September 30, 2005

U.S. House Votes to Revamp Endangered Species Act

Hundreds of critical habitats would be redesignated. Backers see better protection for landowners and species. An alternative plan dies.

By Johanna Neuman and Janet Wilson, Staff Writers
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives, in a major overhaul of the Endangered Species Act, voted Thursday to rescind existing protections on more than 150 million acres and to pay property owners whose land use is restricted because of an endangered species.

An alternative proposal, which would have offered incentives to landowners to help protect species on their property, failed to pass by 10 votes. Both eliminated the "critical habitat" provisions of the Endangered Species Act, with Democrats conceding that the litigation the law spawned had hurt its appeal.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where it may not be considered until next year. Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), a key subcommittee chairman, has said he would not favor eliminating the provisions requiring species protection in their critical habitats.

"If you gut the habitat, you're really gutting the act," he said.

In a daylong debate that included references to the glories of eco-tourism, biblical injunctions to preserve the creatures and the medicinal benefits of saving the Pacific yew tree, critics decried the compensation provision as an uncapped raid on the federal Treasury, while proponents accused environmentalists of putting bugs over people.

"We should protect endangered species, but not at the expense of our property owners," said Rep. Henry Brown Jr. (R-S.C.).

Countered Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.): "What is a fish without a river? …. What is an Endangered Species Act without protection?"

The vote was 229 to 193, with 34 Republicans opposed and 36 Democrats in favor. In the California delegation, Democrats Jane Harman of Venice and Barbara Lee of Oakland did not vote, while Democrats Joe Baca of Rialto, Dennis Cardoza of Atwater and Jim Costa of Fresno joined all the state's Republicans in voting for the bill. All other California Democrats were opposed.

Cardoza was one of the proposal's key sponsors.

"Nearly half my county is designated as critical habitat," he said after the vote. "They're basically taking farmlands. We're trying to create balance here."

The overhaul was a victory for Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), who has been fighting the Endangered Species Act, first enacted in 1973, since he was elected in 1992.

"I've been fighting this since I got here," said Pombo, author of a book advocating the primacy of property rights, "This Land is Your Land."

Pombo said the bill would cancel existing critical habitat protection for hundreds of plants and animals on both public and private land and would require new habitat designations by new teams of "stakeholders," including biologists, landowners, public officials and environmentalists. The U.S. secretary of Interior would have the final say.

Up to now, critical habitat determinations have been based on government findings, often in response to lawsuits brought by environmental groups.

Pombo acknowledged the new procedures would require redoing hundreds of existing critical habitat designations. "It is a do-over," he said.

He argued that the new approach would provide better protection for species as well as landowners.

Critics disagreed, saying the bill would threaten the survival of such creatures as the northern spotted and right whales, peninsular bighorn sheep, Steller sea lion and desert tortoise.

"Habitat destruction is the main cause of extinction," said Kieran Suckling, head of the Center for Biological Diversity. "This bill sends conservation back to the Stone Age."

Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), who proposed the alternative amendment, criticized Pombo over a last-minute amendment that Miller said "eviscerated" the protection for species.

Democrats agreed there was room for improvement — though they contested Republican arguments that the law, on the books for 32 years, had rescued 1% of the species identified as endangered. Instead, Democrats argued that the law had preserved 99% of the species because they had not gone extinct.

Several Democrats pointed to unexpected benefits of protecting endangered plants — including some that provide crucial ingredients in medicines used to treat illnesses.

"We can do better than the current law, but it's hard to do worse than the legislation being proposed," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who noted that the yew tree was a source for the breast-cancer drug Taxol. She also invoked the Bible's book of Psalms to remind members that God created the creatures "and in wisdom we should preserve and protect them."

Critics of the Republican overhaul said it would gut the protection that was already in trouble because of budgetary restraints. "This is a gun to the head, an attack on America's great heritage," said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who praised the economic benefits to his district of tourists coming to view "watchable wildlife."

Philip E. Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, called the legislation a "sweeping attack" on a major environmental law. "With plummeting poll numbers, an indicted leader, two hurricanes, a war and an exploding budget deficit, House members have now added outright repeal of a major environmental law to their list of political liabilities," he said.

Pombo was jubilant. "I think the vote today was great. It was a big victory."

As for the Senate, he said, "I will compromise and work out differences [on critical habitat and other areas] as I move forward. The one thing that has to be in the final bill is property owners need to be protected."

September 23, 2005


First Ten Years of the
Mojave National Preserve

Desert Report Fall 2005

Reflecting on ten years as Superintendent of Mojave National Preserve has been a pleasure and an opportunity for an assessment of the bigger picture, which sometimes get lost in the daily crises or forgotten over time. I thank each of you, those who made the preservation of this special place possible, for giving me this chance to reflect.

Early in 1995, along with Marv Jensen as Superintendent, six longtime National Park Service (NPS) employees showed up to manage a new 1.6 million acre national park unit. The myriad of tasks ranged from finding a headquarters location; becoming familiar with the resources; meeting neighbors, friends, landowners; launching the general management planning process; to hiring additional staff. In the fall of that first year Congress passed an Appropriations Act which would essentially return management of this new park unit to the Bureau of Land Management. The “limited edition” Presidential line-item veto prevented that occurrence.

In the spring of 1996, enough money was allocated for minimal staffing at Mojave. The emotions of staff ran high and, in defining what “success” might look like five years hence, the bar was rather low — we wanted Mojave to remain a part of our nation’s National Park System. As it turned out, we accomplished that and much more.

Livestock grazing has been long identified as one of the impacts which negatively affect the threatened desert tortoise. At the time of Mojave’s designation, 1.4 million acres were grazed.

The California Desert Protection Act provided for grazing to continue into perpetuity, while recognizing the interest of ranchers to sell their permits and ranching operations. Through the generosity of people who care deeply about resource preservation and in partnership with the National Park Foundation and ranchers who had been interested in selling their operation, livestock grazing has been reduced to 200,000 acres. Non-historic fence lines, tanks, troughs, structures have been removed and numerous sites restored. Historic features are being preserved and a nomination to place the ranching district on the National Registry of Historic Places is being developed.

When Mojave was designated a national park unit, 192,000 acres of private lands were within its boundary. Hundreds of individuals were interested in selling their land, yet no federal funds for acquisition were available. An expanded partnership provided private monies for acquisition, allowing preservation of these valuable resources for future generations. In ten years the National Park Service acquired more than 111,000 acres and went from owning only a few water rights to owning more than 125 appropriated water rights/springs. This successful program has now been expanded to include Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks.

Restoration of desert resources is occurring throughout the park and in a variety of ways. Retiring grazing provided the opportunity to remove 8,000 head of cattle. The burro removal/adoption program eliminated almost 4,000 animals.

The benefit to springs was immediately noticeable. The elimination of water diversion for grazing, with reducing burro impacts, resulted in an immediate regeneration of springs, increasing surface water, vegetation and wildlife.

Mining claims, which numbered over 9000 in 1994, have been reduced to approximately 400. A number of mining areas have been cleaned up, restored, and mitigated. A public-private partnership has been developed to detoxify and restore the Morningstar mine site, while returning $1 million of public funds used for emergency mitigation. Several arrests and convictions have occurred of individuals who were illegally dumping hazardous materials, poaching barrel cactus, baiting wildlife, and illegally collecting reptiles.

The Kelso Depot restoration is nearing completion. The building is complete. Interpretative exhibits should be installed by the time you read this and the last two contracts (landscaping and parking) have begun. The building is amazing and provides a unique opportunity for educating the public about our mission, natural and cultural resource preservation and recreation opportunities. Efforts to find a concessionaire to run the Beanery are underway.

Mojave has developed a professional science and research program and hired a Science Advisor at the park level, something only a few other parks have done. The benefit to the resource with our increased knowledge is exponential. Research has focused on surface and groundwater, the endangered tui chub, the threatened desert tortoise, desert bighorn sheep, climatic change, exotic plants, fire ecology, prehistoric human habitation, changing desert landscapes, etc. Cooperative agreements have been developed with the California State University system and University of California, Riverside (UCR). Through UCR we have contracted for research which resulted in the documentation of several new species of plants.

