June 30, 2005

Ruffled Feathers

Audubon sues the DWP for the sake of songbirds

LA Weekly

It must have been a tough day for Charles Bragg when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s board of commissioners met on April 19 to give final approval to a long-awaited wind-energy project in Kern County. While one environmentalist after another rose to laud the DWP for finally making good on its commitment to “green power,” Bragg had been charged with the opposite task: to warn the commissioners that if the DWP went ahead with the plan stated in its most recent environmental-impact report, Audubon would sue. “As a ratepayer I’ve been paying into the green-power project for a long time,” intoned Bragg, a tall, thin man with graying hair, the editor of Audubon’s Santa Monica Bay Chapter newsletter. “But I don’t want to lay awake at night thinking of wings hitting propellers so I can turn on my lights.”

Sadly for Bragg, the commissioners were in no mood for the hand wringing of bird lovers. Earlier in the meeting, the board had received the happy news that its former PR firm, Fleishman Hillard, would pay nearly $6 million to settle charges that it defrauded the DWP and other city agencies, and Audubon’s complaints came off as entertainment, much like the antics of solar-power agitator Doug Korthof, who, in his rumpled suit and two-day stubble, showed up to use the bird issue as fodder for his own agenda. Korthof’s assertion that “solar doesn’t have any opponents” got a laugh, as did the commissioners’ lighthearted banter over the definition of passerine. And when Audubon’s attorney, Andrew Lichtman, rose to address the board, the commissioners’ president, Dominick W. Rubalcava, confidently introduced the city’s lawyer, seated not far from him at the commissioners’ table. It was almost a punch line.

Like every wind farm built or proposed in the United States since the 1970s, the Pine Tree Wind Development Project, to be built in the high Mojave Desert near Jawbone Canyon by Wind Prometheus with General Electric equipment, has been beset by pressures from conflicting sides. On one side are clean-air advocates who complain that after its pricey unveiling ceremony in February of 2003, the project has moved forward so slowly that they doubt the DWP’s sincerity about green power; on the other sit not only Audubon members, but off-roaders and hikers who worry that the project will spoil the area’s recreational opportunities and scenery. “It’s an area that rivals Yosemite in beauty,” says David Laughing Horse Robinson, who calls himself chairman of the Kawaiisu tribe, although other Kawaiisu disagree. “Why don’t you go put up wind turbines in Yosemite and see if you meet with any resistance?” Robinson also fears that Pine Tree will tread upon Native American burial grounds.

But there’s also a lot to like about the wind project, including its place in the DWP’s portfolio, which has so far remained stubbornly tied to coal-fired power generated in neighboring states. If it goes online as planned next spring, it will power close to 60,000 homes with 120 megawatts of power, all of it owned and controlled by the DWP. It will be the largest municipally owned wind farm in the country, and it will help the DWP meet its Los Angeles City Council–mandated portfolio standard of 20 percent renewable-source power by 2017. The original 21,500-acre study area has been whittled down to 8,000 acres, all of it on private land leased to the DWP by the Hansen Family Wilderness Ranch. It sits close to existing transmission lines, and the winds in the hilly valleys where the turbines will be sited blow steady most of the year at about 11 to 45 mph. Of a little more than 100 possible Indian cultural sites identified by the tribal elders who consulted the DWP in its early studies, only a few remain within the development area, and all will be avoided during construction.

As for the scenic beauty of the region, “I’ve been to the site and I’ve been to Yosemite,” says DWP Chief Operating Officer Henry Martinez, “and the only thing I’ll say about the two is that there are some nice rolling hills in Kern County. It would be a stretch to compare the two.”

The birds, however, remain an issue. On June 1, the Los Angeles and Kerncrest chapters of the Audubon Society did just as Bragg promised, and filed suit in Kern County Superior Court against the DWP and its board of commissioners, alleging that the utility violated the California Environmental Quality Act when it ratified an inadequately prepared report.

In addition to underestimating potential aesthetic and air-quality issues, the suit states, the DWP’s studies focused almost exclusively on resident eagles and hawks, ignoring the smaller birds — the passerines — headed north for the summer. Martinez says he’s puzzled by the suit, which comes even after the DWP agreed in writing to relocate any turbines that prove lethal to birds. “Evidently they didn’t accept that was a gesture of good will, or a sign that we’re willing to work with them,” he says. “We felt all the issues had been adequately addressed.”

“I want you to see the gall of that formula,” says Audubon’s lawyer, Andrew Lichtman. “They’re not saying we’ll close down the whole field or all the turbines if we’re killing birds in a way we didn’t anticipate. They’re only saying we’ll close the turbines that are killing disproportionately more. That won’t help a single thing. It’s a jaded, cynical view of what it would take to protect birds.”

Lichtman says Audubon wants sound scientific studies. “Several years ago at Altamont, they found — surprise, surprise — they were killing golden eagles. That was a complete shock to the whole industry, because no one had done any work to anticipate the problem. Everybody’s playing catch-up on raptors. Now we want them to start looking at songbirds.”

Since biologists began counting bird deaths at the Altamont Wind Resource Area in 1988, the wind farm’s bloody avian legacy has slowly evolved into the wind industry’s Three Mile Island, stalling wind projects in some places and halting further development at Altamont. In a recent report, the California Energy Commission estimated that Altamont’s 5,400 turbines in Alameda County kill between 1,766 and 4,721 birds a year. The pass has been branded an “ecological sink” for the golden eagle, which dies there in greater numbers than the habitat can support.

Bird kills at fields like Altamont’s leave the wind industry vulnerable to attacks by the coal and gas lobby, which has been eager to capitalize on every environmentally motivated complaint against wind. Last week, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) offered an amendment to the energy bill that would deny federal tax credits to any wind farm built within 20 miles of a national park, on the grounds that the towers could threaten the vistas of such national treasures as Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Ironically, Great Smoky consistently suffers from the thickest smog in the national-parks system due to its proximity to Tennessee’s seven coal-fired power plants — an issue Alexander has never breathed a word against. The amendment was defeated, but next time around, for the sake of his state’s coal, Alexander could well become a bird fanatic, and his argument might gain some traction.

