February 12, 2016

President designates 1.8 million acres of desert as national monuments


By Matthew Cabe
Desert Dispatch


Local reactions were mixed — if not negative — Friday in the wake of President Obama’s early-morning granting of national monument status to nearly 1.8 million acres of Southern California desert, including 1.6 million acres in the Mojave Desert.

Obama signed proclamations establishing the Mojave Trails, Castle Mountains — both in the Mojave Desert — and Sand to Snow in the Sonoran Desert as national monuments. The designations will nearly double the amount of public land that Obama has designated as national monument status since taking office, according to the White House.

Obama utilized the federal Antiquities Act — adopted in 1906 — which grants the president the authority to protect landmarks, structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest by designating them as National Monuments, according to the Associated Press.

Amid the action, numerous conservation, Christian and veteran groups’ positive responses were in line with the Joshua-Tree-based Mojave Desert Land Trust, and Executive Director Danielle Segura called the support truly inspiring.

“Our community has a deep appreciation and connection to our public lands that knows no boundaries,” Segura said in a statement. “We value that our nation’s newest national monuments preserve uninterrupted landscapes, ecosystems and opportunities for future enjoyment, discovery and adaptation to a changing biosphere.”

Accolades for Obama were in short supply elsewhere, however, as Rep. Paul Cook — who introduced his “California Minerals, Off-Road Recreation, and Conservation Act” last October — said Obama’s “unilateral designation” ignored the legislative process.

“I’m not opposed to national monuments,” Cook, R-Apple Valley, said in a statement. “I’m opposed to the president creating national monuments through unilateral executive action … I’ve never found people in Washington to know better than residents of San Bernardino County when it comes to local land issues. This time, special interest groups hijacked these monument designations and ignored the wishes of those who live closest and use the land most often.”

Cook’s comments were mirrored by 33rd District Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, who emphasized the importance of the legislative process Friday.

“This process exists to allow all of the affected stakeholders to have their voices heard and considered before impactful actions like the creation of these monuments become law,” Obernolte told the Daily Press. “Unfortunately they were not given that opportunity.”

Cook introduced his bill as an alternative to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s desert protections bill, and despite several similarities, Cook’s bill would have designated Mojave Trails as a special management area rather than a national monument.

That lower-rung designation was crucial to Cook because, unlike a national monument, special management areas allow for new mining operations.

Field representatives for Feinstein, D-CA, however, maintained at various council and legislative review meetings throughout the High Desert that national monument designations bolster tourism in areas with proximity to the monuments.

Addressing a crowd at Wildlands Conservancy's Whitewater Preserve last October, Feinstein said she would continue to push her California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015, according to a previous Daily Press report.

But amid that push for her bill, Feinstein also expressed a hope to have her proposed national monuments within the bill established by Obama through executive action.

That Feinstein’s hope became a reality Friday didn’t sit well with Hesperia Mayor Bill Holland.

“Once again the president has overstepped his authority and done something as a political favor,” Holland told the Daily Press. “It is ridiculous. It is despicable. Now all the work done by Cook — and Feinstein — is null and void. Now everybody loses because (Feinstein) didn’t get her way and took this route.”

By contrast, the White House focused its aim on preservation as local officials took issue with the bypassing of political processes.

"In addition to permanently protecting incredible natural resources, wildlife habitat and unique historic and cultural sites, and providing recreational opportunities for a burgeoning region, the monuments will support climate resiliency in the region," the White House said in a statement.

The designations also will connect those regions to other protected government land, including Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave National Preserve and 15 other federal wilderness areas, according to the Associated Press.

The Mojave Trails National Monument, at 1.6 million acres, is by far the largest of the three designated by Obama Friday. It contains ancient lava flows, sand dunes, ancient Native American trading routes and World War II-era training camps.

The monument also contains the largest remaining undeveloped stretch of Route 66, which led many local Mother Road advocates to champion Feinstein’s bill prior to Obama’s designation.

Obama to designate new national monuments in the California desert


By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post


President Obama has set aside more of America’s lands and waters for conservation protection than any of his predecessors, and he is preparing to do even more before he leaves office next year. The result may be one of the most expansive environmental and historic-preservation legacies in presidential history.

On Friday, Obama will designate more than 1.8 million acres of California desert for protection with the creation of three national monuments: Castle Mountains, Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow. The new monuments will connect three existing sites — Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and the Mojave National Preserve — to create the second-largest desert preserve in the world.

Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia is the largest.

Obama has unilaterally protected more than 260 million acres of America’s lands and waters under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives the president wide latitude to safeguard at-risk federal lands that have cultural, historic or scientific value.

The act is among the most powerful tools at any president’s disposal. Franklin D. Roosevelt invoked the law more than any president in history; Harold L. Ickes, his interior secretary, kept a pile of potential national-monument declarations in a desk and pulled them out whenever Roosevelt was in a good mood.

Obama’s aides do not have a similar system, but they share those earlier aspirations.

“We have big, big ambitions this year, so let’s see what happens,” said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, adding that the administration is focused on “local requests for action. It’s really been driven by activities on the ground.”

The big question: What next?

Other possible future designations include Bears Ears, a sacred site for several Native American tribes in southeastern Utah; Stonewall, the site of a 1969 inn riot by members of New York City’s gay community; the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts; the historic headquarters of the National Woman’s Party, Sewall-Belmont House in Washington, D.C.; and Nevada’s Gold Butte, an area where rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters have defied federal authorities.

Officials are weighing these proposals amid protests out West, such as the armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which aimed to wrest control of federal lands from officials in Washington. The standoff may have hurt the prospects for increased protections around the state’s Owyhee Canyonlands, though the idea is not off the table entirely.

But Jim Messina, a close Obama adviser who worked on conservation issues when he served as White House deputy chief of staff in his first term, said the president is personally committed to the issue and is convinced that most Americans back the idea.

“Protecting public access is a huge political winner across the West. A bunch of extremists in Oregon can’t change it,” he said. “There’s no thought, or no reason, to back off on our agenda.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who convinced Obama to declare a sizeable monument in Nevada’s Basin and Range Province last year, is still pressing for getting another one at Gold Butte, which is an hour’s drive from Las Vegas but has been degraded and largely unpoliced since Bundy and his armed followers confronted Bureau of Land Management officials there in 2014.

Republicans have been trying to curtail Obama’s powers to act, but in a year when several senators are up for reelection in swing states, they have fallen short. Last week, the Senate considered an amendment by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that would have reversed national-monument designations if Congress and lawmakers in the affected states did not explicitly approve them within three years of designation. Four Republicans — including Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) — broke ranks and voted against it, and it was tabled by a one-vote margin.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said in an interview Wednesday that he was not surprised at the vote’s outcome. “

Most people do not understand what Antiquities does, or can do,” he said. “At some point, we have to realize this is a process that is out of control. Whether that actually occurs before Obama leaves is irrelevant.”

The Obama administration and Bishop have starkly different readings of the law, which runs just four paragraphs. It dictates that any monument designation “shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected,” but presidents have interpreted that broadly over the past century.

The White House has identified two main criteria for naming monuments this year, Goldfuss said: areas that help foster resilience to climate change or are “connected to people and communities that have not been historically represented” in national parks and other federal sites.

That explains new California desert designations, for which Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has been seeking protection for seven years. David Lamfrom, who directs the National Parks Conservation Association’s California desert and national wildlife programs, said connecting the ecosystem across nearly 10 million acres will help species with large ranges, such as bighorn sheep and mountain lions, as well as imperiled desert tortoises and ones that are taking refuge at higher altitudes where there is more moisture.

The idea is “to link together these large landscapes in perpetuity,” Lamfrom said, so species can migrate and have the best chance of survival in the face of human pressures.

Five members — the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Pueblo of Zuni — have created the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to press for a monument on roughly 1.9 million acres in of Utah that were once inhabited by the Anasazi and, later, the Navajo.

Eric Descheenie, who co-chairs the coalition and serves as executive staff assistant to the Navajo Nation president, said: “We’ve had the looting and grave robbing and destruction of sacred sites,” even as several tribes have continued to gather medicinal herbs and berries, haul wood, hunt and conduct religious ceremonies there.

In some instances, Republican lawmakers have offered their own vision of how to protect these areas, but bipartisan agreements have proven elusive. Rep. Paul Cook (R-Calif.) has introduced a California desert bill that would put more than 1.2 million acres in the region off limits to development, but it would bar the use of the Antiquities Act, open up 100,000 acres of new mining in Mojave Trails and sanction off-road vehicle use in some areas.

It is less clear what Obama will do in federal waters, where nearly of the strict protections are in the central Pacific. There are a group of Hawaiians lobbying the president to expand Papahanaumokuakea — a monument George W. Bush created a decade ago, whose islands and atolls are home to 1,750 marine species found nowhere else on Earth — to the full extent under the law. That would make it 520,000 square miles, or nine times its current size.

“Some people here are working here to provide the president with a legacy opportunity,” said William Aila Jr., looking down from a rocky outcropping in Oahu as two endangered Hawaiian monk seals nestled below. “It would be the largest marine protected area for a long, long time. It would be almost impossible to top it.”

