January 29, 2007

New supervisor getting to know vast district

Jeff Horwitz, Staff Writer

Promoted to the office of 1st District supervisor three weeks ago, Brad Mitzelfelt hasn't been spending much time there.

The supervisor's public schedule for one recent day shows him running among meetings and events spread over 16 hours in Hesperia, Victorville, San Bernardino and Victorville again.

"I have a little bit of extra work to do in that the district has been given a supervisor, not appointed one," he acknowledged during an after-hours interview in his still-undecorated county office. "I have a limited amount of time to prove myself."

Mitzelfelt was appointed by his board colleagues this month to complete the two years remaining in former Supervisor Bill Postmus' term. Mitzelfelt, who was Postmus' chief of staff, has kept much of his boss' staff intact. He even brought back Postmus' former deputy chief of staff, Paula Nowicki, to serve as his office's own chief. Even with their help, he said, settling into his new role on the board isn't easy.

"I was pretty close to their arena, but I wasn't in it," he said of the other supervisors.

The constituents of his 20,000-square-mile district aren't easy to please, say some of the High Desert's elected officials.

"It is way too big for one person," said Hesperia City Councilman Ed Pack, who endorsed Mitzelfelt for the 1st District seat. "It's hard to make everybody happy - or even close to the majority."

Victorville City Councilman Mike Rothschild agreed. Although he initially supported fellow Councilman Bob Hunter for the job, he wished Mitzelfelt luck and said that he would need it: Since the 1960s, the district has recalled one supervisor and booted out any incumbent who tried to serve more than two terms.

"We're growing and becoming more sophisticated," Rothschild said. "Eventually, we'll probably be kinder to our supervisors than we have in the last 40 years."

One large question, Rothschild said, is whether Mitzelfelt will approach policy matters from a different perspective than Postmus, who is now the county's assessor.

Within the next few months, Rothschild and Pack noted, the board will be addressing numerous controversial projects, from an open-air sludge composting facility in Hinkley to the placement of a $20 million county government center coveted by Victorville and Hesperia.

The government center had been slated for Hesperia, but Mitzelfelt requested time at last week's meeting to further consider its placement.

"I think that shows a bit of independence," Rothschild said. He added, however, that "it takes more than just a few weeks to figure out if somebody's playing with a new deck of cards."

Longer-term concerns include the Victor Valley's increasing traffic congestion, its recently developed gang activity, and concerns about the pace of desert development and the water supply.

Mitzelfelt is not short on policy proposals. In interviews last week, the supervisor proposed ordinances limiting where sex offenders may congregate, seeking gang injunctions, reviewing off-
highway-vehicle enforcement, and longer-term plans to shape growth in the desert and make the Victor Valley a logistics hub.

Fighting to keep the desert's vast swaths of federal land open to the public is a pet project: Mitzelfelt has been part of county skirmishes with federal agencies and environmental groups over road maintenance, grazing rights, and fire protection in the Mojave National Preserve.

Last week, he was selected as vice chairman of the QuadState County Government Coalition, a joint-powers authority between four western states that will likely bring him a greater role in such matters.

But Mitzelfelt also concedes that his new job will require far more than a head for public policy. As a chief of staff, he would spend hours researching and writing memos on a particular problem. As a supervisor, however, "you have to stop doing that," he said. "I need to get used to having staff do that so I can be with constituents getting new ideas."

Along those lines, Mitzelfelt has begun the sort of barnstorming tour of city council meetings normally associated with a campaign. He intends to attend city council meetings in every one of his district's cities, he said, though getting to far-flung Needles and Trona might take a while.
"I'm going to wear out a lot of tires," he said.

January 28, 2007

Mitzelfelt elected vice chairman of government coalition

Mohave Valley News [Laughlin, NV]

KINGMAN - At a special meeting of the Quad State County Government Coalition, Mohave County Sup. Buster D. Johnson was elected by unanimous vote of its membership to the position of chairman. At the same meeting, San Bernardino County 1st District Sup. Brad Mitzelfelt was elected vice chairman.

"I appreciate the support of the other supervisors who have placed me in this leadership position at such a critical time," Johnson said in a press release. Johnson was referring to Quad State being granted intervener status in the Center for Biological Diversity vs. U.S. Bureau of Land Management case. "We must find a balance were we can allow economic development and recreational activities on BLM land and still protect the desert tortoise," Johnson said.

The Quad State County Government Coalition is a Joint Exercise of Powers Authority established between counties from California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona.

The coalition was organized to provide a multi-county voice to keep a balance between conservation of endangered species and economic development as more and more land is being taken away from RVers, off-roaders, hikers, horsemen, ranchers and other public users for the protection of the desert tortoise and other species.

A deal in the desert for Sen. Reid?

A bill Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid D-NV wrote could have affected the friend who sold the land.

By Chuck Neubauer and Tom Hamburger
Los Angeles Times

BULLHEAD CITY, ARIZ. — It's hard to buy undeveloped land in booming northern Arizona for $166 an acre. But now-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid effectively did just that when a longtime friend decided to sell property owned by the employee pension fund that he controlled.

In 2002, Reid (D-Nev.) paid $10,000 to a pension fund controlled by Clair Haycock, a Las Vegas lubricants distributor and his friend for 50 years. The payment gave the senator full control of a 160-acre parcel in Bullhead City that Reid and the pension fund had jointly owned. Reid's price for the equivalent of 60 acres of undeveloped desert was less than one-tenth of the value the assessor placed on it at the time.

Six months after the deal closed, Reid introduced legislation to address the plight of lubricants dealers who had their supplies disrupted by the decisions of big oil companies. It was an issue the Haycock family had brought to Reid's attention in 1994, according to a source familiar with the events.

If Reid were to sell the property for any of the various estimates of its value, his gain on the $10,000 investment could range from $50,000 to $290,000.

It is a potential violation of congressional ethics standards for a member to accept anything of value — including a real estate discount — from a person with interests before Congress.

In a statement, Reid's spokesman Jon Summers said that the transaction was not a gift and that the price was due to the property's history and the fact that only a partial interest was sold. Reid's action on the lubricants issue was unrelated to the sale and reflected the senator's interest in fairness for small businesses, Summers said.

Reid "has never taken any official action to provide personal financial benefit to me, and I would never have asked him to," Clair Haycock has told The Times. Haycock's son, John, who runs the petroleum-products distribution company with him, said in a recent e-mail that it was "absolutely wrong" to connect the land sale and Reid's lubricants legislation, which did not pass.

Legislative efforts

Records and interviews show that beginning in the mid-1990s, Reid tried several times to push legislation that would have protected lubricants distributors from abrupt cancellations by their suppliers. Though unsuccessful, the legislation sent a clear message to the oil firms that there was congressional interest in the matter, according to Sarah Dodge, then-legislative director for an industry group that worked on the bill.

By the time of the land sale, the Haycocks say, they had lost interest in the issue and were not aware that the legislation had been introduced.

Because an employee pension fund had owned the land Reid purchased, labor law experts contacted by The Times said, a below-market sale would raise additional questions. Pension fund trustees like Clair Haycock have a duty in most cases to sell assets for their market value, the experts said.

