November 8, 2014

Feds to flood Grand Canyon to distribute sediment

Glen Canyon Dam water release in 2013. (Bureau of Reclamation)

Associated Press
Arizona Republic


PAGE — Campsites along the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon will be in shorter supply as federal officials flood the waterway.

The high-flow release from Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona is scheduled to start Monday and end Friday. It's the third under an innovative science-based experimental plan approved in May 2012.

Tons of sediment from river channels will be re-deposited along downstream reaches as sandbars and beaches along the river. Grand Canyon officials say most campsites will be smaller and some low-lying sites might not be usable.

Most of the sediment once deposited throughout the Grand Canyon now is trapped behind the dam near the Arizona-Utah border. The intent of the flooding is to mimic pre-dam conditions.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department says the release should enhance trout fishing.

Will renewable energy ruin an 'irreplaceable' Mojave desert oasis?

The BLM has called the Silurian Valley an "undisturbed, irreplaceable, historic scenic landscape." But now the federal agency is considering a proposal for two solar facilities amid the oasis

Highway 127 cuts through the landscape in the Mojave Desert, carrying tourists, campers and hikers to Joshua Tree and Death Valley. (Gina Ferazzi)

By JULIE CART
Los Angeles Times


In one of the hottest, driest places on Earth, velvety sand dunes surround dry lake beds that, with luck, fill with spring rains. Hidden waterways attract a profusion of wildlife and birds; submerged desert rivers periodically erupt in a riot of green.

The federal Bureau of Land Management describes the Silurian Valley as an "undisturbed, irreplaceable, historic scenic landscape."

Now, a Spanish energy firm is proposing a wind and solar project that would cover 24 square miles of the Mojave Desert oasis.

Iberdrola Renewables wants to build a 200-megawatt wind farm that would sprout as many as 133 turbines reaching heights of 480 feet. Next door would be a 200-megawatt solar facility with 400 pairs of photovoltaic panels. The industrial facility would operate around the clock and be visible from nearly every point of the valley.

If approved, the project would be the first major exception to the BLM's strategy of guided development across more than 22 million acres of California desert.

The BLM's approach aims to encourage development in less-sensitive parts of the Mojave. But the agency allows developers such as Iberdrola to apply for variances — critics call them loopholes — that let energy prospectors plant their flags just about anywhere in the California desert if they successfully clear hurdles designed to discourage building in environmentally fragile areas.

Iberdrola's experience will help developers determine whether the difficult process is worth their time and money. For environmentalists, it will be a test of the government's commitment to protect sensitive areas of the desert.

In its application, Iberdrola said the plants would create 300 construction jobs and about a dozen full-time positions once the facilities are completed. It would require building 45 miles of new roads, a new power substation and 11 miles of transmission lines to connect the site to the power grid. The two plants would generate about 400 megawatts of power.


There has been wide position to the project, which sits astride the Old Spanish Trail, a historic trade route managed by the National Park Service.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California's Department of Fish and Wildlife have criticized its proposed location: a valley that serves as a crossroads for three major wildlife corridors and an important avian flyway. They warned that the long-standing migration corridors would be disrupted and wildlife would be injured or killed in the wind project's turbines or the solar project's superheated panels.

This lonely place is a tourist mecca too. The valley's volcanic mesas and creosote forests are bisected by Highway 127, a two-lane black ribbon that connects three jewels of Southern California: Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park.

Mark Butler, who retired this year as superintendent at Joshua Tree, said energy developments in the desert must be smartly placed to protect sensitive ecosystems.

"I believe it would be a mistake to place this in the Silurian Valley," he said. "We need renewable energy — it's just about where it is and how we go about it."

Conservation groups, which have opposed variance exceptions, say the Silurian Valley is a poor testing ground for the process.

"They are proposing something that has such grave impacts, that benefits so few and harms so many and is opposed by so many," said David Lamfrom, the associate director of the California Desert program for the National Parks Conservation Assn., a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.

Iberdrola representatives declined requests for an interview.

Some local officials have sent letters to Congress opposing the project, in part because they fear industrialization could mar the valley and deter tourists.

