to seek it.

Many national monuments eventually go on to become national parks.

National Parks Conservation Association spokeswoman Kristen Brengel said the practice has been used for over a century to preserve some of America’s most iconic landmarks: including the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty and Arches National Park.

“It's a wonderful tool to conserve these resources so that people can enjoy them in perpetuity,” she said.

But critics feel the Antiquities Act has been misused in recent decades by presidents of both parties and, in Utah, they’re seeking a compromise that would allow some land to become designated as “wilderness” instead.

"The original Antiquities Act passed as a way of conserving land," Republican Utah Rep. Rob Bishop said. "It's no longer used that way. Now it's used as a political purpose to make a political statement on land that is not endangered in any way."

The issue is particularly sensitive in the American West, where the vast majority of federally owned and controlled land lies.

"In the West, almost half of the land, versus 4 percent in the East, is owned by the federal government," Bishop said. "So in my state of Utah, 70 percent is owned and controlled by the federal government. So we in the West clearly see this differently, because we face it and live with it every day."

A draft Interior Department memo in 2010 suggested 12 sites for possible national monument designation by President Obama. The land already is mostly in federal hands, but a monument designation would more tightly restrict access.

All of the sites are in the West, including Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in New Mexico, which President Obama declared a new national monument in May.

Four of the other 11 sites in the Interior memo are in the state of Utah. Recently, 14 U.S. senators wrote to Obama urging him to declare a Greater Canyonlands monument in Utah. None of the senators live in the Intermountain West, much less the state of Utah, where anger over a previous national monument designation is still palpable.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert recalled how then-President Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, by far the nation's largest, covering an area the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

"President Clinton in 1996 -- denying that he was going to do it without any input from our congressional delegation or local government or state government -- just one day announced this designation,” Herbert said.

Bishop said “there were so many problems with it that were never solved when it was created.”

"They were never solved because it was a simplistic overreach and you didn't go into the details,” he said.

Emery County Commissioner Ethan Migliori said the monument is still a “bitter conversation in Utah.”

The problem, Migliori said, is the designation effectively “shut down everything” in that area.

“You can't access it anymore ... even on designated roads,” Migliori said.

Brengel said this president won't declare national monuments without warning. "One of the main things that the Obama administration has said is that they are looking for local input. Not just from local leaders but also from the public,” Brengel said.

Not willing to wait and see, Bishop has proposed a public lands initiative to work out a compromise. Instead of becoming national monuments, some land would become protected wilderness areas while allowing development on the rest.

Migliori and other officials in Emery County, where 92 percent of the land is owned by the federal government, support Bishop's efforts wholeheartedly. The proposed San Rafael National Monument would take up nearly 1,000 square miles, almost all of it in Emery County.

"It appears you have more access to a national park than you do to a national monument," Migliori said. "So a national monument is almost a death wish, or it feels like that to us."

Several environmental groups are also taking part in the discussions. "We are willing to work with any member of Congress on these proposals. We understand that their constituents have various interests. Ours in particular would be to protect some areas as wilderness or national parks,” Brengel said.

Herbert is also on board, saying: "The environmental community, industry, local civic and business leaders, farmers, ranchers, energy developers … All of the above come together and talk about what areas need to be developed and how, and what areas need to be preserved and protected because of their iconic vistas and venues."

Bishop said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has spoken to him twice about his public lands initiative. "The secretary of Interior is encouraging us to move forward in doing it this way because it's a much more satisfactory process than ever it would be if you used the Antiquities Act,” he said.

August 17, 2014

'Alarming' Rate Of Bird Deaths As New Solar Plants Scorch Animals In Mid-Air

Solar panels stand at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert near Primm, Nevada, U.S., on Monday, March 10, 2014. (Bloomberg via Getty Images)

By Ellen Knickmeyer and John Locher
Associated Press


IVANPAH DRY LAKE, Calif. (AP) — Workers at a state-of-the-art solar plant in the Mojave Desert have a name for birds that fly through the plant's concentrated sun rays — "streamers," for the smoke plume that comes from birds that ignite in midair

Federal wildlife investigators who visited the BrightSource Energy plant last year and watched as birds burned and fell, reporting an average of one "streamer" every two minutes, are urging California officials to halt the operator's application to build a still-bigger version.

The investigators want the halt until the full extent of the deaths can be assessed. Estimates per year now range from a low of about a thousand by BrightSource to 28,000 by an expert for the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group.

The deaths are "alarming. It's hard to say whether that's the location or the technology," said Garry George, renewable-energy director for the California chapter of the Audubon Society. "There needs to be some caution."

The bird kills mark the latest instance in which the quest for clean energy sometimes has inadvertent environmental harm. Solar farms have been criticized for their impacts on desert tortoises, and wind farms have killed birds, including numerous raptors.

"We take this issue very seriously," said Jeff Holland, a spokesman for NRG Solar of Carlsbad, California, the second of the three companies behind the plant. The third, Google, deferred comment to its partners.

The $2.2 billion plant, which launched in February, is at Ivanpah Dry Lake near the California-Nevada border. The operator says it is the world's biggest plant to employ so-called power towers.

More than 300,000 mirrors, each the size of a garage door, reflect solar rays onto three boiler towers each looming up to 40 stories high. The water inside is heated to produce steam, which turns turbines that generate enough electricity for 140,000 homes.

Sun rays sent up by the field of mirrors are bright enough to dazzle pilots flying in and out of Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Federal wildlife officials said Ivanpah might act as a "mega-trap" for wildlife, with the bright light of the plant attracting insects, which in turn attract insect-eating birds that fly to their death in the intensely focused light rays.