Or it might not: For the most part, wind has enjoyed bipartisan support in the federal government, which currently rewards new wind-energy projects with a 1.5-cent-per-kilowatt production tax credit, a kickback that has now been extended through the end of 2005 (and will likely be extended through the end of 2006 as well). And wind’s advocates insist a lot has been done in the last two decades to design bird-friendly turbines. I recently met Dale Strickland, vice president and senior ecologist with Western EcoSystems Technology in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on a ranch outfitted with wind power in the mountains near Evanston, Wyoming. On the side of a hill where we took shelter from a persistent breeze, Strickland, a consultant on natural-resource and wildlife issues, detailed some of the reasons for bird (and bat) mortality in turbine blades and explained how the new machines were different.

“Those early turbines typically were on lattice towers,” he said. “And some of them were not only lattice, but they also had horizontal bars within the lattice structure, so they provided a perfect perching ledge for birds.” Also, older turbines had gearboxes, called “nacelles,” set upwind of the propellers. When a bird lands on an upwind nacelle and later lifts off, it literally glides into the blades. The turbines in Wyoming, by contrast, were set on smooth, tubular towers, with nacelles downwind of the propellers. While Strickland talked, as if on cue, a bird approached a nearby turbine, slowed and hovered for a moment, and then expertly negotiated a safe route between the whooshing propellers.

“That was a kestrel,” Strickland told me later in a phone conversation. “It’s one of the species we worry about — one that commonly gets whacked in wind plants.” Whether a songbird — or even a different kind of raptor — would so capably choose the same trajectory remains a matter of speculation, but the serendipitous flight of this particular hawk at least made it seem possible that, with some ingenuity and forethought, birds and wind energy can coexist.

Lichtman says he hopes that’s what the science confirms, but first the “DWP has to stop obfuscating” the lack of songbird studies in their environmental reports. “We don’t want to say, ‘Satisfy us or your whole wind project will go to hell,’ ” he says, “because environmental groups are trying to get the power companies to stand for something that’s important for other conservation goals. But maybe we can get them to think about all the other wind farms coming down the pike.” And who knows? Maybe when the science is in, “they’ll work up some good solutions,” says Lichtman, “like towers that make owl noises. But no one’s really done the studies to come up with anything like that.”

June 28, 2005

Hunters fight for desert 'guzzlers'

By Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

BARSTOW - A simmering battle over desert water tanks once used by range cattle is pitting hunting and wildlife groups against environmentalists.

Hunters of big and small game in the Mojave National Preserve claim it is vital to retain artificial watering sites in a 600,000-acre area in Lanfair Valley, near Needles, but two environmental groups say the water holes actually will harm wildlife.

Scores of hunters, wildlife advocates and conservationists gathered here Monday to include their views in an environmental assessment being prepared by the National Park Service.

"The assessment will outline our proposal to convert 12 former ranch wells into guzzlers over a three-year period," said Larry Whalon, the preserve's chief of resources.

Comments will be accepted on the plan until Oct. 31 at the preserve's headquarters at 2701 Barstow Road, in Barstow.

Hunters want to turn the wells into artificial water sites called "wildlife drinkers" or "guzzlers" to provide water for the preserve's mule deer, bighorn sheep and game birds. But environmentalists claim the park's exising 133 guzzlers are sufficient.

A decision by the Park Service to convert the former wells into artificial watering sites prompted a lawsuit by two environmental groups in March.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility went to court to block the plan, claiming it would harm wildlife and violated Park Service policy.

The two groups contend the additional drinkers or guzzlers would dry up natural springs and wetlands, attract predatory ravens, and sustain non-native burros.

The Park Service reversed course, and blocked conversion of the ranch wells until environmental issues are reviewed.

"Congress allows carefully-managed hunting in the preserve, but this proposal to uncap the ranch wells is a game farm concept ... (and) an attempt to manipulate the web of life," said Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity.

"Bighorn sheep have lived in the east Mojave a lot longer than artificial water sites. They have survived because of natural springs and riparian areas, and we would like to focus on the restoration of springs and streams."

Ken Schwartz, spokesman for the 50,000-member Safari Club International, said artificial water sources provide water for a wide variety of animals and birds, not just game creatures.

"This issue is about conservation, and protecting wildlife," he said. "It's not just an issue of game animals. Some of these water sources are known to provide water for as many as 90 desert animals. Of those, only 10 or 12 were allowed to be hunted."

Lifelong hunter Cliff McDonald of Needles said the water sites are vital for all wildlife in the 1.6-million-acre national preserve. "There are about 113 guzzlers for small animals in the east Mojave but none for large animals," he said.

"In a 20-square-mile area in Lanfair Valley, there is no year-round water (for big game)."

Wells in the east Mojave were capped off four to five years ago when land was transferred from private ranchers to the national preserve.

"All of the casings still exist at the 12 ranch wells, and we want to recap them," said Needles City Councilman Pat Murch. "This will provide a guaranteed water source for wildlife. It's not a hunters' issue, it's a wildlife issue."

Andrew Pauli state wildlife biologist from Apple Valley, said various volunteer groups ranging from Quail Unlimited to the Society for Conservation of Bighorn Sheep assist the California Fish and Game Department in well maintenance.

But well closings are compounding the problem to sustain desert wildlife. "About 125 water sources, many fed by pipes from a major well, have been shut off the past five years," Pauli said.

Park service water proposal draws interest

Desert Dispatch [Barstow, CA]

BARSTOW -- An estimated 75 people from all over the region gathered in Barstow Monday evening to give their input on the controversial topic of artificial watering sources in the Mojave National Preserve.

The National Park Service's meeting at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites was part of the public scoping process for a proposal to bring former ranchers' well systems back online.