"I think this would have been considered a potentially serious issue" at the time, said Ian D. Lanoff, who led the Labor Department's pension division during the Carter administration and was provided basic details of the case — though not the identity of the lawmaker — by The Times.

"Theoretically it's a serious issue for the trustee who sold the property, though practically it may not be" because the pension plan is now closed and its obligations were met, Lanoff said.

John Haycock said his workers received all promised benefits from the Haycock Distributing Co. pension plan and were therefore unaffected by the land transaction. Federal records confirm this.
Reid's interest in the barren parcel dates back to the period of 1979 through 1982, when he and Clair Haycock bought the 160 acres. Haycock bought a three-eighths interest, equivalent to 60 acres, for $90,000 — $1,500 an acre. Reid, then a Nevada lawyer and political figure, bought the other five-eighths, the equivalent of 100 acres. They did not divide the parcel.

The property has sweeping mountain and mesa views and now abuts a housing development, which could make it attractive to developers. But there are some limitations. The land has a steep wash, or desert streambed, and the adjacent land has a gravel pit.

In early 1987, Haycock turned over his interest in the land to the pension fund, for which he acts as trustee. The fund provided retirement benefits for about 80 employees, and under law, employers must contribute to such funds each year.

In the early 1990s, California investors bought the entire 160 acres from Reid and Haycock for a little over $1.34 million — around $8,400 an acre. The new owners obtained approval to develop a mobile home and recreational vehicle park. But a few years later they defaulted, and Reid and the pension fund were once again the land's joint owners.

Development slowed in the late 1990s, and Reid and the Haycocks say the property became a cash drain. In 1999, according to Reid's office, the senator began working without success with developer Craig Johnson on a plan for the property. At some point, Reid's office said, he offered to give the land to Johnson, who declined. Johnson has confirmed that offer. In a statement Reid's office provided, Johnson described the listless market and the property's challenges.

In 2001, Haycock Distributing Co. decided to convert its existing pension fund into a 401(k) retirement program. In liquidating its assets, the firm decided that the plan must quickly sell its share of the property.

Lawyers advised the Haycocks that the family could not buy it from the pension fund, so Clair Haycock approached Reid. At first, Reid said "he and his wife were not interested due to the property's past history," Haycock wrote in a letter to The Times.

"Eventually, he gave me $10,000 for my share," Clair Haycock wrote. "I was just happy to have been able to liquidate the property from my pension plan." Reid's office said the senator and his wife purchased it reluctantly. "Because it had minimal value to them, they were willing to pay only a minimal price," a Reid staffer wrote in response to questions.

How good a deal?

How good a deal did Reid get? Paying $166 an acre for Mohave County land is "a super deal," said the county assessor, Ron Nicholson. But the precise answer in this case, Nicholson said, is complicated by the fact that only a minority portion of a partnership was for sale; minority shares can be difficult to sell. Other experts who reviewed the transaction for The Times acknowledged the complexity of the deal but said the senator appeared to have acquired valuable property for a fraction of its value.

"The price strikes me as low," said professor Crocker H. Liu, McCord chair of real estate at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business. "But I don't know what other considerations — valuable or otherwise — were part of this transaction. Usually when a purchase price is that low, there is other juice in the deal."

Calculating the precise amount of Reid's discount is difficult because of varying values assigned to the property around that time, including some by the senator himself. In his 2001 Senate financial disclosure, Reid valued his Bullhead City acreage at $5,000 to $10,000 an acre. When questioned about the filing several months ago, Reid's office said he might have overstated the value. A Reid spokesman said the senator was in the process of amending his ethics statements to more accurately describe the terms of the deal.

At least twice, Reid appealed to the Mohave County assessor to lower the land valuation and decrease his taxes, in 2002 presenting a 2001 appraisal that valued the land at $1,000 an acre. The assessor's office made a downward adjustment for 2003 but still places the value at about $1,748 an acre.

On a recent property tour, the assessor acknowledged that Reid's land had problems.
"There are topographical issues on this property," Nicholson said as he drove a county-owned four-wheel-drive vehicle through the tract. He pointed out the property's steep wash and another streambed.

An adjacent parcel with similar topography sold in April 2004 for $4,260 an acre.
Reid's spokesman said the senator had paid a fair price for the pension fund's minority interest.
"When a willing buyer pays a willing seller to buy an asset, that is a sale, not a gift," Summers said.

Real estate experts say that minority interests in partnerships are often sold at a discount, sometimes of 20% or more. But they say that such discounts do not necessarily apply in a case like Reid's where he is the majority owner and gains 100% control by the purchase.

"We were happy to get out of the deal as we did," John Haycock said, adding: "Would we have liked to make more money on the Bullhead City land? Of course."

Reid's office produced statements from three Haycock retirees who attested that they believed they had been well-served by the pension plan.

Since taking full control of the parcel in 2002, Reid has pushed for federal funding for a new bridge over the Colorado River a few miles from his property, a spending request The Times disclosed last November.

Reid said he secured funding for the bridge, which would connect fast-growing Bullhead City with the gambling town of Laughlin, Nev., because local residents wanted it. He said the bridge would not affect his property's value.

Losing business

Reid has long been known as a champion of Nevada interests, particularly gambling and mining. But he seemed an unlikely choice to advocate for the beleaguered lubricants industry when he took up the issue in 1994. He did not sit on the Energy Committee.

At that time, the Haycocks went to Reid for help, according to a former employee of the lubricants industry trade group, Petroleum Marketers Assn. of America, who was involved in the events. The employee asked that his name be withheld because his current job involves congressional contacts.

The Haycocks had lost business in 1994 when Mobil Oil Co. canceled the family's distributorship, costing the firm a lucrative contract with the Las Vegas-area General Motors dealers, which had to use Mobil products.

The family was "incensed that this had happened and there was nothing they could do about it," said the former trade group employee.

Reid mentions constituent

The Haycocks — who were considered industry leaders — say they do not recall discussing the matter with Reid. But the former trade group employee said the Haycocks convinced Reid to take action.

Reid "did it because John or Clair asked him to do it," said the former employee.

With the legislative session coming to a close, Reid brought the issue to the Senate floor on Oct. 5, 1994. He described a Nevada constituent whose "franchise agreement to sell lubricating oils to car dealers in Las Vegas was arbitrarily canceled with 30 days' notice," adding: "This seems grossly unfair."

A Washington lawyer who represented the Haycocks in their dispute with Mobil recalls that dealers turned to Reid after other avenues of redress had been exhausted.

"The Haycocks provided access to Sen. Reid," said Al Alfano, the attorney, who still represents distributor interests. However, Alfano said, Reid's efforts brought no relief to the Haycocks.

Although the issue remains a concern for many distributors, he said, the Haycocks lost interest after the mid-1990s.

Nonetheless, Reid cited the same constituent example almost word-for-word in 2002, soon after the land sale, and again in 2003 when he introduced legislation, cosponsored by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), to protect lubricants distributors.

