May 31, 2006



Needles Desert Star

Beloved and respected long-time Mojave leader, Llewellyn Barrackman passed away on May 21, 2006, in Bullhead City, Ariz. Mr. Barrackman was nationally recognized as a force in American Indian politics and local economic development. Llewellyn was born in Needles, Calif., on July 4, 1918, to Roger Barrackman and Mabel Kempton.

After losing his mother as a young boy, he was raised by his grandmother until he was captured and forcibly sent to the Fort Mojave Boarding School in 1927. When the school closed in 1930 he transferred to Phoenix Indian School, where he graduated in 1938. Given his military training from boarding school, he readily enlisted in the U. S. Army during WWII. He served in the Engineering Corps, which built the Trans-Alaska Highway. In 1944, he married his sweetheart Betty Vanderbilt, who he remained married to for 62 years.

After the war he worked at Sierra Ordinance Depot in Herlong, Calif., until 1958 when he brought his young family back to Needles. In those years he volunteered his time and automobile to the Tribal Council and earned the lasting trust of the senior Mojave leadership. His energy and love for the community was fulfilled through is involvement in coaching local sports teams and playing the trombone in the Fort Mojave Band. Also, Llewellyn and Betty served as foster parents to many orphaned and abandoned Mojave children.

In 1962, he was elected to the Fort Mojave Tribal Council, where he served his people for over 40 years. In 1965, Mr. Barrackman became chairman and set in motion a bold and unique economic development plan that resulted in the enormous economic success of the tribe today. Under his leadership fort Mojave developed an irrigation system for agriculture, planned and implemented numerous economic enterprises, and built its own casino and gambling industry. Mr. Barrackman constructed new housing for tribal members, created numerous employment opportunities, and instituted a per capita profit sharing for each member of the tribe. In his later years, Llewellyn served as vice-chairman until his retirement in 2004.

Throughout his political career Llewellyn served on numerous national, state, and private boards and commissions, including the Nevada Gaming Commission.

During his lifetime, Mr. Barrackman and his wife Betty preserved and promoted both Mojave language and culture. His motto "Time doesn't wait for anyone," led to great success in teaching younger tribal members. His direct involvement in traditional affairs created a Mojave cultural renaissance.

Llewellyn shared his immense knowledge with many and ensured that Mojave culture and history will not be forgotten. Llewellyn and Betty's efforts were recognized by the Smithsonian Institution in 1993 and the Mashantuckett Pequot Museum in 1996.

In later years, Llewellyn was consulted and recognized by world-renowned linguists and anthropologists.

Mr. Barrackman's greatest pride was in the Fort Mojave Band, which remains a vital part of the community due in large part to his efforts. Llewellyn recently organized the 100th Anniversary Celebration of the band and its illustrious history.

The entire tribe as well as the Laughlin-Bullhead area benefit today from the strong and thoughtful leadership of this legendary man. Llewellyn Barrackman is remembered for his powerful presence, eloquence, quiet dignity, generosity and humility.

Llewellyn is survived by his loving wife, Betty; daughters, Barbara Barrackman and Iris Scerato; son, Joe Scerato; granddaughter, Melanie Otero; and great-grandsons Keenan Jenkins and Joaquin Otero. He is also survived by his aunt, Faith Wilson; and his brother, Lionel Barrackman.

Fort Mojave Indian Tribal traditional services were held on May 24 at the Fort Mojave Tribal Mourning Hall. Fort Mojave traditional rites were held May 25 at the Fort Mojave Indian Cemetery.

Arrangements were handled by Dimond & Sons Needles Mortuary.

May 30, 2006

Barstow students buy acre of desert land

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

BARSTOW - Appreciation for nature begins in childhood, and a group of youngsters has demonstrated how anyone who cares can help protect a small patch of the Mojave Desert and its creatures.

After collecting aluminum cans and plastic bottles for a year, 80 first-graders at Lenwood School raised $214 to help buy an acre of land at Mojave National Preserve.

"With their effort, coupled with an $86 contribution from San Bernardino County's waste-management department, we presented a check for $300 (recently) to the National Park Service to add a bit of land to the preserve," teacher Ginger O'Brien said.

"Students in four classrooms brought recyclables from home and turned them in for vouchers. It was a part of our program to teach children to understand and appreciate the desert. Hopefully they will continue this appreciation throughout their lives."

Superintendent Dennis Schramm and resource chief James Woolsey of Mojave National Preserve accepted the check. "We welcome the efforts of these young people," Schramm said. "We want children to learn about the natural world early in their lives so they can enjoy it throughout their lives."

Lenwood School's nature-awareness programs, which include field trips to Barstow-area museums and hands-on involvement in caring for a cactus garden, awakens the children to the wonders of the vast Mojave region.

"Children are our future," Woolsey said. "If we don't teach them early about our environment, they may never appreciate it. We have millions of acres of wild lands around us. For youngsters not to go out and enjoy them would be a shame."

Since the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve was established in 1994, an ongoing effort has been made to acquire parcels of privately held land within its borders. Private land within the preserve has dropped from 220,000 acres to just under 100,000 acres.

"Every year, we ask landowners if they want to sell their property," the superintendent explained.

"The National Park Foundation, chartered by Congress to support the park system, negotiates to buy land. Whatever it acquires is donated to the park system."

Several thousand private landowners hold chunks of land in a checkerboard pattern scattered throughout the national preserve. Among these parcels are state-school lands that sometimes are exchanged for surplus federal property, Schramm said.

Mojave National Preserve contains the world's largest Joshua tree forest, lofty sand dunes, the historic Mojave wagon road, Indian wall paintings known as petroglyphs, and hundreds of wild creatures like the desert tortoise and Mojave ground squirrel.

It is the only place where three desert ecosystems meet the Mojave, the Great Basin and the Sonora.

"Lenwood School's efforts match up with the goal of Park Service Director Fran Mainella to improve the relevance of the park system in the 21st century," Schramm said. "Many children don't have the chance to sit around a campfire in the wilderness today. We want to attract more of them to our parks to help amplify the marvelous heritage they represent."

At Lenwood School, two first graders shared their feelings on the fund-raising effort.

"I brought in a lot of cans and bottles to buy more land for the desert tortoise," said Karina Cruz, 6, daughter of Manuel and Maria Cruz.

Michelle Kounovsky, also, 6, daughter of Brian and Kimberly Kounovsky, said the yearlong effort was fun. "We want to help the national preserve get bigger," she explained.

In addition to O'Brien, first-grade teachers Wendi Matley, Melissa Moor and Debbie Williams, helped spearhead the conservation program.

"The children took home bags with brochures about the desert tortoise to share with their family and neighbors," O'Brien said. "And they drew pictures of various Mojave creatures to fill a book in which they described the animals."

Among the children's comments that accompanied the drawings:

"Kangaroo rats hop on long back legs and use their tails to balance," said Gabriel Alvarez.

"Cactus wrens build a nest like a football. They eat lizards. They take dust baths," Faith Aguirre said.

