September 12, 2014

In Nevada, washed-out interstate is truckers' nightmare

A bulldozer works on a flood-ravaged portion of Interstate 15 near Moapa, Nev. (John Locher / Associated Press)

Los Angeles Times

LAS VEGAS -- Mother Nature works in confounding ways: snow flurries in Phoenix, a balmy Christmas in Buffalo, and this week's catastrophic flood in the normally parched desert 50 miles north of this resort city.

In what some term the area's worst storm in decades, a 2-mile-long stretch of Interstate 15 in rural Moapa was destroyed by 4 inches of rain that lashed the roadway in just an hour on Monday. The dying throes of Tropical Storm Norbert dumped as much rain on the area in 60 minutes as Las Vegas gets in a year.

The mother of all road detours has come for thousands of vacationers, sightseers and long-distance truckers, including delays of eight hours or more, with vehicles diverted onto a gantlet of winding two-lane roads that squiggle into the cacti and scrub brush.

The roundabout has resulted in millions of dollars in losses for regional trucking companies and their customers. Drivers on already tight schedules — and with legal limits on how long they can spend on the road — have thrown up their hands.

"The worst backup I've seen in 25 years as a long-distance trucker," said Ken Leth, 58, a driver for Las Vegas-based Truline Corp. trucking company who says he has clocked 3 million road miles. "You couldn't get up and running. It was 20 miles an hour most of the way."

For customers, waits of up to 36 hours for deliveries have meant that hospitals have run out of clean linens for patients and rural gas stations have run out of fuel.

"It's been tough," said Paul Enos, chief executive of the Nevada Trucking Assn., which represents 530 companies. "Some people are getting desperate."

In Nevada, 94% of all manufactured goods are delivered by truck — versus 69% nationally, he said. Much of that cargo travels along I-15, a commercial artery that in the damaged area handles 25,500 vehicles per day.

"We've been trying to get hours-of-service exemption so guys can wait out the delays and stay on the road," he said. "There are just so many towns out there that depend on trucks."

Since the storm hit, I-15 has been closed in both directions, and state transportation crews have worked around the clock to repair the damage. Officials planned to open one lane in either direction by late Friday, but even if that happens, traffic will be restricted to cars and light trucks.

That means for at least another week, 18-wheelers will have to continue on a circuitous route through two states.

Leth and others consulted their trucker's atlas for this time-killer: His northbound semi was waved off I-15 onto U.S. Highway 93, through tiny Alamo and Caliente to the town of Panaca. Then he headed east on State Route 319, which becomes Utah Route 56, and connected back onto I-15 in Cedar City, Utah.

That's 225 miles on narrow two-lane roads, versus 150 miles on the interstate.

For Leth, who was hauling dairy products to Denver, the detour took more than eight hours to cover ground that would have taken three hours on I-15: "I was a captive audience — all I could do is sit in traffic."

For a time, all traffic was diverted onto this route. Now cars and trucks travel east from the interstate through Valley of Fire State Park — with highly reduced speed limits — and back on the highway 40 miles and several traffic-congested hours later, just 18 miles from where they started.

From his check-in desk, Nolan Avery, owner of the 40-room Shady Hotel in Caliente, has watched the slow-moving Nevada version of "Carmageddon."

"Oh my gosh, that first day was just a nightmare, with bumper-to-bumper cars and trucks. At one point it took two hours to get five miles," he said. "People were irate, just stuck in their vehicles. Trucks broke down, which made things worse."

The last few days have gotten better, Avery said. "Now it's nothing but trucks. One rumbles past here just about every 10 seconds."

Frustrated motorists have veered off the detour route — including the tour bus operator who abandoned a trip to Zion National Park in southern Utah for one to nearby Death Valley. His reason: You just couldn't get there from here, not in any timely way.

"We're getting lots of tour buses in here," said Vivien Rudzena, manager of the Horizon Market in Pahrump. "The line to our bathroom goes around the corner. I tell people to drink plenty of water. It's a desert out there."

Some are calling this week's downpour southern Nevada's 100-year storm, but transportation officials say that's an understatement.