Le Hayes, who for 23 years was the general manager for the town of Baker, called the proposed energy plants the latest example of "the ongoing pillage of the desert, scraping off thousands of acres to generate electricity so the metropolitan areas can light their streets, big box parking lots, etc."

Proponents of the projects say the plants will become an engine for job creation in San Bernardino County, while others cite the need for more clean energy sources to combat climate change.

Siting renewable energy on public lands in the West is a priority for the Obama administration, which has pledged to generate 20,000 megawatts of power from federal land by 2020. There have been 375 applications for renewable-energy related projects in California since 2007, BLM State Director Jim Kenna said. The BLM has approved 18 applications.

The proposal comes as both solar and wind facilities are facing criticism over bird fatalities.

Three solar farms were examined in a recent report from the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. The investigation concluded that one of the plants was a "mega-trap" for insects, attracting birds that later died. The report described birds igniting as they chased after their insect meals and flew into the plant's concentrated solar beam. Workers at the site referred to the smoking birds as "streamers," according to investigators.

At the Ivanpah project near the Nevada border, investigators saw "hundreds and hundreds" of dead dragonflies and butterflies that had been attracted to the luminescence generated by 170,000 mirrors focused on a 450-foot glowing tower.

Other birds, the report said, died after striking photovoltaic panels or other structures. The report did not offer a definitive number of annual deaths, because investigators only observed the sites on a few occasions, but they collected more than 200 birds from 71 species.

BrightSource Energy, which developed Ivanpah, reports avian mortality to the California Energy Commission monthly and said investigators' estimates were greatly exaggerated.

When it comes to permitting renewable energy projects such as Iberdrola's, the BLM employs a carrot-and-stick approach.

To encourage companies to develop projects in less sensitive zones, it offers fast-tracked permitting and streamlined environmental review. The shortened process can take less than two years.

The stick comes down on companies seeking to develop outside designated areas, known as Solar Energy Zones. Those projects are relegated to the back of the line, and the companies must pay for costly environmental analysis.

Iberdrola is the first to use the variance process. Its development plan will have to pass muster on a 25-point review that examines potential effects on air and water, cultural resources, wildlife, parks and other conservation lands. Developers also must demonstrate that they have the financial and technical resources to complete the project. The projects' plans are open to public comment.

"It was always anticipated to be a rigorous process," Kenna said.

The variance decision for Iberdola's Silurian Valley project rests with Kenna, who said he will rule early this month. Should he deny the application, Iberdrola may appeal to the Department of the Interior's Board of Land Appeals.

Iberdrola originally had envisioned completing construction by this December. Three years after beginning the process, not a spade of dirt has been turned.

"Given the often-stated desire of the current administration to responsibly develop more renewable energy on the large amount of federally owned lands, the actual reality of the variance process they've initiated seems to be somewhat at odds with that desire," Iberdrola spokesman Art Sasse said in a statement.

Solar companies argue that the variance process is critical to allow industry to choose its own sites.

Environmental groups are watching to ensure that companies such as Iberdrola meet the strict requirements meant to protect natural treasures like the Silurian Valley.

"There was a high bar put in place and a lot of scrutiny," said Kim Delfino of Defenders of Wildlife. "We … very much feel this is a test for the BLM."

The park service has said the visual impact would be "significant, irreversible and likely unmitigatable."

November 7, 2014

Section of National Trails Highway to reopen

Public Works equipment repairing a section of National Trails Highway between Newberry Springs and Ludlow to repair road damage caused by flash flooding. (@CountyWire)

@CountyWire
County of San Bernardino


Public Works is planning on reopening the section of National Trails Highway from Hector Road to Crucero Road, in the Newberry Springs/Ludlow area, by Friday, November 7.

Severe thunderstorms blasted the Mojave Desert September 7 and 8 triggering flash floods throughout the desert regions. Closure of I-95, I-40, National Trails Highway (Route 66), Needles Highway, and various other desert roads occurred due to washouts and bridge damage.

