By Mark R. Welch
Retired Mining Engineer
With reference to the article written by Oscar Simpson purporting to represent the New Mexico Wildlife Federation in the July 12 Journal titled "Wilson Can Save N.M.'s Outdoors Again," he made some seriously misleading statements regarding the 1872 Mining Act and mining on Federal lands.
Mr. Simpson stated that the act needed updating, but in fact, it has been indirectly updated through numerous regulations and laws over the years, especially with regards to environment considerations. The Act has served this nation very well, allowing the country to develop its mineral resources that are the basis, along with agriculture, of all of the wealth of the nation.
Then Mr. Simpson stated that mining companies pay $5 per acre to stake a claim of ownership on "our public lands." In the first place, the law applies to any citizen, not just mining companies.
Secondly, there is a recording fee and annual maintenance payment of $100 per claim that is required to be paid, but the $5 per acre fee he erroneously mentions pertains to the fee to be paid at the time a patent is issued to the claimant. However, due to a Congressional moratorium, no patents have been issued since 1994.
Further, by the time a patent is issued— if ever— the miner or mining company will have spent enormous sums of money to prove up the claim to the satisfaction of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Mining companies routinely spend millions of dollars just to evaluate a mineral deposit, let alone develop it. When he states that public lands the size of Connecticut have been made private over the years, he fails to point out that most patents were issued in the 1800s and early 1900s at a time that the nation was growing.
Where he comes up with Congress granting a tax break of $823 million to mining companies is unknown, but it should be noted that companies or individuals who are successful in developing a mine— approximately one prospect out of 1,000 examined— pay all kinds of taxes, including income taxes, if the project is profitable, property taxes, sales taxes, employment taxes, fuel taxes, and so on.
Then Mr. Simpson makes his most disingenuous statement, where he said that "mining companies are not even responsible for subsequent cleanup of the site once the claim is exhausted" and "the taxpayer get stuck with the bill— billions of dollars."
Either Mr. Simpson did not do his homework or is intentionally misleading the reading public. Had he bothered to look at the laws and regulations pertaining to mining claims (see Title 43 CFR Parts 3700 and 3800 as well as information put out by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management), he would have noticed that there are numerous federal regulations and laws that require a miner to file a Plan of Operations with the U.S. Forest Service or USBLM, which must go into detailed information on environmental assessments or impact statements, detailed descriptions of mining operations, detailed information on protection of the environment, and, not least, detailed information on reclamation procedures.
In addition, the miner must comply with a host of laws such as the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, among others. If the applicant cannot meet the permitting requirements of the Federal agencies in accordance with all of the applicable laws and regulations, an operations permit will not be issued. It is as simple as that.
It is true that we have suffered from environmental degradation from mining operations conducted in the 1800s and into the 1900s, but today's mining company is most cognizant of its responsibilities to be a good citizen and do more than its share to mitigate any environmental damage caused by mining and exploration operations.
A typical mine takes somewhere between 10 and 15 years to develop— if it is a viable prospect— from the time it is discovered and many mines routinely cost in excess of $100 million to develop. Oftentimes, a mineral property will sit idle for decades awaiting new technologies or favorable mineral prices before it becomes possible to develop. It is hard, costly and demanding work and not for the faint of heart. The citizenry should bear that in mind when we lock up millions of acres from access to mining— wilderness areas, wilderness study areas, roadless areas, national monuments etc. I enjoy wild areas as much as anyone, and some areas are truly deserving of preservation. But, from a practical standpoint, we simply cannot develop a mine overnight if we really need the minerals during a national emergency.
By the way, Connecticut has an area of 3 million acres. The USBLM administers in excess of 260 million acres subject to mining claims in 19 states, primarily in the western U.S., and the U.S. Forest Service manages another 193 million acres. Assuming Mr. Simpson is correct in his numbers, the total land historically transferred as patented claims amounts to 7/10ths of 1 percent of the USBLM/USFS-managed public lands. This is about the same as the floor of an average two-car garage being superimposed on a football field. This is not very much considering the tremendous national wealth that has been generated by mining on public lands.
Finally, the public is encouraged to visit mining operations today and see for themselves how operations are conducted, and then, if they so choose, go prospecting and stake their own claims if they find a locatable mineral deposit.
It is their right as a citizen of the United States.
Mark Welch is the former Chief Executive Officer of Nord Pacific Ltd., a New Mexico-based mining company. He retired after more than 35 years in the mining industry, both as a mining engineer and executive.
July 28, 2007
July 27, 2007
500 kilovolt (kV) power line
Hi-Desert Star [Yucca Valley, CA]
By Mark Wheeler
MORONGO BASIN — The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power recently submitted applications to both the Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest Service for right-of-way access on federal lands where the utility company hopes to locate a 500 kilovolt (kV) power line carrying energy from Imperial County to the City of Angels.
In its proposal phase, the project plan contains numerous alternatives for transmission corridors, some of them across Forest Service lands and some across those managed by BLM.
Which alternative is ultimately chosen will determine which land-use agency will represent the government and the public trust in the project’s installation on public lands. At this point, both agencies are involved since the final corridor choice will be based on analyses of the project’s impacts to lands in the different jurisdictions.
One of the proposed alternatives comes through the Hi-Desert and crosses public lands at this end of the route that are managed by the Palm Springs-South Coast BLM Field Office. Lands along this route and farther north and west fall under the jurisdiction of the BLM office in Barstow.
Staff from these two offices and the Forest Service are working with the L.A. Department of Water and Power (LADWP) on the application requirements and will guide the utility company through further preliminaries toward the eventual completion of a formal Environmental Impact Statement. This is the comprehensive study upon which decisions for uses of federal lands are based and which is a twin to the document required in California at the state level called an Environmental Impact Report.
Assistant Field Manager for the Palm Springs BLM office Michael Bennett is his district’s lead person for the LADWP project. According to him, the LADWP’s application is being reviewed by his and other agency offices. The next step in the process, Bennett explained, is the submission by LADWP of a pre-plan. This will serve as the basis for a formal Notice of Intent.
It is the Notice of Intent that technically sets the project’s study into motion. The document is forwarded through the various levels of BLM management to Washington, D.C., where it must be officially registered before ensuing steps in the analysis process are taken. Among these steps is the one that solicits public comment and there are residents here who are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to make their comments on this subject public.
Based on his part in the discussions and experience with federal process, Bennett suggests a rough estimate for the Notice of Intent registration could be October. Public scoping meetings, he said, could start as early after that as Thanksgiving.
On behalf of LADWP, the utility’s Commission President H. David Nahai could not speculate on when the Notice of Intent would be drafted or when public scoping meetings might be scheduled.
Nahai did confirm a public meeting would be held in the Hi-Desert when this phase of the process begins.
He also disclosed that the estimated date for the power line’s operation is November 2013. This is three years later than was originally reported in numerous papers around the region, including the Los Angeles Times, which characterized the project as a “key piece” in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s commitment to supplying 20 percent of the city’s energy needs from renewable resources by 2010.
