December 26, 2005

Wild horses denied free rein

Thousands kept in pens as numbers exceed rangeland capacity

By Electa Draper, Staff Writer
Denver Post

Dove Creek - The notion of wild horses roaming the American West might be more a national delusion than a reality.

Almost 35 years ago, Congress proclaimed that the West's wild horses were an American treasure. It passed a law in 1971 to protect them from slaughter.

But the realities of the Bureau of Land Management wild horse and burro program are different from the romantic images painted then by Congress and still held by many Americans. Roughly 32,000 wild horses and burros roam the range in 10 Western states, but there were, by October of this year, another 24,500 wild horses and burros in holding facilities.

Of last year's BLM wild horse and burro budget of $39.6 million, more than half, $20.1 million, was spent to keep the animals off the range and in these holding facilities.

The problem with wild horses is basically a math problem. It has left the BLM looking for that magic sustainable number.

"It's a question of how you divide the forage pie. It always has been and always will be," says Fran Ackley, who heads up the BLM wild horse training and adoption facility in Cañon City. "There are some who want wild horses to get more and some who don't want them to get any."

With federal protection, wild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators left. Herd sizes can double about every five years, BLM spokesman Thomas Gorey says. As a result, the agency must remove thousands of animals from the range each year to control herd sizes.

Already, about 16,000 wild horses and burros, considered too old or too wild for adoption, are in long-term facilities, typically fenced grassy pastures of 15,000 to 35,000 acres. The BLM calls them sanctuaries. But more than 8,000 other animals are held in small pens.

And even the wild horses and burros on the range are confined to fenced herd-management areas to prevent their intrusion on private lands and their competition with grazing cattle.

Wild horses and burros are managed today in places where they were found roaming in 1971, when their numbers had dwindled to an estimated 17,000 because of their slaughter for profit. With the passage of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act, the BLM began designating 201 Herd Management Areas, 29.5 million acres. By comparison, private livestock grazing is authorized on 160 million acres of BLM-managed land.

Too few adoptions

Since 1973, the bureau has placed more than 207,000 animals into private ownership through its Adopt-A Horse Program. It isn't enough.

"We recognized a few years ago that we can't adopt our way out of the overpopulation problem," Ackley says.

The BLM has determined that the appropriate management level for horses and burros on the range should be 28,000 to keep the land healthy and to create a balance with other public uses, Gorey says. The plan is to round up 4,000 more horses over the next few years.

"I think we're going to be at our magic number in two years," Ackley says. "Then we will just have to remove yearly what can be adopted."

The small pens will be empty. In 10 or 15 years, the older animals in sanctuaries will pass away, Ackley says. It will relieve the American taxpayer of a $400 to $500 bill per horse per year.

"It's on the horizon," Ackley says. "We can do the job as long as the funding stays consistent."

But some wild-horse advocates say the BLM created the adoption backlog in the first place.

Andrea Lococo, a consultant with the Washington-based Animal Welfare Institute, says horses are removed from the range to cater to livestock owners hurt by droughts and wildfires. Until 2000, when the BLM decided to halve the number of wild horses and began massive roundups, she says, BLM adoptions could keep up.

Last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the BLM had planned to remove 9,800 wild horses and burros from public rangelands. The BLM actually removed 11,023. The agency placed 5,701 into private ownership through adoption. The rest were "surplus" horses that required relocation to holding facilities.

The average adoption rate is 6,000 to 7,000 a year, but the BLM in recent years has taken about 10,000 animals off the range a year to preserve range health, BLM officials say.

In Colorado, the BLM rounded up 357 horses in 2005. About 700 wild horses remain on five Western Slope ranges.

More in pens than range

In contrast to the state population of 700 wild animals on the range, up to 1,400 at a time have been kept at the BLM's Cañon City training and adoption facility. The average horse's stay there is nine months, Ackley says.

Even if the designated ideal national number of 28,000 is reached and holding pens emptied, gathers will continue as a necessary evil to maintain it. The events are costly to taxpayers (several hundred dollars per horse). And these roundups break up bands and social order and frequently cause injuries and even death among horses.

The BLM also is expanding its use and study of fertility control to keep herd sizes down and delay roundups, but they will still be necessary, Gorey, the BLM spokesman, says.

But wild horses have another math problem. Roughly three- quarters of the herds are already smaller than 150, considered the minimum size at which a herd can maintain genetic vigor, Ackley says. The BLM compensates in many areas by occasionally introducing new blood lines into a herd - by bringing in a few mares from another herd every eight to 10 years.

Despite the problems with the program, Americans' romance with wild horses continues.
Wild-horse advocacy and support groups proliferate. The southwestern Colorado chapter of the National Mustang Association sprang into being in 1997 to help the 35 to 90 horses of the Spring Creek Herd north of Dove Creek. The group has purchased grazing permits, constructed water catchments and replaced hazardous fencing and is trying to talk the local BLM office into letting the group reseed some native grasses and other projects.

"All the BLM ever needs to say is 'help,' and we're right there," says founder Sherwood McGuigan. "But sometimes the BLM is not flexible about accepting help."

December 20, 2005

Desert bighorn ewes may be farmed out

Victorville Daily Press

BARSTOW — Fifteen ewes from a thriving herd of desert bighorn sheep in Mojave National Preserve may be moved to rebuild a dwindling herd 100 miles away in the China Lakes Naval Air Weapons Station area near Ridgecrest.

"We have a healthy population of bighorns in the preserve, but the herd at China Lake is small and consists of only 17 rams and two ewes," Old Dad Mountain preserve spokesman James Woolsey said.

California's Department of Fish and Game said the preserve's bighorn population numbers about 250. The department proposes capturing up to 15 ewes in the Old Dad Mountain area for relocation to Eagle Crags, to correct the imbalance between rams and ewes, officials said.

"If that ratio is as low as our data now suggests, we need to reverse the trend," said Vern Bleich, senior environmental scientist and project manager.

In August, the sudden deaths of five endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep sparked worries among scientists that there might be a major die-off that could wipe out the bighorn population near Palm Springs.

In the Victor Valley, bighorn populations appear to be doing well, according to recent reports. A population of 30 to 50 bighorns lives in the mountains above Lucerne Valley.

Bighorns also live in the upper San Gabriel Mountains near Wrightwood.

December 19, 2005

Mojave National Preserve gets new boss

ENVIRONMENT: A decision about wildlife watering holes awaits the superintendent.

The Press-Enterprise

Dennis Schramm, a 28-year veteran of the National Park Service, will return to his old stomping grounds at the Mojave National Preserve as its superintendent.

Schramm, 53, returns in February to the 1.6 million-acre park in eastern San Bernardino County -- known for its sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones and lava flows, Joshua trees and towering mountains. He worked there for seven years as an assistant manager until 2002.

In announcing the selection last week, Jonathan Jarvis, the park service's regional director, said Schramm has extensive experience as a biologist and manager in the Mojave Desert and that his leadership in the 1990s in crafting the preserve's management plan demonstrated strong leadership skills.

Schramm replaces Mary Martin, who transferred to Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California.

Among Schramm's first decisions will be whether to approve a controversial plan to turn 12 groundwater wells left over from a cattle grazing operation into wildlife guzzlers to help mule deer flourish for hunting.

The proposal is available for public comment until Jan. 31.

The three options are to abandon the project, allow it to go forward or conduct further studies to assess whether the guzzlers, artificial water sources, are needed.

"It's really a matter of taking that information (from the public) and seeing whether or not it makes sense to allow something to happen," Schramm said about the proposal in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., where he works at the park service's national planning office.

The California Department of Fish and Game and hunters with Safari Club International are pushing for the artificial water sources. Environmentalist says they're a bad crutch for plants and animals that already have adapted to an arid landscape.

In addition, the guzzlers will promote mule deer, a non-native species, said Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group in Joshua Tree.

"You're just messing with the whole web of life out there," he said.

A lawsuit from Patterson's group filed this year prompted the National Park Service to back off from approving the guzzlers until an environmental assessment was completed. The lawsuit alleged that the federal agency, under orders from a Bush administration official -- Paul Hoffman, deputy assistant secretary of Interior for fish, wildlife and parks -- violated environmental laws by approving the man-made watering holes.

During his tenure, Schramm said, he would like to draw more attention to the preserve, sandwiched between the better-known Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks, and to expose more young children to the desert environment.

"They're involved with too many video games," he said. But children "are important for the future of the parks, so it helps if they know they have a connection to the land."

The park's new visitors' center at the Kelso Depot, a railroad station built more than 80 years ago and refurbished, will help in promoting the park, Schramm said.

But the preserve also has threats, he said, including a proposed airport for cargo and charter flights six miles from the preserve's border in Nevada.

In addition, the preserve is dotted with hundreds of old mines, mostly gold mines, where the precious metal was leached from the ore with cyanide in large, open pits.

"We have no active mines," he said, "but we have a lot of cleanup issues."

Wildlife Guzzlers

The Mojave National Preserve is seeking public comment on a proposal to convert ranching wells into wildlife guzzlers:

Deadline: Jan. 31

By e-Mail:

By letter: Superintendent, Mojave National Preserve, 2701 Barstow Road, Barstow, CA 92311

To get the report:

Relocation project planned for bighorn sheep

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

A robust herd of desert bighorn sheep that thrives on several peaks in the Mojave National Preserve offers an opportunity to rebuild a dwindling herd 100 miles away.

California 's Department of Fish and Game has proposed relocating up to 15 bighorn ewes from Old Dad Mountain in the preserve, east of Barstow, to Eagle Crags at the China Lakes Naval Air Weapon Station near Ridgecrest.