"Burrowing owls live in the ground and come out during the day," Delena Chavez said. "They are not smarter than other birds."

"Cougars jump high. They walk quietly. They make a purring sound," Vernon Colbert said.

Applauding the conservation program, Lenwood School Principal Tom Reynolds said first-graders are eager to learn about the environment. "By learning about it early in their lives, their appreciation of the natural world will stay with them," he said. "It's important that our children appreciate the desert around us and help conserve it."

Fighting to save the desert tortoise

Population has declined 90 percent since 1980s

By TRACIE TROHA Staff Writer
Barstow Desert Dispatch

VICTORVILLE — Wildlife experts say the threatened desert tortoise has virtually disappeared from the High Desert, and efforts to save it are being hampered by constant construction and the spread of disease.

Once common and widespread, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the desert tortoise population has declined 90 percent since the 1980s, when it was first listed as a threatened species.

Randy Arnold, a biologist and head of the Hesperia consulting firm RCA and Associates, has been doing desert tortoise surveys for the last 20 years and says these days its rare to find one in the Victor Valley.

"Part of the reason is because development activity has resulted in a reduction of their habitat," Arnold said. "They also suffer from a respiratory infection. It is a fairly nasty disease that has hit the tortoise population pretty hard."

Arnold's company conducts biological surveys for a majority of the development projects in the High Desert and said the discovery of a tortoise does not stop the project. The tortoise is just relocated to land operated by the Bureau of Land Management.

While the move may be helpful to the tortoise, its habitat is being destroyed, said Michael Connor, executive director of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee.

"The desert is getting smaller and smaller everyday," Connor said. "Big cities are slowly spreading into the desert."

In an effort to save the desert tortoise, non-profit organizations like the Preserve Committee are working with government agencies to protect the tortoises' habitat.

Connor said the Preserve Committee is currently working with BLM to retire a grazing permit on a portion of the Blackwater Well Ranch in northwestern San Bernardino County in order to restore a critical habitat.

"Right now we are trying to reduce the grazing of domestic livestock in the desert," Connor said. "The tortoises can be trampled, their eggs get damaged and their burrows get damaged. Cows and sheep will eat anything green out there and compete with the tortoise."

By saving the habitat, Connor said, the organization is also saving other threatened species as well, including the Mojave ground squirrel and the burrowing owl.

Connor said educational programs are also an important part of saving the desert tortoise.

Members of the High Desert Chapter of the California Turtle and Tortoise Club often visit schools and other groups to talk about the need to save the desert tortoise, according to member Judy Rogers.

The club, along with the Joshua Tree Turtle and Tortoise Rescue, also adopt tortoises to "caregiver" families.

Yet as long as construction work continues in the High Desert, the desert tortoise could eventually disappear, according to Rae Packard, director of the Joshua Tree Turtle and Tortoise Rescue.

"Environmental encroachment is the number one threat to the desert tortoise," Packard said. "And the respiratory disease really did a lot of damage to the healthy population that was left."

Connor said trying to save the tortoise habitat is a long and tedious process.

"We are not going to see an immediate impact. It's going to take 20 years or more," he said. "People should take after the tortoise. They are slow moving and patient. We should do the same. We have to be patient."

May 27, 2006

Severe Drought Traced Along Colorado River

Analysis of tree rings from 1490 to 1997 shows that dry spells are a 'defining feature.' It raises questions about growth in the region.

By Bettina Boxall, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

A new study of tree ring records in the Colorado River basin reaffirms that one of the West's most important water sources is no stranger to severe drought.

Analyzing tree cores that reflect how wet or dry the climate was, scientists reconstructed the Colorado River's flow from 1490 to 1997. During that period, they found evidence of as many as eight severe droughts that lasted five consecutive years.

In a dry spell from 1844 through 1848, the average Colorado flow was even less than during the drought that gripped the basin recently and left some of its biggest reservoirs half empty.

The recent drought "is not without precedence," researchers wrote. "Overall these analyses demonstrate that severe, sustained droughts are a defining feature" of the Upper Colorado, which supplies most of the river's water.

The study echoes other research showing that, when the Colorado water was divided among seven Western states in 1922, it was an unusually wet period, resulting in overly optimistic water allocations.

"There's not a limitless amount of water for growth in the Southwest," said David Meko, study coauthor and an associate research professor at the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. "If everybody uses what they're entitled to, there's a shortage. On top of this, we have these climatic episodes."

Meko and coauthors Connie Woodhouse of the National Climatic Data Center and Stephen Gray of the U.S. Geological Survey Desert Laboratory concluded: "The long-term perspective provided by tree ring reconstructions points to looming conflict between water demand and supply."

About 1,400 miles long, the Colorado supplies water to 25 million people and several million acres of farmland from Denver to Southern California.

The basin drought that began in 2000 — the driest since record keeping began in 1906 — has eased somewhat. But Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river's two major reservoirs that supply Arizona, Las Vegas and the Los Angeles region, remain low.

Powell is 49% full and Mead is at 56% capacity. Moreover, last year's bountiful flows into Powell from the upper basin are expected to fall below normal again this year.

Federal water managers are drawing up guidelines that would determine how a shortage would be handled if one were officially declared on the river, which is governed by complex water laws involving the states and the federal government.

In the meantime, the states have recommended some changes in how Powell and Mead are operated. And they want to explore ways of boosting the river's flow — for instance, through cloud seeding that would increase snowfall in mountains that drain into the basin.

The tree ring study, published in the May issue of Water Resources Research, built on a similar 1976 effort. That earlier study found the highest sustained flows over a more than 400-year period, from 1520 to 1961, occurred in the early 1900s, when farmers were pouring into the region and states were dividing up the Colorado's liquid riches.

The 1976 tree ring study also detected a drought that persisted for about 20 years in the late 1500s.

The new research relies on different ring samples, drawn from both living trees and dead ones, as well as data from the past three decades.

Of the eight droughts the study chronicled since the Columbus era, one was worse than the recent drought. Researchers said two, in the early 1500s and early 1600s, have a 25% chance of being as severe. The others have a 10% chance of being drier than 1999-2004.

The reconstruction also found that below-average flows lasted for longer periods, in one case, 11 consecutive years.

In one bit of good news, the researchers concluded the Colorado's average annual long-term flows are not as low as estimated in the 1976 study.

That research suggested an average flow of 13.5 million acre-feet a year, compared to the new estimate of 14.6 million. (An acre foot is enough to supply two Southern California families for a year.)

Still, that is less water than has been legally allocated to the states and Mexico.

Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Colorado, said politicians are still relying too much on the unusually wet records of the 1900s in shaping water policy.

"The study gives you a good indication that the past wasn't exactly like the 1900s, and they ought to be very, very cautious" in predicting future water levels, Kuhn said.

May 26, 2006

Kelso Depot back on track

Memories revived by restoration


Theo Packard.

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Calif. -- Trains don't stop much at the Kelso Depot these days, but Theo Packard remembers when they did.

Packard lived in Kelso from about 1917 to 1935. Until the Great Depression cost him the job, he briefly worked as a cashier at the depot's lunch counter a few years after it opened in 1924.