A Web search on 500 kilovolt powerline towers found a height average for them of about 125 feet, and a more standardized distance between towers of about 1,000 feet. Whether the LADWP structure will approximate these dimensions will be revealed in the project’s plans. So far, the only dimension that is known, based on Bennett’s reference to the utility company’s application, is for lease of right-of-way that has a width of 330 feet.
The fee for this lease, said Bennett, will be $14.60 per linear mile per year. These fees are established in federal land-use policy, which is, in turn, based on a number of congressional laws.Indeed, energy transmission in this country has been strongly enabled by federal law. In 2005, the Energy Policy Act directed the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy and the Interior to designate corridors on their lands for energy transmission.
Agencies have complied with the order and the designation of corridors on BLM and National Forest lands will be an important subject of discussion in the LADWP case.
For instance, according to Bennett and a map of BLM corridors in this area, the local Hi-Desert corridor alternative, which goes through the Sawtooth Mountains and Pioneertown, is not a “designated corridor.” It was proposed at one time but never “activated,” said Bennett.
Many residents here are asking why the utility doesn’t simply use the corridor already established along Interstate 10 for transmission lines. They particularly object to the Pioneertown alternative and have recently organized themselves as the California Desert Coalition (CDC).
Coalition member Ruth Rieman assured that her group is doing its homework and will not fail to stop this “ill-conceived project” from affecting the area.
“Everything from property values to wildfire risk to our viewshed is at stake,” she stated, and pledged the CDC’s sternest efforts to prevent it.
LADWP’s transmission line project is called the “Green Path.” Conservationists and people living nearby the proposed corridor alternatives are calling the project anything and everything but “green.”
By GAIL WESSON
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a proposed rule Friday that would shrink by 25 percent the boundaries of critical habitat set aside for survival of a plant threatened with extinction in an area popular with off-road enthusiasts in Imperial County.
The new proposed protection for Peirson's milk-vetch, a legume with a deep tap root to anchor it in shifting sands, stems from a lawsuit filed against the service by environmental groups challenging studies done in 2004 on a proposed 21,836-acre critical habitat area that includes the 300-foot Glamis sand dunes.
Public hearings on the proposed rule and a related draft economic analysis are scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 23 at the service's Carlsbad office.
The service proposes a 16,108-acre protected area in the Algodones Dunes, an area managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management as part of the Imperial San Dunes Recreation Area, the service said in a news release.
"This reduction of protected habitat will make it difficult, if not impossible for the Peirson's milk-vetch to survive and recover," IleeneAnderson , a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a news release.
The center was one of the groups that sued the government in federal court.
The service on its Web site contends that BLM 2005 survey data provides "more specific and reliable information" about the plant's population range than the "limited data" used for the earlier habitat proposal.
July 26, 2007
CALTRANS Press Release
State of California • Department of Transportation
SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY – The California Department of Transportation closed US 95 from SR62 in Vidal Junction to Five Mile Road just south of Needles due to
The closure is expected to last until Friday, July 27, 2007 at 4:00 p.m. Residents and visitors to Havasu Landing are able to gain access by taking Interstate 40 east to US – 95 south. Through traffic will not be permitted on US-95.
Detour: From Vidal Junction take eastbound SR62 to Arizona Route 95. From Needles take eastbound Interstate 40 to Arizona Route 95.
Caltrans is presently conducting damage assessments and completing any necessary repairs.
The largest solar power plant in the world has been proposed for the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, it was announced Wednesday.
Pacific Gas & Electric reached a deal to buy power from Israel-based Solel Solar Systems, which plans to build a $2 billon plant covering nine square miles. It could be operating by 2011.
The plant would generate 533 megawatts of power, enough to power 400,000 homes.
In contrast, Southern California Edison's 2-year-old Mountainview Power Plant in Redlands generates 1,054 megawatts.
Solel is looking at three locations for the plant. One is north of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, another is northwest of Needles, and the third is near the Nevada border between the 15 Freeway and the 40 Freeway.
Company officials hope to make a final decision on a location after an environmental review late next year or early 2009, said Vanessa Loftus, a spokeswoman for Solel.
Two sites are on land administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the third is on private land, she said.
PG&E doesn't serve this area, so power generated would go to customers from Bakersfield to the north.
Rows of curved mirrors, called troughs, concentrate the sun's energy onto a pipe carrying a liquid that can reach temperatures high enough to boil water.
For more than two decades, San Bernardino County has been the testing ground for large-scale solar projects.
Plants at Kramer Junction and Harper Dry Lake produce more than 300 megawatts of power on about 2,000 acres. Southern California Edison buys all the power from those plants.
The new solar plant would help California meet its target of getting 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2010.
SCE is also aggressively pursuing contracts to buy renewable power, said Stuart Hemphill, director of renewable and alternative power.
The company recently signed a contract for 1,500 megawatts of new wind power in the Tehachapi Mountains.
A number of companies are looking to produce new clean power with California leading the way on renewable energy and its mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"There's a tremendous influx of venture capital," Hemphill said.
Though the proposed locations for the new solar plant are remote, PG&E can tap into existing transmission lines that served the coal-fired Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev.
That plant shut down at the end of 2005 after years of controversy over its effect on the air in Grand Canyon National Park.
Solar plants are appropriate for this desert area because during hot summer days, up to half the electricity consumed is used for powering air conditioning units, Loftus said.
July 25, 2007
by Kurt Repanshek
When most think of Death Valley, they envision starkness, sand dunes, and saltpan. But Surprise Canyon is definitely different, with a tumbling stream, lush vegetation, and wildlife lured by the water.
Now, according to documents in this case, in the 1870s there actually was a road that ran up the canyon to reach the silver mines of Panamint City. Supposedly the six-mile route was in such good condition at the time that stagecoaches could travel it. Well, the silver boom went bust in 1877, Panamint City turned into a ghost town of sorts, and the Surprise Canyon route wasn't maintained. Indeed, it was washed out at times by flash floods.
Now, there were improvements made in 1918, 1924, and 1947-48, according to the court. However, flash floods continued to erase them.
Back in the 1980s, some off-roaders discovered the canyon and figured it was a perfect playground, even if it did require the use of winches and impromptu rock ramps to help negotiate the waterfalls. But in 2001, as the result of litigation, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management closed the lower section of the canyon to ORV traffic, and in 2002 the National Park Service closed the upper stretch.
Last year some off-road groups went to court to open the canyon, saying it really was a "highway" that they have a right to under a Civil War-era statute known today simply as R.S. 2477. Under that statute, initially created to further western expansion, some states, counties and off-road groups have claimed that washes, two-tracks, even hiking trails are "highways" that they are entitled to travel.
Well, yesterday U.S. District Judge O'Neill tossed their lawsuit, ruling that they had no standing to bring the lawsuit since they had no title to claim to the route. Not surprisingly, the groups who sided with the government in the case applauded the judge's decision.
“It’s a great day for Surprise Canyon and Death Valley National Park,” says Ted Zukoski, an attorney for Earthjustice, representing six conservation groups involved in the case. “This place is a miracle — a gushing stream running through the desert. We’re pleased the court denied an attempt to turn this marble canyon’s waterfalls into a highway.”