February 5, 2016

Obama eyes remote corner of Mojave for desert monument

The Castle Peaks got their name because they resemble the ramparts of a castle. (Jay Calderon / The Desert Sun)

Sammy Roth
The Desert Sun


If you've never explored the Mojave Desert, the Castle Mountains wouldn't be a bad place to start.

Getting there isn't easy. From the Coachella Valley, the shortest route winds through the High Desert, east on Highway 62 and north through the Mojave National Preserve (the so-called "Las Vegas shortcut"), then east again past Nipton, a tiny railroad boomtown that's currently being sold for $5 million. The last leg of the trip runs through Nevada, crossing the state line near Searchlight before cutting back into California, via a series of rugged dirt roads that culminate in the Castle Mountains.

It's not a journey for the casual day-tripper. But once you get there...

The most stunning feature is the Castle Peaks, a series of jutting mountains that look like the ramparts of a castle. They loom large over the area's cholla cacti, creosote bushes and bighorn sheep. Baby Joshua trees shoot up from nurturing brush, even as their cousins in Joshua Tree National Park struggle to reproduce amid a changing climate. Abundant grasses and other verdant plants rise from the desert floor, providing so much ground cover that parts of the Castle Mountains look as much like a prairie as a desert.

​There's a ghost town, too, left over from a gold-mining boom in the early 1900s. But we'll get to that.

David Lamfrom, who works to protect California's deserts with the National Parks Conservation Association, guesses he's been to the Castle Mountains 50 or 60 times. Just a few hundred people visit each year, by his estimate.

“It’s just so freaking beautiful. It’s just a really unique place," Lamfrom said on a recent visit. "I’ve spent a tremendous amount of my time and energy and effort on the conservation of the Castle Mountains, even though there are a lot of places that really need and deserve protection.”

For the Castle Mountains, protection might come soon: Conservationists have urged President Barack Obama to declare the area a national monument, along with two larger sections of the desert. They expect Obama to grant their request within the next few weeks, creating the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains monuments through his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act.

Republican politicians, mining interests and off-road vehicle enthusiasts will cry foul if Obama invokes the Antiquities Act, even though most of them support legislative efforts to protect those areas from rampant development. And even if Obama does take action, the Castle Mountains wouldn't completely avoid industrial activity: A Canadian company calledNewCastle Gold hopes to reopen a mine that shuttered in 2001 due to low gold prices, and it has every legal right to do so.

Whatever happens next, there's little disagreement the Castle Mountains deserve some kind of protection. Just ask off-roader Randy Banis, who opposes a presidential designation but has worked with Sen. Dianne Feinstein to establish desert monuments through legislation. Asked about the Castle Mountains, Banis could barely contain himself: "Isn’t it incredible? Isn’t it absolutely incredible?"

"The vegetative diversity, and the health of the vegetation — I love stopping the vehicle and just stepping out and walking through," he said. "People are like, 'Really, this is a desert?' It’s just so beautiful.”

The Castle Mountains occupy an unusual perch in the vast Mojave Desert.

About an hour's drive from Las Vegas, the area is surrounded on three sides by the Mojave National Preserve; the fourth side is the Nevada border. If not for the gold mine, it would have been included in the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, which created the national preserve, along with Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks. Feinstein, who wrote that bill, cut 29,000 acres out of the proposed preserve, giving then-mine owner Viceroy Gold Corporation plenty of room to maneuver on its 7,500 acres.

By the late 2000s, the mine was closed, and energy companies were eager to build solar and wind farms across the desert. Against that backdrop — which alarmed conservationists — Feinstein wrote a bill to protect 1.6 million additional acres, mostly by establishing the Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow monuments. The Castle Mountains would have been added to the Mojave National Preserve.

But the bill failed to get traction in a gridlocked Congress, as did similar proposals in 2011 and 2015. So last summer, Feinstein and conservation groups started urging Obama to protect those areas via the Antiquities Act, which he'd already used to create or expand 19 national monuments, including the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in Southern California.

“The current political climate is making it difficult to move any lands legislation through either body of the Congress,” Feinstein said in October, at a public meeting that drew more than 1,000 people to the Whitewater Preserve to discuss the monument proposals. “My intention is to continue to push the bill, while simultaneously pushing a presidential designation. But let me be clear: My preference is very much to push the legislation.”

Monument status would preclude industrial development, from wind and solar farms to new mining. The designations would also bring new funding from the federal government, Lamfrom said, which in the Castle Mountains' case could be used to study unique plants and animals, survey Native American petroglyphs, develop a trails system and craft an interpretive plan to teach visitors about the area's history. The National Park Service would begin promoting the monuments, too, almost certainly boosting tourism.

The battle to preserve Castle Mountains

Desert gold

The proposed Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow monuments have commanded the most attention, since they're larger and closer to population centers. The Castle Mountains monument would be relatively small, and far from any California cities.

But conservationists say the Castle Mountains are just as deserving of protection — and not just because they offer stunning views.

Because of the area's unique geography — it's further east, and higher in elevation, than most of the Mojave Desert — the Castle Mountains foster a diversity of plant and animal life unmatched almost anywhere else in the desert. Monsoonal summer rains tied to the nearby Colorado River are particularly important, supporting dozens of species of grass that blanket the desert floor.

"It’s an extension of southwestern grasslands which extend from Texas all the way into California. This is typical of summer rainfall deserts," said Jim André, a botanist who runs UC Riverside's Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, located in the heart of the Mojave National Preserve. “Most Californians don’t think of California as receiving the monsoon, but in far eastern San Bernardino County it’s quite prominent."

The area is also part of the world's largest Joshua tree forest, which stretches from Mojave National Preserve into Nevada's Lake Mead National Recreation Area. And unlike in Joshua Tree National Park — where the namesake species is struggling to adapt to global warming — Joshua trees are thriving in the Castle Mountains. It's not hard to find healthy Joshua trees sprouting up from black brush, which serves as a spiky nursery to the young plants, warding off herbivores until they can fend for themselves.

The area's relatively high elevations make that possible, providing lower nighttime temperatures than the low-lying national park can.

"Oftentimes when people think of deserts, they think of sand dune systems, or they think of lonely, flat places," Lamfrom said. "But this is a rugged, beautiful mountain-scape filled with Joshua tree forests, with piñon, with juniper, with native grasslands...this is really, I think, one of the truly unique and remarkable places in our desert."

Unbroken wilderness

The same factors that give rise to the Castle Mountains' diverse plant life also support abundant wildlife. It would be difficult to list all of the creatures that spend time there: desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, Mojave ground squirrels, mule deer, mountain lions, Cooper's hawks, great horned owls and more. Several of those species are protected under the state or federal Endangered Species Acts.

Keeping the Castle Mountains pristine, conservationists say, is bigger than just giving those species another place to live. They see the Castle Mountains as a critical link in a chain of largely undisturbed desert that stretches from the Mojave National Preserve into Nevada, eventually connecting the 1.6-million-acre preserve with the 1.5-million-acre Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Keeping that chain intact is especially important for species like bighorn sheep, which roam the open desert. As cities, freeways and fences have increasingly crisscrossed what once was wilderness, bighorn sheep populations have fallen dramatically.

"You can’t keep them in isolation. You have to allow those connections to other (bighorn sheep) populations, so they can have genetic exchange," said Dennis Schramm, who served five years as superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve. "If you don’t protect it, and you put in more fences and windmills and solar fields and all those kinds of things, you’re chopping up the habitat."

The Castle Mountains could also provide habitat for a new species.

A century ago, pronghorns — the world's second-fast land animal, after cheetahs — thrived in the deserts of Southern California. But humans hunted the antelope-like species, and eventually it disappeared from the region.

For years, the National Park Service and state wildlife officials have wanted to reintroduce pronghorns in the Castle Mountains. But they've been waiting to take that step until the area receives stronger protection, which would help ensure their efforts won't be in vain.

Gold in the hills

More than 100 years ago, the Castle Mountains were better known for gold than they were for flora and fauna.

Three Nevada prospectors — Jim Hart, and the brothers Bert and Clark Hitt — struck gold there in December 1907, and by the next year a mining town known as Hart was thriving. The town had about 400 residents, along with five hotels and eight saloons, according to a plaque that greets visitors today. Lamfrom said he's heard the town had two brothels, although that isn't mentioned on the plaque.

Miners quickly realized there wasn't much gold that could be economically extracted, and within a decade the town was deserted. The buildings are gone, but remnants of Hart are still visible: Rusted metal cans litter the base of the gold-laden hills that give the Castle Mountains their name. Viceroy opened a new mine in 1992, although that one, too, lasted less than 10 years.

"The Western American history of this landscape has been intimately tied to mining, and the ability for the (National) Park Service to tell the story of mining here is really important," Lamfrom said.

Mining could also play a role in the Castle Mountains' future.

NewCastle, which bought the mining rights in 2012, estimates there are at least 4.2 million ounces of gold in the hills, which would yield nearly $5 billion at today's prices. A new mine could employ a few hundred people, said Marty Tunney, NewCastle's vice president for business development. The company is still conducting preliminary studies, and could be several years from opening a mine.

