April 18, 2016

Researchers map springs across the Mojave Desert

Study of 300 desert springs will provide 'baseline' to track impact of climate change

Hydrogeologist Andy Zdon (left) and Amargosa Conservancy Executive Director Patrick Donnelly measure the water flow and collect other data at a spring in the Mojave Desert. (Photo: Marilyn Chung/The Desert Sun)

Story by Ian James
The Desert Sun

Bouncing down a rocky road in a pickup, two researchers neared their destination: an oasis of palm trees in the desert.

When the unpaved road ended in an impassible collapsed section, they stepped out and continued on foot. Andy Zdon said the approach to this spring was relatively easy. Over five months, he has often had to trek to remote spots while carrying out an exhaustive study of the natural springs across the entire Mojave Desert — an undertaking that has never before been done on this scale.

“I have been living and breathing the desert since September,” Zdon said with a smile. “I’ve done about 300 miles of walking to these springs. We’ve had to do a lot of walking.”

At each spring, Zdon, a hydrogeologist, has collected data about how much water is flowing from the ground and has analyzed the dissolved oxygen content and other properties of the water. The results will enable scientists to monitor changes in the springs, which are critical for wildlife, and document influences such as declines in groundwater levels due to pumping, shifts in flows due to weather cycles, and the drying of springs as a result of climate change.

“If you’re going to try to understand the effects of climate on a system, you need a starting point. You need a baseline, and that’s what this is doing,” Zdon said.

“You can’t even begin to understand whether you’re seeing the effects of climate change if you don’t know what the conditions were before you started looking for it, and that’s really the crux of it,” Zdon said. “You can’t manage or identify an impact if you don’t know what your starting point is.”

His study is funded through the Transition Habitat Conservancy, a nonprofit group that obtained a $190,000 grant from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to carry out surveys of springs across the Mojave Desert.

Working alongside Zdon was Patrick Donnelly, a biologist and executive director of the Amargosa Conservancy, who was helping to take notes. He walked around the spring and rattled off a list of the plants he found: California fan palm (42 of them), honey mesquite, oleander, date palm and willows, among others.

Zdon spotted birds including a black-throated sparrow, house finches and white-crowned sparrow. They took down all of those details in their notes.

“The springs in the desert are really the beating heart of the desert,” Donnelly said.

Animals ranging from bighorn sheep to hummingbirds depend on the water holes. Zdon has also seen signs of other animals including mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and badgers.

If some of the isolated springs and wetlands dry up as the climate heats up, the animals that depend on those water sources could disappear.

Data on desert springs has been collected sporadically over the years, but not in a systematic way.

“So this is really meant to be a baseline for the entire desert,” Donnelly said, “to understand the water in this desert and how we can protect it.”

During their outing in February, the two visited springs in California’s Amargosa Basin, an area rich in wildlife east of Death Valley National Park and a short drive from the Nevada border. Zdon was nearing the end of his study, which covers a total of 312 springs.

“This is number 296 since September,” Zdon said as he began his work at Chappo Spring.

Around the lush vegetation stood the ruins of a homestead abandoned years ago, an old chicken coop and the rusty skeletons of cars. Zdon said that decades ago, people grew crops and raised livestock at the spring.

Many of the springs he has surveyed are on federal lands, and his research will provide the Bureau of Land Management with information that can be used to make decisions about how different areas are managed.

Zdon walked into the thicket of palm trees to get closer to a pool of water. He pulled out an instrument to test the water, and he read off the pH, temperature and total dissolved solids while Donnelly took notes.

“Wow, this is the best water we’ve seen,” Donnelly said.

“Yeah, it’s pretty good water,” Zdon replied.

But Zdon said the spring’s flow has declined dramatically from 1928, when a U.S. Geological Survey report stated that it was flowing at about 80 gallons a minute. Zdon said he had measured the flow a couple of months earlier and found the spring was discharging about 8 gallons a minute.

“Now it’s essentially just a freestanding puddle and we can’t even see flow,” Zdon said. He noted his observations about the spring on a form for the BLM: “functional, at risk, with a downward trend.”

