September 29, 2007

Mojave National Preserve community meeting

29 September 2007. Saturday. Our correspondent attended the Mojave National Preserve community meeting at the Hole-in-the-Wall Fire Station.

There was somewhere between 40 and 50 people in attendance, but the small meeting room was so crowded it was difficult to get an accurate count.

Dennis Schramm, superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve, was there in charge. Quite a number of other NPS people.

The atmosphere of the meeting was very civil - friendly almost. There were a couple of statements by participants giving compliments to MNP NPS for their recernt response to emergencies.

First Emergency at Gold Valley Ranch: Bob Pelligrino and friend went out hiking. Gone from 8;00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Had plenty of water. Drank it. Didn't have anything to eat. Bob suffered major heat stroke after he got home. Doubled over, vomiting from both ends, &c. Ambulance from Needles and trip and overnight at Needles hospital. IV rehydrated him.

Second Emergency at Gold Valley Ranch (just this last Tuesday): Bob Pelligrino was doing something with propane ... I believe hooking it to a heater. There was a fire. He got the fire put out. Second degree burns on hands and arms and one ankle. Trip to ER hospital in Needles. Treated and released.

MNP NPS played a role in these emergencies for which the victims were grateful.

1. Superintendent Dennis Schramm has been in Washington, D.C. for two months. NPS is developing ambitious plans for celebration of their 100th anniversary in 2016. Anticipating billions of dollars for new construction and heavy maintenance. Bills in congress now. Looking forward to the prospect of having a Democrat back in the White House.

2. Larry Whalon is now deputy superintendent of Mojave National Preserve.

3. They have lost their chief ranger, Denny Ziemann, recruiting for another one. Interviewing for that position now.

4. They have some plus-up in their budget. They anticipate raising the number of law enforcement rangers to ten.

5. Only one major construction project in 2008 budget and that is to install solar at Zzyzx. That will eliminate the last diesel operation in the preserve.

6. Much talk about roads and reference to the county's law suit which they see as being disruptive and disfunctional. Can't do anything major on roads until this is settled.

Comments of Linda Slater, who is now in charge of interpretation.

7. There'll be new interpretive panels in the preserve ... like at Piute Springs, Zzyzx, and Kelso Depot and others.

Comments of Steve Carlson, who is in charge of maintenance.

8. They have reroofed seven buildings at Zzyzx and done concrete repairs.

9. They'll be putting more gravel on Wildhorse Canyon Road and on the last one-half mile of the road out to the Kelso Dunes.

10. They are planning to hard surface the road from I-15 off-ramp down to Zzyzx with asphalt grindings.

11. Much talk about fence replacement to replace fences burned during the fire to contain 7IL cattle.

12. Some talk about doing repair work on some road over toward Piute.

13. "We don't do road improvement or maintenance - we do some road repair."

14. In talking about repairing roads they said the public could help with repairs like around washouts as long as they use only hand tools.

15. A number of the attendees complained about the County.

16. The law suit of the County vs. MNP NPS is in the "discovery" phase. Of course we knew that. "This has to be resolved before we can spend federal funds on the roads."

17. There is talk about developing "site plans" on how to manage Kessler and OX Ranch HQ sites. There'll be a chance for public input.

19. Much talk about how to get services in an emergency. Dial 911 first and then the dispatch center. Some rangers have EMT training. One is a "first responder." Dispatch office 909-383-5651. You must call both 911 and the dispatch office.

20. It is suggested we get to know our rangers. They do not have rangers on duty 24 hours, but they always have rangers "on call."

21. It was emphasized MNP NPS has no jurisdiction on private land.

22. It can be useful for someone call in in an emergency to have GPS coordinates. Rangers can handle GPS. The ambulances that come up from Needles cannot.

23. There was recently a fireworks issue. People setting off fireworks in the preserve. Locals called for help. Rangers responded and caught the people and ticketed them. They paid the ticket. Turns out all the offenders were off-duty sheriff deputies from LA county!

Comments of Bob Bryson.

24. He's been in charge of the fence replacement issue. They've replaced 9-1/2 miles at a cost of $100K. Also paid one contractor $18K for 400 feet.

15. Lots of talk about volunteer groups. Apparently they have lots of volunteers.

25. Dave Nichols, who used to be a "seasonal," is now the preserve archeologist. He has bought Adrienne Knute's place in Round Valley and is living there.

26. They have a new wildlife biologist named Neil Darvey. I think I got that right?

27. Concerns about water distribution. They are going to reestablish one water source and do studies.

28. They are concerned about the Mohave chub that lives at Zzyzx. Looking for other spots to start populations. Like upper narrows on Mojave River near Victorville or in the pool at the bottom of the pit at Morning Star Mine.

29. Much talk about the desert tortoise. MNP NPS critical about the whole program. Spent more than $100,000,000 on desert tortoise recovery and it hasn't helped. GAO discovered that a couple of years ago.

20. Preserve is being pressured to put up tortoise fencing. They don't want to do it.

21. Irony aired about the fact that the office of the Desert Tortoise Recovery program is in Reno where there ain't any tortoises.

22. As to the desert tortoise "We've had a million starts and a million stops with no results."

23. The preserve has a chief scientist - Debra Hewson. She wasn't at the meeting. Praise for their scientist.

24. There was a reference to the new Ivanpah airport to be constructed between Primm and Jean as thought it is a done deal.

25. Talk about working with people interested in guzzlers.

26. Bighorn sheep herd on Old Dad Mountain doing well. Population flights estimate 300 animals.

27. They are going to install high tech GPS collars on mule deer so they can tell where they go.

28. They have 20-some cameras out at water holes so they can tell who is coming in for a drink.

In general it was a peaceful meeting. Someone who has been at all the recent good neighbor meetings said this one was more relaxed and peaceful.

It had been advertised that obtaining food serve at the Kelso Depot would be discussed. It wasn't. Nobody asked about it.

September 28, 2007

Fire threat versus bid to expand Inland wilderness


By BEN GOAD and KIMBERLY TRONE
The Press-Enterprise


Lawmakers have worked for decades to keep vast swaths of wilderness pristine -- free of human development and industry.

But as the space between communities and protected wilderness areas narrows, firefighters are concerned about the increasing threat of wildfire, particularly in places such as fire-prone Inland Southern California.

On Thursday, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, introduced legislation that would add more than 150,000 acres of protected wilderness in Riverside County, most near Joshua Tree National Park and the San Jacinto Mountains. An additional 41,000 acres would be designated as "potential wilderness" until final property claims are settled by the National Park Service.

Environmentalists heralded the plan. But fire and county officials are reserving judgment until they can assess whether the plan will impede their ability to aggressively fight wildland fires with mechanized equipment and address the overgrowth of vegetation in protected wilderness areas.

Boxer said she knew of no opposition and that she wouldn't pass any bill opposed by firefighters.

Riverside County officials, already contemplating severe restrictions on new development in high fire-hazard areas, have asked the region's fire chiefs to recommend how to proceed, said Bob Tremaine, a county management analyst.

