October 16, 2014

ROUTE 66: After the rains, a humbled highway

Travelers are being turned away from fabled Route 66 and large sections of the historic highway have been closed since mid-September after heavy desert thunderstorms washed out bridges and undermined sections of pavement.

Route 66 heading west out of Ludlow is closed to traffic, one of several sections of the historic highway that are shut off to travelers. (Mark Muckenfuss)

By Mark Muckenfuss
The Press-Enterprise

Just try getting your kicks on Route 66 these days. It’s not easy.

Large sections of the historic highway have been closed since mid-September after heavy desert thunderstorms washed out bridges and undermined sections of pavement. In some spots there are holes large enough to swallow one of the motorcycles belonging to tourist groups that regularly retrace the Western route.

Those travelers and others now have to detour off of Route 66 between Newberry Springs and Needles, taking I-40 instead. San Bernardino County officials estimate it will take $1.4 million to fix the damage. They hope to reopen the road by late November.

For Route 66 enthusiasts, the detour is a disappointment. For those who live on the highway that brought generations of migrants west to California, the closure is more painful.

“We’re basically closed,” said Jim Wilson, 62, owner of Bolo Station Bar & Grill & RV Park, in Cadiz.
Barriers at the Kelbaker Road/Route 66 intersection 6 miles west of Wilson’s place tell eastbound motorists the road is closed to through traffic. Not many venture through to his place. The handful that do have had to turn around.

“You can get down to my place here,” Wilson said, “but right after you go over the bridge past my property (the road) is closed.”

Beyond that, there are bridges that have washed out.

“They’re bad,” he said.

Brendon Biggs is deputy director of operations for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Works. He’s overseeing a workforce of 20 to 30 people making repairs to Route 66.

“Right now it’s high on the priority list,” Biggs said. “We want to get the road open.”

The flooding that hit the region was almost unprecedented, he said.

“We had multiple locations of severe damage,” he said. “We had approximately 40 bridges damaged in some way along with the road surface itself.”

Residents in such tiny towns as Essex and Chambliss can get in and out, but everyone else has to go around.

“It definitely affects tourism,” Biggs said. “National Trails Highway (the original name for Route 66) is a big road. The most scenic areas, they’re not able to enjoy that right now. There are big holes in the road.”

Where the route is closed:

• Along I-40, from the Hector Road exit to Ludlow

• East of Ludlow to Amboy

• From Kelbaker Road east to I-40

Where it's open:

• Between Amboy and Kelbaker Road

Opened: Nov. 11, 1926, though the famed "Rte 66" signs didn't go up until 1927.

Nicknames: The Mother Road, America's Main Street

Household name: Popularizing the road in the 1960s were a hit TV show starring Martin Milner and George Maharis, which ran 1960-1964 on CBS, and a top-selling pop song, "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66," later recorded by scores of artists.

No longer super: Route 66 was removed from the U.S. highway system in 1985 because it had been replaced nationwide by a network of bigger, newer Interstate highways.

But always beloved: The road is still popular among pop-culture enthusiasts, historians, classic car collectors and tourists, particularly visitors from Europe.

October 10, 2014

Las Vegas ‘tortoise gulag’ paroles last inmates

A desert tortoise crawls free after being released into the desert near Primm on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. The Desert Tortoises Conservation Center which housed the tortoise, relocated its final 53 tortoises before the center is scheduled closing in Dec. (David Becker/Las Vegas Review-Journal)


JEAN — After years — perhaps a lifetime — in cushy captivity, desert tortoise No. 6349 spent his first five minutes of freedom hunched motionless under a bush in a rocky dry wash 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas.

Finally, as his human handlers backed away, 6349 poked his head out of his shell and started to explore his new home — slowly, of course.

He had no way of knowing it, but he marks the end of an era. He was part of the final batch to be set free in the wild before the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center shuts down for good in December, after more than 20 years at the southwestern edge of Las Vegas.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to close the 220-acre center last year, after its federal funding was eliminated. Since then, the center’s contract operator, the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, has been working with its partners to empty the facility, mostly by releasing healthy tortoises into the wild.

The center was caring for roughly 1,400 of the animals as recently as 18 months ago. Today, all that remain are about 50 adults awaiting shipment to a new exhibit at the Springs Preserve, a research facility in Battle Mountain and the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah.