"Today the court took an important step toward protecting Surprise Canyon and the web of life it supports,” said Chris Kassar, wildlife biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The special character of this desert oasis strikes you as soon as you step in — cool water fills your shoes, flycatchers flit from branch to branch, and thick stands of willows and cottonwoods sway in the breeze against a backdrop of steep, multicolored cliff walls."
“We are thrilled,” said Deborah DeMeo, program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “The dismissal of this suit means that Surprise Canyon Creek in Death Valley National Park, and the habitat and wildlife that it supports, will be preserved for future generations to enjoy."
July 22, 2007
A couple's call to action leads to a competition to reenvision land use near Joshua Tree National Park.
By Ann Japenga
IN 20 years of fighting to block a monster garbage dump from moving into their backyard near Joshua Tree National Park, jojoba farmers Donna and Larry Charpied have filed lawsuits, staged rallies and resorted to all the usual activist tactics — without a clear win. They needed a new tool, so they called an architect.
Architecture traditionally has been thought of as an elite endeavor. In the 1960s and again recently, some groups such as Architecture for Humanity have embraced social awareness — green building, affordable housing and other goals. But rarely have architectural skills been used to try to change the outcome of a controversy in the way one might use tree-sitting or monkey-wrenching. Now, a small group is doing just that in the Charpieds' neighborhood, an isolated outpost called Eagle Mountain.
Donna and Larry Charpied resorted to a tactic of resistance not out of any high-minded architectural notions but because the usual means weren't working. Ontario-based Kaiser Ventures, with the support of Riverside County, has been planning for years to build a landfill on its property at Eagle Mountain. If the dump is built, as many as 20,000 tons a day of L.A.'s garbage will wind up at the abandoned ore mine site. Each time the Charpieds and their supporters win a round in court, there's the inevitable appeal. Currently Kaiser is appealing a ruling that the plan didn't meet an environmental review to a federal appeals court.
In an attempt to break the standoff, the Charpieds decided not to wait until the land was technically "saved" but to make an alternate plan. "I don't want to go to my grave fighting a dump," says Donna Charpied, a sun-browned organic farmer with a rock 'n' roller's bravado. "Something is going to be done with that site, and we might as well have a say in what that is.
"After a series of steps, they ended up hooking up with architecture students at leading L.A. schools and young professionals to compete for alternative ideas for the desert site, hoping the designs would be more than an academic exercise.
The Charpieds first called on Eric Shamp, a Redlands architect they'd met at a conference. Shamp says there's a higher threshold of responsibility for an architect than an artist or fashion designer because his or her creations are not transitory.
"If you're an artist it's OK to do 'Piss Christ,' " says Shamp, referring to the work by Andres Serrano. "But architects are really shaping the built world, and if you want the built world to be a better place, you have to be an activist. It can't all be about style.
"The Charpieds put to Shamp and designer Eric Stotts the challenge of designing a research institute, eco-tourism site and heritage center — all powered by renewable energy — for the abandoned mining town. Shamp and Stotts, in turn, challenged the L.A. chapter of the Emerging Green Builders, who then adopted the "Vision for Eagle Mountain" as a design competition.
The Emerging Green Builders was founded by students and young professionals working in architecture and other design fields; their inaugural meeting was at the Greenbuild expo in Austin, Texas, in 2002. The group has grown nationally from three chapters to 90 in the last few years and has been enlisted for projects such as creating a sustainable design for a Boys and Girls Club gym in Santa Fe, N.M. They are accustomed to talking about sustainability and solar power, but guerrilla-style activism was new to most of them.
It was new to Kaiser Ventures as well. Terry Cook, executive vice president and general counsel, says he would have thought the Charpieds and the Emerging Green Builders would have consulted his company before making plans for their property. "It would be like me submitting your house for redesign without your permission," he says.
An iron ore mining site
If you drive along Interstate 10 from Palm Springs to the Colorado River, the Eagle Mountain site is tucked up in the hills to your left, out in a lonely stretch inhabited by bighorn sheep and big-eared bats. The Kaiser Steel Corp. extracted iron ore from the mountain for 30 years; the site also once housed a private prison. What's left today is an abandoned company town of boarded-up homes, along with deep mining pits and mountains of tailings (waste material from the mines), all surrounded by pristine desert. The Charpieds have started a campaign called Give It Back! intended to return nearly 30,000 acres of surrounding land to Joshua Tree National Park in accord with a 1952 land use agreement between the mining company and Congress.
The couple's anti-dump activities have earned them support — and some enemies as well — in the communities of Twentynine Palms, Indio, Coachella and other towns likely to be affected by the proposed landfill. The pair lives in a 1954 Airstream trailer surrounded by a 5-acre carpet of bright green jojoba plants, desert shrubs whose oils are used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. The nearest neighbor is a mile away; it's a 60-mile drive for groceries. In their years of opposing the dump, the Charpieds have focused on protecting the natural habitat. They never saw much possibility in the old Kaiser site itself until six years ago, when Donna Charpied attended a conference on community natural assets. She was asked to give a presentation envisioning a use for the abandoned buildings and mining relics.
"Up until that time I had a very poor vision of our community," she says with a hint of a blue-collar Pittsburgh accent. "Everybody felt: All we are is trash. It does a lot to your psyche. I never saw anything good until I was forced to make that PowerPoint presentation. When Larry and I went home and started looking around, we thought: 'Man-o-day! This isn't a ghost town. These are wilderness huts. Over here is a science class.' "
Charpied shared her excitement with Shamp, and he came out to visit during a rare wildflower bloom. At first, the architect couldn't quite picture a sustainable community rising amid the pits and tailings. But the more time he spent with the Charpieds, the more contagious their belief became. Soon, he could envision something like what happened in Marfa, Texas, where the late Minimalist artist Donald Judd transformed former Army hangars into art galleries. His efforts, supported in the early days by the Dia Art Foundation of New York, transformed the desert town into an art center. "If ideas get out there, that's the start of it," Shamp says.
The Charpieds are accustomed to silence and 100-mile vistas in their little outpost near Desert Center. So they were out of their element during a recent visit to the concrete halls of SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) in downtown L.A., where winning entries in the design competition were on display.
Techno music bounced off the walls, and hip students milled around the exhibits. Twenty-five teams had come up with models for Eagle Mountain; those entries had been culled to four winners.
As non-architects, the Charpieds didn't know quite how to read the slick graphics and symbols. But they recognized the rebellion in the room. Larry Charpied shook contestants' hands vigorously and vowed to take their ideas to Riverside County, hoping together they could save Eagle Mountain.
The leading entries
The winning entry, "The Nest," was conceived by Beryl Lopez and Marlen Alvarez, undergraduates at Cal Poly Pomona. (The third- and fourth-place prizes also went to the students of professor Pablo La Roche at Cal Poly.) In Lopez and Alvarez's model, electric trams run along the old Kaiser Steel railroad tracks, delivering researchers to an underground laboratory and tourists to a Universal Studios-like back lot tour of historical mining operations. Among the features incorporated by other contestants were a space camp, a habitat for bats and an environmentally responsible golf course.