"I understand and share their concerns," said Bono. "In Southern California, we know all too well how devastating fires can be."

Permits Tree Removal

She said the bill permits tree removal and other fire prevention work to lessen the danger to communities, including Idyllwild, that lie close to the proposed wilderness areas. Such language was key in convincing the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council to drop its opposition to the bill, Bono said.

Officials from Cal Fire, the state's firefighting agency, have yet to take a position, spokesman Michael Jarvis said. But he said the wilderness designation "restricts the methods we use for fire suppression."

Taxpayers spent $118 million over two months this summer to combat the Zaca Fire, which consumed 240,200 acres, much of it in the steep and rocky terrain of the San Rafael Wilderness of Santa Barbara County.

Jarvis said efforts to battle the blaze were complicated by a prohibition against using mechanized equipment in the designated wilderness areas.

The problem today is that homes and communities have sprung up on the fringes of the wilderness, said Mike Esnard, a Pine Cove resident and president of the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council, a mostly volunteer organization that works with Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service to eliminate fire hazards in the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains.

Two Key Areas

Esnard said two areas of particular concern are the South Fork of the San Jacinto River and the Cahuilla Mountains near Anza, which the legislation would designate as wilderness areas.

He said the U.S. Forest Service has inadequate funding to properly manage wilderness areas with prescribed burning and mechanical thinning of vegetation and trees.

"These lands are too close to populations to ignore. We want to make sure the Forest Service is not presented with particularly onerous obstacles to doing that," Esnard said. He confirmed that the council had decided, for now, not to oppose the legislation.

"In fairness to everybody, it is a complex issue and you have two competing, worthwhile values -- fire safety on one hand and wilderness on the other," he said.

The bill, called the California Desert and Mountain Heritage Act, is the most recent piece of a plan championed by Boxer and Rep. Hilda Solis, D-El-Monte, to add some 2.4 million acres of protected wilderness throughout California.

The current bills follow a long line of wilderness legislation.

President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the original Wilderness Act in 1964, protecting roughly 9 million acres nationwide.

Defined as those areas "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain," wilderness areas were set out to be protected from human intrusion, development and industry.

David Dreher, a government affairs representative with the environmental group Campaign for American Wilderness, said the Forest Service should follow the direction of Congress and continue cutting overgrown wildland to prevent large, unnatural fires.

Red Tape Factor

For years, Big Bear City fire Chief Dana Van Leuven has spoken out against plans to create thousands of acres of wilderness area near the small town of Sugarloaf.

He said regardless of the language in bills allowing for fuel breaks, tree removal or other fire prevention efforts, the red tape and environmental review processes are prohibitively difficult.

The costs and time associated with projects in wilderness areas effectively cause them to be passed over for simpler cheaper projects, he said.

"Designate it wilderness and it's almost guaranteed that nothing will ever be done," Van Leuven said. "That's the point-blank truth of what occurs."

General Patton’s Desert Shrine


By Valerie Porter
American Heritage

A visitor examines a World War II tank at the General Patton Memorial Museum, in California. (Nik Wheeler/Corbis)

CHIRIACO SUMMIT -- The middle of the Mojave Desert might seem an unlikely place for a museum dedicated to Gen. George Patton, “Old Blood and Guts.” But Patton himself became linked to the desolate area in southeastern California, now known as Chiriaco Summit, when he chose it as the headquarters for the Desert Training Center during World War II. It played a major role in preparing soldiers before they marched into the North African desert to stop Germany’s onslaught. During the two years it was operational, nearly a million soldiers took a six-week course there.

Wandering through the General Patton Memorial Museum and the remains of the Desert Training Center makes for a fascinating if somewhat eerie history lesson. Much of the outdoor section remains untouched since Patton’s time.

In January 1942 the Germans had recaptured the Libyan port of Benghazi. Troops under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel were pushing toward Egypt and threatening the safety and future of the Suez Canal. British troops couldn’t stop their progress, and the U.S. War Department determined that American soldiers needed to be quickly trained in desert fighting and deployed to the area.

In February 1942 Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair, soon to become commander of the Army Ground Forces, appointed General Patton to establish and act as first commander of the Desert Training Center. Approximately 18,000 square miles of land in California, Nevada, and Arizona were chosen as home to the base, the largest in the world.

Having been born in California, Patton knew where he wanted the headquarters to be—Shavers Summit, as Chiriaco was then called. It’s about 50 miles from Palm Springs, and 30 miles east of Indio. He named the headquarters Camp Young, in honor of Lt. Gen. Samuel B. M. Young, who in 1903 became the Army’s first chief of staff.

The soldiers called the Desert Training Center “the place that God forgot,” because of its harsh living conditions. The temperature ranged from 120 degrees in the shade (where there was any) during the summer to below freezing in the winter. Dust storms frequently swept through, and diesel fuel had to be poured on the ground to ward off rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantulas. Living alongside the soldiers, Patton found the area ideal. He said it prevented “soft living.”

That couldn’t have been truer. Men often napped under their equipment after going 36 hours without sleep. Food and water were rationed in order to duplicate desert fighting conditions. Soldiers shaved while sitting in the dirt, their shaving water often at 100 degrees without being heated.

The training center closed in April 1944 and was left abandoned for many years. But in 1988 private donors joined up and reopened it as a museum, with the cooperation of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Joseph Chiriaco, a major landowner in the area who had been one of the first locals to meet Patton when he arrived to set up the training center, was instrumental in establishing the museum.

The former camp entrance is now the museum entrance. Outside are stone boundaries that once marked tent sites. A particularly poignant sight is the partial remains of a stone chapel, where soldiers often prayed before being called to fight overseas.

Tanks are scattered on the grounds as though soldiers might return at any moment to use them. They’re mostly World War II–era, but there are also several from the Vietnam and Korean wars. They give you an excellent chance to see a Patton, Pershing, Sherman, and Stuart up close.

Inside, you can view a 26-minute film on the center’s history and Patton’s life, and watch Patton tell the soldiers at the center, “I’m not training you to die for your country. I’m training you to make other people die for their country.”

Throughout the museum, remnants of soldiers’ lives past and present, including uniforms, a chaplain’s case, typewriters, a night-vision periscope, saddles, communications equipment, cots, surgical instruments, and ammunition can be viewed. There’s even a jukebox around which men would gather for entertainment on rare occasions when that was possible.

Patton memorabilia abounds, including photos, letters, and one of his jeeps whose license plate reads “4 WILLY 3,” honoring his pet bull terrier. There’s a guest book at the museum’s entrance that’s reserved for vets who served with Patton. The touching and patriotic comments, many from men who trained at Camp Young, are well worth reading.

Soldiers may have thought God forgot the place, but it’s not likely you will forget it.

The General Patton Memorial Museum is at Exit 173 on Interstate 10, 47 miles east of Palm Springs, California. It’s open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $4 for adults, $3.50 for seniors. For more information visit www.generalpattonmuseum.com or call 760-227-3483.