Some springs have completely dried up elsewhere in the California desert. And while it’s challenging for researchers to differentiate between the effects of climate change, groundwater pumping and natural drought cycles, all of those influences are likely affecting springs.

“No two springs are alike,” Zdon said. At this spring, he said, the decline in flow might be related to decades of overpumping the aquifer around the nearby town of Pahrump, Nevada, as well as years of drier conditions in the area.

Zdon has been compiling the results of his research for a report that will be released later this year.

Near another spring, Donnelly pointed out ancient grinding holes in the rock, apparently left behind centuries ago by Southern Paiute Indians who depended on the spring.

He said some of the locals in the area have said there used to be a creek flowing from the spring. Now it’s a small water hole next to a cottonwood tree and a thicket of mesquite.

“I’m going to take a water sample here,” Zdon said. He collected the water in a small glass bottle and put a label on it. The sample, he said, will be sent to a lab for isotope analysis, which can indicate whether the spring water fell as rain or snow and in which area the water seeped down into the ground.

Nearby, he pointed out a pipe sticking out of the ground: a monitoring well that was installed to keep track of water levels.

The data Zdon has collected at the springs could also help conservation groups such as the Transition Habitat Conservancy target areas to protect. The Nature Conservancy also provided funding to support the research.

As he walked around one of the springs, Zdon said excitedly: “That’s a long-eared owl!” It soared off a tree branch and disappeared. Moments later, Zdon stopped to listen to a squeaky chitter. “That’s a hummingbird!”

“This is one of my favorite places on Earth,” Donnelly said. “When I need a break from the world, I come out here and put a chair underneath that cottonwood.”

Donnelly said the huge effort involved in surveying the springs will pay off by producing valuable information about the conditions on the ground today, which will in turn help people spot the influences that will affect the springs in the years to come.

“These springs are very important because they’re very much indicators of the health of our aquifer,” he said. “Because we’re dealing with such an understudied resource, you know, we’re really developing those baselines as we speak.”

April 8, 2016

Trying to Get Water to California but Torpedoed by Regulators

The Obama administration and Dianne Feinstein keep blocking a private project to aid the still-parched state.

Well water bubbles into a pilot pool in Cadiz, Calif, in 2002. (AP)

Wall Street Journal

Although El Niño has increased the snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas, the Golden State’s historic drought isn’t over. Yet the Obama administration has decided to block a privately financed project that could supply water to 400,000 Californians, even though the project has been approved by an alphabet soup of state and local agencies. The result will be to trap vast amounts of a precious resource beneath the Mojave Desert. Is water the new fossil fuel?

This tale of political and regulatory obstructionism begins in 1998, when Cadiz Inc., a Los Angeles-based company, developed plans for a groundwater bank and well-field on 70 square miles of private land overlying the base of the Mojave’s massive Fenner Valley and Orange Blossom Wash watersheds. Over centuries the aquifers there have amassed as much as 34 million acre feet of water, enough to sustain all of California’s households for several years.

However, tens of thousands of acre feet percolate into salty dry lakes and evaporate each year. Cadiz proposed capturing and exporting the groundwater to Southern California residents. The Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project could also help store occasional excess flows from the Colorado River that would otherwise drain to the Pacific Ocean.

Water experts such as those at the Public Policy Institute of California have recommended using groundwater banks to recharge aquifers during wet years and expand the state’s storage capacity. Relative to dams, storing water underground reduces evaporation and environmental harm.

None of this mattered to various green lobbies and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who complained that the water project would deplete mountain springs and harm wildlife. But environmental reviews by hydrogeologists confirm that the nearest spring—located 11 miles away and 1,000 feet above the aquifer—would not be affected. Nor would fauna, which don’t rely on groundwater. After an exhaustive review, the U.S. Interior Department approved the project in 2002, but Sen. Feinstein maintained her opposition.