John Haycock said Reid's actions provided no benefit to his company. "I am not aware of any action taken by the senator, relative to lubricants, that has had a financial benefit to our company," Haycock wrote. "At one point I believe Sen. Reid pushed for legislation … but that legislation was never passed and therefore could not have had any impact….

"To my best recollection, I didn't even know Sen. Reid had introduced the legislation," John Haycock said, referring to the legislation in 2002 and 2003.

Reid's spokesman said: "In any event, the Haycocks are Sen. Reid's constituents, and there is absolutely nothing improper about Sen. Reid working to advance good policy on matters of concern to Nevadans and businesses in Nevada."

Reid's land in the desert

A 160-acre plot in Bullhead City, Ariz., has been variously valued at $1,000 to $10,000 per acre since Harry Reid and longtime friend Clair Haycock bought it more than 20 years ago. But Sen. Reid effectively paid far less than that in 2002, when he purchased Haycock's three-eighths interest, the equivalent of 60 acres.

Per-acre valuations of the land over the years

  • Price Haycock paid in 1982 for his share: $1,500
  • Approximate price paid in 1990 by buyers who later defaulted: $8,400
  • Valuation by Reid in 2001 Senate ethics statements: $5,000 to $10,000
  • 2001 private appraisal for Reid: $1,000
  • Valuation by Mohave County assessor in 2002: $2,144
  • Price Reid paid for Haycock's three-eighths share of the land in 2002: $166
Note: The current county valuation of the property, unchanged since 2003, averages $1,748 per acre. Reid's per-acre valuation on his latest Senate ethics statement is $3,125 to $6,250.

Sources: Los Angeles Times estimates based on U.S. Senate disclosure forms; Mohave County Recorder's Office; Mohave County assessor; private appraisal records

January 26, 2007

Burro ouster called an environmental necessity

Amanda Lucidon / The Press-Enterprise
Wranglers and officials gather around a helicopter as they go over details of removing wild burros from the California desert.

U.S. says Mojave ouster necessary

The Press-Enterprise

On the eastern edge of San Bernardino County, a piece of the Old West came to an end this week, with the help of a modern-day wrangler in the sky.

Wranglers and officials gather around a helicopter as they go over details of removing wild burros from the California desert.

A thudding helicopter emerged from the distant folds of the desert and darted around power lines. The pilot nudged wild burros at a fast clip through several miles of the creosote-dotted landscape.

The burros, young and old, were driven from their longtime home around Clark Mountain, the nearly 8,000-foot chalky-brown peak that gave the Clark herd its name. Like thousands before them, the burros will be put up for adoption.

Although these particular burros couldn't have known any better, they wandered into a part of the Mojave National Preserve and a neighboring valley considered by the federal government to be critical for the survival of the desert tortoise. Once there, the burros munched on the same plants needed by the lumbering reptiles, officials with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said.

Although cattle -- which eat the same plants -- also roam the area, they are managed by a rancher who keeps them moving, said Edythe Seehafer, an environmental planner for the bureau. The burros, she said, are left up to their own devices.

"The deciding factor was, could we keep them out," she said, referring to Shadow Valley. The answer was no. "They're animals. They migrate."

A secondary reason dates back to the 1994 California Desert Protection Act. The act transferred 37,000 acres in and around the Clark Mountain range to the National Park Service as a unit of the new Mojave National Preserve.

The move, according to a bureau study, transferred the only year-round springs in the eastern portion of the herd area to the preserve. A management plan drafted later for the preserve said the agency would fence off their sprawling unit, a move the bureau said would put the burros in trouble in the arid landscape where water resources are precious and few.

Larry Whalon, the preserve's resources chief, said the burros are not native to the area -- and they simply wanted to protect the land with the fence if the herd stayed.

Seehafer said the main issue was that burros out-compete tortoises for food, which is especially problematic in years of drought when less vegetation grows.

Thus, in a three-day roundup that ended Friday, the bureau and its contractors gathered 96 burros and drove them for three hours to Ridgecrest, where they will be put up for adoption. The removal effort was estimated to cost $70,000, said Alex Neibergs, a bureau wild horse and burro specialist.

Since 1977, some 3,500 wild horses and burros have been removed from the California desert, said Dick Crowe, a bureau regional planner. They are the descendants of those brought by mining prospectors and Spanish colonists hundreds of years ago.

The hardy animals flourished in the desert because they reproduce quickly, have few natural predators and low incidents of disease.

Today's desert is much different, Seehafer said, with an imperiled tortoise whose habitat has been taken over by homes, shopping malls and an expanded military base: the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, near Barstow.

The burro-gathering site was less than a mile north of Interstate 15, within eyesight of traffic and casinos across the Nevada border in Primm.

"There are more and more pressures on the desert, and the desert really can't absorb all those pressures," Seehafer said. "It's not like the desert is a real lush place, anyways."

Today, there are only two wild-burro herds of any significant size that remain in the desert, and they roam near the Colorado River, Crowe said.

As 28 burros were rounded up Thursday, five activists concerned about the animals' welfare fanned out across the range, watching the activity through binoculars after losing an appeal filed with the bureau to stop the event altogether.

"It's a very sad thing for Americans to loose this part of their heritage," said Jennifer Foster, of Hesperia. She spoke passionately about the burros as gentle animals, and said she considered their removal an eradication.

Katie Blunk, a veterinarian with a unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, checked the animals after they were funneled into a chute and a holding pen by horse-straddling wranglers waving white flags that rattled.

Blunk said they looked fine, even the last bunch that one of the activists said appeared to have been pushed too fast by the helicopter.

"They're not breathing hard, they barely broke a sweat," she said, as she watched the animals in the pen.

Blunk's assessment did little to soothe Foster. She said primitive apparatus called arrastras, which were pulled by burros to crush the mined ore, still remain in the nearby mountains.

"Without them," Foster said of the burros, "the West would have never been able to be settled."

January 25, 2007

Nomad among the owls

Long-eared owls seem to be experts at remaining unseen - even by biologists concerned about their apparently declining numbers

Orange County Register

Somewhere deep in tangles of trees on the margins of Orange County, long-eared owls are preparing to lay their eggs and raise their young.

But this secretive, seldom-seen raptor is of concern to biologists. Their numbers appear to be dropping in California, and possibly the rest of North America as well, because of loss of habitat.

That was the conclusion of an Orange County raptor expert, one of the few to track the species and study it. The finding was hard to come by. These owls give bird enthusiasts and scientists who seek them a difficult time, and not only because of their secretive nature and their preference for nesting in dense tree cover.

Long-eared owls live a nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place without a consistent pattern and having no need to return to the same spot each year to breed. They don't build their own nests, relying instead on the abandoned nests of hawks, crows and other species.

They also seem to give their odd calls less often than other owls, according to one authority, making them even more difficult to locate.

The long "ears" give these owls a different look than other owl species, but have nothing to do with hearing. Instead, they are believed to further contribute to the owls' cryptic nature by breaking up its shape when it is perched among tangled branches.

These owls sometimes gather in common roosting places, for instance in the Mojave desert, but do not flock as some other species do.