September 23, 2007

Preserve to hold community meeting Sept. 29


Desert Dispatch [Barstow, CA]

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE — On Saturday, Sept. 29 the National Park Service will hold a community meeting at Hole-in-the-Wall Interagency Fire Center in the Mojave National Preserve at 10 AM.

Park officials will present information about projects currently underway at the preserve, including efforts to clean up dumps at Morningstar Mine and proposals to open a restaurant at the Kelso Depot.

Superintendent Dennis Schramm will host a community meeting at the Hole-in-the-Wall Fire Center beginning at 10 AM. Park managers will be available to answer questions and provide information about park activities.

Meanwhile, park employees and volunteers from Desert Survivors will be working all day on cleaning up campsites and repairing the road in Caruthers Canyon area. Before the meeting, there will be a ribbon cutting of two new hiking trails near the Hole-In-The-Wall visitor Center.

For more information about the meeting and directions, please call 760-252-6101.

September 18, 2007

BLM Issues Decision to Provide Water to Bighorn


BLM NEWS RELEASE

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has issued a decision authorizing the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) to place a wildlife guzzler (an artificial water source) in the Sheephole Valley Wilderness in southeastern San Bernardino County, about 20 miles east of Twentynine Palms, to provide needed water to desert bighorn sheep.

Sterling White, BLM’s Needles Field Manager, said the decision carefully balances the needs of maintaining healthy bighorn sheep populations with minimizing impacts to designated wilderness. “When water is recognized as a limiting factor for the health of a desert bighorn sheep population, and in the absence of documented adverse impacts of water developments, proponents of bighorn sheep believe water developments should be a component of effective bighorn sheep management. To do otherwise will continue to place bighorn sheep populations at risk for extirpation,” he stated.

The decision cites authority for this action as Section 4 of the 1964 Wilderness Act and Section 103 of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act. Copies of the decision have been mailed to all those who commented on the draft issued in February 2007. The environmental assessment, finding of no significant impact, and decision record can be found at http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/needles.html

BLM issued a similar decision in 2003, which was appealed to the Interior Board of Land Appeals. Based on concerns about cumulative impacts of other potential projects in the California Desert, BLM requested the case be remanded back to review its longer-term management perspective for the area. Since then, BLM has been working with CDFG, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and interest groups to better clarify the need and impacts of guzzlers throughout the Desert.

For more information regarding the decision, contact Stephen Razo, BLM California Desert District Public Affairs at (951) 697-5217.

September 17, 2007

Archaeologists investigate new historical find


Lost & Found

Story and Photos by Lara Hartley
Victorville Daily Press



Tent stakes are still embedded into the desert pavement more than 50 years after the last inhabitants left the recently discovered historical site in the Northeastern Mojave Desert.

Only the wind knew their names — these men who drank whiskey and bitters and tossed the broken, brown bottles aside.

They pulled out of this obscure camp but left their tent stakes pounded into the desert pavement. Left behind piles of glass and metal scrap and perhaps left behind a hard life scratched out of the desert environment.

You can hear the faint, mournful echo of a broken harmonica, if you let your imagination wander.

Were they miners or prospectors looking for mineral wealth? Probably. That is the history of the area.


In the northeastern Mojave Desert, the remains of what appears to be a large tent camp was found in late August. Broken bottles and other debris suggest the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

Based on the piles of broken aqua glass over amethyst shards, archaeologist Jeff Wedding from the Harry Reid Center (HRC) for Environmental Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, dates the area primarily from 1900 to 1925.

“Glass makers stopped using manganese as a clarifying agent about 1917 — during World War I — as Germany was the prime supplier. So the lavender glass is before 1917,” he said.

Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Jim Shearer said, “What makes this discovery and site significant, is there are multiple types of artifacts that give indications of what was happening at that point in time. The surface material is also a good indication that we would find more, subsurface.”

“The artifacts are intact enough to interpret them, what they were drinking, what they were eating, how they were actually living,” he said.

“Archaeologist are the CSIs of history. We go out and gather the physical evidence and analyze it like forensic experts do at a crime scene.”

Shearer continued, sites like this “paint a portrait of the early mining days of Death Valley. It is an important part of our history because mining is what made California what it is today. It is part of the western expansion and it paints a portrait of what life was really like as opposed to what we see on TV.”

When a water monitoring project was proposed for the area, the HRC conducted a cultural field survey and discovered the previously unknown archaeological site which early analysis suggests a large historic camp.

It was the mounds of glass sparkling in the heat that drew the attention of HRC research archaeologists, Jennifer Riddle and Annette Smith, as they conducted their survey. “We saw a glass pile and then found the coin (a 1900 silver half dollar). I was terribly excited. There was arm waving and running around,” said Riddle. “The coin was just sitting on top of the glass.”

To protect the coin before it could be recovered by Shearer, the researchers hid it under some pieces of glass, after recording its exact location since they were not authorized to collect artifacts on their survey trip.

They also discovered salvaged metal at a smithing location where burned areas can still be seen. An evaporated-milk can circa 1917 to 1929 and many more discarded items give clues to the camp’s inhabitants day-to-day lives.

Far from civilization, the men survived. On canned milk and whiskey. Bitters and beans. Canvas tents and wooden trunks were home. They survived. The camp survived.

Like all historic sites on federal land, it is illegal to remove artifacts. Please remember to take nothing but photographs when exploring our desert past.

A trickle of water might save estuary


Conservationists believe a small but immediate step could renew the Colorado River Delta.


About 90% of the delta's wetlands and natural habitat dried up over the past half-century, as water was diverted from the Colorado River, which is Southern California's biggest urban water supplier.

By Frank Clifford
Los Angeles Times


The Colorado River Delta was once a watery labyrinth of willow thickets, mesquite and cottonwood, bigger than the state of Rhode Island and teeming with bird and animal life. Today it is a barren expanse of salt-stained mudflats where the river used to meet the sea south of Yuma.

About 90% of the delta's wetlands and natural habitat dried up over the last half century, as water from the Colorado was captured in reservoirs and diverted to farms and cities from Las Vegas to Mexicali.

For more than a decade, conservation groups in the U.S. and Mexico have tried unsuccessfully to restore North America's largest desert estuary. Now the Sonoran Institute is warning that unless restoration is undertaken before a prolonged dry spell, which many scientists are predicting, it could be too late.

In its forthcoming analysis of the delta, the nonprofit Arizona institute paints a dire picture of the once-vibrant ecosystem. But it also puts forth a proposal for replenishing much of the area by replacing a tiny fraction of the river water that once flowed through the delta, saying it would be enough to restore much of the area's natural wealth.

Under the institute's plan, the delta would get about three-tenths of a percent of the river's historic annual flow, making it one of the more modest claims on a river that serves 30 million people. But even that amount could be a hard sell.

Eight years of drought in the Colorado watershed have raised the likelihood of shortages in the near future, and as officials in the U.S. and Mexico look for creative ways of limiting future cutbacks, every drop will count.

