August 30, 2006

Conservationist worked 42 years for park service


Los Angeles Times

Despite many accomplishments during 42 years with the National Park Service, Stanley T. Albright was often known as ''the nephew of.'' His uncle, Horace Albright, co-founded the park service in 1916.

Stanley T. Albright died Aug. 18 in a care facility in West Linn, Ore., after a long illness, said his wife, Kris. He was 74.

During the Reagan administration, Albright served under Interior Secretary James G. Watt, who was known for favoring profit over preservation when it came to federal land. A resolute conservationist, Albright preserved many national park programs Watt sought to dismantle, according to the park service.

In 1987, Albright became director of the western region, overseeing national parks in California and five other states for ''10 tumultuous years'' as the park budgets flattened, the park service said.
However, he trained the generation of superintendents now running many of the nation's parks.

And he played a key role in the passage of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act that created Death Valley National Park. With 3.4 million acres, it is the largest national park in the contiguous United States. The act also spawned Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve.

Tapped in 1997 to return to Yosemite -- he had served on the ski patrol decades before -- park superintendent Albright led an effort to repair extensive damage to the park from a Merced River flood.

Two years into his Yosemite stewardship, Albright was replaced. He ended his career as a natural resources consultant before retiring from the park service in 2000 .

Albright was born in Oakland and grew up in Bishop, Calif. After serving in the Army during the Korean War, he graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1958 with a degree in biology. He became a fire lookout in the Inyo National Forest, and later managed concessions at the Grand Canyon.

As state director of the National Park Service in Alaska in the 1970s, Albright helped lay the groundwork for the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, which created 10 national parks and expanded several others. The 44 million acres effectively doubled the size of the national park system.

In addition to his second wife, Kris, Albright is survived by a son, Sean Albright of Walnut Creek, Calif., and a stepson, Jon Finney of Lake Oswego, Ore.

August 21, 2006

Desert Fires' Damage Will Last

It will take centuries for plant life to recover. Many experts say invasive vegetation is largely to blame.

By Janet Wilson, Times Staff Writer
ktla 5 [Los Angeles, CA]

Sawtooth fire as it moves through the Morongo Valley desert landscape.

April Sall stood in the charred remnants of a Joshua tree forest, bark peeling off melted black limbs. Above her, ridges once thick with 1,000-year-old piñon and juniper pines were scorched bedrock and stumps.

More than 90% of the surrounding Pipes Canyon Preserve was consumed in last month's Sawtooth blaze. It was one of half a dozen fast-moving fires this summer that burned 65,000 acres of the Mojave Desert, fueling debate over whether the desert is burning more frequently and explosively as a result of invasive weeds, smog, development and climate change.

"It's heartbreaking to see," said Sall, a biologist who manages the preserve and whose grandmother homesteaded the land a century ago. "We'll never see those piñon or juniper trees again in our lifetimes, nor will our children, nor will their grandchildren. It's a bitter pill…. This land isn't meant to burn."

Many scientists agree, saying the recent blazes offer fresh evidence that deserts across the Southwest are undergoing a profound shift, as ancient native pine, shrubs and cactuses give way to young, highly flammable weeds and grasses.

"Right now we're losing very large pieces of landscape," said Todd Esque, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Henderson, Nev., who studies the cause and effect of fires in the desert. "It's happening in Joshua Tree National Park, it's happening in Mojave National Preserve … up in southwestern Utah … and in Arizona. We lost 750,000 acres of desert to fire in Nevada alone last summer."

This summer, five blazes have seared parts of Joshua Tree, where a fire only every few years was the norm for the last 50 years.

Esque and other researchers say that unlike forests and chaparral, the sparsely vegetated desert is not meant to burn frequently.

"The public has come to understand that fire is a necessary part of the life of forests," Esque said. "That is not the case with deserts. We have a major problem going on."

A vocal minority disagrees, contending there is no clear-cut evidence of far-reaching change. They blame this year's fires on bumper crops of wildflowers nourished by heavy spring rains two years ago. According to the theory, dried remnants of the prolific blooms fueled a 50,000-acre fire in the Mojave National Preserve last summer and in this year's conflagrations.

"The winter of 2004-05 was the wettest ever in 100 years of recorded data in the desert. We had a phenomenal crop of annual native wildflowers, and it was dry the next year and it stayed there," said Richard Minnich, a professor of Earth sciences at UC Riverside. "It's flash fuel of 1 to 2 tons per acre. What's really scary is, there's still a lot of it out there."