"We have a healthy population of bighorns in the preserve, but the herd at China Lake is small and consists of only 17 rams and two ewes," said preserve spokesman James Woolsey.

Aerial surveys show the herd on Old Dad Mountain numbers close to 250. It is the largest population of bighorns in California and has been a primary source of sheep to restock other areas.

The department has attempted to restore 13 populations of mountain sheep to their historic ranges since 1970. By 1989, four herds were re-established in the Mojave Desert , according to an environmental assessment of the relocation project.

Under the department's proposal, between five and 15 ewes would be captured from Old Dad Mountain and relocated to Eagle Crags in a remote part of the air-weapons range.

Noting the imbalance between rams and ewes at Eagle Crags, officials said it is necessary to correct the skewed sex ratio and increase the reproducing potential of the herd.

"If that ratio is as low as our data now suggests, we need to reverse the trend," said Vern Bleich, fish and game's senior environmental scientist and project manager.

"If it isn't that low and more females are present, this translocation program will help us find other females."

The plan calls for sheep to be captured by net-gunning from helicopters, then moved to a base camp off Kelbaker Road in the preserve. From there they would be hauled by truck to Eagle Crags.

No schedule has been set for the removal process.

The removal program conforms with state policy, which says that mountain sheep should be managed and maintained at sound biological levels, Bleich said.

"Translocation is the only means by which mountain sheep can be restored to previously occupied ranges," he said.

The program is not a simplistic approach to conservation of the species, Bleich said, calling it a "well-thought-out conservation strategy."

By relocating bighorns, healthy herds of sheep can be preserved throughout the desert.

"Historically, Old Dad Mountain has been used as a source for repopulating herds elsewhere," Woolsey said. "With this program, we hope China Lake's population of bighorns can be restored."

December 16, 2005

New man in charge at the Mojave National Preserve

Dennis Schramm has been named superintendent

By RYAN MCMASTER. Staff Writer
Desert Dispatch [Barstow, CA]

Dennis Schramm, who has worked for the National Park Service for 28 years, has been named the new superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve.

The duties for this position include overseeing government activities in the park, such as maintaining trails, living quarters, water systems, camping grounds and park ranger force within its boundaries.

He will be replacing Mary Martin, who is transferring to become the superintendent of Lassen Volcanic National Park in Mineral.

Schramm plans to move to Barstow in February. He is currently the program analyst in the office of planning and policy in Washington, D.C.

Previously, he served as a management assistant at the Mojave National Preserve from 1995 to 2002. This position included planning building projects intended for the general public.

"Part of it was planning the Kelso Depot Visitor's Center. It used to be an old railroad depot and a vandalized building," Schramm said, "It became a visitor's center when we opened it up a couple years ago."

Previous to working for the Mojave National Preserve, Schramm worked in various positions in the National Park Service nationwide. He has a graduate degree in desert ecology from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and even prior to that, he had an interest in national parks.

"I was like a lot of kids that grew up in the '50s," he said, "I went to Yellowstone National Park with my family. I grew up hunting and hiking." Such activities fostered a love of wilderness for Schramm, and he said this later encouraged his interest in desert ecology.

"I like being in the outdoors," he said, "I really believe in it."

Schramm said his favorite jobs in his long career with the National Park Service have been his field jobs working in different California national parks. In addition to working at the Mojave National Reserve, he said he also enjoyed working at the Lava Beds National Monument in Tulelake.

Shramm's current duties in Washington D.C. include efforts to control the budget of the National Park Service. However, in a couple of months, he will be returning to Barstow to take on his new position.

"I'm very excited to be coming back," he said, "I have a long relationship with that part of the country. The desert is the place I know the best." Schramm is also excited to be reunited with friends and family in the Barstow area.

He said it is too early to say much about his new position as superintendent, but he is looking forward to the challenge nonetheless.

"I've been gone for three and a half years," said Schramm, "I have a learning curve to catch up on."

One idea he does have is to bring more youth to the national parks and the outdoors.

"It's important to the relevancy of the parks in the future," he said.

Schramm would also like to see more opportunities for graduate students to work in national parks.

"I worked in Death Valley National Park as a graduate," he said, "I hope there are more opportunities for new graduates now."

December 15, 2005

Dear Santa, Please Remember America’s National Parks


Contact: Kelli Holsendolph, NPCA

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) today delivered a Christmas list for America’s national parks to Congress and the administration.

“This week, Congress kicked off the holiday gift-giving season by agreeing to strike the damaging provision from the House reconciliation bill that would have opened Death Valley National Park, Mojave National Preserve, and other parks to mining operations and developers. NPCA has a few other gift suggestions for America’s beloved—and threatened—national parks, ” said NPCA’s Senior Vice President Ron Tipton.

== Don’t Shoot Santa’s Reindeer. An amendment to the National Defense Authorization bill would close part of Channel Islands National Park to the public in order to benefit a private elk hunting operation that is, by court-ordered settlement, supposed to end by 2011. The amendment was introduced under the guise of providing recreational opportunities for the military—which did not even ask for this opportunity.

== Let Sleigh Bells Ring—Not Engines. You won’t be able to hear sleigh bells ring amongst the whine of motors roaring through the parks if the Department of the Interior’s proposed rewrite of the national park management policies is not abandoned. The rewrite potentially weakens protections against air, water, and noise pollution, and could significantly increase opportunities for off-road vehicles and other damaging uses in the parks.

== Keep the Grinch Out of the Parks’ Piggy Bank. Congress is considering cutting the budget of the parks and other federal programs next year. Already short more than $600 million annually, the National Park Service needs at least an additional $150 million in fiscal year 2007 to enable the parks to recover from recent hurricanes; address homeland security requirements such as protecting U.S. borders and icon parks; provide adequate visitor services, and protect historic sites, artifacts, and wildlife.

== Smog-Free Skies for Rudolph. Thirty years after Congress promised to restore clean air to America’s national parks, unsightly haze, caused mainly by pollution from outdated coal-fired power plants, continues to shroud parks nationwide. The problem will worsen if the administration rolls back the laws aimed at cleaning up these old power plants. This holiday season—instead of burning even more lumps of dirty coal—the administration must fully enforce the laws that protect air quality for the health of our parks and our families.

== Bring Some Figgy Pudding—and the Centennial Act. The bipartisan National Park Centennial Act (H.R. 1124 and S. 886) would provide critical new funding for the parks’ growing maintenance and natural and cultural preservation needs in part from a voluntary check-off on individual tax returns. The support of Congress and the administration is needed for this innovative effort to address park needs.

“Most of our national parks could also use a few stocking stuffers,” Tipton added. “Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, for example, needs funds to complete a congressionally-authorized and locally-supported acquisition of land with significant archaeological treasures; Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania needs more funding to rehabilitate this Civil War battlefield and its historic cannon carriages, and Sequoia National Park in California needs a budget increase to combat the drug cartels that are running illegal marijuana operations in the park.”

Mojave guzzler plan calls for continued analysis

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

The top official at the Mojave National Preserve acknowledges that a plan to convert 12 former ranch wells in the park into wildlife watering troughs called guzzlers will demand continued scrutiny to make it successful.

"We will have to study and monitor the proposal over a period of years to determine the success of these artificial water sources," said Larry Whalon, the preserve's interim superintendent.

A newly released environmental assessment, prepared by the California Department of Fish and Game and the National Park Service, calls for converting the 12 wells into guzzlers.

Fish and game's proposal to rehabilitate the wells into guzzlers for mule deer and various game birds could create a dependence on artificial water among these creatures, the department notes.

In turn, this could lead to "an imbalance of the ecosystem," stemming from potential changes in wildlife populations, officials said.

"We will have to examine the positive benefits of guzzlers while looking at their negative aspects," Whalon said. "The environmental assessment is saying that we don't know all the answers. We have to recognize there can be positive and negative results."

The 43-page assessment, available for public comment through Jan. 31, includes fish and game's proposal for guzzlers along with a "no action" alternative and a third option that looks at science-based management of water resources in the 1.6 million-acre park east of Barstow.

According to Whalon, the environmental assessment looks at ways to ensure there is water for wildlife in the vast parkland. "It examines natural and artificial sources," he said. "Fish and game's proposal is compared with other alternatives (to open) a range of options and their effects on wildlife."

The assessment, he said, is not the final word. "It considers the need to obtain more information to adequately define wildlife's water needs," he explained.

"Even though guzzlers may create a dependence for wildlife on artificial water sources, we need to know that through research," Whalon said. "There are positive aspects of dependency, which may allow an increase in wildlife numbers and may allow wildlife to survive during periods of drought."

Among concerns: If the guzzlers are fed from groundwater sources, they could lower the level of groundwater. And if the guzzlers are filled by bringing in water, the groundwater could be polluted.

Fish and game officials said drought conditions over the past decade have increased the urgency to convert the wells, which were installed by cattle ranchers and used until the park service discontinued grazing leases after taking over the preserve in 1994.

Environmentalists are lukewarm over the proposal.

"Guzzlers aren't needed, since there is a lot of natural water in the preserve," said Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Joshua Tree-based Center for Biological Diversity.

"Wildlife has survived for centuries in the east Mojave. It would be better for wildlife to rely on natural water sources."

Barstow environmentalist Peter Burk claims the conversion plan is designed to benefit hunters, who under law can hunt for a variety of wild game in the preserve.

"This is being done for hunters, and increases the likelihood that wildlife using the guzzlers will be targeted," Burk explained. "However, if there was no hunting, the guzzlers would benefit wildlife."