The river's annual flow has fallen as low as 25% of normal since 2000, and some scientists have predicted that with the growing influence of climate change, flows will average 50% to 60% of normal over the next 50 years.

Later this year, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne is expected to announce the first-ever guidelines for managing reduced water deliveries from the Colorado in the event of shortages. Officials say a shortage will be declared when the water level at Lake Mead drops 36 feet below its current level, a change that is expected within the next few years.

As the government draws up plans for dealing with a reduced water supply, environmentalists believe restoration must be made a priority or the delta will be doomed.

"If we fail right now, we might really fail, as the shortage becomes a reality and discussions about saving water for conservation become a lot harder," said Jennifer Pitt, a policy analyst with the group Environmental Defense, which works closely with the Sonoran Institute.

Advocates for the delta have little legal leverage.

Neither the 1944 treaty that allocates Colorado River water to Mexico nor any environmental law in that country mandates water for the delta. Late last year, in support of efforts by California to reclaim water that has been seeping across the border and nourishing crops and wetlands in the delta, Congress passed legislation barring the use of U.S. environmental laws to protect Mexico's interests.

But the Sonoran Institute contends that there is still nearly enough unclaimed water in the river to revive the delta without impinging on any existing rights on either side of the border.

"What we are talking about is the slop, leakage and waste discharges, " said Peter Culp, a lawyer who represents the institute. It's the water that slips past Mexico's Morelos Dam after a storm or that trickles back to the river from irrigated fields.

For 30 years, the crown jewel of the delta's remaining wetlands, the 40,000-acre Cienega de Santa Clara in Sonora, Mexico, has relied entirely on brackish discharges from a nearby irrigation district.

The problem with such releases, however, is that they can't be counted on forever and don't always occur when nature needs them. To ensure timely flows, the institute has proposed amending the 1944 treaty to allow Mexico to bank water in the U.S. and participate in a bi-national water market.

"There are significant human benefits to the proposal," said Mark Lellouch, one of its authors. About 200,000 people live in scattered communities in the delta, Lellouch said, and restoration would provide more sustenance and more jobs.

Even now, nature tourism is a going concern. Visitors from the U.S. and Mexico are drawn to the Cienega de Santa Clara and other destinations by the estimated 350,000 birds that still nest and feed in the delta.

"There are a number of stakeholders in Mexico interested in that environment," said Steve Smullen, principal engineer for the International Boundary and Water Commission, the agency that administers water-rights treaties between the United States and Mexico. But he said the institute's plan "works against agricultural interest, conservative interest and the interests of large communities" vying for the water.

"If there's enough will, you can make anything happen," he said. "But it's an uphill battle."

September 16, 2007

Mountains of problems for travelers


SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA HISTORY

It wasn't until well into the 20th century that engineers finally made the journey between Los Angeles and Bakersfield fairly easy and safe.


By Cecilia Rasmussen, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times


Whether they've taken the Ridge Route, Highway 99 and Newhall Pass or Interstate 5, for more than 150 years travelers making their way between Los Angeles and Bakersfield through the San Gabriel and Tehachapi mountains have found the route a pain in the neck.

The current 40-mile stretch of the Golden State Freeway, which includes the Grapevine, is plenty steep and winding, but drivers should know that it is a big improvement on its predecessors.

It is the fourth in a series of highways cut through the rugged mountains. Entrepreneurs forged the first route, in 1854, by digging a 60-foot-deep, 240-foot-long gash on the eastern edge of the Santa Susana Mountains called the Newhall Pass, where the current Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways join.

Beale's Cut, as it came to be called, created a narrow, steep passage for horses, stagecoaches and foot traffic, and is credited with spurring the development of Los Angeles.

But the first automobile to cross the mountains, in 1902, had to travel upward in reverse to keep gasoline flowing to the engine -- and the cut's 30% grade was too steep for early cars.

Beale's Cut can still be found between Sierra Highway and the Antelope Valley Freeway, south of Clampitt Road. It was all but abandoned in 1910 when the 435-foot-long Newhall Tunnel was dug about a quarter of a mile west, with an incline of only about 7%.

Still, even the tunnel didn't solve the problem. It was too narrow and traffic jammed up at one end. Meanwhile, after voters in 1910 approved an $18-million state highway bond issue, California's engineers began planning a shorter, more direct route over the mountains, one that would save travelers 58 miles.

The 48-mile Ridge Route opened in 1915 at Castaic Junction, about five miles northwest of the Newhall Pass. It had 697 curves.

The Ridge Route was considered a major feat of highway engineering -- the first modern highway directly linking Los Angeles with the San Joaquin Valley -- and it helped link Northern and Southern California.

Horse-drawn graders had carved out the 20-foot-wide dirt road that zigzagged along the ridge tops so that it resembled a giant grapevine. But the 6.5-mile "Grapevine" segment of the route, from Fort Tejon to the San Joaquin Valley, had already been so named for a different reason by Spanish Lt. Francisco Ruiz, who, after hacking his way through thick patches of Cimarron grapevines in 1806, called the area Cañon de las Uvas, or Grapevine Canyon.

In 1915, the Automobile Club of Southern California called the Ridge Route "the last word in scientific highway building." But four years later, about the time the paving was completed, the club wrote that because of the route's "tortuous" curves, steep grades and sharp drop-offs, it was "potentially one of the most dangerous in the world."

A maximum speed limit of 15 mph was supposed to provide safety. But scores of drivers ignored the limit and their cars tumbled into the canyons below. For those who made the trip safely, the Sandberg Hotel, built by Norwegian-born rancher Harald Sandberg, was a welcome sight near the top.

In 1921, the fancy Lebec Hotel opened in Kern County, about five miles north of the Sandberg, with 300 registered guests. It became a famed hideaway for such celebrities as Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Clara Bow, Buster Keaton and Bugsy Siegel.

Charles Lindbergh landed his plane in a wheat field near the Lebec Hotel in 1929 and spent time there experimenting with flying a glider. His wife, Anne, was quite fond of the hotel's chocolate malts, according to Harrison Scott, author of "Ridge Route: The Road That United California."

The hotel -- and the town that grew up around it -- got its name from a carving in the trunk of a massive oak: "Peter le Beck Killed by a Bear Oct. 17 1837."

Depression-era migrants flocking to California's fields in overloaded jalopies thought of the trip over the mountains as a route to a better life.

In "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck describes the Joad family's brutal trek, one taken by many of those Great Plains refugees known as Okies.

Steinbeck described the moment when the Joads' car crested the top of a mountain road, and they saw the Central Valley:

"Al jammed on the brake and stopped in the middle of the road, and, 'Jesus Christ! Look!' he said. The vineyards, the orchards, the great flat valley, green and beautiful, the trees set in rows, and the farm houses."

He could have been talking about the view from the Ridge Route, or the one from Highway 99, which opened in 1933. Highway 99, or the Ridge Alternate, was significantly shorter and much less curvy, though still steep and treacherous.

It cut the eight-hour Ridge Route drive in half time-wise, but still was the site of many a breakdown and much discomfort.

