October 30, 2006

County Update on Mojave Preserve Fire and Access

Letter from Bill Postmus, Chairman Board of Supervisors
San Bernardino County First District

October 30, 2006

I am writing this letter to my constituents in the Mojave National Preserve to provide an update on two issues of importance to Preserve residents.

First, I want to update you on our efforts to obtain an independent investigation into the National Park Service’s response to the Hackberry Complex fires of 2005. Second, I wanted to update you on the County of San Bernardino’s legal efforts to ensure public access and the County’s right to control and maintain the primary road system within the Preserve.

Regarding last year’s fire, I am very saddened and upset by the private property losses that resulted from the Hackberry fires. I brought this concern to the attention of Congressman Jerry Lewis, who on March 22nd formally requested an internal investigation by the National Park Service regarding its actions pertaining to the fires. I believe the results of that investigation as related back to Mr. Lewis in a May 16 letter lacked sufficient review of some issues and concerns.

On September 5th, I wrote a letter to Congressman Lewis asking him to request an external review of the suppression actions taken during the fire, particularly during its early phase, and with regard to direction that the Incident Commander was given by the Superintendent at that time. I suggested that the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General (IG) would be [the] most appropriate agency to conduct such a review.

I have been concerned about the level of cooperation and consultation between the Service and our own fire management operations regarding protection of private property within the Preserve. My office and the County Fire Department have had discussions with the Superintendent with our purpose being to ensure that incidents like last year’s fire do not happen again.

Regarding our efforts to preserve the public rights of way in the Preserve, the County at my direction filed suit earlier this week in Federal District Court against the National Park Service for quiet title claim to the primary county maintained road system in the Mojave National Preserve.

Under the auspices of the Desert Protection Act of 1994, which established the Preserve, BLM, the National Park Service (NPS) and other federal agencies under the Department of the Interior have closed roads that are part of the County’s Highway System across federal lands and have otherwise interfered with the actions of the County in conjunction with the regulation, operation and management of these highways.

Various actions on behalf of the County with various federal officials and agencies have failed to resolve this dispute. Our suit seeks to ensure the county’s right to conduct maintenance activities within our rights-of-way, including making improvements and accommodating drainage ditches, shoulders, culverts and road signs.

The Park Service has suggested that the County turn over its maintained road system in the Preserve to the Park Service and divest ourselves of ownership and responsibility for these roads. Even though this suggestion was made with the idea that federal money would be available to give the Service an ability to maintain the roads, I felt it was more important to preserve the public’s right to use these roads by insisting that the County own the roads. The County is accountable to the residents of the Preserve and is in a better position to be responsive to their concerns, including concerns over the possibility of arbitrary road closures.

My commitment to you is that the County will continue to fight to ensure the public’s rights to access throughout the Preserve by maintaining and defending our rights of ownership over the public’s roads.

Should you have any questions regarding these or other County matters, please don’t hesitate to contact my office at (800) 472-8597. Or you may contact my office through my website at www.sbcounty.gov/postmus.


Chairman, Board of Supervisors
County of San Bernardino

October 18, 2006

Move on desert land plan contested

Jeff Horwitz, Staff writer
San Bernardino Sun

San Bernardino County supervisors announced Tuesday that they voted in closed session to join in defending a desert wildlife habitat conservation plan from an environmental lawsuit.

Should the U.S. District Court in San Francisco allow the county to participate in the suit, San Bernardino County would have the right to argue in front of the court and participate in any future settlement talks on the West Mojave Plan.

Stopping the suit is critical to allowing road maintenance, public safety access, and waste disposal in areas covered by the plan, said Robin Cochran, a deputy county counsel.

"There's a lot at stake to see that the right thing happens here," she said.

The West Mojave Plan is the largest habitat conservation plan nationwide, regulating activities on 3.3 million square acres of land. In return for some parts of the desert being reserved as critical wildlife habitat, the plan reduces environmental restrictions in less sensitive areas. San Bernardino County was a lead agency in the plan's design.

