November 29, 2005

Mining bill would dig up public lands

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

San Bernardino Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

California 's mountains and deserts could be hit hard.

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

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

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

November 28, 2005

Far More Than Creatures of Habit

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

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

By Louis Sahagun, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Female tortoises are choosy about their mates.

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

Tortoises spend most of their lives underground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 29 stared back at her, eyes blinking.

Congress Visits CA to Examine Funding for National Parks


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not preserved well

San Bernardino Sun
Voice of the People

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 25, 2005

In life, on bench, judge proves man of resolve

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

By JERRY SOIFER / The Press-Enterprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proposed airport stirs concerns

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 24, 2005

Accusations of land grab in budget bill

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

Zachary Coile, Chronicle Washington Bureau
San Francisco Chronicle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 23, 2005

Grazing Beneficial in Fight Against Wild Fires

Needles Desert Star / Needles, CA

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

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

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

Wesley Chambers

Ontario, California

November 19, 2005

LAWS OF THE LAND; Mining for trouble

Editorials, Op-Ed
Los Angeles Times

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

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

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

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

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

November 18, 2005

Your birthright, up for grabs

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

By Mike Dombeck
Editorials, Op-Ed
Los Angeles Times

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

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

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

Here's how it would work:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

November 16, 2005

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

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

By Bettina Boxall, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Times staff writer Julie Cart contributed to this report.

November 11, 2005

Parklands in Peril

A sneaky plan in Congress could spark a fire sale of public property

Riverside Press-Enterprise


A proposal quietly working its way through Congress could spark a fire sale of public lands, turning back the clock on a law that's already stuck in 1872. If it passes, areas in our national parks, forests and other special places could be among the first to go.

Well over a century ago, to help the mining industry and Western settlement, Congress decided to sell federal lands to miners for no more than $5 per acre. Since then, the price of an ounce of gold has increased almost twenty-fold, but, thanks to the 1872 mining law, the price of gold-bearing public lands has not changed one cent.

As recently as 1994, the law gave a Canadian mining company title to public lands containing an estimated $10 billion worth of minerals for less than $10,000. In response to the massive publicity surrounding the sale, Congress enacted a bipartisan moratorium on the giveaway of federal lands. Today, companies can still mine on these lands, but they cannot buy them away from the public.

A new budget reconciliation proposal by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, would end this ban and resume the privatization of our public lands. His bill requires the Interior Department to sell off lands for $1,000 an acre or the fair market value of the land surface, without regard for mineral value. Simply put, the "smash and grab" proposal would allow public lands worth their weight in precious metals to be sold to mining companies for a pittance.

The bill also eliminates the requirement in the law since 1872 that companies actually discover valuable mineral deposits on public lands before they gain rights to exploit them.

Invaluable Sites

Not satisfied with this liberalization of the discredited 1872 law, Pombo would also let private interests buy federal lands for purposes that have nothing to do with mining, such as building ski resorts, gaming casinos and strip malls on areas currently owned by the American public.

A unanimous Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that "the federal mining law surely was not intended to be a general real estate law." Pombo's bill would change all that, and the first open house could be held inside Death Valley National Park.

While a last-minute amendment ostensibly protected national parks and some other areas, this amendment exempted "valid existing rights." There are more than 900 mining claims in our national parks, including 286 in Death Valley alone. Claim owners will likely assert rights to purchase these lands, and they could succeed.

Moreover, other invaluable sites, such as wilderness study areas and national forest roadless areas, are plainly left vulnerable to eventual privatization under this provision. Hikers, hunters and livestock grazers could find locked gates blocking their passage through previously public lands -- with the U.S. government nearly powerless to do anything about it.

Pombo is now trying to sneak his bill through Congress, hiding it in a budget debate that has been dominated by higher profile controversies. He pushed the bill through committee under the pretense of raising federal revenue, without mentioning that the public, the owner of these lands, will be the big loser.

Hard-rock mining is the only extractive industry that pays no royalties on the resources it removes from public lands. Establishing a modest 8 percent royalty, which is at the lower end of what coal, oil and gas companies already pay for federal resources, would yield twice as much revenue as Pombo expects from his land grab.

Peerless Audacity

William Stewart -- the rabidly pro-mining Nevada senator who wrote the 1872 Mining Law, steered it through Congress and then made a nice living representing miners -- would not have dared to try this. But he did not know Rep. Richard Pombo. As public lands become private real estate and trail markers give way to "No Trespassing" signs, one can almost hear Stewart chuckling in admiration of Pombo's audacity.

John Leshy was solicitor general of the Interior Department under President Clinton, and is a distinguished professor of law at UC Hastings.