Back then, Kelso was a bustling little railroad town, where trains would stop to take on water and let their passengers off to eat and stretch their legs.

Packard, now 95 and living in Studio City, Calif., said the tracks in front of the depot also were busy with "helper" locomotives that were used to get trains up the steep grade between Kelso and Cima, 18 miles and a 2,100-foot elevation gain to the east.

Though he didn't work the rails, Packard got to know that stretch of track pretty well.

"In the early days, you used to be able to ride along on the helper engines," he said.

Packard was among more than 600 people who traveled to Kelso on Saturday to celebrate the building's grand reopening, not as a depot but as the central visitors center for the 1.6 million acre Mojave National Preserve.

The National Park Service spent three years and $5.1 million restoring the three-story, Spanish Mission Revival-style structure, which cost $88,000 when it was first built.

George Lowell and his wife, Lisa, came from Apache Junction, Ariz., to see how the renovation turned out.

It wasn't Lowell's first time at the depot, but it might as well have been. The last time he saw the building, he was 4.

"I've just got pictures to look at and the stories my sister tells. She's the historian of the family," he said. "This is my first time back since 1949, and believe me, it's a thrill."

Lowell brought along an antique wax stamp that was used to seal envelopes in Kelso's post office during the 1920s and '30s. He gave the stamp to the Park Service along with some old family photographs from Kelso.

Lowell said his father worked as a mechanic for the nearby Vulcan Mine. His grandfather, Charles Frank Lowell, drove one of the "helper" engines.

Packard remembers Lowell's grandfather well. "He rescued me one time," he said. It happened early one morning when Packard was driving to Kelso from Las Vegas and fell asleep at the wheel of his 1932 Ford coupe. The car drifted off the road and crashed, so Packard used his headlights to signal a passing "helper" engine.

Charles Lowell stopped to pick him up and take him the rest of the way to Kelso, where he showed up at his mother's door with blood all over his face. "She nearly fainted when she saw me," Packard said.

Though the depot began to fade with the advent of the diesel locomotive and the decline of mining in the area after World War II, the tracks remain busy today.

Bob Bryson, who works out of the Park Service office in Barstow, Calif., said that if there isn't a freight train rumbling past the depot when you get there, just wait for 15 minutes or so.

"This is Union Pacific's main route from Las Vegas and Salt Lake City down to Los Angeles," he said.

The first train Katherine Shotwell remembers seeing at the Kelso Depot is the one she was on when she arrived there with her family in 1944.

"I stepped off of that train and onto that platform, and someone had to come out and unlock the depot" because it was late, said the 70-year-old Shotwell, who drove down from her home in Las Vegas for Saturday's event.

She vividly recalled the day when a huge locomotive nicknamed "Big Boy" broke loose from a siding and derailed in front of the depot.

"Its boiler broke and flooded the street," she said. "But the real show was watching the cranes lift it up and put it back on the tracks. That was my 9-year-old memory."

Like Lowell and others, Shotwell brought along an envelope full of keepsakes from her days in Kelso. Mixed in with some old photographs was her war bond booklet, which showed her address as "Trailer #17, Kelso, CA."

Shotwell also showed off her report card from the 1944-45 school year. It describes the then-Katherine Dell as a "good conscientious pupil" and gives her high marks in everything but being "neat and orderly."

"I haven't changed a whole heck of a lot," she said.

The Kelso Depot closed in August 1964, though the restaurant continued to operate until July 1985. Union Pacific donated the building and sold the land to the Bureau of Land Management in 1992. The Park Service took over the property when the national preserve was established in 1994.

The depot first reopened to the public in late October, and it has drawn pretty good crowds ever since, said park ranger Linda Slater.

"You think you're out in the middle of nowhere, and then you've got all these people," she said. "It's cranking all day long out here."

The visitor center is now open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m daily.

Slater said it probably will take another year for the Park Service to reopen the depot's lunch counter and find someone to operate it. In the meantime, she said, visitors are welcome to bring along a lunch and eat it at the counter.

Packard is just glad the counter is still there. He said he used to wonder if the old building ever would be brought back to life.

"I certainly wished for it," he said.

Now it looks just like it did when it was first built, he said, right down to the color of the paint on the walls. "It's unbelievable."

In the Desert, Ancient Signs

National Park Service archaeologist David Nichols hikes through the Mojave National Preserve.

New York Times

On the northern border of a vast desert preserve, halfway up a dusty hillside and overlooking a great forest of Joshua trees, David Nichols knelt to brush off a flat gray stone.

"Yep, this is one right here," he said, motioning toward a sheet of exposed bedrock. A group of small, closely spaced stones, like tiny turrets in the sand, formed a vague ring at his feet. "These supposedly kept the rodents out."

Mr. Nichols, one of two full-time research archaeologists employed at Mojave National Preserve, was showing off a recent discovery. On a nondescript hill, a quarter-mile off a four-wheel-drive dirt track, the remnants of a prehistoric way of life lay scattered in the sand.

Throughout Mojave National Preserve, a 1.6 million-acre park about 140 miles northeast of Los Angeles, the subtle traces of a bygone civilization are all around. Pictographs painted on cave walls, dart tips in the sand, shelters, fire rings and pottery shards are common in the area, where generations of prehistoric people lived and died. Indeed, Mojave National Preserve is an amateur archaeologist's dream, with undocumented sites open year-round for visitors to explore in the empty, undeveloped park.

The Drying Pallet Site, as Mr. Nichols has come to call his new hillside finding, features 21 limestone slabs encircled with rocks that were carefully placed hundreds of years ago. The indigenous people, Mr. Nichols told his small tour group, used the sunny protected rock platforms to prepare Joshua tree blossoms.

"It was dried like beef jerky," he said of the white blossoms, which each spring still daub the land below in one of the world's largest and densest forests of Joshua trees. "Food in the desert was dried for preservation; it was the only way."

Mr. Nichols, a 39-year-old Los Angeles native, has discovered more than 50 significant sites since coming to work for the park in 2001. The Drying Pallet Site was identified just four months ago. Dozens of others, he said, most likely pepper the preserve's hills and canyons.

In recent years, noteworthy findings, including pictograph-packed caves, have been discovered by visiting hikers and amateur archaeologists. But while the park staff encourages people to explore the backcountry, collecting artifacts or disturbing historical sites in any way is forbidden. Take only photographs, leave only footprints, as the axiom goes.

Rangers at Mojave National Preserve do not provide directions to most documented archaeological locations, though some staff members and volunteers, including Mr. Nichols, may give clues. "We call Mojave a 'discovery park,' " Mr. Nichols said of the Delaware-size preserve, which has only 30 miles of established hiking trails. "I might suggest features to look for in the hills, but people are on their own to get off trail and see what they can find."

The official park map is nearly devoid of references to archaeology, as is the park's Web site. Signage is scant. Tours are limited to an occasional offering from California State University, Fullerton, which operates its research-oriented Desert Studies Center in the park.

