July 29, 2004


San Bernardino Sun

Goffs -- Where there is water in the desert, there is abundant wildlife. Shrikes are catching grasshoppers. You can hear the haunting calls of roadrunners. Coveys of Gambel's quail herd their young under palo verdes to avoid Cooper's hawks.

Where there is no water, the desert is stark. For miles and miles you will see only the animals that don't need water every day to survive the 100-plus degree heat that beats down here throughout the summer. There are only a few of those. Water is desert wildlife's life blood.

Since taking over the East Mojave, the National Park Service has removed more than 100 water sources scattered all over the vast preserve, creating a wildlife wasteland where wildlife once flourished. Most of the water removal has occurred over the past two years as ranchers who have sold their properties have been forced to remove windmills and stock tanks.

The elimination of the water sources was done -- many of us feel -- in direct violation of the preserve's own management plan that mandates that any removal of water be evaluated for its impacts before it is removed. That includes the cattle water that has been used by wildlife for more than 100 years in some cases.

Many of us feel -- after hours of meetings and discussions with preserve management staff -- that the rush to remove water from the preserve has become a vendetta against the hunter-conservation groups who have battled the removal every step of the way.

Hunter groups have argued that the cattle water and the facilities to maintain it should be preserved for two reasons: For its historical importance as part of the cultural history of the preserve, which the park is also supposed to protect, and the incredible value this water has for the majority of the preserve's wildlife.

With activist Cliff McDonald of Needles, I visited 11 windmills and water tanks that had been functioning one to two years ago in the eastern part of the preserve. They were all dry Tuesday and mostly devoid of wildlife.

At one set of windmills, one of the tanks still had some wet soil and perhaps a small puddle of water under a growth of tules. There were at least three large coveys of quail -- 100 to 150 birds -- around the tank. One of the coveys had a hen bird with six chicks. Those chicks were destined to die as the water dried up, and perhaps the adults, too. The nearest water was more than four miles away.

The mind-set that will write a death warrant for huge numbers of wildlife in its haste to "return the desert to its natural state," has to be questioned in its ethics and its reading of the preserve's management plan.

We also visited six small-game guzzlers (which some park staff say they would like to remove) and natural springs, which had plenty of water. The contrast between what we saw near the water and where there once was water was dramatic. The difference in wildlife was the difference between a full and an empty glass of water.

It looks like a park service goal is to kill native wildlife and destroy a major piece of human history of the preserve. Did they document the impact water removal would have on the preserve's wildlife? Were the windmills and water pipelines evaluated for their historical value?

We need a change in the management at the Mojave National Preserve, or even the National Park Service, if this is how wildlife and historical resources are going to be "protected" under this watch. The actions taken are wrong and wrong-headed, and it's time for a change.

Jim Matthews is a freelance writer. His column appears on Thursdays. Readers may write to him at 399 North D Street, San Bernardino, CA 92401, phone at (909) 887-3444 or fax to (909) 887-8180. or e-mail odwriter@earthlink.net

July 28, 2004

HOT PROPERTIES: Private 'Inholdings' in Federal Preserves

by Jim Carlton
The Wall Street Journal

Schofield, Colo. -- Flanked by snow-capped peaks and straddling valleys of spruce, fir and aspen, the wilderness area know as the High Elk Corridor offers scenery of unsurpassed splendor. Accessible by a four-wheel-drive-only road, the land is almost all government-owned, seemingly untouched except by the forces of nature -- until a traveler comes upon a row of new log cabins, smack in the middle of federal wilderness.

"This is the beginning of back-country sprawl," says Will Rogers, staring at the cabins from a dust-covered van. Mr. Rogers is president of the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based group that is trying to stop this kind of development inside federal wilderness and other public lands. The problem is that the cabins are perfectly legal.

Partly to help settle the frontier, an 1872 federal mining law created "inholdings" -- tracts of private property situated in the middle of national forests or other public land -- thousands of which are sprinkled throughout the vast public lands of the American West.