The fish and game department feels the retirement of grazing leases in the preserve over the past five years has hurt wildlife.

"It is critical to wildlife conservation to have many of these historical water sources reactivated," fish and game's proposal states.

According to the park service, six big game guzzlers were installed on several peaks in the east Mojave in the 1970s and 1980s. There also are 133 small game guzzlers in the region.

In addition, there are numerous springs and seeps in the national preserve. Depending on rainfall, these water sources number from 100 to almost 200.

Meanwhile, the Fenner Valley watershed in the east part of the preserve is recharged by rainfall at a rate of 5,000 to 70,000 acre-feet annually, according to the assessment. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.

With three desert ecosystems converging in the Mojave National Preserve, plants and wildlife are abundant. There are about 300 species of wildlife, including 206 species of birds and 47 species of mammals.

Hunting of some species, including bighorn sheep and game birds, adds to the imbalance within the ecosystem, fish and game officials said.

The environmental assessment is available in various public libraries, and is posted on Mojave National Preserve's Web site,

Written comments on the proposal will be accepted until Jan. 31. They can be sent by mail or e-mail to Larry Whalon, Mojave National Preserve, 2701 Barstow Road, Barstow CA 92311.

December 14, 2005

Revisions of Mining Law Put On Hold

Critics say the proposals, purged from budget bill, could have led to selling parkland to developers. A Nevada congressman says he'll try again.

By Janet Wilson and Bettina Boxall, Staff Writers

Los Angeles Times

Republicans in Congress late Tuesday stripped proposed mining law revisions from a budget bill that critics said could have led to the sell-off of millions of acres of federal land, including portions of national parks and forests, such as Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve.

The package faced mounting bipartisan opposition from Western senators, whose support was crucial, after scores of groups, including a coalition of hunting and fishing interests, complained. A Senate spokesman said opposition to the mining law revisions could have jeopardized passage of the budget bill.

In an interview with The Times, the author of the proposals, Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), denied that criticism from park officials, hunting and fishing groups, and others had led to the decision. He said the furor was the result of "intentionally false and misleading information put out by anti-mining groups … that had no impact on the fact that we are here today."

Gibbons vowed to reintroduce what he called comprehensive mining reform legislation in the new year.

"Of course I'm disappointed," Gibbons said. "The process over on the Senate side was a hurdle we could not overcome. But I am committed to bringing the mining law of this country into the 21st century."

The legislation, which came out of the House Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), would have lifted a moratorium on the sale, or patenting, of federally owned lands and allowed private development.

Gibbons said such legislation was needed to help poor, rural communities survive after mining operations closed down and to maintain a domestic mining industry.

Critics, who had been caught off-guard when the mining provisions were tucked into the House's massive budget bill last month, welcomed the news that they had been stripped as part of the reconciliation process between the House and the Senate.

"Excellent. That's a big relief," said Larry Whalon, acting superintendent for Mojave National Preserve, which is studded with 432 active mining claims that he feared could have been sold to private developers after being mined.

"We talked about condominiums," he said. "There was also the possibility of landfills."

Whalon and others said they would be better prepared to review any new proposals as they came up. "The cat's out of the bag now," he said.

Death Valley park Supt. J.T. Reynolds concurred: "It's a welcome stay of execution."

Sid Smith, a spokesman for Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), said that under budget reconciliation rules, the provisions could have required a 60-vote majority, which would have been difficult to win, and might have torpedoed the entire budget package, including language opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, which the Senate has approved.

"To be honest, [Craig] was concerned that the mining reform package might … make it difficult for the budget bill to pass," Smith said. "There was concern that there were a few environmentally related issues like ANWR in the budget bill, and if we had a few too many, those sorts of things might galvanize some opposition to the budget bill as a whole."

Craig also was concerned that access for sportsmen might be limited by private land sales allowed under Gibbons' mining law revisions, Smith said. He added that Craig would probably be opposed to any land sale in national parks, but was interested in working on a strong mining reform act next year.

In recent weeks, key GOP senators from Colorado, Wyoming and Montana expressed misgivings about the land sales, agreeing with Senate Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.

Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana was quoted in his home-state press as saying the bill was "crazy" and "not going anywhere."

On Tuesday, a coalition of more than two dozen hunting and fishing groups claiming to represent 55 million hunters and fishermen sent a letter to Rep. Jim Nussle, an Iowa Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee, and Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., a South Carolina Democrat and the committee's ranking minority member, expressing "serious concerns."

"America's hunters and anglers depend upon public lands and waters … to pursue their tradition of hunting and fishing," the groups wrote. "This proposal to sell public land is being universally poorly received throughout the hunting and angling community."

Conservation groups also were pleased. Velma Smith, Mining Campaign Director for the National Environmental Trust, said: "America's treasured public lands got an early holiday present today when Congressman Gibbons announced that he would retract his land giveaway plan from the House's budget bill."

December 13, 2005

Author of Mining Bill Plans Revise

Los Angeles Times
From Associated Press

WASHINGTON - House Republicans have agreed to revise controversial legislation that would allow the sale of public land for mining, hoping to appease Western senators who have objected to it.

Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), author of the bill, said Monday that he would remove language that would have allowed the direct sale of some land that no longer contains mineral deposits. Critics had warned that the provision would have allowed a "fire sale" of tens of millions of acres of public land now used for recreation.

Gibbons, a mining lawyer before he was elected to Congress, said that those claims were exaggerated and that development would have helped boost the economies of mining towns.

Environmental groups said Monday that Gibbons' fix would still leave many public lands vulnerable to development.

The original proposal, tucked into a larger budget bill, would have overturned an 11-year-old congressional ban that prevents mineral companies from buying public land at low prices.

At least one GOP senator said he continued to oppose the mining provision.

"If they want to have a bill, they should have a stand-alone bill so there can be some debate," said Republican Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming.

December 12, 2005

Mohave's Closure Could Be Imminent

By Marc Lifsher, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

Time is running out for talks aimed at keeping open a coal-fired power plant that supplies more than 7% of the electricity consumed by Southern California Edison Co. customers.

The Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev., is scheduled to close on New Year's Eve and should remain mothballed for at least four years, Edison said in a recent report to the California Public Utilities Commission.

Edison owns 56% of the 34-year-old facility on the Colorado River, which provides enough inexpensive power to run 1.2 million homes.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and utilities in Arizona and Nevada hold minority interests.

The plant, considered one of the most polluting in the West, faces an end-of-year deadline for installing emissions control equipment mandated by a 1999 settlement of a lawsuit brought by environmental groups under the U.S. Clean Air Act.

Edison declined to ask state regulators for permission to spend about $1 billion to clean up the plant until after it had completed negotiations to secure firm supplies of coal and the water needed to transport it in a slurry pipeline from a mine in northern Arizona.

However, confidential talks with the mining company, Peabody Energy Corp., and the mineral rights owners, the Hopi and Navajo Indian tribes, haven't produced an agreement.

A change in Hopi tribal leadership Dec. 1 probably contributed to the delay in reaching a deal, said environmentalists, who had expected to receive a proposal from Edison asking for an extension of the Mohave closure deadline.

A shutdown of the plant would eliminate hundreds of high-paying jobs for tribal members working at Peabody's Black Mesa Mine. It also could cause severe economic hardship for the Hopi Indians, wiping out 40% of their $20-million operating budget for 2006.

Mid Hills Campground is open at Mojave National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve conditions for December 12, 2005 posted on the National Park Service site:

Mid Hills Campground at Mojave National Preserve is now open. Additionally, major unpaved roadways in the park, including Wildhorse Canyon Road, Black Canyon Road, and Cedar Canyon Road, are open to high clearance vehicles. Rangers advise caution when driving these roads, as there are sandy areas in and near washes.

Mid Hills Campground was closed in June after a wildfire swept through the area, damaging campsites and burning much of the pinyon and juniper around the campground. The campsites have been repaired and are ready for use. Dead wood has been cleared and cut up for firewood which is now available for campers.

The scene in and around Mid Hills has changed dramatically due to the fire. “Over half the campsites were directly affected by the fire,” said acting Superintendent Larry Whalon. “While some sites are still surrounded by pinyon and juniper, many are not, and the vistas around the campground are much more open.”

Wildhorse Canyon Road, Black Canyon Road, and Cedar Canyon Roads were washed out during heavy summer thunderstorms. The roads have since been repaired and are now open to high clearance vehicles; they are not recommended for sedans.

December 10, 2005

Reason for concern about sale of U.S. lands

Los Angeles Times

Re "This Land May Not Be Your Land," Dec. 4

Not too reassuring was Gerald Hillier's quote, "This is not a return to the Old West land rush," in the article about a bill to allow mining claim holders to purchase federal property.

Hillier is the former U.S. Bureau of Land Management district manager for the California Desert Conservation Area and now a consultant to county officials in four Southwestern states.

Having largely eviscerated conservation measures from the Conservation Area Management Plan during his tenure and, more recently, having played a role in representing the Blue Ribbon Coalition of off-highway vehicle users in the soon-to-be-released West Mojave Plan, such comments cannot be taken too seriously. Our public lands belong to all Americans, not a select few.


Helendale, Calif.

Egan is a former wildlife biologist with the Bureau of Land Management.

• • • • • •

The proposed legislation by Reps. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy) and Jim Gibbons (R-Nevada) is equivalent to a spendthrift heir selling his inheritance for a spending spree. Under the radar, without open discussion, the legislation would be a monumental change in the character of Western public land.