When hunting, they fly low over fields and clearings and pounce on rodent prey.

January 24, 2007

It's roundup time for burros

Herding wild burros - Contractors for the BLM use a helicopter and horses in Ivanpah Valley to round up wild burros. Eric Reed/Staff photographer

Andrew Silva, Staff Writer
SB Sun

As the sun climbed over the mountains, brightening a cold, still morning, the clang, clang, clang of a temporary fence post being pounded into the desert by two cowboys broke the silence.

A yellow helicopter buzzed in the distance, swooping back and forth over the scrubby California terrain near Primm, Nev., its pilot scouting the area between the Clark Mountain range to the north and busy Interstate 15 to the south.

Cowboys and women pulled steel fence sections out of a trailer to set up a corral.

It was time to round up a herd of burros that have called the eastern Mojave Desert home for at least 150 years, maybe longer.

"There's always the idea they are from pioneering the historic West," said Alex Neiberg, the wild horse and burro specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. "These are living symbols."

But the burros are considered non- native, and in the decades-long battle to protect the fragile desert, federal land managers decided the animals have to go.

The listing of the desert tortoise as a threatened species in 1990 and the creation of the Mojave National Preserve in 1994 spelled the end for the free-roaming, long-eared icons of the mining and settlement eras.

Biologists worry the burros are a threat to the declining number of desert tortoises, competing for forage and possibly stepping on tortoises or their burrows.

That's nonsense, say some activists fighting to keep the burros on the desert.

"There are too few burros," said Jennifer Foster of Hesperia, who's been trying to save the herd from being purged from the desert. "The burros on Clark Mountain played a historic role in the settlement of the West."

She argued the Clark Mountain herd is genetically unique, with a lineage going back hundreds of years, and should be preserved under federal laws protecting wild burros and historic objects.

As the crew from Utah went to work, Foster and her husband, Ken, sat in their car about a quarter-mile away on a dirt road just north of I-15.

A group of BLM rangers prevented anyone from going toward the corral until the contractor and the BLM's Neiberg were sure it was safe.

Foster hoped her phone would ring with news about an appeal she had pending in front of a judge, seeking to stop the roundup, actually called a "gather."

The call never came.

The judge eventually turned down the request to leave the animals on the land, said Stephen Razo, spokesman for the BLM's California desert district office.

Foster and her husband were joined by Diana Chontos of Olancha, a tiny town on Highway 395 in the foothills of the eastern Sierra Nevada. Chontos' white pickup, parked behind the Fosters' car, sports a personalized license plate: BURRROS.

Chontos established the Wild Burro Rescue and Preservation Project more than 15 years ago as an alternative to a plan to shoot burros in Death Valley, she said. She now cares for 187 burros, supported by donations from members of her organization.

"It seems the goal is not to have a single wild burro left on public land," said Chontos, wearing a poncho and cowboy hat. "The American people want them. People travel from all over the country - `where are the burros?' The only ones they see are at my place."

Out at the gather area, two lines of fence posts were draped with burlap netting, stretching out more than 100 yards and forming a wide "V," called a jute.

The jute acts as a funnel to guide the burros toward the corral.

By late Wednesday morning, after the helicopter had completed a couple of runs, BLM officials began shuttling Foster and the others, two or three at a time, down the dirt road to inspect the burros.

A little after 11 a.m., Greg Cook, 53, of Vernal, Utah, joined his crew on a break to have lunch and a soda.

Picture a cowboy, and Cook is it.

Rail thin with a thick gray mustache, he and his wife run KG Livestock and oversee a group of cheerful, energetic young people who seem more in tune with the 19th century than the 21st.
They spend much of the year traveling the West gathering wild horses and burros for the government.

"I like the animals. I like the burros; I like the horses," Cook said, standing next to the trailer where the long gray and white ears of about 10 burros poked above the side. "It's a good way of living."
There's more to it than it looks, he said.

"So many things to watch for - our own saddle horses, each other, the gates. It's a really tough thing to do," he said. "It takes quite a bit of patience so you don't hurt them."

Adam Goodrich, 20, sitting on the trailer fender, said, "It's out of the ordinary."

As they relaxed and joked around, the radio came to life, with helicopter pilot Rick Harmon saying he was a mile out.

The crew jumped up, with several getting on their horses and grabbing 5-foot-long wands with small strips of cloth at the end.

Chontos, the burro activist from Olancha, walked past the loaded trailer to head back down the road and said to the burros: "Goodbye, sweeties. You're going off to the slave trade."

The helicopter, its skids at times brushing the tops of the creosote bushes, moved the burros toward the jute.

Once in the jute, the horse riders moved the burros toward the corral, flicking the wands beside and above the animals to drive them forward.

Once in the corral and then into the narrow chute, the crew used the signature rapid-fire whistling of a cowboy, along with pleading and pushing, to get the burros boarded.

"Come on. C'mon. There you go," one cowboy in the chute said, until another burro stepped off the trailer and headed back down the wrong way. "Hey. Hey!"

The 96 burros gathered Wednesday and Thursday were taken to a holding area in Ridgecrest and will later be made available for adoption. They cannot, by law, be sold for slaughter.

Neiberg said the effort will continue, perhaps with water trapping, maybe another gather next year, until the herd is "zeroed out," as required by the federal management plans.

There are only a couple of ranges left where burro herds will be allowed to remain - one on the western side of the Colorado River, and another in the area of the Chocolate Mountains between Yuma and Blythe, said Dick Crowe of the BLM.

Foster and the others are heartbroken the burros are disappearing from the sprawling landscape

"Once they're gone, they're gone," Foster said. "... It'll be a sad day when I can't bring my little grandchildren to see burros in their native range."

January 22, 2007

AWOL soldier found in Mojave Desert unhurt

North County Times [Escondido, CA]
By: Associated Press

NEEDLES, Calif. (AP) -- An Army Ranger who went absent without leave was found alone and uninjured on a mountaintop in the Mojave Desert, authorities said.

Searchers on horseback, dirt bike and four-wheel ATVs helped Army crews in Black Hawk helicopters locate Andrew Stone, 20, of Wisconsin, on Sunday afternoon.

It was unclear when the Army listed Stone as AWOL. The search reportedly began late last week.

According to San Bernardino sheriff's officials, Stone picked up maps of the Mojave Desert from a Bureau of Land Management office Friday before he abandoned his car near the edge of the desert south of Needles.

Rescuers found Stone on a mountaintop south of the Mojave National Preserve, said sheriff's Deputy Dave Pichotta.

Officials said he had no ties to the area, which is about two hours south of Las Vegas near the California-Arizona border.

The soldier could face criminal charges in Georgia, where he is stationed, sheriff's officials said.

Army officials in Georgia declined comment Sunday and referred questions about Stone to the 75th Rangers Regiment. A spokesman for the regiment did not immediately respond to phone messages Sunday.

Messages left by The Associated Press at the sheriff's office and the Department of Defense early Monday weren't immediately returned.

Stone had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

January 21, 2007

Still fighting over Mojave Preserve

Our view: County's lawsuit over road access seems largely pointless.