The most extensive damage was along National Trails Highway where approximately 40 bridges were damaged along with major portions of the roadway. Sections between Hector Road to Crucero Road (Newberry Springs/Ludlow, area), Crucero Road to Amboy Road, and Cadiz Road to Mountain Springs Road at I-40 have been closed pending roadway repairs, shoulder repairs and bridge evaluations.

Public Works crews have been working diligently to make these repairs. This is the first stretch of the road to be reopened since the storms occurred.

It is anticipated the section of roadway between Crucero Road and Amboy Road will be open by the end of December 2014 and the section between Cadiz Road and Mountain Springs Road at I-40 by the end of January 2015. All of these time frames could vary depending on the weather.

November 2, 2014

A new push for protecting public lands in the desert

Joshua Tree National Park, Wednesday, October 29, 2014. (Jay Calderon)

Ian James
The Desert Sun


Twenty years ago, President Bill Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act, turning Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments into national parks, creating the Mojave National Preserve, and establishing more than 3.6 million acres of wilderness areas across the Mojave Desert.

On the anniversary of those sweeping changes, conservationists are rallying around a plan by Sen. Dianne Feinstein to relaunch legislation that would further expand protected areas in the desert and create two new national monuments – one of them stretching from the desert oases of the Whitewater Preserve and Big Morongo Canyon to the alpine forests of the San Bernardino Mountains.

The Democratic senator introduced the original California Desert Protection Act, which was enacted on Oct. 31, 1994, and calls the law one of her proudest legislative accomplishments. Feinstein plans to join the 20-year anniversary celebrations speaking at a Nov. 6 event hosted by The Wildlands Conservancy at the Whitewater Preserve.

"The 1994 law was a great first step, but there is broad consensus that more needs to be done," Feinstein said in a statement ahead of her visit. "I plan to introduce an updated bill in the new Congress that will balance the needs of this land, protecting the most fragile regions, setting aside other land for recreation use and allowing the state and local communities to benefit from this bill."

The legislation, which is expected to be introduced in January, is an updated version of a bill that Feinstein has been promoting since 2009.

While the details have yet to be announced, the proposal centers on creating two new national monuments covering more than 1 million acres. It would establish the Sand to Snow National Monument, stretching from near Joshua Tree National Park to Mt. San Gorgonio, as well as the Mojave Trails National Monument, between Joshua Tree and the Mojave Preserve, including a historic stretch of scenic Route 66.

That status would heighten the level of protection for vast areas of desert with a rich variety of plants and animals ranging from desert tortoises to bighorn sheep. The bill would also designate additional federal lands as protected wilderness and would designate four areas as recreational sites for off-road vehicles.

Those steps will ensure wildlife "corridors" and help keep ecosystems intact, said April Sall, conservation director of The Wildlands Conservancy.

"It's a pretty important ecological hotspot, and it's a great opportunity to highlight that and at the same time create a tourist attraction and provide great access points for the public to enter the wilderness," said Sall, whose organization administers the Whitewater Preserve and is supporting the creation of new wilderness areas.

The national monuments proposed by Feinstein would include areas that are also separately proposed for protection under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which would divide 22.5 million acres of the desert into zones for solar and other energy projects, conservation lands, and recreation sites.

David Lamfrom, associate director of National Parks Conservation Association, said that by creating additional national monuments, Feinstein's bill would make an area that has already grown increasingly popular as a tourist destination even more attractive.

"As the world gets smaller, our wide open spaces and our starry skies become really what everybody else is looking for," Lamfrom said.

The lure of Joshua Tree for visitors has grown markedly since it became a national park and was expanded under the California Desert Protection Act. The numbers of visitors have grown from less than 1.2 million in 1994 to what is expected to be a record 1.5 million visitors this year.

Those hikers, climbers, campers and others have brought a growing economic boost to communities such as Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree, where motels, restaurants, and gas stations depend largely on out-of-towners during the cool winter months.

"The protection of the desert land all around us is extremely important because visitors come to escape urban America," said Vickie Waite, executive director of the Joshua Tree National Park Council for the Arts, which is coordinating a series of events celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1994 law.