The winning pair will go on to a national competition at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in Chicago in November. To encourage further discussion, the Emerging Green Builders of L.A. plans to publish the winning designs.
When the hand-pumping and celebrating was through, the question remained: Can twentysomethings adept with 3-D software really change the minds of big business and government agencies? The concept has mostly been bandied in academia. A few professors, such as Jeff Hou at the University of Washington, teach courses in design activism. And blogs such as Activist Architect discuss the matter in theoretical terms. The trend toward architecture-as-resistance has seen fewer expressions in the real world. Shamp says architecture is still a big-money business and professionals can't afford to alienate potential clients with activities that go beyond socially aware to radical. He took pains to keep his firm's name out of the Eagle Mountain competition.
Even if monkey-wrenching were cool with the bosses, there is still the problem of profit. The Eagle Mountain landfill site is perceived by supporters as an economic boon to Riverside County. A wilderness heritage site and research center — however visionary — less obviously profitable.
Given the clout of Kaiser, it's easy to dismiss the contest as a pie-in-the-sky exercise. Professor La Roche says he doesn't necessarily expect the winning plans to be built. But a completed development is not the goal so much as changing people's perceptions of the site. "These students are young and enthusiastic," he says. "Sometimes people like that change things."
Kaiser Ventures spokesman Cook had this response for the winning contestants: "If they want to pay me the value of the land — $85 or $90 million — they can have at it."
July 21, 2007
Rodrigo Peña / The Press-Enterprise
Jennie Kelly, 57, of North Shore, shows a branding iron with the initials d-p inside the adobe building that she wants to preserve.
By STEVE MOORE
NORTH SHORE - The old adobe building near the oases ringed with shaggy palms welcomed Hollywood, hosted Gen. George Patton and inspired a desert landscape painter.
But if a federal agency prevails, the ranch house where John William Hilton created his masterpieces could be demolished.
The Bureau of Land Management says surveys show that Rancho Dos Palmas -- with its many additions -- lacks historical significance.
A preservationist group disagrees.
"To wipe out all that history ... my jaw just dropped," said Jennie Kelly, a spokeswoman for Friends of Dos Palmas.
"An awful lot of people want to see the ranch house saved.
"It carries a special place in our hearts."
The dispute is playing out on a huge nature preserve near the Salton Sea.
Now, in a twist of fate, Hilton's landscape scenes could help save the beloved building, Kelly said.
Friends of Dos Palmas members said the artist's growing renown could get the ranch house listed on the federal government's National Register of Historic Places.
Hilton lived and painted at Rancho Dos Palmas between 1938 and 1942. He observed the desert while painting from a rooftop sundeck over the ranch house. The artist captured the landscape's solitary beauty by using a knife instead of a brush and adding beeswax to oil paints.
When he wasn't carving out a canvas masterpiece, Hilton acted as a desert guide for Patton, whose nickname was "Old Blood and Guts."
They scouted out locations for tank training maneuvers carried out at Camp Young during World War II, according to a promotional biography written by Arizona art gallery owner Gary Fillmore.
Hilton, who died in 1983, belonged to a fraternity of about 15 Southern California desert artists active during the 1920s through 1940s, according to Fillmore, owner of the Blue Coyote Gallery.
Today, artists who painted the Southern California desert find their works undervalued compared with the rest of the market, Fillmore said.
A 16 inch by 20 inch desert scene by Hilton fetches about $4,000 to $6,000 and some of his top works command $10,000 to $15,000, experts said.
But over the next decades, Hilton and other desert painters will gain stature and their works will cost more in galleries, Fillmore said.
"He was a great artist, who as time goes on, will be much appreciated," Fillmore said.
Hilton's work will join that of other desert painters at a Sept. 15 exhibition at the Palm Springs Art Museum.
Talking It Out
Meanwhile, negotiations continue between Friends of Dos Palmas and the Bureau of Land Management.
"There's no threat of us doing anything to those structures until we work through this process, " said John Kalish, field manager for the agency's office in North Palm Springs. "We've made that commitment."
The aging ranch house may be charming, but the bureau's primary role at the almost 15,000-acre Dos Palmas Preserve involves running a wildlife refuge and restoring habitat for threatened and endangered species, he said.
They include the grouse-sized, endangered Yuma clapper rail, which delights bird watchers with its distinctive "kek kek kek" call at daybreak or sunset. Another is the adaptable desert pupfish, which can survive in an environment almost twice as salty as the ocean or in fresh water.
Because the preserve's main job is to manage and restore wildlife habitat, there's no federal money available for restoring the ranch house, Kalish said.
For about 80 years, Rancho Dos Palmas has kept a quiet vigil in the midst of nature.
The house features a step-down great room highlighted by a rock fireplace, plank ceiling and an array of artifacts, including a saddle on a wooden table, a branding iron on a window ledge, mounted long horns and a bobcat pelt splayed over the fireplace mantle.
On the wall, there's a cattle brand registration for Rancho Dos Palmas dated 1938.
Nearby, actor Raymond Massey's framed, handwritten letter hangs on the wall -- mailed from Beverly Hills and thanking his hosts for the fresh dates during his last visit.
For now, the ranch house about 13 miles southeast of Mecca can't entertain nature-loving tourists, the federal agency said.
A caretaker lived in the house until his death in December.
Rancho Dos Palmas doesn't meet current building codes, needs major, costly repairs and could be unsafe in an earthquake. Water piped into the house isn't safe for consumption, Kalish said.
The ranch house and a nearby bunkhouse, along with a shop building, won't be removed until at least December, according to agency officials. The marshland beneath would be restored and become a wildlife spot. The ranch house and a bunkhouse occupy about 8 acres.
Today, crews continue working nearby on a new, 4,000-square-foot shop for storing heavy equipment. The facility stores bulldozers and other equipment used to handle Tamarisk trees, which soak up water and create salty soil. A 2,000-square-foot operations center/caretaker's residence could get underway by fall of this year, officials said.
Meanwhile, Friends of Dos Palmas pursues an offensive aimed at saving the ranch house.
The group submitted an application seeking a county/state historical designation for Rancho Dos Palmas. They had a structural engineer visually inspect the old ranch house. And they're lobbying elected officials, including Congresswoman Mary Bono, R, Palm Springs, and County Supervisor Roy Wilson.
Land management officials say several possibilities could honor Rancho Dos Palmas' legacy while still allowing planned improvements at the preserve.
Those include leaving some adobe walls standing, erecting an interpretive kiosk detailing the history of the ranch house and salvaging period items that could be stored elsewhere in a museum-like setting, Kalish said.
July 17, 2007
By MARK MUCKENFUSS
CAJON PASS - Thousands of hikers pass through this section of the Pacific Crest Trail each year. Probably very few realize they are treading in the footsteps of early pioneers and ancient people.
This narrow cut that shoots off to the east just south of the truck scales on northbound Interstate 15 has been known as Coyote Canyon, East Cajon Canyon and Crowder Canyon. For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years it was a main American Indian thoroughfare between the desert and the San Bernardino Valley.
