April 22, 2007

Utah fighting the laws of the land


The state is helping pay for legal challenges to federal jurisdiction, much of it, critics say, without oversight.



By Julie Cart, Times Staff Writer
LA Times

RECAPTURE CANYON, UTAH — It's a small gesture of defiance — a narrow metal bridge that allows off-road vehicles illegal access to this archeologically rich canyon. But the modest structure, built by San Juan County officials on U.S. government land, is a symbol of the widespread local resistance to federal authority across much of southern Utah's magnificent countryside.

Historically, people in the rural West have challenged federal jurisdiction, claiming ownership over rights of way, livestock management and water use. But nowhere is the modern-day defiance more determined, better organized or more well-funded than in Utah, where millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent fighting federal authority, and where the state government is helping to pay the tab, much of it, critics say, without oversight.

For the last decade the Utah Legislature and two state agencies have been funneling money to southern Utah counties to bankroll legal challenges to federal jurisdiction. Most recently, a state representative persuaded the Legislature to provide $100,000 to help finance a lawsuit by ranchers and two counties seeking to expand cattle grazing in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Grand Staircase is one of a dozen parks and monuments that draw tens of millions of visitors to the region every year to take in the spectacular high desert and red-rock canyons that have awed travelers since John Wesley Powell voyaged down the Green and Colorado rivers in 1869.
Settlers, on the other hand, have been famously indifferent to the scenery. "A hell of a place to lose a cow," is how 19th century homesteader Ebenezer Bryce is said to have described the labyrinthine landscape now known as Bryce Canyon National Park.

"This is a beautiful and unique land," said Bill Smart, retired editor of Salt Lake City's Deseret News. "It's distressing that we can't all be more appreciative of the values that other people see here. To me it's very disappointing that our own people can't see what we have."

In southern Utah, where the U.S. controls nearly 90% of the land in some counties, many residents feel they are permanent tenants on land their ancestors pioneered. The resentment hardens whenever the Washington, D.C., landlord imposes restrictions on ranching, mining, energy development and motorized recreation.

"Who gets to control the land is the great American story," said Karl Jacoby, associate professor of history at Brown University. "In part it is about economics, but a lot of it is about identity and who we are as a people."

Officials of one county have written a bill pending in Congress that orders the sale of federal land, with the proceeds given to the county. Other Utah counties have said they will follow suit. And officials from the two counties surrounding Grand Staircase have lobbied in Washington to dramatically reduce the 2-million-acre national monument.

Elected officials have flouted federal authority by bulldozing roads in the Grand Staircase monument and Capitol Reef National Park, and by tearing down signs banning off-road vehicles in Canyonlands National Park. A handful of counties have developed transportation plans that declare roads open that federal land managers have closed.

Selma Sierra, Utah director of the federal Bureau of Land Management, insisted that the agency's relationship with counties was good. "The BLM manages a substantial amount of land in this state. Yes, those lands belong to everyone in the country, but the decisions we make affect those individuals more so than anywhere else."

But federal officials say increases in motorized recreation and scarring of the landscape from energy exploration are threatening unique historic and cultural treasures and damaging wildlife habitat.

A recent BLM archeological assessment of 3rd century Anasazi ruins and cliff dwellings in Recapture Canyon found evidence of looting and off-road vehicle damage. According to the assessment, the new, county-built bridge "can be expected to hasten and increase indirect impacts to cultural resources here."

"It's quite common in Utah to hear people say, 'The federal government should give the land back to the state.' But the state never owned it," said Daniel McCool, director of the American West Center at the University of Utah.

McCool said rebellious county commissioners no longer represented the demographic of the American West. "There is a new rural resident," he said. "They didn't move here to ranch and raise cattle. They moved here for the amenities value of the public lands. That's what's driving the economy now. Today, the single largest nongovernmental components of Utah's economy are tourism and recreation. Mining, grazing and agriculture are about 3% to 4% of the economy."

