December 26, 2005

Wild horses denied free rein

Thousands kept in pens as numbers exceed rangeland capacity

By Electa Draper, Staff Writer
Denver Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too few adoptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More in pens than range

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 20, 2005

Desert bighorn ewes may be farmed out

Victorville Daily Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 19, 2005

Mojave National Preserve gets new boss

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

The Press-Enterprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wildlife Guzzlers

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

Deadline: Jan. 31

By e-Mail:

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

To get the report:

Relocation project planned for bighorn sheep

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No schedule has been set for the removal process.

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

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

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

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

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

December 16, 2005

New man in charge at the Mojave National Preserve

Dennis Schramm has been named superintendent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 15, 2005

Dear Santa, Please Remember America’s National Parks


Contact: Kelli Holsendolph, NPCA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mojave guzzler plan calls for continued analysis

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Environmentalists are lukewarm over the proposal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 14, 2005

Revisions of Mining Law Put On Hold

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

By Janet Wilson and Bettina Boxall, Staff Writers

Los Angeles Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 13, 2005

Author of Mining Bill Plans Revise

Los Angeles Times
From Associated Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 12, 2005

Mohave's Closure Could Be Imminent

By Marc Lifsher, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mid Hills Campground is open at Mojave National Preserve

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

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

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

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

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

December 10, 2005

Reason for concern about sale of U.S. lands

Los Angeles Times

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

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

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

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


Helendale, Calif.

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

• • • • • •

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

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

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

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


Los Angeles

December 4, 2005

This Land May Not Be Your Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That is not right," he said.

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

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

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

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

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