December 27, 2006

Renovation begins at former health spa

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer

ZZYZX - More than three decades have passed since radio evangelist Curtis Howe Springer left this desert oasis and spa, which he called "the last word in health care."

Its cluster of buildings, which Springer opened as a resort with indoor mineral springs and a cross-shaped pool, have weathered the desert wind and heat since the Bureau of Land Management evicted him in 1974, saying he didn't have a valid claim for the property.

Deteriorated by time and the elements, the structures are now being shored up.

"We're reroofing all the historic buildings from the Springer era, and stabilizing others," said Rob Fulton, who manages the 30-year-old Desert Studies Center at the site, five miles off Interstate 15 near Baker.

The $500,000 project is being carried out by the National Park Service and the California State University system, which operates the center under a cooperative agreement.

"Buildings used for classrooms, office, and dining room are getting new roofs," Fulton said. "The Sunrise Building, which contained 10 guest rooms, is being stabilized along with the old pool and spa."

The site, known as Soda Springs before Springer opened his 12,000-acre Zzyzx mineral-springs resort, was used for hundreds of years by Indian tribes and as a stagecoach and then rail stop on the old Tonapah and Tidewater Railroad, according to the Park Service.

Learning of springs in the area, Springer decided in 1944 to open a health spa at the site, recruiting laborers from Skid Row in Los Angeles to construct the resort's buildings.

"Springer broadcast his daily religious programs from his powerful radio station," said authors Cheri Rae and John McKinney in their book, "Mojave National Preserve: A Visitor's Guide."

Widespread response to the broadcasts turned Baker into California's busiest post office. Springer stayed 30 years at Zzyzx, catering to thousands of visitors.

A lake at the site is home of the endangered Mohave tui chub fish.

In 1995, passage of the California Desert Protection Act created the Mojave National Preserve, which incorporated Zzyzx and its cluster of 12 buildings into the park.

The historic buildings have been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district, the Park Service reports in its management plan for the preserve.

About 6,000 students and researchers, half of whom are from other states and foreign countries, use the Desert Studies Center annually, Fulton said.

It accommodates about 80 students or researchers at a time. They focus on subjects as diverse as archaeology and wildlife biology.

The consortium of California State University campuses running the center are in San Bernardino, Dominguez Hills, Fullerton, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Northridge and Pomona.

December 24, 2006

The Last Burros of the Mojave Desert

The Huffington Post
by Deanne Stillman

The time has come to speak of the animals in attendance at the nativity, especially the burro, the stubborn, steadfast, and hardy little four-legged who has served us well through the ages, with barely a tip of the hat in the annals.

It was a burro that carried Mary and Joseph to the stable where Christ was born, a burro that carried Christ into Jerusalem for one of his last acts, a burro that accompanied his followers into other empires and across time, finally helping trappers, prospectors, and soldiers make their way into the Old Testament scenery of the American West.

Since then his descendants have lived in the desert, fending off predators, joy riders with guns, and government round-ups. But now the burros' time in the Mojave may be coming to an end, because of a federal policy of "zeroing out" the herds in areas where other critters and half-baked attempts to manage water that has already been mismanaged have taken precedence.

And who are these burros exactly? Well, let's meet Brighty, one of our western pioneers. There's a statue of Brighty the burro in the Grand Canyon Lodge. Brighty lived at the Grand Canyon from 1892 to 1922, along with countless other burros whose ancestors had come with the Spanish and carried the ensuing parade.

Named after the Bright Angel Creek in the canyon, Brighty originally belonged to a gold prospector. When the prospector was killed, Brighty was adopted by the park service. He helped build the canyon's first suspension bridge across the Colorado River and carried Teddy Roosevelt's packs on a hunt for mountain lions. He was an icon of the West when he died, and it would seem only fitting that the government honor his life by making sure that others of his kind could flourish in their desert home.

As I've written on this site, passage of the federal Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act in 1971 spearheaded by Wild Horse Annie did exactly that - but in spirit only. It gave authority for mustangs and burros to the Bureau of Land Management, which meant that other agencies such as the National Park Service could make their own policy towards these animals if they lived on NPS land. To the park service, burros were not free-roaming but non-native, which meant that they had to go (see article on wild horses).