"In 1954, I drove my 1931 Willys Roadster up the Castaic Grade and on through the more modern Ridge Route [Highway 99], much of which is now covered with Pyramid Lake," retired veterinarian Charles Jenner of Los Alamitos said in a recent e-mail. "That was a tough drive as the Willys kept overheating." It took him two days to get from Los Angeles to Davis, he said.

In 1970, today's eight-lane, 40-mile section of Interstate 5 was completed.

Few people remembered the old roads that had gone before -- at least until Scott came along.

In 1991, the retired Torrance phone company engineer decided to drive the old Ridge Route for the first time since he was a teenager. He soon launched a one-man crusade to get a 17.6-mile stretch through U.S. Forest Service property from Castaic to Gorman onto the National Register of Historic Places. He succeeded in 1997. He also published his own history of the road.

"Only foundations, walls and steps are left from places like the Tumble Inn and Sandberg Inn," Scott said in a recent interview. The Lebec Hotel, he said, burned down in 1971.

Scott and a nonprofit group that he founded, the Ridge Route Preservation Organization, are working to maintain the roadway, which he describes as "poor and decaying." The group holds monthly work parties, helping the Forest Service clean drains full of dirt and debris.

The volunteers have put up nearly a dozen stone monuments paying tribute to area pioneers and colorful sites.

Scott is working to gain federal Scenic Byway status for the Ridge Route. It would be, he said, "just another notch on the gun belt that would allow our organization to build a museum and parking areas along the route."

Evacuations ordered as winds whip Big Bear fire


The blaze that started Friday is being pushed by 15 to 20 mph winds and has burned more than 16,000 acres.

By Ari B. Bloomekatz, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times


Wildfires that burned into the night Saturday forced several thousand people from their homes in San Bernardino and San Diego counties as winds pushed flames along the edges of Big Bear Lake and the historic town of Julian.

The Big Bear fire, the larger of the two, burned more than 16,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in San Bernardino County, saying "there is imminent danger to populated areas, including 6,000 homes and 150 businesses."

At least 500 people were told to evacuate in Fawnskin, near Butler Peak on the north shore of the lake, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Miller. And a mandatory evacuation order was also issued for Green Valley Lake, an area with a population of over 500 that touts itself as the "hidden gem" of the San Bernardino Mountains.

The fire, which started Friday about 1:30 p.m. in an area west of Fawnskin, rode 20-mph winds for much of Saturday, scorching brush and timber in mostly steep terrain.

"When you have wind on brush, it's a real flashy fuel that allows the fire to spread real quickly," Miller said. "Right now, this fire is nationally the No. 1 priority. That means if we request a resource, we get it."

More than 600 firefighters attacked the blaze, aided by four helicopters and seven planes, including a DC-10 aircraft that has been dropping fire retardant.

"Typically, when you have a wind-driven event, you can't get ahead of the fire," Miller said in a telephone interview as the DC-10 flew over his head.

Two members of an inmate fire crew were hurt when a tree fell on them, officials said.

In addition to the mandatory evacuations, authorities also recommended evacuations in Lucerne Valley from Crystal Creek Road on the east to High Road on the west and north to the Pitzer Buttes area; from downtown Running Springs east through Arrowbear; and at the Camp Whittle, Big Pine Flat, Ironwood, Hanna Flat, Butler Peak Lookout and Yellow Post campgrounds.

California 18 has been closed from Snow Valley to Big Bear Dam. Some nearby campgrounds and trailheads were also shut as rangers braved the smoky terrain Friday and Saturday morning to warn campers of the danger.

The cause of the fire had not been determined.

Jayme Nordine, owner of the Bear Belly Deli in the 42000 block of Moonridge Road, said area residents were worried about damage from the fire only if they lived near the north shore of Big Bear Lake.

"Big Bear Lake is OK and we're OK because the winds are moving northeast," Nordine said. "We're hoping that the wind doesn't change."

Another wildfire was spreading in San Diego County north and east of Julian, a historic former mining camp and tourist destination about 40 miles northeast of downtown San Diego.

The blaze was ignited about midday and grew quickly, burning about 500 acres by 4:15 p.m., said California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention spokesman Matt Streck.

Mandatory evacuations for about 1,000 households were ordered in the communities of Whispering Pines and Wynola, just outside Julian.

Many of the evacuees were allowed to return to their homes late Saturday, said San Diego sheriff's spokeswoman Jan Caldwell.

"The sky is all orange," said Maryann Sandkuhl, proprietor of Tucker Peak Lodge in Julian.

The lodge remained open late Saturday because it is in the hills above town, but Sandkuhl did have to evacuate her gift shop on Main Street.

"There's not as much smoke anymore," she said. "It's blowing away from town."

Streck said air crews were dropping water and foam on the area while bulldozers cut lines around the blaze.

Officials said they were not yet sure what caused the fire.
video

September 14, 2007

Booming Sand Dunes


By Elise Kleeman Staff Writer
San Gabriel Valley Tribune [West Covina CA]


PASADENA - In about 30 of the world's deserts, the shifting sands create a booming noise that has baffled scientists for decades.

Early explorers imagined the strange rumbling sounds - roughly an octave and a half below middle C - as the cries of a buried horseman, or the bells of an underground convent.

Others have described it as the sound of musical instruments, or the drone of an airplane. Exactly how it happens, though, has long been a mystery.

"It's a really remarkable and weird phenomenon," said Christopher Brennen, a Caltech mechanical engineer. "When sand squeaks, we call that chirping: for example, when you walk along dry sand at the beach. But the booming of these dunes is different."

With ground-penetrating technology, cobbled- together sampling tools and some help from the seat of their pants, Brennen and his colleagues believe they have found the key to the sand's deep voice.

They have been studying the rare singing sands at two nearby dune fields: Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve, and Dumont Dunes 30 miles north of Baker.

One requirement for their music, the researchers have long known, is for the sand to be on the move.

This can happen naturally as winds pile sand up one face of the dune until it avalanches down the other.


But to make the desert boom on command, the researchers have adopted a decidedly unprofessional-looking technique: climbing to the dune peak hundreds of feet above the desert floor and scooting down on their behinds.

If conditions are right, the result is the same.

"You can feel it vibrate through your fingers and your toes when you stand," Brennen said. "The whole dune vibrates."

French scientists had theorized that the booming was caused by scores of similarly sized sand grains rubbing together as they rolled. The bigger the sand grains, they believed, the lower the sound.

But samples that the Caltech team collected showed that that hypothesis "didn't really make sense," said mechanical engineer Melany Hunt.

"That's not what we think happens on the sand dune," she said. "The frequency that we hear ... really is determined by the characteristics of the dune itself, not just by the grain sizes."

Hunt compared the dunes to her daughter's cello.

"In the cello, you're strumming the string but it's the whole instrument that's vibrating," she said. "We think it's similar in the dune."

The breakthrough for the Caltech team came when they used ground-penetrating radar and other imaging techniques to spy on what was happening beneath the desert surface.