NewCastle's permit will expire in 2025, although it could ask San Bernardino County for an extension if there's enough gold to justify further mining. In the long term, the company hopes to give the land to the National Park Service, Tunney said.

"If we were able to mine it the way we would like to go and mine it, and extract the value of it, we’d like to go through full reclamation and hand the project over to the (Mojave National) Preserve," he said. "We currently don’t see any reason why that shouldn’t happen."

Tricky politics

The proposed Mojave Trails monument has generated more controversy than Sand to Snow or the Castle Mountains. Feinstein's bill would ban new mining claims across the monument's 942,000 acres, which surround historic Route 66, between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. Big mining companies support the bill, but a cadre of smaller firms fiercely oppose it.

Rep. Paul Cook, a Yucca Valley Republican who represents the High Desert, has put forward a different proposal. His legislation, like Feinstein's, would create the 140,000-acre Sand to Snow national monument, stretching from the desert floor near Joshua Tree National Park to the peak of Mount San Gorgonio in the San Bernardino National Forest. But it would offer a lesser level of protection to the Mojave Trails, establishing a "special management area." Ten percent of that area would be open to new mining operations.

At the public meeting in October, John Sobel, Cook’s chief of staff, expressed hope that his boss and Feinstein could compromise. He criticized calls for Obama to use the Antiquities Act, saying a presidential designation would create “second-rate monuments because they lack the adequate support of locals and of Congress.”

Banis, who represents the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, supports Feinstein's bill, since it would keep the Mojave Trails monument open to off-roaders. He's worried a presidential designation would ultimately lead to the closure of the area's dirt roads.

“Boy, it’s going to get me mad if they name this thing the Mojave Trails, and then they go and close the roads. I’ll be so ticked off," Banis said. "That would be such a slap in the face to the recreation community.”

The Castle Mountains are less contentious. While Feinstein and Cook's bills would add the area to the Mojave National Preserve — an option that isn't available through the Antiquities Act — conservationists say a monument designation would have the same effect.

Cook disagrees. He said in an email that a presidential designation could "seriously jeopardize the existing mine by including land needed for mining operations, as well as limiting the ability to drill for wells to supply water needed for operation." He also said adding the area to the preserve would make more sense, from a management perspective, than creating a standalone monument.

"I view a Castle Mountain monument designation as a stealth attempt to shut down one of the most important mineral projects in the country," Cook said in an email.

NewCastle isn't so concerned. Company officials prefer Feinstein and Cook's bills to a presidential designation, since they know the bills would protect their ability to mine. But the company doesn't oppose the Antiquities Act route, so long as Obama includes similar protections for mining. Tunney, NewCastle's vice president for business development, said the company has been "given some assurances by Sen. Feinstein's group" that Obama's Castle Mountains designation would look similar to the provisions in her bill.

"If that’s the case, that works for us," Tunney said.

January 30, 2016

Mojave Desert areas on verge of protection under 1906 law


By Carolyn Lochhead
San Francisco Chronicle


AMBOY, San Bernardino County — Drive mile upon mile through California’s Mojave Desert, and you still can see the unspoiled vistas of one of the largest intact ecosystems in the continental United States.

Along Route 66 stretch the same empty valleys and distant mountains that Oklahoma farmers escaping the Dust Bowl saw in their migration west. In the vast swathes of scrub land, scientists are finding new plant species at a rate rivaling that in the Amazon. Ancient creosote bushes, like one 11,700 years old that miraculously survived in an off-road vehicle playground, live here in soils scientists only now realize are one of the planet’s great carbon sinks.

Six years ago, these lands were on the verge of being bulldozed for industrial solar and wind installations amid an all-out drive by the Obama administration and national environmental organizations to boost renewable energy in the fight against climate change.

The only thing standing in the way was Sen. Dianne Feinstein and a small conservation group called the Wildlands Conservancy whose leader, David Myers, had the California Democrat’s ear.

Within days, President Obama is expected to invoke the Antiquities Act, at Feinstein’s request, to create three national monuments preserving 1,380,350 acres of these lands, including a long stretch of Route 66. Republicans oppose the designation as executive overreach; they have proposed the same three monuments, but would open the Route 66 area to mining.

The monuments would cement Feinstein’s legacy as one of California’s great conservationists by expanding protection around the 9.6 million acres included in her Desert Protection Act of 1994, the largest U.S. park designation in history outside Alaska. The 1994 law created three national parks at Death Valley, Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve.

Grand design

The Mojave Trails, Castle Mountains and Sand to Snow monuments advance a grand design sketched long ago by Myers and the late conservationist Eldon Hughes to protect an arc of desert land from the San Bernardino Mountains near Palm Springs to the Sierra Nevada. With the new monuments, Myers said, “we’ll be 75 percent there.”

The Mojave Trails designation would protect 105 miles of the most pristine extant section of Route 66 and link Joshua Tree National Park with the Mojave National Preserve.

“To industrialize it, to tear it up, to abuse it, to rape it, would be a travesty,” said Jim Conkle, a former Marine known as Mr. Route 66. “People see the Mojave Desert as this vast wasteland. I see it as an ocean without water. There’s so much there. If we don’t take care of it, it’s gone forever.”

Castle Mountains National Monument is a stunning high desert grassland that would complete the Mojave Preserve. Sand to Snow National Monument would preserve a key wildlife corridor from the desert floor near Palm Springs to the San Bernardino Mountains.

Like public lands throughout the West in the 19th century, the Mojave was fragmented into a checkerboard pattern by hundreds of 640-acre sections that Congress gave away to the railroads during the Civil War to promote westward expansion.

40-acre parcels

Soon after Feinstein’s first desert act passed, the real estate arm of the Santa Fe-Southern Pacific Railroad put up for sale desert properties outside the protected area. Dotted across what is now the proposed Mojave Trails monument, the parcels were “aimed,” Myers said, “like a shotgun at the heart of the Mojave.”

“Billboards went up all over the desert: for sale to development,” Myers said.

It was a threat, he said, to the open space between Joshua Tree and the Mojave Preserve.

“Even today, you can pick up any newspaper and you’ll still see 40-acre parcels being sold in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Nevada,” Myers said. “Those are all former railroad lands that have been subdivided.”

To prevent development along Route 66, Myers formed the Wildlands Conservancy, funded mainly by a wealthy donor, and bought 1,000 square miles for $45 million in 1999. The group hauled out everything from abandoned bulldozers to old box springs, and gave the land back to the federal government.

The donated land also included private property within the national parks and more than 200,000 acres in wilderness areas designated by Congress. Feinstein secured $18 million in federal funds to complete the purchase.

Alternative energy push

President Bill Clinton committed to keep the land in conservation. But in accepting the largest private land gift in U.S. history, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, which unlike the National Park Service keeps its land open to grazing, mining, off-road vehicles and other uses, refused deed restrictions.

Then came the Energy Policy Act of 2005, a Bush administration law that opened public lands to energy prospecting at rock-bottom lease terms. Four years later, Obama’s economic stimulus threw more than $50 billion at renewable energy. The combination set off a land rush in the Mojave.

“None of us saw that coming,” said April Sall, who worked for the conservancy at the time.

From global oil companies to fly-by-night speculators, solar and wind prospectors flocked to the desert, proposing development on 1.3 million acres, including the donated conservation lands. National environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, concluded that in the battle against climate change, the Mojave could be sacrificed.

James Andre, a UC Riverside plant biologist who directs the Granite Mountains Desert Research Center at the Mojave National Preserve and has been leading species discoveries in the desert, rode with Feinstein and solar executives in 2009 when the senator toured Route 66 amid the land rush.

“It would have been one solid bulldozed field of mirrors,” Andre said. “The night sky there is unbelievable. There are no cities. There are no people. It’s just a functioning ecosystem today.”

Scientists have only recently learned that desert soils and plants, whose roots plunge deep into the earth, sequester vast amounts of carbon. “If you bulldoze the soil, you start to release carbon at a rate that offsets the gains of moving away from fossil fuel,” Andre said. “That’s pretty extraordinary, given that the sole reason used to justify the projects has been dealing with the climate crisis.”

Nearly everyone in the desert, from off-roaders to birdwatchers, say they support renewable energy, but insist it should go on rooftops and disturbed lands, not virgin desert.

Feinstein proposed the monuments and other areas for protection in legislation introduced in 2010. The threat of legislation thwarted many solar and wind projects, but others have proceeded.

Wind leases

Two towering volcanic buttes in Pipes Canyon near Yucca Valley, blanketed in Native American petroglyphs, were added to the proposed Sand to Snow protections last year after transmission lines and wind towers were proposed on top of them. The Bureau of Land Management leased the land to wind companies for testing at $1 an acre, said Frazier Haney, conservation director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust.

With her bill languishing in Congress, Feinstein asked Obama last fall to declare the monuments under the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law that gives the president power to create national monuments on public lands. President Herbert Hoover used the law to establish Death Valley as a monument in 1933 just before he left office, and his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, designated Joshua Tree as a monument under the act in 1936.

Executive action would not include all of the lands Feinstein sought for protection, including many of the park additions, wilderness areas, and a first-ever congressionally designated area for off-road vehicles.

Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Paul Cook, whose San Bernardino County district encompasses the area, introduced a competing bill last fall that would create the same three monuments. But Cook added several poison pills for environmentalists, opening nearly 100,000 acres to mining in the Mojave Trails and banning use of the Antiquities Act in the California desert.

Looking out recently over the Castle Mountains grasslands, transformed by El Niño rains into a glistening garden of cactus and Joshua trees, David Lamfrom sees an ideal place to reintroduce pronghorn antelope exterminated by hunting a century ago. Seven years ago, developers proposed solar farms on 8,000 acres of these grasslands.

“This place has been almost protected and almost destroyed a dozen times,” said Lamfrom, desert director for the National Parks and Conservation Association. “There is unanimous agreement that it deserves protection. If Congress can’t act, the president must.”

But off-road vehicle groups fear a presidential proclamation, saying it will kill prospects for Feinstein’s broader bill that protects their areas. Randy Banis, who represents the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, negotiated those safeguards over many years.

‘Lonely exploration’

Sitting in remote Lucerne Valley’s Cafe 247, not far from the 11,700-year-old creosote bush, Banis said he uses the desert for “deep, dark, backcountry, lonely exploration,” not to bash it up driving in circles on big tires. Even hard-core environmentalists need roads to get to their hikes, he said.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a lifted up rock buggy or Nana’s Camry, when you take it on a dirt road, you are” an off-roader, Banis said.

Large mining companies are neutral on Feinstein’s bill. Banis said opposition comes down to a “couple of dozen” small-scale miners. Cook’s bill would open 96,500 non-specific acres for mining and potentially permit sand and gravel quarries just about anywhere in the Mojave Trails.

The California Desert District Mining Association, which represents the small prospectors, said in an e-mail the monument designations represent “armchair environmentalism” that discriminates “against man’s access and use of the land.”

San Bernardino County Supervisor Robert Lovingood testified to Congress that mining is “one of our most significant economic drivers” and warned that aggregate mines could be closed in the Mojave Trails. But a study last year by the nonprofit Sonoran Institute in Arizona showed that mining has contributed “no more than 0.25 percent” of private-sector jobs in California’s seven desert counties.

Banis is urging Republicans to support the Feinstein bill. “We’re trying to make them understand,” he said, “that if they don’t make something happen in the legislation, they’re going to get an Obama monument shoved down their throats, and they’re not going to be happy.”

Desert monuments

National monuments in the California desert proposed for designation by President Obama under the Antiquities Act are:

Mojave Trails: 1.2 million acres, including 105 miles along Route 66, to be managed by Bureau of Land Management, plus another 253,000 acres added in Bristol Dry Lake, Cadiz Valley and Sacramento Mountains.

Castle Mountains: 21,000 acres next to Mojave National Preserve to be managed by National Park Service.

Sand to Snow: 135,000 acres creating a low- to high-elevation corridor linking Joshua Tree National Park to the San Gorgonio Wilderness. The plan includes an additional 6,350 acres of Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa. It will be managed jointly by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

Areas left out

The proclamation would omit many areas in Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s legislation that can only be added by Congress.

They include:

National Park additions: Death Valley (39,000 acres), Mojave National Preserve (22,000 acres) and Joshua Tree (4,500 acres)

Off-Highway Recreation Areas (142,000 acres)

Wilderness designations (250,000 acres)

Wild and Scenic Rivers (77 miles), including Deep Creek and Whitewater River in the San Bernardino National Forest and the Amargosa River and Surprise Canyon Creek near Death Valley

Alabama Hills National Scenic Area (18,610 acres) near Mount Whitney in Inyo County

January 21, 2016

California desert town being sold for $5 million

The historic Hotel Nipton is included in the Nipton town site now for sale.
David Schuman
KTNV Las Vegas


A For Sale sign is up in front of the entire town of Nipton, California.

The sale includes the 80 acres of land, all the buildings, and the fields of solar panels.

Buyers are looking at the small desert community just across the state line for its environmental sustainability and its potential for development.

Six people live in Nipton full-time. They like the isolation.

"It's quiet except for the trains, and I don't even hear the trains anymore," said Jim Eslinger, who lives in Nipton with his girlfriend. "I sleep right through them."

Tony Castrignano with Sky Mesa Realty and Capital is the man tasked with selling the town.

For $5 million, the buyer gets the country store, the RV campgrounds, the Nipton hotel and the solar panels that allow Nipton to operate at 50 percent off the grid.

"You can take it to the resource and tourism industry or you can take it into a more commercial industry or a combination of both," Castrignano said.

He said potential buyers have talked about building housing, selling solar power, growing organic food and turning the community into a tourist hot spot.

"If you own the town you can call yourself the mayor if you want to because you have all the votes," Castrignano said.

He says there are about six serious buyers looking at Nipton right now, which include both individuals and companies.

January 20, 2016

Fed Employees Caught Bragging About Federal Land Grabs

Employee brags they "stole the money from Washington" to push World War II vets off land


YouTube clip in which government employee brags about stealing land.

Adan Salazar
Infowars.com


“We went out to the mine and the owners were two little guys that had been in the Second World War,” a California park service employee recalls at a retirement celebration for Mojave National Preserve Superintendent Mary Martin in 2005.

The employee brags about how the veterans’ mine was appraised by the federal government at $40 million, and acquired for a paltry $2.5 million.

“We did get it appraised and we did acquire it for $2.5 million which I stole the money from Washington to acquire it,” the employee in the video admits, adding that it’s sometimes hard to bamboozle property owners due to the agency’s reputation.

“’Lands’ isn’t always supported because we’re the ‘bad guys.’ We come in, and we take this land. And we always take it for less than it’s worth.”

Later during the celebration dinner, another park service employee reveals that the acquisition of more than a hundred thousand private acres in the Mojave National Preserve were procured under Martin’s leadership, who he labels the “acquisition queen.”

“Acres acquired under the acquisition queen’s regime, 111,550.54 acres,” an employee announces in an extended clip of the dinner.

The employee then shows two other numbers, 5.66 and 106,375.36, which correlate with the park where Martin would be relocating, the Lassen Volcanic National Park.

He indicates that the larger number is the acreage of Lassen National Park, while the smaller number is acreage privately owned.

“If you own those 5.66 acres, would you be sweating right now?” the man jests referring to Martin’s acquisition power.

The employees’ jaw-dropping admissions amid joyful applause, smiles and celebration over the confiscation of two World War II veterans’ and others’ private land goes to prove the federal government is not at all concerned with “land preservation” and focuses mainly on predatory land grabs.

Full length version of video.

January 14, 2016

Mojave violated NPS policy buying assault rifles and grenades for rangers

A government report says a supervisor at the Mojave National Preserve in California violated policy by buying fully automatic assault rifles and dozens of "flash-bang" grenades

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, California — A supervisor at the Mojave National Preserve in California violated policy by buying fully automatic assault rifles and dozens of flash-bang grenades, according to a federal study released Thursday.

A supervisory park ranger at the immense desert park northeast of Los Angeles bought nine Colt M-4 fully automatic rifles between 2008 and 2010, and 24 grenades some years later, according to a report from the inspector general's office from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The purchases violated park service policy, which specifies semi-automatic rifles and requires prior approval for defensive equipment, although the policy doesn't specifically mention flash-bang grenades, the report said.

The supervisor, who was not named in the report, acknowledged selecting the guns and allowing park rangers to carry them on duty for three years. They replaced aging and unreliable Vietnam-era rifles that rangers had been using on patrol, the report said.

The supervisor "admitted to purchasing and distributing the automatic weapons despite knowing that they violated NPS policy; admitted telling rangers who received the automatic rifles not to display them to others; and admitted to, at a minimum, not making it clear to his supervisors that the automatic weapons needed to be converted to semi-automatics," according to the report.

"He also provided inconsistent and implausible statements in his responses to our questions and caused us to doubt his overall truthfulness and candor," the report said.

The report did not indicate whether the supervisory park ranger was disciplined or whether he still works for the preserve or the National Park Service.

An email sent after hours to a park service spokeswoman was not immediately returned.

According to the report, the park service firearms program manager said no other national parks had used or sought permission to use fully automatic weapons.

In late 2013, the rifles were converted to semi-automatics, the report said.

The grenades were bought for about $1,000 without proper approval and were never issued to rangers, the report said.

The report said the National Park Service has since strengthened its procedures for buying equipment.

January 12, 2016

Strange Amargosa River creates series of Mojave oases

The Amargosa River winds its way through a canyon near China Ranch Date Farm on its way to Death Valley. (Las Vegas Review-Journal file photo)

By Margo Bartlett Pesek
Las Vegas Review-Journal


The Amargosa River, a strange desert stream that runs mostly underground, meanders 185 miles through the Mojave Desert. Starting in the hills near Beatty, it courses south and loops north to end up in California at Badwater in Death Valley National Park, only about 50 miles from where it began.

Where the river runs on the desert surface, it creates a series of oases with running water, wetlands, lush vegetation, even a waterfall in Amargosa Canyon, a protected 26-mile section between Shoshone, Calif., and Dumont Dunes Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area.