Scientists do agree that it will take centuries, if not millenniums, for the desert to recover.

"It won't be on a timeline we humans would like, but it will happen," said Tasha LaDoux, Joshua Tree National Park's botanist.

Inside the park, new growth provides fodder for the debate over whether the fragile, arid landscape is undergoing dramatic change.

At the scene of a 1995 fire, not a single juniper or piñon pine seedling has come up after 11 years. But healthy, 3-foot "pups" have sprouted from the roots of once seemingly dead Joshua trees. The pups may or may not survive, scientists say, because in drought years they may be gnawed by thirsty rodents and ground squirrels. Meanwhile, native apricot mallow, bright-green cheesebush and golden California marigold are blooming even in August.

Along a sandy road in the western section, the scene of a 1999 blaze that scorched 14,000 acres, a beige sea of grasses spreads beneath burned Joshua trees bleached silver by sun and rain. The new growth consists of native bunch grasses and a pair of noxious, ankle-scratching weeds.

These two nonnatives, known as red brome and cheatgrass, form highly flammable carpets between native shrubs and trees, and many scientists believe they are the main culprits behind increasing fires.

"These invasive grasses fill in the spaces between the desert plants. They carry the flame through at a very high rate, and much hotter. It spreads a lot faster," Sall said.

The weeds are also bad for animals.

"The ranchers call it cheatgrass because for the first few years it's good grass, but after that it cheats the cattle of their nutrients," Esque said.

Native to Mediterranean Europe and Asia, the weeds were probably blown across the West by the wind, tracked in by hikers' boots and construction equipment, and excreted by livestock. Researchers at UCLA and elsewhere say the weeds appear to capture nitrogen from smog-laden air more readily than native plants, eventually choking them out.

But Minnich of UC Riverside said years of drought had actually caused most of the red brome to die out, while annual native grasses remain safely stored in natural seed banks on adjoining, unburned islands of habitat.

Richard Halsey couldn't disagree more.

"You're going to see a solid blanket of yellow felt next year," he said, meaning a blanket of dried nonnative grasses. Halsey, a former biology teacher who is now a researcher and firefighter, was asked by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to evaluate the role of vegetation in the Sawtooth fire.

"No one else on the planet agrees with Rich Minnich," Halsey said. "I went out there during the fire and after the fire and looked…. Not only didn't I see the volumes of wildflowers he's talking about, but in the burn area specifically…. I had a hard time finding natives. The predominant fire fuel mix was cheatgrass and red brome."

Robert Webb, a hydrologist with the Geological Survey's Tucson office who has studied botany in the Mojave for 30 years, laughed when he heard about the debate.

"The truth is, they may all be right. The desert is very complicated. There is incredible local variability," he said. Echoing other scientists, he said, "Minnich often heaves these ideas out there that are different…. It's healthy, it makes us all look very carefully at our own data."

Webb is writing a paper with other researchers that looks at three post-fire scenarios for the Mojave, all plausible, all different. Rather than focusing on Joshua trees or pines, they studied ancient black brush, a gray-brown shrub that has evolved to withstand desert temperatures and scarce rain.

A single bush can survive thousands of years. But it is highly flammable, proof to Webb that fire is not natural in the desert. One scenario does show nonnatives replacing black brush and causing more frequent fires. But he said data gathered so far made that scenario "only slightly more likely" than two others in which black brush grows back.

"Some of those Joshua trees may sprout too," Wall said, referring to the Pipes Canyon Preserve. "They're an amazing tree."

But others say such a destructive fire in a preserve like Pipes Canyon did lasting harm.

Tom Scott, a zoologist affiliated with UC Berkeley and UC Riverside, said the canyon preserve encompassed "one of the greatest transition zones in North America. If you look at where it starts way up on top of the San Bernardino Mountains, and then descends down to the desert, you're covering this incredible array of habitats, from montane forest down to low desert."

Scott said there were probably smaller pockets of plants and animals that evolved over millenniums in nooks in the preserve, only to be wiped out by this summer's catastrophic fire.

"If we've introduced grasses that are driving fire much further than it used to go, and you've got a lot of these small patches that are really unique in terms of species, then you're erasing them with large conflagrations," he said.