Federal and state biologists call the number of deaths significant, based on sightings of birds getting singed and falling, and on retrieval of carcasses with feathers charred too severely for flight.

Ivanpah officials dispute the source of the so-called streamers, saying at least some of the puffs of smoke mark insects and bits of airborne trash being ignited by the solar rays.

Wildlife officials who witnessed the phenomena say many of the clouds of smoke were too big to come from anything but a bird, and they add that they saw "birds entering the solar flux and igniting, consequently become a streamer."

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say they want a death toll for a full year of operation.

Given the apparent scale of bird deaths at Ivanpah, authorities should thoroughly track bird kills there for a year, including during annual migratory seasons, before granting any more permits for that kind of solar technology, said George, of the Audubon Society.

The toll on birds has been surprising, said Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the California Energy Commission. "We didn't see a lot of impact" on birds at the first, smaller power towers in the U.S. and Europe, Weisenmiller said.

The commission is now considering the application from Oakland-based BrightSource to build a mirror field and a 75-story power tower that would reach above the sand dunes and creek washes between Joshua Tree National Park and the California-Arizona border.

The proposed plant is on a flight path for birds between the Colorado River and California's largest lake, the Salton Sea — an area, experts say, is richer in avian life than the Ivanpah plant, with protected golden eagles and peregrine falcons and more than 100 other species of birds recorded there.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials warned California this month that the power-tower style of solar technology holds "the highest lethality potential" of the many solar projects burgeoning in the deserts of California.

The commission's staff estimates the proposed new tower would be almost four times as dangerous to birds as the Ivanpah plant. The agency is expected to decide this autumn on the proposal.

While biologists say there is no known feasible way to curb the number of birds killed, the companies behind the projects say they are hoping to find one — studying whether lights, sounds or some other technology would scare them away, said Joseph Desmond, senior vice president at BrightSource Energy.

BrightSource also is offering $1.8 million in compensation for anticipated bird deaths at Palen, Desmond said.

The company is proposing the money for programs such as those to spay and neuter domestic cats, which a government study found kill over 1.4 billion birds a year. Opponents say that would do nothing to help the desert birds at the proposed site.

Power-tower proponents are fighting to keep the deaths from forcing a pause in the building of new plants when they see the technology on the verge of becoming more affordable and accessible, said Thomas Conroy, a renewable-energy expert.

When it comes to powering the country's grids, "diversity of technology ... is critical," Conroy said. "Nobody should be arguing let's be all coal, all solar," all wind, or all nuclear. "And every one of those technologies has a long list of pros and cons."

August 15, 2014

Desert tortoise doing just fine

EDITORIAL

LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL

The desert tortoise is so threatened, in such a fight for species survival, that it desperately needs birth control.

If you’ve read this page for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with the federal government’s absurd efforts to protect a reptile that doesn’t need protection. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of desert tortoises live in Las Vegas Valley backyards or in pens as pets. But federal law is concerned solely with species populations that live in the wild. So the fact that desert tortoises breed, thrive and actually fare better as pets is a problem in need of fixing.

As reported Wednesday by the Review-Journal’s Henry Brean, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is inviting veterinarians from across the West to come to Las Vegas to participate in a two-day tortoise sterilization clinic. The public will pay for experts to teach the latest snipping techniques.

Hey, at least federal officials are no longer focused on killing the creatures they say they’re trying to protect — at one point, they were ready to euthanize surplus tortoises at their conservation center. But a far more cost-effective approach would be to remove the thriving creatures from the threatened species list altogether. Consider this problem solved. Leave the tortoises alone, already.

August 14, 2014

Salazar, sportsmen chide states' public lands movement

A hiker goes through the San Rafael Swell, in Emery County. (Steve Baker, Deseret News archives)

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Deseret News


SALT LAKE CITY — A states' rights, public lands movement with its genesis in Utah was blasted by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Thursday as an effort that threatens to undo the successes of American conservation policy.

"This would roll back 100 years of public lands progress," he said in a teleconference hosted by the National Wildlife Federation.

"This would cause Teddy Roosevelt to roll over in his grave if he knew what the Republican National Committee's position was in respect to our public lands."

Roosevelt is regarded as the presidential architect of public lands conservation in the United States, creating a flurry of national parks, monuments and wildlife refuges under his administration, as well signing the Antiquities Act into law that gives presidents the executive power over such decisions.

In the teleconference, Salazar emphasized that a resolution endorsed by the Republican National Committee in favor of the Western states' movement is wrong-headed.

"These lands are the nation's birthright," he said. "They do not belong to one state."

The Transfer of Public Lands Act was passed in Utah two years ago and calls on the federal government to cede title to lands that some say were supposed to be "disposed" of at statehood.

Sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, the law is at the center of a movement that has gained political traction among Utah's neighbors and sympathetic support from critics who say the federal government has too much control in the West.

The effort seeks transfers of vast swaths of Forest Service and BLM lands into state or private control, generating revenue that would support cash-strapped public school systems.

In Utah, more than 65 percent of the land is under the purview of the federal government, which "take back" supporters say puts the state at an economic disadvantage when it comes to tax revenues.

But critics say to sell or trade off public lands is to relinquish lands cherished by U.S. citizens and envied by countries around the world.

"America's national parks, monuments and rugged landscapes are not only a draw for people in this country but across the globe," said Peter Metcalf, president and chief executive officer of Salt Lake City-based Black Diamond, a clothing and outdoor equipment company. "No other country in the world has the public land infrastructure that we have. "

While the anti-public lands movement — at least in Utah — does not seek to dismantle national parks or monuments, Metcalf said he sees it as a real threat to the outdoor recreation economy.