Mr. Nichols's recent tour was a rare occasion, as he leads fewer than 10 trips a year, primarily to educate fellow park staff members or visiting researchers. His tours are not available to the general public.

Like most activities in Mojave National Preserve, exploring the park for uncharted archaeology is a do-it-yourself adventure. Visitors coming to see petroglyphs and arrowheads need to plan ahead, researching the area's history and culture to become educated on where to start the hunt. Visitors also need to be prepared for an immersion in the desert wilderness — snakes, scorpions, sun, heat and all.

Mojave National Preserve is the meeting place of three great North American deserts: the Great Basin, the Sonoran and its namesake Mojave. The area is a vast hinterland of dunes and cinder cones, tumbleweed plains, mesas and mountain forests. Turquoise deposits brought journeying Anasazi to the area hundreds of years ago.

Temperatures are extreme all year, with cold nights and blazing days. Elevations range from 800 feet to higher than 7,000 feet. It is exceedingly arid, with some parts of the park seeing only three inches of rain in a year.

Yet life thrives, as it has for thousands of years, among the Joshua trees and juniper. Quail, hummingbirds, mule deer, bighorn sheep, roadrunners, coyotes, badgers, rattlers, sidewinders and giant centipedes share a dry, dusty habitat. Sagebrush, creosote and yucca dot the land. Golden eagles and red-tailed hawks swoop above in the desert thermals.

Human habitation is limited to a few park staff members and a handful of land owners whose private ranches were grandfathered in when the preserve was created in October 1994. Mr. Nichols lives in a small green trailer in the middle of the park, Edward Abbey-style, with a water tank on the roof and no indoor plumbing, though with satellite Internet and HBO.

At the second stop of the day, deep in the park's interior and not too far from Mr. Nichols's green trailer, the small tour group walked two miles across the desert. A rocky flat-top ridge was in the distance. Barrel cactuses and yuccas grew sparsely on the red-brown landscape. Rocks and sand stretched to the horizon.

A slight hill dead-ended at a cliff, and Mr. Nichols stopped to look up. The rock wall above, a gray, disintegrating mass, held a mosaic of tiny dancing figures.

"Wow, look at these petroglyphs!" said Mary Ann Guggemos, a 48-year-old park volunteer from Buffalo. Carved in a veneer of rust-brown desert varnish were the depictions of bighorn sheep, masked human figures and male stickpeople with no necks but fingers and small phallic appendages. Concentric circles dotted the stone. Diamonds, ovals, a square, pits, grooves and other abstract images hovered nearby.

The Pinto House Site, as this find has come to be known, was inhabited by ancestral Mojaves or Chemehuevi, according to Mr. Nichols, and they lived and worshiped in the dusty dwelling. Pottery shards mixed with small stones and animal dung in the dirt. A faint ring of rocks encircled a small shrub. Eleven slick metates, worn stone pallets used for grinding piñon seeds, acorns, juniper berries and other grains, sat under the overhanging rock face. And the assemblage of petroglyphs looked down upon it all.

"The sacred and the mundane were mixed in this culture," Mr. Nichols said, standing beside rock rings and milling stones. He said the etchings above were probably made during a ceremony, perhaps dreams manifested and scratched on a wall. "They didn't go to a church to worship," he said.

A hawk hovered in a wind gust above the cliff face. Petroglyph men stared down four modern-day visitors. The Pinto House Site, a bare forgotten diorama, cradled a human presence once again. Dust kicked up, and a second hawk moved into the updraft, paralleling its mate, two desert beings silhouetted and still on a pale blue sky.

May 25, 2006

Human remains identified

Desert Dispatch

BAKER -- The human remains found by a family of hikers last week have been identified and the Coroner's office determined the cause of death to be blunt trauma.

An autopsy was performed Friday on the remains found on May 14, when a family from Las Vegas was hiking in the Mojave National Preserve near Cima and Excelsior Mine roads west of Interstate 15 and north of Baker and found what looked like human remains.

A representative from the Coroner's office released the cause of death as blunt trauma, and investigators believe the victim died at another location and was later left at the Cima Road location.

On Monday investigators were able to determine that the body was that of Lawrence Thomas, 47, of Henderson, Nev., who was reported missing on April 22 in Henderson, according to information from the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Homicide Detail. He was last seen on April 13.

Anyone with further information on the case is urged to contact homicide investigators Detective Jon Billings or Sgt. Frank Bell at (909) 387-3589.

Information can also be left anonymously by calling WeTip at (800) 78-CRIME. WeTip informants are eligible for up to $1,000 reward if their information leads to an arrest and conviction.

May 23, 2006

Power Lines and Pipelines Draw Closer to Parklands

Under orders from Congress to move quickly, the Department of Energy and Bureau of Land Management will approve thousands of miles of new power line and pipeline corridors on federal lands across the West in the next 14 months.

By Janet Wilson, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

Under orders from Congress to move quickly, the Department of Energy and Bureau of Land Management will approve thousands of miles of new power line and pipeline corridors on federal lands across the West in the next 14 months. The energy easements are likely to cross national parks, forests and military bases as well as other public land.

Environmentalists and land managers worry about the risk of pipeline explosions and permanent scarring of habitat and scenery from pylons and trenches. Military officials have expressed concern that the installations could interfere with training.

But industry lobbyists and congressional policymakers said expedited approvals for new corridors were vital to ensuring that adequate power from coal beds, oil fields and wind farms in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho reached the booming population centers of the Southwest.

In California alone, officials predict they will need an additional 14,000 megawatts of electricity per year, over the current 57,000 megawatts, to serve an expected 13 million more people by 2014.

ExxonMobil, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas and Electric and others have proposed corridors in the state across Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Lassen Volcanic national parks as well as the Mojave National Preserve, several military bases, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and seven national forests.

Elsewhere, routes near Moab, Utah, the Cascades and Rocky Mountains have been proposed, some up to five miles wide and 2,000 miles long.

"We are concerned about our lands," said Lee Dickinson, head of the National Park Service's special uses division, who is on a joint federal agency task force designed to resolve conflicting needs. "They know that we are not thrilled."

Department of Energy officials declined to provide an internal working map of which corridors were under consideration, saying it would be released only after environmental review. At that point, a map will be released showing possible routes, including those recommended by the department, and the public will have a chance to comment.

"We don't want to confuse the public," said David Meyer of the department's Office of Electricity Deliverability and Energy Reliability.

Not all routes being considered will be approved, and attempts are being made to avoid sensitive areas "unless there's a dire need," said Julia Souder, who is managing the project for the department.

Acting at the behest of the nation's largest utilities, Congress in its 2005 Energy Policy Act gave federal agencies until August 2007 to review and adopt major energy corridors across 11 states.

"That's warp speed," Scott Powers, a BLM official, said at a planning session last winter.

The legislation was designed to fast-track construction by requiring a single, overarching environmental review of the effect of dozens of energy corridors across federal land. The aim is to avoid time-consuming project-by-project reviews. Federal energy regulators were also given authority to designate power lines in the "national interest," which would allow them to overrule federal agencies or states or counties that withheld approval for segments of projects.