According to an economic analysis commissioned by the National Parks Conservation Assn., national parks generate at least $4 for state and local economies for every dollar in the parks' budgets. Zion National Park, in southwest Utah, had 2.5 million visitors last year and provided nearly $100 million in annual recreational benefits to the surrounding county, the study said.

Grand Staircase was responsible for "substantial" economic growth, higher employment and increased personal income in two surrounding counties, according to a 2004 study by the Sonoran Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Tucson.

But Utah Lt. Gov. Gary R. Herbert said in an interview that the state had endured an "erosion of rights."

"We're not going to sit back anymore, we're going to be proactive, we are going to protect our rights," he said.

State Rep. Mike Noel, a Republican from the southern community of Kanab, said: It gets down to "sovereignty and autonomy. It's Western independence. We own the water, we have the right to graze, the minerals are still available, and the roads belong to us. By dang, we are not going to give them up."

Noel is part of a self-styled "cowboy caucus" in the Legislature that has helped direct hundreds of thousands of state dollars to counties bickering with the federal government.

In addition, the Constitutional Defense Council, established to protect state and county interests on federal land, has paid out more than $10 million, much of it to assist southern counties in legal battles against the BLM and the National Park Service.

The 2-year-old Public Lands Policy Coordination Office last year offered each county in Utah $10,000 to fight for rights of way across federal land and is funding a $1-million study on the economic impact of large federal holdings in the state.

Critics say taxpayer money should not be used to fight these legal battles and argue that there is little accounting of how much money is spent by the Constitutional Defense Council and public lands office. A 2004 state legislative audit of the Constitutional Defense Council concluded that it provided inadequate financial detail about its operations and recommended that it issue regular financial statements.

Even one of the guiding lights behind the creation of the Constitutional Defense Council said he couldn't trace how its money was spent. "There are no records, no agenda, no minutes," said Mark Walsh, executive director of the Utah-based Western Counties Alliance, who wrote some of the language that established the council. "It's a little confounding to me that you've got millions going into that office, but no one knows how it's spent or on what projects."

This month, a federal judge ruled that two southern Utah counties illegally used public funds to pay costs in a grazing lawsuit brought by local ranchers against the BLM.

Bob Keiter, a University of Utah law professor and public lands scholar, suspects Utahans are largely unaware that the state is helping bankroll the counties' legal fights.

"The question is whether or not the citizens of the state realize the degree to which they are subsidizing litigation that cuts across their interests," said Keiter, director of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment.

Rural interests continue to dominate the state legislative process in a manner that is out of proportion to their representation, Keiter said.

They also have influence with the Bush administration. In 2003, the administration agreed to withdraw 2.6 million acres in Utah from wilderness protection, and recently the BLM reinstated leases that could lead to extensive coal mining in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

April 20, 2007

Man Injured In Accidental Shooting - Mojave National Preserve (CA)

from Blogged In The Desert

On April 7th, rangers received a 911 hang-up call from the Hole in the Wall campground, requesting an ambulance.

As rangers and EMS personnel were responding, a campground host called and reported that a man had suffered a broken leg and that he was being taken by a private vehicle to meet the ambulance.

When contact was made, medics determined that the man – Joseph Mountjoy, 22 – had been shot in the leg.

Ranger Wayne Dingman followed the ambulance to the hospital. Through interviews with Mountjoy and his friends, Dingman determined that Mountjoy had been out hiking, that he’d had a.22 caliber semi-automatic pistol with him, and that he’d been shooting at targets with the gun and other weapons.

After returning to his vehicle, Mountjoy attempted to unload the .22. When a round failed to eject and the slide fell forward, the weapon discharged, hitting Mountjoy in the leg above his knee. He underwent surgery at the hospital to remove the bullet.

Mountjoy, who was scheduled to attend a local police academy in May, was cited for possession of a loaded weapon and illegal target shooting.

[Submitted by Kirk Gebicke, Supervisory Park Ranger]

April 15, 2007

Wilderness bill raises storm

Big Bear Lake officials say it would hurt fire-suppression efforts

San Bernardino Sun
Joe Nelson, Staff Writer


BIG BEAR LAKE - Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Hilda Solis want to have a 6,000-plus acre patch of forest on Sugarloaf Mountain declared wilderness area.

