September 30, 2004

Wildlife Protections on Hold

By Bettina Boxall
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Under a temporary rule issued Wednesday by the Bush administration, national forest managers won't have to adhere to strict wildlife protections that have been in place for more than two decades.

The rule is not the last word on the protections, which since 1982 have directed the U.S. Forest Service to manage national forests to maintain "viable populations" of fish and wildlife. Officials could not say when a final regulation would be published.

Issued in 1982 by the Reagan administration, the viability requirement was often cited in lawsuits that forced the Forest Service to reduce timber cutting in regions with declining populations of owls and other animals.

Many conservationists consider it a key safeguard for wildlife. "It's been the [agency's] only rule protecting wildlife," said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

The Bush administration proposed nearly two years ago to weaken the requirement as part of a revision of forest planning rules that had been rewritten by the Clinton administration.

Forest Service spokesman Joseph Walsh said there was confusion over the two rewrites, and that the temporary directive was intended as a clarification.

It states that until final regulations are issued, forest managers can follow the 1982 regulations if they wish but that they are "not in effect." It directs managers to base forest plans on "the best available science."

There is no mention of species viability in the temporary rule, but Walsh said it remained a Forest Service concern. "What we're trying to do is ensure all species have a viable habitat," he said. "If that's not good enough, I don't know what to say."

Environmentalists called Wednesday's edict a precursor to a formal abandonment of the viability protections.

"This is another effort to sidestep the law and eliminate accountability … and give free rein to exploitation of forests," said Earthjustice lawyer Todd True.

The "best science," he added, could mean radically different things to different managers.

September 26, 2004

In the Mojave Preserve, Emotions Still Run Hot

By Julie Cart
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Calif. — To many, this is a place to hurry through. The austere expanse of scrubby desert and jagged mountains in the care of the National Park Service is more popular as a shortcut between Los Angeles and Las Vegas than it is as a destination.

A recent Park Service survey found that the majority of the 650,000 annual visitors here spend less than three hours before moving on. The survey reflects a hard truth: The 1.6-million-acre preserve is an acquired taste.

As the preserve's 10th anniversary approaches, its proponents celebrate it as a citadel of nature amid an onrushing tide of development, while local residents continue to resent the limits on off-road exploration, hunting, cattle ranching and other economic activities.

About an hour's drive northeast of Barstow, the preserve was established as part of the California Desert Protection Act. The legislation set aside more land than any previous conservation law in the lower 48 states. It expanded Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments, conferring national park status on each, and it created new wilderness in areas managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. In all, the act increased protection for more than 9 million acres of desert.

If the acreage lacks the majesty of the Grand Canyon and other desert parks, it makes up for it in sheer scope. The three desert parks help keep intact a chain of wildlife habitat and migration pathways from the San Bernardino Mountains to the San Jacinto Mountains.

"We almost have a wildlife preserve from Joshua Tree through to Death Valley. That's a wildlife corridor 100 miles wide," said Elden Hughes, chairman of the Sierra Club's California-Nevada Desert Committee. "That is an amazing achievement."

The Mojave National Preserve is home to about 200 native plant species, including the Mojave yucca and its menacing-looking cousin, the Spanish bayonet, as well as one of the country's largest and densest Joshua tree forests. Some of the rocks here date back 2.5 million years. The preserve supports a broad array of animal life: bighorn sheep, desert iguanas, chuckwallas, the long-nosed leopard lizard, 10 species of snakes and the threatened California desert tortoise.

The preserve was created over the angry objections of miners, motorcyclists, ranchers, rock hounds, hunters and property owners who argued that their freedom to enjoy the desert or eke out a living in it was being subordinated to the well-being of cacti and reptiles.

In Washington, D.C., congressional opponents sought to restrict the preserve's first budget in 1995 to $1. After President Clinton's veto, Congress allocated money, but only enough to hire a staff of four.

A decade later, the bitterness remains. Critics accuse the Park Service of systematically phasing out activities that Congress intended to protect. One of the most acrimonious debates has been over access. New rules barred motorized travel on desert tracks and trails that historically were open to Jeeps, dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles.

Now, as the Park Service prepares for next month's anniversary celebration, San Bernardino County supervisors are threatening to punch 2,500 miles of roads through the preserve, saying they're entitled to do so under a 19th century statute enacted to promote settlement of the Western frontier.

"The Park Service wants to return to the time of the Indians. These guys are anti-people," said Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Assn., which represents private property owners who own parcels within public land. Cushman grew up in the Mojave. "They only want enough visitors to justify their budget. It's a new paganism: They worship trees and sacrifice people."