The anniversary events include hikes, speeches, receptions and the unveiling of a new mural in communities across the desert.

Those attending the anniversary events will include Pat Flanagan, a naturalist who leads nature walks at the Oasis of Mara.

"Something as monumental, congressionally monumental, as this should be celebrated, and every 10 years is a good time to do it," Flanagan said.

She praised Feinstein's work in backing the legislation 20 years ago, and recalled that those changes took years to win approval after an initial version was introduced by Sen. Alan Cranston in 1986.

"This is not easy work, and you have to have a long vision," Flanagan said.

The work of creating Joshua Tree National Park and the other desert wilderness areas goes back a century and has involved many contributors.

Minerva Hamilton Hoyt for years championed the creation of a national park before President Franklin D. Roosevelt established Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936. By 1950, the size of the park had been reduced significantly to make room for mining of iron and gold.

During the past two decades, the national park has been expanding, though it remains significantly smaller than the original national monument created by FDR. That gradual expansion has been boosted by the Mojave Desert Land Trust, a nonprofit formed in 2005, which has bought 123 properties totaling 7,500 acres.

Danielle Segura, the organization's executive director, said the 1994 law guides its work and is "a hallmark for protecting open spaces for the public."

At the park headquarters, Superintendent David Smith has a series of maps on his wall showing how the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park have changed since 1936.

"This is the boundary that FDR created for the park, in his opinion, working with conservationists at the time," Smith said, standing beside the map. "He thought this was a realistic appraisal of what the park should be. I think we're trying to replicate that. We're looking at more, broader ecosystem management."

Smith said that includes working on ways to link the national parks and other protected areas to allow for migration corridors, and also working with other agencies to protect wilderness areas outside the park.

Those tasks take on even greater importance, he said, as the park plans for threats including global warming and fires fueled by invasive weeds – which scientists predict could lead to the disappearance of Joshua trees in much of the park by the end of the century.

"It's a bigger picture. It's more than just the boundaries around the park," Smith said. "Yeah, we've come a long way in preserving some of these desert places, but now we've got to look outside."

October 31, 2014

Suspect identified in 8 graffiti vandalism cases in National Parks

Casey Nocket identified as prime suspect In 'Creepytings' national parks vandalism (Modern Hiker)

By Steve Gorman
Reuters


LOS ANGELES — Federal officials have publicly identified a woman suspected of graffiti vandalism in at least eight national parks across the West, including Yosemite and Death Valley in California, and credit social media for helping pinpoint the alleged culprit.

Casey Nocket of New York state has not been arrested or charged but was confirmed Thursday as “the major suspect” in an investigation of one of the most widespread acts of serial vandalism documented in the National Park System.

The case was brought to light in a series of photos obtained and posted by the Internet blog Modern Hiker and furnished to the National Park Service picturing numerous graffiti drawings, all signed “Creepytings” and dated 2014.

One shows a woman the blog identified as Nocket putting the finishing touches on an acrylic drawing of a cigarette-smoking figure scrawled on a canyon wall at Utah’s Canyonlands National Park in June.

Others show drawings of a woman with blue hair on a ledge overlooking Oregon’s Crater Lake and a bald man with a snake protruding from his mouth on a trailside rock in California’s Yosemite National Park.

The Park Service said initially it was investigating such vandalism in at least 10 Western national parks.

But agency spokeswoman Alexandra Picavet said Thursday that Nocket had been tied as a suspect to graffiti in eight parks: Yosemite, Death Valley and Joshua Tree in California; Crater Lake in Oregon; Zion and Canyonlands in Utah; and Rocky Mountain National Park and Colorado National Monument in Colorado.

Although instant gratification afforded by social media exposure was cited in a New York Times report last year for a rise in graffiti defacings on public lands, Picavet said social media in this case played a key role in the investigation.

The Modern Hiker said its photos were gathered earlier this month by screen shots taken of the suspect’s Instagram and Tumblr accounts, which have since been set to “Private.”

Park Service investigators also received numerous photos and other information from members of the public outraged over the defacings, Picavet said.