In 1979, the extirpation began - with Brighty's enduring family.

Because getting them out of the Grand Canyon would be difficult, all 577 of them were to be shot.

The late writer and animal defender Cleveland Amory intervened, along with his organization, the Fund for Animals, putting together a daring and complicated rescue in which the burros were airlifted from the canyon and taken to his Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, which he founded for this occasion. But that was the beginning of the end for the burro in national parks and preserves.

Since then, NPS has continued its policy of "direct reduction," and thousands of burros have either been shot by contract hunters or harried to their doom or into overcrowded government adoption pipelines in cruel airborne round-ups. From 1987 to 1994, the park service shot 400 burros in Death Valley alone - just one of various burro sites all over the desert West. When Death Valley went from monument to park status in 94, the park service amped up its plans to remove burros - and Death Valley's remaining wild horses. But another friend of the burro stepped up, just in time.

This was Diana Chontos, In 1990, the long-time rescuer of burros had taken six of them and made a two-year cross country wilderness trek through California to draw attention to their plight. When she heard about what was about to happen to the Death Valley burros in 94, she approached NPS with a plan.

After lengthy and difficult talks, she and NPS came to an agreement: the agency would not shoot burros if her organization, Wild Burro Rescue in Olancha, California just to the west of Death Valley, would organize, pay for, and remove the burros themselves. And that's what she's been doing since then.

"These annual live captures are conducted in hazardous conditions in rugged and remote mountain wilderness," she says. She almost died of renal failure at a recent capture because she just couldn't get enough water over a six-day period. And there were only two people doing the capture - she and her late partner, Tom Allewelt, who trimmed the hooves of the rescued burros and horses and helped to gentle them at their sanctuary in the Owens Valley.

There are still a few burros in Death Valley and soon, perhaps sometime next year, another capture will be planned - if she can raise the funds and head off a park service hunt. And that's the only reason she takes the burros out of the park - not for adoption, which is BLM policy.

On January 19th, 2007, the burros that live in the Clark Mountains of the Mojave Desert - the last in that region - will be gone, taken in a federal round-up (in this case by the BLM, which manages the area in question), perhaps memorialized like Brighty in a statue at the Mojave National Preserve, which has now turned its sights on that particular herd, whose home turf is the highest peak in that part of the desert at 7929 feet. This is on the north side of the preserve and sometimes if you're driving east on I-15, you can see them hanging out at Excelsior Mine Road.

As with wild horses, there's a dispute about exactly how many burros are left. Locals say maybe 30; the feds say 2-300. There's also a dispute over access to water, which was closed off when the park service took over part of the burros' range. NPS originally agreed to have water piped back into the BLM part of the burros' range, but then reversed course.

"Concerned citizens have volunteered labor and materials to complete the simple project at no cost to taxpayers," says Virginie Parant, of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. But so far, plans for the round-up are still in place. In 2005, another herd was taken off the preserve, and - according to the desert grapevine - two may have been shot in the process; there are photos of one burro with a bullet to the head circulating the ethers (although it's not clear which round-up that came from) and another was allegedly run to the point of exhaustion and death - the rumor is that he died a very slow and painful death as the contractors may have stood by. Not surprising if true; I have heard of and been an eyewitness to a staggering amount of tax-subsidized government abuse before, during, and after round-ups of wild horses and burros.

"They are destroying our Western heritage," says Jennifer Foster, a 23-year resident of Hesperia near the preserve. Jennifer and her husband Ken are two of a small group of high-desert locals who are planning a legal action to stop this impending and most final act.
At a recent BLM public comments meeting in Barstow, Mojave native Bobby Parker asked preserve officials if they knew of any studies that showed how the desert tortoise was faring since burro removal had been amped up in the region, given the fact that the burro is said to have a negative impact on the endangered species and that's one of the reasons it's being removed. No one could answer the question. (And by the way, the tortoise is one of my totems and I'm all in favor if its protection. But the Mojave is one vast creche indeed, with plenty of room at the inn for all manner of creatures, especially when water sources aren't blocked off).