Cadiz sought to assuage her in 2008 by reducing the planned annual water exports to 50,000 acre-feet from 150,000. It also negotiated to use the Arizona & California Railroad’s (ARZC) right of way to build a 43-mile underground pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct (which feeds water to Southern California). But a few days after Cadiz announced its agreement with ARZC, Ms. Feinstein launched another attack, demanding that the Interior Department “conduct a detailed analysis” of “permissible uses” of railroad rights of way.

The department’s long-standing policy allowed railroads without federal permitting to run power, telephone and fiber optic lines on their rights of way, streamlining environmental review for public works, including wind and solar farms. But in 2011, Interior revised its policy to limit railroad rights of way that were granted in 1875—such as ARZC’s—to “activities that derive from or further a railroad purpose.”

Curiously, the new rules apply only to projects like the Cadiz pipeline. Telephone wires and fiber optic lines, maintenance yards and “related improvements,” could be permitted “on a case-by-case basis” if they helped the railroad operate.

Cadiz would go on to spend $12 million on capital improvements to benefit the railroad, such as a maintenance access road, turbines to power safety equipment and information systems, as well as state-of-the-art automated fire suppression. No matter. Last October the Bureau of Land Management ruled that the Cadiz pipeline “does not derive from or further a railroad purpose.” The innovative fire-suppression system “is an uncommon industry practice,” the agency caviled, and the “origin of the access road is to support the non-railroad purpose of water conveyance.” Building the pipeline without authorization, it warned, “could result in the BLM instituting trespass proceedings.”

The BLM added that its ruling cannot be appealed because “it is not a final agency decision.” A final decision would require a formal regulatory review. But Ms. Feinstein has attached riders to every Interior Department spending bill since 2008 that bar the agency from reviewing Cadiz.

Amid this regulatory hustle, a California state appellate court last month heard six challenges to the project, all of which had been rejected by a trial court two years ago. In 2012, the Santa Margarita Water District’s final environmental impact report noted that the project’s only significant effects would be temporary dust from construction and the hazard of population and employment growth from a larger water supply, which has driven opposition from green groups. While trumpeting the BLM’s decision in October, the Center for Biological Diversity complained that the Cadiz project would “increase urban sprawl in coastal Southern California.”

So the water storage project, long overdue, remains stuck in regulatory purgatory. Without a Hail Mary attempt by Congress to unplug the Obama water blockage, thirsty Californians can only pray for a Republican president who views economic development as a blessing rather than curse.

April 5, 2016

Feds approve controversial remote desert solar plant near Baker

A bighorn sheep climbs the terrain of the Mojave National Preserve, about a mile northeast of the proposed site for the Soda Mountain Solar project on Tuesday, July 21 2015 near Baker. (Stan Lim)

By Jim Steinberg
The San Bernardino Sun

Over objections of environmentalists, the Obama administration on Tuesday approved a 287-megawatt solar energy plant for a remote part of the Mojave Desert.

The 1,767-acre project being developed by Bechtel Corp. is located on land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, about six miles southwest of Baker.

“Soda Mountain is another step forward toward diversifying our nation’s energy portfolio and meeting the state of California’s growing demand for renewable energy,” said BLM Director Neil Kornze.

The project is consistent with BLM’s landscape approach for the California desert, which supports careful development of renewable energy while protecting the resources and places that make the desert special, Kornze said in a statement.

“The approval of Soda Mountain Solar is a stark contradiction by the Obama administration,” Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement.

“Less than two months ago, we lauded the administration as conservation heroes after they designated national monuments in the desert to protect and connect important landscapes,” she said.

Allowing the Soda Mountain project to proceed “inhibits national park wildlife from migrating and adapting to a changing climate,” Pierno added.

The project will provide enough power for more than 86,000 homes and help toward meeting Obama’s Climate Action Plan goal of 20,000 megawatts of power derived from renewable energy project on public lands by 2020, the BLM statement said.

The agency said it spent more than three years consulting and working with a variety of federal and state partners, members of the public and others to develop a “comprehensive environmental analysis” of the Soda Mountain project area and devise a project design that preserves scenic vistas, reduces potential impacts to wildlife in the area and protects groundwater.