Vandalism is a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine, although prosecutors could decide to bring more serious charges.

“This is an open investigation,” Picavet said.

Yosemite spokeswoman Kari Cobb said vandalism occurred there occasionally but was “not common.” She added: “As far as a widespread case like this, it’s the first one I’m aware of.”

October 30, 2014

Desert act turns 20, what it saved

Hikers climbing up to Keane Wonder mine in Death Valley National Park. (Rita Beamish)

By Deborah Sullivan Brennan
San Diego Union-Tribune


Twenty years ago today, the California Desert Protection Act designated 7.6 million acres of the state’s backcountry as wilderness.

Portions of that land had been mined, grazed and used illegally for off-roading.

For desert lovers such as Nick Ervin of San Diego, California’s deserts represented a wide-open expanse of solitude and stillness, just hours from the state’s biggest cities. After surveying what he saw as damage to them from human activities, he found a chance for restoration.

Nick Ervin, activist.
Ervin joined fellow Sierra Club activists to spearhead San Diego County support for the Desert Protection Act, first introduced by Sen. Alan Cranston and then shepherded through Congress by Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

The legislation established the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve and designated Death Valley and Joshua Tree as national parks. It also set aside as wilderness smaller tracts in San Diego and Imperial counties, including the Fish Creek, Coyote and Sawtooth mountains near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

The bill faced opposition from people who feared it would engulf private land, ban visitors from wilderness areas and forbid popular activities such as hunting and off-roading. The debate escalated into scuffles at times, Ervin remembered.

In the end, the law didn’t secure the pure, unaltered wilderness that some proponents sought. Certain mining and grazing operations were grandfathered in, and hunting continues in the Mojave National Preserve.

Motor vehicles aren’t allowed in wilderness zones. But adjoining land and some roads that traverse the protected acreage are still open to traffic that includes off-road vehicles, said Paul Turcke, an attorney who has represented off-road enthusiasts nationwide. Litigation over the desert access remains to this day, he said.

The legislation became law on Oct. 31, 1994, when then-President Bill Clinton gave it his signature. For the 20th anniversary milestone, Ervin, a retired psychotherapist who now teaches at National University, talked with U-T San Diego about his efforts to preserve the state’s open spaces. Here is an edited version of that discussion:

Question: How did you get involved in the campaign to pass the California Desert Protection Act?

Answer: I was active in the local chapter of the Sierra Club in the late ’70s early ’80s. ... Some big conservation activists in Los Angeles gathered information and then approached Sen. Alan Cranston about sponsoring a bill in Congress to rectify the big problems with how the desert was being run over by off-road vehicles, reckless mining, reckless grazing and uncontrolled urban development around desert cities. They said we need organizers in San Diego and Imperial counties.

Question: What was your particular role?

Answer: I and two other organizers ... followed the bill from 1988 to 1994. We wrote articles, we did letter-writing campaigns. I did old-fashioned slide shows — it wasn’t PowerPoint in those days. I did garden clubs, classroom presentations. We wrote op-eds.

Question: What were the challenges to securing support for desert protection?

Answer: There was a belief that it’s an empty waste, where there’s not much life. Or it’s a fearful place with rattlesnakes and scorpions. It’s a harder sell to the general public than forests or lakes.

Question: Why did you believe the cause was important?

Answer: I had been hiking in the desert for years and years, and had seen how outside of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, there were lots and lots of off-road activities. ... Desert foliage is very slow to heal and very fragile. You can do hundreds of years’ worth of damage in an afternoon with an off-road vehicle that is poorly used.

Question: What does the act mean for San Diegans?

Answer: It means that a lot of the desert lands around Anza-Borrego park have the highest official protection status that you can give any land in perpetuity. It would require an act of Congress to reverse the Desert Protection Act.

Question: What were your responses to critics who said the law imposes restrictions on too much land?

Answer: There were meetings in the late ’80s that were big-time contentions. There was actually some pushing and shoving going on. ... I personally got hate mail. They were typically centered around one accusation that we were locking up desert land against the average citizen. ... The old stereotype was we were watermelons — green on the outside and red on the inside. People said it was a communist plot, socialism in action in the California desert.