San Bernardino Sun [San Bernardino, CA]


The Mojave National Preserve was created to protect a huge swath of the Mojave Desert and keep it in trust as a vital public resource. But it seems to have only accelerated the controversy between environmentalists and those who say they've been shut out of public lands.

Chief among the latter, apparently, are county supervisors, who are suing for title to 14 roads. But the lawsuit comes out of left field. It's hard to see what exactly the county is hoping to preserve, other than some bogus claim to power over the preserve.

The county sued the U.S. Department of the Interior in October, using an 1866 mining law to claim it owns most of the roads in the preserve - a tactic used across the West to gain access to lands that have been closed to mining, grazing and offroading in order to preserve them.

New Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, whose 1st District includes the preserve, claims it is the county's duty to guard its right to use the roads - so that "none could be arbitrarily closed or excessively restricted." But it seems a false premise. And a battle that is arbitrary in itself, because it is so unnecessary.

"Is it that critical to gain control over the roads?" asks Kristin Brengel of the Wilderness Society.

"These roads aren't going anywhere. Why is the county spending this money, when there's no chance the National Park Service will shut them down?"

The county's suit sure looks like the road to nowhere. We'd agree with the feds that the court should just dismiss it.

Plutonium transit uproar

Crash of truck with radioactive waste in desert stirs concerns

Andrew Silva, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

Baking soda, bunk beds, fire extinguishers - and a drum with plutonium-238.

The truck that crashed Tuesday near Needles with a load of radioactive waste was a plain old commercial truck carrying plain old products.

When emergency workers checked the truck's manifest they were surprised that radioactive material was being shipped with ordinary goods.

"This, in and of itself, is very alarming," said San Bernardino County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty, who also directs his agency's hazardous materials unit.

Government and industry officials say shipping radioactive materials by commercial carriers is a perfectly safe, perfectly routine practice.

The containers, the routes and the shipping companies are all heavily regulated, and there has never been an accident that resulted in a release of radiation, they said.

The radiation emitted by the truck's amount of plutonium-238 is trillions of times more than is allowed in drinking water, Brierty said.

The four grams of plutonium involved in the crash would be roughly the volume of a pencil eraser. But that amount kicks out more than 60 curies, a measure of radioactivity.

In contrast, the drinking water standard is 15 picocuries per liter, or 15 trillionths of one curie

"That's quite a lot of plutonium," said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute of Energy and Environmental Research. "If nothing spilled, it's not a big issue & . I think it's appalling they had flammable materials on this truck."

The truck, pulling two trailers, crashed into a guardrail on eastbound Interstate 40, rupturing the tractor's fuel tank and causing the rear trailer to overturn and split open. The driver was unhurt.

Part of the freeway was shut down for 18 hours.

The heavily shielded, 500-pound, 55-gallon drum with the plutonium was in the front of the damaged trailer, California Highway Patrol Officer Michael Callahan said. The entire cargo had to be unloaded to get at the drum.

The drum was undamaged, and there was no leakage of radiation.

"What the hell is that doing in that truck?" said Robert Halstead, an expert in the transportation of nuclear waste.

He's been working with the state of Nevada in battling the proposal to build a repository for highly radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, northwest of Las Vegas.

If the Yucca Mountain repository is built, it will hold extremely radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Much of the waste on its way there will have to come through San Bernardino County.

Even in the unlikely event that the containment drum in Tuesday's crash had been breached, it would be almost impossible for that bit of plutonium to pose a major threat, government officials said.

"There is no way the material can be spread because it's encapsulated," said Kevin Roark, a spokesman for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where the shipment was headed.

The plutonium in this case was a "sealed source," meaning the material was blended in a solid mix that would make it difficult or nearly impossible to be broken up, he said.

The material was on its way from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash. The lab is near Hanford on the Columbia River, a key facility in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II and now the scene of one of the world's largest environmental cleanups.

Plutonium-238 is only a health threat if it's inhaled, and to a lesser degree if it's ingested.

But a microscopic speck floating inside the body could lead to cancer.

That's why some groups were up in arms over NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn. The spacecraft, launched in 1997, uses plutonium-238 as a heat source.

They worried that in case of a disaster, the plutonium could be widely dispersed in the atmosphere, leading to untold future cancers.

NASA countered that the small containers, each about the size of bullet, were designed to remain intact no matter what happened.

Plutonium-238 emits alpha particles, the least energetic form of radiation, unable to pass through even a sheet of paper.

A person could stand next to a chunk of plutonium-238 with virtually no risk unless a fine particle was floating in the air and he or she inhaled it.

Plutonium-238 until a few years ago was even used to power cardiac pacemakers.

"People have an irrational fear of radiation," Los Alamos' Roark said. "As long as it's in an approved container, it's OK to use regular shipping."

The shipping containers and trucking companies must meet strict standards imposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The containers must be impervious to high-velocity collisions and intense fires.

After arriving at Los Alamos, the material will eventually be shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, a half-mile-deep waste storage facility near Carlsbad, N.M.

Once on its way to WIPP, the plutonium is handled very differently.

Special trucks are monitored with Global Positioning System satellites and carry only radioactive waste destined for disposal, unlike the commercial truck that crashed.

"I think people should be worried this stuff is being handled so cavalierly," said Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in New Mexico, which has followed WIPP for 30 years. "If it were going to WIPP, they couldn't have shipped it the way they were shipping it."

For example, no tandem trailers would be allowed, he said.

Once emergency officials at the scene of Tuesday's crash looked at the truck's manifest and realized there was plutonium aboard, the U.S. Department of Energy was notified.

A four-person team from the National Nuclear Security Administration based at the Nevada Test Site, where scores of nuclear bombs were detonated, arrived at the crash site within hours.

Fire Marshal Brierty praised the quick response and professionalism of the team.

All fire stations and CHP officers who work in the commercial division are equipped with radiation detectors.

"I'd rather be next to (a truck carrying radioactive waste) than a propane truck," said CHP Officer Matt Dietz, who's based in San Bernardino.

He's done numerous escorts of radioactive shipments and is trained to respond to accidents involving radiation.

"More radioactive material is going down the road than you realize," he said. "I trust the way these things are packaged more than other stuff. The biggest thing is public perception."

Another expert who's worked on transport issues for 30 years had a fair amount of confidence in the shipping containers but worried more about terrorism.

"I'm floored that they're actually moving this stuff around without a little more security," said Marvin Resnikoff, a physicist with Radioactive Waste Management Associates, based in New York. "You could do tremendous havoc. You could spread this stuff around."

January 18, 2007

Environmentalists seek to join case over Death Valley roads

Associated Press in San Francisco
By GARANCE BURKE, Associated Press Writer

Fresno, Calif. (AP) -- Six environmental groups filed legal papers Thursday to join Death Valley National Park in fighting a federal court lawsuit that, if successful, could open miles of desert canyons and valleys to motorized vehicles.

Last October, Inyo County sued the federal government seeking to re-establish its access to four dirt roads near the Nevada border that park officials seized when the national park was established in 1994.