"I see no other issue as strategically threatening to the vibrancy of one of America's most significant, sustainable and growing sectors … and the American outdoor industry is the world's leader. It is one of the few industries where America still dominates."

Metcalf said he first heard of the anti-public lands movement about 18 months ago, an ideological mission he said most dismissed out of hand because it was so "right-wing and so unimaginable."

"Now, because of our deafening silence and the fact that we did not mobilize earlier, something that people thought was inconceivable … is actually a plank in the Republican National Committee. Clearly it has gained momentum."

Utah has led out in a public policy and legislative push against continued federal land management and in Congress, a number of bills seek to rein in the power of agencies like the BLM and the Forest Service.

The festering resentment over federal land management policies on such activities like grazing, wild horses, oil and gas development, forest management and endangered species has crystalized in conflicts like that of Cliven Bundy's showdown over "trespassing" cattle and a defiant ATV ride in San Juan County.

The federation's Collin O'Mara said booting the public off the land, however, is not the answer.

"Resolutions like these cut against more than a century's worth of precedent," he said, noting that he'd visited the Salmon River area of Idaho recently, reveling in its beauty.

"The idea that lands like those could be closed off from visitors, from residents, from wildlife lovers of all stripes is a terrifying proposition because of the connection with nature that could be lost through these kind of activities," said O'Mara, the federation's president and chief executive officer.

August 13, 2014

More Water Headed To Struggling Lake Mead

In this July 16, 2014 photo, what was once the Echo Bay Marina sits high and dry next to Lake Mead in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada. A 14-year drought has caused the water level in Lake Mead to shrink to its lowest point since it was first filled in the 1930s. (AP Photo/John Locher)

BY FELICIA FONSECA
ASSOCIATED PRESS


FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- One of the main reservoirs in the vast Colorado River water system that is struggling to serve the booming Southwest will get more water this year, but that won't be enough to pull Lake Mead back from near-record lows.

Water managers, farmers and cities throughout the region have been closely watching the elevation at the reservoir behind Hoover Dam. It is at its lowest level since the dam was complete and the lake first was filled in the 1930s.

A drop to 1,075 would mean cuts in water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Wednesday that it will release 10 percent more water from Lake Powell near the Arizona-Utah border into Lake Mead than it did the past year, thanks to near-normal runoff.

Federal officials said they'll send 8.23 million acre feet to Lake Mead, up from 7.48 million acre feet when Lake Powell was at its lowest level ever. An acre foot is about 325,850 gallons, or enough to cover a football field with a foot of water.

Despite the additional water, Lake Mead is projected to remain near record lows at 1,083 feet in January - three feet higher than it was Wednesday. That's because more water will be delivered to cities, farms, American Indian communities and Mexico than Lake Mead will get from Lake Powell.

Federal officials say they will review their projections in April after the winter snowfall, with the possibility of releasing up to 9 million acre feet into Lake Mead for the 2015 water year.

The August projections from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation help set the course for water deliveries for the next two years but didn't reveal anything unexpected.

Some water managers and users have been saving water for potential dry days or preparing for an expected water shortage in 2016. Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Rose Davis said officials still are running numbers that would show the percentage chance of cuts in 2016. Those figures are expected to be released later this month.

In the meantime, federal officials and water administrators in metro areas say they're committed to finding new ways to make every drop of river water count - from conservation, recycling, cloud seeding, desalination plants and pipelines to new reservoirs.

Scott Huntley of the Southern Nevada Water Authority said the agency isn't expecting any major difficulties, even if shortages are declared for the Colorado River water because of conservation and water reuse programs.

"We're at least in a solid position to weather this," he said.

The entire Colorado River system supplies water to California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and part of Mexico.

August 12, 2014

Sterilization clinic set for endangered tortoise

Mojave Max roams the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas in 2009. A clinic later this month seeks to sterilize desert tortoises to prevent rampant backyard breeding. (John Gurzinski/Las Vegas Review-Journal file)

By HENRY BREAN
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL


U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials will hold a clinic in Las Vegas later this month with an unusual goal in mind: curb the breeding of a federally protected species they are also trying to save.

The agency is inviting veterinarians from Nevada, Arizona, California and Utah to attend a first-ever desert tortoise sterilization clinic, a two-day event to teach new techniques that could help slow backyard breeding of the reptile.

Officials say the growing population of unwanted pet tortoises is a management problem, diverting resources from efforts to preserve the species in the wild.

Uncontrolled backyard breeding also threatens native populations because captive tortoises can carry diseases with them when they escape or are released illegally in the desert.

Nevada law allows just one pet tortoise per household, but the measure adopted last year grandfathered in those who already had more.

Sterilization is one way to bring the captive population under control, said Mike Senn, assistant field supervisor for the Fish & Wildlife Service in Nevada.

Senn said it can be “a really difficult issue” to explain to people, but it comes down to this: Simply breeding more tortoises won’t save the species in the long run if not enough is done to improve and protect natural habitat and address threats in the wild.

The clinic will be Aug. 27-28 at the Oquendo Center, a medical training and events venue off Eastern Avenue near McCarran International Airport. There, about a dozen veterinarians, most of them from Nevada, will receive hands-on training in new tortoise sterilization techniques from the experts who pioneered them: Dr. Jay Johnson of the Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital and two researchers from the University of Georgia, Dr. Stephen Divers and Dr. Laila Proenca, who used tortoises shipped from Nevada for their work.

Veterinarians trained at the clinic will be able to perform the procedures in their private practice and, Senn hopes, at future events where pet owners cab get their tortoises fixed for free — or at a reduced rate.

More than 50 tortoises will be sterilized during the clinic, and wildlife officials are seeking new post-op homes for the animals. The nonprofit Tortoise Group is handling the adoptions. Those wishing to adopt or learn more about tortoise ownership and care may do so through the organization’s website, tortoisegroup.org.