Set aside by law in 2009, the portion of the river through Amargosa Canyon is listed as one of America's Wild and Scenic Rivers. It is considered an area of critical environmental concern because of several species of endangered animals and plants found nowhere else. Administered by the Bureau of Land Management as the Amargosa River Natural Area, the canyon is open to public use for a wide variety of recreational pursuits compatible with species protection aims.

Off-highway driving is restricted to the high sand mountains and extensive sand seas that make up the Dumont Dunes south of the protected area. This attraction draws crowds of enthusiasts during cool-season weekends and holidays. The nearby Amargosa River Natural Area and other public lands are closed to off-roaders. Motorized vehicles must stay on roads and trails marked for their use. There are many miles of paved and unpaved tracks open to scenic touring and exploration in the area.

To reach the region from Las Vegas, head south on Interstate 15 to state Route 160, the road to Pahrump Valley. Watch for the turnoff from Route 160 onto the Old Spanish Trail Highway toward Tecopa and Shoshone, named for the famous overland route between Santa Fe, N.M., and Los Angeles used during the 1800s. You can also continue to Pahrump and turn on state Route 178 to reach Shoshone at the junction with state Route 129, then turn south to reach Tecopa. Some travelers continue south on I-15 to Baker, Calif., then turn north on state Route 129 toward Shoshone, a route often preferred by off-roaders heading for Dumont Dunes.

Humans have been living in and traveling through the Amargosa area for thousands of years. Visitors today see signs of their passing in occasional petroglyphs, grinding holes pockmarking stone in traditional camping areas, scattered rock chips from making stone points and tools and roasting pits where food was cooked in the ground. Early hunters and gatherers followed the water to find game and the natural foods that grew along the ancient stream. The Amargosa River has been cutting its way through ancient layers of stone in this area for a long time as it carved its deep little canyon.

The plants, birds and animals remain attractions drawing humans to this area, but today they come to watch, admire and photograph the creatures drawn to the oasis. Visitors walk, hike, climb, ride horses and mountain bike along trails in the area. At least 250 kinds of birds have been sighted, both residents and migrants. Many rabbits, rodents and other small creatures live there. Nighttime brings out myriad stars, several kinds of bats and nocturnal hunters such as owls, coyotes, foxes and bobcats.

The old grade of the long-defunct Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad now provides pathways to points of interest along the river, including the 6-mile Amargosa River Trail with its trailhead at China Ranch, a date farm in a side canyon south of Tecopa Hot Springs off Furnace Creek Road.

Ask at China Ranch how to reach the 4-mile round-trip Slot Canyon Trail. Allow yourself time to sample the baked goods, dates, gifts and milkshakes at China Ranch.

The Grimshaw Lake Watchable Wildlife site is near the old railroad grade, about a mile along a dirt road west of the highway halfway between Tecopa Hot Springs and the community of Tecopa. Private and public bathhouses and resorts are a draw at the hot springs. Details for hikers, climbers and rockhounds can be found at blm.gov/barstow/amargosa.

January 10, 2016

The Larger, but Quieter Than Bundy, Push to Take Over Federal Land

Duane Ehmer riding his horse, Hellboy, last week at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., where an armed group of antigovernment activists had seized control. (Rob Kerr/Agence France-Presse—Getty Images)

By JACK HEALY and KIRK JOHNSON
New York Times


DENVER — Ken Ivory, a Republican state representative from Utah, has been roaming the West with an alluring pitch to cattle ranchers, farmers and conservatives upset with how Washington controls the wide-open public spaces out here: This land is your land, he says, and not the federal government’s.

Mr. Ivory, a bespectacled business lawyer from suburban Salt Lake City, does not fit the profile of a sun-scoured sagebrush rebel. But he is part of a growing Republican-led movement pushing the federal government to hand over to the states millions of acres of Western public lands — as well as their rich stores of coal, timber and grazing grass.

“It’s like having your hands on the lever of a modern-day Louisiana Purchase,” said Mr. Ivory, who founded the American Lands Council and until recently was its president. The Utah-based group is funded mostly by donations from county governments, but has received support from Americans for Prosperity, the group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers.

The idea, which would radically reshape the West, is one that resonates with the armed group of ranchers and anti-government activists who seized control of a wildlife refuge in Oregon more than a week ago. Ammon Bundy, the crew’s leader and the scion of a Nevada ranching family steeped in disputes with the federal government, said he and his sympathizers had gone to Oregon to give the refuge back to local ranchers.

Many conservatives — Mr. Ivory among them — criticized Mr. Bundy’s gun-toting tactics, but their grievances and goals are nearly identical. And the outcry has grown amid a dust storm of rural anger at President Obama’s efforts to tighten regulations on fracking, greenhouse gases, smaller streams and other environmental issues that put struggling Western counties at odds with conservation advocates.

In the past few years, lawmakers across the West have offered up dozens of bills and resolutions seeking to take over the federal lands inside their borders or to study how to do so. Some of the legislation has been aimed at Congress, to urge it to radically revise the laws that have shaped 550,000 square miles of national forests and terrain run by the federal Bureau of Land Management, stretching from the Great Plains to the Pacific.

The effort — derided by critics as a pipe dream that would put priceless landscapes on the auction block — has achieved little so far.

Utah is the only state to pass a law demanding that Washington hand over federal land to the state. That transfer never happened, so now, Republicans on a state land commission are pressing for a $14 million lawsuit to claim 31.2 million federal acres of canyons, scrub desert and rolling mesas. The state’s attorney general, a Republican, has said he is studying the case and will make a decision about whether to move forward.

Colorado’s experience illustrates how the land-transfer discussion far exceeds any concrete results. Last year, a Republican state senator from the agricultural eastern plains sponsored a bill to create a Colorado Federal Land Management Commission, to study turning over federal lands to the state. The measure never made it out of the Republican-controlled state Senate.

In Congress, Republicans have supported moves to set up a land-transfer fund and create a “framework” to hand federal acres to the states.

Last week, Representative Greg Walden, the Republican who represents the Oregon district where the Bundy takeover is playing out, stood up in Congress to deplore the tactics of the armed protesters, but sympathized with their frustration.

“More than half of my district is under federal management, or lack thereof,” Mr. Walden said, expressing anger at the Bureau of Land Management. “They have come out with these proposals to close roads into the forests. They have ignored public input.”

In July 2014, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas proposed preventing the federal government from owning more than half of any state’s land. (Five states are more than half federal land, according to a Congressional Research Service report.) And Representative Cresent Hardy, Republican of Nevada, whose district includes a ranch run by Mr. Bundy’s father, introduced a measure that would block the government from buying any new land unless it could pass a balanced budget.

But land experts say the movement offers few details about what would happen the day after the federal government handed over all its land. How would states afford hundreds of rangers, officers and administrators to keep the land safe and comply with complicated federal laws on environmental policy and protecting endangered species? Would the land stay public, or be sold off to the highest bidder?

“They conveniently avoid all the difficult questions,” said Martin Nie, the director for the Bolle Center for People and Forests at the University of Montana.

In its mission statement, the American Lands Council says its strategy for securing local control of public land in the West involves four tenets: education, negotiation, legislation and litigation.

In practice, local land disputes — fueled by deepening antagonism toward federal land agencies — now unfold like social-media passion plays. Last summer, groups intervened at the request of mine owners to provide security at mines in Oregon and Montana amid complaints about federal land managers. And in December, Phil Lyman, a commissioner in San Juan County, Utah, received a 10-day jail sentence after he led a protest ride on all-terrain vehicles through a federal area that had been closed to motorized use.

“All I did was drive down a canyon road,” Mr. Lyman said. “It seems to be getting worse, and the federal agencies, they are expanding. Their restraints are being overstepped. It’s not the way this country was set up. It’s not the founders’ design.”

Not surprisingly, environmental activists have opposed dismantling federal lands, but so have hunters and anglers who worry their elk-hunting grounds and trout streams would be sold to private hands and developed. Unlike the federal government, many states require that their land be used as profitably as possible.

About an hour’s drive from the wildlife refuge where Mr. Bundy’s group is facing off with the government, Erin Maupin and her husband, Jeff, pay the government each summer to feed their cattle on 19,000 acres of federally owned land. She said that like many ranchers, they wanted to work with the government, but that layers of grazing restrictions and environmental rules were getting out of hand.

“We want somebody to make sure we’re doing it right,” Ms. Maupin said. “But it’s got to the point where there’s no common sense in it.”

The resentments toward federal land managers feel sharpest in economically strapped rural counties from Arizona to Montana, where up to 90 percent of the lands are federally managed. People love the beauty that surrounds them, but seethe at policies that they say have whittled away logging and mining jobs, left national forests vulnerable to wildfires and blocked access to public land.

“The land policies now are, basically, lock it up and throw away the key,” said Leland Pollock, a commissioner in Garfield County, Utah, a county roughly the size of Connecticut with pine forests and stunning red-rock spires. “It’s land with no use. The local economy’s really suffered as a result. Grazing has been reduced. We used to have a thriving timber industry — that’s all but gone.”

January 8, 2016

El Niño storms blanket High Desert with snow

Snow in Pioneertown

Joe Galli
KESQ News Channel 3, Palm Springs


PIONEERTOWN, Calif. - People in some parts of the High Desert woke up to a couple inches of snow on the ground.

