November 28, 2007

Water supply shrinks

Flow from Northern California being cut drastically

The California Aqueduct brings water to arid Southern California from the Sacramento River Delta.
Copyright © Mark Hanauer

Shawbong Fok, Staff Writer
San Bernardino County Sun

The Inland Empire's water supplies from Northern California next year are going to be cut in half thanks to a drought as well as an endangered fish swimming in a delta near Sacramento that needs the water.

In the face of less water flowing locally, landscapers, golf courses and even citrus growers might get socked with higher water bills.

"We might hand water (with a hose) the dry spots," said Bill Henning, superintendent of Shandin Hills Golf Club in San Bernardino.

The water cuts are the result of some of the driest weather in years.

The Inland Empire's apportionment of water next year has been cut because of the drought hitting the state, according to the State Water Contractors, a nonprofit of 27 public agencies that buys water under contract from the California State Water Project.

San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, which serves about 600,000 residents in an area from Fontana to Yucaipa, is part of this water group.

In 2008, the water district is expected to get 58 percent less water than this year from the state, said Randy Van Gelder, water district general manager.

"I don't know if there'll be a raise in rates," said Joe Zoba, Yucaipa Valley Water District general manager. "Just because there's a shortage of water from the state doesn't mean there'll be an increase in water rates."

The California State Water Project includes reservoirs, lakes, storage tanks, canals, tunnels, pipelines and pumping and power plants that move and store water in the state.

Collectively, the State Water Contractors deliver water to more than 25 million residents in the state and to more than 750,000 acres of agricultural land.

The water delivery cuts, which are among the largest since 2003 in the Inland Empire, are attributed to a legal ruling that is trying to protect an endangered fish, called the smelt.

That fish needs the water in the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta where it lives. The delta is located at the western edge of the Central Valley by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

On Aug. 31, U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger limited how much water could be delivered from the delta between December and June.

The State Water Contractors on Monday announced water cuts that will permit the statewide consortium to purchase only 25 percent of the requested water.

This will supply only about half of what's needed for the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, officials said.

"We'll have to secure more water from Northern California," Van Gelder said.

Sixty percent to 70 percent of water from the State Water Contractors is used for landscapes, both commercial and residential.

The result of these cuts will be conservation measures, including everything from the showcasing of low water-retention plants and irrigation techniques to tests in San Bernardino parks on remote-controlled sprinklers that conserve water.

This isn't the first time a water shortage has hit Californians. Drought conditions in the early 1990s pushed water agencies to adopt conservation techniques.

"Conservation is a means to adapt to water changes," said Linda Fernandez, an environmental scientist at UC Riverside.

The Inland Empire is one of the nation's fastest-growing areas, resulting in more water needs than ever.

Already, San Bernardino County has some 2 million residents, hundreds of thousands of more people than a decade ago.

Not all water agencies in California will implement the same water-saving techniques.

"Each agency will respond differently depending on local conditions," said Bob Muir, spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves western San Bernardino Valley residents, as well as metropolitan Los Angeles and San Diego.

Lucerne Valley finds solution on water

Daily Press

LUCERNE VALLEY — Lucerne Valley residents avoided an overwhelming increase in hauled water fees by banding together to help a local well owner, San Bernardino County administrators decided today.

After hearing the announcement Tuesday night that water loads from the Midway Park well would increase from $1 to $167, residents decided to help a local man with testing and certification fees to access his well.

Max McNeeley had lost business because of the low prices offered at the county well and had planned on shutting his down.

Last night to avoid the increase at Midway Park, citizens began passing around a hat for donations to help McNeeley keep his well open.

Midway Park was set up as a temporary well after a sting operation in August that shut down unlicensed wells and water haulers and left many residents without water while temperatures were well over 100 degrees.

The county well was shut down as of Wednesday, but county agreed to stay open temporarily if McNeeley’s well ever became overwhelmed or had any problems, said Michael Orme, district director for Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt.

“It’s good to see the community come together to help one of their own,” Orme said.

County officials are working on a price for loads from Midway Park if it does have to reopen for temporary use.

Orme said it is around $50, far less than the original number because they won’t have to fully staff the well and make the necessary upgrades for full-time usage. The Board of Supervisors will still have to approve the price.

November 27, 2007

Water bills to triple in Lucerne Valley

County decides to end subsidy of water well

Daily Press

LUCERNE VALLEY — Lucerne Valley residents were slapped with an increased cost of water that will more than triple the average bill from $130 to $424 a month.

The increase was announced Tuesday night at the Lucerne Valley Community Center.

A sting operation in August by the California Highway Patrol and the state put water haulers, who were not properly licensed, out of business and shut down wells that didn’t pass health requirements.

Subsequently, residents were left without water, and the county Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency.

The county opened a temporary well and offered water haulers service at just $1 per load — about 2,000 gallons.

The county could have stopped the service once the emergency was over, but due to a lack of other available water sources, kept filling up local water haulers.

Most water haulers were shut down in the original sting and are still operating under temporary permits until they can get their paperwork together.

Since the original emergency in August, the county has lost nearly $67,000 selling water at such a discount.

Before the sting, well owners charged water haulers anywhere from $15 to $30 per 2,000-gallon load, said Rhonda Moore of 1 Moore Water Service.

As a water hauler, she then sold it to a customer at $65. An average family of four uses two loads, or $130, of water a month.

The price is set to go from $1 to $167 a load, said Manuel Benitez, chief of special districts in the county.

The $167, which still has to go before the Board of Supervisors, is to cover operational costs of the well, which the county was hoping to close because it doesn’t have the infrastructure to accommodate water hauling, Benitez said.

The average hike to the water hauler would be $147 and assuming that they pass through the increase, a family of four that was paying $130 a month will now pay roughly $424 a month.
“That is completely outrageous,” Moore said. “It would put me out of business.”

Michael Orme, a representative for 1st District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, said that there are unlicensed water haulers who have again started services in Lucerne Valley. After Jan. 1, the state plans on going after those who have not met the necessary requirements.

“It’s really just a mess,” said Linda Gommel of Lucerne Valley. “Nothing has been solved.”

November 26, 2007

Land-seizure cases no rarity

By Joey Bunch
The Denver Post

Despite the surprise and outrage about a former Boulder County judge taking a neighbor's land through court maneuvers, there's nothing new about adverse possession — or even judges employing the law to net real estate.

Adverse-possession cases are tried routinely in real-estate disputes in every courthouse in the state, according to legal experts. The cases usually involve correcting old surveys or disputes involving fences and property lines.

The law dates back centuries and was designed to prevent absentee land barons from seizing seemingly abandoned property after homesteads had been long established.

"Adverse possession is one of the first things you learn in law school," said real-estate lawyer Willis Carpenter, a lecturer and author who published a review of 350 adverse-possession cases in Colorado.

While legal professionals learned the lesson well, average property owners are aghast.

"It's stealing with a law license instead of a gun," said Will Campbell, a Boulder resident and supporter of Susie and Don Kirlin.

Former Boulder Judge Richard McLean and his wife, lawyer Edith Stevens, won one- third of the Kirlins' vacant land in south Boulder by using the law. McLean and Stevens argued that they had used part of the 4,700-square-foot lot to reach the garden and deck of their home virtually every day for 25 years.

The Kirlins bought the land in 1984 and planned to build a retirement home there.

The case law cited throughout Boulder District Judge James C. Klein's ruling, Smith vs. Hayden, also involved a judge taking a neighbor's property.

At the time of the case in 1989, Donald P. Smith was a state appeals-court judge. He acquired a 20-foot swath the length of a neighbor's half-acre lot that he had used as a driveway to his weekend home in Buffalo Creek.

In another case, former Boulder County Judge Marsha Yeager used the law to seize a 100-foot-long stone fence that was built as an architectural component of a neighbor's stone home on Seventh Street.

Cosima Krueger-Cunningham, whose family had lived on the property since 1950, believes the lawsuit was filed in spite, after years of acrimony with the judge. The judge had already erected a steel fence on her side of the stone fence long before the lawsuit, Krueger-Cunningham said.

"Our lawyer, none of our advisers, no one thought this case would ever go to trial," Krueger-Cunningham said. "On the face of it, it was patently frivolous."

But according to legal experts, taking property by adverse possession is no simple endeavor.

The adverse-possession law requires a person to use the property in a way that indicates obvious and exclusive ownership for a required length of time that varies by state. In Colorado, that means 18 years.

Media reports have characterized McLean and Stevens' use of the neighboring property as doing little more than walking across it and holding occasional parties there.

A series of witnesses, including neighbors who testified during three days of trial, described much more, according to court documents.