Park Service officials insist the only human activity they want to restrain is the illegal sort, and they have encountered plenty of that — the running of methamphetamine labs, the rampant poaching of protected animals and the dumping of household trash and industrial waste.

Friction between the Park Service and law-abiding residents was inevitable. When the Park Service took over, about 1,200 people owned property inside the preserve. Cattle grazed across 940,000 acres. There were 9,000 mining claims.

In 1996, Catellus Development Corp., the former real estate arm of the Southern Pacific Railway and the largest private landlord within the preserve, began mining surveys and subdivision mapping. A Las Vegas developer announced plans to build 100 homes and a golf course on privately owned land within five miles of the preserve's largest herd of desert bighorn sheep.

Lawmakers specifically designated the land a preserve and not a park accommodating such traditional human uses as hunting, trapping and cattle grazing. At the same time, it was intended as a sanctuary for a desert ecosystem that had been under stress from decades of human activity. Many of the area's natural springs had disappeared, a casualty of livestock grazing and some 4,000 feral burros, which had also destroyed native plants and tortoise habitat.

With help from conservation groups, Mojave preserve Supt. Mary Martin, who has worked there since its inception, launched a campaign to retire grazing rights and buy out the largest private holdings. Catellus is gone. No mines are currently operating, and Martin's staff is cleaning more than 600 abandoned mines. Livestock occupy little more than a quarter of the land they grazed in 1994. Only one cattle ranch is left.

Martin said preliminary results of a water survey indicate 150 functioning springs, the most ever recorded there.

"We've had a lot of successes, we really have," she said. "The desert tortoise is much more protected. Visitors now have marked trails to hike on. The dunes are in better shape — we've now got vegetation there. The water situation is much improved. We've managed to keep development out of the park. I believe we are absolutely managing the preserve in the manner that Congress told us to."

Yet conflicts persist.

Martin wants to remove at least some of the 139 "guzzlers," or man-made water sources, maintained by hunters to help sustain game animals. Martin said drowned tortoises have been found in 27% of the guzzlers.

The guzzler dispute underscores an age-old debate between those who believe that natural conditions should determine the size of wild herds and those who want to ensure a plentiful supply of big game.

Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, strongly disagrees with those who say that the National Park Service's management is subverting the intent of Congress.

"Congress said those activities may continue," Patterson said. "There's a difference between allowing an activity, and planning and managing for it."

Many in San Bernardino County "have lost sight of the 'national' part of the preserve," Patterson said. "It's not the 'San Bernardino Preserve' or the 'Barstow Preserve.' It's a national preserve."

But Congress did promise local benefits. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other supporters of the Desert Protection Act said it would boost the fortunes of a region too long dependent on a 19th century economy of ranching and mining.

Joshua Tree and Death Valley are significant tourism draws, bringing in $46 million and $44 million respectively each year to local economies, according to a 2003 study by the National Parks Conservation Assn. The Mojave National Preserve lagged significantly behind, generating $5.1 million.

Barstow Mayor Lawrence Dale said he had no idea whether visitors to the preserve stayed in the city.

"I don't think it has had an impact one way or another," said Dale, who said he has never visited the preserve.

Critics may exaggerate the changes, but for them, the Mojave they cherished is less accessible. It was a place where families prospected around old mines and drove right up to the low-lying mountains for picnics among the boulders.

"There was a functional piece of Americana out here. But now, is it better off? I don't really see it," said Dennis Casebier, a local historian and 50-year resident of the area.

But Casebier's Mojave was doomed, say preserve advocates like Elden Hughes.

"The vision was that this was a living museum from the 1890s," Hughes said. "The vision was an impossible one, and not even a good one. You have the fastest-growing urban center, Las Vegas, and the L.A. Basin spilling over the mountains, and you think you are going to keep ranching there? Parks and wilderness are something you can keep. The laws are strong."

September 22, 2004

Celebrating the desert

Celebrating the Tenth Anniversary of the
California Desert Protection Act

by Dianne Feinstein
National Parks

Ten years ago this October, Bill Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act into law, preserving nearly nine million acres of stunning landscape for generations to come.

With the passage of this legislation, the largest parks and wilderness bill to affect the lower 48 states was enacted, redesignating and expanding Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments as national parks and establishing Mojave National Preserve.

Protecting these beautiful lands stands as one of my proudest legislative accomplishments to this day.