But city, fire and water officials are fighting that effort, concerned that such a designation would thwart firefighting and forest-thinning efforts and quell the possible future expansion of a water- treatment plant near the proposed wilderness area.

The proposal by Boxer, D-Calif., and Solis, is part of their California Wild Heritage Act of 2007, introduced Feb. 6 in the House of Representatives. It aims to designate 2.4 million acres of wilderness and segments of wild and scenic rivers throughout the state and calls for, among other things, 6,336 acres of designated wilderness land on Sugarloaf Mountain and about 17,920 acres in the San Gorgonio Wilderness.

"From a fire-suppression standpoint, fire suppression efforts will be limited," said John Morley, chief of the Big Bear Lake Fire Department. "Generally, the (fire) equipment isn't allowed in a wilderness area. You're not supposed to take dozers in there. You're not supposed to take engines in there, and you're not allowed to take chain saws in there."

Approval to access a wilderness area during a wildland fire is possible, but it generally has to be approved by federal officials in Washington, Morley said.

"When you have a fire going on and are trying to get approvals from someone outside this area, I don't think it's in the best interest of public safety," Morley said.

In a prepared statement Friday, Boxer said, "Under my wilderness bill, federal officials have been given full authority to act in every way they deem necessary to prevent and extinguish fires.

"Most Californians want to see these God-given wilderness areas protected for future generations. But if this community is so united against this potential designation, I certainly will take that into account as the bill moves forward."

According to Section 102(d) of the proposed legislation, the agriculture secretary may take appropriate measures to control and prevent fire through federal, state or local agencies and jurisdictions. Such measures include the use of mechanized and motorized equipment for fire suppression, including aircraft for fire retardant and water drops.

Early last week, the Big Bear Lake City Council approved a resolution opposing the designation of the wilderness area, and will send it to Boxer's and Solis' offices, city planner Sandra Molina said.
"We'll also send it to other representatives in the Senate and (House), and we're also going to be asking the local boards to join us in opposing the designations," she said.

In 1964, Congress enacted the Wilderness Act to protect designated federal lands from being encroached upon by humans and to retain their "primeval character and influence." The act prohibits, with certain exceptions, commercial enterprises and permanent roads from being built on the land.

In the last six years, the San Bernardino Mountains have been vexed with drought and a bark-beetle infestation that have combined to destroy more than 1million trees. In October 2003, the Old Fire cut an eastward path across the mountains from Waterman Canyon to Highland, destroying hundreds of homes.

The threat of fire still weighs heavily on the minds of those living both in the mountain communities and the valleys below.

"We don't want some overlay of that land that's going to inhibit the ability for people to go and do fuels work," Morley said. "I think clearly that everybody who lives in this valley is here for a reason, and we enjoy the environment, but I think sometimes things can be done to the environment that can pose a danger to citizens in this valley, and that's what we're concerned about."

April 13, 2007

State sues San Bernardino County over global warming

Victorville Daily Press
by Ryan Cox

SAN BERNARDINO — Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. filed a lawsuit Friday against the county of San Bernardino’s recently-updated general plan because it did not properly address global warming.

The lawsuit came just two days after a similar lawsuit was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the San Bernardino Audubon Society and the Sierra Club.

Brown filed the lawsuit under the California Environmental Quality Act on the basis that San Bernardino County failed to evaluate and disclose the impending impacts of the plan on climate change and air quality.

"This is a tremendously important action by the attorney general," said Adam Keats, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

First District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt questioned the value of the state suing the county.

"If this is true, I would suggest that the state of California should be helping local governments build infrastructure and protect citizens from crime instead of suing us over what is at best a federal environmental issue," Mitzelfelt said Friday. "In my opinion the attorney general’s comments were adequately addressed in the General Plan update."

During the plan’s development, the attorney general along with the conservation groups had submitted comments that urged the county to analyze greenhouse gases and climate change in its blueprint for the future.

According to a press release sent out by the Center for Biological Diversity, the county chose to ignore the comments.