Hunters and environmentalists generally disagree on the artificial water issue.

The 12 wells would furnish water that would be accessible to a variety of animals, most likely via wildlife drinkers, Larry Whalon, chief of resources for the Mojave National Preserve, said.

Hunting groups have been pushing for the preserve to restore the water that the ranchers' wells had provided until the ranchers moved in recent years and removed their well equipment.

However, attendees said the push to restore the well systems isn't just about providing water for game to benefit hunters.

"It's for the preservation of the wildlife that's out there," said Walt Zielinski, a 71-year-old Apple Valley resident who attended the meeting.

Ken Schwartz, Safari Club International's state governmental affairs and communications manager, said his group and the other supporters of the water proposal want to help more than just game animals.

Animals that can't even be hunted will benefit from restored water sources, he said.

The Park Service initially was going to convert some former well systems into guzzlers, but the agency faced opposition from environmental groups and backed off on the plan this spring.

Environmental groups fault artificial water sources for attracting ravens, a predator of the desert tortoise, and they blame guzzlers for the deaths of tortoises due to the reptiles getting trapped in them.

Last year, the Park Service cleaned more than 30 guzzlers in the preserve and discovered in them the remains or shells of 13 tortoises.

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a lawsuit in March asking that the guzzler proposal be reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act.

In early April, the Park Service rescinded its prior approval of the guzzler plan and agreed to move ahead with environmental review of the artificial water source issue.

Unlike guzzlers -- watering holes that animals must walk into -- wildlife drinkers are raised off the ground and wouldn't pose a threat to desert tortoises, Whalon said.

Still, Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, didn't attend the meeting but said in a phone interview Monday that his group doesn't want the preserve run like a game farm.

"We support hunting on the preserve, but it needs to be managed consistently with the values of a national preserve," he said. "This isn't an issue of water versus no water. It's about using these agricultural wells that are supposed to stay off."

Patterson said his group would like to see a preserve-wide environmental impact statement addressing water, with an emphasis on the restoration of natural springs.

He also said there's an abundance of water in the preserve now, and he'd like to see the Park Service catch up on its maintenance backlog of existing guzzlers before moving ahead with any additional artificial watering sources.

One hunter who attended the meeting, 61-year-old Ray Osgood of San Diego County, said he's strongly in favor of getting the wells back online, and prefers wildlife drinkers over guzzlers.

Many birds can access drinkers better than they can guzzlers, he said.

Hunters' and sportsmen's groups represented at the meeting included Safari Club International, Quail Unlimited, Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep and the California Deer Association.

Safari Club International supports the restoration of the 12 wells, Schwartz said.

"Those animals have relied on (the wells) for over 100 years," Schwartz said. "They've come to know that's where they can go to get a drink. When that's taken away, it's a shock to their system."

The Park Service is preparing an environmental assessment document for the proposal, and a draft of the document will be available by Sept. 1.

Kippy Poulson, a 61-year-old Needles resident who supports the restoration of the well systems, couldn't attend Monday's meeting but said in a phone interview that she's hoping the Park Service will install wildlife drinkers.

The drinkers Poulson would like to see draw from an underground storage system, and they would benefit wildlife like bighorn sheep, deer, foxes and quail.

June 27, 2005

Unnatural disasters: 'We will spend whatever is necessary'

Fire costs escalating

San Bernardino Sun
By Guy McCarthy, Staff Writer

It cost fire agencies more than $5.2 million to fight three major blazes ignited Wednesday in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Nearly half that cash was spent battling the Hackberry Complex Fire in the remote and sparsely populated Mojave National Preserve.

A $5.2 million bill for less than a week of firefighting may sound like a lot. But it's a pittance compared to recent fire seasons in Southern California, one of the nation's most inferno-prone regions and home to unprecedented housing booms encroaching ever further into fire country.

"That's one of the complications of civilization,' said Santa Barbara County fire Capt. Steve Kliest, who worked the Hackberry Complex Fire on Monday. "With communities spreading into these wilderness areas, we have to protect the homes. And it's costly.'

During the height of the 2003 fire season, the U.S. Forest Service spent $100 million on 10 days of firefighting in Southern California alone. The Forest Service averaged $75 million per season in the region during the past five years, said Vallejo-based Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes.

While state agencies such as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection cope with limited annual budgets, federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management have access to virtually unlimited congressional cash if it is needed.

The CDF budget for fire protection statewide for 2005-06 is $748 million, Sacramento-based CDF spokesman Michael Jarvis said. CDF also has $95 million in emergency funding set aside.

"Bottom line, BLM dispatches the level of resources crews, aircraft, equipment determined by the personnel in charge of any given fire,' said Janet Bedrosian, a BLM spokeswoman in Sacramento. "They tally costs as they go against appropriations funded by Congress.

"When those costs are expended, bills are paid from other accounts, or new funds are appropriated by Congress as needed, either during the fires or at the beginning of the next fiscal year to make up for other funds spent on fires,' Bedrosian said.

"We will spend whatever is necessary to protect lives and property.'

The federal BLM had spent $2.3 million on firefighting in California so far this year as of Sunday, Bedrosian said.

Federal guarantees of unlimited firefighting funds help developers and pro-growth elected officials continue to sell the myth of the Southern California dream that fuels mass migration to the region, said fire ecologist Richard Minnich, based at UC Riverside.

"There's a big difference between fighting fire in a consolidated city with paved streets and blocks, compared to the wildland fuel-scape that we're building into more and more,' Minnich said. "People living in these areas unrealistically expect the same fire protection, and Congress fuels that with unlimited cash.'

The message to property owners and new homeowners translates all too often into a soothing subsidy of risky lifestyle choices, Minnich said. People who a hundred years ago either would never live in such fire-prone country or would pay for their own fire protection now rely on state- and federal-funded services.

"They say, 'I can live in a lake of gasoline and expect to be protected,'' Minnich said. "The government encourages land-use sprawl into wildlands through FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), getting people money to rebuild in these landscapes of gasoline. Where's it going to end?'