Many of the properties, which range in size from 10 acres to 2,000 acres or more, have been passed down from generation to generation, as public lands have grown up around them. Most of the inholdings are so remote they were long deemed unfeasible for major development. But in the past few years, as real-estate prices began ratcheting up as hordes of city dwellers started pursuing mountain retreats, some of the inholdings have become valuable properties.

In many cases, there are few restrictions on the sites, which have guaranteed access through public land by road. Colorado law, which governs the privately owned inholdings in the state, allows up to one building per mining claim, with the average claim handed out in the 1800s amounting to about 10 acres. Conservationists say that even one house per 10 acres could equate to hundreds of homes in a pristine area.

In California, a development of multimillion-dollar homes has sprung up on an inholding inside the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. Called Mirada Estates, the development entails about 109 home sites on about 140 acres of private land.

To prevent a similar development in the High Elk Corridor, the Trust for Public Land so far has helped acquire about 1,000 acres of about 6,000 acres of private inholdings and hopes to buy up about 1,500 acres more.

Not everyone thinks development is a bad thing, though. Here in the High Elk, for instance, a handful of longtime property owners are holding out against the conservation push. The eight or so houses they and others have built are mostly modest, one- and two-story log cabins that the owners constructed as summer-time mountain retreats. No one has sold out to a big developer, so far, although some other property owners have plans to add cabins on their tracts as well.

One reason for their reluctance is an emotional pull to the land. For example, Fred Murray, a 69-year-old geologist from Tulsa, Okla., says he won't part with his approximately three acres of lots in one valley because the land has been in his family for nearly a century. His is one of the cabins that have sprung up there over the past 10 years, and he has also pushed for Gunnison County officials to pave the road from Crested Butte to make access easier. "They [the conservationists] are trying to push people like us out," says Mr. Murray, who has been coming to his family's wooded property in the High Elk since a toddler.

But Trust for Public Land officials say they fear too much cabin building, and road upgrading, would pave the way for bigger development, such as multimillion-dollar "ranchettes" that would ruin the wild nature of the corridor. So they are following the strategy, as they have around Yellowstone and other places around the West, of buying land to later sell back to the federal government.

In so doing, the trust has teamed with an unlikely partner, a ski resort, among others. In 1997, the Crested Butte Mountain Resort -- which recently changed ownership -- had joined with two local conservation outfits, the Crested Butte Land Trust and the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, to buy nearly half of the 106 buildable lots in Schofield, an 1800s mining camp that is now a ghost town. Previously, the resort had been criticized by environmentalists for its development around Crested Butte, itself a former mining town.

Part of the resort's concern is economic, because places like the High Elk are a major tourist attraction. Besides the scenery, the area is historically significant, having hosted not only legions of pick-and-shovel miners but also former President Ulysses S. Grant.

"If we started losing some of those special areas like the High Elk, it could really dry up our tourism economy," says Jim Starr, a Gunnison County commissioner who sits on the board of the Crested Butte Land Trust.

Indeed, Bill and Beverly Selby from Rogers, Ark., break their red Jeep after four-wheeling down a notoriously tough pass known as the "Devil's Punchbowl," and express shock at the prospect of the surrounding High Elk being bulldozed over. "If we could vote against development here, we would," says Mrs. Selby, who runs an embroidery shop with her husband.

By themselves, the local preservation groups around Crested Butte say they didn't have the financial wherewithal to protect the High Elk, which contains millions of dollars of inholdings. That changed, though, after a chance vacation visit to Crested Butte in 1999 by a Denver resident named Doug Robotham.

At the time, Mr. Robotham had recently been appointed head of Trust for Public Land's Colorado office, and recalls David Baxter, a friend with the Crested Butte Land Trust telling him about the threat to the High Elk. Having backpacked in the area as a boy, Mr. Robotham says he was astonished to find cabins when he hiked back out to investigate. "So I said, 'Let's look at conserving this whole valley,'" Mr. Robotham recalls, kicking a rock as he walks down a dirt road that winds through one of the valleys.