A few months ago, Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote a letter to the Interior Department, suggesting that when she lobbied for the Desert Protection Act which passed in 1994, she didn't intend for all burros to be eliminiated from the Mojave. The letter is posted here, along with information about other actions that can be taken. Asked about the letter at the hearing, officials said it had no bearing on their mandate.

Burros have much to tell us, as Diana Chontos says. In 2000, she rescued a burro from Death Valley and called him Yaqui. "He was respected by all of the younger jacks- the male burros - and they didn't chase him from food or water. He loved to be brushed and hugged. But one day he began to grow weak and could no longer get up from his naps without being helped and towards the end we rigged a blanket for shade and called a vet to ease his passing. One by one all 32 jacks came by and touched him some place on his body, then went back to their hay. Shortly after the last jack paid his respects, Yaqui took a deep breath and died." He was 50 years old, the vet said, the oldest equine he had ever seen. Had he helped a miner named Pegleg Pete find water? Maybe he had once led a lost pilgrim back to the trail. Or maybe he just lived in the Mojave Desert - for a long time, until he had to go.


December 17, 2006

Off-Roaders Fight Ecos for Calif. Canyon

Off-roaders fight environmentalists over surprising canyon near California's Death Valley

By GILLIAN FLACCUS Associated Press Writer
CBS News [New York City, NY]

BALLARAT, Calif., Dec. 17, 2006 (AP) Whoever named Surprise Canyon got it right. Mere miles from bone-dry Death Valley, the canyon cradles two unexpected jewels: a gushing mountain stream and what's left of a once-bustling silver mining town.

These treasures have attracted visitors for decades _ and now they're at the heart of a legal battle between off-road drivers and environmentalists.

Five years ago environmentalists successfully sued to get the narrow canyon and its spring-fed waterfalls closed to vehicles, arguing that the federal Bureau of Land Management was not carrying out its duty to protect the land.

In response, more than 80 off-roaders purchased tiny pockets of private land at the top of the canyon, and now they're suing the federal government for access to their property, arguing that the canyon is a public right of way.

It is one of several recent cases that could unlock thousands of miles of roads in federally protected parks around the West.

The fight over Surprise Canyon boils down to whether the rights of private property owners trump the protection of a fragile oasis on public land. The off-roaders have dusted off a Civil War-era mining law that places the public access rights of local governments and private individuals above the rights of the federal government.

Environmental groups allege that, before they won protection for the area in 2001, off-roaders destroyed the canyon by cutting trees, dumping boulders in the water and using winches to drag their Jeeps up the waterfalls. They are seeking to intervene in the off-roaders' lawsuit.

Since 2001, the canyon has regenerated, with new vegetation attracting wildlife.

"It's almost unbelievable what's up there. It's precious, it's pristine," said Tom Budlong, an activist who regularly hikes the canyon about 200 miles northeast of his Los Angeles home. "I shudder to think of the extreme four-wheelers getting back into the canyon and making a road where there is now no road.

"Once there was a road _ a 130-year-old gravel route that flash floods washed away nearly two decades ago. Off-roaders continued driving up the rugged canyon stream bed to reach the ghost town of Panamint City, which has easily explorable mine shafts, the remains of a smelter, some mine carts and a few cabins.

The canyon grows from an arid plain just north of the one-house desert outpost of Ballarat and climbs 3,700 feet over five miles to Panamint City, inside Death Valley National Park. Most of Surprise Canyon is outside the park boundary.

Flycatchers flit among thick stands of willows and cottonwood trees that crowd along the stream. Less common birds have been spotted since the area was closed to vehicles, notably the endangered Inyo California towhee, said Chris Kassar, an Arizona-based biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. Other sensitive species such as the Panamint daisy and the Panamint alligator lizard also are flourishing, she said.

Kassar and others believe the canyon's ecosystem could crumble if the off-roaders prevail in their lawsuit, filed in August.

The off-roaders argue that, under an 1866 mining law, the canyon still is a public right of way even though the road is long gone.

"The issue is not off-roading and environmental issues. The legal issue is access," said plaintiffs' attorney Karen Budd-Falen. "If the road was once there and it's eroded out it's still a public access. The fact that it has been flooded out doesn't make the legal issue go away.