"Our system is equipped to handle those 'worst-in-100-years' storms, but this was much worse than that," said Mario Gomez, an assistant engineer with the Nevada Department of Transportation.

He said the drainage system, designed to handle a river of water 200 feet wide and 20 feet deep, overflowed, sending 2 feet of water onto the roadway, toppling cars and ripping up the roadway. "The sheer force of the water scours the road. It rips and tears everything in its path."

Gomez arrived at the gutted stretch of highway to see sheer devastation. "The road was just gone in places," he said. "I've never seen as severe a force of nature in my life, and I've got a new respect."

Enos said truckers were preparing for the long and hard road ahead. Drivers were teaming up to outlast the delays and some were avoiding Nevada entirely. Still, the delays are taking their toll.

"You figure that it costs about $80 an hour to run a long-distance truck, with salary and fuel," he said. "So you get long delays like this and multiply the losses by tens of thousands of trucks, and the losses start to add up real fast."

Gomez said the big trucks would be kept off the interstate until all four lanes reopen because there are several hilly stretches that would cause long lines behind lumbering 18-wheelers in low gear.

"We know I-15 is a commercial lifeline to Utah, California and the rest of the country," he said. "So it's extremely important to get things open as soon as possible. I feel horrible for those truckers. But we're working as fast as we can."

But where there is economic famine there is also feast. Shady Motel owner Avery says business has been good. "For a small town like ours, something like this is a financial boost, if only for a few short weeks."

September 9, 2014

Ruling sticks: Salt Creek not a county highway

RS 2477 fight » Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirms narrow view of what constitutes “public use.”

The Salt Creek/Horse Canyon road in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park flooded Oct. 5, 2011. (Canyonlands National Park)

By Brian Maffly
The Salt Lake Tribune

A federal appeals court on Monday affirmed a tough standard for what constitutes a county road, spurring the state to urge Utahns to come forward if they have memories of hunting or hiking on disputed routes decades ago.

To prevail in a road claim, a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously held in April, counties should demonstrate actual use by the general public, not just use that was "necessary or convenient" for a handful of people or by ranchers moving cows.

Monday’s ruling denied Utah’s request to have the full court reconsider that decision.

The April ruling rejected San Juan County’s highway claim up Salt Creek Canyon in Canyonlands National Park. At issue was a 12.3-mile unimproved route that threaded in and out of a creek bed draining the park’s Needles District.

But the 10th Circuit’s logic could extend to the thousands of other road claims pending against the federal government in Salt Lake City’s U.S. District Court.

Wielding a frontier-era law known as RS 2477, the state is seeking title to 66-foot rights-of-way on 36,000 miles of what rural counties claim are vital transportation corridors.

Opponents, however, say many of these contested routes appear to be marginal two-tracks.

Besides signaling a victory for federal control of such "roads," this ruling fills a gap in case law regarding RS 2477, according to Heidi McIntosh, a lawyer for the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice

"They closed the door on claims which cite no more than random prospector use or ranchers using the route pursuant to a permit. That’s important. Thousands of the claims before the court are claims just like Salt Creek," said McIntosh, who filed amicus briefs in the case opposing San Juan County’s right-of-way claim.

The Denver-based 10th Circuit on Sept. 29 will hear arguments on another major RS 2477 case, one involving about a dozen routes in Kane County.

The 2013 ruling by U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups in that case was mostly a defeat for the federal government, which is appealing.

The state and county are appealing aspects of Waddoups ‘s decision that hinder the larger roads cause, which is among the costliest legal undertakings ever pursued by Utah officials.

A stable of lawyers, most on the taxpayers’ dime, have been touring the state in recent months, taking "preservation" depositions of elderly and infirm witnesses whose testimony is needed to establish road use decades ago.

These people are not expected to still be alive years from now when these cases actually land before a judge.

To gain title to a right-of-way, counties must demonstrate 10 years of "continuous use" prior to the 1976 passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which repealed RS 2477.

For Salt Creek, that use had to have occurred prior to 1964 when Congress established the national park.

The Salt Creek and Kane cases are among Utah’s four "active" roads lawsuits, which are intended to resolve questions of law common to most of Utah’s 14,000 road claims.