Approved in March of this year, the plan failed to protect the desert tortoise and several plant species, several environmental organizations have argued. In a suit filed in August, The Center for Biological Diversity alleged the plan illegally permitted disastrous amounts of off-highway vehicle use and asked for an injunction barring the federal Bureau of Land Management from "issuing any permit, approval, or other action" for any activity that would adversely affect the desert tortoise or three plant species.

"This (the injunction) would theoretically shut down the use of the desert," said Randy Scott, the county's Land Use Services director. "Various environmental groups just aren't happy unless the only use of the desert is to keep the desert tortoise alive. It's a worthy goal, but the BLM has other responsibilities."

The Center for Biological Diversity could not be reached for comment. The group has won significant concessions in the Western Mojave from the BLM in the past, such as a 2001 settlement that heavily restricted cattle grazing.

In the grazing case, the county sought to intervene as well, said Brad Mitzelfelt, chief of staff for Supervisor Bill Postmus, whose 1st District includes a large swath of the BLM desert land.

But the county was denied entry to the suit then, Mitzelfelt said, barring it from having a stake in the settlement negotiations. When the BLM agreed to the grazing restrictions, Postmus accused the agency of trampling property rights.

Because of the county's role in designing the West Mojave Plan, Mitzelfelt said he was optimistic this time that the court would grant the county legal standing.

October 15, 2006

Mary Martin: new face at Lassen

Chico Enterprise-Record

Lassen Volcanic National Park Superintendent Mary Martin has a 36-year history with the National Park Service, and is celebrating her first year at Lassen this month.

Born in Ireland and coming to the United States when she was 2, she grew up in San Francisco and used to vacation with her family in Northern California.

Describing herself as a black-diamond skier, a summer and snow camper, equestrian and traveler, Martin worked in human resources for the National Parks Service in Vermont, Yosemite National Park, Anchorage, and Washington, D.C.

In 1994, she was named deputy superintendent to Mojave National Preserve, near Barstow on the Mojave Desert and south of Death Valley. She was named park superintendent there within a year.

Former Lassen Park Director Marilyn Parris is now enjoying life surrounded by other volcanoes, as superintendent at Haleakala National Park on Maui, Hawaii.

October 14, 2006

'Don't zone me in:'

Property-rights measures on ballot in West

Seattle Post-intelligencer

BOISE, Idaho -- The West was won a century ago, but the battle over how it will look a century from now continues, with property-rights initiatives on the ballot in at least four states.

Measures in Idaho, Arizona, California and Washington ask voters to follow Oregon, where residents in 2004 forced local governments to pay private property owners when new regulations reduce their land's value.

Aiming to capitalize on anti-government sentiment kicked up by a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case in Connecticut, proponents say these "regulatory takings" measures protect people's freedom to profit from their land.

Opponents point to Oregon, where "Measure 37" has resulted in more than $4 billion in claims. They say these initiatives are financed by wealthy ideologues bent on preventing local governments from deciding where subdivisions, gravel pits, even rendering plants can be built.

It's the latest collision of the "Don't fence me in" ethos of the old West, where property rights border on the sacred, with the new West's vision of a landscape that only seems infinite - and requires laws to shape it appropriately. And it has attracted deep-pocketed backers on both sides: Millions from conservative activist and New York real-estate Howard Rich are propping up the ballot measures, while Paul Brainerd, Seattle-based founder of Aldus software, has injected at least $120,000 into the fight to shoot them down.

"I don't believe that developers should profit from dodging local land-use regulations," said Brainerd, who also owns a home near Ketchum, Idaho. "Each community should be able decide how to best balance the rights and responsibilities of land owners to the greater community good - not just the rights of an individual who wants to develop a subdivision with 250 homes on 20 acres."

Conservative activists including Boise's Laird Maxwell are pushing their initiatives almost solely with money from organizations linked to Rich and say foes have employed "esoteric, pie-in-the-sky scare tactics" to frighten voters on Nov. 7. They say their proposals are simple: If government changes laws to limit how people can use their land, it should pay for the damage.

"It is a battle over whether or not individual liberty will continue in the United States or not," Rich, also on the boards of the conservative Cato Institute and the Club for Growth, told The Associated Press. "The opposition are government bureaucrats, those that profit from taking other people's property without paying for it, and those that have radical agendas hidden under soft facades."