The High Elk was far more complex, though, than most of the 250 or so inholding transactions the trust negotiates each year. With about 260 property owners, the trust faced having to negotiate potentially dozens of deals. So the trust, in 2000, used digital mapping to focus on the lots they considered the most likely to be developed, because of their terrain and other factors.

In all, the groups think they will need about $6.5 million to make all their acquisitions. So far, they have raised about $3 million from public and private sources, and are using the money to persuade owners to part with their properties. Some have needed little convincing, because, they, too, want the land preserved.

"It was the family's desire to keep the land pristine," Judy J. McGill, a real-estate broker in nearby Crested Butte, Colo., says of a Texas-based family's decision to let her sell 40 acres of High Elk land to the trust for $125,000.

Federal land managers say they welcome such deal making as a way to help keep the backcountry wild. U. S. Forest Service officials, for example, say they are long wanted to protect the High Elk, in part, because the corridor sits between two wilderness areas: The Raggeds and Maroon Bells-Snowmass. Foresters worry that too much development could disrupt wildlife migration patterns, such as for the plentiful elk, as well as soil clear-running streams.

But the government hasn't had the time or resources to try negotiating for the multitude of land transfers needed here. "They [the Land Trust for Public Land] really did us a huge favor," says Martha Ketelle, supervisor of the local White River National Forest, "in terms of taking on this project."

July 21, 2004

The Fight Over the Roadless Rule

by Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren
Cato Institute

The Bush administration set-off a political firestorm on July 12 when it announced that the Clinton administration's rule blocking road construction on 60 million acres of U.S. Forest Service lands will soon go up in smoke. The Bush administration plans to replace it with a regime that essentially allows a state's governor, in consultation with the U.S. Forest Service, to decide how much logging will occur on federal forest lands in that state. While environmentalists predictably went berserk and conservatives naturally applauded the re-embrace of states rights, both camps are increasingly lost in the intellectual woods.

For their part, the environmental lobby is brazenly rewriting history by suggesting that the National Forests are primarily there to save trees from the woodsman's axe. As environmentalist icon Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the U.S. Forest Service, wrote in a speech for Teddy Roosevelt in 1901, "Forest protection is not an end in itself; it is a means to increase and sustain the resources of our country and the industries which depend on them." In short, the National Forests were created not to dance in but to cut in (the reason, by the way, that the Forest Service is an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and not the U.S. Department of the Interior). Public ownership was embraced because, back then, politicians were convinced that scientific management of the forests by federal rangers could maximize timber yields over the long run.

Environmentalists are also on shaky ground when they decry the environmental damage done by logging in the West. America's appetite for furniture, hardwood floors, houses, etc., isn't going to go away just because the trees won't be coming from California or Alaska. Logging will simply shift from the American West to forestlands abroad. While it's perfectly alright to be more concerned about environmental quality in the United States than in, say, Indonesia, we're not sure environmentalists fully appreciate the tradeoff they're embracing.

Republicans embracing this new rule are not much better. Administration defenders, for instance, often cite the need for more harvesting on federal lands in order to keep timber prices from spiraling out of control. But again, we can just as easily get the timber from abroad as from here at home. In fact, during the Clinton administration, timber prices fell through the floor even while a chunk of land the size of the state of Oregon was put off-limits to the timber industry for the very first time.

Another oft-heard Republican argument is that much of the land in question is undoubtedly more valuable as a wood-producing zone than for recreational or conservationist uses. But how do they know that? The only way to ascertain whether a scarce resource is better used for this rather than for that is to consider prices and consumer willingness to pay for those alternative uses of the resource. Because public land is kept out of the marketplace, prices don't exist and consumer preferences are never put to the test. Accordingly, there's no way to test the assertion.