They found that although sound travels slowly through the top layer of sand in the dune, "when you go down to a depth of six feet, you find there is kind of a hard layer that has a much higher speed sound," Brennen said.

That layer works to reflect sound waves back toward the surface, he said.

As the noise of the tumbling sand grains bounces around within the top-most layer of sand, Brennen said, certain low frequencies appear to become amplified, creating the mysterious boom.
This speaker effect can only happen, Hunt said, if the dunes are enormous and bone-dry.

The deserts therefore boom their best in the scorchingly hot summer months, making the research hot, sweaty work - perhaps the one drawback to sliding down sand dunes in the name of science.

September 11, 2007

Mojave Cross Saga


Basin pair fighting to keep shrine to veterans unshrouded

By JIMMY BIGGERSTAFF
Hi-Desert Star


A veterans’ memorial in the shape of a cross stands covered by a wooden box in the Mojave National Preserve. An appellate court ruling Thursday sustained an earlier decision by the U.S. District Court which turned down a plan promoted by Congressman Jerry Lewis proposing a land swap to preserve the cross, unshrouded.

YUCCA MESA — When Henry and Wanda Sandoz make a commitment, they take it seriously.

The Yucca Mesa couple has honored a dying man’s request since 1984, battling the elements, vandals, government bureaucracy and the American Civil Liberties Union.

At issue is a cross made of iron pipe painted white and stuck in a pile of granite boulders pretty much near the middle of nowhere in the Mojave National Preserve. The cross replaced an earlier wooden one erected at the remote spot in 1934 by the Death Valley Chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

A long-gone sign near the road once read “The Cross. Erected in memory of the dead of all wars.” The current cross is about 7 feet tall and maybe 5 feet across.

World War I veteran Riley Bembry lived nearby, although “nearby” is relative in those parts — his desert cabin was a few miles distant. Henry and Wanda Sandoz also were residents of the area, where he was a maintenance supervisor in the mines and she drove a school bus.

Whether Bembry adopted the Sandozes or they adopted him isn’t entirely clear, nor is it too relevant, as far as that goes. What matters is that Riley took on a grandfather role with Henry and Wanda; the relationship was symbiotic. He was a weekly fixture at dinner and attended family events like birthdays and holiday observances.

“Riley was always a gentleman,” Wanda recalled, a twinkle in her eye at the recollection of their benevolent friend. “He was soft-spoken, a handsome man, always very clean.”

As the old desert rat’s health turned south, he asked the couple to look after the memorial commemorating those who died in the war to end all wars, and those who died in wars after that.

For decades local cattlemen, miners and military veterans gathered at the location for dancing and socializing. A box car on the site, since removed, provided shelter and storage. A Sandoz granddaughter was dedicated to the church there.

The Sandozes attend Easter sunrise services at the site each year, which averages 30 to 50 people, sometimes as many as 80, depending on the weather. “Sometimes when it’s real cold we don’t have a whole lot,” Wanda said.

The cross was periodically vandalized. Sandoz put up sturdier monuments, beginning in the late ’70s. “They’d keep knockin’ it down, I’d keep putting it back up,” Henry said in a low, resolute voice, slowly shaking his head.

For the last several years the cross has been covered by a wooden box. A cross has been painted on the box; that painted cross has been painted over, and then the painted cross reappears on the box and is painted over again.

Why a cross? Why not an obelisk or some other, non-religious shape or symbol? “Because that’s what the vets chose,” Wanda replied, insistently. “That’s the whole point of it.”

For their part, Henry and Wanda are non-denominational.

“We’re just Christians,” Wanda explained. They’re good examples of the religion’s precepts of giving, caring and doing unto others.

Henry owns a five-acre parcel near the monument, “about eight miles as the crow flies,” that he has offered to swap for the one-acre rock pile upon which the cross is erected.

If the government would agree to the exchange, Sandoz would turn the site over to a veterans’ group like the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The offer is still on the table, he said, but so far no one has taken them up on the proposal.

If Bembry were to comment from the afterlife about the controversy swirling around the monument, Wanda speculated, “He would probably say he just can’t believe the country has come to this sad state of affairs, where they’d want to remove a memorial placed there to honor veterans.”

The fate of the veterans’ memorial will be decided by attorneys and politicians. Between attackers and defenders under government employ, the cost to taxpayers will surely ring up well into the thousands.

Henry and Wanda don’t much seem the types to get caught up in the political and religious fervor the cross has caused. They have been in contact with Congressman Jerry Lewis’ office. Wanda said the representative “is behind us 100 percent.”

It is melodramatic but accurate to describe Riley’s request to have Henry and Wanda look after the cross shortly before he died in 1984 as his dying wish.

Henry took his adopted grandfather’s final request to heart. He looks after the cross for Riley and for all veterans.

“I promised him,” Henry said plainly. “That’s important to me.”

Feds Buy Western Lands with High Conservation Values


Environment News Service

WASHINGTON, DC, September 11, 2007 (ENS) - A piece of property located within the Idaho Snake River Area of Critical Environmental Concern is among the first to be purchased from a willing seller under a new law that established a fund to allow federal agencies to buy lands for the American people.

The Bureau of Land Management, BLM, is buying the Idaho land and also properties within or adjacent to California's Coachella Valley Fringe-Toed Lizard Area of Critical Environmental Concern; the North Platte River Special Recreation Management Area in Wyoming; and the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail in New Mexico.

These purchases are part of a larger federal land acquisition program that is now underway. BLM and three other federal land-management agencies are in the process of acquiring 19 parcels of land in seven Western states with $18 million from a special land conservation fund.

The fund, established by Congress under a law passed in 2000, authorizes the purchase of private "inholdings" from willing sellers in the Western states whose acreage is surrounded by or located next to certain lands under the management of the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the BLM.

"The $18 million to be used for these land purchases will bring into public ownership 19 properties with extraordinary natural, scenic, recreational, or historical values," said Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett. "These purchases promote conservation while helping ensure efficient and effective public lands management."

The first of their kind to occur under the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act, FLTFA, of 2000, the purcases are funded from completed sales of other federal lands.

Under this law, the BLM is authorized to sell fragmented or isolated parcels of public land that are difficult to manage, as well as lands that may have residential or commercial value, and then use the proceeds to support land conservation purposes.

"The benefits of this sale authority law are clear," said Scarlett, who noted that FLTFA is set to expire in 2010.

"I urge Congress to support this administration’s proposal to extend the law from 2010 to 2018 so that more Americans may benefit from these type of land acquisitions," she said.

Of the 19 land parcels, covering about 9,000 acres, the BLM is acquiring 10 parcels covering 3,200 acres at a combined cost of about $10 million.

The Forest Service, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service are buying the other nine parcels, covering 5,800 acres, at a combined cost of about $8 million.

The properties to be acquired are located within national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests, national monuments, national wild and scenic river corridors, national historic trail corridors, and areas of critical environmental concern.

The remaining 15 properties are located in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wyoming.