There could have been more measures: A Montana effort appears dead after a judge found signature-gathering fraud got it on the ballot. And the Nevada Supreme Court trimmed regulatory-takings provisions from a measure there.

As the West changes from a region where agriculture is replaced by subdivisions that seem to stretch from horizon to horizon, these battles are emerging in part because some fear they'll be left behind.

"Landowners see zoning laws as an obstacle to them transitioning out of resource use and into urban development," said Sy Adler, an urban studies professor at Portland State University and co-author of "Planning a New West." It would be nice to do this in a more planful way rather than a ballot-measure approach."

Proponents say that's the only way to get government to listen.

Ed Terrazas, an architect near Sun Valley, Idaho, signed onto Proposition 2 after the local government rejected his plan to build four homes on 115 acres of sage and grass he owns above the Big Wood River, near where it flows out of the Rocky Mountains.

"Largely from my years of planning experience, I've seen other people harmed by overzealous regulation that doesn't account for property rights," said Terrazas, who is suing Blaine County. "You're fighting your own government, and they have unlimited resources."

Some of the ballot measures are married to provisions meant to address eminent-domain abuse fears that arose after the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo vs. New London case. The Connecticut city was allowed to condemn residential property to clear the way for a private economic development.

Still, foes in Idaho, including business groups, cities and counties, and Republican Gov. Jim Risch, say eminent domain is no longer a concern, since state lawmakers this year passed new laws greatly restricting when governments can seize private property.

Others argue the regulatory-takings measures would produce a system where land-use disagreements will wind up in courts, costing taxpayers millions. In Oregon, for instance, where Measure 37 allows landowners to claim compensation or a waiver of land-use rules, a man has demanded either $203 million - or the right to drill geothermal wells, expand a pumice mine and erect vacation homes inside a national volcanic monument.

"What we've got is this out-of-state sugar daddy who is supporting this far-out proposition that will put Idaho communities at risk," Dan Chadwick, Idaho Association of Counties director, said of Rich.

It's no surprise private-property measures have emerged in the Rocky Mountain West, home to some of America's fastest-growing states.

Arizona was No. 2 in 2005, behind Nevada, while Idaho and Oregon came in third and 10th, respectively.

"I would be interested to see whether there's an effective resistance that can be mounted to this kind of initiative," said Dan Kemmis, a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana. "There's a growing perception in many of these places that if the West is going to prosper in the long run, and not just make a quick buck out of rapid growth for a short time, that we've got to be as smart as we can be in controlling our own destiny."

October 4, 2006

Bill Gives Western States More Access to Federal Land

A House measure would allow a right of way to be claimed on any mapped route in parks or other national areas. Critics fear a motorized influx.

By Julie Cart, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

A bill introduced by Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican, would give Western states and counties broad authority over rights of way across federal land, allowing them to convert footpaths, wagon tracks and cattle trails into roads.

Echoing a long-repealed 19th century statute, Pearce's bill would permit local governments to claim rights of way through national parks, national forests, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges and military bases, provided the routes appear on any official map or survey made before 1976. According to his bill, such documents can include land office plats and "tourist maps."

Critics say the bill, which was introduced Friday, is a giveaway of public land that would open up more of the nation's parks and wilderness areas to motorized travel.

Pearce's staff said Tuesday that the congressman intends the bill to clarify for Western counties and states what constitutes a valid right of way across federal land.

Rights-of-way conflicts have been simmering for more than a decade in counties where the federal government owns the bulk of the land.

In recent years, a handful of counties in southern Utah have asserted claims to rights of way across Arches National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Canyonlands National Park.

"The problem is that currently it's a patchwork, case-by-case legal review," said David Host, Pearce's communications director. "In his view you had an untenable situation. This will establish rights and increase predictability."

But critics say the broad language of the bill, which allows rights of way on "any public lands ever owned by the United States," could open land Congress has already protected from roads and other intrusions.

"It's so sweeping that it's almost impossible to believe," said Kristen Brengel of the Wilderness Society.

In recent years, counties have made rights-of-way claims under an 1866 law, RS 2477, which was designed to encourage the development of the West. The law was repealed in 1976, but grandfathered in previously granted rights of way. But controversy lingered over what constituted a legal right of way.

