September 28, 2006

Return to his own habitat

Interior Secretary hears about Inland environmental issues

The Press-Enterprise

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, returning Thursday to his hometown of San Bernardino, said he came to listen.

He heard from a woman whose family property in Colton can't be sold because of an endangered fly; a building industry representative looking for more incentives for property owners to set aside endangered species habitat; an Inland tribe that wants to be trusted to protect endangered sheep on its reservation in Palm Springs; and a fly fisherman worried about the drop of native salmon in California streams.

The meeting at the Clarion Hotel and Convention Center in San Bernardino was near the end of a nationwide series of 25 so-called listening sessions on cooperative conservation. After the final session Oct. 9 in Idaho, Kempthorne said, conclusions will be crafted on better ways to approach conservation.

If changes are to be made to the Endangered Species Act and its habitat requirements, he said, they won't be done without a public process.

"There are ways we can put a greater emphasis on recovery," of endangered species, Kempthorne said to reporters before the session.

He said he would rather see more work done to successfully remove species from the endangered species list, rather than dealing with the number of lawsuits over placing more of them on the list.

Of the approximately 50 speakers, the majority spoke in favor of maintaining the Endangered Species Act as one of the nation's toughest environmental laws. They said it spurs cooperative conservation because it forces people to the table to work on habitat preservation.

What is needed, they said, is more funding from the federal government to make those agreements work.

Many of the complaints came from Colton and Mayor Deirdre Bennett. She said restrictions on development to protect the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly, an endangered insect, have prevented her city's chance to blossom into a thriving area with hotels, restaurants and shops.

"The environmental injustice must stop," she said, saying that her city is saddled with more habitat limitations than Ontario and other cities where small pockets of the fly's dunes habitat remains.

She said the city this year developed the Colton Best Management Plan to conserve patches of the fly's habitat in four areas north of Interstate 10, while allowing development to go ahead.

Colton City Manager Daryl Parrish said they are hoping that officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accept the plan.

"Either way," he said, "the city of Colton will not be held hostage for another decade as the species continues to decline."

Some local environmentalists asked to revive a stalled effort to develop a multispecies habitat conservation plan in the San Bernardino Valley, much like western Riverside County has done.

That plan, they said, could have resolved the problems faced by Colton and garnered more federal dollars to help purchase and restore the fly habitat, parts of which are litter-strewn and choked by invasive weeds.

Mark Thom, a University of Redlands student, said he helped restore dunes near Eureka with similar problems.

"We definitely should see hope that we can restore what was once there," he said.

September 25, 2006

Video: Record Wildfires Ravage Mojave Desert

The deserts of Pipes Canyon in southern California's Mojave Desert had never had a recorded fire until this year.

But this summer about 90 percent of the canyon was devastated when lightning sparked a raging blaze.

As fires become more frequent in the historically fire-free Mojave, experts say that a variety of factors, including the introduction of alien grasses, might be fanning the flames.

Witness the destruction in Pipes Canyon, and learn about the unprecedented issues that are creating a recipe for disaster in the desert.

Ivanpah's soil perfect for rare plant, but will it ground airport?

By Launce Rake
Las Vegas Sun

The Ivanpah Valley - shown on old maps as Roach Lake - is just a dusty patch of desert between Jean and Primm, 30 miles south of Las Vegas.

But Clark County has big plans for the dry lake bed. By 2018, the county Aviation Department, operators of McCarran International Airport, wants to have a fully functioning airport bringing cash-carrying passengers to the new Ivanpah facility.

The department has reason to hurry.

McCarran International Airport saw more than 44 million visitors arriving and departing last year, up almost 7 percent over 2004. At that rate, the existing airport could reach its planned capacity within just a couple of years.

Early next month, the Aviation Department, Federal Aviation Administration and Bureau of Land Management will hold a series of meetings to take public comment on environmental issues affecting the plans. Randy Walker, department director, said he doesn't see any show-stoppers on the environmental side - but he knows that identifying environmental issues and mitigating any impacts are critical to getting the new facility.