The agency said its approved design removes an array of solar panels originally approved north of the 15 Freeway, eliminating most of the visual effects of the project within the Mojave National Preserve.

Last year, the project was reduced from the originally proposed 2,222 acres.

The agency also said its decision ensures the project will not block future efforts to re-establish bighorn sheep movement across the interstate highway.

But Ileene Anderson, Los Angeles-based senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the massive solar array would block the “last, best linkage” for desert bighorn sheep between the Mojave National Preserve and the Soda Mountain Wilderness Study Area.

Renewable-energy generation “has to be done right,” she said.

The smaller, revised project is located in an area of disturbed lands including an active utility corridor for oil and gas pipelines, electricity transmission and communication lines and facilities, BLM said.

However, the National Parks Conservation Association says the project is in the “undeveloped” South Soda Mountain region immediately adjacent to Mojave National Preserve.

Francis Canavan, a Bechtel spokesman, acknowledged that the company doesn’t yet have an agreement to sell the electricity from the project, but he added that talks are underway with potential buyers.

Bechtel also does not have a signed agreement to use the power lines that run past the project site, which are owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Getting permission to use Los Angeles’ power lines, however, “shouldn’t be a problem,” Canavan said.

March 31, 2016

Tortoise a road block for Marines

Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center expansion area in Lucerne Valley.


An adult desert tortoise weighs about 12 pounds and can take days to travel a mile, yet the reptiles have managed to get one of most formidable forces on earth – the United States Marine Corps – to reconsider a large training mission.

The Marines plan to conduct live ammunition training in August, using tanks and other heavy weaponry at their Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.

To prevent harming about 1,400 tortoises living in this stretch of the Mojave Desert, the military now plans to limit operations in its combat center expansion area in the Johnson Valley northwest of Landers.

The Marines had hoped to airlift the reptiles this spring to federally managed habitat land near Barstow to get them safely out of the way.

But military officials and federal land mangers recently announced that the relocation can’t proceed until they analyze how the move would affect tortoises and other wildlife already living in the recipient areas.

The spring move was canceled shortly after an environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, filed a legal challenge to it. Desert Tortoises are protected by the Endangered Species Act because they are listed as threatened with extinction.

Marine Capt. Justin E. Smith, a spokesman for Twentynine Palms, said by email that the extend of the use of 88,000-acre Johnson Valley expansion has not been determined, but training “will not negatively impact the desert tortoise species.”

The Marines “will comply with all environmental management requirements.”

Brian Croft, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, said he expects to talk with the Marines about how to avoid harming tortoises. The Marines, for example, may keep tanks and other motorized vehicles on designated roadways when traveling through tortoise areas.

The August training will be a large-scale, live-ammunition operation involving three battalions operating in extreme desert heat in real world warfare conditions, said Smith’s email. Last year’s exercises included troops from Canada and the United Kingdom.

The Johnson Valley has traditionally been an off-road-vehicle recreation area managed by the federal Bureau of Land Manage. But in late 2013, Congress added the valley to the Air Ground Combat Center.

Marine and BLM officials will hold a public meeting to discuss the Johnson Valley situation from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, April 2, at the Lucerne Valley Community Center in Lucerne.

March 29, 2016

House Republicans open probe of new California national monuments

By Carolyn Lochhead
SF Gate

WASHINGTON — House Republicans opened an investigation Tuesday into President Obama’s designation of three new national monuments in the California desert that protect more than 1.8 million acres of public land, along with six other monuments Obama has designated since January 2015.

The California desert monuments almost doubled the amount of land that Obama has set aside under the 1906 Antiquities Act, setting a new record for presidential land designations, three committee chairmen wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“The broad and frequent application of the Antiquities Act raises questions about the lack of transparency and consultation with local stakeholders,” wrote Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee; Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee; and Hal Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Request for documents

The letters request “all documents and communications referring to or relating to the selection or designation of national monuments under the Antiquities Act” from January 2009 to the present, the letter said, setting a deadline of 5 p.m. April 12. Neither the Oversight Committee nor the White House responded to a request for comment.