"They've taken away our sovereignty," said John Geesman, who sits on the California Energy Commission. "We're looking down the barrel of a gun."

Geesman said state officials were partly to blame for not designating more corridors sooner. But he said the law Congress passed went too far. As challenging as it is to find room for long corridors, Geesman said, they should not cross sensitive public lands.

Hotly contested proposals such as those across Anza-Borrego and the Cleveland and San Bernardino national forests could now be approved by federal officials if California said no.

Environmentalists say existing energy corridors on public land, most of them authorized before laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act were passed, present a cautionary tale. Fuel pipelines have exploded or leaked because of sabotage or natural disaster, said Bill Corcoran of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. In March 2005, a landslide in the Angeles National Forest broke a crude oil pipeline, dumping 126,000 gallons into Pyramid Lake, which supplies drinking water to Los Angeles.

Environmentalists and some federal scientists say the huge number of potential new corridors and accelerated timeline are a recipe for ecological devastation. They note that the government's hurried environmental review of the proposed corridors, to be completed by year's end, will miss key breeding seasons of affected fauna.

"That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. They want to get by with a lot of sloppy, dirty work," said Howard Wilshire, a retired U.S. Geological Survey scientist who for 20 years studied human effects on public lands.

He said that with an environmental study of the arid Southwest scheduled for the hot summer months, many species would not be documented because plants will have died back and animals will be underground. Wilshire said his studies and others on the effects of roads, power lines and other linear development across the Mojave found that endangered species such as the desert tortoise were killed during construction, and that the projects permanently fragmented and eroded critical habitat.

Although power lines appear to sail through the air, every 160-foot-tall pylon is built on a concrete pad with a spur road connecting to a longer maintenance road, creating an artificial barrier across the fragile desert floor. Wilshire said bulldozing trenches for pipelines had similar effects.

"We're talking about millennia, if ever, for recovery of an ecosystem," he said.

Heath Nero of the Wilderness Society said that although it was good to study cumulative impacts, each project should also be examined.

"There potentially is greatness to this if we can get them to keep the corridors relatively narrow and placed in appropriate areas, which … are along already disturbed areas like freeways," he said. "There's two things that could go wrong…. One is to inappropriately site them in national parks…. Problem No. 2 is the categorical exclusion of specific projects from full environmental review."

Military officials have different concerns.

"Although I have yet to see a full map, the small-scale map I did see appeared to show the corridors running through military training grounds," wrote Army official Stephen Hart of Ft. Lewis, Wash., in public comments to energy task force staff.

Project staffers said they were trying to bundle most projected lines near existing power lines and freeways, and said they would use data from agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM to protect species and habitat. Energy officials did not return calls for comment about military concerns.

Dickinson of the National Park Service said energy officials were trying to address her agency's concerns and that Lassen, Death Valley and Joshua Tree had been spared "at this moment." The Mojave preserve is still on the map, she said, as are Canyonlands National Park in Utah and Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Las Vegas. Corridors may also be designated on federal land next to parks that would affect visitors' views, she said.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who wants corridors built in his state, said he didn't like the federal government usurping state authority. He said western states had worked for years to map future lines.

He said he would sue if necessary, depending on which corridors were picked.

"I'd rather not have to get to lawyering, but we may have to," he said. "Washington, D.C., is seldom helpful for those of us who live in the West, and this is another example…. The good news is their reach is so inefficient, they may never get it done."

But energy lobbyists and policymakers said that because the White House and Congress imposed a tight deadline, federal agencies were moving with unprecedented speed.

A bipartisan majority headed by Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the power corridor legislation.

"We're very encouraged," said Meg Hunt, lobbyist for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents utilities in the U.S. serving 71% of all consumers. She said designating corridors regionally had been in the works for 20 years but had repeatedly stalled when field staff in federal or state agencies didn't like particular projects.

"Shortly after President George W. Bush came into office, there was a renewed recognition that there was going to need to be a major build-out in transmission infrastructure to meet western needs," she said. "I do think the time constraint Congress imposed was the genesis."

California state parks officials are separately considering dozens of development proposals of all kinds, including toll roads and power lines.

Geesman said it was unclear who would ultimately pay for the new utility lines, and the public might have to pay the tab, through construction subsidies or bill increases. Utilities prefer public land because access across it is free or cheap, requiring modest lease payments at most, and poses fewer problems than securing rights from multiple private properties, he said.

Marny Funk, spokeswoman for Republicans on the Senate energy committee, noted that three-quarters of some western states were public land.

Corridor width is also an issue. Southern California Edison wants a mile-wide corridor across the Mojave, for example. Hunt of the Edison Electric Institute said bundling many lines close together could jeopardize safety and reliability. But she said energy companies would be willing to share corridors if exempted from full environmental review on specific projects.

Funk of the Senate energy committee, which oversaw the bill, said that was one of the law's main thrusts.

"Environmentalists use these reviews as a way to stall projects for years to keep them from ever being built," she said.

Others said that although it was difficult to balance competing needs on increasingly scarce public land, that was no excuse for shortcuts.

"It's a rushed process with little opportunity for the public to comment on or even know what highly public lands are at risk for development," said Corcoran of the Sierra Club. "The federal government should not make our public lands legacy a dumping ground for industry."

Once the western lands project is complete, Congress ordered it to be replicated across the rest of the contiguous U.S. by 2009.

May 13, 2006

Blythe Calif Station Burns

Author: Winks
Blythe area paper

The historic Santa Fe Depot, a Blythe landmark that has graced the city since 1926, was destroyed by fire the afternoon of May 2. No one was injured in the fire. Witnesses told police they saw sparks from overhead electrical wires and that is believed to have been the cause of the inferno. Despite being closed for years, the depot still had electric and gas turned on.

Jim Green, manager of the Blythe Food Pantry, which sits adjacent to the former depot, said he and a friend were working on his car out back of the Pantry facing the depot when they smelled smoke.

"I said 'darn, it smells like rubber burning,'" Green said. "I ran around to the other side of the car and was fixing to look at the vehicle when I noticed the smell coming in from the southwest. I looked at the dock of the building and flames were coming up from under the loading dock."

Green's friend dialed 911 and Blythe Volunteer Fire responded.

Fire Chief Billy Kem said it was the first big fire he's been on since being appointed to the position last month.

"It was a shame," he said about the fire that took down the 80-year-old building. "It was just an old wooden structure-type building that had been there a long, long time. We don't know the cause and there was no putting it out - it got up into the top real quick."

Kem said the blaze started at the south end of the building and burned through to the front.

Located at Rice and Commercial streets, the building was first constructed in 1926, 10 years after rail service first came to Blythe. The depot was listed in Riverside County's Historic Resources Inventory by the Riverside County Historical Commission in 1983.

May 9, 2006

Quirky desert town takes pride in what it has to offer

NIPTON - They came here for the gold.

The Press-Enterprise

Not that they found much, at least not enough to get rich.