Don't be fooled by the "mining law reform" twist. Read the language: "to facilitate sustainable economic development" is a defined justification for privatization. Buyers, supported by a "certified appraiser," determine the price — an open invitation to bogus appraisals. The result: Anyone can claim public property, buy it and develop it. The property does not need to be a current mining claim, or have mineral value. Entire forests could be claimed and purchased by timber companies.

Anyone who has hiked, fished, driven through, looked at or in any other way appreciated public lands in the West should be aghast and horrified at this proposed legislation.

The astounding fact is that it squeaked through the House and could become law.


Los Angeles

December 4, 2005

This Land May Not Be Your Land

House bill would allow mining claim holders to purchase the federal property. Some fear it would open national parks to development.

By Janet Wilson and Tim Reiterman, Staff Writers
Los Angeles Times

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE — Standing at the foot of billion-year-old Stripe Mountain, acting park chief Larry Whalon gazed up at ancient slopes banded in limestone and copper.

"In 10 years, there could be a big house right here. Lots of houses," Whalon said.

The entire mountain in the desert preserve west of Las Vegas is covered by federal mining claims, and newly proposed legislation would allow claim holders to purchase this land outright.

Supporters say the mining law changes, part of a spending bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last month, are intended to revive dying rural mining towns. But the possible consequences have provoked fierce disagreement.

A House-Senate conference committee is expected in the near future to begin work to resolve the differences between the House bill and one passed by the Senate. The Senate bill does not contain the mining provisions, but it does include an equally contentious measure, rejected by the House, that would open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Critics fear the mining law changes could open the door to any type of locally approved development on millions of acres of public land — including national forests and national parks. Records show California's national parks have more mining claims than any others in the U.S.

Six Western governors, all Democrats, signed a letter Thursday opposing the changes, calling them "ill-conceived" with "sinister intent."

"Functionally, 6 million acres of public land could be on the selling block … including lands within our wilderness and national parks system," wrote the governors of Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon and Washington. "With the potential for new … claims, untold other millions of acres could be up for sale."

The governors said the sale of lands would yield a "paltry" $32 million annually, while sacrificing $2 billion worth of royalties.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office is assessing the mining claims legislation, but spokesman Darel Ng said Friday, "He has not yet taken a position."

Supported by the mining industry, the bill is being championed by Reps. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), Resources Committee chair, and Jim Gibbons, a Nevada Republican and Resources Committee member who wrote the legislation.

The two congressmen maintain it is a long overdue reform of an 1872 mining law that will help ease the nation's deficit and bolster rural economies. They say fears of massive development are unfounded, particularly in national parks and other protected areas.

"This is not some land sale or giveaway," said Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy. "This legislation allows there to be jobs and economic sustainability after the mine closes."

But others worry that language in the bill could negate regulatory oversight of mining on public lands, and lead to the sale of surface lands atop claims.

"We're trying to decipher this thing. It's amazing how some of it is written," said Death Valley National Park Supt. J.T. Reynolds.

According to the park's mining engineer, Mel Essington, "They could put in a bingo parlor, gambling casinos, a McDonald's….

"A portion of the park extends into Nevada," Essington added. "They could have a legal right to a brothel out there."

Several hundred miles north in Sierra County, where there are about 1,500 mining claims and only 3,500 residents, county planning chief Tim Beals said privatization of claims would create "horrendous conflicts" between the new landowners and fishermen, hunters, hikers and snowmobilers, as well as a rush to build along the rivers. "It would be chaos."

If approved by the Senate, the law would lift an 11-year-old moratorium on the patenting, or sale, of federal lands to claim holders. Purchase prices, now $2.50 to $5 an acre, would be raised to $1,000 an acre or fair market value, whichever is greater. Claim holders could also stake and buy adjoining lands.

Mining industry officials said the ability to patent, or buy, mining claims would help ensure a domestic supply of minerals and provide incentive to make new uses of property containing shuttered mines.

Luke Popovich, vice president of the National Mining Assn., said critics have grossly exaggerated the law's potential effects. "If you put in some common-sense screens … you come up with a total acreage that is seriously possible for privatization of about 360,000" across the U.S, he said.

The bulk of active mining claims on federal land in California are in the Mojave Desert and the Sierra Nevada foothills. The lands are rich in mining history, attractive for development and used by millions of people for camping and other recreation.

The Mojave Preserve, established in 1994, is studded with 432 active claims, meaning they pay fees each year and have done exploratory work.

The existing federal Mining in the Parks Act has tough restrictions that make it difficult to actually mine, and that effectively ban other development.

The land is largely devoid of humans, except for occasional hikers or hunters who share the undulating desert valleys and five mountain ranges with jackrabbits, tortoises, coyotes and small bands of bighorn sheep.

"I call it the big openness," said acting park chief Whalon. "I don't want to lose any ground."

What concerns him most is how the legislation could affect adjacent public land just across the increasingly busy Interstate 15 from the northern boundary of the preserve.

Administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, that land has less protection than the preserve, Whalon said. He fears if it is sold to private owners as a result of the new bill, it could be very profitable to put commercial strips next to the highway, exposing the preserve to light, noise and pollution.

Three hours away in Death Valley, tourists interviewed last week were mostly aghast at the possibility of new mining and development in the park.

"It would be crummy," said Laury Huckling, 35, of Ontario, Canada, marveling at the 35-million-year-old lava beds off Zabriskie Point. "This should be protected forever."

But Don Twiggs, a visitor from Ludlow, Vt., disagreed. "For 360 degrees I see nothing but a lot of rock," said Twiggs, a retired plumbing contractor. "I'm sure you could get some use out of some of it, and still have plenty left over."

Supporters of the bill say buying lands simply for development would remain illegal, and that years of costly mining work would have to be done before the land could be privatized.

"This is not a return to the Old West land rush," said Gerald Hillier, former head of the BLM's California desert office, now a consultant to county officials in four Southwestern states. "People are not going to be able to go out and stake a claim, kick the cattle off, and say 'this is mine.' "

He said market forces would also keep most national forest and BLM land from being developed, because there is still so much available private land closer to towns.

Last week in Sierra County, on snowy ground outside his DigMore Mine, David O'Donnell put on his hardhat and adjusted his headlamp with fingers gnarled from old injuries. A county road worker, he mines his claims evenings and weekends. "If I was not married," said the father of two grown sons, "I would be up here 24-7."

On one level, the legislation appeals to O'Donnell, who mines with a heavy hammer, dynamite and an ore cart inherited from his father. He figures he could acquire his 160-acre claim and cut some timber for shoring up his mine. And he could sell off an interest to raise capital for equipment and helpers.

But he is concerned about development. "I think mining property was not designed for a housing tract," he said. "If people move in, they will think the miners are making too much noise. They would complain about drills and rock crushers … and too much dust."

Mike Miller, who owns the Original Sixteen to One Mine in the nearby hamlet of Allegheny — one of the county's few commercial mining operations — said the new law would make it too easy to purchase mining claims, after as little as $7,500 in mineral development work.

"That is not right," he said.

Unlike some other foothill counties that lost mining and logging jobs, Sierra County is hardly teeming with new development. Three-quarters of the county is public land, and most of the rest has been developed or is too steep and rugged.

Officials said the proposed law could open up vast forests in the county to housing and other private uses, increasing the tax base. They said they welcome development near existing towns but are concerned that development deep in national forests could harm recreational tourism and create new costs for snow removal, ambulance services and police and fire protection.

Adam Harper, manager of the California Mining Assn., said those fears are unwarranted. "The locals have the ultimate say on what can go on a piece of property."

On a recent afternoon, Sierra County Sheriff Lee Adams III stood on a snowy outcropping, looking out over some of the mining claims that extend 40 miles along a stretch of the Yuba River favored by fishermen and whitewater enthusiasts.

"These are some of the most scenic areas of Tahoe National Forest," said Adams, speaking as a longtime county resident. "Say I pay $10,000 for a claim and turn around and sell it to a developer for $200,000. I do not think that is a benefit to the public."

November 29, 2005

Mining bill would dig up public lands

Corporate Giveaway
OUR VIEW: National parks in San Bernardino County could be adversely affected

San Bernardino Sun

We must rely on the Senate to correct the House's misguided attempt to sell off public lands at bargain prices to mining and development interests.

The five-year budget-cutting plan passed this month by the House would allow the U.S. Department of the Interior to sell some of the West's most scenic public lands under the guise of mining "reform." The public would forfeit recreational opportunities and resource-management rights, and the properties would be subject to land speculation.

Specifically, the legislation lifts an 11-year moratorium on mining "patents," the sale of public land to mining companies, but it eliminates the traditional requirement that the land actually be used for mining, and that's where the trouble comes in. Furthermore, it allows the purchase of new claims that are adjacent to any existing mining claims.

Those provisions raise the specter that Californians could see suburban sprawl or gaudy mansions on once protected Sierra Nevada mountainsides and foothills. Or vacation homes and motels plopped down within or on the outskirts of Death Valley National Park, which is studded with hundreds of old mining claims.

The mining amendments, by California Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., would eliminate the requirement under the antiquated 1872 Mining Law that companies wanting to patent claims have to prove there are minerals on the land. The land purchased from the government could be resold or used for any purpose.

That's an invitation for condo developers and land speculators to grab federal public lands for a pittance. And oil and gas companies, which pay federal royalties of 12.5 percent could end up paying no royalties.

Up to 6 million acres of public lands, where 300,000 active mining claims are staked now, could be patented. The Bureau of Land Management estimates as many as 15 million to 20 million acres potentially could be affected.

California 's mountains and deserts could be hit hard.