Another 40 hatchlings born at the center will sleep through the winter in covered outdoor pens at the site and be released into the wild next year, said Mike Senn, assistant field supervisor with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Southern Nevada.

Senn said no tortoises have been euthanized — or will be — because of the closure of the center, though some animals have been humanely killed over the past two years because they were too sick to save.

He estimates that about 30 percent of tortoises that came into the center had to be put down for medical reasons.

Since 1989, the desert tortoise has been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The conservation center was established in the 1990s as a place for developers to put tortoises removed from job sites in booming Clark County, but it soon became the valley’s de facto shelter for unwanted pet reptiles.

Last year, the center announced it no longer would accept former pets and strays, which were pouring into the facility at a rate of about 1,000 a year, overwhelming its budget and research mission.

The center’s closure in two months will end what has, at times, been a troubled and patchwork effort to save the tortoise, even as researchers were trying to better understand the species and the reasons for its decline.

That led to mistakes.

During the center’s first decade or so, thousands of tortoises were euthanized under a policy that called for the destruction of any animal showing signs of a deadly upper respiratory tract disease considered a threat to the species. It was later learned that tortoises could test positive for the disease but never develop it, either because they had been exposed and recovered or because they could carry it without ever showing symptoms or passing it on. That led to a change in the disease protocol that dramatically reduced the number killed.

Senn said the center’s procedures for determining which tortoises to release have also improved greatly over time and so have survival rates. Early in the program, he said, “They were releasing whatever — anything that wasn’t dead.”

Longtime local conservationist John Hiatt said the center’s legacy will be decidedly mixed. He said “it seemed like a good idea” to have a holding area for tortoises that otherwise would be literally bulldozed in the name of development.

“But in the final analysis, it just wasn’t a long-term or permanent solution,” he said, especially after it became a shelter for a pet tortoise population far larger than expected.

The center has a nickname in the environmental community: “The tortoise gulag.”

“That’s what a lot of people referred to it as because tortoises went there and were put into little pens and that was it,” Hiatt said.

Friday’s release took place in an area west of Interstate 15 south of Jean known as the Large Scale Translocation Site. Of the more than 10,000 tortoises released from the conservation center since 1997, most of them have come to this 27,000-acre swath of federal land where the species’ population density is much higher than it would be under natural conditions, Senn said.

Federal officials and their state and local partners also have established other tortoise release areas at the base of the Spring Mountains south of Pahrump and in the canyons and desert south of Boulder City. A few years ago, a group of test subjects equipped with tracking devices was set loose at the Nevada National Security Site.

Studies conducted in recent years suggest former pet tortoises, even those born in captivity, survive in the wild at about the same rate as the natural population.

“It doesn’t take them very long to go out and be a real tortoise again,” Senn said. “They have that instinct.”

On Friday, it took about 25 biologists and volunteers less than an hour to release 53 tortoises. The crew spent longer driving to the site than it did emptying the animals from their plastic tubs.

No. 6349 was set free by Daniel Essary, a research assistant from the San Diego Zoo, who could find himself out of a job in December. Essary figures he has released roughly 250 tortoises into the Nevada desert over the past five years, and he noticed something familiar about the way 6349 reacted to its release by hiding in his shell.

It’s impossible to know for sure, but Essary said he would bet that 6349 wasn’t always a guest of the government or a backyard pet.

“I’m pretty sure he’s had his time in the wild before,” he said as he watched the tortoise begin to move.

October 6, 2014

Wilderness as economic stimulus? A closer look at the evidence

By Shawn Regan
The Hill

There are many good reasons to love wilderness. The Wilderness Act, which passed 50 years ago this year, describes several of them: outstanding opportunities for solitude, primitive and unconfined recreation experiences, and the preservation of special places "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man."

As a former wilderness ranger, these values resonate with me. More than 100 million acres of land have been designated as "wilderness" since 1964, and in my view they include some of the most spectacular landscapes imaginable.

But as hard-fought wilderness bills languish in Congress, some are claiming there's another reason to love wilderness areas – they're good for local economies.

This economic argument is a central part of wilderness advocacy today. Protecting lands from development, many say, provides a much-needed boost to rural communities. These lands attract workers, entrepreneurs and investors across all sectors while boosting income and employment in surrounding areas.