Esque worries about vulnerable desert species such as the reclusive desert tortoise, Scott's oriole, logger-headed shrike and least Bell's vireo songbirds, as mature shrubs that offered shelter are replaced with grasses.

"When you have less cover, with that goes less diversity," he said.

Webb is most concerned about warming temperatures in the desert. Besides causing less winter snow, warmer weather generates more summer thunderstorms and lightning strikes. Lightning started all the fires that ravaged Pipes Canyon Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park this summer.

Others said urbanization, motorized recreation and military activities were also taking a toll on the natural desert.

"What will be the one thing that does in the desert as we know it? It's not one thing. It's the onslaught of all these things," Esque said. He said there was little that could be done to turn back the clock. Many nonnative weeds are too far spread to be dug out, while native seeds are not widely available and can cost millions of dollars to gather and plant.

Beyond planting a bit of native seed, Sall said, she plans to let Pipes Canyon come back on its own, however long it takes.

Greg Hill of the Bureau of Land Management's Palm Springs office said his agency will take a similar approach to other burned areas in the desert.

"We'll let it regenerate naturally," he said. "It's the largest big chunk of undeveloped land left in Southern California."

August 20, 2006

Handling of '05 Hackberry fire called inadequate

'Too many structures burned,' says Lewis,
Mojave chief defends Park Service

By George Watson, Staff Writer
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Historic Pettit corral burned to the ground.

Earlier this year, Rep. Jerry Lewis criticized the National Park Service's handling of a 2005 wildfire in the Mojave National Preserve.

In a March 22 letter, Lewis, a Redlands Republican, wrote that "the appropriateness and responsiveness" of the park service's management of the Hackberry Complex Fire needed to be closely examined.

"In my opinion, too many structures burned during this fire," Lewis wrote in his letter to the agency's director, Fran Minella. "I would like to know how this happened and what steps the NPS will take to insure (sic) this doesn't happen again."

Apparently, the agency's fire management priorities remain an issue, not only for Lewis but at least one San Bernardino County leader. At the heart of the matter appears to be a divide over how wildfires are fought by firefighters -- whether the primary action should be to defend the occasional homes in the preserve or the vast environment that makes up the area.

Lewis was not available for comment. His spokesman, Jim Specht, said the congressman remains concerned about the matter and has a staff member keeping track of the issues.

Last Tuesday, a resident whose property was engulfed in flames from that wildfire sought help from the county's Board of Supervisors. Jim Walker, of Anaheim, told the supervisors that he feared another wildfire would cause similar results for others who own property in the Mojave National Preserve.

Board Chairman Bill Postmus, whose 1st District encompasses the High Desert, had stepped out of the meeting at the time and missed Walker's comments.

But as soon as Walker concluded speaking, Postmus' chief of staff, Brad Mitzelfelt, strode to a microphone.

"I can't disagree with much of what he actually said, and I just want to update you on where our office is at," Mitzelfelt told the three supervisors in attendance.

Postmus believes the problems, Mitzelfelt said, could be an "outgrowth of the park service's unwillingness to work cooperatively with the county, and part of that is their refusal to adopt, update and maintain partnerships with the county as the (Bureau of Land Management) did when the BLM had management of the preserve."

Dennis Schramm, the Mojave National Preserve's supervisor, disagreed with Lewis and Postmus.

The Hackberry fire, which charred 70,000 acres of land filled with pinyon pine, juniper and sagebrush, was an anomaly caused by a destructive compilation of weather conditions, he said.

"This was an event that had never been seen before in this part of the desert," Schramm said.

The Mojave National Preserve was created in 1994 through the California Desert Protection Act -- despite the objections of the county. The law gave greater protection to protected species living within the preserve, along with the vegetation that makes the area so unique.

At the time the Hackberry fire ignited, several other wildfires were burning in Nevada, Arizona and California, which meant resources, particularly the number of available firefighters, were spread thin.

Lightning strikes caused eight wildfires to ignite on June 22, 2005, according to the Burned Area Emergency Response report. The blazes merged together, creating the Hackberry fire. Winds gusting up to 28 miles per hour spurred the flames, and high humidity allowed them to burn faster and hotter.

"People want to say, we didn't do this or that or couldn't save these houses," Schramm said. "What doesn't get out there is how many homes we did save."