Some testified that McLean and Stevens had regularly pruned trees, sprayed weeds, raked thatch and maintained paths, a rock wall and other landscaping — using the property "virtually every day" for 25 years.

Stevens and McLean maintained a woodpile on the property and stored materials on it while they were remodeling a kitchen and restained their home, witnesses said.

Neighbors also testified they had never seen Don and Susie Kirlin, the original owners, on the property.

The Kirlins testified they never visited the area of the lot where those activities took place.

The three cases involving judges heard in their own jurisdictions "tells me we have a very serious problem with, I don't want to say it, but conflict of interest," said Krueger-Cunningham, who lost her fence to Yeager.

After the court ruling, the Kirlins filed a complaint with the Attorney Regulation Counsel citing Rule 8.4, which bans "dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation."

"I discussed your complaint separately with six different lawyers in my office," wrote Louise Culberson-Smith, the assistant regulation counsel, in a Nov. 14 letter to the Kirlins. " We all agree that a successful adverse possession claim does not constitute a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct, including Rule 8.4."

The publicity surrounding the Kirlins' case has absentee property owners nervous, said Hal Noyes, a Realtor in Routt County.

His advice to those who don't plan to develop their property right away: Hire a lawyer.

But such a legal necessity, he believes, "defeats the spirit of what Colorado is all about. It's supposed to be friendly wide- open spaces with good neighbors, not who has the best attorney."

State Rep. Rob Witwer, R-Evergreen, and Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder, are studying possible legislation to raise the bar to prove adverse possession.

Witwer said Friday he was troubled by the Kirlin case but that any legislation would be based on improving the law overall.

"Hard cases make bad law," he said.

Witwer said he is studying adverse-possession laws in Oregon and Iowa, which require "good faith" that someone mistakenly believes he owns the property and prevents anyone from scheming to acquire property they know they don't own.

"If it's possible to prevent people from gaming the system and acting in bad faith to take someone else's property, then that's something we should do," he said.

Such legislative remedies aren't new.

In August, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who forged his political reputation fighting fraud as state attorney general, vetoed changes to that state's adverse-possession law. Spitzer agreed the bill might "seem to be a logical improvement to the law" but said it would lead to "extensive litigation of virtually every adverse-possession claim."

Witwer said fairness and common sense should be part of the adverse-possession law to help level the playing field between experts and everyday property owners.

"If you trespass for 18 minutes, you can be arrested," he said. "If you knowingly trespass for 18 years, you can get the land for free. The law should not allow that to happen."


Defeating adverse possession

Legal sources say there are ways to protect property:
Diligence: If a landowner finds a pattern of trespassing or an encroachment by a neighbor, he should demand that it stop, then sue, if necessary.

Permission: A landowner who suspects someone of using his property can give that person written permission to do so, removing the opportunity to claim possession is adverse or "hostile."

Insufficient use: A landowner can stipulate that the person used the property but not enough that a reasonably diligent owner would have noticed and had the opportunity to object. The adverse possession must demonstrate sufficient acts to demonstrate a "claim" of ownership.

Insufficient time: A landowner can show a period in which the other person did not use the property. Adverse possession requires "continuous" use of the property for the legally required period, which is 18 years in Colorado.

Nonexclusive use: The owner or others can prove they have used the land just as much as the person claiming adverse possession

November 25, 2007

Barstow-Daggett airport upgrade approved by County

Desert Dispatch

SAN BERNARDINO — Last week the county Board of Supervisors approved more than $3.65 million in funds to upgrade infrastructure at the Barstow-Daggett airport, bringing the facility in line with Federal Aviation Administration standards.

With the construction funds, a large portion of which is provided through FAA grants, the airport’s taxiway will be extended and the facility’s cables and runway lights will be upgraded. The airport’s electrical system was installed in the mid-1940s, according to a press release from the county.

November 21, 2007

National parks contain private land

Associated Press Writer
Las Cruces Sun-News

HELENA, Mont.—The managers of Utah's Zion National Park missed an opportunity when 10 spectacular acres of privately owned land within the park's boundaries came onto the market.

The managers wanted Zion to buy up the property and protect it from further development because of its world-class view of the park's awesome, 3,800-foot red rock cliffs. But the park didn't have the money.

A California couple eventually purchased the land, expanded an old tavern on the site and use it for spiritual retreats.

"Now there's a large structure with lights that people would see as they drive the road," said Zion Superintendent Jock Whitworth.

Within the 84-million-acre national park system are some 5.4 million acres of private parcels, an area nearly as big as New Hampshire. They include wetlands popular for birdwatching at Acadia National Park in Maine, the site of a Civil War hospital at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania and Indian cultural sites at Big Bend National Park in Texas.

Many of these parcels have been held for generations by people who owned the land before Congress created the parks.

The Park Service has identified about a third of the private land for acquisition.

"Inholders live in fear they're going
to have land acquisition agents at
their door, trying to force them out."

But in fiscal year 2007, the agency was allocated $24.6 million for buying the property. That is little more than 1 percent of the $2 billion or so the Park Service says would be needed to purchase all the land it wants.

"We ought to be finishing what we started, and we're not doing it," said Paul Pritchard, founder of the National Park Trust, a private organization.

The National Park Service has on its wish list 11,613 tracts encompassing 1.8 million acres. The $24.6 million allocated is down from a 10-year high of nearly $139 million in 1999.

National Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson said the Bush administration has focused more on managing the land it already controls than on acquiring more.

"The dollars have steadily fallen off because we are in deficit, because we are funding a two-front war, because there are a host of other spending priorities that compete," said Alan Front, vice president for the Trust for Public Land.

But he warned that unless the Park Service acquires the private land within the parks' boundaries, "there is a real and pressing threat that inappropriate development will mar the landscape that people are flocking to for respite and retreat."

Chuck Cushman of the American Land Rights Association, formed in 1978 to represent owners of property within parks, said it is just as well the Park Service is short of money.

Inholders, as the property owners inside the parks are known, "live in fear that a change in administration, a new Congress—all of a sudden they're going to have land acquisition agents at their door, trying to force them out," Cushman said.

He said many of the landowners are the third and fourth generations to live there, adding that his own cabin in Yosemite National Park is "the one constant my kids have always had" even though the family moved often.

Park Service Director Mary Bomar has said the agency buys land only from willing sellers.

At Zion, Hank and Mariangela Landau bought the 10 acres coveted by the Park Service in 2005. The land is a 2 1/2-hour drive from Las Vegas, near a site where some of the 1972 Robert Redford movie "Jeremiah Johnson" was filmed.

Landau said he and his wife tried to be environmentally sensitive in remodeling the dilapidated tavern constructed some 40 years ago—a one-story building with light-gray siding—and establishing their retreat, The Center for the True North. Its features include solar power and low-impact lighting.

"We feel good about it because of the way in which we remodeled it," Landau said. "We're not Frank Lloyd Wright, but we did the best we could to try to blend it."

Landau would not disclose what he paid for the property. Whitworth, the park superintendent, said the land was on the market for about $340,000.

Missing an opportunity to buy will not make it any easier the next time. Parks are such desirable areas that the price will probably be higher if a property hits the market again.

In the past few years, the Park Service, on its own or with help from conservationists, bought and demolished the Home Sweet Home Motel at Gettysburg, and purchased an old AT&T communications center at Point Reyes National Seashore in California.

At Glacier National Park in Montana, where deer, elk, moose and wolves roam, Warren Heylman of Spokane, Wash., built a cabin this year on land his grandparents homesteaded before President Taft signed the 1910 bill making Glacier the nation's 10th park. The 130-acre tract had been at the top of Glacier's acquisition list for years.

In July, a helicopter delivered materials for construction of a one-room cabin on the land. Heylman said that the family is exercising its rights and that the land is "not for sale, period."

"We think development of that land is inappropriate," said Brace Hayden, a Park Service official at Glacier. "You can draw your own conclusions about what's best for the American public versus what's best for this family."

November 20, 2007

Concerns raised over proposed power lines in desert

The Press-Enterprise

A proposal to build power transmission lines through desert communities in San Bernardino and Riverside counties is raising concerns among residents and officials.

The 500-kilovolt Green Path North project, proposed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, would scar desert vistas and cut through environmentally sensitive preserves, opponents told San Bernardino County supervisors Tuesday.

"It's an attack on our quality of life," said April Sall, co-chair of the California Desert Coalition, a group formed in opposition to the project.

Electrical towers and power lines would be installed from Desert Hot Springs to Hesperia in order to transmit energy from geothermal, solar and wind projects in the Imperial Valley. Depending on the route chosen, the lines would traverse between 79 to 350 miles through areas such as the Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley and Pioneertown.

Supervisor Dennis Hansberger, whose district includes some of the areas affected, is proposing the board take a stand at its Dec. 4 meeting. He asked for the presentation from the coalition.