None of this would have been possible without the dedicated, professional staff working at Mojave. I have, indeed, been fortunate to work with an exceptional group of individuals. These folks give me confidence that the momentum and accomplishments of the last decade will be carried into the next.

Current Conditions: Mojave National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve conditions for September 23, 2005 posted on the National Park Service site:

Current Conditions

Mid Hills Camprground [sic] is closed due to a recent fire. Hole-in-the-Wall Campground is open. Mitchell Caverns is open.

Due to recent flood damage, Cedar Canyon Road, and Black Canyon Road between Cedar Canyon Road and Hole-in-the-Wall Campground, are open to high clearance and 4-wheel drive vehicles only. They are not recommended for passenger cars.

Wild Horse Canyon Road is closed.

The unpaved portion of Lanfair Road is open to 4-wheel drive traffic only.

The Mojave Road through Lanfair Valley has been severely eroded. Use caution.

Piute Springs: The fence around Piute Creek has been removed and the area is now open to the public. The Creek was fenced off one year ago after a fire destroyed plants growing in and along the stream. The closure gave streamside vegetation an opportunity to reestablish without trampling by people walking along the creek. Piute Springs is a popular 4-wheel drive destination accessable [sic] from Highway 95 on the east side of Mojave National Preserve.

Call 760 733-4040 daily, or 760 252-6101 on weekdays, for current information.

Fire Restrictions
Campfires and charcoal fires are prohibited, except at Hole-in-the-Wall Campground. Portable gas stoves are allowed. Please be careful with fire.

4-Wheel Drive trip: The Mojave Road. Originally part of a network of Indian trails, the route became a wagon road when the Army established a series of outposts across the desert in the 1860s. The road was the major route across the Mojave Desert until the arrival of the first railroad route in 1883. The Mojave Road bisects the Preserve from east to west. There are several access points. A guidebook is available at park information centers. Consult rangers for current road conditions.

Hackberry Complex Fires

On June 22, 2005, lightning sparked a number of fires in Mojave National Preserve, burning 70,736 acres. The fires, collectively called the Hackberry Complex, burned through the Hole-in-the-Wall and Mid Hills area and to the north as far as the southern end of the New York Mountains. A separate fire burned in the Hackberry Mountains.

Those visiting the burned area should be alert to new hazards. Dust is a significant problem, as ash from the fires combined with dust from heavily-used dirt roads limits visibility. Be careful around the skeletons of dead trees, as they can shift and fall. Abandoned mine sites may pose new hazards, as headframes and other structures may be unstable.

Mary Martin, Desert Heroine

by Elden Hughes
Desert Report Fall 2005

It was 1995 and I was showing Superintendent Mary Martin her park. Technically this was Mojave National Preserve and not a national park, but for us it always contained all the elements needed to become a national park.

We first toured the Mid Hills area and then drove south, stopped, and hiked to a Chemehuevi religious site. Returning to our cars we drove east, parked, and hiked to a wonderful panel of petroglyphs. These were spiritual encounters with the land and Mary Martin was perfectly attuned to them. She loved the hiking. She loved the land.

Building an infrastructure with one dollar

Mojave National Preserve was created by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. Congressional opponents of the Preserve briefly pegged the 1995 budget at $1. When one has only a single ranger (and he is on loan from another park) to patrol one and one-half million acres, management is an up hill battle. Mary Martin was equal to the task.

Martin built a proper budget. She built a proper staff. Then she went after every special fund she could find to do the jobs needing doing. She had been told by the Preserve’s former manager, the Bureau of Land Management, that there might be as many as 300 burros in the Preserve. Nearly 4,000 have now been removed. The ATT company wanted to remove an unused underground cable and proposed to come in and just rip up the cable and the land. Mary made them do it right and restore the land.

Kelso Depot restored

Kelso Depot stood in the middle of the Preserve. It was a relic from the ‘20s when trains with steam engines needed big crews to climb the Cima grade. It was a relic and a challenge. It would certainly be cheaper to build a visitor center from the ground up, rather than restore the Depot.

Martin accepted the challenge and Kelso Depot is now almost ready for its dedication. It only awaits the installation of its interior exhibits. It is beautiful. It is a visitor center to make proud any national park unit.

A sense of discovery

Martin worked well with the stakeholders of the Mojave, from cowboys to environmentalists, in-holders and the gateway communities. Martin, her staff, and her Citizens Advisory Council worked together to build a strong master plan.

One concept seemed to have universal acceptance. This park unit must allow visitors a sense of discovery. Every picture opportunity need not have a Kodak sign. In fact, none should. Let people wonder as they explore the extraordinary diversity of the Mojave. They can then return to the visitor center and find the books, exhibits, and docents to help one understand.

Martin becomes superintendent of Lassen National Park

For ten years, Mojave National Preserve of the National Park Service has been privileged to have Mary Martin as Superintendent. She will now move on for she has been assigned to be Superintendent of Lassen National Park. We will miss her. The Mojave National Preserve is special and Mary Martin is special. Any person has to be special who each Christmas Day with her family climbs Kelso Dunes.

In the accompanying article (see page 3) Mary describes her special moments while serving as Superintendent of Mojave National Preserve.

September 21, 2005

Court deals blow to landfill plans

The judge voids a needed BLM acreage swap. LA County's trash may go elsewhere.

The Press-Enterprise

A federal judge struck down a land exchange needed to allow one of the nation's largest landfills to be built near Joshua Tree National Park and filled by Los Angeles County garbage.

The judge, in a long-awaited ruling issued Tuesday, said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management failed to consider all of the potential environmental consequences of permitting a landfill on the 3,481 acres that the federal agency traded to Ontario-based Kaiser Ventures. The property surrounds Kaiser's closed iron-ore pits, which would be the core of the landfill operation.

The company, in exchange, gave the bureau 2,486 acres of private land scattered throughout the Riverside County desert.

"The court concludes the BLM's record of decision was arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with law," U.S. District Judge Robert J. Timlin said in his 26-page opinion.

Timlin said the bureau failed to fully investigate how a landfill might affect bighorn sheep and the desert ecosystem. He also indicated that the BLM undervalued the land traded to Kaiser.

BLM and Kaiser spokesmen said they are not sure what will happen next.

"We'll make a determination of exactly what that (ruling) means and how we'll proceed from here," said the BLM's Doran Sanchez.

Terry Cook, a Kaiser spokesman, said it could take months to figure out whether the project can survive without the land swap. A company subsidiary, Mine Reclamation Corp. of Palm Desert, is the landfill developer.

"Frankly, we're taken aback by the decision," Cook said. But he added, "This project has faced legal and other challenges over the years and has always ultimately come out ahead."

Although Los Angeles County bought the landfill from Kaiser for $41 million, the final sale was contingent on the resolution of legal challenges and the money continues to be held in escrow, said John Gulledge, head of the LA County sanitation districts' solid-waste-management department.

"I can't see how the project can move ahead at this time and place," he said. "They (Kaiser) have to deliver a project with no court challenges and all the permits."

Cook said he fears Timlin's ruling could endanger several landfill-related permits issued by county, state and federal agencies.

The land swap needed to develop the open-pit mines into a landfill was challenged in two lawsuits filed five years ago by the National Parks and Conservation Association and two jojoba farmers who live near the site. The judge merged them into one case.

Donna Charpied, one of the plaintiffs, said she was elated by the ruling. She has fought the project since it was first proposed in 1988. The Kaiser property is less than two miles from wilderness areas in the national park and not far from Charpied's jojoba farm.

"This project is wrong," Charpied said, "and there's just not a right way to do a wrong thing."

She said she hoped Riverside County, which approved the landfill, would take another look at the project. County Supervisor Roy Wilson, who represents the desert district, said he had not seen the ruling yet and couldn't comment.