On his exploratory expedition for the Mormons in 1849, Jefferson Hunt and his small caravan struggled through the creek bed of the canyon on their way to the coast. And when commerce was established, John Brown blasted the first graded road, his toll road, through here. Remnants of the pavement laid over that original toll road still remain.
John Hockaday is quick to point out where the wagon road and, later, motor road entered the canyon.
"The road came along that ledge there," says Hockaday, pointing to the south side of the canyon where the concrete support for a long-gone bridge remains. The pavement peeking out from the dirt path, he says, "is some of the original road, a nine-foot wagon road built in '09."
Then he points to pavement of a lighter color, overlaying some of the darker asphalt.
"This is the evolution of the blacktop," he says. "By 1914, they were using a crushed limestone aggregate," which shows up as a medium gray against the black.
It's these kinds of layers that Hockaday peels back on a brief tour of the roads that run through the pass. His deeply lined face and wispy white beard give Hockaday, 74, the appearance of an old prospector. But the only treasures he's pulled from this region are historical nuggets. For decades he has explored the routes that connected the desert and the valley and the people that used them, producing two books on the subject. His most recent is "Trails and Tales of the Cajon Pass" (Buckthorn Publishing, $39.95), a book 15 years in the making.
Although fascinated with the archaeological history of the region, Hockaday has no formal training. He says he's just a former construction worker who loves history and became interested when a neighbor told him the original wagon road into the San Bernardino Valley crossed the property Hockaday lives on at the mouth of Lytle Creek Canyon.
He did some research. After he found out that the wagon road actually followed what had been the Mojave Indian trail into the region, he says, "I just kept going."
He and his late wife, Sandy, dug through collections as far away as UC Berkeley, gathering copies of documents and historical photographs. He gathered material from swap meets, garage sales and donations from friends. He took his own photographs, including a series of aerial views, some of which reveal not only the modern Interstate 15, but also its predecessors from Route 66 to the first wagon road.
At various stops in the canyon, Hockaday looks up and points to spots at the top of canyon walls and hills where he's taken photos in the past. He's hiked to just about every vista in the pass, he says.
Desert historian Cliff Walker says Hockaday is the expert on Cajon Pass.
"I don't know how you could get anybody that knows more about it," says Walker. "He's had it as a passion for 20 years."
Walker says Hockaday's book has added to the local historical record.
"We didn't know some of those things that he has compiled," he says, "He's uncovered some important documents."
Hockaday can even show you the routes when there were no roads. When Jefferson Hunt's expedition came through, it was following Indian footpaths. It had to navigate the rocky creek bed in Crowder Canyon.
"They said this was the toughest section of road anywhere between here and Salt Lake," Hockaday says. "When Jefferson Hunt tried to come through with wagons, they got in trouble and had to disassemble the wagons."
The wagon bodies were dragged through the creek and the wheels were put back on at a site that became known as the Willows, a lush area just on the other side of Interstate 15 from Crowder Canyon.
For the Mormon wagon trains and those that followed, this was the first watering spot after leaving the Mojave River at what is now Oro Grande. Prior to the white settlers, the small oasis was host to American Indians for centuries.
"There's thousands of artifacts here," Hockaday says, noting that the area provided not only water but food and materials the Indians needed for tools and houses. "This was their Home Depot, their Stater Bros. It was all right here."
Now owned by the San Bernardino County Museum, the area is closed off for renovation. An interpretive center is planned for the site.
This was a focal point for just about every pre-Route-66 road coming through the pass, and there were plenty of them.
"Cajon Pass is actually a box canyon with a series of notches," says Hockaday. "I can come up with eight ways to get out of Cajon Pass using some of those notches. The roads evolved by way of least resistance."
As technology developed, however, that was no longer the case.
Standing on the shoulder of the road in a section of old Route 66 known as Blue Cut, Hockaday points to a line of trees on the east side of the road. The trees follow the original bed of Cajon Creek. The early paved wagon road ran between the trees and the steep hillside behind them.
Highway engineers for Route 66 decided that rather than build two bridges to cross the creek in this area - there wasn't enough room to simply widen the existing road - they would reroute the creek itself.
Half a mile north, Hockaday points out the erosion that has revealed layers of asphalt. The lower layer is the 1916 road, the upper layer the 1931 widening project.
Those who travel through the pass on a regular basis can easily relate to such changes. Cal Trans recently finished a widening project near the intersection of interstates 15 and 215. And a new rail line is soon to be added.
Hockaday says he doesn't like to think about the changes yet to take place and what Cajon Pass might look like in another 100 years.
"I like to go back instead of forward," he says. "Going forward is kind of scary."
Here are two spots where you can see some historical trails and roads in Cajon Pass:
Exit northbound Interstate 15 at Highway 138. Turn right and immediately turn right again onto Wagon Train Road, which is old Route 66. Pass the McDonald's and drive to the end of the road. You will find a historical marker erected in 1917 and dedicated to the pioneers of the Santa Fe and Salt Lake Trail.
Across the road, notice the wooden sign identifying the Pacific Crest Trail, which is cut into the north side of the narrow canyon. The original Indian footpath from the desert to the Cajon Pass was in or near the creekbed below and it is along this creekbed that Jefferson Hunt entered the region on two separate expeditions.
About 50 yards up the trail are the remains of the concrete support for a bridge built in 1914. You'll also notice two types of asphalt on the trail. The darker underlying layer was put down in 1909 as a 9-foot-wide wagon road. The road was widened in 1914 to 16 feet and the lighter colored asphalt is the remainder of that road. Both overlaid the original dirt toll road built by John Brown in 1861.
Brown's first tollhouse sat about halfway up the canyon.
Exit southbound Interstate 15 at Cleghorn Road and turn right onto Cajon Road, again old Route 66, and head south. After about a mile, the road diverges from the interstate, heading west toward a large bend known as Blue Cut. Drive past the picnic area, and look for a safety wall constructed of rock.
This wall was built in 1931 as part of a two-lane widening project for Route 66. At the southern end of the rock wall, erosion has revealed areas where two layers of blacktop can be seen. The top is from the 1931 road, the lower layer is from a section of road built in 1916. Look across the creek and you will see an arched railroad underpass with the numbers 654 over it.
John Brown's second tollhouse sat just south of this underpass, on the far side of the creek. A sloping line rising along the hill to the north is the original wagon road. Looking across Route 66 and to the south, you can see a line of trees.
These mark the course of Cajon Creek before it was rerouted for the 1931 road project.
July 13, 2007
A Fullerton man's ambitions swell as he rebuilds his mock Western village that a wildfire destroyed.
FIRE DAMAGE: Joe Uddo of Fullerton surveys the damage to his Big Horn Ranch in Pioneertown.
By MARLA JO FISHER
The Orange County Register
PIONEERTOWN – It's been a year since Joe Uddo stood looking at the blackened, smoldering remnants of the mock Old West town he'd built to entertain his disabled son, Jason.
Last year, the Sawtooth fire raced through his 20-acre ranch near the Pioneertown movie set, consuming many hours and dollars he'd spent building replicas and collecting vintage Western memorabilia.
The longtime Fullerton resident lost many prized possessions that day at his weekend retreat, which he calls the Big Horn Ranch. So did his neighbors in the close-knit desert community near Joshua Tree National Park.