The project does not require approval from either county as the power lines are being proposed on federal land, requiring assent from the Bureau of Land Management.

Federal and county plans already designate Interstate 10 as the preferred route for power transmission lines but the Green Path North project would tread into other desert areas, Sall said.

She and about a dozen other residents who spoke at the meeting say Green Path North only benefits Los Angeles customers and not those in San Bernardino or Riverside counties.

Randy Howard, assistant chief operating officer for the power system at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said the project is in its early stages and that several routes, including along Interstate 10, are being considered.

"No decision has been made," he said.

Howard said the project would provide economic benefits to communities in the Salton Sea, where geothermal plants would create jobs. It would also provide environmental benefits by increasing the use of renewable energy sources instead of increasing carbon emissions, he said.

"It will have a very big impact on all of Southern California, and maybe globally," he said.

Opponents said they only learned about the project earlier this year and accused the power company of trying to sneak the project through.

Howard said the utility is planning informational meetings, including a chance to comment on alternatives and the environmental study, but those had been scheduled for early next year.

Hansberger said he is concerned that the power lines would cut through some relatively pristine desert areas.

"The existing transmission corridor that runs roughly parallel to Interstate 10 is more appropriate," he said.

Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, who represents the High Desert, said he is troubled by the increasing number of energy projects in desert areas that take up large amounts of land.

"The desert stands to take the brunt of the impact for the rest of the state and society and that doesn't sit well with me," he said.

Riverside County officials are aware of the project but have yet to take a position, county spokesman Ray Smith said.

Supervisor against plan to bring power lines to area

George Watson, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

The county Board of Supervisors will meet Dec. 4 to vote on a resolution opposing a potential plan by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to install transmission lines through undeveloped areas of the Morongo Valley and surrounding desert.

At Tuesday's regular board meeting, Supervisor Dennis Hansberger said he plans to call for the resolution against LADWP's Green Path North project.

He made the decision after meeting with the California Desert Coalition, a nonprofit trying to preserve the desert. The coalition gave a presentation on Tuesday to three board members.

Coalition officials said there is another option for LADWP - using the 10 Freeway corridor, which is already home to transmission lines.

Hansberger agreed.

"I don't think there is a legitimate reason to cross this reasonably pristine area," said Hansberger, who represents the 3rd District.

The district encompasses some of the proposed area, which is primarily on federal land.

Randy Thomas, assistant chief operating officer for LADWP's Power System, said everyone is getting ahead of themselves.

"It's very, very early in the process," Thomas said. "Preliminary public meetings are not set for until January."

Currently, the utility is considering 7 to 9 possible routes, Thomas said.

The community's involvement is wanted, he said, to help determine the best path.

Under one of LADWP's plans, 500-kilovolt power lines would be stretched from Desert Hot Springs north, then brought around the Bighorn Mountain Wilderness westward to Hesperia.

The projected path is about 85 miles, and travels through such areas as the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve and Pioneertown Mountains Preserve.

"It's obvious there are other ways of doing this," said John Simpson of Twentynine Palms who is opposed to the project.

Hansberger said he understood the plan would save money for the nation's largest municipal utility. Using the 10 corridor would mean renting property, not buying it. But that's not enough of a reason to negatively impact the desert, he added.

Hansberger appears to have an ally in Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, whose High Desert district encompasses part of the proposed area.

Mitzelfelt said it was unfair that the desert takes the brunt of the project's impact.

"That doesn't sit well with me," he said.

November 19, 2007

NPS Uses FLTFA to Acquire Inholding Property

Posted by Jackie Skaggs
Public Affairs
Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott announced today that the National Park Service (NPS) recently completed the acquisition of a key inholding property located on the Moose-Wilson Road, approximately five miles south of park headquarters. This acquisition was made possible through funding provided under the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA) of 2000. The 1.4-acre tract was identified as a top priority for acquisition, in part because it lies within an area that provides important habitat for a diversity of wildlife species.

Formerly known as the Hartgrave property, this land parcel originally consisted of approximately 4.4 acres. The property became available for purchase in 1995; however, the NPS was unable to acquire it at that time due to a lack of available federal funds. Gerald T. Halpin bought the property in order to protect it from potential development until the NPS could obtain funds for acquisition. In October of 2005, the NPS obtained Land and Water Conservation Funds to purchase approximately three acres of the Hartgrave property, leaving 1.4 acres in private ownership. FLTFA funds allowed the NPS to purchase the remaining privately-held acreage.

FLTFA offers land management agencies in the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture a “vehicle” by which private lands within areas administered by these agencies can be purchased from willing sellers. FLTFA funds are generated through the sale of public lands that are administered by the Bureau of Land Management and identified for disposal in land use plans. FLTFA provides a more efficient, streamlined process for land sales, and consequently benefits the nation’s public lands; it also helps to promote consolidation of ownership of public and private lands in a manner that allows for better overall resource management and protection. This federal authority for land transactions is scheduled to expire in July of 2010 unless extended by Congress.

November 16, 2007

Bill would help protect our desert paradise

The Desert Sun [Palm Springs CA]

What makes this desert paradise we live in unique is that it is a desert paradise and we should do all we can to protect the precious landscape and its creatures.

The California Desert and Mountain Heritage Act, H.R. 3682, would provide that protection. It is sponsored in the U.S. House by Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, who is working with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. to expand the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. More than 40,000 acres in the Joshua Tree National Park would be designated as wilderness and certain river segments would be protected as "wild, scenic, or recreational."

The land would receive the highest level of protection under federal law. That means no Motocross, no bicycles - just pure and simple preservation for all time.

There are concerns about gaining access to fight fires. Fires in remote areas are often fought by air, in addition to ground crews.

Because we're talking about thousands of acres of designated natural habitat, we're looking at land that has virtually no private property to defend.

In addition, Bono has addressed some of the concerns in the bill. Necessary measures for control and prevention of fire, insects and diseases will be afforded to the land as deemed appropriate by the Secretary of Agriculture.

The Secretary has six months after the enactment to prepare management plans for the area.

In addition, certain, small areas considered sacred sites of Native American tribes will be closed to the general public, but open to tribal members for traditional cultural and religious purposes.

Again, such areas are not expansive, but are important to the native people of the land and this Act ensures respect of native tribes and protection of their history and culture.

The area also is home to threatened wildlife species. Another 40,000 acres in the park would be designated as potential wilderness while the National Park Service settled property claims.

This is a good bill that has the teeth to ensure protection of one of the most beautiful spots on earth.

Words can't describe dusk at Joshua Tree National Park, but a bill to protect that time of day, every day, can and should.

November 14, 2007

Officials say bobcat sightings not a cause for concern

By JASON SMITH, staff writer
Desert Dispatch

BARSTOW — Wildlife biologist Neal Darby was walking his black lab on desert lands close to his Barstow apartment several weeks ago when his dog started barking wildly at a nearby bush.

He thought that his dog detected a snake, fox or squirrel and was a little surprised when a bobcat darted out from under the bush and ran away into the desert.

“It’s just another example of
a healthy local ecosystem”

“They’re more common than people believe,” he said

In recent weeks, people living close to the Robert A. Sessions Sports Park and the Veterans Home of California in Barstow have reported seeing the 20-pound wildcats close to human habitats, worrying some residents.

Darby, a biologist with the Mojave National Preserve, said that bobcats are nocturnal animals that dislike interacting with humans.

“Overall, it’s not a big concern. They’re very shy creatures. As long as people don’t harass the animals, they’ll hardly know they are there,” he said.

Darby said that though sightings of the animals in the wild are not a cause for concern, residents who see bobcats near human habitats should call the county animal control office because the animals may be rabid.

He said that the cats are attracted to the sports park because the lush grass provides habitats for rabbits and squirrels, the bobcats’ main source of food.

City Council member Joe Gomez said that he’s heard several complaints from residents worried that the cats might attack children or pets.

“I’m very concerned about it. The sports park has become an oasis for reptiles, rodents and animals in the area,” he said.

Gomez said that with houses being built in the area, he fears that confrontations between humans and animals will become more common.

Patricia Morris, assistant to the city manager, said that several city staff members and sports park neighbors have seen the animals, and the city is monitoring the situation. She said that staff contacted wildlife biologist Kevin Brennan from the state Fish and Game office. He advises residents to leave the cats alone.

“He assured us they do not attack people, but like any cat if you antagonize them, they will scratch and defend themselves,” Morris said.

Judy Carmon, who lives close to the area, said she that she notices that the cat food she leaves outside is disappearing overnight, something she blames on the bobcats. Although she hasn’t seen any recently, she said that early this year residents often witnessed a bobcat lurking in the early morning.