The majority of the snow at lower elevations melted on away by the late afternoon, but that didn't stop some families from enjoying the fresh powder.

"I love the snow, we woke up this morning the whole place was blanketed, and it was enough snow to have my son stay home from school so we have been sledding all day," said Jon Linn.

KESQ talked with some residents who lost homes a few years back in the Sawtooth Fire. That blaze took out homes in Pioneertown and burned 70,000 acres of wilderness. These home owners told us they are always happy to see any moisture in the area to try to keep the bush from drying up during the drought.

"The snow only comes every so many years, and the Sawtooth Fire was 2007 (sic), two or three years after that we had 2 to 3 feet of snowfall, today it was like only an inch and it burned off right away, but it's still nice," said Rex Davis who rebuilt his home after the Sawtooth Fire.

If you're planning on heading up to even higher elevations to have some fun on the slopes this would be a good time to do it. Places like Big Bear got 36 inches of snow in some places.

January 7, 2016

Cook introduces bill to empower counties

Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley
Victor Valley Daily Press
Staff Reports


Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley, this week introduced HR 4313, the Historic Routes Preservation Act.

This bipartisan bill provides an administrative means for the federal government to confirm rights-of-way on public lands administered by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture. One of the only means a county has to confirm a right-of-way is to file a quiet title action in Federal District Court, an expensive and time-consuming process.

After 39 years, many county records have been lost, old maps have been thrown away and witnesses to many roads’ presence and use prior to 1976 are passing on. The Historic Routes Preservation Act solves this problem by creating an administrative process for counties to resolve these rights of way without going to court. It applies only to existing travel routes and does not create new roads on public lands.

January 5, 2016

How Ancient Native American Rock Art Is Tearing a California Town Apart

A display at the Petroglyph Festival that many Native Americans find disrespectful

By Barret Baumgart
VICE Media


I

At 1.2 million acres, Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake is the largest parcel of land owned by the US Navy. It fills an expanse of remote and rugged desert terrain bigger than Rhode Island; to the naked eye, there's not much going on inside. You might spend a whole day driving around the perimeter of the base and, notwithstanding an occasional low-flying F-16 fighter jet, never guess there was anything outside your window beyond barren volcanic tablelands, stands of brittle burrobush, and the occasional sidewinder rattlesnake.

What makes NAWS China Lake special—beyond being a secret test center for the world's most advanced weapons—is that inside a handful of its narrow lava canyons lies the largest concentration of Native American rock art in the Western Hemisphere. The images, carvings known as petroglyphs, are found throughout China Lake's Coso Range and are the oldest in the Americas. Archeologists have dated some of the images as far back as 15,000 to 19,000 years, and nobody has ever successfully counted them. A single canyon—Renegade Canyon, or as it's more commonly called, Little Petroglyph Canyon—may contain more than 1 million images of bighorn sheep, shamans, and abstract geometric symbols.

While archeologists have argued over the function of these and other figures for half a century, their original meanings largely remain a mystery. What nobody contests, however, is that the Coso Range was once one of the most spiritually important sites on the continent.

Some New Age types consider the Coso Range a "vortex"—a geographic location where harmonizing spiritual energy is supposedly highly concentrated. Examples of such places apparently include the Pyramids at Giza, Stonehenge, and the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona. Even if you don't put stock in such dubious concepts, being in the presence of such ancient and sacred symbols can be a powerful—and humbling—experience.

For decades, however, their location inside a military base dedicated to top-secret weapons testing meant that the only people who knew—or cared—about the petroglyphs were a handful of Native American tribes, professional archaeologists, and a subculture of Indian art geeks and New Age vision seekers. But Ridgecrest, California—the small desert town just outside the main gates of China Lake—is attempting to change that, and turn the petroglyphs into a full-fledged international tourist destination.

This effort has created a clash between competing economic and cultural interests. For many members of the Native American tribes throughout the region, the Coso Range and its petroglyphs are the most sacred things in the world, but some say that the sanctity and very survival of the artwork is threatened by Ridgecrest's attempt to cash in on the petroglyphs and sell itself as "California's newest cultural mecca"—the Petroglyph Capital of the World.

II

In 2014, Ridgecrest's then-mayor Dan Clark proposed an entire festival centered around the petroglyphs, describing it as a potential "economic engine" for the city of Ridgecrest. "The petroglyph festival will be our signature event," he told the LA Times. "We're going to saturate this community with representations of rock art." Denny Kline, a field officer for Mick Gleason, Kern County's District 1 Supervisor, told reporters, "It's going to be the city's 50th anniversary on steroids." Sponsors for the four-day festival included Coca-Cola, General Electric, NASA, the Ford Foundation, McDonald's, and Home Depot, among others.

A year later, the town remains committed to becoming the "American 'Machu Picchu,'" as a recent press release proclaimed. That release quoted Doug Lueck, the executive director of the Ridgecrest Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau (RACVB), as saying, "Not only is tourism up, we're also experiencing an upward trend in filming for movies and commercials as well." According to Leuck, the first annual Petroglyph Festival "had over 1,000 media impressions over television and radio" and sold out local hotels. Harris Brokke, the former director of Ridgecrest's Maturango Museum, told the local paper. "Not only is the festival successful, but when people come to the festival, they come back again and again, and that's our whole goal."

"Ridgecrest has tried to brand itself in a lot of different ways," a retired Navy veteran named Mike tells me. "There's no real tourism here. Most people either work on the base or the service industry that supports it."

We're standing in the parking lot of Ridgecrest's new $6 million tourist attraction, Petroglyph Park. House finches flit between palm trees and brown monoliths carved with depictions of bighorns, zigzags, and shamans; in the background traffic hums along China Lake Boulevard.

"The city tried the Balloon Festival two years in a row, but the winds were horrendous and just destroyed everything," Mike says. Ridgecrest also launched a spring Wildflower Festival, but given the reality of the California drought and the fact that Ridgecrest only gets a few inches of rain each year, the flowers didn't always show. "But the Petroglyph Festival is something that's uniquely Ridgecrest," Mike says.

Behind us, across the street, music booms from the stage at the center of the Balsam Street Fair, where 200 vendors have set up tents selling scented candles, foreign war memorabilia, and dreamcatchers made in China. It's the second annual Petroglyph Festival, a showcase for the best parts of the town held in November. Balsam Street functions as Ridgecrest's version of a downtown arts district. Elsewhere in the city, abandoned storefronts mingle with used furniture dealers; bail bonds shops sit in squat strip malls with asphalt that looks like it hasn't been repaved since the Vietnam War—but on Balsam Street you find a newly painted bighorn sheep or shaman on nearly every available wall. This is, without question, the Petroglyph Capital of the World.

The catch, however, is that historically it's been extremely difficult to see the actual petroglyphs of the Coso Range. According to the RACVB, 15,000 people traveled from over 50 countries for the 2014 Petroglyph Festival. But only around 40 American citizens who applied early and passed a federal background check were able to view the carvings inside the base. This year, though, an RACVB spokesperson tells me, the Navy had "agreed to forgo the vetting process" and let 500 people see the petroglyphs, including many non-Americans, who would normally be barred from entering the base at all.

Among them is a woman from Germany named Karin. She waited years for the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the petroglyphs; during November's festival she finally did it. "Everything from the drive, the Joshua trees, the beauty of the mountains. The whole landscape was just magic. We saw wild horses," she tells me. "It's obvious why the petroglyphs are there." I ask if she learned anything. "Imagination," she replies. "Imagination is what you need."

Another woman, a Japanese citizen named Maiko, had been waiting nine years for the opportunity. "I'm actually a petroglyph freak. I go to all the sites. It's just attractive to me. I want to see the art. So I do the research on the internet. And then I go there and look for it."

Those whose love for petroglyphs burns less arduously make do with Petroglyph Park, where you can gaze at reproductions of the carvings and experience an Epcot version of the ancient etchings. City and county officials often emphasize the sacredness of the petroglyphs and the educational aspect of the attraction—"the concept of the park is to honor the Native American heritage of the Indian Wells Valley," says Denny Kline—or as Mayor Clark has said of the petroglyphs, "We can bring it to the public's attention what a national treasure they are and, hopefully, they will respect them."

But the park and the festival are unquestionably money-making affairs—the whole point is to draw in vendors and tourism dollars. And many aspects of the festival seem less interested in history and education than hustling and speculation.

I head over to the north end of Balsam Street, where Rod "The Buffalo Man" Blankenship—a Korean and Vietnam War Veteran, and "an Elder in the Cherokee Indian Nation"—is talking about the buffalo to a crowd inside the Old Town Theater. The animals were "a supermarket and hardware store," according to Blankenship, who punctuates his pronouncements with shakes of a ceremonial rattle made from dried buffalo scrotum. Toward the end of the talk, I raise my hand and ask him how important the buffalo was to the Native American tribes in the surrounding area, and he admits that the animals weren't out here in California. But maybe some of the petroglyphs depict buffalo?

"It's possible," he says. "You know what you'll see in some of those petroglyphs, though?" He pauses and seems to stare out above the audience, straight through the back of the auditorium at something unseen. "You'll see pictures of what you call,"—another pause—"aliens. They're pictures of space people. With big round heads. Oval heads."