But Lewis was not impressed with the Burned Area Emergency Response team's report.
"There seems to be a lack of review of the fire management itself," Lewis wrote, adding later, "I also find it hard to believe that the NPS did not consult with anyone from San Bernardino County or from the private sector while completing this report."

Walker took the issue of defending homes in the preserve to another level.
"The lightning strikes did not burn us out," said Walker, who had planned to retire to the property. "The restrictions out on the firefighters by the National Park Service burned us out."

Schramm vehemently disputed the contention that some other property owners share with Walker.

"It's coming out of their emotions, and some of those feelings are about the past superintendent, but it's just nonsense," Schramm said.

He added that he was unsure how much the property owners' issues were related to his predecessor, Mary Martin. Some of them had called Martin's actions too liberal toward protecting the environment ahead of man-made property.

"Over time, they developed some problems with the way she managed things," Schramm said.

He added that while he has a different background than Martin, even mentioning that he grew up a hunter, "Mary and I had to follow the same laws and regulations."

Schramm also addressed one other concern mentioned by Lewis and Postmus. During the wildfire, officers relied upon a fire management plan that had not yet been approved.

Technically, Schramm said, the plan was not yet valid at the time of the blaze.

But the plan proved a valuable tool that helped augment the management skills of the officers, he said.

"It was a draft plan," he said. "But it had some of the best information out there."
Still, the county also had complaints about the plan because its firefighters were not consulted. Since then, the county has been able to have its viewpoints considered.

August 14, 2006

Bush signs bill transferring Mount Soledad cross to federal control

By Dana Wilkie

White House photo
President Bush prepares to sign the bill transferring the Mount Soledad cross to federal control Monday. Behind Bush were, from left, Bill Kellogg; Phil Thalheimer; San Diego Congressmen Brian Bilbray, Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter; and Chuck LiMandri.

WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday signed into law a plan to transfer San Diego's Mount Soledad cross to federal control in an effort to avoid its court-ordered removal.

In an Oval office ceremony, the Republican president signed a bill by three San Diego-area congressmen that immediately transfers the memorial land to the U.S. Defense Department in an effort to avoid a court-ordered removal of the cross that has towered over La Jolla on-and-off for nearly a century.

He was flanked by cross supporters from San Diego and the bill's chief architect, GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter of El Cajon.

“The president was pleased to sign this important piece of legislation into law,” said spokesman Peter Watkins:

“Today is a great day for America's veterans and the San Diego community,” said Hunter, whose bill passed the House last month with a 349-74 vote and passed the Senate unanimously two weeks later.

“The president's endorsement of this legislation validates years of tireless work and sends a clear message that America appreciates and respects its military men and women.”

James McElroy, the attorney for an atheist who first sued to remove the cross 17 years ago, said he petitioned the federal district court in San Diego last Thursday to void Congress' transfer.

“It's unfortunate that this is what our politicians do instead of respecting our constitution and the fact that we've had 17 years of decisions that have all come out the same way,” said McElroy, whose client won a ruling from a federal judge to remove the 29-foot cross by Aug. 1, an order the U.S. Supreme Court has put on hold.

The bill's final approval may mark a new era in the long-running parochial battle over the cross. Not only will the cross' future likely rest on interpretations of the federal Constitution instead of California's, it could become a national cause for supporters and opponents of religious symbols on public property.

“The president and Congress have no business intervening in this way in an ongoing legal proceeding,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Today's action is an unwarranted, heavy-handed maneuver that undercuts the separation of church and state and the integrity of the judicial system.”

About 35 people were milling around the cross and memorial as the legislation was being signed.

Sue Bourne, 53, a Catholic school teacher's aide from San Diego was visiting the cross with her mother Betty. She said it was wonderful that the president had signed the bill and that she was tired of the ongoing fight.

“We vote for things to become law and then we have people that fight it,” she said. “If they don't want to look at the cross then don't come up here.”

She said she hopes the legislation would put an end to the fighting.

“How can they go against the president?” she said, shaking her head.

Kurt Olney, 57, a landscape contractor from La Jolla, came to the cross to take some pictures. His father, a World War II veteran, is on one of the plaques on the memorial and he is a Vietnam veteran himself. He said he thinks now that the tide has turned on the fight to keep the cross and that the memorial wouldn't be the same without it.