But that didn't keep them from staying in this speck of a town in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

Nipton is California's last outpost off of Interstate 15, just 2 ½ miles from the Nevada state line.

Heading south on Nipton Road from the interstate, the town is a small puff of green in the road on the far side of the valley that bleeds into Ivanpah Dry Lake.

Its 30-some residents live in a brutal yet scenic landscape, where the wind whips west from the Mojave National Preserve's barren New York Mountains and trains thunder by on their way to and from Los Angeles.

Coming into town, visitors cross the rails to find a dirt parking lot on one side of the road where the Nipton Trading Post is flanked by a café and the Hotel Nipton. A dusty RV park sits on the other side of the road.

Nipton was once touched by celebrity -- silent-film star Clara Bow occasionally stayed in its tiny hotel. Now it is a curiosity for tourists, a road stop for bikers and a place for people with little love for the city to hide away.

Jerry Freeman, who bought the town in 1984, is working to make it an inviting place for artists. He has begun an artist-in-residence program with the help of the national preserve and hopes to expand it.

While any large mining operations around Nipton have pretty much dried up, Freeman still finds the gold connection interesting.

The first man to settle here, at the turn of the 20th century, was Samuel Duncan Karns, a man who made millions in Pennsylvania oil and then lost it by investing in railroads. He came west to look for gold and established the Nippeno Consolidated Mine, reportedly borrowing a Pennsylvania area Native American name.

Karns died in 1909, four years after the railroad came through and dubbed the spot Nipton.

In 1913, another prospector showed up. Harry Trehearne was a miner from Cornwall, England. He never had much luck finding precious ore, but he opened a store in Nipton, selling supplies to other miners.

That building, not much more than a shack, still stands on the property, behind the Hotel Nipton and across from a dirt road that Freeman says was once a stage route linking Searchlight, Nev., -- 20 miles east -- with the rail line.

A trained geologist, Freeman first came to Nipton in the late 1950s when he was a college student. For a time after he graduated, he would show up most weekends, looking for gold.

"I'd take the train and arrive here in the early a.m.," he says. "I had a Jeep parked here and I would spend the weekend prospecting. At that time, the hotel was in service."

But things were on the decline. Trehearne, who took over construction of the hotel from the railroad and later added the trading post, had died in 1949. Subsequent owners let things fall apart.

By the early 1980s, when Freeman noticed a sales ad for the property and drove out to look at it, Nipton was more desolate than he remembered.

"The hotel was a wreck," he says. In fact, the county had condemned it.

"We bought a ghost town and decided to transform it," he says, "to take this clay and reshape it into something I consider more useful and interesting and enduring."

He stops talking as one of the many daily trains rumbles down the track.

"Out here the protocol is don't try to talk when a train goes by," he says. "Nothing you have to say can't wait until after the train goes by."

After investing lots of time and money in the hotel, Freeman and his wife reopened it in 1986 as a bed and breakfast. It has only five rooms. Four eco-cabins have been added out back.

A cactus garden with a geometric design fronts the small hotel, which was built sometime between 1905 and 1910. On its front porch are old round-back wooden rockers. Inside, historic photos dot the walls. An old wood stove is the centerpiece of the long narrow lobby.

Freeman points out Room No. 3.

"Clara Bow, she was the most famous celebrity to visit here and this was her favorite room," he says.

She and her husband lived on the Walking Box Ranch near Searchlight. "Her husband drove their cattle here to load them on the train and they would stay here."

When the hotel first reopened, Freeman says, business was understandably slow. But with the establishment of the Mojave National Preserve in 1994, things picked up. The hotel is usually booked for most of the spring.

Warm Welcome

People began moving in and making Nipton their home, as well.

Initially miners populated the RV park when the area enjoyed a brief boom in the late 1980s. Most moved out, but others came. Those who live here say it has a charm that may not be immediately evident.

Cindy Adams, 57, remembers her first visit. She and her husband moved here six months ago from Colorado when he took a job at the mining operation in nearby Mountain Pass.

They pulled up one evening, hauling a trailer with their belongings.
"I leaned down and looked out the window and then at my husband and I said, 'Is this it?' " she says.

The friendly greeting they received improved her outlook.

"I went into the store and they were like, 'Oh yeah, we knew you were coming,' " she says.
She's now adjusted to the isolation of the desert, even though sometimes it's a little too slow for her. She works in the Trading Post two days a week and helps out at the café.

"Every two weeks we have big excitement," she says, laughing. "The bookmobile shows up on Wednesday and everybody comes down and gets coffee at the store and their books. And on Friday, the Schwan's man comes.

"But there're days when it's very quiet and we're all, 'Hmmm ... ' "

Rosie Davidson and her husband Donald are Washington, D.C., residents who are in their third extended stay in Nipton. Donald is part of the Artists in the Parks program and is working for the Mojave National Preserve as Nipton's current artist- in-residence.

"I fell in love with it the first time I saw it," Rosie says of the town. "I think this place is idyllic in many ways."

Donald says he finds beauty in the stark desert surroundings. He spends most days in the field, cataloging and doing pen and ink drawings and watercolors of native flowers. He may drive as much as two hours into the desert to find the particular species he's looking for.

"There's so much to preserve here," he says. "It's one of the most unsullied desert environments that the public has access to. The programs that I am part of and that I promote are more needed out here."

In addition to providing artwork and information to the park service, Davidson conducts educational workshops, teaching adults and children how to recognize and draw native plants.

"Visitors no longer just want to walk through a park," he says. "They want to engage in an experience such as a hands-on workshop where their work can make a contribution."

Some of Davidson's work hangs in the Trading Post, which is filled with curious items such as old lanterns hanging from the ceiling, American Indian dolls, papier-mache camels from India and plush scorpions and tortoises. If you want to buy a Nipton postcard you have one choice, showing the hotel, of course.

Desert Dwellers

Next door, the Whistlestop Oasis boasts a rooftop sign that says, "Best Burgers Around."

Being as there isn't much else around for 20 miles that might not mean much. But Bill Sarbello, 60, who runs the place, says customers drive from as far as Henderson -- 50 miles -- to eat in the casual hominess of the diner. Then they leave, which is just how he likes it.

"Come in and have a couple of beers, something to eat, play a game of pool and go away," Sarbello says.

The ex-New Yorker by way of Florida came to Nipton three years ago to take over the café.

"I'm making something grow out here in the desert," he says.

He'd been to the area before and knew what to expect when he arrived, not only from the town but the residents. He'd seen the same thing when he lived on St. John, one of the Virgin Islands.

"St. John is a desert," he says, with the only source of water being rainfall. "Everything that grows there has a thorn or a barb, and so do the people. Nipton's the same way. If you're going to come here and live, you're probably going to have some kind of thorn."

Larry Jordan, who has been running the Trading Post for six months, has seen it, too.

"Desert dwellers, they're kind of not in the mainstream," he says. "Maybe they're here because they couldn't make it anywhere else in society and they kind of keep to themselves."