Other lecturers in the festival's educational "Speakers' Series" include a local wilderness entrepreneur who runs private tours of petroglyph sites that aren't on Naval land—"If you're interested, we can talk prices later," he tells the audience—and an archeologist who also offers private tours. Both do so despite heavy discouragement by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which fears that if the locations of off-base petroglyph sites become widely known they'll be vandalized or stolen.

Outside the Old Town Theater, across Freedom Park, smoke billows up from the cookers stationed behind the Intertribal Powwow and Cherokee Hog Fry. The powwow has all the usual signifiers of Native American life: tepees, donkeys, women dressed in buckskin suits, men on folding chairs beating a large leather drum, vendors hawking dream catchers and geodes. The festival advertises the drummers, dancers, and vendors as members of the local Native American tribes, but the Cherokee have no ancestral ties to the land or the ancient peoples responsible for the petroglyphs.

"We didn't use tepees and we're not a powwow culture and we didn't eat pigs. They're teaching people that this is what the people looked like that were here," says Jonnie Benson, a member of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone who adds that it's the "miseducation" of the community that is most upsetting. "They took a real touristy approach. Now we have all these people walking away after this weekend thinking, 'Oh, wow, I've learned all about the natives who live here,' when in fact they don't know shit. They learned the Hollywood story."

Down the street from the powwow sits another sore point for some local tribes: a plywood board painted with two shaman figures, their faces cutout to allow tourists to poke their heads through and smile for pictures.

"It's so offensive. Our ancestors put those marks on the rocks, whether people want to believe that or not. It's sacred to me, and to see it as basically a caricature, with people putting their faces in it—they don't know what those symbols mean," says Benson, who'd seen the pictures on Facebook. "I don't know how people would take it if there was a painting of Jesus up there and people were sticking their faces in it. Right? It just wouldn't be cool."

III

Though the Petroglyph Festival is based around the cheerful, corporate-ready commercialization of the Coso rock art, the petroglyphs themselves depict strange and often violent imagery. On nearly every cliff face of Renegade Canyon, you find not simply pictures of bighorn sheep, but bighorns etched in the throes of death, their bodies impaled with spears and torn by arrows.


The mood on petroglyph tours is, if not somber, generally one of quiet reverence. Tour guides do an especially good job just hanging back, allowing the art to sink into the group, and not pushing forth any interpretation. Though they do occasionally step in. I remember on my first tour of Renegade Canyon, a woman kept pointing out the strange round-headed humanoids carved in the walls, and saying, "Look, an alien wearing a space helmet," or, "Look, an alien with a cell phone."

"Archeologists call those 'patterned body anthropomorphs,'" a guide eventually told her, adding that the art was still sacred to the tribes throughout the region, and it was disrespectful to infantilize the art of their ancestors in such a way.

When the festival isn't happening, normal tours of Renegade Canyon, arranged through the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, take 20 people on select weekend dates determined by the military during the fall and spring months. The Navy makes you sign a form that releases them from responsibility should you break a leg or catch a stray bomb, and the background checks conducted by the military usually take two to three weeks. The tours cost $40 and nearly ever one sells out. Excluding the festival, only about 800 people make it in to see the art each year.

In many ways the tours seem like a routine trail walk. People park in a dusty lot, tightening their boots and backpacks while guides take a headcount. In the distance below, the black gash of Renegade Canyon cuts west across the wide desert terrace, its exit at the lower ridge too far off to see.

A trail winds out through the fragrant burrobush, sage, and creosote, out from the edge of the dirt lot to the rim of the canyon, where it drops down through a steep side wash. Below, bright lichens cover the brown walls of the canyon, but you can't see anything yet. Guides remind you to watch your step as gravel crunches underfoot. Sunlight burns against your back, painting your blue outlines as you file forward and the walls narrow and voices hush. A carpet of soft sand covers the canyon floor. Like children sneaking into some forbidden sanctuary, everyone keeps trading excited and worried glances, scanning for the first petroglyph—but there's only the vast silence of the canyon, impenetrable as the rock walls closing you in. You glance back. Faraway, along the eastern horizon, a pair of perfectly formed volcanic domes lay like soft breasts tanning in the morning sun.

Then, without a word, the digital camera shutters start clicking. Up ahead, a dozen people stand aiming at the rock wall, while others crouch and kneel, jostling for position. Five pale shoe-sized sheep engravings cover the dark basalt. Geometric designs wrap around the periphery. A man crawls up for a closeup and one of the guides tells him that it's close enough: "Everyone, please keep back at least two feet from the petroglyphs." People keep vying for position, standing on their toes with cameras raised, as though the tiny darting sheep were actually alive, actually running away, fleeing the hungry tourist photographs.

Just minutes later, this initial flurry of photography seems absurd. The canyon contains more petroglyphs than any camera eye or human memory can record. By the time most people reach the cliff at the end of the canyon, they've stopped taking pictures, stopped talking altogether—they just sit and stare off into the expanse below.

The cumulative effect of the canyon is hard to describe. It's not something you can get from simply looking at a few panels of petroglyphs. You have to spend the whole day walking the canyon's entire length to let the images wash over you. Not everyone who takes the tour hikes the mile and a half down to the end—some people only go halfway and then return to the shaded picnic table beside the parking lot. You cannot get this cumulative effect if you turn back. Nor can you get it from other petroglyph sites off base or the tours during the Petroglyph Festival, which only spend an hour at the canyon's entrance.

Everyone's experience differs, I'm sure. For me, an initial impression, if there ever was one, that the petroglyphs resembled something inspirational or alien faded away the further I walked down the canyon. It was replaced by a sense of awe at the sheer number of etchings, which in turn gave rise to a sensation of mild dread when I realized that they all mostly depict the same image—bighorn sheep.

And as you continue to wander down the length of the narrow lava canyon, despite the open sky, the clean desert light, and the quiet conversation of the people around you, a feeling of claustrophobia begins to assert itself. And the further you venture, the more the canyon narrows, and the more pictures you pass, the deeper this feeling extends, until you come to understand that you've entered a place that is not your home, gawked at pictures not made for your enjoyment, photographed panels of bighorn sheep never made for pleasure but rather in pain, ripped out from the walls by desperate men with bloody fingers over so many lonely millennia, and once you reach the end of the canyon and see how many times that single intentional image occurred, a final conclusion presents itself: Something went wrong here.

IV

No one knows for certain what the rocks record. But they have been perfectly preserved thanks to airtight military security. Even the tribes who revere the rock art of the Cosos have to jump through hoops to pay their respects.

"The sites still have their power but we can't use them properly; we have to be escorted and they watch us down at the hot springs and it's very irritating," says Kathy Bancroft, the Cultural Officer for the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone.

"At this point in the journey," says Jodie Benson, "I'm just grateful that the art is out there on Navy land, and not just anybody can go out there."

Not all the petroglyphs are on land protected by the military, however, and as the art has become more famous, Native Americans and archaeologists worry about people damaging other unprotected sites or stealing the petroglyphs right off the walls. The worst case of vandalism occurred not long before the first annual Ridgecrest Petroglyph Festival, in an area north of the Cosos. In a matter of hours, looters wielding power saws, electric generators, and ladders managed to steal a handful of petroglyphs that had survived thousands of years of natural erosion.

"Anybody could have driven out on top of them, there would have been a dust cloud," Greg Haverstock, an archaeologist at the Bureau of Land Management, tells me. "These people were extremely bold." The event was the worst case of vandalism ever seen on the nearly 1 million acres of public land managed by Haverstock's BLM office.

Though multiple people I talked to say that cases of vandalism were on the rise, there was some disagreement about the cause. Donald Storm, another BLM archaeologist, says that China Lake's severely restricted access is a problem—if people can't enter the base they might go looking for petroglyphs on unprotected land. "If they're out in the public domain, damage is more likely because these sites are hard to control," he says.

Bob Robinson, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Kern Valley Indian Council, thinks that the festival is not helping to reduce the destruction. "As it is we have enough problems with sites being vandalized without all the promotion of the festival." Robinson says that tourists need to know that the petroglyphs are not doodles on rocks, but put there for a reason, and they're part of a living ongoing culture that is here today: "People need to understand that they're sacred and they need to be treated with respect." According to Robinson, this is the "education part that I hope will be there at the festival, and not this thing of creating this whole New Age story around aliens putting them there."

But Robinson isn't very optimistic. He describes the festival as "commercial exploitation. They're turning it into a Roswell bullshit."

This, ultimately, is the dividing line between Ridgecrest and some local Native Americans, who see the festival not just as a commercialization of their culture but something that could literally fuel the destruction of their sacred symbols.

"The worst thing about it is the town of Ridgecrest," says Kathy Bancroft. "They want to be the petroglyph capital of the world. I heard that on the local radio station and I thought, Who said they should do that? " Bancroft says it's incredibly disrespectful for the festival to be promoting the petroglyphs with vandalism on the rise.