“The first-ever sterilized tortoises will be available for placement in early September, and we need about 50 good homes in Southern and Northern Nevada,” said Jim Cornall, executive director for the Tortoise Group.

Sterilizing tortoises was a complicated and invasive process, but Senn said new techniques are considered low-risk and effective.

“For the males it’s pretty straightforward” and can be done pretty much any time the animals are active, Cornall said. The work is “a bit more involved” for females and must be done when they are in breeding condition, generally in July and August.

Some of the tortoises to be operated on during the clinic came from a single crop of about 50 that were living in a local backyard until their primary caretaker died — exactly the sort of situation wildlife managers and tortoise rescue groups hope to avoid in the future.

Other patients will be provided by the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, a 220-acre facility established 20 years ago at the valley’s southwestern edge as a place for developers to put the federally protected animals after removing them from job sites in booming Clark County.

The center is the valley’s de facto tortoise shelter, taking in as many as 1,000 unwanted tortoises each year and racking up about $1 million in costs that otherwise could have been spent on research and recovery work, Senn said.

The Desert Tortoise Conservation Center will close at the end of the year, when its funding runs out.

August 10, 2014

California Desert Protection Act turns 20, celebrations planned

“Queen Valley” by Yucca Valley photographer Mike Fagan. (Courtesy Joshua Tree National Park Council for the Arts)

By Joe Nelson
San Bernardino Sun


The Joshua Tree National Park Council for the Arts, in cooperation with Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve, will be sponsoring a series of events this fall in celebration of the 20-year anniversary of the California Desert Protection Act, which expanded protection of California desert land by 8.6 million acres.

Events are planned from Oct. 31 through Nov. 15 from the Coachella Valley to Death Valley.

The Council for the Arts has launched a website, caldesert20.org, which includes a calendar of planned events that will updated regularly and a link to the summary and text of the California Desert Protection Act.

Adopted on Oct. 31, 1994, the California Desert Protection Act established the Mojave National Preserve and designated Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments as state [sic] parks while also expanding their footprint. It also established 69 wilderness areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Feinstein said in a statement Friday that the California Desert Protection Act has allowed millions of Americans to enjoy 7 million acres of pristine California desert.

“Since that bill passed 20 years ago, I remain absolutely convinced that preserving this pristine desert land is the right thing to do,” Feinstein said. “That’s why I will soon introduce new legislation that will protect lands donated to the federal government by creating a new national monument while allowing recreation and renewable energy development to occur in other desert lands where it is more appropriate.”

She said there are not many spaces that are as pristine, as beautiful and worthy of protection than the California desert.

“I’m proud to have a wide array of allies in this pursuit, and I am eager to continue my work to preserve this land,” Feinstein said.

The Council for the Arts is working with the city of Twentynine Palms, the town of Yucca Valley and the unincorporated Joshua Tree and Morongo Valley to promote events to be held in mid-November that include a Desert Dinner featuring local elected officials and the national park’s new superintendent, a mural unveiling in Twentynine Palms, wilderness walks and hikes at Joshua Tree National Park and art exhibits, said Vickie Waite, executive director of the Joshua Tree National Park Council for the Arts.

Waite encourages local organizations and members of the community to get involved by contacting her via email at director@caldesert20.org.

In Ridgecrest near Death Valley, visitors can experience the first ever Ridgecrest Petroglyph and Heritage Festival in November, which will highlight American Indian rock art in desert mountains and the Indian Wells Valley, said Doug Lueck, executive director of the Ridgecrest Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

August 4, 2014

BLM, local law enforcement tensions near breaking point in the West

  • Western sheriffs accuse BLM of elitism: 'They have a hard time recognizing our authority'
  • Federal authorities feel so threatened in some rural areas in the West that they patrol in unmarked cars
  • 'Right or wrong, some equate BLM's law enforcement operations to the Gestapo of the World War II era'

The federal Bureau of Land Management's rocky relationship with local authorities in the West was exacerbated by a standoff with armed volunteers at Cliven Bundy's Nevada ranch. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

By JOHN M. GLIONNA
Los Angeles Times


LAS VEGAS, NV – James Perkins sees the federal Bureau of Land Management more as a belligerent occupying army than a government agency serving U.S. citizens, including those like him in south-central Utah.

Perkins is the sheriff of Garfield County, a rural bastion the size of Connecticut with only 5,500 residents, where 90% of the land is maintained by the BLM. The relationship between local law enforcement and often heavily armed federal officers has always been tense, and now threatens to reach a breaking point.

He and others attribute the deteriorating relations to what he calls BLM's culture of elitism, which provoked Garfield County to join two other Utah counties this year to pass a resolution restricting or banning federal law enforcement within their borders.

"I don't know any sheriff who doesn't want a good relationship with the BLM," he said. "We're a rural agency and we'd like a partnership, but it seems they have a hard time recognizing our authority. They'd rather be independent."

The BLM has faced a string of challenges. In April, it called off a cattle roundup after rebellious Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy was backed by an armed citizen militia that stood its ground with semiautomatic weapons. The BLM looked, in turns, overzealous and ineffectual.

Then, in May, citizens of rural San Juan County in Utah staged a protest, driving all-terrain vehicles into a canyon the BLM had closed to such traffic.

BLM officials say they're trying to manage a mammoth swath of the West as best they can while seeking common ground with local authorities. In some of those states, though, BLM workers have felt so threatened that they patrol in unmarked vehicles, without uniforms.

Perkins and others recently addressed a House public lands subcommittee that was collecting testimony about concerns over the BLM, including claims about bullying ranchers and refusing to respond to emergency calls.