Leaving those decisions primarily to the nation's governors rather than to federal bureaucrats does not make intelligent decision-making any easier. All it does is transfer the venue of the fight over extraction versus conservation to about 12 western state capitals. Accordingly, we can't help but suspect that the real policy objective behind this new rule is to transfer such fights to political playing fields where environmentalists are typically weaker and industry is politically stronger.

None of this, then, is really about how to most efficiently use federal lands. Environmentalists primarily care about protecting as much land from development as is humanly possible. Republicans primarily care about ensuring that rural westerners -- primarily Republicans -- have jobs, particularly jobs in the timber industry.

It's time to find our way out of these dark woods. Wanting to protect forests from the axe is fine. Wanting the general public to subsidize your preferences is not. Wanting a job in the timber industry is likewise fine. Wanting the general public to deny others the right to their preferences in order to secure that job is not.

The original mission of the National Forests is no longer operative and the original justification for the National Forest Service is no longer defensible. Maintaining such huge volumes of federal land in such political enclaves guarantees that forests will be managed by political rather than economic or ecological criteria. Caring about the health of our nations forests -- both as an ecological preserve and as an economically valuable resource -- demand reconsideration of public ownership.

July 7, 2004

Transients blamed for Bowling Alley fire

A house engulfed in flames near Balboa Place in Needles is shadowed by dark smoke clouds.

News West / Needles Desert Star

NEEDLES — Transients are blamed for igniting a wild fire that charred 60 acres of land and destroyed a house near the Colorado River on June 29, a fire spokeswoman said. What is being called the Bowling Alley fire erupted just before 5 p.m. behind an abandoned bowling alley on Balboa Place near the Needles Highway.

The fire quickly spread through heavy brush east toward the river and north and south, threatening residential areas and taking down one house, a shed, trees, desert vegetation, fences and utility lines in its path.

At about 5:30 p.m. flames jumped the river and started spot fires along the Arizona riverbanks. However, those flames reportedly burned themselves out before spreading.

While the exact cause of the blaze is not yet known, fire investigators determined it originated from “transient activity” in the brush behind the abandoned building, said Tracey Martinez, San Bernardino County Fire Department public information officer.

A total of 94 fire personnel responded to the scene along the Colorado River from as far away as Fontana, Calif. By 7 p.m., they had the fire largely controlled and were pushing the blaze toward the Colorado River, said Don Fisher, Fort Mojave Mesa Fire Department public information officer.

“There are several areas where they are actually backfiring it back to the river to burn the fuel down, so a lot of the fire you see has been intentionally set by the fire departments,” Fisher said the night of the blaze.

Specially trained wildland strike teams and bulldozers, along with firefighters and equipment from eight Arizona and California fire departments, were used to control the flames. The fire was completely contained at 11:45 p.m., Martinez said.

The fire was originally under the command of Mohave Valley Fire Department Chief Mel Sorenson. Command was transferred to the San Bernardino County Fire Department at about 7:30 p.m.

San Bernardino County Fire Capt. Tom Marshall said some residences from the Fort Mojave Tribal Village were evacuated as a precaution. Martinez said all of the residents were allowed to return to their homes by early Wednesday morning.

A house near the bowling alley was destroyed in the fire’s path and another nearby home was also exposed to the flames.

Ruth and Philip Neal own the partially-burned home. They said crews reported they were able to save the house along with several others in the area, but they watched their neighbors’ home completely burn. “Hers is completely gone,” Ruth Neal said. “There’s just nothing left, just a shell.”

Needles historian Maggie McShan owns a building near the fire and said it was burning mostly in the Needles Lagoon area. “It’s a disastrous fire as far as wildlife is concerned,” McShan said. However, the historian also said this is not the first fire in the area and in 1992 a larger fire in the Lagoon destroyed three buildings.

Firefighting crews from San Bernardino County, Mohave Valley, Fort Mojave Mesa, Oatman, Golden Shores, Lake Havasu City, Bullhead City, Arizona Fish and Game and Arizona State Fire all responded to the scene.