But what does the research actually say about the economic effects of wilderness designations? I took a close look at the peer-reviewed academic research and found few rigorous studies and little evidence to support the claim that wilderness leads to economic stimulus. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, consider what the best available research says.

First off, there is disagreement on how natural amenities such as wilderness should affect economic outcomes in theory. On the one hand, wilderness designations limit resource development and could hinder income and employment in extractive industries. On the other hand, wilderness could improve quality of life and attract new businesses, migrants and tourists. Adding to the confusion, there is evidence that workers might accept lower wages, longer periods of unemployment and higher land prices to live in areas rich in natural amenities such as wilderness.

So there's confusion about the theory, but what do existing studies find when they look at the data? In short, not much. The first empirical study, published in 1998, found no evidence that wilderness had an effect on employment or population growth in Western counties during the 1980s. A similar study in 1999 found no effect of wilderness on income, population or employment growth in rural counties in several Western states. Two more studies in 2002 and 2003 were no different: Wilderness had no effect on employment or wage growth.

More recent studies come to similar conclusions. A study in 2006 by Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics champions the role that public lands play in stimulating income growth in the West, but a closer look reveals that he is unable to demonstrate a statistically significant effect associated with wilderness lands. Another study by Rasker and his colleagues, published in 2013, emphasizes that protected public lands (including wilderness) had a small positive relationship with three measures of income. Less obvious was the fact that seven other economic measures they examined had zero effect.

So what about the popular claim that wilderness drives economic growth? Studies that reach this conclusion are based on simple correlations. None are rigorous enough to suggest that wilderness causes growth. Two studies that are often cited — one by Paul Lorah and Rob Southwick in 2003 and another by Patrick Holmes and Walter Hecox in 2004 — report a positive correlation from wilderness and population, income and employment growth. But once additional factors are controlled for in more detailed studies, these positive relationships disappear.

More research is needed to better understand the effects of wilderness. But a critical look at the existing studies makes this much clear: There is little or no evidence that wilderness bolsters economic growth. When environmentalists invoke economic arguments to support wilderness, they are exaggerating the best-available research and undermining other more compelling wilderness values.

Wilderness advocates shouldn't hang their hats on economic arguments. There are plenty of good reasons to love wilderness areas — but there's just no evidence that economic arguments are one of them.

Regan is a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Mont., and a former backcountry ranger for the National Park Service.

September 30, 2014

As Wild Horses Overrun the West, Ranchers Fear Land Will Be Gobbled Up

A roundup in the desert outside of Rock Springs, Wyo. For decades, the Bureau of Land Management has relied on a strategy of rounding up excess wild horses with helicopters and storing them in private ranches and feedlots. But the system is out of space and money. (Michael Friberg - The New York Times)

New York Times

BEAVER COUNTY, Utah — When he was a boy on a 150,000-acre ranch here in the desert mountains, which are so remote that there is no power line and electricity comes from a turbine in a mountain spring, Mark Wintch would thrill at the sight of a rare band of wild horses kicking up dust as they disappeared over a rise.

“Now there’re so darned many,” Mr. Wintch, 38, said, shaking his head as he bounced his red pickup through sage-dotted public land that his family has ranched since 1935. “Look out there. You barely see a blade of grass.”

Management plans by the federal government call for no horses in this area. But five horses looked up in alarm at his truck, then wheeled off through the brush. “I counted 60 last night,” Mr. Wintch said. “If I put my cows out here, they’d starve.”

Wild horses may be a symbol of America’s unbound freedom in the Old West. But in the new West, they are a tightly controlled legal entity, protected by federal law and managed by a perplexing system on the brink of a crisis.

There are now twice as many wild horses in the West as federal land managers say the land can sustain. The program that manages them has broken down, and unchecked populations pose a threat to delicate public land, as well as the ranches that rely on it.

For decades, the Bureau of Land Management has relied on a strategy of rounding up excess horses with helicopters and storing them in a system of private ranches and feedlots. But now there are almost 50,000 horses in storage, and the system is out of space and money. In response, the agency has drastically cut roundups, leaving horses to multiply on the range.

The Bureau of Land Management says that Western rangelands can sustain about 26,000 wild horses. There are now 48,000. In five years, there could be more than 100,000, according to agency projections.