“What are they going to do, take the crosses off Arlington?” he asked

Catherine Williams, 54, a housewife from San Diego, said she came to the cross Monday specifically to be there when the president signed the law.

“I never knew how much the cross meant to me until the fight came and we almost lost it,” she said. “I'm proud to be in a city that puts up such a hard fight to keep it. And I'll be one of them.”

The first Soledad cross was built in 1913 and was featured in Easter sunrise services. The one built there in 1954 and dedicated as a veterans' memorial replaced another that had fallen in a windstorm.

Those fighting to remove the cross say it's a Christian religious symbol and should not sit on city land atop a prominent hill. They note that even historical maps refer to the monument as the “Mount Soledad Easter Cross.”

Bush clearly sided with those who believe the cross is part of a long-standing and culturally significant tribute to the war dead honored at the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial, and that it does not amount to a government preference for one religion over others.

Hunter's legislation aims to preserve the cross by vesting title to the memorial in the federal government and having it administered by the Secretary of Defense. The Department of Defense would manage the monument and the Mount Soledad Memorial Association would maintain it.

“As a native of San Diego for some 51 years now, I share the happiness of so many other people in the city that we're that much closer to being able to permanently preserve this great icon,” said Charles LiMandri, an attorney advising a group of cross supporters.

LiMandri was among those who attended the signing ceremony at the White House. Also there were Phil Thalheimer, chairman of the private group San Diegans for the Mount Soledad National War Memorial and William Kellogg, president of the Mount Soledad Memorial Association.

Mayor Jerry Sanders, who has fought to keep the cross atop 800-foot high Mount Soledad, could not make the ceremony, a spokesman said. He was planning to speak at the cross Monday afternoon.

“Today's action allows our Federal government to take the lead in preserving the integrity of the memorial against all those that would alter this key part of San Diego's history,” Sanders said in an early version of the remarks he planned to deliver at the cross.

“I believe the President has substantially improved the chances that the desires of a vast majority of San Diego voters – all those that voted to preserve the integrity of the memorial – will finally be fulfilled.”

Charlie Berwanger, attorney for the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, said the memorial's land would be transferred to the Defense Department immediately upon Bush's signature.

But he said federal attorneys must still file a notice of condemnation proceedings in federal court in San Diego. He said it remains unresolved what amount of compensation the federal government will offer the city and the association for the land.

“If we strike a deal with the (Defense Department) that we can manage and operate the property and do fundraising up there and have events, my client may not be too terribly concerned about compensation,” Berwanger said.

Many believe that with the cross in federal hands, the U.S. Constitution, not California's, will now become the yardstick by which its constitutionality is measured.

Cross supporters say the courts have been more willing to allow religious symbols on public land on federal constitutional grounds, particularly if the symbol has historic or cultural significance. Cross foes note that a pair of 5-4 rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in separate cases involving the Ten Commandments established fuzzy guidelines.

The court found that a display inside a Kentucky courthouse was unconstitutional, but that a six-foot granite monument outside the Texas Capitol was legal.

August 1, 2006

Senate votes to put Mount Soledad cross in federal hands

By Dana Wilkie

WASHINGTON – With a speed and decisiveness that surprised some, the Senate on Tuesday approved a plan to transfer the land beneath the Mount Soledad war memorial to federal control in an effort to avoid a court-ordered removal of the cross that stands there.

The Senate's unanimous vote sent the cross-transfer plan to President Bush for his expected signature. It creates what some consider an entirely new dynamic in the 17-year effort to save the cross, but which others say is a hopeless attempt to preserve a symbol on city land that courts have said unconstitutionally favors one religion over others.

“Obviously we're delighted,” said Charles LiMandri, an attorney advising a group of Soledad cross supporters. “I think even the more liberal side of the Democratic party has to recognize that there is widespread, grassroots support for preserving veterans memorials in general, and the Soledad cross in particular.”

James McElroy, the attorney representing atheist Philip Paulson – who first sued to remove the cross on the grounds it amounts to an unconstitutional preference of the Christian religion over others – said the bill is “still unconstitutional.”

“I guess the Senate has a short memory,” he said. “You've got a local issue here. What business does the federal government have getting involved?”

The legislation would preserve the 29-foot-tall cross on Mount Soledad by vesting title to the memorial in the federal government and having the Secretary of Defense administer it. The Department of Defense would manage the monument. The Mount Soledad Memorial Association, a private group that built the current cross in 1954 to honor Korean War veterans, would continue to maintain the site.