The environmentalists say the old mining roads were washed away years ago, and allowing vehicles into those areas now could endanger sensitive animal and plant species found in remote stretches of the desert.

"All of these are places where you can really enjoy the fantastic scenery and the stillness of the largest national park in the lower forty-eight (states)," said Ted Zukoski, an Earthjustice attorney representing the groups.

If Judge Anthony Ishii grants the motion to intervene, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Inyo, California Wilderness Coalition, Center for Biological Diversity, The Wilderness Society and the National Parks Conservation Association would become parties to the suit.

If the county prevails, the groups believe the park's fragile ecosystem could suffer, to the detriment of the federally protected desert tortoise, desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions and other rare wildlife that roam there.

"Even the designation of a national park is not enough to keep people who want to use motorized vehicles out of these areas to protect the resources," said Lisa Belenky, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The environmentalists see the disputed area as desert canyons and valleys, which the Bureau of Land Management found to be "roadless" years ago.

But the county views the same area as approximately 20 miles of established roadways that can be widened to two lanes to accommodate increased traffic as needed, according to a suit filed on Oct. 24.

Inyo County's lawsuit cited a Civil War-era mining law that allowed local governments to build highways over some public lands. According to the 1866 mining law, the county has the right to preserve the public right-of-way on the old roads, Assistant County Counsel Randy Keller said.

"These roads have been there for 100 years," Keller said. "The way we look at it, they were taken."
The environmental groups seek to intervene to defend just three of those roads.

The same mining law is being invoked in another case in nearby Surprise Canyon, an area just outside Death Valley's boundaries. There, off-road drivers and environmentalists are squaring off over whether the canyon and its spring-fed waterfalls should be closed to vehicles.

Off-roaders have no role in the legal action brought by Inyo County, but drivers stand to benefit from the suit, Keller said.

"It's a public road, and the county's desire is to see that the public's right to traverse these roads continues," he said. "That's part of the idea. They're recreation routes that people use to drive through the desert."

The parties have asked for a hearing on March 12, said Zukoski. The court could rule anytime after that.

January 17, 2007

Breathing life into a faded desert landmark

Amboy was lively till old Route 66 was bypassed. Now a fast-food magnate has a vision of reviving its crumbling modernist cafe and motel.

Road to somewhere:
Motorists speed through Amboy, passing by Roy's and the Amboy school.

Los Angeles Times
By Mike Anton, Times Staff Writer

Amboy, Calif. — BEFORE Interstate 40 bypassed them and drove a stake through their heart, this broiler of a town on old Route 66 and its modernist landmark, Roy's Motel and Cafe, thumped with life day and night.

Roy's atomic-age neon sign competed with the stars three hours east of Los Angeles. It was a beacon of civilization to weary travelers rocketing along America's Mother Road, a sign of hope to motorists whose cars had croaked in the desert heat.

Amboy was the domain of Buster Burris, a rough-hewn entrepreneur with flinty eyes, sun-toasted skin and strong opinions about rowdy bikers and men with long hair. Burris and his father-in-law opened Roy's in the 1930s and for decades did brisk business selling tires, thick malts and overpriced gas. At times so many cars awaited service that one might have thought they were running a used car lot too.

Today, Amboy and Roy's are the only tourist stop for about 100 miles that didn't disappear after progress shut off the flow of customers in the 1970s. But it's fair to say they're on life support. The town's population is approximately four, the school closed years ago, birds have turned the church into a poop-caked aviary and the post office barely survived.

Roy's, shuttered for about two years, is a mess of peeling paint, rotting floors and broken glass. Each windstorm takes another piece of the Cafe sign with it.

Burris, who sold Amboy before he died at 92 in 2000, would have been heartbroken by what has become of his creation.

For fast-food chicken baron Albert Okura, it was love at first sight.

"I believe in destiny, and I believe my destiny involves that town," said Okura, 55, who got rich by founding the Juan Pollo restaurant chain in the Inland Empire. "It's hard to explain. How many people can say they own a whole town?"

IN 2005, Okura bought Amboy from Burris' second wife, 90-year-old Bessie, who regained ownership of the property after the previous buyers lost it in foreclosure. Okura convinced her to sell him the town because he pledged to restore and reopen Roy's — and because he had $425,000 in cash.

For that, Okura got the hotel and cafe, the church and post office, four gas pumps, two dirt airstrips and a variety of scattered buildings. (Burris is said to have been the one who bulldozed the rest of Amboy after I-40 wrecked his business.)

Okura also got several hundred acres of adjacent desert that he believes could skyrocket in value if development in the Inland Empire continues to push east.

"There were better offers, but they didn't want to run a hotel and diner. They were going to tear them down. I didn't think that was a good idea," said Bessie, a city girl who embraced Burris' love for the remote outpost he rarely left. "We were married in 1982. I was from Hollywood. I didn't know anything about living way out there. I didn't even know how to fry eggs. Buster showed me."

AMBOY had long been a railroad town when Route 66 put the place on the map during the Great Depression. Roy Crowl saw gold in the parade of migrants escaping the Dust Bowl. He began buying land in the area and opened a service station in Amboy in 1938. Texas-born Burris, a civilian Army Air Corps pilot whose first marriage was to Crowl's daughter, joined him a year later.

Their place hummed 24/7 with broken-down cars — so many that customers often had a long wait. So Crowl and Burris opened a diner to feed them double cheeseburgers and homemade chili.

The boom in tourism after World War II brought even more stranded motorists. So Crowl and Burris built the motel and in 1959 erected the Roy's sign.

Through the years, the hotel's modernist flourishes and stainless-steel diner have been a magnet for fans of kitschy Americana as well as an artists' muse.

Filmmakers commonly see Roy's as a dark, forbidding hangout for psychopathic killers — e.g., "Kalifornia" and the 1986 version of "The Hitcher." Commercial photographers find the hotel's weathered, angled facade and primitive surroundings an edgy backdrop for cars and clothing. The Internet is lousy with images and paeans to Roy's Googie architecture and the role it played during Route 66's glory days.

"It's modernism as nostalgia," said Taylor Louden, a Culver City architecture consultant who recently toured Amboy and is developing a renovation proposal for Okura. "It's a landmark. Classic Route 66 roadside architecture. It's a real survivor of that period."

When Larry Stevens read that Okura had bought Amboy and planned to restore Roy's, he knew he had to be a part of it. A construction superintendent in Las Vegas, he was sick of crowds, traffic and smog. Amboy has none of those. "Good place to get away from the paparazzi," Stevens said. He drove to San Bernardino and all but begged Okura to hire him as the town's caretaker.

Restoring Amboy was his destiny too, says Stevens, who traded Vegas for a double-wide trailer behind the cafe.

"The first few weeks were tough. There was no power and it was as dark as a tomb out here at night," said Stevens, 52, a weathered, wiry chain-smoker who seems to be channeling the actor Harry Dean Stanton. "It would have been bad if I didn't have Jackson here."

Jackson is one of Stevens' two dogs. He came in handy as Stevens went looking behind the closed doors of Roy's and Amboy's other abandoned buildings. "I'd always send Jackson in first.