Question: What were the eventual accommodations for existing uses such as wildlife management, hunting and grazing?

Answer: One of the big concessions was the Mojave National Preserve (instead of it becoming a national park). There were several concessions that hunting would permanently allowed. ... Back then, there were people doing grazing on federal lands under a lease, who were really afraid of losing their grazing rights. Dianne Feinstein said we will never force you to sell (grazing rights). That was a pretty big concession. There’s always been a big debate about guzzlers (artificial water sources built to aid wildlife). The Desert Protection Act doesn’t really address what guzzlers should be allowed and where. And that debate goes on.

Question: What do you think about the status of the California desert today and the role of energy developments such as solar and wind farms?

Answer: As preservationists we’ve been torn, because as preservationists we support renewable energy. But some of us on the desert land (issue) object to some of these developments because the government is sometimes allowing them on lands that are not already burned out agricultural lands, or toxic waste sites and brownfields. They’ve allowed some of these developments on pristine, high-quality desert habitat and not next to existing power lines. ... We’re also arguing for more rooftop development in cities, where the energy is used. Renewable energy and where it’s to be sited is the argument for decades ahead.

October 22, 2014

Southern California Desert Management Plan Worries Activists

A sweeping renewable energy management plan for Southern California's desert regions is stirring fears about potential new solar farms and transmission lines in San Diego and Imperial counties.

California power lines, Feb. 21, 2011 (Robert Couse-Baker)
By Erik Anderson
KPBS.org


A sweeping renewable energy management plan for Southern California's desert regions is stirring fears about potential new solar farms and transmission lines in San Diego and Imperial counties.

Federal and state officials have been crafting a desert management plan for five years.

The recently unveiled proposal would help manage development and habitat protection on 22 million acres of federal, state and privately owned land in the eastern part of the state.

The idea is to streamline the development process for renewable energy projects on about two million acres.

East County resident Donna Tisdale has fought against backcountry development for years. She's trying to get the word out that this plan could have major negative impacts.

"I had to contact a lot of farmers in the Imperial Valley to try and get them up to speed on what was going on," Tisdale said. "People in East County were kind of shocked to hear that there's at least one more 500 KV line, like Sunrise Powerlink, proposed."

Sunrise Powerlink is a 117-mile transmission line that connects San Diego with the Imperial Valley. It was put into service June 17, 2012.

The plan's architects consist of what they call "an unprecedented collaborative effort between the California Energy Commission, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also known as the Renewable Energy Action Team."

The state and federal coalition is currently seeking public comment.

The desert energy and conservation protection plan is scheduled to be finalized next year.

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.”

ROUTE 66 DAMAGE
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)

By HENRY BREAN
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.

Federal Court: One Million Acres Near Grand Canyon Protected From Mining

The Grand Canyon (Shutterstock)
by Ari Phillips
Climate Progress


In early October, an Arizona federal judge upheld the Obama Administration’s 2012 withdrawal of over one million acres of federal lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park from uranium mining. Originally imposed by then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the mining industry challenged the ban arguing that the 700-page Environmental Impact Statement was inadequate, failed to address “scientific controversies”, and was unconstitutional.

With the court’s decision to uphold the Department of Interior’s (DIO) decision, the lands around the Grand Canyon will be closed to the exploration and development of uranium mining claims for 20 years, thus protecting the Colorado River watershed and several sacred Native American sites. According to the government’s study, removing the ban would mean that 26 new uranium mines and 700 uranium exploration projects could be developed.

According Roger Clark, air quality and clean energy director at the Grand Canyon Trust, the ruling affirms conclusions by five federal agencies, including scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey — that uranium mining poses unacceptable risks to Grand Canyon’s water, wildlife, and people.

“Uranium mines threaten hundreds of the Grand Canyon seeps and springs that provide precious water to thousands of desert-dwelling species,” wrote Clark. “Every new mine sacrifices cultural sites and fragments wildlife habitat, polluting the park with dirt roads, dust, heavy machinery, noise, off-road drilling rigs, power lines, and relentless truck traffic.”