The Hackberry Complex Fire in the Mojave National Preserve cost $2.3 million as of Monday afternoon. Federal authorities said the fire was 95 percent contained Monday morning, but about 950 firefighters were still working.

Final costs of fighting the Paradise Fire in Morongo Valley and the Soboba Fire near San Jacinto in Riverside County totaled $2.9 million. Hundreds of structures were threatened in more densely populated communities nearby.
Cost estimates for the region's largest blazes so far this fire season, as of Monday afternoon:

Hackberry Complex Fire: More than 70,600 acres burned, including natural and cultural resources. Five homes, six trailers and other structures destroyed. Wednesday through present. COST: $2.3 million.

Paradise Fire, Morongo Valley: 3,022 acres burned. Six homes destroyed, one damaged. Wednesday through Saturday. COST: $1.2 million.

Soboba Fire, San Jacinto: 2,080 acres burned. No homes or structures destroyed. Wednesday through Saturday. COST: $1.7 million.

Mojave fire draws shock, anger

Flames consume 67,000 acres and destroy five residences and two cabins built in the 1800s

Frank Sparks Looks over what's left of his four-bedroom house in Round Valley after it was consumed by the Mojave National Preserve wildfire.
Photo submitted by Richard MacPherson

Daily Press, Victorville, CA

"The old way is being destroyed," Dennis Casebier said.

He remembers the "old way." Days when cattle grazed, juniper and pinyon pine trees flourished, and deer drank from water drawn from beneath the parched desert floor by ranchers. In the last week fire has swept through more than 67,000 acres of the 1.4 million acre Mojave National Preserve destroying much of the old.

Dry grasses here in what used to be the heart of cattle country were ignited by lightning Wednesday and converged into one across a massive area between Interstates 15 and 40 east of the Nevada border. The fire has scorched a path from the Gold and the Round valleys on the west along the New York Mountains on the north to the edge of the Lanfair Valley to the east, said Greg Cleveland, spokesman for the Southern California Interagency Incident Management Team One.

"We haven't seen a fire of this extent for centuries," said Robert Fulton, executive director of the California State University Desert Study Center at Zzyzx Road. "Those of us in the know knew that this was going to be a high fire risk year."

As of Sunday afternoon five residences were lost, two cabins built in the 1800s and six trailers/structures and additional outbuildings were destroyed. "A couple of those buildings that were burned were historical sites, ranch sites from the 1800s," Cleveland said.

Evacuations were still in affect for the Round Valley and Fourth of July Canyon areas. Determinations on letting residents back in those areas will be made Monday, Cleveland said. At the height of the fire more than 1,000 firefighters and numerous apparatus including half a dozen helicopters were brought to bear on the flames, which late Sunday were 65 percent contained. Officials anticipated 100 percent containment by Monday night.

The fire started and remained in lands above 4,000 feet. Of concern to firefighters were abandoned mine shafts and unexploded ordinances left behind by troops training for World War II. As of late Sunday there were no reports of injury, Cleveland said.

Many residents expressed anger toward park management. "It's National Park Service management," said Casebier, executive director of the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association, which owns 640 acres lost to fire in Gold Valley and additional acreage scattered throughout the preserve. "They have gotten rid of the cattle out here as fast as they could. They got rid of all the burros and now they have shut off the water. There is a price to pay for all this and now we are payin' it."

Others see it as nature's way.

"When you take cattle off the range the fuels grow and it increases your fire potential. That is a fact, but we had a 100-year rain this year therefore we had a 100-year fire. Everyone wants to point their finger and say this is someone's fault," said Kate Blair, whose family runs the last remaining ranch within the preserve — on 350,000 acres a hundred miles east of Barstow. "There could have been thousands of cattle here and the same thing would have happened. It is just one of those acts of nature — those acts of God — it just blew up so fast they couldn't get the resources on it fast enough."

Frank Sparks owns 10 acres of land 6,000 feet above sea level in the Round Valley. "This fire has just devastated people," he said. Lost to the flames was his four-room house, trailer, water tanks and several out buildings. He estimated his losses at $50,000, but could only express sorrow for the loss of all that surrounded his property.

"Twenty- to 30-foot pinyon pines and junipers and there is nothing there now. It will take at least 100 years for it to grow back with trees and stuff," Sparks said.

Like many other residents of the preserve he blames the park service, which took over control of the preserve more than a decade ago from the Bureau of Land management, for the devastation.

"I was kind of pissed off at the park service. They have had the attitude that the original people that are there shouldn't be there and they have tried to buy everybody out," Sparks said. "Their theory is it is Mother Nature's fire, but now they have just about terminated all the animal life, the bird life, the turtle life in the Eastern Mojave."

Sixty-year-old Richard MacPherson planned on retiring on his 80 acres in the Round Valley, about eight miles from Hole in the Wall, but now his dream has turned to ash. "The whole thing has just blown us away so bad," MacPherson said.

He estimated his losses at well over $100,000. The total includes a mobile home, two cargo containers, a tractor, generators and solar panels.

When he and his wife visited the property Friday, the scene was one of utter devastation. "The juniper and sage brush are all gone. It will never be (replaced) in my and my grandson's lifetime. They grow very, very slowly," he said.

Fulton, who owns 40 acres in the preserve, said about one-fifth of his property was scathed. In areas were the fire moved slowly and burnt into the roots the junipers won't return for hundreds of years, he said.

"If the fuel load was not too substantial and swept through many of the trees at least in part will survive," he said. "It is going to be a mixed bag in areas where everything will be burned off and take decades to recover." How animals, such as the Desert Tortoise fared, will have to wait until after the smoke clears and studies undertaken, he said.

Though fire of this magnitude is rare here the risk of even greater fire looms. Many areas of the preserve are still green and have yet to dry in the summer heat. "We haven't even started the fire season," Casebier said. "I felt sure we would have a disaster before the season was over, but I never thought it would come before the fire season."