However, this most recent ruling leaves the definition of "continuous use" to the discretion of trial judges, according to Tony Rampton, public lands section director for the Utah Attorney General.

"Our objective was to have the Court solidify the test for public user, and it is unfortunate that the Court did not avail itself of this opportunity," Rampton said in a prepared statement.

"This ruling increases the importance for members of the public who used the roads prior to 1976 for hunting, camping, sight-seeing and other general public uses to come forward with their testimony to assist in the presentation of the evidence in cases involving R.S. 2477 roads."

State officials have long held that these contested rights-of-way are crucial to economic prospects and quality of life for rural counties. Environmentalists dismiss such framing as a "red herring," arguing the state’s hidden goal is to disqualify large swathes of undeveloped land in southern Utah from wilderness protection.

Interpreting the California Desert Landscape With Patricia Chidlaw

Owens Lake 2012 by Patricia Chidlaw
High & Dry

Unbeknownst to each other, L.A. art photographer Osceola Refetoff and Santa Barbara realist painter Patricia Chidlaw were interpreting the same altered landscapes at nearly the same time over the last five years. As Refetoff wrote on the High & Dry website, "Santa Barbara-based painter Patricia Chidlaw recently grabbed our attention with her vivid depictions of California landscapes. Her work includes evocative images of downtown bridge and rail yards along the Los Angeles River and desertscapes of the Mojave and Owens Lake -- all areas of great interest to High & Dry."

If this wasn't remarkable enough, upon closer inspection Refetoff made an "uncanny discovery." "In 2010-2011, Ms. Chidlaw and I were capturing the same scenes -- perhaps within days or hours -- from virtually the same angles. And while her realist paintings were a striking resemblance to photographs, my pinhole exposures might easily be mistaken for watercolors."

After initial email contacts Refetoff and she wanted to explore this synchronistic correspondence in more detail. The first meeting of Refetoff and Chidlaw took place in Los Angeles New Chinatown where he has his studio and home. The second meeting in Santa Barbara was expected to last a few hours, and include a lunch. Nuanced discussion ate up most of the day. In fact, Refetoff and I didn't start south until after the sun had set.

This three person collaboration had begun when I visited the Nevada Art Museum in Reno to see William Fox's Center for Art and Environment. I walked into the second floor galleries and saw an array of paintings that glowed with brilliant, carefully rendered southern California desert light. I knew this person understood our high desert light and also had the skill and craft to capture it. At first I thought these canvases were brilliant photographs.

When I approached the exhibit, I immediately noticed a painting of the Owens Dry Lakebed. In Lone Pine, we call them the 'bathtub rings'. They are high water marks left behind as the lake's water evaporated or was extracted by Los Angeles through the aqueduct. Wonderful, I thought. There is someone who thinks this landmark is worth capturing. When I started to view the other paintings, I discovered an eerie familiarity with some of the urban landscapes, in particular some of the famous bridges that span the L.A. River. Refetoff had taken me to several of these spans. In fact, we had hiked the river for two days as Refetoff photographed identical subjects that Chidlaw had captured in her paintings.

I had always thought of the Owens River- Los Angeles Aqueduct - L.A. River made a new kind of rural/urban riparian highway, connecting these two desert areas, that are historically linked by water. In fact, about 30 percent of the water that flows down the L.A. River to the sea originates in the Owens Valley.

I shared the exhibition catalog with Refetoff. The photographer discovered more shared subjects with Chidlaw. Refetoff states, "For a more nuanced conversation about our approaches to landscape interpretation, we've decided to collaborate and discuss similarities / differences between rendering a scene on canvas vs. film. We also intend to explore the reasons we are drawn to similar subjects and compositions."

The two artists were starting to influence each other in subtle ways. When Refetoff saw a painting Chidlaw had done of a building with large show windows with the Mojave Rail Road tracks behind, he realized he had shot the same locations. Chidlaw had made certain compositional decisions to change elements. Refetoff had rejected his images because they didn't meet his personal standards. Now he had to revisit the photographs because of the painter.