The sports park isn’t the only place where bobcats have been seen. Jack Stormo, director of environmental programs for the Marine Corps Logistics Base, Barstow, said that several bobcats have been seen near the bases’ Nebo annex.

He said that this year has been a good year for the animals because of a relative abundance of their food sources.

“It’s just another example of a healthy local ecosystem,” he said.

Stormo said that he’s been told of animals approaching housing units on the base, but he generally doesn’t consider the animals to be a nuisance. He said that residents shouldn’t be concerned, but acknowledged that some people are taken aback when seeing the cats for the first time.

“It is a little startling sometimes to see them sitting on your back step,” he said.

Protection sought for Joshua Tree wilderness

Diana Marrero
Desert Sun Washington Bureau

Jay Calderon, The Desert Sun
Proposed legislation would expand the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument and designate nearly 40,000 acres in Joshua Tree National Park for conservation.

WASHINGTON - About 200,000 acres of public land in and around the Coachella Valley would be designated as wilderness areas under a bill the House is considering. Such a designation provides the highest level of protection under federal law.

"These areas are an impressive example of our continually changing landscape, as the San Andreas fault quite literally cuts through the region, creating unique peaks and views of the nearby Salton Sea," Rep. Mary Bono said during a hearing Tuesday in front of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Bono, R-Palm Springs, the main House sponsor, is working with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., on the legislation.

The legislation would expand the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument and designate nearly 40,000 acres in Joshua Tree National Park for conservation. Another 40,000 acres in the park would be designated as potential wilderness until the National Park Service settles property claims.

The lands provide habitat for threatened Peninsular bighorn sheep, the desert tortoise and bald eagles.

The bill also would designate 31 miles of four California rivers as wild and scenic: the North Fork of the San Jacinto River, Fuller Mill Creek, Palm Canyon Creek and Bautista Creek.

"These are places of respite from the fast pace of modern life," said Geary Hund, the associate director of the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy. The Idyllwild resident testified in front of the committee.

As the bill moves through the House, local advocates continue efforts to ward off development by buying remaining parcels of land within the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto monument that are still owned privately.

Bill opponents say the designation would restrict people from using bicycles and other, mechanized vehicles in those areas and could make it tougher for land managers to control fires near homes. Bono said she has excluded certain lands for protections to take those things into account.

The Partnership for America, a conservative nonprofit that works on natural resource policies, said in a letter to the panel that Bono's efforts do not address their concerns. The group is headed by former Rep. Richard Pombo, who drew ire from environmentalists when he was chairman of the Natural Resources Committee until he lost his seat last year. Members of off-road vehicle and motorcycle groups signed the letter.

The bill was one of five the committee considered Tuesday. Together, they would add a half-million acres in five states - Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon - to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Hund said the monument and other wilderness areas in Riverside County need protection.

"Lands such as these are increasingly rare in our world and we must make every effort to preserve them," he said.

November 13, 2007

Retired judge: This land is my land

Jurist rules in favor of colleague,
snatches $1 million parcel

© 2007

Judge James Klein

A judge has ruled in favor of another judge – now retired – in an unusual "adverse possession" land dispute in pricey Boulder, Colo., giving the retired judge a large part of his neighbor's $1 million parcel of land for a pathway to his backyard.

The recent ruling came from James Klein a judge in Colorado's 20th Judicial District covering Boulder, and was in favor of Richard McLean, who retired from the judiciary in Boulder several years ago.

The loser in the case was Boulder resident Don Kirlin, who is publicizing his situation on the website. He and his wife Susie owned the land in question for more than two decades, and he appeared recently on the radio talk show hosted by Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman on Denver's KHOW radio.

The result of the lawsuit was that Klein awarded to McLean ownership of 34 percent of a residential lot valued at an estimated $800,000-$1 million in a Boulder subdivision based on McLean's allegations he and family had, under the state's "adverse possession" law, used the property for their own uses in a "notorious" fashion and without permission of the owners for more than 18 years.

Amy Waddle, a spokeswoman with Colorado's 20th Judicial District, said, "The judges don't comment on pending cases. I believe they are considering appeal."

On the radio show Kirlin explained his shock when the land on which he's paid taxes of about $16,000 a year, plus $65 per month homeowner association dues, on which he's sprayed for weeds and repaired fences, suddenly was made unusable by Klein's decision.

"This is a foundation … of our country," Kirlin, an airline pilot, said. "You should be able to buy property and own it."

He said he and his wife purchased the property, which actually included two residential lots, in southwest Boulder at the foot of Colorado's Flatiron mountains, in the 1980s, but never developed it because of his busy career and raising of family. They lived in another home just a few hundred yards away, and besides paying the annual property taxes, attended the property with fence repairs and weed-spraying requirements, he said.

He passed it regularly en route to his hikes into the mountains, and never saw any "encroachments," he said. The law under which Klein gave the property to McLean requires someone to "possess" property by using it, without permission of the owner, continuously for 18 years, and most commonly comes up when a building built before mapping technologies were accurate, extends onto another parcel of land.

Kirlin said he discovered there was a problem when a neighbor told his wife at a high school football game McLean was planning a legal action to take some of the parcel, which is only about 60 feet by 80 feet.

He said the family discussed the situation, but seeing no evidence that such a claim could be substantiated, decided to go ahead with a fencing project on the parcel. McLean, however, told the contractor when he arrived to stop the work on Kirlin's property, and within a little over two hours on a Friday evening had a court order to that effect, Kirlin said.

During the trial McLean testified he had worn a path 20 feet onto Kirlin's land to obtain access to his backyard, but Kirlin, a former member of the homeowners' association board and the HOA manager testified that was incorrect.

Klein then simply ruled in favor of McLean, which means 34 percent of the parcel, or about 1,500 square feet, is given to the retired judge, Kirlin said.

He said he had approached the former judge when he confronted the fencing contractor and asked how the issue could be resolved. "His only response was, 'We're going to start an action,'" Kirlin said.

The costs of the lost fight – so far – have surpassed $120,000, and Kirlin said he plans to appeal, but also was given more bad news in just the past few days.

"We just got notified a couple days ago they want us to pay their court costs," he said.

"Under a best case scenario, if we appeal, and we get back the land we already owned, it will cost us $200,000 and it will take us three years," he said.

Caplis said he had known the two plaintiffs, McLean, and Edith Stevens, a former chairman of the Democratic Party in Boulder County, for years.

"I can't understand why either of them would be willing to do something so wrong," he said.

Kirlin said a number of issues were suspicious during the trial. "They said they've had these big political parties, engagement parties, delivery vehicles using my lot over the years, and yet, over 25 years they didn't have one picture of all of these activities," he said.

"I don't care if you're ACLU or John Birch you shouldn't have your property taken by people who trespassed on it," Caplis said.

Klein's opinion concluded that McLean had a "stronger" attachment to the land than the actual owners.

Colorado state website notes that Klein got his law degree from the University of Denver and went into the state's employment as an assistant attorney general focusing on worker's compensation and unemployment issues. He then worked as an administrative law judge and then moved to the 20th Judicial District bench.

McLean confirmed in court he knew the land belonged to someone else, but he used it anyway to reach his backyard and hold parties.

McLean has declined media requests for comment and his attorney declined comment, confirming that an appeal is expected.

An online forum on the issue allowed Boulder-area residents to express mostly one-sided opinions:

"Welcome to the USSA," said Travis McGee. Added "freekitty," "This is so underhanded, they can't find a rock to get under."

AG Brown continues global warming drive

California must reduce current emissions by at least 25 percent to meet goal

Daily Press [Victorville CA]

OAKLAND — Attorney General Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. challenged supervisors Tuesday from all 58 counties to combat global warming, which he compelled San Bernardino County to do in April by filing a lawsuit.

“California is committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels,” said Brown at the annual meeting of California State Association of Counties.

In April, Brown sued San Bernardino County for not properly addressing the issue of global warming in its general plan update.

To avoid lengthy and costly litigation, the county reached a global warming agreement with Brown that calls for a 30-month public process to cut greenhouse gas emissions attributable to land-use decisions and government operations.

“This lawsuit tactic
is harassment...
It’s mere grand standing..."

Using San Bernardino County as an example, other jurisdictions such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Monica and Chula Vista are initiating their own measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“I believe the attorney general’s actions in filing this lawsuit were wrong” wrote San Bernardino County 1st District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt in an op-ed in the Daily Press.

“Climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, as a matter of policy, is more appropriately addressed through international treaties, federal legislation and regulations, and state legislation and regulations,” he wrote.

Mitzelfelt is the only county supervisor to vote against the settlement.

County spokesman David Wert said they would have preferred not to be sued but the outcome was good for everyone.