The Antiquities Act gives the president power to create national monuments on public lands. Republican President Herbert Hoover used the law to establish Death Valley as a monument in 1933 just before he left office, and his successor, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, designated Joshua Tree as a monument under the act in 1936.

Obama invoked the Antiquities Act on Feb. 7 to declare the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains national monuments in the California desert, acting at the direct behest of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a longtime champion of the Mojave Desert.

The monuments link wildlife corridors and preserve the last open stretch of historic Route 66, which was under threat of solar and wind development in 2008 until Feinstein stepped in with proposed legislation to protect the areas. The Bureau of Land Management allows mining, grazing, energy and other development on the federal lands under its jurisdiction; the monument designations prohibit such uses.

Feinstein made the request after more than six years of work on a desert conservation bill that Republicans refused to entertain.

The Democrat defended the monuments, saying she and her staff “held hundreds of hours of meetings with the full range of desert stakeholders,” including “environmental groups, local and state government officials, off-highway recreation enthusiasts, cattle ranchers, mining interests, the Defense Department, wind- and solar-energy companies, public utilities, Native American tribes, local residents and many others.”

Feinstein said the Antiquities Act “allows the president to protect ‘historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.’ Anyone who has been to the California desert knows that it has all these things and is certainly qualified for protection under the law.”

Activists frustrated

The GOP charges of lack of transparency and local consultation flabbergasted desert activists who helped Feinstein draw the boundaries of her legislation, which Obama then borrowed.

“I put probably 20,000 miles on my car — just my car — going around the desert for the last 10 years” talking with people about protecting the lands, said Jim Conkle, a retired Marine who championed the inclusion of Route 66. Conkle said the letters from Chaffetz and Bishop, who represent districts in Utah, and Rogers, from Kentucky, suggest that “we were land grabbers, but we didn’t take any more land than was already under the stewardship of BLM anyway.”

David Lamfrom, California desert program director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said he “worked on the ground building support (for the monuments) for at least the last seven years.”

“I really think it was a nonpartisan effort, and there was general agreement throughout the desert that this was the appropriate response,” he said.

David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, the California nonprofit that was instrumental in protecting the monument lands from real estate speculators, said he thinks the investigation is mainly intended as a warning shot from Utah Republicans to the White House over a potential designation of a 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears national monument in southern Utah.

“There isn’t a monument in U.S. history that has had more participation from the private sector,” Myers said.

March 28, 2016

Human bones found near Fenner


Bones found by a surveyor near Essex Road near Fenner on Friday afternoon were identified as human on Saturday, March 26, according to a San Bernardino County Coroner news release.

Homicide detectives then took over the investigation and found more bones in the same area on Saturday.
Fenner is about 40 miles west of Needles on I-40.

Anyone with information is asked to call detectives at 909-387-3589 or the anonymous We-Tip Hotline at 800-782-7463, or to visit the We-Tip website at www.wetip.com.

March 16, 2016

Military's tortoise relocation plan in jeopardy

The Marines were gearing up to move the reptiles to Bureau of Land Management habitat areas near Barstow to protect them from live-fire exercises

Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center expansion area in Lucerne Valley.


The military has scrapped plans to move more than 1,400 protected desert tortoises from an expansion area at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms to BLM-managed habitat land this spring.

The Marines were gearing up to move the reptiles to Bureau of Land Management habitat territory near Barstow, so that the 88,000-acre Johnson Valley expansion area could be used this summer for live ammunition training.

A base spokesman said in an email Wednesday, March 16, that he is still trying to determine how the decision will affect the training plans.

The plan called for the tortoises to be moved as early as this month. To reduce stress on the animals, they were to be flown by helicopter to the Ord-Rodman Critical Habitat Unit, an area managed by the BLM southeast of Barstow. But the manager of the BLM’s Barstow Field Office, and Marines both sent emails Wednesday confirming that the move won’t be this spring.