“Today's vote represents a significant step forward,” said El Cajon Rep. Duncan Hunter, the Republican who joined his two GOP colleagues from San Diego to write the cross-transfer legislation, which passed the House late last month. “The action taken by both the House and Senate reaffirm the overwhelming desire of the San Diego community to keep the memorial exactly where it has proudly stood for over 50 years.”

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, who has fought to keep the cross atop 800-foot-high Mount Soledad, said through spokesman Fred Sainz that he was grateful for “the resonance” with which the Senate spoke on the issue.

“I think that the Senate was able to put political correctness aside for a moment and understand this truly is a war memorial,” Sainz said. “The fact there that a cross is part of it is an issue that senators of all religious faiths were able to come to terms with and accept.”

In July the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked a lower court order forcing the city to remove the cross by yesterday (Aug.1) on grounds it violated the state constitution's ban on government support of religion.

The deadline was set by U.S. District Court Judge Gordon Thompson Jr., who first ordered the cross removed in 1991. It would have imposed a $5,000-a-day fine for failing to comply.

Senate approval came less than two weeks after the House voted 349-74 on July 19 to seize the land and give it to the Defense Department. After some brief wrangling among senators over who would carry the Hunter legislation through the upper chamber, the bill was placed on a so-called “consent calendar,” which indicated it had little opposition. “It's a hot potato, and I suspect the Senate would just as soon pass it and get it to the president and let the courts deal with it,” said Charlie Berwanger, attorney for the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, which has fought to keep the cross where it is.

McElroy said he didn't expect California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, to embrace the measure as they did.

“I didn't expect them to go with this fad,” McElroy said. “But this has become good fodder for politicians in an election year.”

Feinstein and Boxer tend to be staunch church-state separation advocates. But both also support a plan to spend federal money to preserve California missions that hold church services because, the senators argue, the missions have historical significance.

“The Mount Soledad cross has been a great source of hope and inspiration for decades, and it has important historical significance to veterans and San Diegans alike,” Feinstein said.

Boxer said, “I believe this monument to be a memorial to our veterans, and therefore should be allowed to stay. The Hunter bill was drafted in a way that is consistent with the latest court action.”

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also supported the Senate action, saying that “allowing this landmark to be destroyed would send the wrong message to our nation's veterans.” Should the Mount Soledad cross end up in federal hands, its future likely will rest on interpretations of the federal Constitution, not California's. Cross supporters say the courts have been more willing to allow religious symbols on public land on federal constitutional grounds, particularly if the symbol has historic or cultural significance.

Last year, a pair of 5-4 rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in separate cases involving the Ten Commandments established fuzzy guidelines: The court found that a display inside a Kentucky courthouse was unconstitutional, but that a 6-foot granite monument outside the Texas Capitol was all right.

“The time may be ripe for the court to revisit the issue,” said LiMandri. “They'll take this case because the law needs clarity.”

Cross foes note that the courts have ordered the removal of other crosses based on federal constitutional grounds. Five years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union successfully sued to remove a 5-foot-tall cross of metal tubing in the Mojave National Preserve, although the removal is on appeal.

“I don't think the Supreme Court is going to rewrite the Constitution or the last 50 years of precedent,” McElroy said. “This is not like the Ten Commandments cases. The Latin cross is a powerful symbol of religion.”

For now, congressional action does not interfere with various lawsuits being pursued in state and federal courts.

In state court, cross supporters are appealing a decision by a Superior Court judge that invalidated Proposition A, a measure approved last fall by 76 percent of San Diego voters that would have donated the cross to the federal government, but which the judge said violated the state Constitution.

In federal court, the city is appealing Thompson's order to remove the cross or be fined. That case is to be heard in October.

Experts sow seeds of hope for regrowth

Sawtooth Complex Wildfire Recovery

By Mark Wheeler
Hi-Desert Star

PIONEERTOWN - “Don't give up on the plants.”

This was an oft-repeated and important message delivered Wednesday night at a fire recovery workshop staged in Pioneertown by the SummerTree Institute and Unique Garden Center, with the California Chaparral Field Institute.

Representatives from these three groups stood before approximately 175 to 200 victims of the Sawtooth fire who essentially had one burning question.

“Is all the natural beauty we once had here gone forever?”