June 26, 2005

Large blaze in Mojave National Preserve destroys 67,000 acres

San Francisco Chronicle - San Francisco, CA

Kelso, Calif. (AP) -- Mild winds and steep terrain have helped slow a 67,000-acre wildfire in a southeastern California wilderness preserve that destroyed five homes and two cabins built in the late 1800s, officials said Sunday.

Firefighters had surrounded most of the blaze, which was 65 percent contained in the Mojave National Preserve. They made good progress after a cold front moved in with winds that were not as strong as expected, said Capt. Greg Cleveland, a spokesman with the Southern California Incident Management Team.

"The weather today helped out a lot," Cleveland said. "It was still hot but the winds were mild. And the humidity was still low but it wasn't down in the single digits."

Officials expected the fire to be 100 percent contained by 6 p.m. Monday.

The large fire formed after lightning sparked five separate blazes Wednesday afternoon near the Nevada state line. Those eventually merged and were burning at the edges of critical territory for the threatened desert tortoise. A federal biologist walked the burned area Saturday to determine how the fire had affected the animals, but did not find any live or dead tortoises, officials said.

More than 900 firefighters working in rocky terrain were battling the blaze in an area north of Interstate 40 and south of Interstate 15. It was fueled by grass, sagebrush, juniper and pinyon pine stands made unusually dense by heavy winter rains. Six trailers or other structures also were destroyed.

The fire scorched sections of the preserve containing historic mines and sites of ancient Indian pictographs, but the extent of the damage to such places was unknown.

"It definitely burned into a lot of those areas," Cleveland said.

Evacuations were maintained Sunday in the Round Valley and Fourth of July Canyon areas, where about a dozen people had residences, officials said.

Crews Make Headway Against Fires Raging in Mojave National Preserve

The five blazes are 65% contained after burning 65,200 acres and razing five homes, six trailers.

By Louis Sahagun, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

A group of fires in the eastern Mojave Desert was 65% contained Saturday after burning about 65,200 acres of dry brush and destroying five homes and six trailers, authorities said.

About 935 firefighters from throughout the state battled the five fires, which were started by lightning Wednesday in the sprawling Mojave National Preserve about 40 miles west of the Nevada border, said Capt. Greg Cleveland of the Southern California Incident Management Team.

"This was the largest fire on record within the 1.6-million acre preserve," he said. "The fire behavior we experienced on Thursday, when we had strong southwesterly winds, was almost explosive."

The fires charred vast expanses of grass, sagebrush and pinyon in remote, rocky terrain in the preserve, which includes historic vertical mine shafts and unexploded ordnance dating to World War II, he said.

"Firefighters made good progress Saturday because the winds were not as strong as expected," Cleveland said. "We only had one minor injury: a pulled hamstring."

Also Saturday, a fire in the Santa Clarita area charred about 125 acres and was 100% contained.

About 100 firefighters attacked the blaze northwest of Val Verde Park and southwest of Castaic. There were no reports of injuries or damaged structures.

Separately, two fires in San Bernardino and Riverside counties that together burned 5,100 acres were fully contained Saturday, fire officials said.

In San Bernardino County, the Paradise fire in Morongo Valley, about 20 miles north of Palm Springs, destroyed six houses and damaged another.

"We will be doing minor mop-up and patrolling over the next few days," said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Capt. Steve Faris. "But this fire is pretty much out."

In Riverside County, the Soboba fire near San Jacinto burned 2,080 acres.

One firefighter battling that blaze hurt his knee, and another had abdominal pain. No structures were damaged.

June 25, 2005

Hackberry Complex Fire racing towards Nevada

By Nikki Cobb, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

KELSO - The 65,200-acre fire sweeping across the Mojave National Preserve was racing toward Nevada Saturday night as fire officials worried that a change in the weather could bring winds gusting up to 45 mph.

More than 930 firefighters battling the Hackberry Complex Fire were hindered by 90-degree temperatures, 8-percent humidity, steep, rocky terrain and strong breezes as they struggled to beat back the fire Saturday, which by nightfall was 65 percent contained.

"This is definitely the biggest fire ever in the east Mojave,' said Park Ranger Linda Slater.

A thunderstorm that swept across the preserve on Wednesday afternoon had started five fires with multiple lightning strikes, Park Ranger Ruby Newton said.

At first, the fires were isolated. The Hackberry, the Wild Horse, the Ranch, the Brandt and the Narrows fires all burned separately.

The Hackberry fire was fully contained Saturday evening, and crews were mopping up. The Brandt, another isolated blaze, was mostly contained too, Newton said.

"There's not much fire burning at that place now,' she said.

But the Ranch, the Wild Horse and the Narrows fires have merged, and were burning steadily Saturday evening in a blaze called the Hackberry Complex.

Fire officials fear that a cold front, expected to blow through Saturday night, will change the wind's direction from north-northeast to southwest.

"The front could bring us winds that gust up to 45 miles per hour,' said Capt. Chris Hoover of the Kern County Fire Department. "We've had some pretty good breezes, particularly on the north side. But we haven't had to deal with those kinds of winds yet.'

Meanwhile, the Paradise Fire was 100 percent contained Saturday after having charred 3,022 acres near Yucca Valley.

In the Mojave National Preserve, the blazes have burned five houses, six trailers and several outbuildings, Hoover said. There were 30 to 40 homes threatened as well.

About a dozen people were evacuated from their homes in Round Valley, Fourth of July Canyon and Cedar Canyon. Mid Hills Campground was damaged in the fire as well, Slater said.

The fire is not expected to reach Interstate 15.

The Mojave National Preserve contains ecological treasures, and firefighters were mindful particularly of habitat for the threatened desert tortoise, Hoover said.

Fortunately for the tortoise, the fire is mostly burning at higher elevations than the hole-dwelling creatures live. Still, efforts are being made to minimize damage.