San Bernardino County has more than 5,700 mining claims on federal land, totaling more than 175,000 acres. Mojave National Park has 432 unpatented claims that total nearly 12,000 acres. Death Valley National Park has 36 unpatented claims, totaling more than 600 acres.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote Pombo to ask him to withdraw his amendments from the budget bill. There are no such provisions in the Senate version.

The Pombo-Gibbons mining amendments represent a corporate giveaway of public land and federal revenue. We urge Sens. Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to lead the effort to remove the mining amendments from the House-Senate conference bill before the legislation is sent to President Bush.

November 28, 2005

Far More Than Creatures of Habit

A biologist contends that individual tortoises have their own personalities. Such thinking is part of a controversial trend in animal behaviorism.

Emotional? Tortoise No. 29 is known unofficially as the "cad" and "fearless kingpin." He is more than 80 years old. SPENCER WEINER Los Angeles Times

By Louis Sahagun, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

BAKER, Calif. — Among the tortoises — out in their Mojave Desert kingdom of arroyos and burrows fringed with creosote — the hormones were running high.

Among them was an old male courting so many females that scientists dubbed him a "cad." An unusually cooperative female they called a "hussy." Then there was a bully who thrashed competitors, but was no stud, and a huge female who showed little interest in guys.

Recent dawn-to-dusk observations have led U.S. Geological Survey biologist Kristin Berry to the provocative conclusion that Gopherus agassizii is anything but a slow, dull homebody. Tortoises don't just demonstrate behavior, she says, they show personality.

"They are not the same inside their shells; they are individuals interacting in complex communities," she said. "And there may be behavior occurring in ways we haven't yet learned to observe, or interpret. How does a tortoise exhibit joy, or play, or express frustration?"

Asking such a question was once heresy in scientific circles. But Berry and a growing number of researchers are rejecting the decades-old notion that nonhuman creatures are instinctive automatons devoid of feelings.

Where even some skeptical scientists were comfortable acknowledging that dogs, dolphins and chimpanzees show signs of personality, this new field sees a spectrum of temperament and emotions among almost all animals: octopuses and lizards, crayfish and spiders. Even fruit flies.

"Ours is a holistic view," said Andy Sih, a biologist at UC Davis, which has become a major center of research into what Sih prefers to call "behavioral syndromes in animals."

"Some scientists study bird songs, or prey behavior, or mating behavior. We are saying they are all related," he said. "Individuals who are aggressive toward other males, for example, also tend to be more aggressive in their hunting styles, and more coercive rather than nice toward females."

"It makes things a lot more complicated," he added, "but if that is the reality, you have to account for that."

His colleague, biology professor Judith Stamps, was more blunt: "Instinct is out of favor."

"This field opens us up to thinking that there are other life forms as varied as we are," she said. "Anyone with a dog or a cat at home knows this. In some places, it is important to be shy. In other places, it pays to be aggressive. Animals that live in groups might work better with a combination: some attacking, some laying low, others finding food."

That kind of talk is nothing new. Even Charles Darwin argued that emotions exist in both humans and animals.

But in the 1930s, to avoid anthropomorphizing, scientists began focusing on how animals react to stimuli, rather than broader personality traits, such as a tendency among certain alpha male tortoises to fight all day long.

All that began to change in the 1990s, when it become acceptable again, as UC Berkeley biologist Samuel D. Gosling puts it, to think of personality traits in animals as a reflection of behaviors that persist over time and in different situations.

Gosling mapped the landscape of personality in captive spotted hyenas, for example, and discovered five basic dimensions: dominance, excitability, sociability, curiosity and tolerance of humans.

"If we are to take evolution seriously," he said, "it would be a disaster to think that personality suddenly emerged when humans departed from chimpanzees."

Even colonies of brainless sea anemones fight as organized armies with distinct castes of warriors, scouts and reproducers, according to a new study by David J. Ayre from the University of Wollongong, Australia, and Richard Grosberg from UC Davis.

"Some have better memories. Some are more aggressive. Some are wimps," Grosberg said. "So, do sea anemones have personalities? Sure enough."

Implications of animal behavior that goes a step beyond what can be quantified ruffles the feathers of biologists who insist that data be repeatable in controlled conditions.

Among the skeptics is Peter Marler, professor emeritus in behavioral neurobiology at UC Davis, whom younger colleagues respectfully refer to as the alpha male of traditional animal behavior research.

"It is very difficult to develop a means of measuring personality and temperament in animals in a repeatable way," Marler said.

"So when you start talking about animal friendliness or shyness without an objective index to measure it," he added, "you're heading into the wild blue yonder."

Yet, even Marler recalled a thought-provoking study of white-crown sparrows: "We had a male who burbled a soft rendition of a particular song while going to sleep. Of course, you don't know what was going on inside his head. But it was a song he sang to a specific female he had mated with five years earlier."

Was the sparrow reliving a happy liaison? It's impossible to say, and that's why some scientists remain skeptics.

Glen Stewart, a professor of zoology at Cal Poly Pomona and an expert herpetologist, draws a line on referring to tortoises, which have pea-sized brains, as studs and hussies.

"Kristin Berry is a solid scientist and one of the real authorities on desert tortoises," Stewart said, carefully weighing his words. "But when it comes to reptiles, it may be a little inappropriate to use terms like hussy and so forth, and more appropriate to say things more objectively."

But Marc Bekoff, a proponent of animal personality at the University of Colorado, found that the motions and postures of canines at play are part of a complex social language.

"Evolutionarily, it makes sense to have diversity in personality," Bekoff said. "And we clearly see that animals have distinct personalities, and their motivations to do different behaviors vary from day to day, moment to moment."

Added Bekoff: "You can't have a wolf pack of all alpha males."

In the Mojave, tortoises display such a wide variety of personalities during courting season that it is hard to fully understand them. Yet, in the battle of the tanks vs. tortoises at Ft. Irwin, about 30 miles northwest of Baker, their survival depends largely upon whether scientists can discern what makes a tortoise tick.

The military plans to expand the area used for battlefield exercises to accommodate a new generation of weapons and tactics. Those plans include relocating about 1,500 of the reptiles, which are protected by state and federal law, to new environs where they won't be squashed by military equipment.

In the largest relocation of reptiles ever attempted in California, the first wave of 300 tortoises is expected to be trucked out early next year to similar terrain several miles away.

"Social behavior is something we're seriously looking into in our translocation plans," said Mickey Quillman, natural and cultural resources manager at Ft. Irwin.

"We'll be taking tortoises from the same general vicinity — big ones and little ones — and moving them together in one fell swoop," he said. "Kristin Berry's studies suggest there's a good chance those tortoises have intermingled in the past, and we don't want to break up that behavior."

Tires crunched on gravel as Berry stopped her truck and gazed across a designated Army tortoise research site of arroyos, alluvial plains and hills buttressed by the Soda Mountains.

On this arid stage, Berry has outfitted 28 tortoises slated for removal with radio transmitters in order to learn all she can about what she called "one of the few populations left in California that is remote, stable and relatively intact."

With a wave of her hand, Berry said, "From that ridge all the way over to that one, a magnificent 10-pound alpha male tortoise we know as No. 43 reigns supreme."

"He's not good at mating — too eager. He just looks at a female and turns to mush," she said with a laugh. "But he's a heck of a fighter and patrols a huge territory. We've seen him make long, arduous journeys across a wash and halfway up a mountain just to beat up a smaller male."

Berry trudged to the top of a hill and used a hand-held antenna to pinpoint the locations of other tortoises.

On that day, all the action was below the surface in burrows connected by dusty paths tortoises have used for perhaps hundreds of years.

Peering into one of the caves with light reflected off a small mirror, she said, "There's a little guy in front and a big mama in back. It's a big female who prefers boys to big alpha males."

Female tortoises are choosy about their mates.

Take tortoise No. 41, a very old, reclusive and small female with osteoporosis. She has four boyfriends, none of them among the alpha males who occasionally visit her.

Tortoises spend most of their lives underground.

But when mating season reaches its height — August through early October — they lumber forth in the mid-morning and late afternoon to forage for wildflowers, and display a suite of courting and dominance behaviors based on constant fighting.

When male tortoises face off, they bite, claw and ram, and use a horn under the chin to flip a foe over on its back.

Then, in a humiliating coup de grace, the winner mounts the loser.

Their aggression is not surprising. Male tortoises in mating season are operating under the influence of extremely high levels of testosterone.

In the afternoon, Berry caught up with a tortoise she officially knows as No. 29, and unofficially as the "cad" and "fearless kingpin."

He probably hatched from an egg when Calvin Coolidge was president. As the big male was weighed and measured by an assistant — about 11 inches long and about 9 1/2 pounds — she gazed into its eyes and said, "There is so much we still don't know about these creatures."

"At a time when disease is spreading among them and there are plans for translocation, we're only beginning to study their social lives," she said. "Determining how complex these creatures actually are can help us understand better how to save them."

No. 29 stared back at her, eyes blinking.

Congress Visits CA to Examine Funding for National Parks


Contact: Casey McDonald, NPCA, Washington, DC, 202-454-3371 x113

San Francisco, CA - The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) testified today about the critical funding needs of California’s 23 national parks, putting special focus on the funds needed to combat illegal marijuana cultivation in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

“California’s national parks sustain our long-standing, unbroken connection to the land and our history and provide a rich legacy that we are obligated to leave unimpaired for future generations,” testified NPCA Board of Trustees Chair Gene Sykes. “How sad it would be to squander our American birthright by failing to address the budgetary woes that threaten national parks in California and across the nation.”