Mike Zischke, an attorney that specializes in the Environmental Quality Act and is working with county counsel, said the county’s position is solid and they will defend the General Plan.

April 12, 2007

9th Circuit to decide 'Mojave Desert Cross' fate

OneNewsNow.com
Ed Thomas


The National Legal Foundation and its attorneys are awaiting a decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals following Monday's hearing on a case challenging the right of a World War I memorial cross to remain on public land in the middle of the Mojave Desert.


In the case of Buono v. Kempthorne, the
National Legal Foundation (NLF) is fighting the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in an effort to save the Mojave Desert Cross. The large, white memorial cross has been located on Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve near the California-Nevada border since 1934, when it was given and erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Attorney Joe Infranco is with
Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which argued an amicus brief for NLF at Monday's hearing. He says one of the last acts of Bill Clinton's presidency was his executive order authorizing the establishment of the land the cross stood on as a federal preserve.

"The ink was barely dry, and a local ACLU affiliate was filing a lawsuit," Infranco notes. The lawsuit challenging the monument's constitutionality alleged that its placement on federal land in the Mojave Desert violated the First Amendment's guarantee of separation of church and state and that the memorial cross should therefore be removed.

Supporters of the Mojave Desert Cross hoped to reach a settlement of the suit with the Department of Defense's transfer of the memorial land to private ownership in 2004. However, the ACLU claimed before the 9th Circuit that the property transfer was invalid -- a point ADF helped dispute in this week's appeals court hearing.

Such transfers already have legal precedent in several federal court cases, the ADF attorney notes. He says a number of federal appellate courts have already held that government property may be transferred to private ownership to prevent challenges based on the Establishment Clause, which, he notes "is that part of the First Amendment that is cited as the basis for the so-called separation of church and state." Although the jurisdictional circumstances were different, ADF recently helped defend a similar land transfer to save San Diego's Mount Soledad Cross in California.

Based on the precedents cited in the amicus brief, Infranco says ADF and the other cross supporters in Buono v. Kempthorne are hoping their argument that the transfer of the WWI memorial cross to private ownership was legal will prevail.

Surreal Mojave Cross video

video

April 10, 2007

S.B. County errs on desert preservation

OPINION

Inland Valley Daily Bulletin [Ontario, CA]

Despite creation of the Mojave National Preserve years ago to protect desert lands, the war of public conservation vs. private interests goes on. And it is being waged quietly by the county Board of Supervisors, as it selfishly tries to keep tax-defaulted lands on the tax rolls rather than see them acquired for public use.

We think land conservencies have a vital role to play without extra hurdles being thrown in.
Under state law, public entities, namely nonprofit land conservancies, can apply to redeem tax-defaulted properties before they are sold at public auction, and then give the land to a federal preserve - for the benefit of everyone.

But choosing to see such land acquisitions as unforgivable giveaways that cut into the county's tax base rather than gifts for the greater good, the county has blocked the indirect transfer of 90 parcels, amounting to at least 2,500 acres, from private hands to park status.

The stonewalling began three years ago under then-Supervisors Chairman Bill Postmus and his chief of staff, Brad Mitzelfelt, and continues with Mitzelfelt now supervisor for the 1st District.
Frequently, the parcels in question are remote, miles away from any road or infrastructure.

But even so, Mitzelfelt said that years ago, he and Postmus became concerned that conservancies were snatching up land that might have a "higher use," meaning apparently that they might have a higher economic significance to the county.

While Mitzelfelt said his office remains skeptical that handing off land to the federal government is a better choice than keeping it in private hands, such a dim view of how parklands serve the public does not serve desert constituents well.

Mitzelfelt said he ultimately hopes to see direct land sales to conservancies largely eliminated. Conservancies still would be able to buy the land at public auction, he said, but they would have to outbid others for the privilege.

But such land grabs, though ostensibly to augment the county purse, fail to take into account the greater good of desert conservation and holding the land in a public trust for all to enjoy.

The aim of giving conservancies dibs on the property isn't to give the land trusts a break.