The landfill would take as much as 20,000 tons of garbage each day, hauled by train from Los Angeles County through San Bernardino and Riverside counties to the former mine north of Interstate 10 near Desert Center.

Riverside County would earn as much as $5 for each ton of garbage hauled across the county line and $1 per ton to buy wildlife habitat as part of the Coachella Valley's growth plan, Wilson has said.

The judge said the BLM fully analyzed the effects on desert tortoises, air quality and groundwater but failed in other environmental considerations.

Timlin said the bureau, in violation of federal law, failed to "take a hard look at the consequences" of the landfill on bighorn sheep, the surrounding ecosystem and the potential for increases in the populations of coyotes and ravens, which prey on the federally protected desert tortoise.

The judge also found the BLM had failed to consider the potential value of the public land it traded to Kaiser.

"The court concludes that BLM's failure to consider an income-producing landfill as a potential highest and best use was an abuse of discretion," he wrote.

Timlin left it up to the BLM to decide whether it would try again to work out the land swap.

Los Angeles County is not waiting for the Eagle Mountain dispute to be resolved. The county wants to develop the Mesquite landfill in Imperial County because one of its major landfills, near Whittier, is nearing capacity, Gulledge said.

"That's our No. 1 task now," he said. "We are moving forward to have a functional waste-by-rail program by January of 2010."

Eagle Mountain landfill History

  • 1988-89: Eagle Mountain landfill is proposed at a former iron-ore mine. Kaiser Ventures applies to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for a land exchange necessary for landfill operations.
  • 1994: A Superior Court rules that an environmental report from Riverside County and the BLM is deficient.
  • 1997: BLM approves a revised environmental report. The land exchange is tentatively approved.
  • 1999-2000: Two lawsuits are filed in federal court to stop the landfill.
  • 2005: U.S. District Judge Robert Timlin strikes down the land swap.

September 19, 2005

Squeezing Water from a Stone

Damned with a tiny share of the Colorado River, and running dry, Las Vegas sets its sights on the driest part of the driest state in the Union

by Matt Jenkins
High Country News

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Few parts of the nation are drier than the Las Vegas Valley. Yet, like a circus performer catching bullets in his teeth, the city here flouts the terrors of the desert and has achieved its own sort of rowdy transcendence.

Las Vegas "owes nothing to its surroundings," wrote historian Hal Rothman in his 2002 paean to the city, Neon Metropolis.

Today, 1.7 million people — 70 percent of Nevada’s population — live in Las Vegas and its suburbs. Unlike more traditional Western resource-extraction economies, which reach far out into the countryside for their fuel, Las Vegas tends to generate its wealth in place: The city’s $60 billion-a-year economy is dominated by the service industry — casinos and tourism — and its environmental footprint is remarkably small.

In fact, as the city has grown, its economy has come to serve as a life-support system for much of the rest of the state: Thanks to Las Vegas, 10 of Nevada’s 17 counties are guaranteed a fixed amount of tax revenue from the state, far more than they actually generate themselves.

Las Vegas’ phenomenal success has led boosters such as Rothman, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas history professor, to tout it as a model for the New West. But the city’s economy, powerful as it is, is perched atop a precarious pedestal: A tiny slice of the Colorado River’s water.

That doesn’t particularly concern Rothman. "No American city has ever ceased to grow because of a lack of water," he wrote in Neon Metropolis, "and it’s unlikely that Las Vegas will be the first."

"The only genuinely determining factor in acquiring water," he argued, "is cost." And money, Rothman wrote, "is no problem in Las Vegas."

As if to prove him right, Las Vegas is now pushing forward with what will be the biggest groundwater-pumping project ever built in the United States: a $2 billion effort that will pump more than 58 billion gallons of water out of the ground every year. The project will reach far beyond the glitter of Las Vegas into the valleys of eastern Nevada’s Basin and Range country, ultimately extending as far north as the area around the high-desert town of Ely.

When the play of light across the Great Basin is just right, it reveals the pockets of water that seem to disappear in the glare of the midday sun: stingy seeps, shy rivulets that poke their way across the desert, great limpid pools of water bubbling into the light. Those are all mere hints of the watery treasure trove that lies beneath the entire area: An enormous aquifer that spreads across some 100,000 square miles of eastern Nevada and western Utah.

Las Vegas has always pushed the limits harder than any other place, because it has had to — and because it can. "When you’ve got a city the size of Las Vegas, that’s growing as fast as it is, it’s hard to estimate what’s going to be economically infeasible," says Mike Dettinger, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist who authored some of the first comprehensive studies of the aquifer. "Anything’s possible if you have a big-enough city at the other end of the pipeline."

Las Vegas may, however, have reached the tipping point, beyond which its continued growth can only come at the expense of the rest of the state. The groundwater project in the Basin and Range will pry open a place of tremendous biological diversity that includes Great Basin National Park, three national wildlife refuges, at least three state and five federally listed threatened and endangered species, and a host of rural farming and ranching communities. Tapping the aquifer could unravel the tenuous hydrologic, ecological and political equilibrium in the Great Basin, giving the lie to boosters’ claims that Las Vegas is the city of the future. And, ultimately, the water project may be a prelude to an all-out war for the waters of the Colorado River.

The fight building over Nevada’s groundwater might never have started, if not for a space-age nuclear weapons program. In the late 1970s — at the same time he was hoping to create a legacy as a champion of arms control — President Jimmy Carter backed the MX missile program, a plan to shuffle 200 intercontinental ballistic missiles between 4,600 shelters in the Great Basin. The shell game was essentially a bluff, meant to force the Soviets to the negotiating table or risk blowing their entire nuclear wad shooting missiles at empty bunkers.

To the rural Nevadans who were going to be on the receiving end of a project designed to draw Soviet fire, the MX program made less sense. Environmentalists, Indians, ranchers and academics allied to mount a fight that swept the state. Steve Bradhurst, who directed the fight against the MX program for the governor’s office, says, "Wherever you went, particularly in rural Nevada, you’d see stop signs … you’d see ‘STOP,’ and then people would paint on ‘MX’ underneath."

In 1981, Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, a close friend of and the campaign chairman for Ronald Reagan, prevailed upon the newly elected president to ax the program.

Although the program never put a single missile in the desert, the search for the water it would have required significantly advanced scientists’ understanding of the desert’s aquifers.

In most of the eastern Great Basin, there are two aquifers, one on top of the other. For more than a century, farmers have tapped the one closest to the surface, which is made up of water caught in the sand and gravel that has filled in the valley bottoms. But below that lies the real prize: the deep carbonate aquifer, so called because the water is contained within massive bands of limestone. Several million years ago, the geologic faulting that created Nevada’s Basin and Range province took what was then a 50-mile-wide band of limestone, broke it into splinters, and smeared it out across the Great Basin. The fractures in the rock are packed with water.

As part of its investigations for the MX program, the Air Force drilled a series of wells that reached down into the carbonate aquifer. Those wells soon became fodder for the kinds of legends normally associated with deranged conquistadors seeking cities of gold in the desert. Dettinger, the USGS hydrologist, says one MX well, north of Las Vegas, "hooked into some sort of crack that went God knows where, and it produced like crazy." After that, he says, "there was a tendency to imagine that if you put a well into the carbonate, it would just make water."

Back in 1922, the seven states along the Colorado River met to negotiate the Colorado River Compact. The Compact divvied up the river’s water and came to serve as the foundation for a complex set of agreements and legal rulings known among water managers, with a sort of Ten Commandments reverence, as "The Law of the River."

At the time, Nevada (which, practically speaking, meant Las Vegas) had less bargaining power than any of the six other states — California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. Las Vegas was just a miserable little rail stop back then, and in all the years since, the city has been bedeviled by one stark fact: It walked away from the negotiations with just 300,000 acre-feet of water per year, a measly 4 percent of the water in the Compact. (One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or enough water for two homes in Las Vegas for a year.)