In 2004, more than 44,000 marijuana plants were eradicated within Sequoia National Park. The clean up that followed cost the National Park Service approximately $50,000. These funds might have been otherwise spent on visitor education and maintaining and preserving the park’s many trails and historical sites. In addition, the hard-to-find crops are protected by armed guards and pose a threat to ranger and visitor safety.

Staffing shortages in California’s desert parks, Mojave, Joshua Tree, and Death Valley, have opened the door to vandals, illegal dumping of hazardous materials, and artifact and animal poaching. Death Valley has only 15 protection rangers, down from 23 a few years ago, to patrol 3.4 million acres, an area roughly the size of Connecticut. Ideally, Joshua Tree staffs 20 protection rangers to monitor its 794,000 acres – they currently have ten. Mojave National Preserve currently has a staff of six rangers to patrol 1.6 million acres.

According to NPCA’s 2005 report, Faded Glory: Top 10 Reasons to Reinvest in America’s National Park Heritage America’s national parks are short $600 million annually which has resulted in severe staff shortages, decreased visitor services, and a lack of funds available to perform necessary maintenance and preservation of park trails, structures, and historical sites. New legislation in Congress can help to address the parks’ funding shortfall.

The bipartisan National Park Centennial Act, which has support from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), several members of California’s House delegation and other park champions like Senator John McCain (R-AZ), seeks to increase funding for the maintenance and natural and cultural preservation needs of the parks through 2016—the 100th anniversary of the park system’s creation. The legislation provides new funding for the parks in part from a voluntary check-off on federal income tax returns; Congress agrees to make up any difference needed to ensure that the job gets done. In a nationwide poll, three in five likely voters said they would donate to the parks via a voluntary check-off.

Today’s hearing, held in San Francisco by Government Reform, Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Mark Souder (R-IN), is the sixth in a series of congressional field hearings held over two years to examine the funding needs of America’s national parks. The hearings are the first focused effort by Congress in decades to examine park-funding issues in-depth, and to identify solutions to meet the challenges.

Not preserved well

San Bernardino Sun
Voice of the People

The article by Chuck Mueller ("Preserve provides visitors with history," Oct. 30) concerning the Mojave National Preserve, was very good, as far as it went. But, it was incomplete in some areas and inaccurate in others.

The restoration of the Kelso Depot is a nice achievement for the National Park Service. But while it was ongoing, the Park Service, under Superintendent Mary Martin, has been destroying most of the heritage left by miners, ranchers and others. Some of the things destroyed were 100 years old and older. Private-property owners and even visitors have been harassed, intimidated and coerced by park rangers.

The Mid Hills, one of the mountain ranges not mentioned, encompasses thousands of acres in the preserve. Within it are the only campgrounds in the preserve. Table Mountain, at 6,176 feet, and Pinto Mountain, at 6,144 feet, are within this mountain range. Also within this area are three or four thousand acres of private property, most of it in Round Valley, which was consumed by wildfire in June. In all, 70,000 acres were burned, including homes, a few vacation cabins and trailers. Most of the desert residents feel the Park Service did little to contain this fire or protect private property.

The article says 500,000 visitors a year come to the preserve. Surely, this is a joke, since this would be almost 1,370 people a day. I have spent 24 days in the preserve since May. Most of the time, I was at Hole in the Wall Campground, when only a few people visit at any one time.

I understand there are 42 employees in the preserve, but they are mostly invisible from what I see going on, except for the fire personnel at Hole in the Wall Fire Station. I was there for 11 days in October, and not a weed or a bit of cleanup or campground maintenance had been done since I last visited in May.

I hope to see a comprehensive report on the Mojave National Preserve and what is really going on, and how our tax dollars are being wasted.


November 25, 2005

In life, on bench, judge proves man of resolve

Judge Robert J. Timlin exhibits strength in all facets of his life

By JERRY SOIFER / The Press-Enterprise

When it came to a crisis with his health, Robert J. Timlin, the Inland area's first federal district court judge, showed the same resolve as a law school graduate preparing for the bar exam.

Timlin, 73, was told last year by Dr. Donald Blackmon he was on the verge of developing diabetes. The Riverside doctor suggested that Timlin lose weight.

Timlin cut out doughnuts, cakes, pie, ice cream, pastries, candy and hot dogs. He shed 60 pounds in six months to weigh 165 pounds. Blackmon said he was amazed by Timlin.

"Most patients can't do it," Blackmon said. "He was an exception."

"At my age, I didn't want to be laboring under diabetes," said Timlin.

The willpower Timlin used to improve his health is the same determination that has carried him through a legal career of almost 50 years, according to Timlin's wife, Caroline.

"He decided something and he does it," said Caroline Timlin, adding, "He wants to enjoy the rest of his life in good health."

Timlin and his wife will finally have a chance for extended travel and leisure. The Timlins are selling the Corona home they bought in 1967, where they raised their children, Patrick, 38, and Sally, 37, to live in their second home in Carpenteria near Santa Barbara.

Timlin isn't putting his gavel and robe in mothballs, however. He retired as a full-time judge on Feb. 1 to become a senior-status judge with a limited calendar. He will move his work from Riverside to Los Angeles.

"Some psychologist might say you're so wedded to your work that you couldn't handle leaving your work abruptly," he said. "Maybe this is a subconscious weaning away form judging. ... I still enjoy it. I'm still capable of doing it physically and hopefully mentally."

Timlin has been admired by the legal community during his rise from city attorney for Corona and Norco to the municipal bench in Corona, the superior court in Riverside, the state appellate court to the federal court.

"He's one of the finest, if not the finest jurist, we've ever had in Riverside," said retired Superior Court Judge Victor Miceli. "He has the perfect temperament to be a jurist. He would be very firm in spite of what appears to be an avuncular demeanor. Beneath that demeanor, he was very strong. He was one of the most intelligent jurists I've had the pleasure of serving with."

Timlin frequently declined lunch invitations from Superior Court Judge Stephen Cunnison to work at the noon hour.

"He's an excellent legal scholar," said Cunnison of Timlin, adding, "He puts in unbelievable hours."

Retired Riverside County Chief Deputy Sheriff Sam Lowery said of Timlin, "He's the kind of guy who should be on the state supreme court. He's just a great guy, very bright."

Timlin's political neutrality on the bench has never been questioned. He was appointed to the state appellate court by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian and to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.

"Bob is not a partisan guy," said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, who grew up down the street from the Timlin home. "Anybody who knows him knows you don't pigeon-hole him in one partisan way or another. He's a guy whom you would never question his ethics or his honor. He's exhibited that from day one. He's someone everyone respects and everyone likes."

Timlin wasn't sure where the law would take him after he graduated from Georgetown University law center with a juris doctor degree in 1959. He tried his hand in the U.S. Department of Justice, in corporate law with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and private practice in Riverside.

Timlin found his niche on the bench. He said he enjoyed being a judge more than any other aspect of the law "maybe because I don't have to be an advocate. ... I think I fit better as a neutral, as they say ... sitting back, listening to the evidence, applying the law ... I don't get emotionally involved in the cases ... I enjoy the minutiae of the law and the spirit of the law."

Timlin also enjoyed the courtroom drama. "There's a real human dynamic going on all the time," he said. "You get exposed to every phase of life. ... You've got to have an inquisitive mind. You want to be a really nosy person."

Timlin said he developed the discipline to be a judge by studying Latin and Greek at a Jesuit high school in Washington, D.C. The judicial workload kept him home in Corona on many weekends, laboring at the Corona Public Library working on cases while his wife was in Carpenteria. There were breaks to watch Notre Dame football games and Georgetown and Lakers basketball games on television. His office staff once gave him Lakers tickets at Staples Center as a Christmas gift.

Timlin talks about sports while waiting to get a haircut at Angelo Lunetta's barber shop in the Corona mall. Lunetta said Timlin never put on an air of self-importance. Lunetta said some of his customers were shocked to hear the man they were talking to is a judge.

Caroline Timlin said her husband would have been a good priest. He is a practicing Catholic who attends Mass weekly, frequently at St. Edward Church, his parish in Corona.

"A church is a church is a church," said Timlin. "Their parishioners might be low wage earners, people who aren't at the top of society. When you walk in that church there's no difference between a ( U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin) Scalia and a hardworking father with six kids there. We're all the same. We all start out the same. We all leave the same."

Timlin has no trouble separating church and state on the bench. In fact, he said his faith enables him to do a better job.

"You've taken an oath," he said. "You're serving your God by doing a proper job making decisions within the civil arena. ... That might be a contradiction to religious teachings. That's your job to do it so you do it and indirectly you're serving society as a whole."

In July 2002, Timlin showed his ability to separate church and state when he ruled that a 6-foot cross in the Mojave National Preserve must be removed.

"The presence of the cross on federal land conveys a message of endorsement of religion," Timlin wrote in his opinion.

Last April, Timlin ruled that a land swap plan that would have preserved the cross was unconstitutional.

Miceli said Timlin's rulings in the case showed his courage. "It showed the inner strength of the man," Miceli said. "He had to feel that there was going to be a tremendous amount of discontent with and even anger with this. A judge cannot rule on the basis of trying to please people."

Proposed airport stirs concerns

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

Environmentalists fear that a new Las Vegas regional airport, within 15 miles of the Mojave National Preserve, would disrupt the tranquility of the remote desert parkland whose major attraction is its serenity.

An environmental impact statement is being prepared for the Ivanpah Valley airport, proposed at a 5,800-acre site between Primm, Nev., at the Nevada-California state line, and Jean, Nev. It would supplement passenger service at the existing McCarran International Airport at Las Vegas, which will reach capacity in 2017, said McCarran spokeswoman Elaine Sanchez.