Refetoff wrote to the painter, "Meanwhile. Yet another off-the-beaten location where our paths have crossed. My photo would never have seen the light of day if I hadn't come across your painting on facebook today. Just a quick shot I knocked off as a reminder to return someday 'in better light.' I remember being drawn to this particular intersection because of the streamlined building, the rounded awning and favorable view of the tracks. I also find its signs interesting in sparse desert settings."

Refetoff continued, "What fascinates me here is the difference in the reflections in the window. You have chosen to treat the glass as a perfect plane, the train continuing in a near-straight line, the sharply-rendered Silver Queen mine in the distance. Without a photo to compare, I doubt anyone but a painter would consider how unlikely it is for a bank of windows to reflect without distortion.... By comparison, the 'real' reflection looks like a virtual funhouse mirror."

The photographer added, "I find these odd convergences rich with questions and possibilities."

Refetoff would soon return to Mojave to re-photograph this building in preparation to deepen their discussion. "One thing is certain, painting has inspired me to re-visit the intersection the next time I'm out there. I just love that town."

Refetoff and I arrived at Patricia Chidlaw's 1912 Craftsman house on a Sunday morning. It quickly seemed to the us that we had known each other more than just a few minutes. At first there was small talk, an introduction to her Scottie Dougal, and a tour of the house. After Refetoff helped the artist with some computer/ internet issues, the two began to share his photographs and her paintings in her studio in the back of the house.

The morning gloom started to burn off. The sun poured down from a skylight in the room. Patricia said she felt it was small, but in fact it was full of art in various stages of preparation for an upcoming exhibit. Eventually the three of us looked at many of Refetoff's images on his Mac. Finally Chidlaw remarked, "You must have a million images." In return she has four by five transparencies of most of her sold work. The photographer systematically looked at each image, commenting on some. He culled some for future reference knowing he had shot photographs of the exact spots portrayed in the paintings.

Refetoff made the point that there are so few buildings in the desert that it is probable that every subject you choose has already been worked and reworked by various people before. Then he pulled up the Catholic Church in Randsburg, California, an old mining camp. "Here is an image by a photographer named Ed Freeman, who lives down the street from me. He took the church and replaced the hills and sky among other things, using Photoshop, a computer photography application that Freeman is very adept at employing. The mountains in fact are from Chris' home location, the Owens Valley." Refetoff made the point several times that he didn't have a problem with Ed manipulating his image with Photoshop but that he himself wouldn't do that.

Chidlaw remarked that by using the approach Freeman had turned the church into a cute "little toy." She pointed out that artists for hundreds of years have been dealing with human subject matter that other artists had already done. "In fact one time I was painting a scene in my plein air days in San Jose. A man came up and said he had painted that first." Chidlaw continued, "Like it was his. That he owned it."

Refetoff asked, "What did you say." "Well, the guy was a jerk so I didn't continue with the conversation." After a year, Chidlaw gave up painting on location for various reasons: the inconvenience, the challenges of changing light, carefully managing composition.

We all then looked at a series of paintings Chidlaw had done in the Salton Sea area. As with many visual artists, they both had responded to the landscape of ruin there. Refetoff reiterated it was an area frequently photographed or painted by others. Refetoff had, in fact, just returned from exploring the area. He mentioned his assignment was to find a Salton Sea that "wasn't depressing." "I don't find the Salton Sea depressing but fascinating instead," he explained. (The results of his and my Salton Sea encounter will be featured in the October Issue of Palm Springs Life.)

Chidlaw agreed immediately about that area not being depressing. Again, both of them had worked there in parallel, attracted to similar landscapes including Bombay Beach.

Refetoff and Chidlaw are interested in going out to locations together and developing protocols on how to collaborate in the work. Chidlaw had made it clear she photographs specific areas and then returns to her studio to sketch a composition in red lines and then paint. They will share photographs, accept challenges from each other, or in other ways stimulate their creativity through a unique collaboration.

The interface of painting and photography has been energizing, with controversial encounters since the discovery of photography. Its pros and cons are still debated by artists and critics from each of the disciplines. Research is revealing that many great painters were "closet" photographers and used the medium in their work in many ways. The Impressionists on the Normandy Coast, Corot, Thomas Eakins, Degas and modern masters like Hockney, Picasso, Andy Warhol and Ian Wallace have all talked and written about painting and photography in their practice now.