The emails did not explain why the move was canceled.

But the postponement comes a week after environmentalists with the Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal challenge to the planned move. And it comes a day after a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official said the agency had not yet approved a required relocation plan.

Meanwhile, time was running out to get the tortoises moved before the military exercises – if they do end up being held. The animals are threatened with extinction.

Marine Corps officials had said they wanted to relocate the desert tortoises while the weather was cooler.
Hotter temperature puts more stress on them, making them less likely to survive the move, officials have previously said.

Last week, the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue the BLM, contending that the agency had failed to fully examine how the move might harm desert tortoises and other wildlife.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the center, said in an email that she’s pleased the tortoises will stay put, at least for now, allowing more time for analysis.

“BLM is wise to do a full analysis of the impacts of having desert tortoises from the Marine base moved onto the public lands that they manage,” her email said.

She said she was concerned that the moves could spread a respiratory disease that afflicts tortoises.

On Tuesday, March 15, Brian Croft, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency was still working on a relocation plan and a revised biological opinion about the move. The service must approve both documents before the move can occur.

“There are still some big hurdles to go over,” Croft said.

Also on Tuesday, Marine Corps Capt. Justin E. Smith said a date for the move will be announced once the relocation plan is finalized. The military also plans to study how the animals adapt to their new environment.

This research “will aid in gaining more information in the efforts to recover the population of the desert tortoise,” Smith said in an email.

“We remain steadfast in keeping with our obligation to serve as good stewards of the environment,” he said.

March 10, 2016

Gold finally being produced at Mojave's Golden Queen Mine

Precious metal extracted from the Golden Queen Mine formed into an ingot contains both gold and silver, called dore [daw-rey]. (TBC Media)

By Jill Barnes Nelson
Tehachapi News

MOJAVE — It's taken more than three-quarters of a century, but gold is finally being produced at Golden Queen Mine.

For the first time since the 1930s, the Golden Queen Mine had its “first pour” of gold about two weeks ago. Gold mined from the facility in an elaborate process — with all types of environmental stipulations — was processed into the first gold ingot. Because of security issues, the exact amount of the mold was not disclosed, according a statement from mine officials.

"The first gold pour is a remarkable milestone signifying the company's transition to a gold producer," Thomas M. Clay, Golden Queen Mining Co. chairman and interim chief executive officer, said in an announcement from the firm's headquarters in British Columbia, Canada. "We are proud of what we have accomplished and are excited to move closer to entering full production as a gold company in California."

Golden Queen Mine, located along Soledad Mountain in Mojave, first produced both gold and silver from the mine before World War II. Mining ceased after the war because of low prices for the precious metals.

When prices began to rise, Golden Queen Mine began a renewed effort to extract the gold. It began applying for permits and began the long process of mining the gold in 2012.

Some 100 employees are employed full-time at the mine, where excavation began last spring and the chemical process to remove gold and silver started in early February. Company officials did not disclose potential production rates but said initial flow rates in what is called the "leach pile" have been very good.

Mining is done a lot differently at Golden Queen than what viewers might see on the show “Gold Rush,” where gold is done with a sluicing method.

Construction on the mine's infrastructure started more than a year ago. Rock ore material that holds gold is crushed and a century-old chemical separation technique called the Merrill-Crowe process is used by which gold and silver is removed from a cyanide solution that trickles through piles of ore. Drilling and blasting is used to free the rock, which is then carried away with front-end loaders and mechanized shovels and loaded into trucks that can carry 100 tons each.

Rocks go through a three-stage crushing process to create progressively smaller pieces of ore, ending up with pieces measuring less than a half-inch. The crushed ore is then stacked on top of the leach pad in piles about 20 to 300 feet high.

In order to provide impermeable barriers between the pad and the ground beneath, a clay liner was built using old tailings from the mine, as well as a layer of plastic. Crushed rock is layered on top of that.

Gold and silver are filtered out of the solution using a process that introduces zinc powder to take the place of the precious metals in the solution. The gold extracted from the solution is then melted and poured into molds to form ingots.