Brown also recently partnered with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sue the Bush administration to allow California to set a stricter tailpipe emission standards than the federal government.

“This lawsuit tactic is harassment,” said James Taylor, managing editor of Environment and Climate News. “There are no legal basis for these suits. It’s mere grand standing and has no place in the judicial system.”

Under California law, the state is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and then reducing 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

To achieve the state’s 2020 target, California must reduce current emissions by at least 25 percent.

“This radical change in our fossil fuel economy demands imagination, massive investment and extraordinary ingenuity,” Brown said.

Brown didn’t mention how California’s increasing population may affect the emission goals.

In 2050, the goal is to have emissions reduced to 80 percent below 1990 levels. The California Department of Finance expects there to be almost 60 million living in the state, a 101 percent increase from 1990.

“What he’s asking for is all pain and no gain,” said Taylor, who called Brown’s plan nothing more than a costly symbolic statement.

He said that even if the entire nation was in line with the Kyoto Protocol calling for lower emissions, it would have no measurable effect on temperatures for 100 years.

November 11, 2007

Battle Ready: How the desert helped win WWII

At its peak of operation in 1943, the Desert Training Center had 190,000 troops in training. That compares to about 11,000 men and women at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms today.

Keith Matheny
The Desert Sun
Veterans Day

CHIRIACO SUMMIT - A vast expanse of unforgiving desert just east of the Coachella Valley helped save the world two generations ago.

It was here in 1942, during some of the darkest days of World War II, that the Desert Training Center was created.

Developed by one of America's most demanding generals, George S. Patton Jr., the center is considered the largest military training facility in the history of mankind, stretching over 18,000 square miles of rugged terrain from Southern California into Arizona and Nevada.

From 1942 to 1944, some 1.8 million young American men were forged into soldiers here under hellish-by-design training conditions.

From this desert, these hardened and tested men left California to confront legendary German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in the deserts of North Africa, to help free Europe from the Nazis' tightening grip and to fight Imperial Japan to a standstill in grim battles on Pacific islands.

"The men that were trained there helped bring the peace we've enjoyed for so many years," said Margit Rusche, board member and co-founder of the Gen. Patton Memorial Museum at the small desert outpost of Chiriaco Summit. It sits off Interstate 10, about 30 miles east of Indio.

Patton's history at the Desert Training Center is the Coachella Valley's history as well, said former Indian Wells Mayor Walter McIntyre, a Patton museum supporter. Many men and women who trained or worked at the desert camps lived in valley towns, he said.

But it's a part of history that's largely forgotten, generally preserved in black-and-white images and fleeting passages in American history books.

And the training center area today reflects that.

Patchy shrubs and plants dot endless stretches of desert sand under the shadow of distant mountains. The only sounds are of insects, a scampering lizard, an occasional bird. Not a single person can be seen for miles.

The scene contrasts greatly from 65 years ago when thousands of tanks, trucks and self-propelled artillery units thundered across the desert. Roaring units crisscrossed the rugged terrain in a training ground the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined.

Almost all facilities at the camp were nonpermanent, tent cities designed to move. Much of what was left behind was looted, vandalized or lost to the desert sands over the decades since.

Modest monuments to training center camps can be found along rural highways such as state routes 177 and 62. And the careful observer can still find vestiges of the days when tanks rumbled here, artillery was fired, warplanes flew and soldiers marched and camped.

Rusche and other museum supporters, as well as the federal Bureau of Land Management, are fighting to protect the last physical remnants of the desert's role in World War II.

"There's actually a tremendous amount of stuff that's still left out there," BLM archaeologist Rolla Queen said.

"The archaeological remnants of the camp are pretty spectacular. "If you really want to experience what World War II was like, the battlefield experience, the Desert Training Center is probably the closest you can come to it without leaving the United States."

Less than a month after the Japanese, in a shocking attack on Pearl Harbor, had thrust the U.S. into World War II, the War Department saw a need for a specialized training center to organize, train and equip troops to operate in difficult terrain.

The Germans were moving through the deserts of North Africa, threatening to meet up with the Japanese fighting in India. If they joined forces and supply lines, the Axis powers would be in position to attack the Soviet Union from the east, west and south - a possible point of no return for the Allied forces.

The crisis forced top allied leaders to take action. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed Nazi advances could be blunted by Americans trained in desert warfare and then shipped to fight in North Africa.

On Feb. 5, 1942, Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair, chief of staff of the Army's General Headquarters, approved the concept of the Desert Training Center. One of his first moves: Giving command of the facility to Maj. Gen. George S. Patton Jr.

'A pint of sweat'

The ex-cavalryman was the nation's first expert in armor warfare. He chose the location for the center in the Southern California desert within a few days.

"This was an area that was just massive," said retired Army Brig. Gen. David C. Henley, a part-time Rancho Mirage resident and author of "The Land that God Forgot - The Saga of Gen. George Patton's Desert Training Camps."

"It was sandy with valleys, rocks, gorges. The summer temperature goes up to 120. In the winter, it gets down to freezing. It paralleled the type of geography and weather we found in North Africa."

Patton's mantra was "a pint of sweat will save a gallon of blood." That creed defined the training center he created.

Soldiers lived in some 100,000 tents, not barracks. They slept on canvas cots or the ground.

They dealt with rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions - and the hard-driving demands of Patton.

Within a month, they were expected to run a mile through the desert in less than 10 minutes with full packs.

Soldiers were allowed one canteen of water a day in soaring summer temperatures.

"The whole idea was you're not going to get a PX (U.S. military base store), you're not going to get all of these amenities when you get to North Africa," said retired Army Lt. Col. Carlo D'Este. The noted World War II historian's books include the biography, "Patton: A Genius for War."

"It all goes back to the way Patton approached war - with proper training, his troops could prevail in any situation they could find themselves in. And to do that, you had to toughen them up."

Patton put it in his own colorful way: "If you can work successfully here, in this country, it will be no difficulty at all to kill the assorted sons of bitches you meet in any other country," he told officers.

This wasn't Hollywood

Charles Markovitz remembered feeling excited that his 6th Armored Division was leaving Fort Chaffee, Ark., for training in California in late fall 1942.

"Everybody was so happy - 'We're going to go to Hollywood,'" said Markovitz, now 87 and living in Hemet.

Their enthusiasm evaporated, however, when their train arrived at the one-building outpost of Rice. There, the men boarded trucks and were driven to Camp Coxcomb north of the small community of Desert Center.

"We dismounted and the officer in charge said, 'There's your new camp,'" Markovitz said.

"All you saw was desert. It was just a wasteland."

Freezing nights, blowing sand

Markovitz recalled nights of marching through the desert.

"We left at about 6 p.m. and marched all night," he said. "You'd march and get a five-minute break every hour. A 25-mile hike.

"When we got back to camp in the morning, we figured we'd have the whole day off. Hell, no. Without any sleep, we'd have to do our regular duties."

Though many soldiers went through the training center in oppressive summer heat, those there in the winter remember bitterly cold nights.

Palm Desert veteran Lyle Sparks remembered sleeping on the ground for three days in December 1942 at Camp Young, the training center's headquarters near Chiriaco Summit, while awaiting transfer to San Bernardino.

"We only got two blankets," he said. "I put paper down, my raincoat, got between my two blankets and short-sheeted myself so my feet wouldn't stick out. Fully dressed and still froze.

"Even though there were empty barracks near San Bernardino, they made us put tents up. They were preparing us to go overseas."

Christmas Day 1943, the troops at the center were looking forward to a special dinner - turkey and all the trimmings - when a huge windstorm hit, Markovitz said.

"The cooks had to set up a big canvas to block the wind while they were serving the food," he said. "We got the food in our mess kits, covered it up in our jackets and ran back to our tents. There were tents blowing over, sand in our food."

The camps were virtual cities in desert nothingness - more than 100,000 aligned tents creating road grids; 190,000 troops and 27,000 tanks and half-tracks at the training center's peak.

"I remember seeing the tanks take off below me in the desert, just a big cloud of dust," said Indio resident and World War II veteran Ben Beal, who served as company clerk for the Army's 487th Engineers.

Training Patton's best

Just months after forming the center, Patton was ordered to relinquish his command of the Desert Training Center and lead "Operation Torch." It was the English-American invasion of Nazi-held French North Africa.

Patton never returned to Indio. But he shared this message with his troops: "Having shared your labors, I know the extreme difficulties under which we worked and I know also how splendidly and self-sacrificingly you did your full duty.

"It was an unparalleled honor to have commanded such men."

By March 1943, the North African campaign for which the Desert Training Center was created neared an end.

But the center continued providing tough training to troops headed for Europe, Asia and other theaters around the world.

Preparations for the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, finally forced the center's closure due to a lack of available personnel.