"Obviously, the formal environmental review process is a very key step in the whole process of trying to build an airport," Walker said.

Environmentalists for years have raised objections to the project. They say that it would lead to development sprawling miles away from the urban core, would be near habitat designated by Clark County for the threatened desert tortoise and could affect a rare desert plant.

Jane Feldman, an activist with the local arm of the Sierra Club, said the project could affect a type of plant called a penstemon, or beardtongue.

"There are many different varieties, but this is one that grows in lower elevations in very sandy, windblown soil," she said, the kind of soil that collects in some areas of the Ivanpah Valley. The penstemon variety "has a very limited range. It lives in the southern part of Clark County and a couple of other places, and nowhere else.

"If we interrupt the way that sand is deposited, we may lose the species."

Development also could impact the tortoise translocation center on the west side of Interstate 15, she said: "For us to put that airport there was extremely shortsighted."

But environmentalists know it will be a tough job fighting the federal and local officials lined up to support the Ivanpah airport. Feldman noted that federal legislation allowed Clark County to buy 5,800 acres in the Ivanpah Valley for the airport in 2004.

"The land has already been given to the airport, which means that any study of alternatives is really going to be perfunctory," she said.

Other critics have raised concerns about the flood-prone character of the dry lake bed that is the base of the planned airport. But a Las Vegas civil engineer said in an interview earlier this year that such issues are not unusual in the West.

"Airports are constructed on dry lakes all through the Southwest," said Julianne Miller, a UNLV engineer. "There are always environmental issues, but all these things can be engineered around."

Walker said that environmental objections are premature: "We're moving forward on the environmental processes. The goal is to successfully determine that there are no environmental impediments and to go ahead and built the airport ¦ That's what the environmental process is all about - to identify the environmental issues and identify any potential mitigation."

Walker said the county is in the second year of a five-year process to deal with environmental issues for the new airport.

While the continuing growth of McCarran's passenger load is a concern, Walker is not panicking.

"It depends on how fast the community grows, how many hotel rooms get built," he said. "If for some reason hotels don't get built, there won't be a problem."

Current projections are for 40,000 hotel rooms to come in the next six years, Walker said.

And if all are built, "then I believe we will not be able to meet the demand."

While waiting for the new airport to come, McCarran officials will try to squeeze in more passengers .

"You try to do whatever you can. You try to be creative," Walker said. "If the demand is strong enough, then maybe people start doing things that aren't common in the industry."

That could mean booking more flights on what are relatively slow days at McCarran: Tuesdays and Thursdays.

But Vegas-bound consumers might be the ones to pay the price, Walker said: "Whenever you have more demand than supply, prices go up."

September 16, 2006

Preserving a town time almost forgot

Old railroad town, bypassed by Route 66, gets a helping hand from devoted couple

Andrew Edwards, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

GOFFS - "Hooch" Simpson has been dead for nearly a century, but this cantankerous desert character has not been forgotten.

In a photograph, Hooch's lifeless and shackled body hangs from a noose. A sign shown in the picture states that the dead man was hanged on Easter Sunday 1908 in Skidoo, a Death Valley mining town that no longer exists. The black-and-white image hangs on a wall inside a museum in Goffs, another desert town that itself could have been lost to history, but instead became a place where the past is remembered.

Goffs, once a railroad town west of Needles, is now the home of Dennis and Jo Ann Casebier and the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association. The Casebiers founded the association in 1993 and have restored the ghost town's red-roofed schoolhouse and transformed it into a museum that boasts a variety of Mojave Desert exhibits. Dennis Casebier said the association's collection includes 6,000 books, 50,000 photographs and the transcripts of 1,000 oral-history interviews.

"We've gotten ourselves embroiled in the history," he said.

Hooch, just one character in the Mojave Desert story, was executed after committing murder in Skidoo, Jo Ann Casebier said. Next to his picture is a display case containing a noose that, according to the museum, was the very instrument of Hooch's demise.