"We're trying to use water as much as we can, to avoid staining things with flame retardant,' he said. "We're trying to make as little impact as we can.'

Firefighters are also battling to save cultural sites, such as ranches and mining cabins built in the 1860s.

"There are mine shafts around there that pose another hazard for the firefighters,' Slater said. "It would be easy for them to fall in and get hurt.

"We don't want to lose anybody.'

The fire is burning pinyon pine, juniper and sagebrush, Slater said.

She said that though winter rains had brought spectacular displays of flowers this spring, they had also fed grasses that carpeted the desert. Those grasses have dried and are fueling the fire.

"When we don't have a lot of rain there's nothing to burn, so a fire jumps from one shrub to the next,' she said. "Now it's just sweeping across.'

By nightfall, though, fire officials were encouraged. Cooler temperatures had helped firefighters considerably. "We're making some progress,' Slater said. "We're real hopeful."

June 24, 2005

Fires burn in Mojave National Preserve

Desert Dispatch [Barstow, CA]

About 250 firefighters are battling four fires, one of them encompassing 8,000 acres, on sparsely populated national parklands east of Barstow.

Lightning started the fires in the Mojave National Preserve Wednesday, preserve ranger Linda Slater said. It could take several days to contain the fires, she said.

As of early Thursday evening, there had been no evacuations, but cabins in the Round Valley might need to be need to be evacuated, Slater said. Roughly 40 cabins are there, about a dozen of them occupied, she said.

The fires are a little more than 100 miles from Barstow.

The largest fire is in the Hackberry Mountains, about 15 miles north of Interstate 40, west of Ivanpah Road.

The other fires are in the heart of the preserve along Black Canyon Road north of the Mitchell Caverns and south of Cedar Canyon Road.

Two of them burning between Black Canyon Road and Wild Horse Canyon Road could merge together, Slater said.

A fifth fire that had started Wednesday had been extinguished by Thursday evening.

Among the agencies working to fight the fires are the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service.

Tourists can still visit the preserve despite the fires, but Hole in the Wall and Mid Hills campgrounds are closed, and Black Canyon Road is closed.

Anyone planning to visit the preserve who needs information about how the fires might affect their trip can contact the preserve's Baker Information Center at (760) 733-4040.

The preserve encompasses about 1.6 million acres east of Barstow, most of it between Interstate 40 and Interstate 15.

June 21, 2005

Leaving the preserve

Longtime superintendent accepts new job

Desert Dispatch (Barstow, CA)

BARSTOW -- After a decade of overseeing a vast desert landscape, Mary Martin is heading north.

Martin, who has been the Mojave National Preserve's superintendent since it was brand-new in 1995, has accepted a job as the superintendent at Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California.

"I have mixed feelings as anyone would," Martin, who lives in Barstow, said. "I have a lot of friends here, and I love the desert. But Lassen's great ... In the Park Service, everyone has a wish list, and Lassen's long been on mine."

The Mojave National Preserve, with a staff of about 65, encompasses about 1.6 million acres east of Barstow, sandwiched between Interstate 40 and Interstate 15. The preserve's office is in Barstow.

At the helm of the preserve, Martin has worked on the restoration of the historic Kelso Depot and the construction of the National Park Service's new building in Barstow.

"I think the restoration and soon-to-be reopening of the Kelso Depot is a big achievement," Howard Gross, California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said. "It's going to be such an asset for the preserve, and such a gift to the region, to have that heritage preserved for future generations to enjoy."

James Woolsey, the Mojave National Preserve's chief of interpretation, credited Martin for helping get the federal funding for the restoration by working well with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

He also said she's done a good job of helping coordinate the various projects that are part of the renovation.

Martin has also been involved with some of the controversial Park Service issues, like the retirement of ranchers' grazing allotments, the conflict over the Mojave Cross and disputes over guzzlers -- watering holes for wildlife -- in the preserve.

Some of the challenges of her job came with the territory because of the preserve being new, Gross said. He said he thinks she's had one of the toughest assignments in the Park Service.

"Typically, there are a lot of challenges when a new unit of the National Park Service is created," he said. "Lands that are transferred to the Park Service have been used for other purposes, and the Park Service's mission is one of greater conservation, and that presents challenges."

Martin, a 36-year veteran of the Park Service, said she'll still be in Barstow for another few months and will probably start her new job in early October. She said she plans to visit the preserve regularly even after she moves away.

June 14, 2005

National parks face problems

REPORT: Air pollution, non-native grasses and expanding suburbs are threatening resources.

By JENNIFER BOWLES / The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA)

Report Card
Overall conditions of natural resources, according to The National Parks Conservation Assocation:
Joshua Tree National Park: Fair
Mojave National Preserve: Poor
Death Valley National Park: Fair
To get a copy of the report: http://www.npca.org/stateoftheparks/californiadesert

National parks in the California desert rate fair at best when it comes to protecting their unique landscapes, historic buildings and cultural resources, according to a report issued by the National Parks Conservation Association, a watchdog group.

Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks along with the Mojave National Preserve face a litany of threats and a lack of funding to do much about them, the group said.

Wedged between burgeoning Southern California and the Las Vegas area, the parks are experiencing air pollution from urbanized areas, the spread of non-native grasses that increase the chance of fires, and swelling suburbs that could deplete the parks of water needed for wildlife, the group said.

"Certainly, you can't blame air quality on the lack of sufficient staff, said Howard Gross, the association's California desert program manager. "But you can say we don't even have an air-quality monitoring station in Mojave National Preserve to have a sense of what the problem is out there."

The goal of the report, Gross said, is to help highlight challenges, stimulate discussions and help guide future decisions of the parks, which were expanded under the 1994 California Desert Protection Act.

"Here we are a decade after the passage of one of the most important public-lands legislation," noted Gross. "It's a good time to look at where we want to be a decade from now."

Park managers didn't dispute the report's findings.