My job is to capture the process, explorations and collaborations between Refetoff, Chidlaw and desert landscapes as well as L.A. riverscapes. I will be an active participant, not a detached reporter. While others have traveled these creative paths to some extent before, much of this collaborative landscape remains still to be discovered.

As the photographer, writer and the painter continued to talk into the fading light, more and more questions arose, frequently punctuated with new insights about their shared collaboration. New and deeper answers undoubtedly lay ahead.

High & Dry surveys the legacy of human enterprise in the California desert. Together, writer/historian Christopher Langley and photographer Osceola Refetoff document human activity, past and present, in the context of future development.

September 5, 2014

Work begins on $1 billion solar plant in Nevada

Silver State South concept.
Associated Press
Reno Gazette-Journal

LAS VEGAS – Construction has begun on a $1 billion solar power generating station in the Mojave Desert that officials say will produce enough electricity to power about 80,000 California homes when it is completed in 2016.

The 250-megawatt project, dubbed Silver State South, will capture solar energy with panels spread across almost 4 square miles of federal land south of Las Vegas, according to a fact sheet obtained Friday from a First Solar Inc. representative.

Executives with Arizona-based First Solar and Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources put the cost of the project at $1 billion during a Wednesday ceremony with federal Bureau of Land Management chief Neil Kornze at the site off Interstate 15 near the Nevada-California state line.

Kornze said in a statement Friday that since 2009, the BLM has approved more than 50 renewable energy projects around the country.

“The Silver State South Solar Project is another step forward in using clean and abundant energy resources to make energy and create good-paying jobs,” he said.

When completed, it would be the same size as the largest solar project in the state, a 250-megawatt plant that First Solar is building on Moapa Paiute tribal land along I-15 north of Las Vegas. That project broke ground in March.

First Solar is building the Silver State South array adjacent to a 25-megawatt Silver State North project the company completed in 2012 on almost 1 square mile of federal land near Primm.

A subsidiary of NextEra will own both plants.

Silver State North was the nation’s first large-scale solar power plant built on public land. It sells power to NV Energy for use in the Las Vegas area.

Silver State South will provide power to Southern California Edison under a long-term contract.

“Renewable energy sources such as solar power play an important role in the future energy mix in this country,” Armando Pimentel, NextEra president and CEO, said in a statement. “We look forward to working with First Solar and Southern California Edison to make this project a reality.”

Several more solar power projects have been proposed in Southern Nevada, where arrays are also under construction in the Eldorado Valley south of Boulder City and outside the Nye County seat of Tonopah.

New Center for Tortoises Opens In Mojave Preserve

A baby desert tortoise | Photo: National Park Service

by Chris Clarke

A first-of-its-kind center for studying the federally Threatened desert tortoise was formally donated to the Mojave National Preserve on Friday.

The Ivanpah Desert Tortoise Research Facility, built by Chevron on land provided by the mining firm Molycorp, will enable researchers to find out whether so-called "headstarting" programs for juvenile tortoises are really helping combat the tortoises' population decline.

The facility, which includes two acres of tortoise habitat with predator-proof fencing and a state-of-the-art laboratory, was completed in 2012, and was managed by the nonprofit National Park Trust until Friday's formal land transfer and dedication.

"This new facility provides scientists the opportunity to test methods for increasing the survival of juvenile tortoises to reproductive age," said Stephanie Dubois, Superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve. "This research could lead to the development of proven methods for recovering this species that continues to decline. We appreciate the work of our partners in making this facility a reality."

Juvenile desert tortoises have it tough. They're easy pickings for predators such as coyotes and ravens, both of which species have increased in number as a result of human development of the desert. Tortoises in their first few years of life haven't yet grown a shell tough enough to withstand a hungry raven's beak or coyote jaws. Increased predation by coyotes and ravens is considered a major factor in the federally Threatened species' decline.

In "headstarting" programs, female desert tortoises known to be carrying fertilized eggs are moved to the facility, allowed to lay their eggs, and then returned to their home territories. The hatchlings are kept in areas protected from predators, then released into new territories when their caretakers deem them tough enough to go it alone.