They didn't mince words.

"Over the past decade or so we have observed and experienced a militarization of BLM's officers," said Leland Pollack, a Garfield County commissioner. "Right or wrong, some equate BLM's law enforcement operations to the Gestapo of the World War II era."

BLM officials in Washington call the claims "vague and inaccurate."

"The agency is not elitist," said Bob Abbey, who led the BLM from 2009 until 2012. "Everything the BLM does is based on public input or a direction from the courts, so it's frustrating to hear criticism like this. The way I see it, we have much more in common with local law enforcement than differences, but we've allowed those differences to block pursuing common goals."

Perkins testified that he has a good working relationship with other federal agencies such as the FBI and National Park Service, but not the BLM. In recent months, he said, the BLM has refused to renew law enforcement contracts with several Utah counties, citing legal deficiencies.

In an interview, he described an incident this year in which a county detective was investigating whether a BLM officer had failed to report a traffic accident, as required by law.

"I was told by the chief of BLM law enforcement in Utah that we had no right to investigate one of his officers and that the matter should have been turned over to their internal affairs division," Perkins said. "When I'm told by the federal government that I don't have the authority to investigate crimes in my county, well, that's just troublesome to me."

He said his county, which includes most of Bryce Canyon National Park and parts of Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, has spent more than $70,000 this year assisting federal officials with search-and-rescue operations. "Yet we've not seen one penny from them," he said. "There have been times when we can't even get them to come out and assist us."

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) told the House subcommittee that televised images of the BLM's tense, heavily armed standoff with Bundy "looked like they were taken in Afghanistan or Iraq rather than the American West."

In an interview, Stewart said the incident could have been avoided if federal officials had allowed the sheriff to take charge.

"They're just more morally justified to intervene — these local sheriffs know people in the community and are more aware of what's going on with them," he said. "They're also going to be held accountable more than federal agents who don't live in the community and don't have to answer to the people there."

Stewart, who has concerns about the weapons carried by many federal officers, has sponsored a bill to demilitarize federal regulatory agencies.

"Nobody is trying to take away weapons from BLM law enforcement people, but some of these regulatory agencies have SWAT teams or what they call special-event tactical units," Stewart said. "When I asked when these agencies deploy their units, I was told they couldn't answer that. This isn't the CIA or FBI. Why can't they tell the American people their rules of engagement?"

Abbey said the BLM can do its part to bridge the divide with sheriffs.

"I've always said that it's important for BLM people to get out into the field," he said. "You can't do your job by sitting behind a desk and wait[ing] for someone to come in with a complaint. There is a real need for better local relationships."

But Perkins isn't sure whether the wounds can be healed.

"We just have to respect each other," he said. "These people can't just come in and think they're going to walk over local authorities. That doesn't do anybody any good."

August 1, 2014

Colorado River Concerns Mount as Lake Mead’s Surface Continues to Fall

The white ring \"around the tub\" shows how much elevation the surface of the lake has lost. (Rose Davis / Bureau of Reclamation)

By JIM TROTTER
Rocky Mountain PBS I-News


Lake Mead, the vast reservoir behind iconic Hoover Dam outside Las Vegas, is plummeting past levels not seen since it first filled in the 1930s. That is not good news for any of the seven states or Mexico that share Colorado River water.

All of this is governed by "90 years of agreements," including the Colorado River Compact of 1922. To bring the so-called "Law of the River" into 21st century realities of population growth and climate warming, many observers say the rules are going to have to change.

Western water expert Brad Udall, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado Law School, believes it will take a "full-out" crisis to bring meaningful reforms, but that such a crisis may well be at hand.

The surface elevation of Lake Mead reached the historic low of 1,081.75 feet above sea level during the week of July 7, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, and is projected to fall to 1,080 by November. On July 31, it was projected at 1080.61.

However, should it fall to 1,075 feet it would trigger a declared shortage on the river, at which point water deliveries could be impacted. The lake has dropped 128 feet since 2000.

But, Udall told Rocky Mountain PBS I-News, water providers are looking at solutions to avoid a shortage declaration.

"There’s a plan underway right now that involves Denver water, involves three of the lower basin water providers, one in each state, plus the Bureau of Reclamation, to put $11 million dollars on the table next year to start buying these water rights from voluntary agriculture users and have them not exercise those rights in order to keep the two reservoirs – Lake Mead and upstream Lake Powell – keep them higher than they might otherwise be.”

To effectively meet the challenges of this century, the basic premise underpinning the Law of the River – first in time, first in right – will have to be rethought.

“The other way to look at this is that the glass is half full," Udall said. "We still have 80 percent of the river, still a lot of water. But we’ve got to use it correctly, and that means a healthy agriculture industry that doesn’t use 70 percent. It could be a system in which agriculture is paid handsomely not to plant in very dry years. We need to do better in using water wisely.”

July 29, 2014

Camping By a Pool in the Mojave Desert Was the Weirdest Night of My Life

The boys crouched down to unlock the cover to the pool and slowly slid it open, like they were exposing a tiny silver of heaven. Our own personal desert mirage. Was this art? (Sasha Bronner)

Sasha Bronner
HuffPost LA


There is a hidden swimming pool in the Mojave Desert, an eleven-by-five-foot wide minimalist structure designed by an artist and titled the "Social Pool" -- and it is open to anyone who has a day to spare, Google Maps and the ability to follow directions. News about the pool started to buzz in June and caught my attention as something that might bring about adventure, happiness, or both. The sheer ridiculousness of it all -- the fact that you pick up a key that unlocks the cover to the pool from a museum in LA, are only then given the secret coordinates, drive three hours into the desert and then need to be back 24 hours later -- excited anyone I knew who had heard about it.