It is to benefit average citizens by ensuring their access to lands that, by all rights, should become part of the public's holdings via the national preserve.

April 9, 2007

Profile of County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt

Hesperia Star
By PETER DAY Star Editor

While his clean-shaven, bespectacled predecessor, Bill Postmus, looks like a political-candidate poster child, the bearded, unassuming Brad Mitzelfelt comes off more like a college professor, or perhaps a park ranger.

Although the two share ideological similarities, their styles differ. Mitzelfelt, who for more than six years served as Postmus’ chief of staff, isn’t really interested in the chess game of politics.

“Politics isn’t what gets me up in the morning. Policy is,” said Mitzelfelt, who last November was appointed to complete Postmus’ two remaining years as supervisor of the county’s first district. “I see politics as a means to an end. It’s not an end to itself.”

Already in his first few months, Mitzelfelt, who lives in Wrightwood, has several accomplishments under his belt. The most notable is his request of $500,000 to help purchase equipment for a new aerospace mechanics-training program at the Southern California Logistics Agency (formerly George Air Force Base). Victor Valley College, the county, the city of Victorville and a non-profit consortium spearhead the program. Last month, the Board of Supervisors approved Mitzelfelt’s proposal.

“I’m very excited about it.”

During a recent Hesperia Chamber of Commerce Coffee Club gathering, Mitzelfelt outlined other priorities. They include cracking down on gangs, tracking sex offenders and protecting consumers from identity theft. He also believes it’s time the county be more aggressive with illegal dumping and make more headway with freeway congestion and transportation issues.

“I take things issue by issue. I look at each issue and how it will benefit my constituents.”
Recent gang sweeps are helping the Victor Valley get a handle on the gang problem, but that highlights a shortage of jail space.

“We are the No. 1 county for sending people to prison,” Mitzelfelt said. “That’s kind of good and kind of bad. We’ve got a big problem [in jail overcrowding]. We just don’t have nearly the capacity that we need.”

Regarding transportation, he cited rising costs of freeway construction as a huge obstacle. “Costs have gone through the roof,” he said.

But he agrees with regional economics and politics guru John Husing that “logistics is the job engine for our economy.” Local jobs keep tax money at home and families in one place. The SCLA program should help do that by providing a number of jobs paying $48,000 to $75,000 a year.

“Young people can work here.”

Later, during a one-on-one interview with the Hesperia Star, Mitzelfelt credited a new county ordinance that puts more teeth into fighting illegal dumping. Perpetrators can be fined as much as $10,000, and tipsters are encouraged to contact authorities.

“Illegal dumping is a huge problem in the High Desert. We’re not going to put up with it anymore.”
Mitzelfelt also is working with the Bureau of Land Management to solve land management issues.

Several years ago after former President Bill Clinton tried to shut down cattle grazing in the High Desert the county took away “dumping cards,” which allowed BLM workers to discard refuse at area landfills. Recently the cards were given back, and he is hoping to meet with representatives of the agency on a quarterly basis.

“I do want to improve our relationship with the BLM.”

By improving the relationship with BLM, the county also can help solve illegal off-roading issues. Many BLM-maintained areas are OK for off-roaders, for instance.

“There’s a lot we can do together with BLM.”

Newly-revised, larger restaurant grading cards are also a help to local businesses and consumers, according to Mitzelfelt.

“The new ones are being phased in. They contain more information. An ‘A’ letter in a window is good for business.”

The son of physician-turned-orchestra-conductor H. Vincent Mitzelfelt, Mitzelfelt grew up in the Eagle Rock area of Los Angeles. He was a talented distance runner who ran three miles in around 15 minutes and a mile under 4 minutes 30 seconds.

“I like to fish, mountain bike and run.”

He studied piano under Pasadena-based master pianist Surajeet Chatterji, who currently teaches classes at Hesperia High School, and owns two pianos. Saying he plays at an intermediate level, Mitzelfelt says Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” is favorite classical piece.

“It’s the hardest thing I know, so it’s my favorite.”

Mitzelfelt is a Marine Corps combat veteran of Desert Storm and Desert Shield. He served as a combat correspondent, a position which earned him several awards.