"Potential noise from aircraft takeoffs and landings, as well as increased traffic on Interstate 15 past the preserve will be extremely detrimental to the solitude enjoyed at the national park," said environmentalist Peter Burk of Barstow.

"The draft impact statement needs to consider alternate locations for the airport that would be less damaging to the environment."

Howard Gross, California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, notes that legislation transferring federal land to Clark County, Nev., for the airport calls for an airspace management plan.

"But jumbo jets turning at the boundary of Mojave National Preserve during takeoffs and landings will certainly impact the park's natural soundscape," he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management have awarded a $14.2 million contract to Massachusetts-based Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., a transportation and environmental firm, to prepare the document.

The environmental study is expected to be completed by 2010, said Bill Wrinn, public relations spokesman for the firm.

"All potential impacts will be studied closely," he said.

Initial flight operations are expected to begin at the $4 billion Ivanpah airport by 2017, when McCarran International Airport at Las Vegas reaches its passenger capacity.

According to Sanchez, the Ivanpah Valley airport would serve international and domestic long-haul passenger flights, charter aircraft, and international and domestic cargo.

"It will be designed to ultimately handle up to 35 million passengers," she said.

Las Vegas, among the nation's fastest growing cities the past decade, now attracts 10 million more visitors than it did in 1995, Wrinn said. About 5,000 people become permanent residents every month. The growth compounds the demand for a new airport.

Clark County paid $20.7 million for the Ivanpah Valley site, about 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas.

"After careful evaluation, it was determined that the Ivanpah Valley was the last site in southern Nevada that meets criteria for the airport," Sanchez explained.

There are no high mountains nearby, and there is a minimum of commercial and residential development in the immediate area. Further, airspace does not conflict with aircraft using McCarran or Nellis Air Force Base, near Las Vegas.

"Although Ivanpah Valley airport would handle less traffic than McCarran, we're planning on a larger site to provide a buffer for noise and incompatible development abutting the airport," she said.

Environmental scoping sessions for the proposed airport will be held in 2006, said Randall Walker, director of the Clark County Department of Aviation.

A survey of visitors to the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve indicated that travelers turn off Interstate 15 and Interstate 40 to enjoy the park's unspoiled vistas and uncrowded back roads as well as its forests of Joshua Trees, its lofty sand dunes and endangered wildlife.

"We're concerned with the proposed airport because of its relative proximity," said park spokesman James Woolsey.

"When (recent) legislation was passed that created an opportunity for Las Vegas to transfer land from government ownership, we have been involved in the process of mitigating potential impacts," he said.

Gross, who is based at the conservation association's Joshua Tree office, is afraid the airport would diminish the clarity of the night sky over the preserve.

"You can already see a substantial glow on the horizon at night," he said.

"With a major airport so close to the park, we are very concerned that two of the preserve's most treasured values its piercing quiet and its dark night skies could be lost."

November 24, 2005

Accusations of land grab in budget bill

Malls, homes feared on hundreds of thousands of acres of public forests and deserts

Zachary Coile, Chronicle Washington Bureau
San Francisco Chronicle

Washington -- California lawmakers and environmental groups warn that a provision in the House budget bill could allow individuals and companies to develop hundreds of thousands of acres of desert, forest or other public lands across the state.

The measure could affect areas from Death Valley to Lake Tahoe , where public lands subject to active mining claims could be converted to private ownership. The land could be mined or used to build homes, ski resorts, shopping malls or other commercial development.

Supporters of the provision -- which ends a 1994 ban on mining land purchases imposed by Congress and the Clinton administration -- claim it would help rural communities make the transition to new types of development after their local mines have closed.

"Without this measure, the jobs and infrastructures of these communities can literally disappear when a mine closes," said Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., the chief sponsor of the measure, whose state has a large mining industry.

But opponents see a deeper agenda aimed at privatizing vast stretches of public land across the West and boosting the profits of mining companies, developers and individual claim holders.

"With a wink and a nod, this budget proposal sells not just the minerals under these federal lands but the pristine lands that just happen to be located near high-priced ZIP codes," said Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee.

Rahall said nothing would stop claim holders who have "patented," or taken over ownership of public land -- for the purpose of mining -- from using the land to build fast food restaurants, Wal-Mart stores or condominiums.

Supporters and opponents of the measure differ sharply on how much land across the West could be affected.

Gibbons and House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, who added the provision to the budget bill, cited Interior Department estimates that 360,000 acres of federal land meet the requirements for a sale and that only a third of those lands are likely to be purchased. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the sales would raise $158 million.

But environmental groups point out that much more acreage could be put up for sale under the new rules.

The Environmental Working Group, which has collected mining claims data, estimates that 5.7 million acres of public land is subject to mining claims and could be purchased by the claim holders. Nevada has the largest area of public lands with mining claims ( 2.5 million acres), followed by Arizona (641,000 acres) and California (635,000 acres.)

In California, the largest concentration of mining claims is in San Bernardino County, but the claims extend from the Gold Country to the state's border with Oregon. Even Marin County has a small mining claim on 21 acres close to Highway 1 near the town of Inverness.

The provision in the budget bill seeks to change the 1872 General Mining Law, frontier-era legislation that allows any individual to stake a claim on public land that might contain valuable minerals or precious metals such as gold or silver.

Critics have long called for reforming the law, noting that it charges claim holders 1870s-era prices -- $2.50 to $5 per acre -- for land that can yield big payoffs. In 1994, Congress instituted a moratorium on "patenting" mining claims after a Canadian company was able to buy 1,900 acres of land in Nevada containing an estimated $10 billion in gold even though it paid the government less than $10,000.

The legislation by Gibbons would lift this moratorium on purchasing public lands. The provision would also raise the cost of the land to $1,000 an acre or fair market value, whichever is higher -- which proponents say would raise more money for the federal Treasury.

Critics point out the measure appears to weaken requirements that mining claim holders prove there are valuable minerals beneath the ground before approving a sale of land. Sponsors of the measure say the requirement -- called the "Law of Discovery-Prudent Man Test" -- has simply moved to a different portion of the bill.

The mining provision was not part of the budget bill approved by the Senate and will be one of a number of contentious issues as a conference committee of the House and Senate try to reach agreement on a single bill.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sent a letter to Pombo earlier this month urging him to drop the provision, which she said could allow claim holders to buy big parcels of land, especially in national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands.

"It appears that potentially millions of acres of national forests and (bureau) lands would now be required to be put up for sale by the Interior Secretary merely because they contained 'mineral deposits' -- a term undefined in your bill -- or even 'depleted' mineral deposits," Feinstein said.

Feinstein said the measure could affect public lands in or near the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley, as well as 40,000 acres with active mining claims in the Tahoe National Forest and west of Lake Tahoe.

Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Pombo, said the legislation specifically bans land sales in national parks, wilderness areas, national monuments, national conservation areas, national wildlife refuges, national recreation areas, wild and scenic rivers and national trails. The bill would apply to other public lands not protected by those designations.

A spokesman for the National Mining Association said the industry is willing to accept higher costs -- $1,000 or more per acre -- in return for the government lifting the moratorium on buying lands where they have mining claims.

"The industry will be better off because we will be able to attract investment by allowing more lands to be privatized -- specifically lands that might have valuable mining claims and where investors might be reassured that they will be able to own the land rather than essentially operating under the government's heel," said Luke Popovich, the association's spokesman.

Most mining companies plan to use the land only for mining -- not real estate development -- although Popovich predicted there would be few cases where mining claim lands would be transformed into homes or ski resorts.

"It could happen," Popovich said. "There will be instances where a resort -- perish the thought -- that might employ people would take up some of the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land. Even if it does happen, in the minds of many people that will be a good thing."

November 23, 2005

Grazing Beneficial in Fight Against Wild Fires

Needles Desert Star / Needles, CA

A friend sent me a copy of the July 20 article "Wildfire" in the East Mojave. In it, the park service disputes the importance of cattle grazing as a means of reducing fuel buildup during wet years.

I spent 28 years with the Bureau of Land Management on the California Desert, and am familiar with the area in question. I can state with some authority that during my tenure with the Bureau, the East Mojave didn't suffer any fires of the magnitude of the one that visited the area this year.

It's my belief that the presence of cattle definitely reduces the amount of fuel in any given year. Often in the past, ranchers would bring additional cattle (feeders) in for a few months in wet years to consume the higher stands of annual grasses and forbes and further reduce the threat of a serious wildfire during the following dry season.

Wesley Chambers

Ontario, California

November 19, 2005

LAWS OF THE LAND; Mining for trouble

Editorials, Op-Ed
Los Angeles Times

A PAIR OF DAMAGING environmental proposals have been stripped out of the budget bill before Congress. Thanks to bipartisan opposition, no new oil drilling will be allowed off the nation's coasts or in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Yet an equally troubling provision remains in the bill, placed there by Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), who as head of the House Resources Committee has pushed an extraordinary number of wilderness-trashing ideas this year. This one would allow the government to sell off millions of acres of public land for mining, for as little as $1,000 an acre. The deal comes complete with mineral rights, which are generally worth far more than the land.

Buyers would not need to prove there are minerals in the ground, and the owners have no obligation to try to find them if there are. They could decide to develop the land into a housing development or an office complex, or they could just keep the land for themselves, no public trespassers allowed. The deal includes land in national forests; it also would open up old claims in national parks to mining. These are lands now used for hiking, camping and off-roading — and held by the public for its future. Prospective buyers would need to invest only $7,500 in land surveying or other "mineral development work" to turn these into private lands. Where do we all sign up for a deal this rich, at our own expense?