"We would be able to address many of the issues sooner if we were funded to the level that our business plan calls for," said Curt Sauer, Joshua Tree superintendent.

That plan notes the park's $4.2 million annual budget is short by $2.6 million, he said, adding that many parks and federal agencies are experiencing the same shortfall.

Help could be on the way. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, an author of the Desert Protection Act, recently co-sponsored new legislation that would allow Americans to give money to the National Park Service through a voluntary checkoff on their tax returns.

"It is absolutely critical that these parks receive the funding that they need so that we can preserve them for future generations," Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement about the desert parks.

In Joshua Tree, non-native plants have invaded the world-renowned climbing mecca, growing between the spindly Joshua Trees and other native plants and increasing the chance of fire.

"The fire is going to be able to run," Sauer said. Studies could help figure out how to prevent them from taking over the park, he said.

The Mojave National Preserve, which gets less than 50 percent of the funding needed, is facing questions over whether to use groundwater for hunting purposes and threats from the proposed airport 13 miles from its border in Nevada, said Larry Whalon, the preserve's resources chief.

"Those are the kinds of issues that are going to plague our night sky and air quality," he said.

Sauer said he hoped Joshua Tree could get more funding to gain a better understanding of its historical, geological and Native American resources.

"We need to capture what went on in the past before it goes away," he said. "It's part of our heritage."

Woman will vacate home

DESERT: Connie Connelly loses her fight with the National Park Service and is going to Wyoming.

By MICHAEL FISHER / The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, CA

Threatened with jail, a Mojave Desert woman has agreed to vacate her remote home of 32 years this week -- bound for land and a mobile home that the National Park Service bought for her in Wyoming.

"If I'm not out of here by (Friday), I am subject to arrest," said Connie Connelly , who was scrambling Monday to figure out a means of moving her belongings, 11 dogs, a cat and a horse from her rustic five-acre home within the windswept Mojave National Preserve.

Connelly has spent years battling efforts by the National Park Service to evict her from the venerable Ivanpah general store her family turned into a homestead in 1966. The house sits near the California stateline, about 23 miles from Primm, Nev.

At a hearing last week before a federal magistrate, prosecutors agreed that if Connelly leaves by 1 p.m. Friday , they will dismiss a trespassing charge pending against her, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles.

But if Connelly does not move by the deadline, prosecutors will instead seek a warrant for her arrest that afternoon, he said.

As long as she vacates her house, prosecutors will not object to her staying temporarily with friends on other property within the 1.6-million acre preserve if she cannot orchestrate the move by Friday, Mrozek said.

For Connelly, this week could mark the end of her long fight with National Park officials.

"I'm just frantic here," said Connelly, who is struggling to find vehicles to pull trailers loaded with her possessions and animals. "It's down to the wire."

Connelly, 44, says that her father bought their six-room house when her family moved from Hemet in the 1960s. She disputes a contention by park officials who say the family leased, but never owned the land that sits within the Mojave National Preserve, created in 1994.

Connelly's father died in 1990 and her mother died about three years ago.

Authorities argue that Connelly's name is not on the lease, and she is not entitled to live on the land.

Connelly was cited last year for allegedly trespassing on federal land. She pleaded not guilty and her trial, scheduled for last week, was delayed a month.

If convicted, she faces up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. Connelly said she ultimately had no choice but to agree to move.

Under a deal reached last year, the Park Service bought Connelly a double-wide mobile home on 3 acres near Lovell, Wy., about 145 miles east of Yellowstone National Park. Escrow closed earlier this year.

"It was a pretty extraordinary deal and the intention was for her to move to the property obtained for her by the federal government at some cost." Mrozek said.

But Connelly's plans to move stalled during the past several months as she struggled without success to obtain a health certificate needed to transport her horse to another state.

Connelly said she intends to leave in the coming days, if she can find help from friends or sympathizers who can aid her in transporting her belongings and animals to Wyoming.

June 1, 2005

Mojave National Preserve's preservation efforts criticized

Source: Center for the State of the Parks: Park Assessments

California Desert

Published June 2005

View full report: http://www.npca.org/stateoftheparks/californiadesert/californiadesert.pdf

Current overall conditions of the Mojave National Preserve’s known natural resources rated a “poor” score of 59 out of 100. The loss of critical habitat because of historic grazing and recreational activities (principally, off-road vehicle use) as well as isolation associated with increased transportation corridors and traffic density between Los Angeles and Las Vegas are high-ranking resource protection threats at the preserve. Additionally, nonnative species, mining-related releases of hazardous materials, air and light pollution, and continued grazing are prominent concerns for the preserve’s natural resources.

Overall conditions of the park’s known cultural resources rated 50 out of a possible 100, indicating “poor” conditions. Mojave National Preserve is a relatively new addition to the National Park System, and is the first national preserve assessed by the State of the Parks program. The fledgling cultural resource program at Mojave National Preserve has accomplished much planning work and archaeological site documentation in the last three years, but additional staff and resources are needed to further stewardship efforts. For example, the preserve currently lacks staff to care for museum and archival collections and develop relationships with traditionally associated groups of people.


Mojave National Preserve would benefit from the services of a term historian to complete historical research to provide park contexts for mining, structures, and cultural landscapes.

Mojave National Preserve also would benefit, as would the other California desert parks, from a shared historic preservation crew to inspect, monitor, and perform preventive maintenance on park structures.

None of the objects in Mojave National Preserve’s small museum collection have been catalogued, and a management plan is needed.

Funding is needed for specialists to help update the Cultural Landscape Inventory for the Kelso Depot, and the Mojave Road needs to be surveyed for the Cultural Landscape Inventory and nominated for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.


State of the Parks researchers assessed and assigned scores to cultural resource conditions at Mojave National Preserve. Categories included history, ethnography (peoples and cultures), historic structures, archaeology, and archive and museum collections. The scores for cultural resources are based on the results of indicator questions that reflect the National Park Service’s own Cultural Resource Management Guideline and other policies related to cultural and historical resources.