All of the remaining parcels to be purchased are at various stages of negotiation with private landowners, and, Scarlett says that "because of privacy concerns," they cannot be further identified until the acquisitions have been completed.

September 9, 2007

Former forest spokeswoman cries foul over firing


George Watson, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun


A former U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman says she was fired from her job because she refused to downplay the severity of the wildfire danger in the San Bernardino National Forest.

Ruth Wenstrom, who spent nine years as the San Bernardino National Forest's public-affairs officer, was terminated July 2.

Matt Mathes, the Forest Service's regional press officer based in Vallejo, near San Francisco, said he recalled that Wenstrom was "overstating the situation" in the forest.

In a recent interview, Wenstrom said that in April 2006, national forest officials were told not to request budgetary augmentation funds, known as "severity dollars," that they had asked for and received in the past. That meant cutting the number of engines being staffed in the forest, she said.
Wenstrom said officials told her to draft a list of talking points to address the public's concerns about having fewer firefighters and engines in a forest filled with millions of dead trees and drought-weakened bushes. She said she wrote a draft and sent it to Mathes.

Wenstrom's draft described the reduction as "a problem," to which she claimed Mathes immediately responded by saying it should state that "everything is fine out there in the forest, and there is no need for additional funds."

Wenstrom was aghast.

"I said that would be a bold-faced lie," said Wenstrom, 52, in an interview Friday at her Redlands home. "The forest is not healthy. I said, `I'm not going to say that. The public's not stupid."'

Two days later, she said, she was stripped of her duties and sent to work at the Riverside Fire Lab. She filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint because of the added costs of driving to Riverside.

Soon after her reassignment, Wenstrom was transferred to the Angeles National Forest, a 50-mile drive, and then fired when supervisors listed 34 charges of misusing her government-issued computer and for a series of other actions deemed improper.

Mathes confirmed he had a discussion with Wenstrom in spring 2006, but that Wenstrom's recollections were "not an entirely accurate account of the exchange."

He declined to elaborate in a second interview later Friday, saying the matter is a personnel issue.

But he said the San Bernardino National Forest has received far more firefighting money than any of the country's other 155 national forests over the past few years.

In 2006, the National Forest received $22.8 million for fuel reduction and preparedness costs. The Angeles National Forest received $14.8 million - the second most in the nation.

"This agency is never going to restrict funding to the point that we threaten people's lives or people's homes," Mathes said. "That will simply never happen."

Funding figures for the "severity dollars" that have been received by the National Forest over the years were not in a form that was readily available Friday, Mathes said.

During the weeks following Wenstrom's reassignment in 2006, federal officials expressed optimism about the health of the San Bernardino National Forest, which is considered the most urbanized in the nation.

In a May 16, 2006, story in The Sun, Mathes sounded upbeat about the Forest Service's strategy regarding the forest.

"Oh, they're in great shape," Mathes said then. "I think they're in a situation where there's one or two less fire engines in a certain location, but they'll be moving resources around. We'll be able to bring in more engines when there's a need."

Those conflicted with comments by Gene Zimmerman, the former supervisor of the National Forest who had just retired.

"They can say what they want about moving resources, but they won't be here in initial attack," Zimmerman said in the May 2006 story. "We need the resources here before the fires start. Computer modeling showed 25 engines on standby seven days a week is the most efficient level of preparedness. Now we're going back to 15. This says we didn't learn very much in the fall of '03."

He added: "Local Forest Service folks are really under the gun to talk the party line. The Bush administration signed off on it. The bottom line is, there isn't as much to go around this year as last year. But this is still the most imperiled forest community in the country."

Zimmerman is one of several current and former federal employees who supplied letters of support for Wenstrom as she has fought to get her job back.

During her career as a spokeswoman, she had received at least 15 performance awards for her work. She has received additional awards in her other jobs with the Forest Service.

"Ruth always gave 100 percent or more to her job," Zimmerman wrote in a May 5 letter. "She frequently worked extra hours when the workload required. Never, in my experience did the government receive less than it was paying for."

James Peterson, a regional director for Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote a letter stating that Wenstrom was "a great asset to the Forest Service." He was "disappointed" that she had been reassigned, and found it difficult to get information out of the National Forest after her departure.

"In the months that followed, it was unclear who had taken on Ruth's responsibilities or who I should contact," wrote Peterson, who was unavailable for comment Friday.

The most serious charges against Wenstrom appear to be for using her work computer for volunteer work for the city of Moreno Valley, which was dealing with an overabundance of burros. Wenstrom worked on a burro- management program for Big Bear Lake years before, and she said she received permission from her supervisor, Francis Fujioka.

Fujioka declined comment Friday, referring questions to Mathes.

Wenstrom acknowledged it might have been a mistake to use her work computer for the project. But given that she had permission, she figured she was within her rights.

And she believes that the investigation into her work history uses selective enforcement, as she pointed out that one National Forest supervisor has a personal secretary who sells Mary Kay products at her desk.

In the end, Wenstrom hopes to be reinstated so she can reach her retirement age in 2 1/2 years.

More importantly, though, it comes down to making the forest healthier, and safer.

"The public deserves better," Wenstrom said. "We could still have a major disaster. There are too many trees and they are too close together. It's not a natural, healthy situation."

September 7, 2007

Court forbids Mojave park's cross display


Andrew Edwards, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun


MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE - A cross that stands above the desert as a memorial for Americans who died in World War I represents an unconstitutional federal endorsement of Christianity, according to a legal opinion handed down by the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The cross stands atop Sunrise Rock on Cima Road inside the Mojave National Preserve. The preserve is public land, part of the National Park System. Upholding a 2005 court decision, Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote that the cross would not be allowed even if the government traded Sunrise Rock for other land with a private party, thus removing the cross from public land.

The court published its opinion Thursday.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, supported a land trade in a 2002 piece of legislation that would have transferred Sunrise Rock to a Barstow chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in exchange for a 5-acre patch of land.

Lewis could not be reached for comment Friday.

Mojave National Preserve superintendent Dennis Schramm said park officials have not yet determined the full impact of the court's opinion.

"I haven't heard anything from anyone yet," he said. "I'm still under a court order to keep it covered."

The cross could be viewed from Cima Road earlier this summer. The original monument, a wooden cross, was placed at Sunrise Rock in 1934, according to court documents. That cross has since been replaced by a metal edifice that was bolted into the rock in 1998.

Sunrise Rock has frequently been a site for Easter Sunday services.

Thursday's ruling stems from a 2001 lawsuit filed by Frank Buono, a former assistant superintendent at the Preserve who was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Court papers from an earlier stage in the case noted that Buono was "deeply offended by the display of a Latin Cross on government-owned property."

Federal attorneys representing National Parks Service officials defended the cross's presence in the Preserve. Department of Justice spokesman Andrew Ames said that as of Friday, no decision had been made on whether to appeal the case.