In California, San Bernardino County claimed authority over nearly 5,000 miles of rights of way — more than twice the total mileage of maintained roads in the county. The claims included 2,567 miles within the Mojave National Preserve.

Former Interior Secretary Gale Norton sought to resolve the matter in 2003 in an agreement with Mike Leavitt, then the governor of Utah.

The agreement would have opened millions of acres in national parks and wilderness areas to motorized transportation. Shortly after the deal was reached, southern Utah counties began upgrading primitive roads, and some officials tore down federal signs forbidding recreational vehicles.

Environmental groups challenged the agreement, and a federal appeals court ruled last year that the burden of proof was on counties to prove their case, in part, by showing 10 years of continual use of the rights of ways.

Pearce's proposal expands on the court's ruling, Brengel said. "It goes further than the court or Norton. It says that just a line on a map is good enough to establish a claim," she said.

But Kane County Commissioner Mark Habbeshaw, who has sued to control roads on federal land in southern Utah, said, "There's no intention to make claims on trails or roads in obscure areas."

Under Pearce's bill, Kane County could claim a right to every hiking trail in Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks, Habbeshaw said, but the county has no intention of doing so.

"We could argue that our rights of way across the national parks are valid, and we want them opened up as road today," he said. "We've made no effort and will not make an effort to do so."

Habbeshaw said that the Utah-based Western Counties Alliance wrote the bill and brought it to Pearce in an effort to broaden the issue beyond Utah. Pearce agreed to sponsor it, he said, knowing that it would generate opposition from environmental groups.

If nothing else, he said, the bill will start a discussion.

"We have to sit down and deal with RS 2477 as professional and practical people," Habbeshaw said.

"I'm not saying the current language is a lock and that we are not open to changes."

Stark Beauty, Solitude, Squalor and Sulfur -- Trona Has It All

Once a prosperous and tidy company town with desert vistas, Trona is in decline, cherishing its memories but living with crime and blight.

David Kelly
Los Angeles Times

TRONA, Calif. — Fed up with the crime, congestion and cost of Orange County, Fred Hermon went looking for a place where he could be alone, a place so remote, so unappealing that few would ever want to live there.

His strategy was simple: Locate the popular, pricey towns on a map and move steadily outward. That's where he found Trona.

When he searched the Internet for information, the word "hell" kept popping up — 'Is Trona Anywhere Near Hell?," "Where the Hell Is Trona?," "Long, Lonely Ride Through Hell."

Hermon didn't actually expect to find perdition as he descended through Poison Canyon into Trona three years ago, but the smell of sulfur, the blast-furnace heat and barren landscape made it feel uncomfortably close.

A real estate agent showed him a neighborhood with block after block of burned-out homes.

"I said, 'Oh my God, no,' " he recalled. "Another area looked like Los Angeles after the riots. I love the desert, but this was pushing it."

Nevertheless, he found a house for $24,000, installed an enormous swamp cooler and now spends his days digging for old artifacts while caring for nine cats, an inquisitive packrat and two desert tortoises, Speedy and Kid.

Hermon, 60, has already spent $2,600 on a chain-link fence and rarely leaves home for fear of being burglarized. On his first night in town, someone swiped his $15 garden hose. He stays for the solitude but wonders how Trona came to this.

"Something must have been going on for a long time to bring the town to this level of devastation," he said.

Over the years, Trona, once a thriving community of 6,000 on the ragged edge of Death Valley, has shriveled to just 1,800. Drug dealers looking for cheap housing have moved in. Parolees abound. Arsonists have torched dozens of vacant homes, leaving charred skeletons behind. Business owners, unable to make a profit, have simply locked up and walked away.

The result is blight on an industrial scale. San Bernardino County has torn down a handful of houses, but officials say it's too costly to demolish entire blocks of dilapidated, asbestos-riddled buildings.

Meanwhile, many Tronans are fleeing to Ridgecrest, 25 miles away, leaving mostly senior citizens and a smattering of young professionals behind.

Whether Trona can survive as the population dwindles is an open question.