“It’s a train wreck,” said Robert Garrott, a professor of wildlife management and ecology at Montana State University. “I’m worried we are entering an intractable situation that will damage the land for decades.”

If left unchecked, horse populations could decimate grass and water on public lands, he said, potentially leading to starvation among horse herds and other native species, as well as lawsuits from ranchers and wildlife groups.

Mr. Wintch and a group of other local ranchers sued the federal government in April, demanding that it remove excess wild horses.

While some ranchers and politicians have pushed to slaughter the horses in storage to free up money and space to continue roundups, Professor Garrott said the idea had proved so controversial that the Bureau of Land Management and Congress had repeatedly refused.

“Horses are so beloved in our society that no one wants to make a hard decision,” Professor Garrott said. “So we take this disastrous policy and just keep kicking it down the road.”

Wild horses today are the descendants of stray American Indian ponies and cavalry mounts, as well as more recent ranch stock. Roaming a patchwork of parched rangeland roughly the size of Alabama, they have been protected by federal law since 1971 from capture or hunting. Since then, the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees most of the herds, has said that keeping the population around 26,000 would ensure the long-term health of the horses and the land.

Every year, the agency removes horses from the land and offers them for adoption, using programs with 4-H children and prison inmates to train the animals. But adoption numbers have never come close to equaling removal numbers.

So for about 25 years, the agency has been paying contractors to house mustangs in private feedlots and pastures spread across several states, which now costs the agency almost $50 million a year.

The hefty bill has sapped the management program’s ability to do much else. As a result, the agency cut roundups this year by almost 80 percent.

This summer, two longtime storage facilities abruptly ended their contracts with the Bureau of Land Management, forcing the agency to find a place for nearly 3,000 horses.

“It’s a triage situation,” said Steve Ellis, the agency’s deputy director for operations. “We can’t do all we need to.”

The agency usually rounds up about 9,000 animals a year. This year, it will round up just 2,500.

Mr. Ellis said he was exploring new strategies, such as sending some excess animals to Guatemalan farmers, but the agency does not have a broad, long-term solution.

“It’s going to take some patience,” Mr. Ellis said. “I know some people will say, ‘We’ve been patient for 20 years,’ but we have to look forward. This tough situation we are in is not going to be fixed overnight.”

But patience in parts of the West has worn as thin as the grass.

Ranchers in Wyoming won a lawsuit this summer that demanded the agency remove horses from public and private lands east of Rock Springs. Though the agency had little room in storage, it was forced to round up almost 900 horses there in September.

The Bureau of Land Management expects more lawsuits as horse populations grow, pushing storage costs even higher.

“For years, we all warned they were managing their way into a crisis, and now they have it,” said Ginger Kathrens, the executive director of the horse advocacy group the Cloud Foundation, as she watched helicopters sweep the sage at a roundup in Rock Springs. She said she feared the Bureau of Land Management and ranchers would use the situation to pressure lawmakers to slaughter horses in storage.

Horse advocacy groups say that the population problem is overblown, and that the agency has unfairly relegated horses to scraps of marginal land where they are vastly outnumbered by cattle, then blamed the horses for the damage done by all grazers. Many are pushing for expanded horse territories and better management on the range.

But those advocates also agree that the practice of removing and storing horses is unsustainable.

Bureau of Land Management officials said they were forced to create a huge storage system by laws and policies that require the removal of horses from the range, but that provide little funding for alternatives and prohibit horses from being euthanized or sold to be slaughtered.

For decades, horse advocacy groups and the National Academy of Sciences have recommended using fertility-control drugs instead of roundups. But the agency contends that the drugs, which must be given every two years by injection, are impractical to administer in large herds on open lands.

The government has been trying to develop more effective drugs, such as an injection that will last five years, but it is unclear when they might become available.

On his ranch, Mr. Wintch drove up to a juniper-dotted hillside where a few years before, state wildlife workers had fenced in eight-foot squares with wire mesh to study the effect of grazing. In the protection of the squares, tawny tufts of Indian rice grass nodded in the breeze. Outside the squares, hard-packed dirt held a few vestiges of grass cropped down to nubs.

“This is all horses,” he said. “I haven’t put out cattle here at all this year.”