By the 1980s, when a string of record-breaking growth years began, Las Vegas was beginning to feel the pinch. In 1989, the metropolitan area, whose population was just shy of three-quarters of a million people, grew by more than 61,000 — an astounding 8 percent.

The same year, Vegas hired Patricia Mulroy as the general manager of what would become the Southern Nevada Water Authority (HCN, 4/9/01: The water empress of Vegas). Mulroy immediately made it a personal crusade to ensure that the city had enough water to continue growing. And on Oct. 17, 1989, she made her first move toward the Basin and Range. Mulroy filed water-rights applications with the state for over 800,000 acre-feet of groundwater — more than twice the city’s Colorado River allocation, and enough to supply almost 1.7 million new homes.

Rural Nevadans reacted as if they were under Soviet attack, filing more than 4,000 protests with the state engineer and assembling a legal team that included former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, who would go on to serve as U.S. secretary of the Interior.

In response, Mulroy turned her attention elsewhere, and put the project on hold. Over the next decade, Vegas proved itself more adept than any other city in the West at digging change out of the couch. The Water Authority worked to increase water efficiency in Las Vegas, and began offering a dollar-a-square-foot bounty to the city’s residents to rip out their lawns, an effort that has resulted in the removal of 64 million square feet of grass. The city has also perfected a watery sleight of hand to stretch its meager share of the Colorado as far as possible: It pumps far more than 300,000 acre-feet out of Lake Mead each year, but treats its wastewater and returns it to the reservoir for re-use by California and Arizona.

During the 1990s, Mulroy also began talking with the six other Colorado River states. She called for a "major rethinking" of the way the river is managed, and she courted the other states in an attempt to buy some of their water (HCN, 2/21/94: Las Vegas wheels and deals for Colorado River water). Mulroy won the ability to "bank" some water in Arizona for drought years, but her call for changes on the river met a cool reception — particularly from Colorado, which has long styled itself as the enforcer of order on the river.

At the time, Colorado was in an enforcing kind of mood. For more than 40 years, California had been using more than its share of the river. Finally, in the 1990s, Colorado successfully led the Upper Basin states — which also include Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — in demanding that it stop (HCN, 5/21/01: Quenching the big thirst).

Las Vegas’ relentless growth was proving equally worrisome. In 2001 alone, the city added more than 90,000 residents. The Upper Basin began to talk about forcing Vegas to live within its Colorado River allocation; when Mulroy came knocking, asking for more water, the other states sent her home to deal with her own problem.

Mother Nature, meanwhile, was putting a finer point on things. A major drought had started on the river in 1999, and 2002 brought a frying-pan-to-the-head moment. That year, the Colorado River received only a quarter of its average runoff.

Mulroy says that when river managers ran computer models during the 1990s to predict the likelihood of drought, "there was zero probability that a drought of this magnitude would hit. Nobody anticipated it."

It was clear that Mulroy was running out of options. Once again, she turned her attention to the Basin and Range country, and the hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water that the city had claimed.

The project in the Basin and Range, as currently proposed, will use 115 to 195 pumps, spanning seven valleys in eastern Nevada, to fill a 235-mile-long, six-and-a-half-foot diameter pipeline that follows U.S. Highway 93 to Las Vegas. It won’t pump a single drop of water for at least a decade, but it has already kicked off what is sure to be an epic struggle between Las Vegas and rural Nevada.

The rural counties are at a phenomenal disadvantage. The Water Authority’s budget this year is $642.7 million. Meanwhile, White Pine County, home to Ely, was forced to ask the state to step in to manage its finances after it went broke earlier this summer. In addition to its economic might, Las Vegas holds 70 percent of the votes in the state Legislature. One potential champion for the rural counties — U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D, the Democratic leader in the Senate — has made only a tepid commitment to their cause, and critics are quick to point out that Reid’s son Rory is a county commissioner in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, and that he also sits on the board of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Nonetheless, rural Nevadans are rallying around the cry that this is a repeat of Los Angeles’ infamous water raid on the Owens Valley in the early 1900s, when the city secretly bought out farmers and shipped their water south, turning the valley into a dust storm-ravaged wasteland.

Many of the project’s most thoughtful opponents are veterans of the MX fight. One is Dean Baker, who runs a ranch in Snake Valley, on the Nevada-Utah border. Baker’s ranch stands in the shadow of Wheeler Peak and Great Basin National Park, on the northeasternmost fringe of the water project, in what he calls "the driest part of the driest state in the Union."

In the 1970s, Baker began buying center-pivot irrigation systems to water his land, then watched as the water they sprayed out simply evaporated without ever hitting the ground. He experimented for years, souping up his center pivots with a wizard’s array of special nozzles, and pushing more water through the machines, before he was finally able to put enough water on the ground to grow a crop.

Baker is one of three rural representatives on the 26-member advisory committee created by the Water Authority, where he’s one of the few voices questioning whether farmers’ irrigation water will disappear as Vegas pumps down the aquifer. Once a month, he flies his Cessna 182 to Las Vegas for committee meetings: "I keep asking them, ‘Is there any other project in the world at this elevation, with this precipitation, with this humidity, (that is) sustainable?’ "

Jo Anne Garrett, another MX veteran, has also been involved. Back in 1989, when Las Vegas first filed its water-rights applications, she helped convince White Pine County residents to tax themselves to underwrite the opposition’s legal efforts. Last year, after two White Pine County commissioners and the district attorney attempted to negotiate a water deal with Las Vegas, Garrett and two other county residents took to the streets with a recall petition. They got less than half the signatures needed to hold a recall, but voters ousted the two commissioners in that fall’s election; the district attorney is up for re-election next year.

The county hasn’t met with Las Vegas since, but the fight has begun to border on the desperate. There’s a little more than $100,000 left in the fund to fight Las Vegas, and earlier this year, White Pine county commissioner Gary Perea took the unusual step of asking Pat Mulroy for money so the county could hire somebody to fight her water project. Mulroy, not surprisingly, declined.

The science and the landscape are full of questions. A series of U.S. Geological Survey reports released in the 1990s raised concerns that, in spite of the immense size of the aquifer, only a fraction of its water can be sustainably pumped without permanently depleting it. The Water Authority originally applied for more than 800,000 acre-feet of water per year. Now, it says it can sustainably pump 125,000 to 180,000 acre-feet, skimming off only the pulse of "recharge" that the aquifer receives each spring and summer as snowmelt percolates down into the limestone.

This spring, the federal Bureau of Land Management began work on an environmental impact statement for the pipeline, noting that the project could affect desert tortoise, sage grouse, pygmy rabbits, and several species of endangered fish. Nevada state engineer Hugh Ricci will hold public hearings to help him decide whether to approve Las Vegas’ water applications, something which could happen within the next few months.

The U.S. Geological Survey is also working on a new estimate of how much water can be sustainably pumped from the aquifer (HCN, 9/13/04: A water-and-wilderness bill kicks up dust in Nevada). But that study won’t be finished until November 2007, and it won’t model the potential impacts of the Water Authority’s pumping on existing well users. Nor will it address the risks to the springs that dot all of eastern Nevada, and are some of the most ecologically important — and sensitive — places in the Great Basin.

"From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s just absolutely fascinating," says Jon Sjöberg, a Nevada Department of Wildlife supervisory biologist, describing the world of life that the aquifer supports. About 10,000 years ago, as the climate warmed, the salty lake that covered eastern Nevada began drying up. But a few vestiges of the saltwater ecosystem were caught by the freshwater springs as everything else evaporated away. In these isolated springs, a remarkable array of fish, snails and amphibians survived and evolved, creating the Great Basin’s legendary biological diversity.

Sjöberg offers the example of the White River springfish, a tiny creature averaging slightly more than an inch in length, which was placed on the federal endangered species list in the 1980s. There are five different subspecies of White River springfish in five springs strung over more than 100 miles between Ely and Las Vegas.