Most workers at Searles Valley Minerals, the major employer, now live elsewhere. The high school has just 160 students with a graduating class last year of 15. The football team, unable to field 11 players, now plays with eight.

"A lot of people are leaving town," said Ruth Soto, the high school guidance counselor. "Closing the school has been talked about."

Many who stay love Trona for the friendships they've made, memories of better times and the desert's stark beauty. Others are simply stuck, unable to afford a house elsewhere.

Homes here are among the cheapest in California, with a median price of $40,000, according to DataQuick, which tracks real estate sales.

Even die-hard Trona boosters agree that it has seen better days. They concede that streets lined with torched houses, combined with the pungent odor from the chemical plant, add up to a poor first impression.

Pastor Larry Cox of the First Baptist Church said his first words on entering Trona were "People live here?"

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department has offered deputies willing to work in Trona free housing and less jail duty. Most prefer jail.

Hollywood comes calling when scouting places resembling alien planets or how they imagine the end of the world might look.

Parts of "Planet of the Apes" and "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" were filmed at the Trona Pinnacles, towering mineral formations near town. Conspiracy buffs have long held that Trona was the site of NASA's "moon landings."

An old highway sign put it this way: "End of the World 10, Trona 15."

Yet this extreme environment has bred people as tough as the rock and desert around them. They endure months of 120-degree temperatures and winds that fling boulders down mountainsides.

Seniors hit the links at the bare bones Trona Golf Club, batting balls on a mostly sand and dirt course while skirting the occasional rattlesnake.

"The sand leaves the clubs a little dog-eared," noted 82-year-old Barbara Crowther.

The Trona Tornadoes, named after dust devils spinning off dry Searles Lake, may be the only high school football team outside Alaska to have an all-dirt field. Astroturf would blow away, they say.

The white lines contain eye-stinging sodium sulfate to better stick to the field.

"It gives us a psychological edge in home games," said Coach John Foster.

The town was a stopover for the homicidal Manson family, who loaded up on water before heading to Barker Ranch about 20 miles east, where they were eventually arrested in 1969.

"I got my picture taken with Manson — with the girls too," said Robert "Ballarat Bob" Dunlap, an 83-year-old gold miner living in a desert shack.

Dunlap is one of the last in a long line of miners who burrowed and dynamited their way through here hoping to find a fortune.

In 1862, John W. Searles came looking for gold and found borax instead. His mining business would lay the foundation for a new town.

Named after a kind of sodium carbonate, Trona was established in 1914 by American Trona Corp., which owned the community outright. It built the schools, homes and dance halls and issued its own money to be used in town. Even when the business changed hands, residents were well cared for.

Teachers earned among the highest salaries in the state, often $96,000 a year in pay and benefits, thanks to royalties the company paid in exchange for mining on federal land. Sometimes local schools got $5 million or $6 million a year.

Lately, that number has dropped to about $1.6 million, school officials said. "I came here from Cleveland in 1945," said Kathe Barry, 75. "I loved it here because so much was going on at the time. We had a dance every Saturday night. There wasn't an empty house in Trona. It was just wonderful."

Ralph Garner, 94, stumbled on Trona during the Depression.

"They told me it was darn hot but I said I could take it," he said. "I was a mechanic and earned about 49 cents an hour. I had a good life here."

But times changed. In 1954, the company, then American Potash & Chemical, sold its homes to employees.

Workers were no longer required to live in Trona. In 1982, more than 400 chemists and engineers were relocated to Oklahoma.

For many, this was the beginning of the end. Layoffs and bitter strikes followed. The workforce shrank. Houses that couldn't be sold were abandoned.

Touring Trona with Russell Rector, 75, is a jarring journey from what was to what is, a landscape of memories rudely interrupted by jagged reality.

He nosed his red pickup toward the empty tennis courts.

"Everyone used to play out here," he said. "We would have beer parties in the desert and everyone would come. It's not the same place anymore."

He passed the old dance hall, once alive with laughter, now closed. The bookie's house stands empty. Trona had 13 saloons; now there are two.

Down at the First Baptist Church, Pastor Cox typed a sermon in his small air-conditioned office. He came from Simi Valley three years ago and feels like a missionary in a remote land.