Last fall, the Bureau of Land Management sent a letter to Mr. Wintch and a dozen other ranchers in the region, saying that wild horses were increasing and that with no money for roundups, the ranchers should voluntarily cut their herds by half.

So this spring, Mr. Wintch sold a third of his cattle and let the rest out in his hayfields, where, he said, they will eat about $150,000 in winter hay.

“We can’t last out here if this continues,” Mr. Wintch said.

The Bureau of Land Management replied to the lawsuit by Mr. Wintch and the group of other local ranchers last week, denying it has violated federal law by failing to control horse populations.

“We don’t want to sue, but this is killing us financially,” said Tammy Pearson, who ranches near Mr. Wintch.

This summer, she kept her cattle out of the Bureau of Land Management pasture she leases because, she said, the horses had eaten the grass.

“It’s not a horse issue,” she said, looking across the pasture, where about 60 wild horses grazed. “It’s a range health issue. This land is getting beat up pretty good. Sure, it’s easy to blame the ranchers, but if you took us all off the land, you still wouldn’t solve the problem. The horses would just continue to expand. And then what?”

She chuckled at a small gray colt gamboling after its mother, and then, like many ranchers, wondered aloud why the 50,000 horses in storage could not be slaughtered and the meat put to some use.

“The situation we have right now is kind of insane,” she said. “People just think horses should be free, and as long as they are free they’ll be fine. But it’s not true.”

September 28, 2014

Colorado River supply concerns mounting

Lake Mead levels stand at an all-time low

By Dale Rodebaugh
Durango Herald

The water in Navajo Reservoir could play a role in meeting Colorado River Compact obligations in the event of continued drought, said Bruce Whitehead, director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

Release of water to Lake Powell from Navajo Reservoir, Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River in Utah and Blue Mesa Reservoir on the Gunnison River is one of three measures his district and the Colorado River District want implemented if water storage in the network that supplies seven Western states approaches crisis level, Whitehead said.

The other measures call for increasing the amount of water available and, lastly, reducing use.

“We’re not in crisis now,” Whitehead said. “The 2013-2014 water year has been almost normal as far as the amount of water in Lake Powell.

“But the reality is that in spite of some good water years, we’re in a 15-year drought,” Whitehead said. “We need a plan to meet a crisis if the same conditions continue.”

The three measures to meet a critical water shortage came out of a recent meeting of Southwestern and the Colorado River District, which between them cover the Western Slope.

The recommendations went to the Upper Colorado River Commission, which regulates water matters in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, the Upper Basin states that supply Arizona, Nevada and California, the Lower Basin states.

The water from the Colorado River and its tributaries is stored in Lake Powell at Page, Arizona. Lake Powell replenishes Lake Mead located 25 miles from downtown Las Vegas as Lower Basin states use water.

Lake Powell has a capacity of 24.3 million acre-feet, Lake Mead, 28.9 million acre-feet. An acre-foot of water would cover a football field to depth of 1 foot.

This year, Lake Powell has released 7.5 million acre-feet of water to Lake Mead. But the downstream reservoir has supplied more than that amount to Lower Basin states.

Lake Mead currently stands at an all-time low of less than 40 percent of capacity and Lake Powell at around 50 percent of capacity, Whitehead said.

According to agreements, Lake Powell is scheduled to send 8.23 million to 9 million acre-feet to Lake Mead next year.

The concern about Lake Powell is that if water drops below the level needed to generate electricity, federal agencies would lose $120 million a year in power sales.

The revenue from power sales funds among other things environmental programs such as protecting fish species in the San Juan River, Whitehead said.

If the water level in Lake Powell allows generation of power, there should be enough water to satisfy the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Whitehead said.

Again, Whitehead said, Lake Powell and Lake Mead aren’t at critical levels. But the Upper Colorado River Commission and counterparts in Lower Basin states are looking at what-if situations.

Thus, the recommendations from his district and the Colorado River District, Whitehead said.

Measures to increase the amount of water available through cloud seeding, removal of water-hungry nonnative vegetation such tamarisk and Russian olive and evaporation-containment methods are a first step, Whitehead said.

A second early step, Whitehead said, would be the release to Lake Powell of water from Navajo, Blue Mesa and Flaming Gorge reservoirs which, respectively, have acre-feet capacities of 1.7 million, 829,500 and 3.79 million.