The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, The Smithsonian and countless others had all covered the art installation -- and its limited run until September -- ignited my desire to go with an even greater sense of urgency.

I recruited two male friends who were both giddy about the adventure; one a newer friend and one whom I've known for years. It was all we could talk about for days leading up to our departure.

When we decided to up the ante and planned to camp overnight by the pool (which some people have done, but not many), my greatest fears were the possibility of snakes, the punishing sun and heat and possibly an interaction with a scorpion.

Mike, Jonathan and I collected the key to the pool at 11:03 a.m. in West Hollywood. We were given the GPS coordinates and little else.

About an hour before we arrived at our destination, we started noticing the small towns that appeared and then vanished around us: abandoned homes off the side of the road, cracking signs and large deserted plots of land. Signs for Ron's Ranch, various feed stores or the Lone Wolf Health Colony gave us pause. It was as if we were driving through a Disneyland attraction or an actual ghost town. We were delighted already.

After leaving a gas station with gallons of cold water, Gatorade and bags of ice, we resumed our route on the one-lane highway, only to strangely see a long procession of cars heading towards us with their hazard lights flashing. Most businesses were closed or hadn't been open in months and as we left the various towns behind, driving 80 mph on open roads, we looked around and said that we had just officially entered the mind of Stephen King.

The GPS told us to turn left onto what had been described as a dirt road, but was really more of a severely rocky road that we had to drive down very slowly to avoid damaging our cars. We pulled over 2.5 miles down the road when the voice of the GPS politely said to prepare to park and to continue to our destination on foot.

We knew ahead of time that finding the pool would take some searching -- some said anywhere between five and 30 minutes on foot -- and we were also told that the pool was in the "middle of nowhere." Instead, once we had turned on the rocky road, we passed a fairly big house on our right and closer to where we parked, we saw a set of three abandoned RVs with the windows smashed open, the doors blown out but lawn chairs sitting in the yard. This did not seem like the middle of nowhere.

Between looking for a GPS location in the desert and the questionable meth RVs haphazardly planted around us, the trip suddenly had all the makings of the complete Breaking Bad experience.

Off to the right, in the wide-open desert, we squinted and saw a group of people standing around something. Because the Social Pool is supposed to have only one key that is given out for 24 hours at a time, and because that key was tucked carefully away in my camouflage fanny pack, our curiosity about the group of men and their truck blossomed. Unsure of what to say when we approached them, we left all of our gear in the car and headed their way.

The sky, deeply overcast, broke open with warm rain and we soon saw bolts of lightning far off in the distance. As we grew closer, it was clear that the group was in fact waiting at the pool -- it looked like we wouldn't have to do any searching -- but when we approached, they headed back to their truck and drove off without saying a word.

The rest of the afternoon passed blissfully. We hiked back to our cars, transferred gear to Mike's car and drove it down a sandier road that put us closer to the pool. The boys crouched down to unlock the cover to the pool and slowly slid it open, like they were exposing a tiny silver of heaven. Our own personal desert mirage. Was this art? It didn't matter. They dropped a heavy block of ice into the already cool water and we jumped in, shrieking and laughing.

Everything that was supposed to be surreal and wonderful about a tiny oasis tucked into the ground of the desert -- was. We laughed at the absurdity of where we were, took Polaroid pictures and drank beers. I packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and we ate them sitting on the edge of the pool, our feet soaking, bewildered by the beautiful emptiness of it all, smiling when the rain blew away and was replaced by a perfect desert breeze. We listened to Fleetwood Mac, The Traveling Wilburys and Paul Simon. The sun started to fade and pinks and oranges burst into the sky and we quickly forgot about the ghost town, the RVs and the mysterious people who were there when we arrived.

The stars made their grand appearance, pulling us away from even our conversations as we looked up and tried to remember the last time we could see so much beauty above us. Lanterns were switched on, my sweatpants replaced my bathing suit and individually wrapped slices of pizza were consumed. We were happy.

But a few hours later, off in the distance, a tiny light appeared. Two, in fact -- the headlights of a vehicle. We watched it travel down the road, still a great distance from us, and wondered if it could be going to that first house we saw, or possibly, the less desirable option, if it could be headed toward the Breaking Bad RVs. But then the two lights veered off of the road and picked up speed, barreling directly toward us suddenly at a great pace. We all tensed, I turned off the music and lights and Mike and Jonathan whispered frantically about what to do. The car was approaching fast and they quickly got out of the pool and reached for empty beer bottles.

The Jeep stopped about 20 feet away, first passing us, and then reversing to our exact location. Two men got out of the car and started whispering. One put on a headlamp. As they approached we said, "Hello? Can we help you?" and they stopped, still covered by darkness, none of their features discernible. "A friend leaked the key," is all one said. We asked them to come closer so that we could see their faces, and the man continued, "We were going to check it out but we can stay out of your way."

We suddenly felt deeply protective of the pool, a subtle primal instinct setting in as we looked up at their faces, realizing that we were in fact not in the middle of nowhere. Realizing with a shudder of stupidity that actually, the entire Internet probably knew our exact location and anyone could have a copy of that key. Enter every horror movie plot you've ever seen.

Showing my true city girl colors, I confidently told them that we had a reservation and that we would be there 'til morning. They said it was so hot earlier that they didn't think anyone would be out there. But it wasn't that hot earlier, I thought to myself. It rained. There was something about the squint in their eyes, the weirdly high-tech watch that the man with the headlamp wore, the inflection of the voice that said "we can stay out of your way" that clung to me after the Jeep pulled away. We kept our lanterns off until the echo of the red of their taillights was long lost in the distance.