"You step into Trona and you are stepping into a Third World country," Cox said. "This is a place where a lot of people have been forgotten. When a house burns down, it stands for 10 or 15 years. I tell people if they are looking for the middle of nowhere, we are in the middle of that."

The pride of Trona is the Old Guest House Museum, a shrine to the town and the minerals that made it. There are old photos of John W. Searles. His violin sits behind glass. Small bottles of potash, borax and fly ash are displayed, along with maps, history books and assorted mining and railroad paraphernalia.

Margaret Brush, 79, is curator and the town's most energetic promoter. She recently won funding for a kiosk along the road to Death Valley offering information about Trona.

"We needed something to attract people to Trona and to our museum," she said.

The heart of the town is Searles Valley Minerals, a vast, twisting array of pipes snaking above mountains of chemicals.

Arzell Hale, 69, has lived in the community for 28 years and handles public relations for the company.

"I'm going to die here, no question," he said cheerfully.

Yet he concedes that Trona suffers an image problem. The mere sight of it, he said, can scare off potential hires.

"When I first came here it was 10 at night, so it wasn't as bad as the daytime," Hale said.

That was in 1978 when the company had 1,450 employees. Now it has 650.

Hale drove around Searles Lake, a 42-square-mile expanse of mud and brine producing a million tons of soda ash a year and nearly a million tons of boron. The former is used to make glass, the latter soap and detergent. So far only 10% of its reserves have been used, Hale said.

"People drive out here and say, 'I wouldn't live in that godforsaken place for anything,' " he said, scanning a landscape more lunar than earthly. "But you don't know a place until you know the people, and the quality of people here is unreal."

True, but some are higher quality than others.

On a recent afternoon San Bernardino County Sheriff's Cpl. Tim Lotspeich drove into the hardscrabble Argus neighborhood and quickly found trouble brewing.

A shirtless man apparently high on methamphetamine was screaming abuse at another man down the street.

Lotspeich warned him to calm down and not do anything he would regret later.

Eric Cartmell, 37, watched from behind his chain-link fence.

"Look around you," he said, pointing to the trashed houses along the road, "and see what meth can do to a town. The drug addicts have stripped these houses of toilets and whatever they can sell for drugs. If they cleaned this place up, there would be no better town."

Lotspeich, who has patrolled Trona for three years, must carefully decide when to make an arrest.

The nearest county jail is 100 miles away in Barstow, and he has only two other deputies.

"I could spend all day out here doing under-the-influence arrests, but by the time I drive them to Barstow that's half my day, and sometimes they are back before I am," he said.

Minutes later he rounded a corner and spotted a man wanted for a parole violation and arrested him.

He arrested another parolee shortly after. With two men handcuffed in his SUV, he stopped a teenager riding a motorbike on the street.

"Take it out to the desert," he said.

A woman flagged him down to point out a homeless man wandering her neighborhood.

The corporal had been on patrol just 20 minutes.

Methamphetamine abuse is a scourge in Trona, leading to other crimes, such as burglary. Arsonists also have helped destroy much of the town.

"That was the mentality — you had a problem with someone, you set their houses on fire or you set their car on fire," Lotspeich said. "That was just what you did up here. Once we made an arrest and they saw they would actually do time, it stopped. We haven't had arson in a year."

He credits aggressive policing for an upsurge in arrests. Trona went from 12 felony arrests in 2002 to 56 in 2005, according to sheriff's records.

"The good outweighs the bad here, but there is a lot of bad," the officer said.

Not far away, the Trona Tornados took to their dirt field for practice. "It's 115 degrees but it feels like 105 with the breeze," said Coach Foster, 41.

The team has won its league three times and has a reputation for hitting hard.

"No one else plays on dirt," said running back Emilio Horta, 16. "They all cry about it."

Asked if he will stay in Trona after graduation, he shook his head. "It's not where I want to be," Horta said. "I want a more civilized place."

A hot wind blew, carrying a bracing whiff of rotten egg.

Foster smiled.

"I said I wanted to leave as a kid," he said. "I went to the Navy for four years, then I came back. I like the small-town atmosphere and I love knowing where my kids are at night. I have no plans on going anywhere."