The contributions of Navajo and Blue Mesa could be less than optimal because of contractual obligations, Whitehead said. Blue Mesa also generates electricity.

If the first two steps aren’t enough, water users would be affected directly, Whitehead said. The consumption of cities and agricultural users would be reduced. Fallowing of fields also could be required.

The two commissions said if water for agriculture is reduced, the loss must be shared by Colorado River water users on the Front Range.

Front Range users receive 500,000 to 600,000 acre-feet of water a year from Colorado River transmountain diversions, Whitehead said.

Another transmountain diversion sends 90,000 to 100,000 acre-feet a year to the San Juan/Chama Project from the Blanco and Navajo rivers, Whitehead said. Users in Santa Fe and Albuquerque benefit.

A contingency plan may never have to be implemented, but there’s no harm in having it on the shelf just in case, Whitehead said.

September 27, 2014

Glen Canyon Dam, key water source, marks 50 years

Officials mark the 50th anniversary of the Glen Canyon Dam, a structure that helped usher in a new era in the Southwest.

Water flows from the number one and two jet tubes as seen from atop the Glen Canyon Dam Wednesday, March 5, 2008 in Page, Ariz. (Matt York, Associated Press)

By Terry Tang
Associated Press

PHOENIX — U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and other officials on Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of power generation by Glen Canyon Dam, a structure that helped usher in a new era in the Southwest.

"Now, it's not without its controversy. But there's no question that this engineering feat was incredibly valuable to the economic future of this country," Jewell said.

Glen Canyon Dam, situated near the Arizona-Utah border, is a source of water and power for seven states in a region prone to drought. It is a key part of the Colorado River Storage Project and at 710 feet, is the second highest concrete-arch dam in the U.S. According to Jewell, the dam can store 27 million acre-feet of water — or the equivalent of two years' worth of the Colorado River's flow.

"This power plant produces enough electricity during the year to not use 2 ½ million tons of coal or 11 million barrels of oil," Jewell said.

But since the 1960s, the structure in Page, Arizona, has blocked 90 percent of the sediment from the river from flowing downstream, turning the once muddy and warm river into a cool, clear environment that helped speed the extinction of fish species and endangered others.

Anne Castle, Interior assistant secretary of water and science, called the dam "the fulcrum" that regulates flows between the Colorado River's upper and lower basins. Castle, who is retiring, acknowledged a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation study that confirmed there will be significant shortfall between water levels and demand in the coming decades.

The bureau controls levers at the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams for cities, states, farmers and Indian tribes in a region that is home to 40 million people.

"Even with all these successes of the past, we need to step up our game," Castle said.

Castle said federal regulators are continuing to work on a long-term management plan that will include high-flow releases to redistribute sediment.

Allocations of river water to Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming hinge on a "law of the river" compact reached with federal oversight in 1922.

September 26, 2014

Massive Solar Power Project for California Desert Scrapped

The proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System. (Palen Solar Holdings)

by Chris Clarke

The consortium of solar companies seeking to build a 500-megawatt solar power tower project in Riverside County has formally withdrawn the project's application from consideration by the California Energy Commission.

The Palen Solar Electric Generating System had just received tentative approval from the Commission this month to build one of two planned 750-foot solar power towers in the eastern Chuckwalla Valley.

But on Friday afternoon, project owner Palen Solar Holdings formally withdrew its petition on behalf of the project, which likely means the project is dead -- at least for the foreseeable future.

Originally approved by the commission in 2010 as a large parabolic trough solar project, Palen changed hands in 2012 after its original owner Solar Millennium went bankrupt. Bought by BrightSource Energy, who later brought Abengoa Solar on as a project partner, Palen was redesigned to incorporate BrightSource's proprietary solar power tower technology, in which two 750-foot towers with boilers on top would be surrounded by tens of thousands of mirrors. The independently targetable mirrors, called heliostats, would have focused concentrated solar energy -- "solar flux" -- on the boilers, which would then have generated steam to turn turbines.

The project had come under fire for its potential threat to migrating birds from that concentrated solar energy after BrightSource's smaller Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System began burning birds that flew through that plant's flux fields. Commission staff had estimated that each of Palen's two towers would pose more risk to birds than all three of Ivanpah's towers combined.