Free range


by B. Christine Hoekenga
High Country News ONLINE


Livestock foraging on 160 million acres of public lands could roam more freely than ever, thanks to a recent policy change at the Bureau of Land Management. On Aug. 14, the BLM granted eight new “categorical exclusions,” designed to speed up the approval process for a slew of activities on public lands, including grazing, logging, oil and gas drilling and recreational use.

Among the major changes is a paring down of the renewal process for the roughly 18,000 grazing permits the agency administers. Previously, when a permit was up for renewal, the BLM was obliged to conduct a formal environmental assessment and call for public comments under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), giving the average citizen an open invitation to speak up.

Now, under the new guidelines, if a grazing allotment appears to be in good shape and the permit is being renewed for roughly the same use as before, the agency may approve the renewal without a rigorous environmental assessment – or formal public comment.

It’s this last part that has environmentalists worried. Bobby McEnaney, public-lands advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, is concerned about losing the eyes and ears of the public in the renewal process. “There have been a number of cases around the West where an individual citizen has pointed out a sage grouse lek or salmon habitat (on grazing lands), and the BLM has made a change,” he says. “The key fatal flaw is that public input will not be valued in this process.”

Others welcome the new procedures. Jeff Eisenberg, director of federal lands for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, believes that the changes will allow the under-funded BLM to be more efficient. Federal land management agencies have an enormous job and not enough resources, he says: “When they are scrambling around and can’t do their work adequately, that makes it hard for us.”

For several years, the cattlemen’s association has supported changes that would streamline grazing permit renewal. Resolutions in its annual policy books dating back to 2003 recommend that the BLM and Forest Service allow the public to have a say only in larger-scale decisions, not in the nitty-gritty of individual grazing permits.

And it appears that the association’s wish has been granted, at least partially. According to BLM estimates, approximately one-third of the roughly 2,300 permits that are renewed each year will be eligible for the new fast-tracked approval. Even so, a determined individual can still find ways to get involved in individual allotment decisions, according to Bob Bolton, a senior rangeland management specialist with the BLM. People can visit their local BLM offices to request information, express concerns or appeal a permit renewed under a categorical exclusion, he says. The agency will notify those who make this extra effort about decisions affecting the allotments in question.

It’s hard to tell whether the changes will ultimately harm public lands, says Sherman Swanson, a rangeland management extension specialist with the University of Nevada, Reno. As with other procedural changes issued by federal agencies, much depends on how the new rules are implemented. “If the opportunity to do a categorical exclusion allows them to go through another round (of permit renewals) without making changes where they need to,” he says, “then it is simply a pressure valve, and we haven’t accomplished much.”

Court Says Get Rid of Cross


CitizenLink News Center
Colorado Springs, CO


The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has disallowed a planned public-private land swap that would have preserved a Christian cross in the middle of the vast Mojave National Preserve, ruling it violates the Constitution’s establishment clause prohibiting government endorsement of religion.

After the 9th Circuit found the cross unconstitutional in 2004, Congress passed a law to transfer the parcel to private ownership. The 8-foot white cross, erected in 1934 to honor World War I veterans, has been covered with plywood during the legal dispute.

Bruce Hausknecht, judicial analyst for Focus on the Family Action, said the ruling shows how muddled establishment-clause law has become. He cited the Mt. Soledad war memorial cross in San Diego, in which the city transferred the property to the federal government.

“In the Mt. Soledad case, the government ends up with a cross, and that's OK, but in the Mojave National Preserve case, the government tries to give away a cross, and that's not OK,” Hausknecht said.

“My hope is that this case gets appealed to the Supreme Court, which now has a majority of justices on the bench whose understanding of the First Amendment leaves hope that we can finally get some decisions that will straighten out decades of the court's floundering on this subject.”

September 6, 2007

Court upholds ruling against Redlands congressman's proposal to preserve cross


In 1934, prospector John "Riley" Bembry erected a wooden cross off Cima Road in the Mojave National Preserve to honor World War I veterans. In the mid-90s, a pipe cross was erected. 2001 / The Press-Enterprise


By RICHARD K. DE ATLEY
The Press-Enterprise


A U.S. appellate court on Thursday upheld a federal judge's 2005 ruling that a proposed land swap to preserve a cross in a remote area of the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve violates the separation of church and state.

"Carving out a tiny parcel of property in the midst of this vast Preserve -- like a donut (sic) hole with the cross atop it -- will do nothing to minimize the impermissible government endorsement," the opinion from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said.

The court sustained a ruling by Senior U.S. District Judge Robert J. Timlin, who had turned down a plan promoted by U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands.

Lewis's plan would have given the land where the cross sits to a nonprofit group in exchange for private land within the preserve.

The case was started by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2001 on behalf of a retired National Park Service employee, who objected to the cross being on federal land.

Under Timlin's orders, a tarp or plywood box has covered the cross for several years.

An estimated 40 to 50 people gather at the cross every Easter for sunrise services despite the box, organizers have said.

Attempts to preserve it have now been rejected twice in district court and twice by the 9th Circuit.

The cross, described as a 5- to 8-foot-tall structure made of 4-inch-diameter metal pipes painted white, sits on Sunrise Rock, northeast of the desert town of Baker and about 15 miles off the Cima Road exit of Interstate 15.

WWI Memorial

There has been a cross at the spot since 1934, when prospector John "Riley" Bembry put a wooden one there to honor World War I veterans. It was often vandalized.

Henry Sandoz, of Yucca Valley, erected the one made of pipes in the mid-1990s. President Clinton signed the bill authorizing the Mojave National Preserve in 1994, which includes the land where the cross sits.

Sandoz and his wife, Wanda, had agreed to give the government 20 acres of land they own within the preserve in exchange for the Sunrise Rock locale.

Lewis on Thursday called for the Justice Department to consider an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It is a terrible shame that the 9th Circuit has determined that it is not possible to honor our veterans if the shape of the memorial happens to be a cross," said Lewis in a statement.

The congressman also said the decision could "have serious consequences for the thousands of monuments to veterans at our historic battlefields across the nation."

Limited Ruling

A law professor who observes the 9th Circuit's decisions called Lewis' suggestion "inflammatory," saying Thursday's ruling appeared to be narrowly decided.

"I don't think the court is making broad pronouncements beyond the facts of this scenario," said Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond. "It is very much limited and fact-specific to Sunrise Rock."

The Justice Department can seek to have the case reconsidered by a larger panel of 9th Circuit judges, or send the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Government attorneys did not return a phone call Thursday seeking comment.

"From a common-sense perspective, the government has to look at the fact that they are now batting zero-for-four," said ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg. A war memorial with a cross eliminates honoring non-Christian veterans, he said.

"This is the only case I know of where the government has designated something a national memorial on one hand but is trying to sell it on the other hand," Eliasberg said. As a national memorial, the cross has the same status as Mount Rushmore, he noted.

Wanda Sandoz, speaking by phone from her Yucca Valley home, said she was disappointed with the latest ruling.

"If we have options, we will try to take them," she said. "I think every veteran in this country should be so upset and sad over this state of affairs."

She said her husband was too upset to come to the phone. "We care about it that much," she said.