The visit changed everything and even though they were gone, we sat feeling edgy in the darkness, talking about how the very things we were most worried about -- the heat, actually finding the pool and maybe the snakes -- were really not a problem at all. Instead, what we feared the most was actually other human beings.

Around midnight we headed to our tents, feeling calmer after fixating on the beautiful blinking lights above us, talking about what the stars looked like during childhood and all the other things that humans talk about when we look up at the night sky. Mike went into his tent and Jonathan and I went into ours. The night was so warm that we kept the tent window, covered in thin mesh, open so that we could feel the breeze and even see the stars behind us if we tipped our heads back.

Three hours later, my eyes snapped opened to the sound of footsteps and breathing. My body went stiff and I felt Jonathan's hand squeeze my forearm tight telling me that he was awake and heard it too. We didn't move or speak, wanting whatever or whoever was out there to think that we were sleeping. We listened intently to the sound outside the tent. This went on for minutes. I was sure something was looking through the tent window at us. I could feel its eyes and hear it breathing.

Fear like this transfixes your body in an instant. The only thing moving was my heart; maniacally pulsating at a pace I have never felt before and hope to never feel again. We gripped each other's arms, squeezing quick pulses in an attempt to communicate when we heard something new. Next came the sound of something touching the tent, like it was trying to find the zipper -- but quietly. I reached for my glasses and Jonathan's hand quickly touched mine to feel what I was reaching for.

The brain doesn't run through multiple grand scenarios at a time like this. It doesn't consider all the possibilities. It zeroes in on a feeling. Someone was there to hurt us. I was sure in the deepest pockets of my gut that either the men from the Jeep had come back or someone from that house or the RVs was there to kill us. Or had they come to steal our car keys? Do we try to protect ourselves? Do we pretend we're sleeping? I waited with terror for the moment that they found the zipper. The moment didn't come.

The sound of footsteps and movement stalled. But there was an indentation of something leaning against the tent, right next to me. Very slowly we moved from lying on our backs to kneeling up on our knees and I whispered, the sound barely leaving my throat, "Who the fuck is that?" to which he quickly responded, "What the fuck is that?" As sure as I was that there was a human trying to get into the tent, he was sure that it was an animal pushing up against it. A coyote perhaps.

"We have to make a ton of noise to scare it away," he whispered.

"What if it's a person? What if they attack us?" I looked at him with wide glistening eyes.

"I think it's an animal. They are scavengers and we have to scare it away. We won't have any peace of mind until we do. We have to make really loud sounds at the top of our lungs."

"We are going to scare Mike so bad he's going to have a heart attack."

"We have to do it."

"I don't know what to yell."

"We have to yell loudly like we are mad. Not like we are scared."

"But I am so scared."

"Then you can shout something and I'll make sounds. Just scream 'Get the fuck out of here! Get the fuck out of here!'"

"Mike is going to think people are here."

"Okay then scream 'Get the fuck out of here, animals!'"

"But that's so long."

"Scream 'Get out of here! Get out of here!' But do it really, really loud. Okay?"

I took many deep breaths. "Okay."

He counted down from five and started making these insane short guttural calls from the belly of his body, and forgetting my line, I just started wailing, "Go away! Go away!"

Silence.

Then the sound of Mike's voice wafted from his tent. As if in slow motion he asked, "So. What's going on?"

Jonathan took the flashlight and left the tent. As we told Mike everything that had just happened, I brought my knees to my chest and tried to stop my entire body from shaking. Jonathan spotted fresh urine around the tent and paw prints.

Falling back asleep was like trying to stop popcorn from popping out of a pan. We didn't say much else until the sun came up. Exiting the tent in the daylight felt like breathing for the first time. We packed up camp quickly, slid the cover back on the Social Pool and locked it.

We got all our stuff back to Mike's car in two trips. As we slammed the trunk and Jonathan and I put our backpacks on to walk up the road to my car, I sarcastically said, "After all this, you guys, you know there's going to be a third act."

Mike started the car and put his foot on the accelerator but the tires quickly sunk into the sand. He reversed and tried again. We tried pushing the car. Then I steered and they pushed. Sand and smoke wailed up around the tires and we looked at each other in disbelief. After 30 minutes of trying, and the pressure of being told that we had to return the key to Los Angeles by 11 a.m., we left everything and drove my car back up to the highway.

Mike Googled auto towing in the area and called at least three numbers that were disconnected. A fourth place was closed on the weekends. We finally got a live voice, Mark, who said he was too far away but to try Debbie. We called Debbie but got an Al, who told us to call Ed, who told us to call Tony.

I pulled into the town where we had seen the cars flashing their hazard lights and found a place called Cafe 247 that had a sign for breakfast all day. I've never ordered a milkshake at 8:40 a.m. but I earned it. We also were delighted to ingest the best breakfast burrito that's ever been made by human hands. If anyone ever asks you the vague question "all the meat?" when ordering anything, just say yes.

We sat in the roadside cafe while Tony worked out how to get to Mike's car. We met him on the highway an hour later and waited while Mike disappeared with him down the rocky road. We dozed on and off and whenever I re-opened my eyes, I squinted down the rocky road to see if I could spot Mike's white car or Tony's grey truck headed our way. Over ninety minutes and $375 later, after clearing out bushes and even some small trees, Tony was able to drag Mike's car back to the road.

We drove home, for a while following one another on the highway, and then eventually separating when I pulled over to take a picture of a faded, broken down sign with an abandoned couch in front of it. It read "Apple Valley Welcomes You...to a better way of life!" And after that, we couldn't stop ourselves from recounting in great detail, with insane spouts of laughter, all that had happened. All that had been said. All that we had felt in the span of 21 hours.