There's little in this for the budget — or the public. The budget would gain a minimal, one-time boost with each sale, and would suffer the permanent loss of public resources sold at rock-bottom prices.

The budget bill squeaked by the House late Thursday, with this measure attached. It will be up to the Senate-House conference committee to halt the attempted giveaway of public treasures. If that fails, the best recourse would probably be to contribute to groups such as the Nature Conservancy, in the hopes that they will buy up large blocks of land to hold in the public interest. Should that day come, it will sadly mean that public land is safer in the hands of a private organization than in the possession of the government.

November 18, 2005

Your birthright, up for grabs

For sale cheap: 270 million acres of national forest and public land. It could happen under a budget bill being debated in Congress.

By Mike Dombeck
Editorials, Op-Ed
Los Angeles Times

ALL MY LIFE, I have introduced people to our nation's public lands, as a seasonal fishing guide in the Upper Midwest, as the head of the Bureau of Land Management and as the chief of the U.S. Forest Service — agencies that manage hundreds of millions of acres of public land. One thing I learned was that Americans love their national forests, parks and grasslands.

Americans inherit a birthright that is the envy of the world: hundreds of millions of acres scattered across all regions of the country. The public estate includes famous places, such as Yellowstone National Park, and obscure places that make up picnic spots, fishing holes and weekend getaways. It has been that way for 100 years, thanks to the conservation legacy sparked by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Unfortunately, our federal public lands are now under siege in Congress. It seems that some folks simply do not like the idea of the public owning land. These radicals and ideologues are taking advantage of the fact that Americans are preoccupied with economic insecurity, high fuel prices and a war abroad to promote their personal interests by pushing language in the federal budget bill that would put a "for sale" sign on 270 million acres of national forest and other public land.

Here's how it would work:

Congress would reinstate an obscure, obsolete portion of an 1872 mining law. This would allow mining companies to stake claims on public land and eventually take ownership through a process called "patenting." (Congress, with good reason, stopped allowing patenting in 1994.)

But the greed-driven special interest supporters aren't stopping there. They want to expand the sale of public lands to allow any individual or corporation to stake a mining claim and purchase it without having to prove that it contains minerals. This is so broadly defined as to enable developers, for example, to buy federal land at bargain-basement prices and "flip" it quickly for projects such as ski chalets or housing units.

The public would never stand for this if it were done in the open, so the provision was tucked inside the huge budget-cutting bill being considered by Congress this week. There, it was obscured by bigger issues, such as offshore drilling.

There are plenty of examples of how companies have used the 1872 mining law's patenting provisions to get their hands on public resources dirt cheap. In 1970, Frank Melluzzo "patented" — bought — public land near Phoenix for $150. Ten years later, he sold it for more than $400,000. Today, the Pointe Hilton Hotel in Phoenix sits on this mining claim. In 1983, Mark Hinton patented national forest land adjacent to the Keystone ski resort in Colorado. He later sold the parcel for more than 4,000 times what he paid for it. In 1994, American Barrick Corp. patented about 1,000 acres of public land in Nevada. That land contained more than $10 billion in gold reserves. But under the 1872 mining law, it paid only $5,000 for the land and paid not a dime in royalties to the federal Treasury.

No wonder Congress has prohibited such land deals ever since. Taxpayers were getting a raw deal.

Now a few folks in Congress want to turn back the clock. The results of these policies will be a fleecing of the American taxpayer and a cheating of future generations of public land.

Theodore Roosevelt put it this way: "The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value."

That kind of leadership is why Roosevelt's face is carved on Mt. Rushmore. The leadership we are seeing in some dark corners of Congress will leave Americans with a much different legacy.


MIKE DOMBECK, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, served as the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management from 1994 to 1997 and chief of the U.S. Forest Service from 1997 to 2001.

November 16, 2005

Some Fear a Vast Sell-Off of U.S. Land

A House bill would let mining firms and others buy federal acreage at a deep discount. Foes say it affects many holdings in the Sierra and deserts.

By Bettina Boxall, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

A budget bill that the House of Representatives is expected to vote on this week would force the federal government to put "For Sale" signs on public recreation lands in California and the West, including national forest holdings throughout the Sierra Nevada and remote parts of the Mojave Desert.

Backers of the bill insist that the amount of land affected would be small, but former Interior Department officials and some experts on natural resource law say the legislation could result in the sale of millions of acres.

Slipped into a massive budget-cutting bill late last month by the House Resources Committee, headed by Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), the provision has been eclipsed by higher-profile battles over two other controversial plans that would expand oil drilling offshore and allow it in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Those proposals have been dropped for now, but the land-sale provision remains.

The bill would lift an 11-year-old moratorium on the patenting — or sale — of federal lands to mining companies for a fraction of their mineral worth. While the patent fees would rise from $2.50 or $5 an acre to $1,000, the price would continue to exclude the mineral worth, which can amount to billions of dollars.

In a rewrite of an 1872 mining law that reverses long-standing federal policy that the government keep public lands, the proposal also orders the Interior Department to sell land adjacent to mining claims for "economic development."

Under the provision, legal experts say anyone would be able to stake a new claim on those neighboring parcels, do some survey work and, without having to prove a valuable mineral discovery, purchase the land for as little as $1,000 an acre.

Because the West — especially the Sierra Nevada, California desert and Colorado Rockies — is studded with millions of mining claims dating to the 1800s, former Interior officials say the measure would open the door to the widespread privatization of federal lands used by millions of people for hiking, hunting, and off-road driving.

"When I first saw it, it took my breath away. It's really quite stunning," said Mat Millenbach, who was deputy director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management during President Bush's first term. "This could have the impact of making public lands harder to get to and use. There will be huge issues of incompatible uses."

House GOP leaders have had trouble rounding up the votes for the budget bill, which includes a number of contested spending cuts. But a floor vote is anticipated this week. If approved, the legislation would then go to a conference committee, where legislators would iron out differences between the House and Senate budget bills.

The Senate version does not contain the mining provisions, and opposition is surfacing among Senate Democrats, including Dianne Feinstein of California and Max Baucus of Montana, who said in a release Tuesday that he would fight the land sales "every step of the way."

Although the proposed mining law changes exclude national parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas designated by Congress, dropping the patent moratorium would allow miners to move ahead on hundreds of old claims within park boundaries that had been largely halted by the moratorium. Most of those claims are in California, including 36 in Death Valley National Park and 432 in the Mojave National Preserve.

Park officials are worried that other parts of the proposal could overturn Mojave National Preserve protections that restrict patent claims to minerals and prohibit private acquisition of the land in which the minerals are found. "We are concerned that it's going to open up the Mojave," said David Shaver, chief of geological resources for the National Park Service.

The mining provisions were drafted by Republican Jim Gibbons of Nevada. He and Pombo have complained that the federal government owns too much land in the West, and Pombo is spearheading efforts to rescind habitat protections for imperiled wildlife on 150 million acres.

Gibbons was unavailable for comment. In a statement released by his office, he said the mining proposal has been "misconstrued and misinterpreted. The claim that these provisions will result in a giveaway of our public lands is simply false…. It is illegal to file a mining claim without the intent to mine. It is not realistic or honest to claim that mining companies will suddenly turn into real estate speculators."

When the provision was adopted by the resources committee, he said the "purchase of lands is absolutely vital to the health of Nevada's rural communities because it expands the tax base of the local government."

Resources Committee spokesman Brian Kennedy pointed to the committee's bill report, which said the public purchase provision would allow for the "sale of slivers and small parcels of federal land" next to mine operations. "You or I as private citizens cannot go to the federal government and say I want a mining claim," Kennedy said. "There has to be a legitimate application from a legitimate party."

But the BLM, which administers the federal mineral estate, says anyone can stake a mining claim on federal land. They simply have to file an application with the government, physically stake out the boundaries and pay a $125 annual fee to hold it.

Indeed, claims have been sold on EBay. John Leshy, the Interior Department's top lawyer during the Clinton administration, said there is a problem in the Sierra Nevada with people staking mining claims to hold their favorite fishing or camping spot.

Moreover, the section of the pending bill that deals with land purchases by the public does not require a valuable mineral discovery on the new claim. And it orders the Interior secretary to make the land "available for purchase to facilitate sustainable economic development."

"The way I read this, you simply go out onto the public lands still open for [claims], you find some past mineral development activities, and you stake claims contiguous to those and you claim the right to purchase," said Mark Squillace, director of the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado School of Law.

Aside from holding a claim, the only requirement for the buyer is to do $7,500 of "mineral development work," which can consist of surveying or road building. The land would be sold for $1,000 an acre or fair market value, minus the worth of any mineral deposits.

"It looks to me like the whole purpose of it is to take public land and to put it in the hands of private people with the full intention of having them develop the land for whatever purposes they see fit," said Sean Hecht, executive director of the UCLA Environmental Law Center. "The more I look at this, the more shocking it really is."

The bill gives no time limits for the claims around which land will be sold, opening up a potentially huge universe. Since 1976, slightly more than 3.2 million claims, averaging 20 acres, have been filed on federal lands, the BLM said. Roughly 282,000 of them were in California.

Millions more were filed going back to Gold Rush days. "At one time or another over the last 130 years, much of the land in the West has had an unpatented mining claim on it," Leshy said. "So it's very hard to say how many acres are involved in that. But it's potentially a very big number."

Times staff writer Julie Cart contributed to this report.