With such small populations in such isolation, "it doesn’t take much to affect them," says Sjöberg.
"We’re in a constant crisis mode, running from one disaster with one species to another. All you’re trying to do is keep them from going extinct," he says. He talks about using pickle buckets to rescue Pahrump pool fish from springs northwest of Las Vegas when they dried up after farmers started pumping nearby.

"We’re used to that," he says, but the groundwater project "has the potential to affect all of those resources collectively" — not just fish, but also mammals such as desert bighorn sheep and elk that depend on isolated water sources.

One big concern is that, in the fractured carbonates, water-level declines from the project’s wells can "propagate" along the fractures like cracks spreading across a windshield, possibly affecting springs hundreds of miles away.

The Department of Wildlife was an official "cooperator" in the BLM’s environmental impact statement until this June. Then, at the direction of Gov. Kenny Guinn’s office — and for reasons that the office has never convincingly explained — the agency withdrew from the process.

That has left Sjöberg sidelined, with plenty of questions. "This has to be done right, because you’re looking at something that is happening on a landscape scale. And that’s where it just kind of takes your breath away," says Sjöberg. "We spend a lot of time just staring at the wall going, ‘Oh shit. What do we do?’ "

Only a little more than a century ago, groundwater hydrology was seen as something of the occult, and despite great advances in the science, it still requires a certain willingness to feel your way forward toward the answers.

"The bottom line," says Mulroy, "is even the most sophisticated hydrologic modeling is nothing more than an educated guess."

Jeff Johnson, the Water Authority’s senior hydrologist, says that "the next step is going in and actually developing the resource, through wells and a pipeline, in order to try to refine some of those numbers."

The Water Authority is already part way into a small-scale trial run in Coyote Spring Valley, an empty expanse of Joshua trees and creosote bush 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas, on the edge of the Desert National Wildlife Range. The state engineer is requiring the Authority to test-pump for several years to determine the effects on the aquifer before he’ll consider granting full rights.

"Right now, the philosophy is, we’re going to start slow, pump a certain amount of water, and see what happens to the springs," says Bob Williams, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s field supervisor for Nevada. Williams is responsible for the bevy of federal wildlife refuges in the state, and for protecting plants and animals on the federal endangered species list such as the White River springfish.

The Water Authority, Fish and Wildlife Service, and several other parties are funding studies of the Moapa dace, another endangered native fish in the area, as well as restoring habitat and removing predatory invasive fish. "We’re trying," says Williams, "to reduce one threat as we bring another on."

The Water Authority says it will use a similar pump-and-monitor strategy for the groundwater project in the Basin and Range. "We don’t want to go in and pump for 10 years and then, gee, it dries up and is gone. That doesn’t serve anybody’s purpose," says Johnson. "The idea here is, go in, develop the resource, do it conservatively, and then manage it for long-term viability, indefinitely."

But the strategy is not without risk. "The but," says Williams, "is if you start pumping, and in maybe two years or five or 10, you start seeing (a water-level decline), can you turn it off fast enough to actually stop the effects?"

Dean Baker doubts that "turning it off" will even be an option. He talks about the tremendous investment that Las Vegas is making in the pipeline, and is skeptical that the Water Authority would happily walk away if the project were found to adversely affect water levels.

"If they build that pipeline," he says, "the urge will be overpowering to keep it full."

Clearly, there are simpler — and far less expensive — solutions on the Colorado River. Even six years into a drought, there is still a lot of water on the river. Some is water that the Upper Basin has rights to but still doesn’t use. Much is water being used by farmers — whether on alfalfa fields in Wyoming or asparagus farms in Southern California’s Imperial Valley — that Las Vegas could conceivably buy. The Imperial Valley alone receives 3.85 million acre-feet a year.

"If we could work out some deal, or some agreement, between the basin states where Nevada could get more water," says Williams, "that would be better than to build this pipeline and run the risk of so much environmental — I don’t want to use the word ‘damage’ — but potential for environmental concerns."

For now, however, that water remains beyond Pat Mulroy’s reach. Mulroy maintains that the Basin and Range groundwater project is simply an effort to develop "a plumbing system that is separate and apart from the Colorado River." But she is largely being forced to pursue the project, with all its uncertainties, because there are problems on the Colorado that she hasn’t yet been able to crack.

At the same time, the groundwater project itself is beginning to show signs of strain, albeit subtle ones. The environmental impact statement on the pipeline, originally due out next spring, is, according to Mulroy, "kind of in a stall mode right now." The study will likely be revamped to assess the impacts of another water project to the south in Lincoln County (HCN, 8/4/03: Pipe Dreams); the manager of the study announced that he is quitting this fall, after it became clear that it will probably take at least three more years to redo it.

Meanwhile, the pressure is growing. Last year, Las Vegas added more than 35,000 houses and nearly 95,000 people. New projections, released this August, show that the population will grow even faster than previously anticipated. Based on those updated numbers, the Water Authority says that its existing supplies will allow Las Vegas to continue to grow until 2013. But the Authority is now facing a widening gap between that year and when it can lay its hands on its next big shot of water. Under the most optimistic projections, the groundwater project was scheduled to come online in 2015; now, it may not do so until several years after that. Mulroy is pursuing other options (see story, page 13), but those are even more politically fraught.

That raises two scenarios. Las Vegas, contrary to Hal Rothman’s claims, could be the first American city to stop growing because of a lack of water. But a far more likely scenario is that Mulroy will be forced back to the Colorado and its as-yet-uncracked challenges.

In the past, she urged the other states to "rethink." This time, she may invoke the Colorado River equivalent of the nuclear option, and file a lawsuit asking that the Colorado River Compact be declared null and void. "If there is no way that the Compact can accommodate Nevada, then Nevada has no choice but to consider the Compact broken," she says. "I think we’re all trying to avoid going to court, but in truth of fact, Nevada is backed into a corner."

Because the Compact is essentially a treaty between states, any challenge to it will go directly before the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s the absolute last place any of the states wants to be: While every state would like a shot at a bigger slice of the river, no state is willing to risk losing some of its entitlement in court — especially in the Supreme Court, beyond which there is nowhere to appeal.

But Nevada has almost nothing to lose. Because Las Vegas has, far and away, the tiniest cut of the river — that paltry 4 percent — it has far more incentive than anyone else to go for broke. "What are you gonna do?" asks Mulroy. "Take our 300,000 acre-feet away?"

In past negotiations, the other states have insisted that Mulroy leave no stone unturned at home before she seeks more Colorado River water. The groundwater project may, then, be Mulroy’s effort to show that Nevada has exhausted every option within its borders, a sort of pre-emptive strike to neutralize the other states’ arguments before the Supreme Court. But it may also be Mulroy’s own MX-worthy stratagem, one final effort to force the other states to the negotiating table.

The prospect of a date in court gives the six other states tremendous incentive to help Las Vegas find a solution to its problems. The states’ representatives have been meeting at least once a month since January in an effort to do just that.

They are, however, also hedging their bets. Colorado has long maintained a special $2 million fund to defend its Colorado River water rights. Now, Arizona is preparing a comparable war chest.

Nevada, oddly, is making no such special preparations. But as Hal Rothman is so fond of pointing out, while Las Vegas may be short on water, it has plenty of what really matters.

"If we have to go to court," Mulroy says archly, "we’ve got the money."

September 18, 2005


Victims of Mojave National Preserve fire say Park Service policies added to toll
Sandi McIntosh, left, and Jim Perry on Sept. 1 help remove debris from a home that was burned by a 70,000-acre fire that swept the Mojave National Preserve in June. Many homes on private land surrounded by the preserve, including Perry's, were destroyed. Photos by K.M. Cannon.

A fence at the driveway to a group of private homes shows the effects of a June fire that swept the Mojave National Preserve.
A burned ridgeline inside the Mojave National Preserve is shown Sept. 1. A fire swept through the 1.6 million-acre park in June.
A sign near the Mid Hills Campground in the Mojave National Preserve is shown burned. The campground was destroyed in a 70,000-acre fire that swept the park in June.
Bud Smith, 73, talks to a reporter on Sept. 1 at his home on private land inside the Mojave National Preserve. Refusing to evacuate during a lightning-sparked fire in June, Smith saved his home with the help of family and firefighters, then supplied water to helicopters and firetrucks.