On this point, everyone agrees: Protecting the petroglyphs is the most important thing. "The only way that the petroglyphs will continue to be here for a very long time is by protecting them and respecting them," says Debbie Benson, the current director of the Maturango Museum, which organizes tours of Renegade Canyon. "Not all petroglyphs are on the base. If people are harming them and don't understand them and not respecting them, they will not last."

Some of the materials in Petroglyph Park are of dubious educational value, however. One large engraving near the entrance is entirely unlike any of the actual petroglyphs; when I asked archaeologists about it they said they had never laid eyes anything like it. "I can honestly say I've never seen an image in rock art that resembled that even closely," Greg Haverstock said. "I look at that and I think 1950s sci-fi aliens."

The particular stand of petroglyphs is labeled "Shamanic Visions or Alien Visitors." The placard in front of it pays lip service to the popular New Age concept—promoted by Erich von Däniken's 1967 bestseller Chariots of the Gods—that many rock art images throughout the world portray aliens who visited earth, planted the seeds of consciousness in primitive humanity, and made possible all the cultural achievements of ancient man. This notion has been criticized for minimizing the actual artistic achievements of indigenous people and for simply being shoddy history. "That writing as careless as von Däniken's," Carl Sagan wrote in 1976, "whose principal thesis is that our ancestors were dummies, should be so popular is a sober commentary on the credulousness and despair of our times."

V

As it stands now, the tribes have no interest in participating in the Petroglyph Festival. None of the Native Americans I spoke to had ever attended it, and some, like Bob Robinson, openly condemned it. "They're just cashing in on something sacred. They're selling it. And I don't want any part," he says. "We don't want to participate because of the money."

Kathy Bancroft says that Ridgecrest never even approached her tribe about the festival. All they did was send advertisements. "If I really felt they cared and wanted to do it right maybe I'd participate," Bancroft says. "They've taken something sacred and spiritual and created a stereotype, a team mascot for the city of Ridgecrest, and it makes me sick."

Some Native Americans I spoke with emphasize that a festival that educated the public about the petroglyphs could be beneficial, if it made people more aware of the sacred nature of the rock carvings and the history behind them. Barbara Dutton, a member of the Death Valley Timbisha-Shoshone, tells me the festival was "a good opportunity for educating the general public about how important these sites are to the native people." But Dutton did admit, "I don't know what kind of information they have out there."

Given the information I encountered there, the Petroglyph Festival appears to have little interest in educating the public about the sacred nature of the rock art or the history behind it—which is truly a shame.

The petroglyphs at China Lake can be interpreted many ways. I prefer an explanation offered by archeologist David Whitley, who thinks that the Coso Range was once the central pilgrimage point for rainmaking shaman throughout the Great Basin.

"The images should not be interpreted in a literal sense," Whitley says. The petroglyphs represent not literal hunting scenes but rather "graphic expressions of the visions of rain shamans that, themselves, were metaphors for the rain shaman's supernatural control over the weather." The images of mutilated bighorns represent prayers for rain, not bighorns, according to Whitley.

As anyone who has lived through California's ongoing drought knows, we still pray for rain, though we do it in different ways. It was in China Lake where the military crafted the rain-making technology of "cloud seeding," which was deployed during the Vietnam War in an attempt to flood the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Today the technique, which involves shooting particles into clouds to form ice crystals, is used across the American West, including California, to ward off drought. It isn't clear, however, that cloud seeding is any better at bringing rain than carving bighorns into the sides of rocks.

If you go to the Ridgecrest Petroglyph Festival, or if you visit the rock art of the Coso Range, don't approach the art lightly. Don't dismiss its creators as being primitive, or assume they needed to be influenced by UFOs in order to make their art. Think about their world, plagued with uncertainty, their struggles to scratch out lives against the harshness of the Mojave Desert. And think about the uncertainties of our own world today—the reality of global climate change and a perpetual war on terror. Remember that at China Lake, while the military continues to protect the traces of past man, in the same breath, in the same location, they continue to perfect the art of erasing him from the present.

And if you have a chance, take a look some of the most impressive petroglyphs, the rare ones depicting the skinny men riding strange animals, the white men arriving—the aliens. Ask yourself: Who will last longer—us or the petroglyphs?

January 3, 2016

How one man plans to make billions selling Mojave desert water

Scott Slater wants to pump billions of gallons to LA and other drought-hit cities - and make $2.4bn in the process

Scott Slater’s Cadiz Inc plans to tap the eastern Mojave aquifer of water he says would otherwise evaporate. (Cadiz Inc.)

Rupert Neate
The Guardian


Scott Slater has a plan. It is not a popular plan, but he wants to pump 814bn gallons of water from under the Mojave desert to Los Angeles and other drought-stricken communities in southern California, and make more than $2bn (£1.3bn) doing so.

“Yes, it’s quite a lot of money,” Slater, the 57-year-old chief executive of Cadiz Inc, says as he stands in front of a scale model of the project in the foyer of the company’s office on the 28th and top floor of a LA city center office block. “It’s worth whatever the community who wants the water is willing to pay for it to meet their demands.”

Cadiz owns water rights associated with 45,000 acres of land along Route 66, about 75 miles north-east of Palm Springs. The holdings were built up by the company’s founder, Keith Brackpool, a British horseracing impresario, who came to the US after admitting having breached financial disclosure laws in the UK in the 1980s.

The company biggest investors, some of whom have been waiting for Cadiz’s water to flow to LA for more than a decade, include the New York hedge fund Water Asset Management and Crispin Odey’s Odey Asset Management in London.

Slater has already got contracts to sell the water for $960 an acre ft (the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land in a foot of water). That works out at $2.4bn over the 50 years of the company’s water extraction deal with San Bernardino County. His problem, however, is convincing politicians, regulators and the public that pumping water 200 miles from the desert aquifer to LA is a good idea.

Scott Slater, CEO Cadiz Inc
“People see this development as a private sector initiative and they have a very visceral, negative reaction to that,” Slater says.

The price of water in California has been steadily rising, as has demand from a growing population, while the state struggles with four years of severe drought. Slater says water is worth as much as $2,200 an acre ft in San Diego, where it is shortest supply. A decade ago the price was less than $100, he says.

Drought is good news for Slater and Cadiz. “In a condition of scarcity, all water, all water that’s reliable, becomes more valuable,” Slater says. The company’s share price spikes every time a drought emergency is declared, but the shares have still lost more than 80% of their value since 2007 because of repeated regulatory setbacks in Cadiz’s quest to tap the eastern Mojave aquifer.

In the latest setback, the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ruled that the company cannot lay a 43-mile pipeline alongside an existing railway line to transport water to the Colorado river aqueduct and on to the cities of the Californian coast. It means Cadiz will have to seek federal approval for the pipeline, which will trigger a long and expensive environmental impact review.

Slater, who was a water rights lawyer for 30 years before taking over as Cadiz’s CEO in 2013, is not giving up on the railway pipeline without a fight. He accuses the BLM of misinterpreting 19th century railway law, and says: “If we can’t get them to follow the law, we’ll do what we need to do, pursue administrative and judicial remedies.”

He says the logistics of the project are pretty simple, and that the company could start pumping enough water to supply 400,000 people by 2017. “I know it will work,” he says, dressed in an purple open-collar Burberry shirt and jeans.

Cadiz has plenty of enemies - environmentalists, local ranchers, protectionists and Native American tribes - but none more fierce than Senator Dianne Feinstein.

“I remain concerned the Cadiz project could damage the Mojave desert beyond repair and believe the BLM decision to deny the right of way is the right one,” said the veteran Democrat, who in 1994 help create the Mojave national preserve. She believes it could be threatened by the Cadiz project. “The bottom line is that right now we need more responsibility in how we use our water, not less.”

David Lamfrom, the director of the National Parks Conservation Association’s California desert and wildlife program, said he believed that “full examination of the Cadiz Inc proposal will once again prove that it is unsustainable and that it will harm our desert national parks, communities, businesses, and wildlife”.

Slater says his plan is environmentally “benign” and will conserve water that at present is lost from the aquifer via evaporation from dry lakes. He says the 50,000 acre ft of water a year the company would extract would “otherwise evaporate, which is far more of a waste than people drinking it”.

“None of the water we are going to take fell on the earth in the last 100 years. This is millennial water. It takes centuries from the water falling at the upper end of our watershed and then follow a migratory path to down where we are,” he says.

“Our project hypothesis is that we construct a well field here,” he says, pointing at a point on the scale model. “And intercept the water as it goes down the hill before it can become hyper-saline and evaporates. We are substituting our wells for the natural evaporation process that sends the water into the atmosphere and wastes it.”

In addition to environmental concerns, others object to a private company being able to make billions from water. Slater says they do not understand the law, which in California states no entity can own water but they can buy, sell and trade the right to use it.

“There are people that think water is a human right and confuse privatization with the right to get water under economic terms,” Slater says.

“This is the United States of America and we have private property here. This is not a communist country. We own land, and land use is an attribute of property ownership,” he says. “Food doesn’t stay on the farm it was grown on. We share our food, we share our energy, we share our oil and gas. I can sell land to anybody. Why would I treat water any differently?

“The use of water is owned. It’s not like someone is calling up God and saying ‘make it rain’. It is sold as a right, just like you sell a house.”