The assessments rated the overall conditions of cultural resources at Mojave National Preserve as 50. This score indicate that cultural resources are in poor condition at Mojave National Preserve. Prominent factors influencing the ratings are funding and staffing shortfalls that limit cultural resource protection activities.


Completed or ongoing historical research at Mojave National Preserve includes a transportation study, town site study, historic resource studies on the region’s ranching history, and a railroad history that is part of a historic structure report on the Kelso Depot. The preserve also has an administrative history that was completed in March 2003, and an overview of the preserve’s mining history will commence in 2005. Regional Park Service historians and consultants complete most of this research.

Local citizens hold a wealth of information on the region’s history. Productive collaboration with these people benefits the preserve and strengthens ties with the local community. Additional historical research would help park staff understand Mojave National Preserve’s historic context and help them develop more interpretive tools to teach visitors about the preserve’s history. Mining, military, and historic landscape studies would contribute to evaluations of historic and cultural resources for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.


Zzyzx, Kelso Depot, Rock Springs Land and Cattle Company, and the Mojave Road are the park’s four identified landscapes. Other cultural landscapes likely exist, but staff have not had the time or the resources to systematically identify or evaluate potentially important landscapes throughout the preserve.

The Kelso Depot, the only landscape in the preserve that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was once a major railroad depot. Completed in 1924, the depot included a restaurant and employee boardinghouse. The depot closed in 1985, but it has recently been restored to its 1920s heyday and now houses a visitor information center that will re-open to the public in the fall of 2005.

Zzyzx was once a health resort and mineral springs built by self-proclaimed minister and doctor Curtis Springer and his wife, Mary Loise Berkebile. The two operated the resort from 1944 to 1974, when it was closed for food and drug violations and unauthorized use of federal land. The site has been officially evaluated for its significance and eligibility for listing in the National Register, but the California State Historic Preservation Office is not reviewing new National Register nominations because of a budget crisis. California State University, Fullerton, leases the buildings and land at Zzyzx to host its Desert Studies Center, and is actively involved in rehabilitation of the landscape.

The Mojave Road is the name given to a corridor that travelers used for centuries to cross the harsh desert. Springs and watering holes along the way provided critical water. American Indians traveled the corridor on trading expeditions, and the route was once a major thoroughfare that served military outposts, miners, settlers, and trappers. After the advent of steamships and trains, the Mojave Road became obsolete. However, it retains importance today because it teaches contemporary visitors about the history of transportation in the region. This landscape has not had a condition assessment and has not been formally recorded and evaluated.

As grazing leases have been retired, Mojave National Preserve has assumed responsibility for remaining ranching infrastructure, which is scattered over nearly 1 million acres. The Rock Springs Land and Cattle Company was the primary ranching company in the region between 1894 and 1927. With the onset of the Depression, the company was sold and its holdings divided into the OX, Kessler Springs, and Valley View ranches within the current preserve and the Walking Box Ranch just across the border in Nevada. Park Service regional staff recently completed a Cultural Landscape Inventory of the former Rock Springs territory, and this will be submitted with a nomination for National Register of Historic Places listing for the Rock Springs Land and Cattle Company National Historic District in 2005.

Mojave National Preserve’s staff do not have enough time or resources to work on stewardship of the preserve’s historic and cultural landscapes. Park Service landscape specialists are available at the regional level, but Mojave National Preserve cannot afford to pay for their services. These specialists are also in demand in many other parks, and regional funding for their services is dwindling.


In 2003, Mojave National Preserve’s List of Classified Structures contained about 77 entries. This list needs to be updated to include additional known structures such as the more than 100 structures Mojave National Preserve acquired when grazing leases were retired. Recent condition assessments of most of the listed historic structures found that 58 percent are in good condition. But in 2004, Park Service policy regarding the List of Classified Structures changed so that only those structures that have been formally determined to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places can be included on the list and thus benefit from preservation funding from certain sources. As a result of this policy change, Mojave National Preserve’s List of Classified Structures was reduced to a total of 12structures.

Mojave National Preserve does not have an annual historic structure monitoring program, and staff struggle to keep pace with preventive maintenance. The preserve’s maintenance staff perform some routine maintenance on historic structures, and regional Park Service staff, when available, assist with larger restoration and rehabilitation projects. If funding permits, Mojave National Preserve’s facility manager and other maintenance staff will obtain historic preservation training.

Several historic structures at the OX Ranch and Kessler Spring Ranch are being rehabilitated to house preserve staff. This will help alleviate Mojave National Preserve’s housing shortage and should facilitate resource protection since buildings that are used tend to receive regular maintenance attention. In addition, the Kelso schoolhouse and associated buildings have been stabilized and the Rock House has been rehabilitated. The Rock Springs Land and Cattle Co. Historic District is currently being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places.


Mojave National Preserve has never had any staff to care for museum or archival collections. As a result, none of the collection items has been catalogued and no condition assessments have been done. In addition, the park is meeting just 17 percent of Park Service museum collection standards. However, the park’s cultural resource manager believes that most collection items, which include library items, papers and photographic archives, and historic items from the Kelso Depot, are in good condition. Mojave National Preserve needs a temporary curator or archivist to help catalog its holdings and facilitate the efforts of researchers. A recent agreement with Joshua Tree will provide an upgrade to the park’s museum technician position to curator. At that time, Joshua Tree’s curator will oversee the Mojave National Preserve collections and train the existing cultural resources staff in how to carry out the more routine museum management activities.

Storage for museum objects is not an issue for Mojave National Preserve, partly because its collection is so small. Some of the park’s archaeological items are kept at the Western Archaeological Conservation Center in Tucson, and some Chemehuevi baskets are stored at Death Valley. Additionally, the park recently built a 600-square-foot collection storage facility as part of its new park headquarters in Barstow, more than 50 miles away from the boundaries of the preserve. This new facility has excellent security, shelving, and environmental controls.