"Similar arguments are being used in right-of-way lawsuits elsewhere in the West.In 2004, San Juan County in Utah sued the National Park Service, claiming a creek in Canyonlands National Park was once a county road. Environmental groups have sought to intervene in that case, which is before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Inyo County recently sued the same agency over four dirt roads in Death Valley National Park, and San Bernardino County sued over 14 roads in the Mojave National Preserve. Both suits allege the roads were county property before the federal government closed them.

Off-roaders say they just want to visit their property and explore the ghost town."I respect what was there and I want it to be there for my kids to see," said Dale Walton, a member of the Bakersfield Trailblazers off-roading club and a property owner.

"I resent people who go in and destroy things, but I resent more people that say 'You just can't go in there because we don't want you to go in there,'" he said.

December 12, 2006

Roundup opposed

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun [San Bernardino, CA]

Ken and Jennifer Foster of Hesperia are battling to save a herd of wild burros that roam freely on the lower slopes of Clark Mountain in the eastern Mojave Desert.

They are among a group of animal-rights advocates opposing a plan by a federal agency to capture as many as 150 burros in a proposed helicopter-assisted roundup Jan. 19.

The plan is to put the burros up for adoption as pets.

Three federal agencies are involved in the decision to remove the burros from land controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management: the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and the BLM.

Neither the Park Service nor Fish and Wildlife want the burros. They are banned from the national parks because they are not native and compete with native creatures for survival. Fish and Wildlife says they compete with the endangered desert tortoise.

The Fosters paint a colorful picture of the burros from Western lore. "These animals are a living heritage of the Old West," Jennifer Foster said. "It would be a complete travesty to remove them from their native range."

Her husband says: "They're as much a part of the West as the horse and wagon and should be left to graze where they've been over 100 years."

The Bureau of Land Management, which administers rangeland at Clark Mountain, sees burro removal as a necessity.

"Part of the herd area contains critical habitat of the endangered desert tortoise," said BLM's John Dearing. "And creation of the Mojave National Preserve in 1994 transferred the only springs (at Clark Mountain) with yearlong surface water to the National Park Service."

Also in 1994, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that wild burros be banned from grazing in desert wildlife management areas, including the herd area at Clark Mountain, to help restore tortoise populations.

Meanwhile, the park service management plan for the Clark Mountain area called for removing burros from the new national preserve and fencing off burros from the water sources.

A public meeting on the proposed burro roundup will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the BLM's Barstow field office, 2601 Barstow Road. Public comments on an environmental assessment for the proposal will be accepted until Dec. 29 at the bureau's Needles field office, 1303 South Highway 95.

The bureau estimates there are 100 to 150 wild burros within or adjacent to the 233,000-acre Clark Mountain herd area. An adjacent 37,000 acres on the mountain is in the national preserve.

The bureau's burro capture plan calls for rounding up the animals and placing them in BLM's national wild horse and burro adoption program, administered at Ridgecrest.

"Under the proposal, the capture and removal of wild burros would be aided by a helicopter at gathering sites," Dearing said. "The helicopter would be used to locate and herd targeted animals to capture sites."

Wranglers on the ground would corral the burros.

Two other roundup methods are also proposed: trapping animals by enticing them with hay or luring them to water sites. Attracted by hay or water, the burros would be captured in portable pens with gates triggered after the animals were inside.

The environmental assessment of the capture plan said wranglers would ensure the burros are treated humanely.

But Jennifer Foster calls helicopter captures dangerous for the animals.

"During a roundup last September, a beautiful jack ran until it collapsed, and then was dragged by ropes by two mounted wranglers," she said.

The animals were abused by one of the wranglers, Foster said, and "one was left to die a very agonizing death over 14 to 16 hours."

The Fosters, 25-year residents of Hesperia who founded a lobbying group called Public Lands for Public Use, have owned horses and burros for three decades. They recently acquired 10 Clark Mountain burros from the bureau's wild horse and burro adoption program and plan to take them to animal sanctuaries, they said.

"We both love animals," Ken Foster said. "A big share of our lives has been devoted to riding and caring for horses and burros."

"We absolutely must stop this roundup," said Jennifer Foster. "If we don't, these living symbols of the Old West will be gone forever."