Twelve months later, a bit of greenery is creeping up from the roots of some of the creosote bushes, twisted black by the fire, which burned more than 61,000 acres, destroyed 58 homes and caused one death.
And Joe Uddo's dream of creating a Western town didn't die. In fact, it went into overdrive.
"It's become a full-time job," said Uddo, 64, a retired food distributor. "When I'm not here, I'm out looking for antiques with my son."
Uddo's 37-year-old son, Jason, has cerebral palsy and attends classes every week at Hope University in Anaheim. When he's not in school or in therapy, the father-and-son pair are expanding their collection.
"He loves it," Uddo said. "He's out here every weekend with me, having a ball."
Uddo, a fan of the Old West, bought the property 15 years ago because of its picturesque location beneath the boulder-strewn Sawtooth Mountains and its proximity to the Pioneertown movie set built in the 1940s and 1950s by film cowboys such as Roy Rogers.
Just down the road, dirt streets still run past mock saloons, a bank, jail and other staples of frontier life. Investors who contracted with movie and TV companies built these to use for Old West shooting locations.
The TV shows "Annie Oakley" and "The Cisco Kid" as well as movies such as "Judge Roy Bean" were filmed here.
Today the hamlet houses a half-dozen businesses, including the Likker Barn, owned by Uddo. He operates it as a souvenir shop occasionally, more to meet people and amuse himself than make money.
When Uddo bought his property, the land included a house and corral. Over the years, he began to add his own structures, including a small saloon, jail and barbershop.
A Santa Fe Railroad caboose joined the collection a dozen years ago. On July 13, 2006, the fire wiped out Uddo's mock town, destroyed his vintage cars, gutted the caboose and burned the front of his house.
"Only the church was left standing," he said
Many neighbors lost their homes that day
Carpenter and artisan Ed Grim, who built many of Uddo's replicas for him, also saw his property destroyed
Since then, the fire has united townspeople, who have held bake sales, garage sales and rummage sales to raise money for financially strapped neighbors. The blackened landscape shows the raw lumber of new homes being built on burned-out sites.
Like the landscape, Uddo's hobby is reborn, but this time his vision has grown.
His new, larger saloon boasts a player piano, talking deer head and tables eerily staffed by lifelike dummies bought from Knott's Berry Farm. The caboose sports four coats of new red paint. He is most excited about the original Knott's Berry Farm fruit stand he bought from the same collector.
Uddo estimates he's spent "hundreds of thousands" of dollars on his hobby.
Pointing to a ramshackle teepee he picked up somewhere, he vowed to build a miniature Indian village where youth groups such as Boy Scouts could come to camp and learn about the Old West.
How long does he plan to go on?
"I started it right after the fire, and I'll probably be doing it for the rest of my life," Uddo said.
NARRATED SLIDE SHOW: Take a tour of Pioneertown with Joe Uddo
July 11, 2007
Victorville Daily Press
HILLARY BORRUD Staff Writer
Off-roading groups are concerned that they could be left out of the discussion on how to prevent motorized vehicle damage to public lands.
In late June, a group of 13 former rangers and public land managers calling themselves the Rangers for Responsible Recreation identified reckless off-roading as the No. 1 problem facing public lands across the U.S.
The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is supporting the ranger group, continued its national campaign on Tuesday when it released figures on criminal activity on lands under the protection of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management or the BLM between 2004 and 2007.
Across California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, BLM records showed about 6,600 off-road violations for hit-and-run and other driving offenses, and about twice as many incidents of driving under the influence for off-roaders as compared to automobiles, according to a press release from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility or PEER.
In interviews Tuesday, representatives of the national Off-Road Business Association and BlueRibbon Coalition said they support law enforcement cracking down on irresponsible riders who give the sport a bad name, but they also feel scapegoated.
Off-roaders are increasing while the amount of land available to them is shrinking as more wildlands are protected, off-roading rights advocates said. This results in increased trespassing and resource damage, they said.
A 2005 survey by the U.S. Forest Service found that participants in off-road activities increased by 42 percent nationwide between 2000 and 2004.
Meanwhile, public land where off-roaders can ride has been cut in half through closures, such as under the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, said Don Amador, the western representative of the BlueRibbon Coalition. Amador said that he would like to see more routes opened to riders.
“The Rangers really should reconsider pointing fingers at the OHV community when it was their agencies that often placed recreation management at the bottom of the priority list,” Amador wrote in an e-mail.
Meg Grossglass, a spokeswoman for the Off-Road Business Association Inc., said that off-roading groups want to partner with the Rangers for Responsible Recreation to increase enforcement of off-roading rules and educate riders through maps and other methods. Development in areas such as the High Desert has also cut down on areas where longtime residents used to be able to ride through open parcels of land, she said.
“The name of the game is you have to be reasonable,” she said. “Each side has to be a little unhappy.”
July 9, 2007
Recovery coordinator Paul Barrett visits the small thermal pool that is the only natural habitat for the Devils Hole pupfish. Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images
By John Ritter
AMARGOSA VALLEY, Nev. — It's 110 degrees, hardly a heat wave for Death Valley. And in a small, bathtub-warm pool below a steep, rocky incline, small fish appear to be at play, darting and chasing each other through patches of algae.
These are Devils Hole pupfish and, aside from the strangeness of finding fish in the middle of North America's harshest desert, they're about as remarkable to the naked eye as a fat tadpole.
But this particular fish species is revered for helping galvanize public opinion and government efforts to save endangered species. The fish was the focus of a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that became a cornerstone of Western water policy.
Today, the Devils Hole pupfish population has dwindled to 38, confirmed by government divers in their spring count, and the fish has become the object of intense study by federal agencies and private groups to stave off extinction. It also figures in broader research to map a vast aquifer under Nevada and parts of Idaho and Utah and to determine how that groundwater is to be allocated in a fast-growing region that includes Las Vegas.
This pupfish, which numbered nearly 600 in 1994, finds itself in a class with some of America's rarest creatures, including the Florida panther and, before its recovery, the whooping crane.
A pioneer in animal rights
"We don't know why it's collapsing. It's a conundrum," says Paul Barrett, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.
State and federal agencies have spent an estimated $750,000 since 2005 trying to figure out the cause of the fish's decline, Barrett says. Even many critics of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, such as former California congressman Richard Pombo, agree that the pupfish is worth saving.
"You will find people who argue that there's no value in recovering a species like this, but I've never made that argument because, quite frankly, we don't know," says Pombo, whose effort to rewrite the act focused on guarding property rights when they conflict with endangered species' niches. The Devils Hole pupfish was one of the first species put on the endangered list.
Other pupfish are abundant in the West, but the Devils Hole variety is found nowhere else. The 10-foot-by-70-foot thermal pool, hundreds of feet deep, is thought to be the world's smallest known habitat for a vertebrate animal, says Mike Bower of the National Park Service.
In 1952, as a way to protect the fish, President Truman added 40 acres around Devils Hole — actually a crack in the Earth that opened 60,000 years ago — to what later became Death Valley National Park.