The California desert is home to some of the last remaining dinosaur tracks, Native American petroglyphs, abundant spring wildflowers, and threatened species, including the bighorn sheep and the desert tortoise, an animal known to live for as many as 100 years.

Joshua Tree, encompassing parts of both the Mojave and the Colorado deserts, contains magnificent rock formations and forests that blanket the high country throughout the park. The abundant yellow creosote bushes of the eastern side of the park are mirrored by the rugged Joshua trees to the west.

The Death Valley landscape, marked by a diverse range of salt playas, alpine forests, and jagged rocks, is one of the hottest, driest, and lowest places on Earth. At one lookout point in the park, Dante's View, a visitor may look down into Badwater, the lowest place in the western hemisphere, and on a clear day look west to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states.

Mojave National Preserve, with its granite, limestone, and metamorphic rocks, has a remarkable geologic diversity, as well as the largest Joshua tree forest in the world. Many of the preserve's peaks are pink at the top, the result of a volcanic explosion more than 18 million years ago in Arizona that sent deposits flying through the air and flowing across the land to the Mojave Desert.

These lands are not only home to beautiful scenery, they are also sacred lands to Native American Tribes. Petroglyphs, archaeological sites, and medicinal plants may be found throughout these parks.

The California Desert Protection Act ensured that these lands would be preserved for years to come. In total, the act raised the protection level for nine million acres of parks and wilderness.

Since 2000, the wilderness area has been expanded even farther with the purchase of nearly 600,000 acres of land primarily in and around Mojave National Preserve. The transaction, the largest conservation acquisition of private lands in U.S. history, combined federal Land and Water Conservation Fund appropriations with funding from the Wildlands Conservancy to buy discounted land owned by the Catellus Development Corporation.

This expansion protected 200,000 acres of critical habitat for the endangered desert tortoise, 150,000 acres for bighorn sheep, the largest cactus gardens in the world at Bigelow Cholla Gardens, and rights-of-way for 165 trails and access roads leading to 3.7 million additional acres of land used for hunting, hiking, and camping.

Visitors have taken advantage of these abundant recreation and research opportunities in the California desert. Last year, 2.8 million people traveled to Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks and Mojave National Preserve. In turn, these visitors provided an economic boost of approximately $100 million at nearby hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses.

Now, as we celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the California Desert Protection Act, the preservation of our National Park System has never been more important. Population growth, especially in the western United States, is placing increased pressure on our public lands and the demand for recreation areas. That is why it was so critical that we acted ten years ago and why it is urgent that we continue to preserve our nation's natural treasures today.

Unfortunately, there is much evidence that our national parks are not receiving the funding or attention they deserve. A recent survey of 12 national parks by the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees found that six parks had either reduced or planned to reduce visitor center hours or days of operation. The survey also found that 'all 12 parks had recently cut fulltime or seasonal staff" positions.

One of the parks surveyed, Death Valley, reduced its law enforcement positions from 23 several years ago to 15 at the time of the study. More than 600 miles of backcountry roads are inadequately secured, leaving natural resources, wildlife, and visitors less safe.

Meanwhile, the backlog of maintenance projects in our parks has grown to a range of $4 billion to $6.8 billion, according to the General Accounting Office. Throughout our park system, roads, bridges, and historic structures are falling into disrepair, trails and campgrounds are poorly maintained, and visitor centers are becoming outdated.

Additionally, a recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency designated eight national parks, four of which are in California, as containing excessively high levels of ozone. It is alarming to know that the air at Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks is harmful to one's health, especially since the problem of poor air quality in these regions was identified for action under the Clean Air Act in 1977.

Our national parks are America's treasures. They make the natural beauty of our nation accessible to all Americans and, indeed, visitors from around the world. We have a responsibility to preserve these places for the enjoyment of generations to come.

Enacting the California Desert Protection Act was an important step toward that end. Now, we must continue to work to ensure that the parks we have already established, and those we may yet protect, have the resources they need.

Defending the desert

In 1986, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) introduced a bill to strengthen protection for sites in the California desert by placing them under the National Park Service. Subsequently, California elected Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, who shared Cranston's vision. In January 1993, Sen. Feinstein introduced the California Desert Protection Act, her first piece of legislation. A year and a half later, the legislation was signed into law by President Clinton. With Feinstein's leadership and the support of a variety of environmental groups including NPCA, Congress passed the landmark legislation, protecting nearly nine million acres of the California desert.