In July, Mitzelfelt is planning on getting married to his fiance.

“It’s a big year for me.”

While Mitzelfelt brings a different leadership style, he believes Postmus has tremendous strengths.
“He is a very talented political strategist. He’s a talented leader. He’s also good with budgets and managing people.”

Moreover, it appears Postmus is enjoying his new position.

“He’s modernizing that department. He really has a job he enjoys.”

Although Mitzelfelt doesn’t prefer the political part of his job, he recently entered fresh political waters when he held a fundraiser to kick off his 2008 election campaign. Attracting 300 supporters, he raised $165,000.

“It was a great success. I have no doubt I’ll have the funds to get the message out. I’ve done this before. I know how to win campaigns.”

Wildlife service accepts comments on raven assessment

Desert Dispatch [Barstow, CA]

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released a draft environmental assessment suggesting ways to reduce raven predation on the desert tortoise and other animals found in the deserts of Southern California.

Raven populations increased more than 700 percent in some areas of the California desert between 1969 and 2004, according to a Fish and Wildlife Service press release.

Alternatives for raven management include lethal and non-lethal techniques. To view the assessment online, go to www.fws.gov/ventura. Copies are also available at public libraries in the desert or by calling (805) 644-1766.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will accept public comments until May 7. Written comments should be submitted to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Raven Management Environmental Assessment, c/o Judy Hohman, Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office, 2493 Portola Road, Suite B, Ventura, CA 93003.

Comments can also be e-mailed to FW8draftravenea@fws.gov with "Raven Management" in the subject line.

Food vendor needed at Kelso Depot


Desert Dispatch [Barstow, CA]

The National Park Service is accepting proposals for food concessions at the Kelso Depot Visitor Center at the Mojave National Preserve. The concession contract will run for 10 years.

The park is looking for a private concession operator to serve meals at the 1920s-era lunch counter, which was rebuilt as part of a renovation project.

For more information about making a concession proposal, go to http://www.concessions.nps.gov/Prospectus.cfm or call Kim Gagliolo, the concession management analyst, at (510) 817-1368.

County runs afoul of desert preservation

OPINION
Land conservancies have a vital role to play without extra hurdles being thrown in.


San Bernardino Sun [San Bernardino, CA]

Despite creation of the Mojave National Preserve years ago to protect desert lands, the war of public conservation vs. private interests goes on. And it is being waged quietly by the county Board of Supervisors, as it selfishly tries to keep tax-defaulted lands on the tax rolls rather than see them acquired for public use.

Under state law, public entities, namely nonprofit land conservancies, can apply to redeem tax-defaulted properties before they are sold at public auction, and then give the land to a federal preserve - for the benefit of everyone.

But choosing to see such land acquisitions as unforgivable giveaways that cut into the county's tax base rather than gifts for the greater good, the county has blocked the indirect transfer of 90 parcels, amounting to at least 2,500 acres, from private hands to park status.

The stonewalling began three years ago under then-Supervisors Chairman Bill Postmus and his chief of staff, Brad Mitzelfelt, and continues with Mitzelfelt now supervisor for the 1st District.

Frequently, the parcels in question are remote, miles away from any road or infrastructure. But even so, Mitzelfelt said that years ago, he and Postmus became concerned that conservancies were snatching up land that might have a "higher use," meaning apparently that they might have a higher economic significance to the county.

While Mitzelfelt said his office remains skeptical that handing off land to the federal government is a better choice than keeping it in private hands, such a dim view of how parklands serve the public does not serve desert constituents well.

Mitzelfelt said he ultimately hopes to see direct land sales to conservancies largely eliminated. Conservancies still would be able to buy the land at public auction, he said, but they would have to outbid others for the privilege.

But such land grabs, though ostensibly to augment the county purse, fail to take into account the greater good of desert conservation and holding the land in a public trust for all to enjoy.

The aim of giving conservancies dibs on the property isn't to give the land trusts a break. It is to benefit average citizens by ensuring their access to lands that, by all rights, should become part of the public's holdings via the national preserve.