Las Vegas Review-Journal

They hoped to spend a comfortable retirement in their rural retreats. Instead, they spent the summer picking through ashes to salvage surprisingly meager and melted mementos.

That's the aftermath of many fires, but most of those who lost homes when fire swept the Mojave National Preserve say their property was destroyed as much by bad policy as bad luck. And they blame the National Park Service for it.

"They can call it a preserve, but they haven't actually preserved anything here in the 10 years they've had it," exploded Sandi McIntosh, 61, who says her home and horses escaped mostly undamaged by a stroke of last-minute luck.

A lot of her neighbors weren't so lucky, which was why she stood the morning of Sept. 1 up to her ankles in ashes, helping Richard and Kathy MacPherson clean up the remains of their mobile home.

Sandi picked up a few settings of cutlery and brushed the ashes away, laying them on a table set up beside the ruins to receive any objects still usable.

It was nearly lunchtime, and the morning's work hadn't covered the table. One intact vase. Two antique flatirons. A little of this and that. The MacPhersons estimate their losses in excess of $200,000.

Other neighbors had comparable losses, he said, "But I think we may have been the only ones with any insurance."

In July, soon after the fire, the Park Service estimated the costs of suppression alone at $3.1 million and climbing but has not publicly estimated damages. A dollar value cannot be placed on some damage, loss of beautiful views, wildlife habitat and historical structures.

The fire raised questions about the wisdom of a new fire management plan, expected to go into effect shortly, which would no longer require the Park Service to immediately extinguish all fires in the park, as currently required.

The 1.6 million-acre Mojave Preserve lies entirely within San Bernardino County, Calif., and stretches from the Nevada border to Baker, Calif., and from Interstate 15 on the north to Interstate 40 on the south.

It was created by the California Desert Protection Act, federal legislation passed in 1994, over the bitter objections of elected officials in the county.

Scattered across the federal lands were tracts of private homesteads, including a number of cattle ranches. The Park Service discontinued grazing leases and bought out nearly all the ranches.

In a decade, those who had built vacation homes on the range found themselves surrounded by land either designated wilderness or managed as if it were.

Cattle were gone and wild burros were being removed. After the wettest winter in memory, grass this past spring grew deep with few grazing animals to eat it.

Deer herds shrunk under park management, so the underbrush they feed on also grew thicker. With the onset of hot weather, these fuels became tinder-dry.

On June 22, a spark of lightning in the Hackberry Mountains lit the tinder.

The preserve's small resident firefighting crew soon called for help, and an interagency fire suppression force that eventually included more than 1,100 people from several federal agencies and Southern California counties moved into the park, bringing four firefighting airplanes, four firefighting helicopters, 38 fire engines and dozens of water tender trucks.

There would have been more, but other major fires in California claimed resources.

In the meantime, at least three other fires started elsewhere in the preserve, some merging and some roaring simultaneously on their own courses, constituting an inferno that since has been named the Hackberry Complex.

The 1,100 were not fighting alone; private landowners did what they could to protect their own holdings.

On Cedar Canyon Road, 73-year-old Bud Smith prepared to fight or flee as the moment's circumstances dictated. The first fire started on a Wednesday.

"By Thursday morning I was all packed up and ready to get out of here, and the fire was coming up Black Canyon so fast it covered nine miles that day. I had stuff in the car and the car parked facing the road. We were supposed to be evacuated on Friday, but I didn't go. My kids came out from Las Vegas and helped me fight it. My son and one of his friends and my daughter. ... When they heard I hadn't left, two firetrucks came up and helped us."

Clearing grass and brush as far back from his buildings as time allowed, spraying water from the 11,000 gallons Smith keeps on hand for just that purpose, the small force stood toe-to-toe with the fire at 7 a.m. and fought it to a standstill.

According to neighbors, Smith's stubbornness saved not only his home of 35 years, but every home north of the road.

South of Cedar Canyon Road, however, fire had roared through Round Valley, taking the MacPherson home and the homes of their neighbors. The valiant efforts were not enough.

By June 27, the fires had burned more than 70,000 acres out of the heart of the park, taking at least 12 homes and several unoccupied historic structures.

Dennis Casebier, a historian who operates the East Mojave Heritage Center at a restored 91-year-old schoolhouse in Goffs, just outside the southeast edge of the preserve, railed at the events in his newsletter, the Mojave Road Report.

"It might be noted that the fire burned only 70,000 acres out of the 1,600,000-acre preserve. But that 70,000 acres likely included half or more of the piñon/juniper habitat. It was part of the crown that gave the high country of the East Mojave such great natural charm. For many of us, the East Mojave will never be the same. We are left with our memories and the photos on file in Goffs."

Casebier and others raised pointed questions about Park Service methods of preventing and controlling fires, and answers weren't immediately forthcoming.

As of Sept. 1, most residents believed the preserve firefighting staff had followed a draft fire management plan announced and discussed earlier this year.

That plan called for allowing "natural" fires caused by lightning in designated areas constituting as much as 22 percent of the park to burn at a leisurely pace. Most wondered aloud whether the Park Service lost control of the original Hackberry fire while attempting to do just that.

"That is absolutely false," said Chuck Heard, the preserve's fire management officer. "That fire management plan is not complete, so in the Mojave National Preserve the policy remains full suppression."

Even if a limited-suppression policy ever is approved, Heard continued, "In the heart of summer we would not let it burn in any case. There are very few places in the preserve we would ever allow it in the future. But we have never been allowed to do it."

Mary Martin, superintendent of the preserve, said, "This fire would not have been fought any differently if we had a fire management plan in place, because the area where it occurred would be full suppression in that plan."

The draft fire plan was dated Dec. 20, and the public comment period ended on Jan. 30. Martin said the plan was widely discussed at public meetings even before the draft was written.

"We did factor in the public comments," she said. She added she will consider the experience of this summer's fire in deciding whether to approve the plan as written.

The 84-page plan calls for allowing "fire to resume its natural role in wilderness where natural fire regimes are unaltered, provided that fire does not pose a threat to structures, historic mine sites, or tortoise habitat."

There were suggestions that the fire could have been fought more effectively if the Park Service hadn't habitually managed the preserve for an environmentalist agenda to the exclusion of all other interests.

Bill Postmus, San Bernardino County supervisor for the district containing the preserve, expressed that thought in an Aug. 7 op-ed piece for the Victorville/Barstow Press Dispatch.

In an effort to quiet park opponents, Postmus noted, the Park Service created an advisory commission to include local government representation.

"The commission had a 10-year life, which expired in 2004, but it never met during my tenure as a county supervisor, which began in late 2000," Postmus said. "One of the county's specific inputs was to retain the ranching infrastructure. ... Instead, (the Park Service) set about buying out and getting people off the land almost immediately.

"I suspect that if the ranching families were still in the region, much quicker actions could and would have been taken when the fire first broke out. Part of the obliteration of the ranching culture has also involved the dismantling of all of the range improvement and development projects including a vast system of wells. Their water could have helped fight the fire."

When the Park Service bought out ranchers, all agreed, the ranchers were allowed to remove pumps, pipes, and windmills that formerly replenished water in tanks that now stand empty across the preserve.

But Larry Whalon, acting director of the preserve, said, "We haven't turned off any. The ranchers have." He conceded, "There is no storage system for fighting fires. It would have to be large to make it worthwhile."

Gerald Hillier, now a consultant to San Bernardino County on public land issues but formerly manager of the area for the Bureau of Land Management, said there would be many more working water tanks if the Park Service had wanted them.

"They have actually paid ranchers to go in and salvage their own improvements," he said. "They have removed some that were indeed the property of the United States under the terms of the old BLM leases."