In the past ten years, NPCA has continued to protect these special places from a variety of threats. NPCA has been instrumental in blocking the world's largest landfill for a site outside of Joshua Tree and helped to stave off a development outside the park that would have included thousands of homes. NPCA helped to stop plans to mine an underground aquifer near Mojave National Preserve. NPCA is opposing county road claims in the desert parks and working for cleaner park air and better funding. NPCA recently established a field office in Joshua Tree, California, to build a strong local constituency for Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks and Mojave National Preserve.

Please join us in celebrating the passage of this extraordinary legislation. We hope you enjoy the senator's reflections on the desert as well as the destination guide and calendar of events.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is in her second full term. She serves on several Senate committees, including Appropriations and Energy and Natural Resources.

COPYRIGHT 2004 National Parks and Conservation Association

September 10, 2004


Congressional Hearing was held in Fontana, California on the Impact of the Endangered Species Act on the Inland Empire

Contact: Meg Grossglass
Communications Coordinator


FONTANA, CALIFORNIA (September 10, 2004) - The House Resources Committee, led by Chairman Richard Pombo, heard testimony to examine the impacts of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on Southern California's Inland Empire. The Inland Empire includes all of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, and a piece of the eastern part of Los Angeles County. It encompasses all of the San Bernardino National Forest and popular off-road recreation sites such as Johnson Valley, Stoddard Valley, and Dumont Dunes.

Congressman Pombo opened the hearing by pointing out that the ESA is "broken" and needs to be "fixed." He stated that "during the past ten years, 1300 species have been listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act and only 7 have ever been delisted."

Roy Denner, President of the Off-Road Business Association (ORBA), joined the mayors of Fontana, Colton, and Rialto and a Fontana City Council member in presenting examples of how the Inland Empire has been negatively impacted by the ESA. The popular species of the day for the local politicians was the "Delhi Sand Flower-Loving Fly." This is a fly that lives underground and only surfaces for two weeks in the fall to breed and then goes back underground.

Story after story was told about the many projects that this Fly has stopped or delayed. According to the mayor of Fontana, several important freeway interchanges, drastically needed in the area to alleviate traffic congestion, have been held up for three years because they are in the Fly's habitat. Pictures provided by the mayor of Colton depict "Fly induced blight" showing areas that have been designated as the Fly's critical habitat that have become dumping grounds for trash. The city is prevented, by the requirements of the ESA, from going into the designated habitat to clean up the trash.

Congressman Joe Baca asked if anyone has ever seen one of these flies. Not one person in attendance had ever seen a live Delhi Sand Flower-Loving Fly, although the Executive Director for the Endangered Habitats League, who also testified at the Hearing, indicated that he had actually seen a dead specimen and indicated that he felt it is important to "preserve all of Creation - including the Delhi Sands Fly and its ecosystem." Congressman Baca asked how one could identify the Fly. He demonstrated, with a rolled up newspaper, what he would do if the unidentified fly landed in front of him - an act that could lead to jail time!

Denner addressed other ESA impacts within the Inland Empire. He cited the Mojave Desert Tortoise as an example of a species listed as "threatened" under the ESA that was "listed with very little supporting science and has had a tremendous negative impact on the public use of public lands within the Inland Empire." He pointed out that "4 million acres of the 10 million acres of California Desert that is managed by the BLM have been designated as critical habitat for the Tortoise." An analysis by the General Accounting Office shows that over $100 million of taxpayer money has been spent on attempting to recover the Desert Tortoise and not one Tortoise can be shown to have been saved by the efforts.

ORBA's President also described the closures of routes and trails, the elimination of logging, and the restrictions to clearing of underbrush and fire breaks in the San Bernardino National Forest - all in the name of protecting species. He described how the popular resort cities of Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead were threatened last year by a forest fire fueled by the underbrush and inaccessible by fire fighting equipment due to trail closures. "Trails that are blocked off to recreation vehicles are also blocked off to fire trucks" said Denner.

Julie MacDonald, Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, testified that 100% of the Agency's budget goes to respond to court orders resulting from lawsuits filed under the Endangered Species Act. She indicated that it would take 10 years of the Agency's current budget to respond to the huge backlog of existing court orders. As a result, no funds remain to actually deal with managing the species in accordance with the ESA. In the meantime, petition after petition, drafted by environmental organizations, are being filed to list new species.

Chairman Pombo closed the Hearing by telling everyone that he is working very hard in Congress to get support for bringing reason back to the ESA. He stated that "nobody is asking to do away with the ESA. It just needs to be modified to provide species protection in a way that can be managed."