November 10, 2005

Welcome back, Kelso

Restored depot proves popular

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

KELSO - With renovation work barely complete, the 81-year-old Kelso Depot already is drawing throngs of visitors from around the world who want to step back in time.

The stately depot, surrounded by a mosaic of mountains, serves as the main visitors center and museum for the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve 60 miles east of Barstow.

It is attracting as many as 300 visitors on Sundays and about 100 on weekdays. And since 1998, the total number of visitors to the park has soared from 315,000 annually to 615,000.

"The building has been restored virtually as it was when the Union Pacific Railroad closed it in 1985," said James Woolsey, the preserve's chief of resource interpretation.

The exterior of the structure gleams in a sandy decor with turquoise trim as it once was. Inside walls are pale yellow with dark stained woodwork.

Kelso is on Kelbaker Road about 35 miles southeast of Baker. It can be reached from both Interstate 40 and Interstate 15.

International travelers like Keith and Christine Mitchell of Brighton, England, interrupted their trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to visit the preserve Thursday. They were happy they did.

"The desert is fantastic," said Keith, port supervisor with a British ferry service. "There's nothing like this back home except for the white Seven Sisters cliffs at Veachy Head."

As the couple entered the depot, Christine exclaimed, "This is really unique. It brings back a touch of the Old West."

Unique it is, indeed.

Interpretative exhibits on the first floor highlight the region's natural features, such as the Kelso dunes and Joshua Tree forest, and displays of wildlife like the desert tortoise. Native wildflowers and models of park creatures like the sidewinder rattlesnake and kangaroo rat are exhibited.

Visitors can press a button to hear a booming and moaning sound that radiates from the 700-foot-high dunes as thousands of grains of sand rub together.

Also on display is a vintage ticket and telegraph office, with the photocopy of a 1905 train register and hoops to allow depot crews to exchange messages with passing trains.

"We tried to keep the character of the structure, with much of the original building intact and lovingly restored," Woolsey said.

He and Park Ranger Linda Slater searched far afield for authentic artifacts, century-old photographs and original furnishings.

"We talked to desert oldtimers and went to eBay, other railroad museums and the Union Pacific," Woolsey said.

A painting of a buffalo that once hung on the wall over the Beanery, the depot's U-shaped lunch counter was found and brought back to Kelso.

The $5 million renovation project, funded by Congress, began in 2002 after three years of planning and research, Slater said.

"We got a lot of cooperation from many people - oldtimers, ranchers, railroaders, miners and Indian tribes - in putting the exhibits together," she said. "We're all proud of our achievement. It took a lot of dedicated effort."

Larry Whalon, the preserve's acting superintendent, said Kelso Depot provides a close look at the history and lifestyle of the region between 1920 and 1980.

"What makes this building special is its authenticity," he said. "It's important to tell about Mojave National Preserve and its people. The exhibits here do that, and that's why they are so relevant."

The stories of homesteaders and ranchers are told in the recorded voices of people like Cima Postmaster Irene Ausmus, store owner Theo Packard and rancher Tim Overson.

And the voice of Curtis Howe Springer, a radio evangelist who praised healing salts mined at Zzyzx, tells visitors about the heyday of the resort off I-15 near Baker.

Widespread response to Springer's radio broadcasts from Zzyzx between 1944 and 1974 turned Baker into California's busiest post office.

The depot housed up to 40 railroad workers from 1924 to 1985, Woolsey said. For recreation, they played billiards and card games in the basement.

Marine Staff Sgt. Joe Ramirez paused Thursday to scan the volumes in the depot's bookstore.

"I'm a history buff, and I enjoy stopping here while driving to the base at Twentynine Palms," he said. "I'm pleased that the Park Service has restored this landmark for posterity."

Within a year, visitors to Kelso Depot can expect to munch on peanut-butter cookies and apple pies like those featured a half-century ago at the Beanery.

Said Slater, "We're doing our best to bring back the depot's rich past for everyone to share and enjoy."

November 9, 2005

Feinstein Calls on Pombo to Withdraw Provision Allowing Sale of Nation's Public Lands for Mining

Author: Howard Gantman - Nevada City, CA

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today urged the Chairman of the House Resources Committee, Richard Pombo, to withdraw a provision that would open up millions of acres of public lands - including areas in National Parks - for sale to mining interests.

Chairman Pombo inserted the provision into the Budget Reconciliation bill, which will be considered by the House of Representatives tomorrow.