The center ceased operating at midnight April 30, 1944.

Some of Patton's best desert-hardened troops accompanied him on his exploits throughout the war, said retired Army Col. Jerry Morelock, editor-in-chief of Armchair General Magazine.

The 4th Armored Division, dubbed "Patton's Best," trained for two years at the Desert Training Center and was the lead unit in Patton's Third Army's race across France in July and August 1944, Morelock said.

"Essentially the 4th Armored made Patton's reputation as a blitzkrieg-type armored commander," he said.

An officer under Patton's command, Col. Bruce C. Clarke, helped lead the way in the French campaign, Morelock said. Clarke was later promoted to Brigadier General and placed in charge of Combat Command B, 7th Armored Division, where he became known as the "hero of St. Vith" Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge.

"I think much of Clarke's success as an armored commander can be tracked back directly to his time at the Desert Training Center," Morelock said.

As much as Patton put his imprint on the Desert Training Center, it impacted him as well, Henley said.

"Patton many times in his career said what he learned out in the desert with extreme temperatures, maintenance of vehicles in those conditions, helped him all the way through Europe," Henley said.

All told, 20 of the 87 divisions the Army used in World War II passed through the Desert Training Center. The young men who visited Southern California's desert went on to distinguish themselves in battles that now resonate in history.

Markovitz earned a Bronze Star for meritorious service. His 6th Armored Division joined the 4th on Patton's race through France. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

Beal landed on Utah beach shortly after D-Day and endured the bloody Battle of the Hedgerows.

Markovitz called his training in the desert "very useful" in his later wartime experience.

"It toughened us up," he said.

Patton had accomplished his desert mission.

November 9, 2007

Is policy fueling the fires?

Stacia Glenn, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

SAN BERNARDINO - Southern California wildfires are more likely fueled by fire suppression than by drought or global warming, says a top expert on fire ecology.

That was one of the more surprising tidbits dropped on nearly 100 people Friday at a summit on global warming and drought.

UC Riverside biogeography professor Richard Minnich, keynote speaker for the nine-hour summit at Cal State San Bernardino, said he hopes the crowd left with skepticism that global warming is the main culprit for environmental problems.

Nine environmental experts spoke at the Water Resources Institute's annual conference, which drew dozens of water district managers, area politicians and college students.

Institute Director Susan Lien Longville, who coordinated the event, said the summit focused on global warming and drought because they are the two most "timely issues."

DVDs of the presentations will be released in two weeks and are expected to be used in classrooms.

Environmental experts tackled topics such as how global warming affects the health of local communities, how it affects the state's water supply and flood risk, and wise investments to "drought proof" the area.

But the crowd seemed most riveted by Minnich, who used the recent Slide and Grass Valley fires to drive home his point about the dangers of fire suppression.

Fire suppression - where firefighters beat out a blaze instead of letting the flames run their natural course - has long been the state's policy.

Minnich contends it would be better if "we'd done absolutely nothing over the last 100 years.

"You're defying a physical process that operates in nature," he said. "It's like saying we can't breathe or trying to put a cork in the throat of a volcano. It's insanity."

He argued that forests are often healthier when ground-level fires beat a natural path through the trees and brush, and would sputter out on their own once they reached previous burn spots.

That's not to say that drought doesn't help fuel the flames.

The most extreme drought in 250 years wiped out more trees in 2002 than in the past 100 years combined, Minnich said, including every Jeffrey pine in certain areas of the San Bernardino Mountains.

"The water ran out," he said. "This was a huge event."

Even though this year has had very little rainfall, few trees have perished, Minnich said.

November 7, 2007

Blazes leaving scars on parks

The Press-Enterprise

Pipes Canyon after the Sawtooth fire. Some of the pinyon-pines here were over 1,200 years old. Nearly all were killed. The Joshua trees were hundreds of years old.

More than four years after the Old Fire swept through the San Bernardino Mountains, a major campground and trail at a state park remain closed; sixteen months after the Sawtooth Complex Fire raged across the desert near Yucca Valley, a popular hiking and equestrian preserve has yet to re-open.

And another state park, nestled against the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains, was badly damaged by last year's Esperanza Fire before the public even got a chance to see the scenic landscape that was awaiting groundwater contamination cleanup.

And more recently, the Slide and two Butler fires near Fawnskin and Running Springs damaged campgrounds and hiking trails, including a five-mile segment of the Pacific Crest Trail that will remain closed until the spring when debris and burned trees will be removed, said Paul Bennett, a recreational officer with the forest's mountaintop district.

Fires that have marched across the desert and mountains in recent years have severely scarred popular Inland recreation areas, often requiring costly and lengthy recoveries. Since the 2003 Old Fire, more than 100,000 acres of parkland, forest and preserves have been damaged, prompting at least $5.1 million in repairs.

At Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area alone, the damage toll was $3 million from the 2003 Old Fire and the floods that followed. Bridges, restrooms, sewer lines, roads, guardrails, a fishing dock, the Pacific Crest Trial and other paths were damaged, and major construction projects continue today.

Officials at Mojave National Preserve in northeastern San Bernardino County spent $1.1 million fixing gravel roads that were damaged by floods that followed the Hackberry Complex Fire, which burned for six days in June 2005 and swallowed more than 70,000 acres in the preserve, said Larry Whalon, the park's deputy superintendent.

At Pipes Canyon Preserve east of Pioneertown, the damage was more physical than financial. The Sawtooth Fire so badly charred pinyon pines, some dating back more than 1,000 years, that they may not sprout new life. And the junipers and Joshua trees may not fare much better.

A graveyard of hundreds if not thousands of blackened Joshua trees, some with their weakened limbs bending downward in a bleak landscape, remind April Sall of what was once a thriving preserve for hikers and equestrians at the crossroads of two ecosystems: the Mojave Desert and the eastern San Bernardino Mountains.

"It was a really neat canyon," said Sall, who manages the preserve owned by the Wildlands Conservancy, a nonprofit in Oak Glen. Sall said she expected a wildfire to some day hit the preserve, but not one that would destroy 90 percent of it.

"We expected the fire to be more patchy and more mosaic, but it was total devastation," she said of the July 2006 fire.

Costly repairs

At Silverwood Lake, crews are working to replace four large bridges that link a three-mile, dirt trail skirting the reservoir for bikers and hikers. The trail has been closed since the Old Fire burned through four years ago. At $697,000, the bridge project is the costliest repair.

"Without this bridge, it doesn't allow for access to some very beautiful parts of the park," said park superintendent Kevin Forrester as he stood by one of the wooden bridges under repair.

The area known as Miller Canyon surrounds an offshoot of the lake and the trail is at the base of steep hills marked by manzanitas, some whose limbs are still blackened. It will probably be another year before the area is reopened.

"The area is very unstable," Forrester said. "We still have a lot of work to do."

He is hoping for some good rains this winter to shore up the hillsides with some vegetation to keep debris from sliding down.

Forrester said it's frustrating to keep closed portions of one the region's few state parks, given the burgeoning population in the area. But, he said, they've done their best as much of the funding trickles in from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Across the lake in Cleghorn Canyon, an equestrian campground has remained closed since 2003, when fast-moving flames severely damaged the camp's bathroom and showers. One benefit of designing a new structure, Forrester said, is that it will be accessible to people with handicaps.

Another state park in Potrero Canyon south of Beaumont will open in the near future once groundwater contamination, a remnant of a now-closed rocket testing facility, is cleaned up. The cleanup was underway before last October's Esperanza Fire burned nearly 90 percent of the Potrero unit of San Jacinto Wildlife Area, said Scott Sewell, wildlife habitat supervisor for the California Department of Fish and Game.

A slice of Old California with its large oaks, creeks and boulder-studded hills, the park's trees and shrubs are recovering with the help of cool, moist weather that drifts in from the coast, Sewell said.

"As an outdoor enthusiast, I really want to see it open for nature walks, birding, or mountain biking, horseback riding, that's the enthusiast in me," Sewell said. As a supervisor, he said, "we want to make sure it's completely safe."

Hard to heal

At the Pipes Canyon Preserve, recently renamed the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve, it's a seven-mile trudge through badly burned areas to get to the 10 percent of the 33,000 acres that escaped the flames.

In a dry creek bed at the head of several hiking and horse trails surrounded by still-charred hillsides, a few orange spikes of Indian paintbrush and the orange-red blooms of a California fuchsia are the few bits of color and natural life that have reemerged.

Like elsewhere, scant rain and strong winds have made it tough for seedlings to take hold, Sall said.

"Mostly we have to let nature take its course," she said, "there's not a lot of active restoration we can do."