Jordan and his wife are temporary residents. They are part of a program that provides store managers and workers to national parks and private campgrounds. They plan to be gone when the full heat of summer hits.

Until then, he says, he tells friends, "We're conveniently located in the middle of nowhere."

May 6, 2006

Desert water 'guzzlers' may return to preserve

Environmentalists may attempt to block plan

Desert Dispatch

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE -- The on-again, off-again plan to convert wells in the preserve to wildlife watering devices, called "guzzlers," is on again.

The move is a surprise to Chad Offutt of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). With the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), PEER sued the National Park Service (NPS), which oversees the preserve, in March of last year to stop the expansion of the guzzlers in the preserve. The groups contend the artificial watering harms native wildlife and violates Park Service policy.

The lawsuit alleges that guzzlers are "known to adversely affect desert tortoise by attracting predators such as ravens, and by acting as death traps for tortoises that approach the guzzlers to drink."

In September of 2004, the preserve had announced the guzzlers would be installed, according to Danette Woo, environmental compliance specialist at the preserve.

According to Offutt, the National Park Service reversed itself and rescinded the approval of the preserve guzzlers in April, 2005.

On June, 27, 2005, the National Park Service held a public scoping meeting in Barstow saying the preserve "has begun the development of the park's Environmental Assessment (EA) to convert wells into guzzlers," according to a preserve press release. The draft Environmental Assessment was due to be completed on Sept. 1, 2005.

Then, the guzzlers program was back on again. On April 27, 2006, the preserve sent out a press release stating the preserve "approves science-based alternative on managing water for wildlife." According to PEER, their lawsuit could be revived.

Under this plan, the wells will be converted into guzzlers to carry out research on the need for additional water sources for wildlife over a broad area in the preserve, and to determine if additional guzzlers are needed, said Woo.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, said that after the two groups filed suit against the guzzlers in the preserve, the preserve management withdrew the proposal to install guzzlers and the lawsuit was dismissed.

"I don't think they (the pre- serve) has done anything to prepare a proper environmental document or to cancel the guzzler program," he said, "and I think they are vulnerable to the same lawsuit again."

Ruch said that his group believes the preserve did not complete a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and needs to do so. Many topics have not been addressed that should be, he said, including the possibility that the guzzlers will increase the population of predators that kill desert tortoises, a threatened species that is found in the preserve.

An EA is a concise public document that a federal agency prepares under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to provide sufficient evidence and analysis to determine whether the proposed agency action would require preparation of an EIS or a finding of no significant impact.

An Environmental Impact Statement is a document required of federal agencies by the National Environmental Policy Act for major projects or legislative proposals significantly affecting the environment. A tool for decision-making, it describes the positive and negative effects of the undertaking and cites alternative actions, according to Entrix, an environmental consultant firm.

"We fully expected a full EIS," Ruch said, adding that by declaring a "no significant impact" decision, it seems to mean the preserve will not do any more study of the problem before installing the guzzlers.

The lack of a full EIS "doesn't appear to make sense in light of all the questions" people have about the wisdom of installing guzzlers, he said.

The California Department of Fish and Game (CF&G) originally proposed to convert the 12 wells to wildlife waterers and the NPS undertook an environmental assessment of the matter in November of last year.

Out of several proposed ways to manage the water, the NPS selected a science-based alternative and decided this plan would have no significant impact on the environment in the preserve, Woo said.

There are over 130 springs and seeps across the preserve and the NPS recently initiated a long-term monitoring project to deter mine how rainfall patterns affect the availability of water for wildlife, by surveying them during the driest part of the year, Woo said.

Over 75 percent of the sources had water during the last survey and there are six existing large-game guzzlers in the preserve, principally used by desert bighorn sheep and 119 small game guzzlers principally used by quail, chukar and other small wildlife, Woo said. There are also several dozen currently operating water units used in cattle ranching, she said.

According to the environmental assessment, installing guzzlers has a potential to lower the groundwater table.

The document states there is a potential dependence on the new guzzlers by wildlife populations and a potential for increases in wildlife population, plus potential negative impacts from increase foraging and trampling as wildlife populations and guzzler use increases.

There is potential for increased hunting activities and wildlife viewing activities, according to the document, which also states there may be more visitor encounters with wildlife.

According to the Guns Magazine June 2005 edition, a hunting club, Safari Club International (SCI), and the CF&G received permission from the persevere and the U. S. Department of the Interior to "convert four ranching well developments into wildlife guzzlers for mule deer" on preserve land.

The magazine identified wells as Eagle, Watson, Caruthers and Lecyr and said that the group has been working on restoring guzzlers in the preserve for "several years."

Woo said Friday that SCI is not directly involved in any of the planning the installation of guzzlers but is working with CF&G to provide some funding and volunteers for the program.

SCI states on its web site it is "serious about protecting hunting freedoms" and "in many ways, SCI is first in legislation, litigation and international advocacy for hunting."

Their web site has an appeal to "all interested parties" to provide NPS "with information about the need for these wells and that reactivation will not pose a detrimental impact to the resources of the preserve."

It goes on to say "SCI has informed the court that it will take whatever action necessary to prevent delays in providing water sources that could hard the preserve's wildlife."

"It's a harsh life out there for wildlife," said Bill Perreck who has worked to install guzzlers in the past but is not now affiliated with any group. He said there has been a long-term drought in the High Desert until the last couple of years and he believes many types of desert creatures were in danger from the lack of water.

The idea of desert guzzlers pretty much started in 1964, he said, for Bighorn Sheep.

"It's a good thing they did, to keep the sheep from completely disappearing," Perreck said.

From vacant to Vegas-area airport

Profound solitude pierced by the roar of jetliners will signal a dramatic change

Andrew Silva, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

Looking north from Nipton Road in the Mojave National Preserve, the expansive, dusty valley below is dotted only by a new power plant along with the two western-themed casinos that greet tourists, truckers and gamblers as they cross north into Nevada.

In the distance, traffic glides along Interstate 15, bisecting the tan landscape as motorists head to Las Vegas or head back to Southern California.

That part of the vast harsh desert separating the megalopolis of greater Los Angeles from the glitzy neon-splashed mecca of Vegas is slated to change dramatically in the next decade.

Instead of the gentle rustle of wind, broken now and then by the lonely horn of a freight train or the distant staccato growl of a tractor-trailer's Jake brake, the profound solitude will be pierced by the roar of jetliners taking off from a huge new airport just north of Primm, Nev., sometimes called Stateline.

"We live in this highly urbanized society, and it's hard to get away from it," said James Woolsey, chief of interpretation for the Mojave National Preserve. "It's deafening, it's so quiet."

Although the Mojave National Preserve was created as a national-park unit in 1994, it remains unknown, even though more than 14 million vehicles per year pass by it on I-15 and another 4.7 million on Interstate 40.

But more and more visitors have been discovering the remote 1.6 million-acre preserve, especially with the recent opening of the restored Kelso Depot in the middle of the park, but it still draws only about half a million people per year.

"We're not like Yosemite where we can feed people pizza and stack 70,000 people in the valley," said Larry Whalon, chief of resources management for the preserve.