The National Park Service has more to the tale. According to its version, there is a desert legend saying that Hooch was hanged twice by townspeople. The first hanging killed him, but he was supposedly strung up a second time for photojournalists who weren't around the first time. You could call it an early version of the "perp walk."

Goffs has a story, too. The history of the town, as summarized by the association, is the tale of a railroad town that was founded in 1883 and owed the first decades of its growth to the Santa Fe Railroad.

National Old Trails Road also led to Goffs and became part of Route 66 in 1926. But five years later, Goffs began to fade. Route 66 was realigned about six miles south of the town and in 1937, the last classes were held in the schoolhouse that now houses the Mojave-themed museum.

During World War II, Army troops trained around Goffs, and inside the museum, a mannequin wears the green uniform of the 7th Infantry Division, a pack of Domino cigarettes tucked inside the band around his helmet.

"They trained here but they never went to the North African desert. They went to the Aleutian Islands and South Pacific," Jo Ann Casebier said.

Dennis Casebier, 71, grew up in Kansas and joined the Marines as a young man.
In a roundabout way, the military played a role in bringing him to the desert. He entered the service in 1953 before the end of the Korean War, but fighting a war on the other side of the Pacific wasn't in his future.

"The North Koreans knew I was coming so they signed the armistice," he said.

Instead of Korea, Dennis Casebier wound up stationed in Twentynine Palms, where he "got bit by the desert bug." After the Marines, he went back to college in Kansas, took a job in Norco and retired in 1990. He and his wife moved to Goffs that same year.

The Casebiers are visited in Goffs by volunteers who help maintain historical records. Jackie Ridge of San Diego is one of them. She said she comes to Goffs once a month to help catalog records. She began her work in the desert after the museum helped her find Brant, a place where her husband's great-grandfather worked as a railroad-station manager in the early 20th century.

Brant was east of Kelso, Ridge said. Kelso, inside what is now the Mojave National Preserve, was an old railroad stop whose depot still stands. Time has been harsher to Brant. Little remains except for what may have been a chicken coop and burro pen and a rock foundation for a house.

"The railroads have been regraded but it's amazing how close that house was to the railroad tracks," Ridge said. "It wasn't a quiet place to live."

Goffs is quiet, but Dennis Casebier is working to bring the noises of construction to the town. He wants to build a replica of Goffs' railroad depot to serve as a library. In 2005, he received a grant of about $500,000 for the project from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment. The groundbreaking for the depot project was in July, and Dennis Casebier said he's collected about $200,000 of the $250,000 he needs to fully fund construction.

One of Dennis Casebier's other priorities is interviewing as many Mojave Desert old-timers (or their descendants) as possible before their knowledge of desert living is lost.

"Oral history is a wonderful thing," he said. "We're trying to track down people who have first-time experience here."

September 14, 2006

Firefighting doubted

Probe of Hackberry tactics requested

George Watson, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

Winkler's Cabin burned to the ground.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Postmus has asked Rep. Jerry Lewis to request an outside investigation into the suppression tactics of the National Park Service during a 2005 wildfire in the High Desert.

In a Sept. 5 letter, Postmus wrote that the Park Service's decision to use an unapproved fire-management plan during the Hackberry Complex Fire must be examined.

The Park Service has already conducted a review of its own and concluded it did nothing wrong in battling the blaze.

"The Park Service letter to you seems to absolve the Service and its employees of any inappropriate action," wrote Postmus. "However, given the continuing nature of the controversy, I believe that a review external to the Park Service might be appropriate."

Several residents believe their homes burned because of the Park Service's fire-management decisions. They have said the Park Service did not use enough bulldozers and planes and refused residents' offers to let their firefighters tap into local wells, instead choosing to refill water supplies from locations farther away.

Postmus suggested the Department of the Interior's Inspector General's Office could handle the investigation.

Lewis' spokesman, Jim Specht, said the Redlands Republican, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, has been tied up trying to finalize bills for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

"Once he gets those done and has a chance to review the information, I am sure he will have a conversation with Mr. Postmus about it," Specht said.