The preserve staff already did what active restoration was possible. Crews planted 400 Joshua trees, Mojave yuccas and chollas along roads and by the preserve headquarters so as not to disturb native seed banks in the open land and what might grow back naturally. The trees were transplanted from housing developments in Yucca Valley where it's illegal to chop them down, said Robert Kirschmann, the city's associate planner.

Ranger Christopher Siddall drives around hauling a 500-gallon water tank so he can water the transplants with a hose.

Sall said she hopes winter rains will be enough to spur the re-growth of groundcover so the preserve can reopen in the spring. If not, the preserve may open then for limited use on weekends, she said.

Whalon, at the Mojave National Preserve, said a good dose of winter rain is also needed there to heal the desert, which is easy to scar and hard to heal.

"Winter rain tends not to run off," he said. "The (summer) monsoon rains are fine, but they tend to erode more."

Grim Toll

Sall's eyes nearly tear up and her voice chokes with emotion when talking about the fire's grim toll: dozens of animal carcasses -- jackrabbits, coyotes and others -- that she had to pick up herself. Her ties to the land are deep: her grandmother homesteaded the land in the late 1920s and her father was raised there.

The name was changed to the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve about five months ago after land in and around the town were donated to the Wildlands Conservancy, enlarging the preserve beyond Pipes Canyon, said David Myers, the conservancy's executive director.

"Pioneertown is going through a hard time," Myers said, "so we thought it would be good for the esprit de corps to call it that." Some 55 homes in the Yucca Valley area and Pioneertown, originally built in the 1940s as a movie set for Westerns, were destroyed in the Sawtooth Fire.

It's difficult not to reopen the preserve to the public, Sall said, conceding there has been some pressure from hikers and equestrians wanting to use the trails that wind through streams, desert willows, cottonwoods, and scrub oaks and ascend to Onyx Summit in the San Bernardino Mountains.

"But given the devastation," she said, "it's best to let this place heal a little longer."

Video: Restoration continues at Pioneertown Mountains Preserve following the 2006 Sawtooth Fire.

November 5, 2007

Misguided litigation magnifies wildfires

Damien Schiff
San Francisco Chronicle
Open Forum

Satellite image of smoke streaming from Southern California fires on October 23, 2007.

The massive toll catastrophic wildfire exacts on human lives and property is well documented.

Since Oct. 20, the ongoing Southern California fires have scorched nearly 500,000 acres - roughly three-fourths the size of Rhode Island, prompted the largest evacuation since the Civil War, caused 12 deaths and injured hundreds, all at a cost yet to be determined, but some think will top $2 billion. And there are other consequences as well, including endangered wildlife dead, watersheds dramatically damaged by ash and erosion, and native plants wiped out.

But the underlying causes of these monster fires aren't as well understood. Why do they keep happening at such intensity? One reason is that for years, groups that literally make a living by obstructing government efforts to manage forests have filed myriad lawsuits intended to delay, stall or stop anything resembling science. They seek to prevent the federal government from implementing balanced efforts to manage the land, including efforts to thin forests and brushland to help prevent catastrophic wildfire.

Just last year in Southern California, an environmental advocacy organization filed a lawsuit against reasonable forest management impacting more than 3.5 million acres in four National Forests. Interestingly, more than 100,000 of these same acres have now burned in the past few days in three of these forests - Angeles, San Bernardino and Cleveland. But the lawsuit proceeds.

The results are policies based on myth instead of science - forests are wildly overgrown, with hundreds of trees per acre where only 50 to 70 have been historically. The trees became weak, unable to get the nutrients and water they needed to survive. And that's when bark beetles infest the trees that are too weak to fight back and many die - becoming perfect kindling for a catastrophic fire.

Unfortunately, this is not a unique situation.

Plans to reduce fire risk by removing excess trees that endanger the giant sequoias in the Giant Sequoia National Monument have been targeted for obstruction - even though thinning there was agreed to by environmental groups when the Monument was created by President Clinton. No matter - another group marched into court, beholden to a belief that no tree should ever be cut, the memory of the 2002 McNally fire apparently lost on them. That fire burned more than 100,000 acres and came dangerously close to some of the giant sequoias. The U.S. Forest Service's plan would thin the forest in strategic locations including removing some small trees that act as "ladder fuels" that fires climb into taller trees.

But it's on hold now - leaving the ancient giants at risk even today.

And in 2004, two major fires hit Amador and El Dorado counties in Northern California, killing trees on tens of thousands of acres of forestland. Ash from the fire blanketed many areas, including Sacramento, where particulate in the air was 60 times the normal level, forcing people to stay indoors and canceling everything from family outings to football games.

After the fire, registered foresters and a variety of scientists recommended that the Forest Service allow private companies to reduce the future fire risk by removing dead and dying trees - and paying the government for the wood removed.

But rather than permitting the removal of these trees killed by wildfires and reducing future fire danger, these organizations sued, asking the court to block any removal.

Meanwhile, the dead and dying trees rotted further every day, losing their value - and robbing the government and taxpayers of any funds that these private companies might be willing to pay for the wood. Such monies could have been used to restore public forestland.

Less than two months ago, this case was settled, allowing the Forest Service to remove some trees. But really, the three-year delay is a victory for the environmentalists because taxpayers won't see any costs offset by the sale of the wood. It's like in a football game where the winning team is already ahead so they run out the clock. And there won't be any replanting of trees for future generations.

If we want to pass along California's rich forestland to our children, its time we embraced a balanced approached to forest management and environmental protection, looking to science rather than rhetoric to make policy decisions.

Damien M. Schiff is an attorney with the non-profit Pacific Legal Foundation, which has represented a group of Tuolumne County organizations in forest management litigation against environmental groups.

November 3, 2007

Rancher vs. land-locked neighbor

Land beef

By Laura Brown
The Union [Grass Valley, CA]

Part of the 865-acre Linden Lea cattle ranch on Bitney Springs Road. The Union photo/David B. Torch

An 865-acre cattle ranch off Bitney Springs Road has become the center of a lawsuit, sparking questions about the right to access one's property and the protection of quickly disappearing agricultural lands.

The ranch, known as Linden Lea by owners Anna Reynolds Trabucco and her husband Bill Trabucco, also is home to 150 grass-fed cows raised by Jim Gates for his business, Nevada County Free Range Beef.

In February, the Trabuccos expect to appear in Department Four of Nevada County Superior Court in a civil case filed by their neighbor, Ian Garfinkel. The case also involves the Nevada County Land Trust, which holds an agricultural easement of 760 acres on the Trabuccos' land.

Garfinkel wants a road easement across the ranch to reach his own 160 adjacent but land-locked acres, where he said he also plans to graze cattle and use the land for family visits.

Allowing Garfinkel to drive through the heart of the ranch to access his acreage would disrupt the cattle ranch's viability, the Trabuccos said.

Nevada County has 25 to 30 ranches left, according to Lesa Osterholm, manager of the Nevada County Resource Conservation District.

An agreement granting a road across the Trabuccos' land could violate their contract with the land trust. It also could set a precedent for the future conservation of other agricultural lands at a time when they are quickly disappearing across the state, Anna Trabucco said.

"If this land is compromised, no land is safe from compromise. It kind of renders meaningless all the efforts that have been undertaken in the last several decades on behalf of protecting land," Anna Trabucco said.

Garfinkel is a local real estate agent who bought the 160 land-locked acres two years ago.

He bought the property "naively optimistic," thinking he could work out an easement later, he said.

But now, Garfinkel must walk 45 minutes and climb steep cliffs using ropes to access his property overlooking the South Fork Yuba River canyon and Bridgeport. To build an access driveway down a canyon wall off Starduster Road would be "a travesty to the environment" and would "never get approved," Garfinkel said.

But he sees an easier way, using a network of existing but overgrown roads on the Trabucco property, some dating back to the 1850s.

"It's riddled with roads. It's a huge road network that goes across the whole area that has clearly been there a long time," Garfinkel said.

If Garfinkel can show the Trabucco ranch has existing roads, the ranchers' agricultural conservation protections could be declared invalid, Garfinkel's lawyer, King McPherson, said.

The Trabuccos counter there is no single, contiguous route to Garfinkel's property.

Armed with an appetite for history, Trabucco has collected volumes of old maps, aerial photographs, documentation of old fire breaks and other routes from research libraries. Expert witnesses for Garfinkel include local archaeologist and author Hank Meals, who regularly gives hiking tours for the land trust.

While he has been labeled as a developer by some, Garfinkel swears he is the farthest thing from it. Only his family will have access to the property he intends to use for running cattle.

"I love that property. I have no desire to sell that property, ever. I plan on using it for grazing," Garfinkel said.

This is the third property he has owned with road access issues, he said. In the process, he has become somewhat of an advocate for rights of way, he said.