The proposed Ivanpah Valley airport will sit on Roach Dry Lake between Primm and Jean, Nev., north of the more pleasingly named Ivanpah dry lake bed, which is mostly on the California side and stretches between Primm and the foothills of the New York Mountains to the south.

The airport could be open by 2017.

Park officials and Clark County, Nev., planners are working together to minimize the effect of the airport on the preserve, but there's no way to completely isolate the impacts, especially noise and light.

A three- or four-year environmental review is scheduled to get under way in the next month or so with scoping meetings to get public input on what issues should be covered in a document that is expected to cost $15 million.

Las Vegas' explosive growth, both in population and tourists, has made the new airport a necessity.

Traffic at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas jumped 22 percent in two years, from nearly 36.3 million passengers in 2003 to 44.3 million last year, making it the fifth busiest in the country.

That means McCarran International is only a few years away from hitting its capacity of 53 million passengers per year.

And along with the new billion-dollar casinos, Las Vegas' vigorous growth has become part of its legend.

"There are a million people who weren't here when I moved here," said Dennis Mewshaw,, assistant director of aviation at McCarran International, which is owned by Clark County.

Indeed, Clark County had 741,459 residents in 1990, and last year, its population had leapt to 1.71 million.

Locals are fond of saying, with an incongruous mix of pride and dread, that 5,000 people per month move into the Las Vegas Valley. Actually, do the arithmetic and it's closer to 5,500, making Las Vegas the poster child for suburban sprawl.

Tract homes and shopping centers are spreading across the Southern Nevada desert faster than dice across a craps table.

All those new houses and businesses have squeezed in around McCarran International, making it impossible for the airport to expand.

With 30,000 new hotel rooms in the pipeline, the traffic at McCarran International will go up by another 10 million passengers.

A third terminal is under construction, and other improvements are planned, but that's about all the current facility can do, unless it were to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy up land around the airport, land already occupied by countless residents and businesses.

Roughly a decade ago, the search was launched for some place to put a second airport.

"It's a busy operation because our job is to bring people to the entertainment industry," Mewshaw said. "We have an obligation not to allow a lack of capacity impede economic growth."

A quick spin around the compass shows why officials settled on the Ivanpah Valley.

To the west are mountains, to the northwest is the Nevada Test Site, where hundreds of nuclear bombs were set off. To the northeast is the restricted air space of Nellis Air Force Base, where fighter pilots hone their skills in realistic mock battles, and to the east are Lake Mead and the finicky folks of "clean and green" Boulder City, Nev., who wouldn't tolerate an airport.

That left Ivanpah to the south.

It will be the first major U.S. airport since Denver International was completed a little more than a decade ago.

On the plus side, there's good infrastructure already there, including fiber optic lines, a natural-gas pipeline, a power plant, and even a jet-fuel pipeline.

The one thing missing is easy access to water, which will have to be imported.

And there are environmental concerns and serious engineering challenges.

That it's a dry lake bed is a hint that storm water will be a problem.

Three hundred square miles drain into the valley.

"If we had a 100-year storm on two days in a row, the lake would be covered in 2 to 3 feet of water," Mewshaw said.

Engineers will have to figure out what to do with all that water.

The two planned runways will have to be elevated, and that's going to require a lot of rock and soil.

And the often bumper-to-bumper I-15 will not be the route for travelers from the airport to Las Vegas.

Officials plan a separate dedicated road parallel to I-15 to carry the estimated 20 million passengers the 25 miles to the city.

"There'll be times it'll be quicker to fly to Ivanpah and get a car or bus to The Strip than it will be to go to McCarran," Mewshaw said.

Southern Californians would most likely continue to fly into McCarran. Ivanpah would be the destination for travelers from other parts of the country as well as from other countries.

There is a rail line right there, but trains to the city are not part of the plan. That's despite the nearly two-decade-old fantasy officials have had about a high-speed Maglev train running between Anaheim and Las Vegas, or at least from Primm to The Strip.

For lovers of the desert, though, it's the noise and lights that remain the biggest worry.

Flight paths will be laid out to keep planes from flying right over the preserve.

Microphones have been placed throughout the park as researchers measure the existing levels of sound.

Preserve Superintendent Dennis Schramm said he's seen noise models that are disturbing.

"Even though they can't fly over the preserve, Clark Mountain will still have a fair amount of impact," he said. "Once they turn to the east and point their engines back toward the valley, it's pretty loud."

The New York Mountains immediately to the west could act like the bowl of an amphitheater, said Whalon, the preserve's resources manager.

A healthy population of desert bighorn sheep on Clark Mountain, north of I-15 and part of the preserve, move down to the east, toward Ivanpah, for lambing in the spring.

That population had been in decline before a surprising rebound in a survey last fall, said John Wehausen, a researcher who studies bighorn sheep.

Bighorn tend to adapt well to human activity, he said, and he guessed the airport might not have a big effect on the sheep unless jets were flying right over the mountain.

A significant population of threatened desert tortoises thrives on the northwest side of the freeway, but the lake beds themselves on the other side are not great habitat for the slow-moving reptiles.

Light is another concern.

Some research has also been done to measure the effect on the night sky.

"Las Vegas and Primm are already impacting our northern skies," Schramm said. "You're losing stars on the low part of the horizon."

It's possible an airport and surrounding development could blot out the brilliant stars and that most rare experience: seeing the Milky Way, which is invisible to urban dwellers.

"It's a pretty unique experience to see how dark it is, and all the stars," Schramm said.

Those are all issues that will be analyzed in the environmental-impact statement, expected to be finished around 2010.

And if the analysis reveals any insurmountable problems, it's possible the project won't go forward. Clark County officials already expect a lawsuit by environmentalists once the document is adopted.
"I have strong feelings against the airport," said Elden Hughes of the Sierra Club's California-Nevada desert committee. "Ivanpah airport will impact the Mojave National Preserve terribly."

In 2000, federal legislation authorized Clark County to buy the nearly 6,000 acres of land from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for $20.4 million.

If the airport isn't built, the money will be returned.

Much of that money is earmarked to buy private land remaining inside the Mojave National Preserve.

Schramm said there are thousands of parcels in the preserve still in private hands.

San Bernardino County officials worry about the loss of tax revenue when private lands go into federal ownership. And they have other concerns about a huge airport just over the county line in Nevada.

Nevada and San Bernardino County officials met in February to discuss some of the issues raised by the proposed airport.

Bill Postmus, chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, who represents the sprawling 18,000-square-mile-desert 1st District, worries that payments by the federal government for lost property-tax revenue don't come close to making up the loss.

Another issue was how to coordinate emergency response. I-15 through the desert is often the scene of grisly car accidents.

Officials and environmentalists also worry about development that might follow the planned airport.

Whalon, of the preserve, said Clark County officials have been open and cooperative as they try to work through the issues to protect the area.

But if the airport is built, that patch of desert will be changed forever.

"Out here you can see for 20 miles," Whalon said. "People get pretty picky about what's pristine."