After a contentious series of hearings in which environmentalists and Native activists challenged Palen's likely impact on wildlife, visual resources, and Native cultural values, the commission recommended in December 2013 that the project's tower redesign be denied -- then reversed itself this month when Palen Solar Holdings agreed to build the projct one tower at a time, with the possibility to add thermal energy storage capability to the project at a later date.

Friday's withdrawal came as a surprise to observers of the process. BrightSource Energy Vice President Joe Desmond told ReWire in a phone conversation Friday afternoon that the withdrawal was made after careful consideration of all the factors involved. "We're withdrawing the project in the interests of a renewable energy solution that best reflects the interests of all the stakeholders in this process," Desmond told ReWire. "We're grateful to the California Energy Commission for their meticulous and careful consideration of our petition to amend [redesign] this project."

A formal statement by Palen Solar Holdings released Friday, signed by Desmond, said:

After carefully reviewing the proposed decision recommending approval of one tower, we determined it would be in the best interest of all parties to bring forward a project that would better meet the needs of the market and energy consumers.
We believe concentrating solar power, and specifically tower technology with thermal energy storage, can play a key role in helping California achieve its clean energy goals by providing the necessary flexibility needed to help maintain grid reliability. In addition, we are committed to bringing projects to the market that follow sound and responsible environmental measures to ensure all impacts are avoided, minimized or compensated for properly.

With the withdrawal in place, almost certain to be accepted by the commission, any new move to push the project forward would involve restarting the somewhat lengthy and cumbersome commission approval process. That is, unless the proposal was essentially identical to the earlier parabolic trough version of the project approved in 2010. It's worth noting that Palen Solar Holdings partner Abengoa Solar has extensive experience in building and operating parabolic trough solar power plants, including the Mojave Solar project near Harper Lake.

It'll be interesting to see how the project shapes up, if at all, in the next year. In the meantime, we'll have reaction to Palen's withdrawal from supporters and opponents on Monday.

Gifts in the desert: the psychology of Burning Man

At the Burning Man festival, kindness flourishes and generosity is widespread. Research on the psychology of human altruism helps explain why

The art installation Pulse & Bloom is seen during the Burning Man 2014 “Caravansary” arts and music festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada (darkroom.baltimoresun.com)

Molly Crockett
The Guardian

What happens to groups of people in harsh physical environments, away from all of the trappings of modern civilization? Tales of shipwrecks, adventurers and post-apocalyptic worlds explore this question, and usually these stories do not end well (recall the descent into anarchy and violence in Lord of the Flies). The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes warned that outside of civilized society, humans are nasty brutes who would sooner step on another’s face than share scarce resources.

Burning Man is a massive weeklong public arts festival held every August in Black Rock City, Nevada. You might imagine this event, where 65,000 people converge in a blazing desert devoid of water, food or electricity, would be a recipe for disaster.

But what happens at Burning Man might surprise even the cynics. Somehow this environment brings out the very best aspects of human nature. There, kindness flourishes and generosity is widespread. How does this happen? Research on the psychology of human altruism offers some clues.

It’s the economy, stupid

One of the most unique features of Burning Man, relative to other large festivals, is its economy. Nothing is for sale, with the exception of ice and coffee. Everything else is given freely as gifts. Walking around the city, you might receive: a neck massage; a shot of absinthe; your portrait, taken by a professional photographer; a snow cone; a pancake breakfast; a pair of vintage sunglasses; a pot of crème brulée; a yoga lesson.

Subtracting money from social interactions could be a key contributor to the spirit of generosity that permeates the atmosphere. An influential set of studies showed that even just thinking about money makes people less likely to help others and less interested in spending time with others. Subsequent research found that university students were more likely to cheat after seeing 7000 dollar bills than after seeing only 24. It seems that being around money brings out the worst in us.

So what exactly is it about money that dampens our taste for generosity? One possibility is that when we participate in financial transactions, we follow different social rules than when we share our resources communally. Drawing from anthropology research, scientists James Heyman and Dan Ariely proposed that there are two types of human transactions. In monetary markets, people pay money for goods and services: imagine you own a restaurant, and your customers pay you for their meals. Meanwhile, in social markets people help and share with one another out of kindness: imagine inviting a close friend to your house for dinner.