Due to the sheer size and remoteness of the landscape, the EIS authors adopted a “cautious and careful approach” to assessing the potential impacts of uranium mining. They ultimately found that “the risk of groundwater contamination from uranium mining was low, but that the possible consequences of such contamination were severe.”

Arizona federal district court judge David G. Campbell found this approach warranted, writing that “the Court can find no legal principle that prevents the DIO from acting in the face of uncertainty,” and that the Secretary of the Interior had the authority to “err on the side of caution in protecting a national treasure — Grand Canyon national park.”

When President Theodore Roosevelt created the Grand Canyon Preserve in 1906 he didn’t allow mining on much of the land, but mines were opened on land surrounding the canyon. Often on Native American lands, including the Havasupai and Navajo, these mines have become dangerous radioactive sites. There are over 500 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo territory and the federal government is still working with the Navajo to determine the best way to address the issue. According to the EPA, potential health effects include lung cancer from inhalation of radioactive particles, as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function from exposure to radionuclides in drinking water.

“In sum, this decision supports a precautionary approach to mineral withdrawals,” wrote Hillary M. Hoffmann, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School. “It affirms the agency’s choice, ‘when faced with uncertainty due to a lack of definitive information, and a low risk of significant environmental harm,’ to temporarily withdraw land from mineral entry before conducting a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review.”

Hoffman writes that while this may run counter to general policy underlying NEPA, in this instance the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) actions prevented the development of thousands of uranium claims until the agency could fully study the impacts of those claims and determine whether to make a full withdrawal.

“As the district court noted, if the BLM waited to act until after the NEPA review process was complete, the claims may have become vested and at that point, it would have been too late to protect the Colorado River watershed and the Havasupai sacred sites,” she writes.

When Salazar first banned this block of 633,547 acres of public lands and 360,002 acres of National Forest land from mining in 2012, a number of politicians objected, including U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT), John McCain (R-AZ), John Barrasso (R-WY), and Mike Lee (R-UT). Sen. Hatch said mining the land “poses no environmental threat” and that the announcement was another sign that the Obama Administration “is one of the most anti-American energy presidencies in history.”

Fast-forward two years later and there are currently 13 candidates up for election in November who want to sell or seize public lands for drilling, mining, or logging and seven senators not up for reelection, including four Arizonans: Sen. McCain, Sen. Jeff Flake, U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, and State Rep. Andy Tobin.

The uranium mining companies have 60 days to appeal Judge Campbell’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and are likely to do so, according to the Center For Biological Diversity.

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

Judges seem skeptical of U.S. in high-stakes Utah road dispute

 PUBLIC LANDS

Kane County, Utah, R.S.2477 road claims.
Phil Taylor
E&E / Greenwire


DENVER -- A federal appeals court yesterday appeared skeptical of the federal government's claims that a lower court had wrongly awarded a Utah county and the state rights of way over desert roads in a case with possible ramifications for Utah's larger bid to assert control over federal lands.

But the three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals offered few hints as to whether it would uphold a district court's decision in March 2013 to award southern Utah's Kane County rights of way over 12 of 15 roads it had claimed, four of which run through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (Greenwire, March 25, 2013).

It's a high-stakes case for Utah, whose counties have staked claims over some 12,000 roads spanning about 36,000 miles over federal lands under a Civil War-era mining law, as well as conservation groups, which note that many of those routes crisscross sensitive wilderness study areas, national parks or other public lands they've proposed remain roadless.

The 10th Circuit's ruling on the Kane case could offer legal precedent for how Utah, counties, the federal government and conservation groups negotiate resolution on thousands of other roads.

Yesterday's proceeding featured oral arguments by Department of Justice attorney David Shilton and Kane County attorney Shawn Welch.