Last March, Lewis expressed his disappointment with the Park Service's handling of the Hackberry Complex Fire, which torched 70,000 acres of desert covered with pinyon pine, juniper and sage brush. Lewis wrote that he believed too many houses burned and questioned whether the Park Service's responsiveness may have been the cause.

Dennis Schramm, the supervisor of the Mojave National Preserve, which is where the fire occurred, has called the blaze "an event that has not been seen before in this part of the desert."

Schramm placed blame on hot, dry weather coupled with an abundance of fuel meaning trees and brush that were ready to explode. He also has said the Park Service saved many homes from burning.

Brad Mitzelfelt, Postmus' chief of staff, agreed with Schramm that the conditions were ripe for an uncontrollable fire.

"We believe they could have had more water available and that they could have used heavy equipment to help fight this fire, but at the end of the day that's no guarantee the outcome of this disastrous fire would have been any different," Mitzelfelt wrote in an e-mail.

Still, Mitzelfelt said, the county questions whether the Park Service properly implemented its fire plan once the Hackberry fire ignited.

"This is one of the things we hope the (inspector general) can determine," Mitzelfelt wrote. "At the time the Hackberry fires started, the county had not been notified that the plan had been adopted and in fact hadn't heard any response to its input from the scoping for the Fire Management Plan."

September 11, 2006

Gold or Just a Fever?

A 1930s prospector insisted that a Mojave peak hid an underground river flowing with the ore. Some are chasing that dream today.

By Ashley Powers, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

KOKOWEEF PEAK, Calif. — The earthen ridge rises 6,038 feet from scrub brush and sand, an unspectacular summit were it not for the legend: a river underneath, overflowing with gold.

At least since the 1930s, leather-skinned prospectors have chased the tale to a mining shantytown at the base of the peak, on the edge of Mojave National Preserve, where the cheeriest structure is a pink shed that bears the warning "Keep Out."

Today a hard-bitten crew of treasure hunters huddles in plywood homes, enduring icy winters and roasting summers. Their big-city neighbor is an apt one: Las Vegas, about 75 miles away, which also welcomes dreamers happy to risk savings and sanity.

Kokoweef — a name believed to stem from Southern Paiute words meaning "gopher snake canyon" — lures its own kind of gamblers, though these days barely enough for a hand of seven-card stud: a military surplus merchant, a cocktail waitress, a retired construction manager and a few others.

Their quest, however, comes with this caveat: It consumed Earl Dorr, the brusque miner who fathered the legend — and who may have concocted it for his own nefarious ends.

The bleak sands of the Mojave conceal a bounty of treasure. Native tribes pocketed agate and turquoise long before Nevada's silver rush in the 1860s, which sent fortune-hungry miners scrambling into the Providence, Mescal and Clark ranges.

Tent cities sprouted in the sand. Some matured to communities of shelters cobbled from rocks and juniper poles — with most towns building the requisite general store and saloon and sometimes a brothel.

Ivanpah, among the largest on the California-Nevada border, boomed to several hundred residents, but it and most smaller outposts went bust when the silver, copper or tin markets crashed.

The mining rush slowed to a trickle by the 1930s. Into this desolate landscape wandered Dorr, a prospector with blue eyes, a shoulder-holstered gun and "immaculate table manners," said his nephew Ray Dorr, 78, a retired contractor in Cañon City, Colo., who is writing a book about Kokoweef.

Earl Dorr, born in the 1880s to wealthy Colorado cattle ranchers, traveled the Southwest in search of a mine that would make him rich. He would visit Ray's father in Pasadena, striding to the door in a Stetson hat with a sack of penny candy for the kids, whom he entranced with tall tales.

Along the way, Dorr either "discovered the richest gold deposit in the United States … or he was the most imaginative liar in the state of California," his nephew wrote in a 1967 article for Argosy magazine.

Dorr told The Times in 1936 that he came across Kokoweef when he checked into a Death Valley tale that three men who stumbled upon the golden river had deposited $57,000 in a Needles, Calif., bank.