The provision would lift the Congressional moratorium on the sale of mining claims, imposed since 1994, and allow claimants to purchase the underlying public lands for $1,000 per acre, or "fair market value" for the surface estate, whichever is greater. Claimants would not have to pay for the far more valuable minerals underlying the lands. Nor would they have to prove that their claims contain mineral deposits before they can purchase the rights to the land.

This could mean that as much as 4,500,000 aces of public lands, National Forests, and National Parks could be sold nationwide.

Following is the text of Senator Feinstein's letter to Chairman Pombo:

"I am deeply concerned that you propose to sell off significant parts of America's treasured public lands, including areas in National Parks, Wilderness areas, and National Forests, as part of the House budget reconciliation bill.

I understand that the bill would in essence lift the Congressional moratorium on the 'patenting' of mining claims, imposed since 1994, and allow claimants to purchase the underlying public lands for $1,000 per acre, or 'fair market value' for the surface estate, whichever is greater. Claimants need not pay for the far more valuable minerals underlying the lands. Critically, while the 1872 Mining Law requires patent applicants to prove that their claims contain valuable mineral deposits before they are entitled to patents, your proposal appears to effectively repeal this requirement.

This provision could allow claimants to carve out numerous private enclaves within our public lands, without even proving that mining deposits lie beneath them. According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in FY 2004 there were 228,638 active mining claims nationwide. If these mining claims are each 20 acres in size, which is typical, it appears that as much as 4,500,000 acres of our public lands, National Forests, and National Parks containing existing mining claims are subject to privatization under your language. And the language allows the purchase of potentially huge blocks of contiguous BLM and National Forest lands as well -- stating that 'blocks' of mining claims or millsites may be purchased if contiguous to claims on public lands where the applicant presents evidence that mineral development work including such activities as remote aerial surveys has been performed.

The effects could be particularly severe on the National Parks protected under the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, which I sponsored. There are 432 unpatented mining claims in the Mojave National Preserve and 286 such claims in Death Valley. The sale of these lands could fragment the desert parks. Equally at risk are close to 40,000 acres with active mining claims in the Tahoe National Forest north and west of Lake Tahoe.

Moreover, your bill also appears to require the Secretary of the Interior to sell 'mineral deposits' or lands containing 'depleted' mineral deposits to anyone desiring them, 'Notwithstanding any other provision of law.' Although certain conservation lands are exempted from this sweeping provision (National Parks, Wilderness areas, National Monuments, National Conservation Areas, National Wildlife Refuges, National Recreation Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, and National Trails), it appears that potentially millions of acres of National Forests and BLM lands would now be required to be put up for sale by the Interior Secretary merely because they contained 'mineral deposits' - a term undefined in your bill – or even 'depleted' mineral deposits.

Such significant legislation for our public lands needs to be fully debated on the merits, not forced through Congress in a reconciliation bill. I urge you to withdraw these land sale provisions from the reconciliation package."

November 8, 2005

Deal May Be Near on Power Plant

Edison is negotiating for a continued supply of coal from a mine on Indian land.

By Marc Lifsher, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

Southern California Edison Co. is close to reaching a deal with two Indian tribes and the world's largest coal company that would bolster the utility's effort to keep open a Nevada power plant that provides cheap electricity to Southern California — but is a major source of air pollution.

Closed-door talks among Edison, the Hopi and Navajo tribes of northern Arizona and mining giant Peabody Energy Corp. are aimed at resolving water-use issues that threaten the future of Peabody's coal-mining operations on Indian land, tribal leaders said. The Black Mesa mine is the only source of coal for the giant Mohave power plant near Laughlin, Nev., and is a vital pillar of the Hopi economy.

"Essentially, the parties are very near to some agreements" on how best to share the region's scarce water supply and other issues related to the mine, Hopi Chairman Wayne Taylor said.

Ensuring a steady supply of coal and water is crucial to Edison's attempt to keep the 1,580-megawatt plant open despite a court-ordered Jan. 1 deadline requiring the utility to either install costly pollution-control equipment or shutter the 34-year-old generating facility.

Edison declined to discuss details of the negotiations. "We are working hard on all reasonable options that could make possible the continued operation of the plant," the company said in a statement.

Environmentalists, who can veto any deal to keep the plant open, were noncommittal Monday about Edison's efforts. They said the utility must fulfill its obligations to cut pollution but said they were "open to a viable proposal" that both cleans the air and boosts tribal economies.

To date, Edison has done little to significantly reduce emissions from the plant since settling a lawsuit brought by environmental groups under the U.S. Clean Air Act in 1999.

Until recently, Edison had told the California Public Utilities Commission that it expected to close the Mohave plant at the end of 2005. That also signaled the end of the Black Mesa mine because its only customer is the generating facility.