When the pupfish population collapsed in the 1960s, the Interior Department sued a developer who had pumped so much water from the aquifer that the level at Devils Hole dropped too low for the inch-long fish to thrive. The Supreme Court ruled that the pupfish was entitled to enough water to survive.
Jim Deacon, a retired University of Nevada, Las Vegas, ichthyologist, says publicity about the fish's plight in the 1960s and 1970s, including an Emmy-winning NBC documentary, kindled the fight to preserve vulnerable plants and animals.
"The pupfish became an icon of the movement," he says. "It's had a lot to do with the development of a conservation consciousness."
The species is a tough one for recovery scientists. It has a short life span of about a year. Many adult fish die in winter when food is scarce because no sunlight reaches the hole to fuel algae production.
The fish can't spawn in the hole's deep area because its 93-degree temperature is too warm. Fertilized eggs hatch only in shallow water that cools at night over a small rock "shelf" at one end of the hole.
But the shelf is vulnerable to nature's whims — water and debris that pour in during flash floods, wind, even earthquakes that slosh water around. The 2004 earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Asia created 9-foot swells inside the hole, Bower says.
Gene pool's delicate balance
Scientists have only recently concluded that a gate, fences and platforms installed at the hole during early efforts to protect the fish might unintentionally have messed up its habitat. They now think those structures blunted effects of natural weather cycles that wash away silt and deposit gravel and cobble on the shelf, critical to spawning and food production.
Years ago, Deacon would have to roll back a thick mat of algae to count the fish. Last month, Barrett and Bower were pleased that algae seemed to be growing, though it was sparse by comparison.
Other pupfish can tolerate wide temperature swings and water saltier than the sea, but not those in Devils Hole. That limitation complicates efforts to breed them in captivity, a strategy should some catastrophe wipe out the wild fish.
At Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery on Lake Mojave, a male-female pair of Devils Hole pupfish produced six young this spring. The female died soon after.
"The juveniles are growing very rapidly and they're healthy right now," says Mike Childs, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. "We really hope at least one of them, maybe more, will be female."
One theory for the pupfish's demise is that its gene pool narrowed. Another is that a natural change in the hole's algae variety somehow affected food sources. "The only prudent thing to do is hedge our bets and move forward on as many fronts as we can," Bower says.
Last winter, the park service fed the fish artificially for the first time, and they seem healthier and more robust, Barrett says. "But any action has risks, including doing nothing."
- Rancho Dos Palmas was built in the 1920s out of handmade adobe brick.
- German-born entrepreneur Gertrude S. Tenderich converted the ranch into a guest lodge in the 1930s.
- John Hilton, noted desert landscape artist and legendary guide to General George S. Patton, once worked as a handyman at the ranch.
- Rancho Dos Palmas and the nearby bunkhouse are the last remaining structures at Dos Palmas Preserve, a marshy desert oasis near the northeast margin of the Salton Sea that is home to many threatened and endangered, as well as more common, animal species.
- The oasis was once a Bradshaw Stagecoach stop, and later a station for the Southern Pacific Railroad.
The Desert Sun [Palm Springs]
by Jade Faugno
Its adobe walls have withstood the desert climate and visits from weary travelers and prospectors for more than 80 years.
But Rancho Dos Palmas may not survive the Bureau of Land Management's plans to demolish it if supporting organizations cannot prove the building is structurally sound - or come up with the money to make it so.
The Friends of Dos Palmas, with the support of Desert Alliance for Community Empowerment and Coachella Valley Community Trails Alliance, are working to preserve what they call "a link to the desert's rich past."
"It would be absolutely terrible to lose one of the last remaining adobes in the area," said Jennie Kelly, chair of the North Shore Community Council and a Friend of Dos Palmas.
But the Bureau of Land Management contends the site has undergone too many changes to merit conservation.
"It doesn't look like the house it was in the 1930s," said John Kalish, field manager of the Bureau of Land Management's Palm Springs-South Coast field office.
"It does not have the historical integrity to necessitate preservation," Kalish said.
Connected to the Dos Palmas Oasis in North Shore, the ranch house once served as a stopover for stagecoaches and, in subsequent decades, Hollywood stars. It now stands unoccupied on lands designated by the Bureau of Land Management as a wildlife refuge.
"All of the funding goes into restoring the wildlife habitat, the purpose for which the lands were intended," Kalish said.
To save the ranch house, the Friends of Dos Palmas must prove not only the house's historical significance, but also its structural stability.
Friends of Dos Palmas cite an independent evaluation that states the adobe shows "no evidence of subsidence (e.g. cracks in the walls, deformed openings, inoperable doors and windows)," and is "not in a hazard area."
But Bureau engineers who evaluated the property deemed it structurally unsound.
"It doesn't meet safe standard building code," Kalish said.
Even advocates of the ranch's preservation say the building is only worth preserving if it can continue to stand without draining resources from other desert fixtures.
"It would be a shame (to demolish the house) if they can preserve it, if it isn't too great a cost," said Margit Chiriaco Rusche, a Rancho Dos Palmas supporter and one of the founders of the legendary, non-profit General Patton Memorial at Chiriaco Summit.
"I support having it available as a cultural resource, but only if it's economically and physically reasonable," she said.
According to Kalish, parties on both sides are continuing to discuss the future of Rancho Dos Palmas, and the demolition, if it happens, would not take place until December or January.
"There isn't any rush at all to demolish the old ranch house," Kalish said.
July 6, 2007
Las Vegas Business Press [Las Vegas, NV]
Ben Spillman, Review-Journal
The earliest a new commercial airport could relieve congestion at crowded McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is 2017.
But plans for the proposed Ivanpah airport near Jean are already being criticized by people who don't like the location about 25 miles south of McCarran and within six miles of a national preserve area in the California desert.
Sierra Club members and others concerned about spreading urban sprawl and congestion were among those whose comments on the proposed airport were distributed last week by the Federal Aviation Administration. Many of the complaints centered on how aircraft could impact the Mojave National Preserve and spread urban sprawl further south along Interstate 15.
The Clark County Department of Aviation, however, says a new airport is vital to maintain occupancy in Las Vegas hotel rooms and that other sites aren't as good as the Ivanpah location. Operations at Nellis Air Force Base, flight paths to and from McCarran and mountains are among the obstacles that make other potential sites less desirable.
July 5, 2007
By Andrew Edwards, Staff Writer
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin [Ontario, CA]
MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE - The job breaks down like this: A six-person crew has about three weeks to carry heavy tools along an eight-mile stretch of trail, digging earth and moving rocks in the High Desert heat.
The pay? Forget about it. Even showers are few and far between. And it's not like this is some chain-gang, either - people volunteered for the tiring work.
But sometimes just getting something done is its own reward.
"It was really fulfilling," volunteer Dustin Nelson, 15, of Maplewood, N.J., said about his first full day on the trail job.
Dustin is one of six high school students who got connected to the desert preserve through the Student Conservation Association. Their assignment: To restore the Hole-in-the-Wall to Mid Hills Trail that connects two campgrounds near the center of the Mojave National Preserve.
The teenagers were recruited from across the United States. Two paid supervisors oversee their efforts, and although the volunteers don't get any money, they can look forward to a backcountry camping trip at the end of their labors.