December 2, 2006

Study: Airport can't deliver on tourism demands

An American Airlines plane takes off from McCarran International Airport, the fifth busiest airport in the United States.


Shorter buffet lines and desolate casino floors could be in the cards at many Strip hotels as early as 2010 unless something is done to bypass heavy congestion at Southern Nevada's largest airport.

Researchers at the investment firm Deutsche Bank say that if hotel development continues at its current pace, Las Vegas resorts could face a shortfall of up to 7 million visitors annually by 2017, the soonest a new airport could be up and running.

That would leave operators of the latest and greatest megaresorts to cannibalize the customer base of existing casinos to make ends meet, said authors of a Nov. 30 report on the issue distributed to investors.

It's a scenario that would hit everyone from board room executives to parking garage valets squarely in the wallet.

"It is going to be extremely tight, and someone might lose," said Deutsche Bank research analyst Bill Lerner. "There are just all kinds of implications."

Lerner and Grant Govertsen, another researcher, said the report is the most detailed look to date at the airport crunch from the perspective of gaming company investors.

They urged developers to be cautious when planning new rooms and suggested that tourism boosters do more to increase the number of people who come to Las Vegas by car.

Airport officials said Friday that the authors painted an overly pessimistic picture of the future. "You could do anything with numbers depending on the assumptions you project," said Rosemary Vassiliadis, Clark County deputy director of aviation.

The report's authors project a short-term annual shortfall of about 600,000 visitor arrivals by 2010. But that will be alleviated by the addition of a new terminal in 2011.

Once the new terminal is in place, Vassiliadis said, technology improvements in tracking planes, airspace expansions and airport streamlining will keep pace with growth until 2017. That's the earliest a $7 billion airport could be operating in the Ivanpah Valley between Jean and Primm.

"There is no reason for me to believe we will not keep rolling along," Vassiliadis said.
Currently more than 44 million people arrive and depart annually from McCarran, the fifth busiest airport in the United States.

Air passengers represent 47 percent of the visitors who occupy the city's approximately 136,000 hotel rooms.

McCarran officials say the airport can handle 53 million arrivals and departures annually, a figure it could reach by 2011 or sooner.

But hotel operators plan to add another 41,746 hotel rooms by the end of 2012, according to the report.

To maintain occupancy in existing hotels and fill the new rooms would take about 23.3 million visitor arrivals at McCarran in 2012, Lerner and Govertsen estimated. The airport, however, will reach capacity at about 21.2 million visitor arrivals, leaving hotel operators to look elsewhere for about 2.1 million customers, they said.

The discrepancy between the number of people needed to maintain existing growth rates and the capacity at the airport would grow until 2017.

As that happens, competition would intensify as casino operators looked at each other's customers as a source of new income.

The capacity crunch at McCarran also could increase the cost of tickets to Las Vegas. That, combined with intensifying competition, would hit older, value-oriented properties hardest.

"It is pretty far off. But it is something we continue to evaluate," said Mark Lefever, chief financial officer of the Riviera, which has more than 2,000 rooms and more than 2,500 Las Vegas employees to support.

Lefever said he was confident the property would continue to find customers. "There are still a whole bunch of people coming by car," he said. "This town will be fine."

Others said that counting on a new airport operating in the Ivanpah Valley by 2017 was an optimistic assumption.

The proposed location is close to the Mojave National Preserve, a 1.6 million-acre refuge in California. Environmental groups question whether an airport ferrying up to 35 million people annually should be placed next to a national park known for desert solitude.

"It does seem like it is a fairly fast turnaround when you are looking at the significant environmental issues involved here," said Ron Sundergill, Pacific region director of the National Park Conservation Association. "You have this major asset which needs to be protected."

Lerner said projecting airline traffic and hotel development more than 10 years into the future is difficult and resulted in numbers that could change depending on countless factors.

But that didn't change the core point of the report. "I know we are splitting hairs on specific numbers" he said. "But the over-arching point is it is going to be real tight."

Las Vegas will be unable to maintain annual 4 percent increases in hospitality growth and visitor traffic without a solution to the upcoming air passenger capacity crunch at McCarran International Airport.