But on Sept. 26, Edison, a unit of Rosemead-based Edison International, reversed itself, telling the commission that it wanted to keep the plant open or shut it only temporarily.

One reason cited by the utility: Skyrocketing natural gas prices have sharply increased the cost of operating more modern, gas-fired power plants, making power produced by Mohave's coal-burning generators cheaper by comparison.

Edison, which owns 56% of the plant, also noted that regulators were concerned about the reliability of Southern California's supply of electricity. The Mohave plant provides about 7% of the electricity used by the utility's 13 million customers, many of them in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The remaining plant ownership is split among several utilities, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Edison has repeatedly told California regulators that it wouldn't spend the $1 billion needed for pollution controls and other equipment at the plant until it secured agreements from the Hopis, Navajos and Peabody that would guarantee a long-term supply of coal and water that is required.

Those commitments could be close at hand, Hopi leaders said. They are backing a proposal that would allow Peabody to continue mining at Black Mesa and would ensure a new source of water to carry the coal to the power plant via a 270-mile slurry pipeline.

Edison and the tribal leaders then hope to persuade the environmental groups to give them a waiver to operate the plant for at least three years until the pollution equipment and pipeline improvements can be completed, Hopi leaders said.

According to data gathered in 2002 and 2003 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Mohave plant spewed an average of 19,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, 40,000 tons of sulfur dioxides and 2,000 tons of fine soot a year into the air above Laughlin, a Colorado River resort and gambling town. Emissions from the plant also have contributed to reduced visibility around the Grand Canyon to the east of the plant, environmentalists said.

Environmentalists accuse Edison of sending mixed signals to the Indians, California regulators and the plaintiffs who won the consent decree. "They're playing a game of chicken up to the end of this pending deadline," said Rob Smith of the Sierra Club in Phoenix.

Environmentalists remain frustrated at what they describe as Edison's six years of foot-dragging, said Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff, Ariz. Nevertheless, he said his group would be "happy to listen" to any proposal from the utility.

"Our hope is that we can find a solution that not only cleans up the pollution but also leaves the tribes in a much stronger economic position in the future," he said.

Rob Hammond, Peabody's Southwest group executive, declined to comment on the talks. Navajo leaders didn't return calls seeking comment.

Hopi leaders said they wanted to protect the environment but needed an extension of the pollution-control deadline to make sure that tribal economies weren't harmed by even the temporary loss of coal royalties and, in the Navajo's case, hundreds of high-paying jobs at the Peabody mine.

What's more, the development of a new source of water for the mine from an underground aquifer about 100 miles south of the Peabody open pit could be crucial to economic development of the 7,000-member Hopi tribe and the 250,000-member Navajo Nation.

The Hopi, a tribe of farmers and artisans that has lived on the same desert mesas for the last 1,000 years, has a 50% unemployment rate. A shutdown at the mine would suck as much as 40% out of the $20-million Hopi operating budget for 2006.

"This could be disastrous for the tribe," said Taylor, the chairman. "We can be considered today as an endangered species."

The environmentalists are sympathetic but remain distrustful of Edison.

"We are unwilling to excuse further violations of the law," they told the tribes in a May 25 letter signed by representatives of the Grand Canyon Trust, the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Assn.

Consumer advocates said that closing down the Mohave plant shouldn't leave Edison short of power because the utility would open its new gas-fired, 1,054-megawatt Mountainview power plant in Redlands early next year.

And even if it's retrofitted, the plant at most can operate only 20 more years, said Bill Marcus, a consultant for the Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco-based ratepayers' advocate. Edison's permit to take water from the Colorado River to operate the generators expires in 2026, he said.

The best scenario would be for Edison to give up trying to keep Mohave open and, instead, invest in alternative energy projects and transmission lines that would help the Hopi and Navajo exploit their potentially abundant wind and solar power resources, said Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust.

"With California wanting to invest in cleaner forms of energy," he said, "why buy another 20 years of inefficient, old coal-fired generation?"

November 5, 2005

Depot a desert diamond

Mary Manning
Las Vegas Sun

About an hour and 45 minutes southwest of Las Vegas, the two-lane Cima Road leads from Interstate 15 into Southern California's Mojave Desert.

Miles of Joshua trees, yucca plants and creosote bushes dot the landscape until the horizon gives way to what at first seems like a mirage: a two-story salmon-colored building, its Spanish-style arches rising from the desert floor.

The train tracks next to the building help explain its existence.

Union Pacific built the mission-style building as a depot in 1924. It was close to the halfway point between Barstow and Las Vegas. Nearby Cornfield Spring was a reliable source of water, crucial to coal-fired steam engines.