The Hole-in-the-Wall to Mid Hills Trail runs through the burn zone of 2005's Hackberry Complex Fire. The scorched and dead remains of Pinyon pines and junipers stretch across the landscape. On June 22, 2005, eight lightning strikes started a group of fires that blackened 70,000 acres of desert.
"No one had ever seen a fire burn that hot or intense," park Ranger Chris Mills said.
But the fire did not kill everything. Scattered stands of surviving trees still exist in this remote patch of the Mojave. The greenery that remains is impressive, but it's hard not to imagine how magnificent the park would appear had the fire not consumed a multitude of evergreens.
The trail was not harmed by the fire as much as the flash-flooding that followed the blaze, Mills said. The water damage caused many of the problems that student volunteers were assigned to repair.
The crew was working on a slope about 5,600 feet above sea level recently. The weather was hot and dry - but not as scorching as a typical day in the Victor Valley.
The work required heavy tools like rock bars and McLeods, basically a rake-shovel hybrid. The crew re-routed an uphill portion of the trail into new switchbacks and dug channels and rearranged rocks so future rainfall would be diverted away from the trail, protecting the path from erosion.
"This is the hardest part," said 18-year-old volunteer Hailey Lankowski of Washington, D.C. while she and two others used their McLeods to flatten an uphill section of trail and dig a small ditch for runoff.
On the second full day of work, with nearly eight miles of trail to rehabilitate, the crew had progressed about 300 yards down the path. Still, Lankowski and the others working at her side were optimistic that they would finish the job.
Even if they don't make it, Mills said future hikers would have a better trail than they would have had the volunteers not come to the desert.
"They may not be able to fix everything, but they'll fix the worst places," she said.
July 4, 2007
A tiny, endangered fish discovered thriving in test ponds near the Salton Sea may be good news for the species but could be bad news for those who donated property for a scientific experiment.Federal scientists last year created the shallow ponds dotted with small islands to see if they would attract any of the 400 bird species that frequent the Salton Sea, which is on the verge of an ecological collapse.
The sea, which straddles Riverside and Imperial counties, will shrink significantly beginning in 2017 as a result of farm water that drains into the lake being diverted to San Diego taps.
The test ponds will help determine whether the lake can remain a key stopover for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway. If so, larger versions of the ponds would be carved into the seabed as the shoreline recedes.
Recently, rare pupfish thought only to live in the sea and a couple of tributaries were found in large numbers in the test ponds, southeast of the sea near Niland. The discovery means the local irrigation district, which owns the land, is concerned that it may be required to maintain the newly created habitat after the three-year pilot program ends.
Water is continuously pumped from the sea and a nearby river and catapulted through a 1.5-mile pipeline to maintain the test ponds. Scientists say the 2-inch fish somehow survived the trip even though the pump is designed to keep them out.
"How they made that wild ride ... that's probably the best E-ticket ride anyone could have," said Douglas Barnum, the U.S. Geological Survey scientist in charge of the pilot project.
The similar-size Delta smelt, also an imperiled fish, has not been so fortunate. Much larger pumps on the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta that supply drinking water to the Inland area were turned off recently because they were chewing up the smelt.
An Unexpected Discovery
An eyeball estimate showed more than 1,000 pupfish in three of the four 25-acre test ponds, Barnum said. A series of surveys would be needed to find out how many juvenile fish actually make it into adulthood.
While the discovery could lead to boosting the population of an endangered species, it raises questions for the Imperial Irrigation District, the water agency that let the USGS use its land for the test ponds, free of charge.
"I don't want to be so defiant as to say their experiment went awry so it's their problem to fix, but I do want to sort of underscore the notion that I.I.D. was simply being a good partner," said Kevin Kelley, a district spokesman.
"This unexpected and unintended development is a concern to us for precisely the reason ... that it creates an open question as to how we're going to mitigate this problem."
Any animal protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and the similar state law could require measures to protect the species from slipping further toward extinction. The Delta smelt case is one example.
In the Inland region, development has been curtailed in Colton on land where the endangered Delhi Sands flower-loving fly ekes out an existence.
Kelley said he is unsure if regulatory agencies will require the district to continuously fill the ponds with water, a rare commodity in the hot desert, once the pilot project is completed.
He said the district's board meets Tuesday and will discuss the issue.
Greg Hurner, senior adviser to California Fish and Game Director Ryan Broddrick, said there's no easy answer.
The situation is complicated, he said, because it involves several agencies and possible regulatory issues. In addition, the Salton Sea is the subject of a proposed $8.9 billion restoration plan by the state that includes efforts to help the pupfish, Hurner said.
"It's not like someone built a pond on their property and the red-legged frog showed up," Hurner said, of that threatened amphibian.
Hurner said in the short term, the state would require the USGS to get a so-called take permit to do any scientific studies or make any changes to the ponds. Requirements for the long-term management of the ponds, possibly by the water district, would depend on a number of factors.
"We'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it," he said.
The pupfish were named for their puppy-like behavior in which they aggressively dart at intruders and nip at their tails.
The pupfish were in the ponds for about a month before the researchers, who wade through the ponds searching for bird nests, began thinking they were more than just an average fish.
USGS fisheries biologist Michael Saiki positively identified the pupfish. The fish have tan-to-olive bodies, but the males turn bright blue with yellow or orange fins and tail during breeding season.
In a statement, Saiki said the majority of pupfish in the ponds are juveniles, suggesting that breeding was taking place there.
Barnum said the discovery provides a unique opportunity to determine how salinity, temperature and predators affect the rare creatures.
Their decline is blamed on the introduction of exotic fish species, including tilapia, and habitat degradation due to water diversion and invasive plants.
July 1, 2007
Legislation that would codify the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS), a Clinton-era initiative the Bureau of Land Management uses to manage "protective designations" such as National Monuments, is moving quickly through the 110th Congress.
The Bureau of Land Management established national guidelines through the NLCS for the management of National Monuments, National Conservation Areas, Wilderness Study Areas and other protective designations.
The legislation was formally introduced in both the House and Senate this last April. The bill's champion in the Senate, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), expects it to move quickly, saying, "Given the broad public support for these areas, I expect this bill to be non-controversial and it is my hope that it will be able to move quickly through the Congress and enactment into law." Bingaman chairs the Senate Energy Committee.
The Bush administration is supporting the bill, and BLM's Acting Director, James Hughes, said in Congressional testimony that the NLCS is "a significant part of the BLM's conservation efforts and is integral to the agency's overall multiple use mission."
But a look at some of the new management plans developed under the NLCS show quite a different story. Recent management plans for National Monuments in Utah, Arizona and Idaho focus on preservation far more than conservation. Recreational access, even non-motorized access, has been significantly reduced in these new plans.
Most stakeholders, including motorized advocacy groups, believe the NLCS is a fait accompli and see little change in future plans should the President sign the bill. "The agency has been moving away from multiple-use/sustained yield management for many years now. The NLCS legislation probably won't have any affect on future management one way or another," said Brian Hawthorne, BRC's Public Lands Policy Director.