Smith let firefighters use his 11,000-gallon tank to fill pumpkins: portable, collapsible field tanks from which helicopters can quickly fetch water to drop on a fire. And they asked him if he could possibly replenish the supply still faster from his pumps.

"One guy said it was 3 1/2 hours to another water source," Smith said.

Whoever told Smith that was exaggerating the distance, said Norm Walker, the U.S. Forest Service fire chief who commanded the multiagency firefighting force.

"We eventually had enough, considering that we had to hire water tenders and haul it in, and set up pumpkins," Walker said.

The Blair Ranch, the last substantial cattle operation left in the area, allowed helicopters to dip directly from a cattle pond, and the tankers "just about drained" tanks maintained just south of the preserve by the California Department of Transportation for road construction, he said.

But later he added, "Obviously, the less time you wait for water the more efficient your attack is."

All affected complain they've had a hard time finding out exactly how it all happened.

Jim Walker, 64, who owned the historic Stott house and planned to retire there, lost that home and several other buildings. He said he asked both BLM and the Park Service for fire reports. "They told me I would have to request them under the Freedom of Information Act," he said.

Some of the homeowners said the fire reports are required by insurance companies to file claims.

Casebier wrote that the fire could have been stopped as it crossed the de facto firebreak that is Cedar Canyon Road, but firefighters took no stand there.

Others pointed out equipment was available that could have been used to widen the road as a better firebreak.

Chief Walker, however, said both suggestions were impractical.

"The fire did not just lazily cross the road," he said. "It was lying across the road. Imagine smoke and flames going horizontally at that point, across both lanes, and embers and flaming branches going twice as far as that. And to widen that firebreak enough to be effective would have taken days. Nobody had days."

Most Park Service ground rules didn't negatively affect this particular firefighting effort, he said.

"They didn't want us going off road, but we didn't want to because we would have buried our trucks," he said. "There is a good road system around the houses."

The Park Service generally didn't allow long-term fire retardant to be dropped in wilderness areas, so the aerial teams relied on foam, which is made by adding certain chemicals to water. The more effective retardant was allowed to protect homes and man-made structures.

"There were no restrictions placed on us when it came to protecting homes," he said. "Our limitations were other fires and how long it took to get equipment. We ran people far longer than we are supposed to; you're supposed to run no more than 16 hours on and eight off, but nobody came off; some people worked 36 hours straight."

Asked if the homes of residents were sacrificed to Park Service policy, Walker didn't hesitate to answer.

"I guess that might depend on whether you were talking about the overall management of the park or the way the fire was managed," Walker said.

"I can tell you that on the day of the fire, we gave it all we had."

September 15, 2005

Many deer hunting areas are closed

Outdoor Report by Tony Riley
Desert Dispatch - Barstow, CA

Hunters, if you have a deer tag for D-17 the fires this summer in the East Mojave National Preserve have forced the Department of Fish and Game and the Park Service to close many areas. The area is used by many hunters in D-17. They include Hole-in-the-Wall to Mid Hills, Wildhorse Mesa and Canyon, Gold and Round Valley, Table Top, Barnett Mine, Pinto Mountain and Basin, Fourth of July canyon and Hackberry Mountain. Hunters should contact the Department of Fish and Game at 909-484-0167 if they want a refund on their deer tags.

Right now Mid Hills Campground is closed due to a recent fire. Hole-in-the-Wall Campground is open. Mitchell Caverns is also open. Wild Horse Canyon Road is closed. The unpaved portion of Lanfair Road is open to 4-wheel drive traffic only. The Mojave Road through Lanfair Valley has been severely eroded. Use caution there.

September 14, 2005

Park Service moves ripped

Response to desert fire faulted

Megan Blaney
San Bernardino County Sun

As San Bernardino County joined the nation in recognizing National Disaster Preparedness Month, an ensuing discussion illuminated concerns about agency cooperation during an enormous fire in the Mojave Desert earlier this summer

County resident Jim Walker accused the National Park Service of carelessness and negligence in the wildfire that burned more than 70,000 acres in the Mojave National Preserve in June.

"You talk about public preparedness," Walker said Tuesday after the Board of Supervisors meeting. "Where was ours? Why did they let my ranch burn?"

The National Park Service has a history of tense relationships with landowners and ranchers, many of whom preceded the 1994 arrival of the federal agency. Before the land was designated a national preserve, it was under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management.

Walker said he had planned to retire next year in one of the "inholdings" private land at the national preserve. The Park Service wants to rid the preserve of homes to enhance the area's tourism appeal, he said.

"They just wanted to get us out of their land," he said. "They decided to let (the fire) burn us out."

Park Ranger Linda Slater said every effort was made to contain the fires. When the ranger who responded to the fire realized the fire was too big, he called the Southern California Interagency Incident Management Team a group of city, county and state fire agencies that responds to disasters.

The dispatcher sent help from the Needles Fire Station immediately and sent more than 1,000 firefighters in the following days, Slater said.

"It wasn't a let-burn," Slater said. "They just don't have a leg to stand on to say the fire wasn't fought."

She said the National Park Service does not intentionally allow fires to burn out residents and taught an informational class on how to protect homes from fire in February.

Shortly after the fires, Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Postmus wrote a scathing review of what he saw as the Park Service's lack of cooperation with the county.

"One of the County's specific inputs was to retain the ranching infrastructure . . .," Postmus wrote. "Instead, NPS set about buying out and getting people off the land almost immediately."

He said the county was concerned with the Park Service's management decisions, including the removal of the ranching community which eliminated the grazing animals that kept vegetation trimmed low.

He also questioned the removal of the preserve's water infrastructure and the Park Service's regulatory control of county roads in the preserve.

Slater said she has heard of the benefits the ranching community could provide, but did not ascribe to them.

She said the land where cows had grazed was just as burned as the rest of the landscape and said the springs that used to constitute the water infrastructure now creates lush vegetation habitat for wildlife.

Park Service interim Superintendent Larry Whalon said that because of the fire's strength, the weather and an unexpected incident where the fire jumped a road that was expected to be a fire break, Walker's property couldn't be saved.

"Everything was done to try to minimize losses to park structures and facilities. There was never a command to any firefighter to let the fire burn," he said. "We did deploy the resources we had in strategic areas where we thought we could stop the fire."

Postmus hopes for cooperation from the Park Service and called for a partnership of the federal, state and local governments.

Walker said cooperation from the Park Service is crucial. "To the 14 people who lost their homes, it was as big a disaster as New Orleans," he said.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Postmus criticized the National Park Service's management of the Mojave National Preserve in a letter written shortly after the June fires.

"San Bernardino County's concerns with the management of the Preserve go beyond the fire and the perceived lack of aggressiveness in preventing or suppressing it, including but not limited to:

▪ "The removal and obliteration of the ranching community within the Preserve;

▪ "The removal and obliteration of the water infrastructure that served both livestock and wildlife;

▪ "The regulatory control exerted by NPS over the use of County owned and maintained roads within the Preserve;

▪ "Strong-armed law-enforcement tactics exerted by NPS on neighboring private lands within the Preserve;

▪ "The dogged pursuit of reclaiming property with alleged non-conforming uses."

Man Who Threatened Rangers Sentenced to Jail

National Park News
Mojave National Preserve

A Newberry Springs man who admitted to pointing a loaded .30-caliber M-1 carbine at federal law enforcement officers who were investigating possibly unlawful digging in the park was sentenced on September 12th to eight months in federal prison.

Leo H. Spatziani, 62, had previously pleaded guilty to one felony count of assaulting, resisting, intimidating and impeding federal law enforcement officers during the confrontation, which occurred on February 12th.

In sentencing Spatziani and rejecting the defendant's plea for probation, the judge said that the high desert was "not the wild west" and all citizens have a responsibility to respect the law.

The judge, who also imposed a $2,000 fine, ordered Spatziani to begin serving his prison term within 30 days.