After years of being left to dry up and blow away, the Kelso Depot in the heart of the Mojave National Preserve once again is welcoming desert travelers.

It has been transformed from a train station into the preserve's visitor center with a museum, historically furnished rooms, a theater and a bookstore.

The depot's U-shaped counter is to start serving meals again in March when the grand opening is scheduled. The counter was popular with passengers who had been riding the rails in trains without dining cars in the early 20th century.

Beginning in March the depot will stay open seven days a week. It actually opened late last month, on a 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule, Thursdays through Sundays.

The word is starting to get out that the depot is already open. More than 200 people visited the depot on Sunday, for example.

But with the grand opening still four months away, visitors can still catch some quiet days at the depot. On those days, the silence after leaving the car in the crushed gravel parking lot is almost overwhelming. No leaves rustle, no water drips and unseen insects hum instead of buzz.

Kelso has long been known largely for a sound. Eleven miles southwest of the depot are the Kelso Sand Dunes, known for their "singing," a haunting bass tone made by the shifting sand.

"The best way to get them booming is to run down them as fast as you can," said National Park Service Ranger Linda Slater, who has been renovating the depot for four years.

A recording of the dunes "singing" can be heard at the new museum. It's one of the features that make the Kelso Depot Information Center perfect for the curious who do not want to linger in the Mojave.

As it did in its former life, the depot continues to serve as a respite for travelers. Patches of grass relieve the desert landscape at the center. Nearby are blossoms of desert wildflowers that attract birds, bees and butterflies.

Inside the depot, the walls are adorned with quotes about the desert such as: "For all the toll the desert takes of a man, it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of stars," by author Mary Austin.

The exhibits include denizens of the desert mounted under glass: the Mojave Desert tortoise, a scorpion, a sidewinder snake, a kangaroo rat.

There's a 500-year-old clay pot, probably made by a Mojave Indian; woven baskets and drawings of other desert tribes; informational displays of the area's volcanic and anthropologic history.

Statler said more exhibits are possible. The Park Service would like to eventually turn the empty basement into a Children's Discovery Center with interactive exhibits, for example.

At one time the basement held a pool table and piano for entertainment -- not only for the rail passengers and workers, but for the miners and others who lived in Kelso.

When the United States entered World War II, Kelso boomed. Miners extracted iron ore from mines in Southern Nevada and Southern California and sent it by rail to wartime factories.

"At that time, around 1,000 people lived here," Statler said. The town had a one-room school, a post office and a grocery store.

But after the war, Kelso withered and most of the buildings crumbled into dust.

The depot weathered the years, but since it was no longer needed for the ever more efficient diesel trains, it was closed in 1986, and Union Pacific made plans to demolish it.

In 1991, the federal government, responding to public pressure, stepped in to save the building. The renovation took years.

The original color scheme emerged after workers scraped layers of paint away, Statler said. A "putrid green" covered the depot's interior until white paint and shiny dark wood trim resurrected the original look.

To restore an authentic look to the station's hub -- the ticket and telegraph office near the baggage room --Statler perused eBay and found period pieces: an accounting book, baggage tickets, pencils, an early 20th century stapler and candlesticks.

An average of 60 trains a day still chug through Kelso, compared with 100 in Barstow, Park Service volunteer Vince Marino said as freight cars rumbled past and shook the depot's red-tile floor.

For most people the Mojave Desert is a place to only pass through. But it also has always been a land of dreams attracting tourists, miners, ranchers, train crews and artists.

One such person is Ken Hall, a National Park Service worker who has spent most of the last 40 years in the Mojave's dry air. Hall lives in Baker, a 70-mile round trip from his work at the depot.

Before people swarmed into the Southwest and settled up and down Interstate 15, Hall frequently brought his children to the depot to loll on the grass and watch the passing trains.

He said he stays on the job to "to take care of my desert for my grandchildren."

Hall has driven trucks for Gilbert Trucking of Las Vegas, managed the Denny's Restaurant in Baker and served in the Air Force in Yuma, Ariz., before he settled for life on a road that seems to go nowhere.

After describing the spectacular sunrises with a sigh, Hall takes a cup of coffee and walks out the backdoor, ignoring the satellite hookup feeding a fully stocked entertainment center.

"I prefer the silence," he said.

Kelso Depot

Where: Take Interstate 15 from Las Vegas to the Cima Road exit. Kelso is 35 miles south of Baker, Calif., on Kelbaker Road.

When: The center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Starting in March, it will be open seven days a week.

Cost: There is currently no entrance fee for Mojave National Preserve.

For more information: (760) 733-4040.

National Park Service Web site:

Source: National Park Service