We noticed new signs on the highway for other abandoned ranches and bizarre motels, like the Portal Motel or Paradise Inn (which had vacancy), but the drive went more quickly this time. Perhaps I drove faster than I realized.

Now that we are home, friends have asked us if it was fun -- to which, we each have decided to answer: That's beside the point.

July 25, 2014

Make 'contact' with alien experts at Joshua Tree event

Giant Rock Convention, Landers, 1966. (Courtesy Morongo Basin Historical Society)
Denise Goolsby
The Desert


MORONGO BASIN — Tim Gaul had an extraterrestrial experience — in sales.

Gaul, an artist who graduated from Indio High School, found out how mainstream the fascination with other possible life has become when he rolled out his newest necklace creation earlier this week at a festival: porcelain alien faces — featuring those familiar almond-shaped eyes.

He sold dozens within a few days.

Although Gaul doesn't think a bunch of E.T.s are walking the Earth, he doesn't rule out the idea that other beings exist.

"I believe there's life on other planets," he said. "Maybe there's a race of other people on other planets."

And if there are, they aren't evil.

"Or they would have taken us out already," he said.

Extraterrestrials, ancient aliens, crop circles, contact experiences and UFO sightings are among the many out-of-this-world topics that will be explored during the "Contact in the Desert" four-day conference beginning Aug. 8 in Joshua Tree.

The second such conference, it features scientists, researchers, archeologists, best-selling authors and experts featured on History Channel shows such as "Ancient Aliens" and "Hangar 1."

It's in "stark contrast to UFO conventions famous for attracting fanatics in foil hats," according to organizers.

The event coincides with the Perseid meteor shower — one of the brightest meteor showers of the year — which occurs every August, peaking this year between Aug. 10 and Aug. 13.

The location of the conference is significant.

"Joshua Tree has a long history of sightings," co-organizer Paul Andrews said. "We think that, scientifically, there's something about the area that is attractive to this phenomena."

Just as us earthlings are drawn to Joshua Tree — its other-worldly beauty amplified by a sense of spiritual serenity — visitors from other worlds might also be lured by the charm of this secluded, sprawling high desert sanctuary.

George Noory, host of the nationally syndicated radio talk show, "Coast to Coast AM;" Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, host of "Ancient Aliens;" and Erich von Däniken, author of "Chariots of the Gods," are among the headliners of the event, which features a lineup of nearly 40 speakers, including local historian Barbara Harris, who has studied the Morongo Basin communities, specifically Morongo Valley, Landers and Joshua Tree for the past 30 years.

Harris said the history of the area's connection to UFOs dates back to at least 1947 when George Van Tassel — an aircraft mechanic and flight inspector who worked for Douglas Aircraft, Hughes Aircraft and Lockheed — left Southern California's aerospace industry and moved his family to Landers, site of the mysterious Giant Rock, a massive, freestanding boulder standing seven stories tall.

The 25,000-ton behemoth, purported to be the largest freestanding boulder in the world, covers 5,800 square feet — the size of an estate-size home in the Coachella Valley.

"That's where all of the UFO stuff began," she said. "Van Tassel started having visions or connections with space beings from Venus."

During one of these encounters, he received some advice.

"They told him, 'You human beings are coming along OK as a species. However, when you finally get to the place where you 'get it' you die.' They gave him some information on how to build the integratron — a time machine or rejuvenation device to help extend human life."

The one-of-a-kind, all-wood parabolic dome-shaped structure was built on a powerful geomagnetic vortex. Construction began in 1954 and he worked on it until his sudden death in 1978.

The structure, which still stands today, is open to the public.

Van Tassel put on open-air conferences called the Interplanetary Spacecraft conventions, which began April 4, 1953.

"In the 50s and 60s, as many as 10,000 people found themselves driving to the middle of nowhere in the middle of the desert to listen to George Van Tassel speak, to listen to contactees," Harris said.

Harris believes UFO activity — and sightings — are related to specific times in history.

The upheaval of World War II and the development and use of nuclear weapons may have drawn intelligent life closer to Earth, she said.

"Certain people believe the UFOs and the E.T.s come here as a support system to the human race. They're here, basically, to help us grow as a species. They were showing up so we wouldn't destroy ourselves."

"During this time period, people were just starting to come out of their shells and talk about UFOs, talk about X-Files and talk about government conspiracies. At the same time, things were happening in Roswell," she said.

Harris said people living in the high desert at the time had such an interest in UFOs that a newsletter was published — known as The Smoke Signal — that reported specifically on UFO sightings.

Interest in aliens ebbed in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

"There are times when the subject has its peaks and its lows, depending on media coverage," said Nick Redfern, an author and lecturer who writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Lochness Monster, alien encounters and government conspiracies.

"Fortunately today, there's a great deal of media coverage and attention given to the subject. History Channel, Nat Geo, Discovery. The more attention it gets, the more people listen to it."

Redfern, who is a featured speaker at the conference, will present a lecture on "The Pyramids and the Pentagon" and a workshop, "The Real Men in Black."

In the past, the media would laugh at the subject, poke fun and make jokes about "little green men," he said.

"The stereotype is a 40-year-old UFO researcher living in mom and dad's basement," he said. "The reality is, most people, we have normal lives, but we just happen to be interested in unusual subjects. It's not like it's an obsession. It's a fascination which I've made into a job."

If you go

Contact in the Desert

Joshua Tree Retreat Center, 59700 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree

Date: Aug. 8 - Aug. 11

Cost of four-day pass: Single: $250; Couple: $475

All lectures and panels are included. Workshops, intensives, tours and meal plans sold separately.

To order tickets, call (760) 365-8371 or visit contactinthedesert.com