March 8, 2016

Tortoise relocations challenged

Desert tortoises, such as this adult photographed near the Ivanpah Valley, are listed as threatened with extinction. The Marine Corps plans to move more than 1,100 of them from 88,000 acres in the Johnson Valley, northwest of Landers, to protect them from live fire exercises planned for this summer. (STAN LIM)


An environmental group filed a legal challenge Tuesday, March 8, to the military’s plans to move more than 1,400 protected desert tortoises out of an expansion area at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue, contending that federal agencies have failed to fully examine how the move might harm the Mojave Desert tortoises as required under the Endangered Species Act. Such a notice is required before a lawsuit may be filed in federal court.

Tortoises are listed as threatened with extinction, but the Marines say they have to move them from 88,000 acres in the Johnson Valley to protect the reptiles from live ammunition training exercises planned for this summer.

The center argues that studies have shown that half of the tortoises will perish within three years of being moved in part because they haven’t found or dug underground burrows that give them shelter and protection from coyotes and other predators.

Military officials could not be reached Tuesday, but last week Walter J. Christensen, head of the training center’s conservation branch, and Marine Corps Lt. Col. Timothy B. Pochop, director of natural resources and environmental affairs at the training center, said the Marines are taking great care and expect most of the animals to survive.

Using helicopters will reduced stress from travel, and military officials are choosing release sites that are less likely to be prowled by coyotes, they said. And individuals from the same social groups will be placed near one another.

Most of the animals will be moved to federal land southeast of Barstow known as the Ord-Rodman Critical Habitat Unit, which is overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the center, said the group has seen no evidence that the military has analyzed impacts to tortoises and other wildlife already living in the critical habitat area, which has a limited amount of food, water and other resources.

Such an analysis is required under the National Environmental Policy Act, she said.

“This massive translocation proposal is being rushed through the process this spring without fully considering how it may affect the already declining tortoise population in the western Mojave,” said Anderson. “What we should be doing is recovering this population, not pushing it closer to extinction.”

The move has not yet been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which still needs to sign off on the relocation plan and an analysis that showed that the move would not jeopardize the survival of the species, said Brian Croft, a biologist with the wildlife service.

Military officials want to start moving the tortoises as early as this month while the weather is still cool. The relocation is expected to take a team of about 100 biologists as long as two to four weeks to complete.

Croft said such a move should be done by mid-May – before it gets too hot for the reptiles to be above ground. The tortoises survive the desert’s harsh climate by spending the hottest and coldest months in their subterranean burrows.

The planned move stems from a 2013 decision by Congress to expand the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center to enhance live ammunition training operations deemed necessary for national security.

Taxpayers to shell out $50M for Marines to evacuate 1,200 Mojave tortoises

The tortoises are in the way of the Marines' planned expansion of a combat training grounds. (US Marine Corps)


Taxpayers will be forking over $50 million to have the Marines remove nearly 1,200 tortoises from future training grounds in the Mojave Desert, but similar efforts in the past have proven disastrous, say environmentalists.

The desert tortoises, already under stress from drought, disease and human interference, will be airlifted later this month from 130,000 acres surrounding the Corps' Air Ground Combat Center. The center is undergoing an expansion to facilitate live fire and maneuver training for full-scale Marine Expeditionary Brigade-sized elements.

"This spring, the Marine Corps will translocate approximately 1,180 desert tortoises in order to safeguard the animals coming from lands newly acquired through an NDAA-mandated (National Defense Authorization Act) land withdrawal that supports Marine Corps-mandated training requirements," base spokesman Capt. Justin Smith wrote in an e-mail to the Desert Sun.

The area slated for expansion is in prime tortoise habitat, and the number of breeding adults has dropped by about 50 percent over the last decade, according to a recent survey by federal biologists.

Some environmentalists are against the pricey effort to relocate the tortoises, which can stress the animals and leave them vulnerable to dehydration, predators and human interaction, they said.