At issue are Kane's claims to 15 roads crossing some 89 miles of federal lands under an obscure 1866 law known as R.S. 2477 that allowed miners and homesteaders to build trails or roads over any public lands not yet reserved or claimed for private use. Utah and its counties can gain title to R.S. 2477 roads if they can prove they were in continuous use for at least 10 years prior to the law's repeal in 1976.

Utah argues the law is a critical bulwark against federal decisions to block access to public lands, but conservation groups see it as one of the greatest threats to preserving wilderness-quality lands in Utah's red rock country.

U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups last year said Kane successfully proved its case for 12 of the roads. While some are noncontroversial, the North Swag route, which Kane won, cuts through the Paria-Hackberry wilderness study area, which BLM recognized for its roadless characteristics and which environmentalists have eyed for future wilderness designation.

Both Kane County and the United States appealed the decision to the 10th Circuit, but for different reasons.

Kane and Utah argued that Waddoups was wrong to require them to prove the validity of R.S. 2477 claims by "clear and convincing evidence," rather than a lower burden of proof, and had incorrectly ruled that a public water reserve issued by President Coolidge in 1926 precluded R.S. 2477 claims.

DOJ's Shilton argued that the district court had no jurisdiction to decide R.S. 2477 claims for the Sand Dunes, Hancock and Cave Lakes roads because they had never been closed to use and therefore created no "dispute" for the court. It also claimed Waddoups had awarded rights of way widths for North Swag, Swallow Park/Park Wash and Skutumpah roads based on current, rather than 1976, uses.

The judges pressed Shilton to explain the government's first argument over jurisdiction. While the roads remained open, legal title was still in dispute.

Shilton argued the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the tracts, has to take "some affirmative action" to trigger the court's involvement. "The United States has never closed access to those roads," he said. "You need a real dispute."

But Judge Gregory Phillips, an appointee of President Obama, said that line of reasoning could allow "decades and decades and decades" to pass without a resolution of Kane's claims. He said the government stands to benefit from delays because it makes it harder for Utah to prove R.S. 2477 claims.

In addition, Judge Robert Bacharach, another Obama appointee, pressed Shilton to defend the government's claim that Waddoups had wrongly awarded right of way widths for uses that didn't exist in 1976, such as for heavier agriculture vehicles. Bacharach spoke to a need to maintain the "current day's standard of safety."

The third judge, Paul Kelly, was appointed by President George H.W. Bush.

Panel skips enviro arguments

Notably, the panel didn't discuss arguments raised by environmental litigants in the case including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust and National Parks Conservation Association.

Those groups argued in friend-of-the-court briefs that Waddoups had failed to consider that a 12-year statute of limitations had expired for the North Swag route, making the county's claim for that route invalid.

They also argued that historical use of alleged R.S. 2477 roads by adjoining landowners, ranchers and others who enjoyed privileged access should not have counted in the Kane County case, nor in any of Utah's other road claims winding their way through the courts.

"It's disappointing," said SUWA attorney Steve Bloch. "There were significant issues that could have steered this hearing in a different direction."

Bloch noted that the 10th Circuit in April had concluded in a separate R.S. 2477 case involving the Salt Creek road through Canyonlands National Park that "proprietary use" of a road doesn't count for determining a valid right of way.

"This is one of the key take-aways from the Salt Creek decision," Bloch said. "This alone could be a basis to send this entire case back to Judge Waddoups."

Conservationists had hoped that finding would come into play in the Kane case yesterday, but it didn't.

Shilton did not raise this point before the court and declined to be interviewed after the arguments.

Welch said the merits of the Salt Creek case should not apply in the Kane case. Unlike Salt Creek, the Kane roads connect other roads and their use was less in dispute, he said.

In the Salt Creek case, the court also had ruled that frequency or intensity of use, not just whether it was used for 10 consecutive years, is important in determining whether a road qualifies as a "public thoroughfare" under R.S. 2477. For example, use by a single cattleman for driving cattle is insufficient, as is intermittent or occasional use by hunters, fishermen, shepherds, farmers and miners, the court said.

This issue also did not come up yesterday.

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)

By DAVE PHILIPPS
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
KCET.org


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)

By JOHN M. GLIONNA
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."