Because these two different markets exist, people will sometimes paradoxically expend more effort for no payment at all (in a social market) than for a small payment (in a monetary market). For example, you might agree to help a friend move house as a personal favour, but if he offered to pay you £1 for your services, you would be insulted and refuse.

Since nothing is for sale at Burning Man, this means virtually all human interactions take place in social markets, where sharing and caring rule the day.

Golden rules

The culture of generosity that defines Burning Man doesn’t simply appear out of thin air. Participants are urged to follow the Ten Principles, a code of conduct that includes gifting, communal effort, and civic responsibility. These guidelines are published front and center in the festival programme, re-iterated in public service announcements on the festival radio station, and often pop up in conversations in the city. They are impossible to ignore.

These public declarations of the prevailing social norms likely play a central role in spurring the widespread cooperation in Black Rock City. Countless studies have shown that humans are not blind altruists, cooperating regardless of what others do, but rather are conditional cooperators: we prefer to cooperate only when we are reasonably certain that others will too. So telling people that their peers are cooperating is one of the best ways to get people to cooperate themselves. For example, hotel guests are more likely to re-use their towels if they learn that previous guests re-used their towels – even more so than if they are told that re-using towels helps the environment.

In Black Rock City, the highly visible constant stream of gift-giving not only reassures you that others are cooperating, but also motivates you to pay these favours forward. This is formally known as generalized reciprocity, and researchers have shown that paying generosity forward is most likely to evolve when communities are interdependent and contain small subgroups. So the social structure of Burning Man, where everyone must work together to stay safe in the harsh desert and ‘leave no trace’ environmentally, and where people are organized into small camps, provides the optimal conditions for generalized reciprocity to take hold.

Natural highs

Many studies have shown a link between positive mood and generosity. When we are happy we are more likely to help others. Herein lies another explanation for the prevalence of altruism at Burning Man. The general mood there is positively giddy. You might think this is merely a side effect of euphoric drugs, but in fact at any given time most people at Burning Man are not high on drugs. Their high is entirely natural, and recent research can help explain why.

A study led by neuroscientist Robb Rutledge showed that feeling happy depends not on how well things are going in general, but instead whether things are going better than expected. In other words, pleasant surprises have a big effect on happiness – and these abound in Black Rock City. Hardly a minute goes by without some sort of weird and wonderful episode, like spotting a giant mobile octopus spouting flames from its tentacles, or encountering a man offering you a giant platter of delicious grilled steak, or stumbling into a glass dome rigged with colourful LED lights that give you the sensation of being inside a rainbow.

It’s no surprise, then, that this environment puts people in a good mood, which then boosts kindness and generosity. And it turns out the causal arrows also run in the reverse direction. Work by Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin and Michael Norton has shown that being kind to others promotes happiness. So happiness increases helping, and likewise helping increases happiness, creating a positive feedback loop of warm fuzzy feelings (and their associated neurochemicals) in oneself and in others. And these natural neurochemicals could well be habit forming. Census data show that 60 percent of this year’s visitors were repeat customers.

Lessons for the real world?

Scientists have been studying altruism in the lab since at least the 1950s. This work has identified many factors that promote or reduce altruism. But these studies can’t tell us everything, in large part because they use highly simplified models of altruism. For example, one popular research tool is the dictator game, where one volunteer receives some money from the experimenter – say, £10 – and then must decide whether to share any of this windfall with another volunteer. Lab studies using the dictator game consistently show that people are willing to share some of the money, but a recent study observed almost no sharing whatsoever when they had people unwittingly play a real-world version of the game at a bus stop in Las Vegas. Some social scientists question whether altruism in the lab accurately reflects altruism in the real world.

Burning Man is of course radically different from the real world. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging that a lot of what we know about altruism from lab studies does seem to generalize to human behaviour in the wild. If social scientists were to build a new society designed to promote cooperation, based on evidence from lab studies, it would probably look a lot like Black Rock City. Indeed there is a growing research community whose members have been studying Burning Man for years.

The question that remains for scientists and laypeople alike is how we can translate these lessons – both from the lab and Black Rock City – back to the world we all inhabit the other 51 weeks of the year.

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.