Dorr told his nephew a different version: that he had befriended three Indian brothers who had discovered a river thick with ore in a Kokoweef cavern. After one brother plummeted to his death in the cavern, the other two refused to return to the mountain and told Dorr the tale.

The mountain, near the Ivanpah range, has three sizable, nearly vertical caves with limestone chambers: Kokoweef, Crystal and Quién Sabe — Spanish for "who knows." In 1934, Dorr produced a sworn statement that said he and an engineer, whom he identified only as Mr. Morton, descended several thousand feet into chambers he called "one of the marvels of the world."

On the floor of a half-mile-deep canyon, Dorr said, he came across a river, about 300 feet wide, that rose and fell as if it were breathing. The water receded to reveal black sand. Dorr said he panned it and found gold. Lots of it.

Dorr told The Times that upon returning to the surface, he dynamited the cavern's entrance to keep others from plundering his bounty while he filed a mining claim.

Within the next decade or so, cave explorers from Pasadena, curious about the tale, shimmied into a cavern and found "D-O-R-R" seared onto a wall.

Dorr's statement was published in the California Mining Journal in 1940, and it has been the source of endless speculation ever since. Why would he write up such a strike when he went to such lengths to hide it? Yet, if he were telling the truth, weren't untold riches just waiting to be rediscovered?

Larry Hahn opts for the latter.

In the 1980s, Hahn, who owns a military surplus store in Las Vegas, became the latest in a series of folks to entrance investors with Kokoweef. He is a partner in Explorations Inc., which has leased land from a company that owns 85 acres near the mountain and has mineral rights to 300 more and would share profits from any cache discovered.

Hahn, 68, said he had coaxed 300 to 500 investors to chip in for drilling, blasting and zapping the mountainside with electric current to pinpoint where to drill.

His newsletters promise gold like a televangelist promises salvation: "It only takes that one lucky hole that is connected to the big void to show us the way," one newsletter reads.

On a recent afternoon at base camp, Hahn said the search seemed as feasible as dredging for gold doubloons. "But in this day and age, we don't have buried treasure; all of it's been found. This is the last frontier," he said.

Only the most devout trundle up Zinc Mine Road, a tire-busting path that zigzags past boulders and Joshua trees about a mile from where long-extinct coelurosaurs imprinted what might be the state's only dinosaur tracks. The occasional hand-lettered sign reassures that the path peters out at "Kokoweef" — a graveyard of sagging buildings and rusting mining equipment.

At the plywood-and-pallet home that he built, one wall plastered with his great-grandfather's claim certificates for a gold mine, Randy Stenberg, 59, a retired construction manager, tends to his dreams.

His wife, Bernice, 50, a cocktail waitress at the MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas, had dismissed Larry Hahn as a huckster who had blinded her husband with a fable. But nearly 15 years ago, the Stenbergs descended from their 13th-floor condo near the Las Vegas Country Club for a tour of a tunnel that miners had chiseled.

Hahn's pitch was simple: "If you hit it, you're talking about the biggest thing that ever happened."

The couple threw in about $1,000, inspecting their investment on weekends and scraping rock and debris from the mine. It wasn't until four or so years ago that they settled at base camp, where electricity churns from solar panels and, for about two hours a day, a generator.

Residents fetch water from a pool that seeps from rocks in the Mescal range. One neighbor, a retired factory worker in her 70s, plans to spend the rest of her days staring at the spindly Joshua trees that hem in the hodgepodge of structures.

Randy Stenberg passes time slogging through one 1,200-foot tunnel into Kokoweef Peak and gazing at the zinc mine's ballroom ceilings and relics of miners past, such as a leather jacket and a V8 juice can ossified in dust.

"Gambling's for fools," he said recently from a frontyard whose sole decoration was a pink flamingo. "I don't consider this gambling — looking for something that's possibly there. You'd go down in history with it."

The miners under Hahn's direction long ago abandoned the sometimes dodgy work of blasting Kokoweef with dynamite. They instead poke at the mountain with more inventive tools, including microphones that help measure sound from small explosions to see if it pings off ore.