Headstarting is an expensive undertaking, and may not be an appropriate long-term tool for supplementing tortoise populations. While the practice has been used to boost populations of other tortoise and turtle species, it hasn't been conclusively shown helpful for desert tortoises. One 2009 study, in fact, suggests that headstarting might not be of much use for protecting desert tortoises if local breeding females aren't protected from the threats causing the decline in the first place.

Backers hope, however, that the practice might prove useful for temporarily boosting local desert tortoise populations. That's an issue the Park Service hopes to explore in the facility, built as partial mitigation of projects by Chevron and Molycorp that posed risks to desert tortoises. Researchers will try to craft "best practice" procedures for running effective headstarting programs.

The facility has already sheltered and released 46 tortoises since it started operating in 2012, out of a total of 185 hatchlings born at the facility. The released tortoises are being carefully monitored in their new homes.

September 2, 2014

Burning Man Draws 66,000 People To The Nevada Desert

Embrace at Burning Man 2014.
Associated Press

RENO, Nev. — The Burning Man counterculture festival drew a peak crowd of nearly 66,000 celebrants as it neared an end Monday on the northern Nevada desert.

Friday's official peak attendance of 65,922 was within the population cap of 68,000 the federal Bureau of Land Management imposed on the quirky art and music festival 110 miles north of Reno, said Gene Seidlitz, manager of the agency's Winnemucca District.

The number was down from last year's record peak crowd of 69,613, which resulted in organizers being placed on probation for a second time in three years for violating the limit.

Organizers had been warned that if they were placed on probation a second straight year, the agency might suspend or cancel their permit.

"That (crowd size) is not a problem this year," Seidlitz said, adding the attendance cap was one of 55 conditions organizers had to comply with under terms of their permit.

"We don't see any reason why we shouldn't meet all other stipulations," Burning Man spokesman Jim Graham said.

Overall, the weeklong festival leading up to Labor Day was successful and safe except for Thursday's death of a 29-year-old Wyoming woman who was struck by a bus carrying passengers on the playa of the Black Rock Desert, Seidlitz said.

Crime statistics will not be released until later this month, he added.

Rain early on closed the gate for a day — the longest closure in the event's history — and dust storms caused occasional whiteout conditions Friday.

But the festival's eclectic artwork, offbeat theme camps, concerts and other entertainment drew praise from participants from around the world.

"Actually, I feel renewed faith in humanity," John Bacon, of Seattle, told KRNV-TV.

Ron Adair, of Ojai, California, said he felt "a little tired."

"It's a little hard to have that many nights in a row and get by on four, five, six hours of sleep every night," Adair said.

After it moved from San Francisco, the inaugural Burning Man in Nevada drew only about 80 people in 1990.

August 28, 2014

Dozens of desert tortoise sterilized

By Caroline Bleakley
KLAS-TV Las Vegas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 27, 2014

Death Valley Mystery Solved

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

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

by Matt Kettmann
Santa Barbara Independent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 26, 2014

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

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

By Alex Greg and Ted Thornhill
UK Mail Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This year's festival sold out within an hour.

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

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

August 25, 2014

Surplus of tame tortoises an Arizona wildlife crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's illegal to catch and keep wild tortoises.

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

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

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

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

August 21, 2014

Superior Court Releases Final Decisions in Cadiz Project Environmental Litigation

Rulings Confirm Sweeping Victory for Project

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

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

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

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

August 20, 2014

A Line Is Drawn in the Desert

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

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

By Nick Bilton
New York Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 19, 2014

Westerners fear monumental land grab by Obama administration

By Kelly David Burke

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

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

Many national monuments eventually go on to become national parks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 17, 2014

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

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

By Ellen Knickmeyer and John Locher
Associated Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 15, 2014

Desert tortoise doing just fine



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

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

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

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

August 14, 2014

Salazar, sportsmen chide states' public lands movement

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

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Deseret News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 13, 2014

More Water Headed To Struggling Lake Mead

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 12, 2014

Sterilization clinic set for endangered tortoise

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 10, 2014

California Desert Protection Act turns 20, celebrations planned

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

By Joe Nelson
San Bernardino Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waite encourages local organizations and members of the community to get involved by contacting her via email at

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