Spatziani is the friend of another man who owns a small parcel of private property within Mojave National Preserve. The friend had recently constructed a small cabin on National Park Service land near a desert spring, which was outside of his private property line.

In early February, the friend was observed operating a trenching machine at the spring. In addition to being on federal land, the area around the cabin is documented as containing archeological and cultural resources.

On February 12th, two uniformed NPS rangers contacted Spatziani and his friend regarding the trenching activity. While one of the rangers was photographing the trenching activity, Spatziani removed the M-1 carbine from a vehicle. He placed a magazine in the weapon and chambered a round. He then pointed the weapon at the ranger who was taking pictures and began advancing on him.

Despite repeated commands to drop the weapon, Spatziani continued to advance with his weapon in the ready firing position. The threatened officer was forced to take defensive cover behind one corner of the cabin and draw his service weapon.

During the ensuing stand-off, the rangers observed that the eight-year-old child of the private property owner was within the line-of-fire. Fearful for the safety of the child and the other individuals, including Spatziani, the two rangers decided to de-escalate the dangerous situation by slowly withdrawing to their marked patrol vehicle and leaving the area.

Spatziani was arrested in Yermo on February 17th by NPS agents.

September 12, 2005

High Desert Man Who Threatened Park Rangers With Firearm Sentenced to Federal Prison

U.S. Department of Justice

Debra Wong Yang

United States Attorney
Central District of California

United States Courthouse
312 North Spring Street
Los Angeles, California 90012


September 12, 2005

For Information, Contact Public Affairs
Thom Mrozek (213) 894-6947


Los Angeles, CA - A Newberry Springs who admitted pointing a loaded .30-caliber M-1 carbine at federal law enforcement officers who were investigating possibly unlawful digging on national parkland was sentenced this afternoon to eight months in federal prison.

Leo H. Spatziani, 62, was sentenced by United States District Judge R. Gary Klausner in federal court in Los Angeles. Spatziani previously pleaded guilty to one felony count of assaulting, resisting, intimidating and impeding federal law enforcement officers during an incident on February 12.

In sentencing Spatziani and rejecting the defendant's plea for probation, Judge Klausner said the high desert was "not the wild west" and all citizens have a responsibility to respect the law.

Judge Klausner, who also imposed a $2,000 fine, ordered Spatziani to begin serving his prison term within 30 days.

Spatziani is the friend of another man who owns a small parcel of private property within the Mojave National Preserve. The friend had recently constructed a small cabin on Park Service land near a desert spring, which was outside of his private property line. In early February, the friend was observed operating a trenching machine at the spring. In addition to being on federal land, the area around the cabin is documented as containing archeological and cultural resources.

On February 12, two uniformed National Park Service Rangers contacted Spatziani and his friend regarding the trenching activity. While one of the Rangers was photographing the trenching activity, Spatziani removed the M-1 carbine from a vehicle. He placed a magazine in the weapon and chambered a round. He then pointed the weapon at the Ranger who was taking pictures and began advancing on him. Despite repeated commands to drop the weapon, Spatziani continued to advance with his weapon in the ready firing position. The threatened officer was forced to take defensive cover behind one corner of the cabin and draw his service weapon.

During the ensuing stand-off, the rangers observed that the 8-year-old child of the private property owner was within the line-of-fire. Fearful of the safety of the child and the other individuals, including Spatziani, the two Rangers decided to de-escalate the dangerous situation by slowly withdrawing to their marked patrol vehicle and leaving the area.

Spatziani was arrested in Yermo on February 17 by agents with the United States National Park Service.

The case against Spatziani is the result of an investigation by the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service.


Release No. 05-129

September 4, 2005

Drought, natural erosion taint supply

Water woes halt construction in tiny Pioneertown, which can't afford fixes

Eblstan Lim / The Press-Enterprise
Scott Pasby, 47, of Pioneertown, had to install an expensive water filtering system after his dogs got sick and his skin started cracking from high levels of arsenic in the water from the town's wells.

The Press-Enterprise [Riverside, CA]

Soon after Scott Pasby moved to Pioneertown, his skin became scaly and his dogs got sick.

He learned that the water in the High Desert outpost has high levels of arsenic, so he promptly installed a filter system.

"The dogs are fine, the skin doesn't crack anymore," said Pasby, 47, as he petted one of his four pooches.

Pioneertown is awash in problems with its water, which is not only polluted, but also in short supply. A virtual building freeze is keeping the remote water district too small to finance expensive fixes, such as building a 5.5-mile pipeline to import water. Attempts to get money through grants so far have failed.

"We're caught in this Catch-22," said Jack Dugan, 58, president of the Pioneertown Property Owners Association.

It all started in the late 1990s. The town's wells dropped as much as 200 feet and tests showed that naturally occurring arsenic, a carcinogen, was above the recommended health levels, said Bill Stone, water operations manager for the San Bernardino County Water and Sanitation Division, which oversees Pioneertown.

The deeper the wells sink, the more concentrated the arsenic appears to be.

Stone and residents suspect the culprits are a prolonged drought and the 1992 Landers earthquake, which may have shifted rocks and changed the water flow.

Officials stopped hooking up new customers to the water system -- making it almost impossible to construct new homes -- and began mandating that residents conserve water.

Arsenic, a metal, is created through erosion. Exposure to it has been linked to skin abnormalities and, in the long term, cancer of the lungs, bladder, skin, liver and kidneys, according to the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

The state and federal limit for arsenic is 50 parts per billion. Two of Pioneertown's six wells exceed the maximum -- one has registered at more than twice the limit, Stone said.

Uranium also is a concern because its levels are borderline acceptable, he said.

The 110 households connected to the water system regularly receive letters that recommend using bottled water for cooking and drinking.

"Some of them are upset, and you can't blame them," Stone said.

Pasby is one of them. He said he wasn't told about the arsenic when he moved from Desert Hot Springs in 2002.

The artist still doesn't use his filtered water for everything. "If I boil Brussels sprouts, I use that," he said, pointing to the water cooler in his kitchen.

Not everyone in Pioneertown is so cautious. Jim McAlpine, 79, drinks the water straight from the tap because he says the arsenic concentration on the town's west side is low.

Come January, Pioneertown will have to get used to new standards for arsenic. Federal guidelines will set the level at 10 parts per billion, which the state is expected to follow or make even stricter, Stone said.

State and local regulatory agencies are taking a wait-and-see approach until the standards are official, said Joan Mulcare, program manager for the county Environmental Health Services Division.

"We'll have to do something," Mulcare said, adding that options could include hauling in water.

Water delivery is a lifeline for Jake and Carol Flowers. The couple had to find their own water source when they moved to Pioneertown five years ago. They installed two 4,000-gallon tanks for their home and their six horses.

"We've had quite a few times where we got down real low," Jake Flowers, 50, said. "You're scared to flush the toilet."

But he's optimistic that a pipeline will replace his tanks one day.

Previous efforts to find a solution frustrated officials. In 1997, a newly drilled well spouted little water and later contained high arsenic levels, Stone said. Drilling elsewhere in the area would not have produced enough water to replace the contaminated wells.

A treatment plant would be too costly and squander precious water in the process, he said.

Now officials are considering building the 5.5-mile pipeline from Landers to Pioneertown via the Yucca Valley area, said Lisa Manning, deputy chief of administration for the county Special Districts Department, which includes Pioneertown.

But the project's estimated $1.7 million cost would be too high to pass on to customers, she said. "Grant money is the only solution."

So far none has come through, but Pioneertown could know by year's end whether it qualifies for any new funding, Manning said. The pipeline would take about a year to construct, she said.

It may not be a cheap fix, said Bruce Davis, field representative to Supervisor Dennis Hansberger, whose district includes Pioneertown.

"It always gets down to the same thing, it's going to cost a lot of money for water in Pioneertown," Davis said.

Despite the quandary, residents appear not to have lost their sense of humor.

"There's a running joke in town," Pasby said, "'Everybody is a drunk because you can't drink the water.'"