The latest novelty is a drill. It is as tall as a two-story home and topped with a skull-and-crossbones pirate flag. Several miles from base camp, the machine labors six to eight hours a day, burrowing deep into the dirt. The rationale: When the drill hits nothing, it will have found the cavern, or the path to it.

Geologists scoff at the legend, saying Kokoweef Peak could never harbor such a deep cave or a raging underground river. The desert is too dry. The amount of gold said to be packed into the riverbed — at least 50 tons, by Dorr's estimate — is too great. Not even Gold Rush miners in the Sierra Nevada foothills unearthed such a cache.

Paleontologists working with the San Bernardino County Museum dug at Kokoweef Peak in the 1970s, recovering more than 200,000 animal remains, including fish bones. Birds had carried the fish from the Colorado River, scientists determined, but some miners took them as evidence that Dorr's golden river — and its mother lode — existed.

"If it would have been there, this guy would have mined it all and be rich as can be," said Ted Weasma, a Mojave National Preserve geologist.

Dorr's nephew and at least one prospector who has lived at Kokoweef are convinced that Dorr pulled a bait-and-switch on his fellow miners — signing the sworn statement to attract investors without giving up the gold's location or even guaranteeing that he had found it.

The prospector may not have shimmied through a small hole near Kokoweef's Crystal Cave but elsewhere in the Mojave, said Ralph Lewis, 54, an electrical apprentice who has distanced himself from Hahn's operation and is writing a book about the legend.

As evidence of such a subterfuge, both men point to a mining shack Dorr built, about 8 feet wide with a double bunk — not in the Ivanpah Mountains, but in the nearby Mescal range. Lewis, who lived in Kokoweef off and on for a quarter-century, is convinced that this is the so-called Dorr Peak, depicted on rudimentary maps as providing a second path to the underground river.

Dorr's lifelong search for another route to his treasure gnawed at him, especially after the legend piqued a mining company's interest in the 1930s. Its workers discovered zinc and gave up on the gold. Dorr claimed that the zinc mining had destroyed routes to his horde.

"I got the wrong class of men, all talk — the class we old desert prospectors call drugstore miners. It was too big for them — too big a thing," Dorr told author Howard D. Clark after the firm ditched its plans to find gold.

"I stuck as long as I could, until I was eating cooked watercress, chipmunk soup and sagebrush tea. I starved out and had a light stroke, which put me on my back for a whole year," he said.

After deserting the shack in the Mescals, he worked as a shipyard welder, then as a watchman at an Adelanto tungsten mine. The prospector died in the 1950s, his pan empty.

September 10, 2006

Remembering a local author, Bill Mann

By Stevie St. John / City Editor
Desert Dispatch [Barstow, CA]

BARSTOW — Harvey House overflowed at noon on Saturday as family, friends and community members gathered to remember prominent local author Bill Mann, who died from acute leukemia in August.

Among the speakers was Mann’s younger brother Dennis, who read a letter to Mann’s widow, Dottie, from her nephew Larry Mann.

“The journey is at least as important as the destination,” he read.

And the way those remembering told it, Mann loved a journey, particularly the parts that involved getting to know others and telling a good story.

Mann always had a new story, his brother said, “and they were great.”

From 1988 until Mann launched his writing career in the 1990s, he and Gene Stoops led field trips to introduce people to some of the desert’s secrets such as mines and ghost towns. Mann previously led the trips but had stopped for while after his wife was hurt in a wreck that left her a wheelchair-user.

“He never met a stranger,” said Stoops, who credits Mann with getting him to be more open by encouraging him to tell stories around the campfire.

The pair led nine trips each year with one excursion per month starting in October. Stoops continued leading the trips until last year.

“We just really had a ball doing those trips over the years,” he said at the reception at Idle Spurs after the memorial service.

And over the years, Mann collected stories. Finally someone suggested they be written down, and Mann went on to pen several books.

Still, the prominent citizen was remembered not as much for his books as for himself. People described him as a joker, a devoted grandfather, someone who raised children teachers raved about and a man who told great tales.