Three experts on desert plants and plant ecology answered this question with an only slightly qualified “no.”

The pines and junipers which gave the Sawtooth and Pipes Canyon areas much of their botanical character, the speakers were sorry to say, would not regenerate to their prefire status in any near- or even mid-term future.

Many of the other icon species though, they were happier to report, would make reasonably good progress toward restoration; that is, if their prospects weren't interfered with by poor land management activities in the meantime or competition from invasive species.

Native desert plants are strongest underground, listeners were assured. What this means, they were informed, is that many of the plants here will regenerate from the roots.

Of course, this maxim will apply variably throughout the plant diversity in the area, and some species will demonstrate greater vigor than others in their recovery efforts. However, the primary message from the experts was to give nature a chance.

It's been taking care of itself for a long time, quite nicely enough without our help, they observed.

Not that neighbors can't take some action to help facilitate restoration, and most of the meeting's content was a steady stream of practical suggestions for everything from local sources for seedlings and transplants to growing tips to landscape design against future fire threat.

Central to all the individual suggestions was a single concept all the speakers elaborated on at length and urged with the greatest emphasis. Preserving the integrity of the soil crust, they insisted, would not only be vital to promoting restoration of the beloved native landscape, but would also be the first line of defense against exposing homes and properties to future fire threat.

Specifically, listeners were warned not to scrape, blade, drag or in any way break the soil crust, not even in their sensible efforts to disperse or dig-in the ash and soot on their properties.

They were advised to thin the residue with a leaf rake, and each speaker took pains to explain that the advisory against disturbing the soil crust was based on the vital need to discourage rampant invasion of non-native grasses.

These are powerful rivals of native plants for water, sun and space. In many places in the West, they are displacing natives and weakening ecological diversity.

Moreover, the spreading and dense nature of their growth patterns establishes a fuel highway over the landscape that carries fire easily and quickly from place to place, and their habitat of choice is disturbed soil.

Overheard in the audience were comments on the workshop that expressed everything from awe at how integrated the desert ecology is to vows that, “I'll certainly pay more attention to my landscaping in the future.”

For the most part, people were grateful for the hope they heard in the professional testimony. They were given good reason to believe the Hi-Desert around them would once again flourish with beauty and that they could, in all reality, expect to see it.

In their different ways, the three speakers did, indeed, apply their expertise to the germination of hope. This was the starting place SummerTree's Robin Kobaly said in her opening remarks was the purpose of the workshop.

Continuing with her own part of the presentation, she gave the audience solid botanical reasons to expect that many of the native plants would, in fact, regenerate.

Nursery owner Mike Branning advised listeners how best not to interfere with nature's recovery processes on their property and how to cultivate natives and arid land plants they could obtain from nurseries.

For his part, fire ecologist Richard Halsey explained how landscapes are quite capable of recovering from fire's effects and that we can apply ourselves most appropriately to restoration by not making land-use errors which only increases wildfire fuel loads.

“This is an opportunity,” Halsey encouraged. He and the others defined that opportunity throughout the evening as one for learning from nature's own processes.

Nature will heal itself, the speakers urged, and the abundant instruction in their presentation that evening was to inform people how they might best participate in that process and also, somewhat, help nurture beauty, finally, from their own grief.

Visitor Days: New Math for USFS and NPS

Posted by Property Rights Foundation of America, Inc.

The San Bernardino National Forest was recently caught using a highway counter strip at Big Bear Dam in Big Bear Lake, California to count all vehicles entering and leaving this community of 16,000 people. This was used to “document” the Visitor Days for this portion of the national forest; however, every day many of the local folks are commuting to and from their jobs in the Inland Empire.

These are residents and definitely NOT visitors to the national forest.

The American Land Rights Association ( revealed the National Park Service was doing the same thing to commuters living in Virginia on the George Washington Parkway in Washington D.C.

Recently, I have been told by a reliable source that the National Park Service staffer in charge of documenting Visitor Days to the 249,000-acre Channel Islands National Park (a U.N. biosphere reserve off the coast of Southern California) has been counting passengers and crew on commercial airplanes and cruise liners that pass within eyesight of the islands. This NPS employee allegedly even calls the cruise line and airline offices to get the exact number of passengers and crew on board. They then become “Visitor Day” visitors to the National Park.

This national park is very difficult to visit, and is very desperate to justify its existence.