My biggest fear was stumbling onto a dead body."

Instead, what Stevens discovered is that Amboy is a busy place for a ghost town. Even on a slow day, scores of motorists stop at Roy's. A few free spirits have wandered in on foot.

"You never know who's going to show up," he said.

For all the straight-shot convenience of the interstates, Route 66 — or National Trails Highway as it's now called — remains the preferred link between Southern California and points east for people who appreciate its light traffic and stark beauty, a Mars-scape of volcanic mountains, black lava fields and dry lake beds.

"I've always enjoyed Roy's. Had the best milkshakes in the state," said Larry Suplinskas, 75, who stopped recently on his way to Laughlin, Nev., and has been traveling the route for decades. He recalls chiding Buster Burris for posting a sign that read, "No Water Unless You're a Paying Customer." "Buster explained he had to truck in all his water — that it was expensive," Suplinskas said. "He was a cantankerous old guy."

SPRING brings a steady stream of people hauling boats to the Colorado River. Summer is the season for Europeans drawn by the Route 66 mystique who roar up to Roy's on rented Harleys. A couple nearly collapsed at Stevens' feet last summer after underestimating the effects of riding in 120-degree heat.

"First-timers," Stevens said.

Others stumble onto Roy's frightened and grateful after overestimating the number of gas stations on this lonely highway. (Answer: zero.) Until Okura can get the gas pumps working again, Stevens keeps drums of emergency fuel on hand that he sells at cost, along with bottled water and Roy's Motel and Cafe T-shirts.

Austrian tourist Martina Differenz and her boyfriend recently eschewed the last gas stop on I-40 because it was nearly four bucks a gallon. They headed west on old Route 66 with less than half a tank and a guidebook showing plenty of towns along the way — Essex, Danby, Cadiz. They pulled into Amboy with the needle on empty.

"The map showed villages along the way. But they're all empty," said Differenz, 23. "Are there people living here?"

For Okura, buying Amboy and Roy's wasn't about short-term profit but about his fascination with Route 66. A few years ago, he bought the San Bernardino storefront on Route 66 that was the site of the original McDonald's. He opened a museum dedicated to the burger giant there alongside his corporate offices. McDonald's lawyers weren't happy. But the unofficial association, Okura says, has been good for the chicken business.

Roy's will be too, he says.

"I want to keep the atmosphere the way it is. I don't want to make it into a tourist trap," Okura said. "I don't want to ruin it. By restoring it, I'm just looking for goodwill for my company. I know I'm not going to make any money there."

But Okura will be spending it — far more than he anticipated.

Turns out Buster Burris' desert oasis isn't up to code. The county told Okura he'd need to redo Amboy's electric, water and septic systems — all fashioned by Buster himself. The motel rooms may have a problem with asbestos and lead paint.

So far, Okura has spent $100,000 on upgrades and hasn't even scratched the surface. He recently fired a second contractor. Resuscitating Amboy could easily cost a million or more, Louden estimates.

"It's been a struggle," Okura said. "It's been difficult for me to even get anyone to work out there because it's so remote."

Meantime, Larry and his dogs look after the place, greeting customers in search of a business and escorting filmmakers and artists who see something profound and quintessentially American in Roy's.

Artists such as the photographer from Hustler who shot Stefani Morgan, the magazine's October centerfold, posing with a guitar, a mint 1950s Cadillac and little else outside the Route 66 icon.
Wide Open Road, they called the spread.

"That was a rough day," Stevens said unconvincingly. "This German couple stopped and they had their 18-year-old daughter with them. Stefani took a picture with the husband. It'll be a nice memory of their American trip."

Road wars: County sues feds over desert preserve

Andrew Silva, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun [San Bernardino, CA]

The Mojave Desert has been the battleground in a long-running range war between conservationists and those who argue the public has been shut out of their own public lands.

The signature epic battle ended Oct. 31, 1994, when Congress narrowly passed the California Desert Protection Act.

The controversial law upgraded Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments to national parks and created a new national park unit, the Mojave National Preserve, covering 1.6 million acres, or most of the land between interstates 15 and 40 east of Barstow to the state line.

San Bernardino County has launched a new skirmish in the old fight, using an 1866 law to claim it owns most of the roads within Mojave National Preserve.

The county in October sued the U.S. Department of the Interior, seeking title to 14 roads within the preserve.

"It's to have a piece of paper (to prove) that the county has a right to use these roads," said Brad Mitzelfelt, who was just appointed the county supervisor representing the 1st District, which covers most of the county's sprawling desert.

"The county would like to have a guarantee that the network of roads across the preserve, that none could be arbitrarily closed or excessively restricted," he said.

In its response filed Tuesday, the federal government denies the county's claims and asks the court to dismiss the suit.

The suit relies on Revised Statute 2477, a component of the Mining Law of 1866 that permitted construction of roads across public lands to help spur settlement of the West.

It was repealed in 1976, but existing rights-of-way were grandfathered in.

It's also the law being used by a group of off-roaders who bought land in Panamint City, an abandoned mining town in Death Valley National Park.

That group is seeking to reopen Surprise Canyon to off-road vehicles to gain access to the ghost town.

Critics say the county suing the federal government to gain control of the roads is unnecessary and expensive.

But they also see a more sinister intent - that San Bernardino County is using the process to pry open lands that have been closed to traditional uses such as mining, grazing and off-roading.

"Utah and some counties have viewed R.S. 2477 not as a shield to protect public access, but as a sword to defeat protection of land and water," said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with Earthjustice.

The county a few years ago identified thousands of miles of trails and roads that could fall under R.S. 2477, said Jason Fried of the California Wilderness Coalition.

"What happens if they get these and decide they want to do another 14 roads?" he asked.

While environmentalists have fretted that counties have listed narrow foot trails and even stream beds as "roads," San Bernardino County is laying claim to well-established routes.

Among them are Halloran Springs Road, Cima Road, Kelbaker Road and Goffs Road.

The lawsuit alleges the county has had trouble maintaining the roads because of interference from the National Park Service.

In its response to the suit, the Department of Interior agrees that the Park Service has placed some restrictions on where the county can excavate fill material. The government also admits the Park Service has complained that county maintenance has been inadequate.

There is an effort under way to draft a formal agreement between the county and the Park Service on road maintenance in the preserve, although day-to-day operations have not been a major problem, officials said.

"Our operations staff has a good working relationship with the park staff," said Annesley Ignatius, assistant director for operations in the county's public works department.

Preserve Superintendent Dennis Schramm said there have been disagreements with the county over excavating fill material but was optimistic an agreement will be worked out.

"The county maintains the roads, and we'd like them to continue," he said.

Both sides agree that cooperation is better than litigation.

"There has never been an easy debate over a road," said Kristen Brengel of The Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C. "Is it that critical to gain control over the roads? These roads aren't going anywhere. Why is the county spending this money when there's no chance the National Park Service will shut them down?"

County attorneys working on the case said the suit hasn't been that expensive, and the county is obligated to protect its rights.

"The preferred way is sitting down with the other agency and working it out. That hasn't happened," Deputy County Counsel Charles Scolastico said.