"I wish the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would get some backbone and say it can't permit another tortoise translocation by the military," Glenn Stewart, a biologist and member of the board of directors of the Desert Tortoise Council conservation group, told the Los Angeles Times. "The situation makes us feel like we'll have to write off California's Mojave population."

In 2008, the Army moved 670 tortoises from its National Training Center near Barstow to new homes in the western Mojave. That $8.6 million effort proved disastrous when it was learned that a large percentage of them died within a year, many eaten by coyotes.

Brian Henen, a biologist and head of the Marine Corps' translocation effort, told the Times the project's ample budget and commitment to monitor the tortoises for 30 years "demonstrates how much we care about this species."

The plan, approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will utilize 100 biologists who will capture 900 adult tortoises and put transmitters on them before releasing them on nearby public lands. Another 235 hatchlings raised in pens at the base also will be relocated once they are strong enough to survive on their own. The project will take an estimated two to four weeks to complete, officials said.

The Combat Center raises the hatchlings in its 6-acre Tortoise Research and Captive Rearing Site, which is operated jointly with UCLA.

The desert tortoise is classified as a threatened species because its numbers have declined rapidly over the past few decades due to predators and disease. Soft shells leave young tortoises vulnerable to predators ranging from ants and ground squirrels to ravens and coyotes.

February 22, 2016

Death Valley Is Experiencing a Colorful ‘Superbloom’

The primary threads in the floral carpet are yellow — the most common flower is called Desert Gold, which looks like a yellow daisy. (National Park Service)

New York Times

Death Valley, one of the hottest places on Earth, is currently a riot of color: More than 20 different kinds of desert wildflowers are in bloom there after record-breaking rains last October.

It’s the best bloom there since 2005, according to Abby Wines, a spokeswoman for Death Valley National Park, and “it just keeps getting better and better.”

The flowers started poking up in November, but the particularly colorful display emerged late last month in the park, which is mainly in California but stretches across the Nevada border. On Twitter and Instagram, park visitors have taken to calling it a “superbloom.”

The park gets about two inches of rain annually, so it always sees some wildflowers, though not as many or as varied. But it doesn’t take much more rain than that to completely dye the desert, Ms. Wines said, making last fall’s unusually heavy rains particularly effective.

Over the past couple years, as much of California has been in a state of exceptional drought, in Death Valley, where dry is the norm, rainfall has hovered around the average, Ms. Wines said.

The primary threads in the floral carpet are yellow — the most common flower is called Desert Gold, which looks like a yellow daisy. But there are also strands of purple, pink and white. One of Ms. Wines’s favorites is the “Gravel Ghost,” a white flower that appears to float above the ground.

The flowers are expected to stick around until mid-March, unless it gets too hot or windy.

February 12, 2016

President designates 1.8 million acres of desert as national monuments

By Matthew Cabe
Desert Dispatch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama to designate new national monuments in the California desert

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post

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

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

Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia is the largest.

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

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

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

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

The big question: What next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 5, 2016

Obama eyes remote corner of Mojave for desert monument

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

Sammy Roth
The Desert Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battle to preserve Castle Mountains

Desert gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unbroken wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gold in the hills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tricky politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 30, 2016

Mojave Desert areas on verge of protection under 1906 law

By Carolyn Lochhead
San Francisco Chronicle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand design

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

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

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

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

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

40-acre parcels

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative energy push

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wind leases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Lonely exploration’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Desert monuments

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

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

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

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

Areas left out

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

They include:

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

Off-Highway Recreation Areas (142,000 acres)

Wilderness designations (250,000 acres)

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

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

January 21, 2016

California desert town being sold for $5 million

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 20, 2016

Fed Employees Caught Bragging About Federal Land Grabs

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

YouTube clip in which government employee brags about stealing land.

Adan Salazar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full length version of video.

January 14, 2016

Mojave violated NPS policy buying assault rifles and grenades for rangers

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 12, 2016

Strange Amargosa River creates series of Mojave oases

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

By Margo Bartlett Pesek
Las Vegas Review-Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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