"I've learned this county is a nightmare when it comes to roads," Garfinkel said.

In an e-mail May 16 to Joe Byrne, vice president of the Nevada County Land Trust, Garfinkel offered a possible settlement in exchange for an easement on the abandoned Excelsior Ditch on the western corner of the Trabucco property.

The settlement offer included: A deed restriction that would forbid the development of a future subdivision, the creation of a conservation easement and wildlife corridor along Kentucky Creek, the use of earth-tone paints and a two-story limit on any dwellings built on his property, and the use of the Excelsior Ditch for an Independence Trail extension.

But gaining a conservation easement on Garfinkel's smaller property does not justify breaking the protection of their much larger agricultural land parcel and setting a precedent that could endanger other agricultural lands, the Trabuccos said. They also described the access road as having a greater impact than Garfinkel is representing.

"It seemed like he was offering very empty proposals," said Anna Trabucco.

The land trust rejected the proposal. The Trabuccos offered to purchase Garfinkel's property - for less than he paid for it.

"Everything they've done is basically insulting," Garfinkel said.

The Trabuccos, who are passionate about protecting lands in agriculture, said they are wary of any promises made by Garfinkel.

They are holding their ground, even though the lawsuit has become a financial hardship for them.

"It's really been tough. It's been a cloud," Anna Trabucco said.

Calves playfully scampered across the dry grassy meadow sheltered by massive blue oak trees, while mother cows bellowed to their young.

The Trabuccos walked the gentle, rain-soaked land they call "big and wild," littered with oak leaves, and pointed to trailers and small homes sprouting up on distant hills.

"You can tell where the ranch stops ... We are in the view shed of dozens of people. There aren't that many large parcels left anymore," Anna Trabucco said.

November 1, 2007

Northbound I-15 reopened at border

Desert Dispatch

KINGSTON ROAD — The northbound lanes of Interstate 15 near the Nevada state line have been reopened and cleaned.

An oil spill from an overturned semi truck caused the closure on Wednesday morning at about 7 a.m. Shelly Lombardo, a spokeswoman for Caltrans, said the roadway reopened at 3:51 a.m. Thursday morning.

Lombardo said the Caltrans maintenance department did not report any damages to the roadway, and Greg Veigler, a hazardous material specialist for San Bernardino County, said he does not expect any soil or water contamination. The motor oil was pure, he said, and free of any contaminates. He said the roadway had been cleaned with large vacuums, steam and pressure washers and a lot of kitty litter.

“It’s completely cleaned off the highway and shoulders,” Veigler said. “Just splashes of it made it off the road.”

Veigler said the oil that left the roadway ended up in an abandoned drainage ditch once used by Molycorp, a Colorado-based mining company that owns a mine in the Mountain Pass area. Crews will return to the site on Tuesday to finish cleaning up that oil but will have to use shovels and wear respirators because the site is contaminated with low levels of uranium waste, Veigler said.

Crews worked through the night to clean up the 1,500 to 2,000 gallons of oil that spilled from the truck. California Highway Patrol Officer Matt Sais said the truck was carrying oil containers ranging from five gallons to 200 gallons. When the truck overturned, many of the containers ruptured, Sais said.

The CHP approved a detour route around the stretch of the I-15 that was closed about 15 miles south of the Nevada state line.

I-15 Spill Causes Major Traffic Diversion Through Park

Mojave National Preserve
National Park News

On the morning of October 31st, a tractor trailer rolled over on Interstate 15 at Mountain Pass, spilling 1,000 gallons of motor oil onto the freeway and ground. This section of I-15 follows the northern boundary of the park.

California Highway Patrol officers closed down all northbound lanes at the Cima exit and routed traffic through the park for over 30 miles while a hazmat team cleaned up the oil.

An estimated 8,000 vehicles passed through the park between 8 a.m. and midnight.

Numerous incidents occurred during that period, including three motor vehicle accidents. Six citations and 14 warnings were issued for various traffic infractions, including operating a vehicle with a revoked license, unsafe passing, speeding, and possession of an open container of alcohol.

Rangers also assisted motorists by providing information and directions, dealing with flat tires, and helping obtain towing services and gasoline.

During the afternoon, San Bernardino County maintenance personnel had to repair potholes created by the large volume of traffic.

Rangers acted professionally by maintaining order and keeping the number of incidents to a minimum through highly visible patrols and education.

House Close to Dismantling 1872 Statute on Mining

The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 — The House is expected Thursday to take a major step toward dismantling the last significant law remaining from efforts to settle the American Wild West, an 1872 mining statute that has allowed vast treasures of gold and other minerals to be carted off federal lands without any royalties paid to the government.

For 135 years, the General Mining Law has permitted prospectors to stake private claims to federal lands, although miners now tend to be corporate conglomerates, not frontiersmen with pickaxes. Environmentalists say the law has also left Western states deeply scarred by abandoned toxic mines.

A House bill, the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act, would permanently bar the sale of federal lands to miners and would require them for the first time to pay royalties of up to 8 percent of gross income from mining, which would go to a fund to clean up abandoned mines. It would also establish new permitting and environmental rules.

Supporters say such changes are long overdue. “This is the last that I know of those frontier-era legislation to remain on the books,” said Representative Nick J. Rahall II, Democrat of West Virginia, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, who for more than 20 years has been working to overturn the 1872 law.

“The Homestead Act has long been repealed,” Mr. Rahall said. “Laws governing carrying your six-gun into saloons, or allowing a posse to hang horse thieves, as far as I know, most of those are gone. And the West pretty much has been opened up these days and is settled.” He added: “The Mining Law of 1872 is the Jurassic Park of all federal laws. It requires an extreme makeover.”

But in the Senate, the push to update the antiquated mining law will require delicate maneuvering by the majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, who is the son of a gold miner and represents the state with the largest gold production, and by other Democrats mindful of the crucial role that Western states will play in next year’s elections.

Mr. Reid has said that he wants to update the law but opposes requiring royalties from existing mining ventures. “He is supportive of mining reform, and this is definitely a step in the right direction,” said Jon Summers, a spokesman for Mr. Reid. “But he doesn’t support this bill in its current form because it imposes royalties on existing operations.”

Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, held a hearing on the mining law in September and called for change, saying he blamed the outdated 1872 law for criticisms of the mining industry on both fiscal and environmental grounds.

Bill Wicker, a committee spokesman, said Mr. Bingaman and Senator Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, the committee’s ranking Republican, planned to introduce a mining bill next year.

In prepared statements, both said they were looking forward to the House’s passing of its bill so the Senate could work on an issue that Mr. Bingaman described as “of great importance to New Mexico and the West.”

But other lawmakers have been less enthusiastic. Senator Larry E. Craig, Republican of Idaho, an ally of the mining industry, raised numerous questions about the House bill at a hearing this year. He said mining companies working on federal lands should pay royalties but cautioned against demanding too much.

“The royalty must be carefully set and be reasonable to avoid choking out our domestic industry,” Mr. Craig said. “An 8 percent net smelter return royalty doesn’t mean anything if there isn’t an industry to apply it to.”

The main industry group, the National Mining Association, which opposes the House bill, sounded a similar alarm on Wednesday. “The 8 percent royalty in the House bill would be the world’s highest royalty on minerals,” said Carol L. Raulston, a spokeswoman, “and the United States is already a high-cost production country, because we pay very high wages and we already have a very extensive regulatory system.”

Ms. Raulston also said that many permitting requirements in the bill were onerous, even more cumbersome than existing requirements that are not set in law but that are part of regulations enforced by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Environmental and other advocacy groups, by contrast, have long called for doing away with the 1872 law. According to various estimates, there are about 500,000 abandoned mines in the Western states that would require environmental remediation costing some $30 billion to $70 billion.

Lauren Pagel, policy director for Earthworks, a group based in Washington, said that while the 1872 law gave state and federal regulators little ability to block mining ventures, the House bill would balance the needs of the mining industry against other land uses, including outdoor recreation, a growing priority in the West.

“Recreation, hunting, fishing are all things that are of very high value in the West,” Ms. Pagel said. “There needs to be a balance between mining, which is very important, with other uses of public land.”

Ms. Pagel said there were also grave concerns about water pollution caused by mining, given the scarcity of water in the region.

The interests of Western battleground states are most likely to be of major interest to the presidential candidates next year, particularly Democrats, who are holding their national convention in Denver.

Mr. Rahall, who is sponsoring the House bill, said that the royalties would provide roughly $310 million for environmental cleanup over 10 years and that new user fees to be paid by mining companies would reduce government spending by $380 million over the same period, while speeding up permitting and other administrative processes.

“What we are doing, hopefully,” Mr. Rahall said, “will be making common-sense reforms.”