Mitzelfelt said concerns that the county will try to plow through wilderness areas are mistaken.

"Really it's more an effort to preserve what we have, and to preserve the beneficial uses of land for which access by vehicle is essential," he said.

Copy of the lawsuit

Response to the lawsuit

January 10, 2007


The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors on January 10 voted to appoint Brad Mitzelfelt as First District Supervisor. The Board met this afternoon to consider the appointment and selected Mitzelfelt from an original field of 13 candidates, from which two semifinalists were interviewed today.

"I am honored and humbled by this appointment. I'm looking forward to working the hardest I've ever worked for the residents of the First District and San Bernardino County," said Mitzelfelt after his appointment. "I would like to express my gratitude to everyone who has supported me and expressed their confidence in me."

San Bernardino County's First District covers an area of over 17,000 square miles, making it the largest Supervisorial district in the nation. The district, which spans much of the Mojave Desert, includes the cities of Adelanto, Barstow, Hesperia, Needles, Twentynine Palms, Victorville and the Town of Apple Valley, in addition to dozens of incorporated communities.

Mitzelfelt stated that his priorities as Supervisor would include public safety and health, transportation, economic development and quality of life. "I have an obligation to look out for the well-being and best interests of First District residents, and I intend to do so," he said.

Mitzelfelt thanked Board members for giving him the opportunity to succeed former Supervisor Bill Postmus. "I'd like to thank my colleagues for their confidence."

Crawling to safety

Researchers to help desert tortoise dodge tanks, disease to find shelter

Andrew Silva, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

They're snug in their burrows for the winter, but come spring, scores of desert tortoises will be picked up and moved to new homes.

After nearly two decades of controversy, often dubbed "the tortoise vs. the tank," the Army got permission in 2000 to expand its training grounds at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, north of Barstow.

But that was contingent on making sure the tortoise had a chance to survive.

The Army has argued that it needs the extra land to conduct the most realistic training possible as it prepares its soldiers for combat.

But the expansion area to the south is home to one of the strongest populations of the threatened reptile.

Moving tortoises is a relatively new technique that biologists used to worry about, especially with the prevalence of upper-respiratory disease that has decimated some populations.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has been studying how tortoises in Nevada fare after having been relocated.

"There's no difference in the mortality of resident tortoises and those that have been moved," said Mickey Quillman, natural and cultural resources manager at Fort Irwin.

Tortoises hibernate all winter, so in the spring biologists will start tracking down the animals that are in the Army expansion area.

The animals will be moved south to 12 one-square-mile areas that have been studied to make sure they're suitable. And about 24 miles of tortoise fence will be erected along the north side of Interstate 15.

Each animal will be equipped with a transmitter, and any found to have upper-respiratory disease will be quarantined, Quillman said.

This comes at a time of renewed efforts to study and save the reclusive animal after criticism that there are major gaps in knowledge.

In a recent paper, one leading biologist found scientists don't always know which strategies do the best job of helping the iconic reptile.

"There's a lot of gut feeling we go on about what works and what doesn't," said William Boarman, a biologist who recently co-wrote a paper on the subject. "There have been a lot of actions taken in an attempt to protect the desert tortoise, but there's very little follow-up on what is working."

Boarman will also be involved in Fort Irwin's relocation effort.

His research agrees with a 2002 report by the Government Accountability Office, which found that scientific information on the tortoise was sorely lacking, despite more than $100 million being spent on the recovery up to that point.

That report triggered a renewed emphasis on tortoise research and recovery.

The gaps in knowledge are often cited by critics who bristle at restrictions on off-roading, grazing or development.

There just hasn't been enough money or staff to launch studies on recovery projects, officials said.

Still, many of the steps taken to protect the tortoise clearly make sense, even if there haven't been detailed follow-up studies on certain tactics, Boarman said.

For example, it's well documented that putting fences along highways has reduced the number of tortoises killed by vehicles, he said.

A trickier example would be the unpopular step of closing certain dirt roads to off-roaders. Even if there were a well-designed study, it would be tough to tell if such a closure made a big difference, Boarman said.

That's because the tortoise is notoriously difficult to study. One reason is its human-length life-cycle. It doesn't reach reproductive age until its mid-teens and can live to be 50 to 80.

The other problem for researchers is the tangled array of threats faced by the animal - loss of desert land to development, upper-respiratory disease, ravens that eat young tortoises, illegal off-roading, and non-native grasses that have brought devastating wildfires to the desert.

Despite those caveats and limitations, there is plenty of action among scientists and agencies.

The tortoise was listed as threatened in 1990, and a recovery plan was drafted in 1994.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is updating that 12-year-old recovery plan, and in response to the GAO report, the agency established a Desert Tortoise Recovery Office.

Even dogs are being brought into the mix, as one scientist is conducting studies to see if man's best friend can help researchers find the slow-moving, reclusive beasts.

What scientists know already can be discouraging. Most populations that have been studied for a long time have been declining, scientists said.

It appears the animals are gone from much of the desert, including Victor Valley, Palmdale and Lancaster, said Ed LaRue, a biologist who has studied the tortoise extensively, including work for the West Mojave Plan, which sought to protect roughly 100 species while allowing development to move forward.

"We did 4,000 square miles of transects and 6,000 miles of walking to find less than 300 animals," he said. "We found more than 1,000 dead ones. ... It's pretty dismal."

One bright spot is the Desert Tortoise Natural Area near California City between highways 14 and 395, north of Highway 58.

Basically a 40-square-mile, fenced-in sanctuary, it keeps out off-roaders, livestock, and other disturbances.

After surveying 350 square miles, scientists found 14 young tortoises - 13 of them within the fence - indicating successful reproduction is going on, LaRue said.

Young tortoises are the best indication the species has a chance to recover.

On the positive side, he said, even when developers or agencies get permission to kill a certain number of tortoises, usually only a tiny fraction are actually lost, with hundreds and hundreds moved out of harm's way, he said.

Fort Irwin sees only three to five tortoises a year killed accidentally.

Efforts to save the tortoise can't wait for definitive scientific proof that a particular action guarantees improvements, scientists said.

"You can wipe out a tortoise population quickly, but having it increase takes a long time," said Roy C. Averill-Murray, coordinator for the Desert Tortoise Recovery Office in Reno, Nev.

It will have to be a future generation of scientists who write the final chapter on the tortoise. Whether that's a happy ending remains to be seen.

"It's going to take a long time, even if we start doing good things," said Averill-Murray. "It'll take a while to get the populations back and hopefully toward delisting."


  • Official California state reptile
  • Listed as threatened in 1990
  • Difficult to gauge species recovery because of long life span of 50-80 years
  • The species upon which most desert preservation efforts focus
  • Once common throughout the deserts of Southern California
  • Reproductive age starts between 12 and 20 years old
  • Can grow up to 15 inches long and can go up to a year without water


  • Lives in creosote bush scrub and Joshua tree woodlands
  • Digs burrows in soft sand in desert valleys or in the gently sloping bajadas coming off the mountains
  • Activity peaks in spring and fall, followed by a long winter hibernation