May 30, 2008

S.B. County could be next stop for wind power

The Dillon Wind Power Project unveiled 45 new turbines in the Coachella Valley on Friday. The project would contribute to California s goal of producing 20 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2010. San Bernardino County could be next in line for wind farms. The proposal that is farthest along is in Apple Valley. (Eric Reed/Staff Photographer)

Lauren McSherry, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

PALM SPRINGS - On Friday morning, elected officials, environmentalists and energy company representatives heralded the unveiling of the Dillon Wind Power Project, a group of 45 turbines towering more than 300 feet above the Coachella Valley.

Experts were quick to talk about how the project will reduce California's carbon footprint. Missing from the discussion, though, was a revelation with big import for San Bernardino County.

Energy companies are looking to higher elevations of San Bernardino County as the next frontier for renewable energy.

The Palm Springs wind farms have been built out, and there are few options other than upgrading their aging turbines.

A number of proposals have been submitted to the state Bureau of Land Management, but one - a proposal that would build up to 28 turbines six miles east of Apple Valley and is the farthest along in the approval process - could be San Bernardino County's first wind farm.

The company behind the $130 million plan, Granite Mountain Wind in Redlands, says it will help California meet its goal of producing 20 percent of its energy from renewable energy sources by 2010.

The proposal's 410-foot ridgeline turbines, however, have created controversy. Some residents have said property values could be affected, scenic views could be lost and wildlife corridors could be blocked by roads.

And the project still has some hurdles. The California Public Utilities Commission must approve the agreement between Granite Mountain Wind and Southern California Edison, which would buy the energy. A decision is expected by the end of the summer. The project must also make it through the environmental review process, which is being overseen by the county and the BLM.

Although Carl Zichella, regional staff director of the Sierra Club, spoke in support of the Dillon wind farm Friday, he said he could not comment on the Granite Mountain Wind project.

Other proposed wind projects in the High Desert include an application for up to 36 turbines just northeast of Apple Valley on Sidewinder Mountain, which was submitted to the BLM by Orion Energy Group, owned by energy behemoth BP Amoco PLC, according to BLM documents.

Another wind farm is proposed for 3,100 acres in Johnson Valley, northeast of Lucerne Valley. Up to 34 425-foot turbines could be built.

Sierra Renewables is studying three potential wind farms between Barstow and Baker, said Gill Howard, project manager with Sierra Renewables, which is the parent company of Granite Wind Energy.

Howard said the Granite Mountain project alone would mean a substantial investment in the local economy.

About $12 million would go toward construction. Money that will go toward hiring local contractors and buying construction materials, she said.

In addition, Granite Mountain Wind would pay $1 million in property taxes to the county each year, and 17 jobs would be created, she said.

"And that's just one project," she said. "If we were to do some of the others, we would be looking at much higher numbers than that."

Solar energy projects audited

Impact on West to be analyzed

Las Vegas Review-Journal

DENVER -- The federal government is launching a broad-scale environmental analysis of solar energy projects on public land in six Western states.

The Bureau of Land Management said Thursday that it will consider whether to establish a systemwide program for large-scale solar energy projects. It will work with the Department of Energy on exploring potential environmental, economic and social impacts of the projects in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

Rebecca Watson helped shape the BLM's first solar energy policy in 2004 as the assistant secretary for land and minerals management in the U.S. Department of the Interior. There were no applications from companies interested in developing large solar projects on federal land then, but Watson said the agency "wanted to get ahead of the curve."

Now, there are 125 applications pending for rights of way on federal land for solar projects.

"So, there's a real interest in renewable energy by utility companies," said Watson, who as an attorney in Denver represents some of those companies.

That interest exists among international companies as well as small startups, she added.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said in a written statement Thursday that renewable energy will help the country meet its energy needs.

"Expanded solar energy development is part of the solution, placing more control over energy supply in the hands of America," Kempthorne said.

The BLM will consider various alternatives in an environmental impact statement, which would amend the agency's land-use plans in the six states. A similar analysis was done in 2005 for wind energy on federal land in 11 states.

Lands that will be excluded from the solar energy review include national monuments; areas designated as wilderness or under study for the designation; wild and scenic rivers; and national historic sites.

Additional environmental analysis would be done for individual projects.

Phil Hanceford of The Wilderness Society said he welcomes the BLM review.

"We do realize that solar energy development has great potential in the Southwest in general, and not just on federal land," Hanceford said.

Some of the best spots for solar energy development in the West are near large cities, such as Las Vegas, he added.

Hanceford said he agreed with BLM's approach of determining the best areas for solar energy and where plants shouldn't be built before development starts.

May 27, 2008

AZ governor vetoes rights-of-way claims bill

Associated Press

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano on Tuesday vetoed a bill (SB1264) that would have had the state assert claims to rights of way that the state or local governments may have had on public land held between 1866 and 1976.

Bipartisan support for wilderness bill

By Ken Koerner, Staff
Inyo Register

U.S. Congressman Buck McKeon shares details of his wilderness legislation during a press conference in Bishop on May 23. Photo by Ken Koerner

Under bipartisan legislation recently introduced in both bodies of the U.S. Congress, more than 400,000 acres of wilderness in Inyo and Mono Counties and 45 miles of the Owens River Headwaters and Death Valley’s Amargosa River could have their wild heritage preserved.

In addition, there could also be another 40,000-plus acres of wilderness and several more miles of “wild and scenic river” protected in the northern San Gabriel Mountains in the Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valleys of Southern California.
During a press conference held Friday afternoon at the Eastern Sierra Regional Airport in Bishop, 25th District U.S. Congressman Buck McKeon announced the introduction of his House Resolution No. 6156 bill, written to provide this conservation protection.

“I am pleased that after years of working with local leaders, wilderness activists and recreational enthusiasts, we finally have a practical solution to preserving the wild heritage of the 25th Congressional District,” McKeon said. “I also want to thank Senator (Barbara) Boxer for playing such a critical role in crafting legislation that meets the needs of all the key stakeholders. With this legislation, we are increasing economic development by preserving land treasured by many and enhancing recreational opportunities in the area.”

Addressing the companion legislation that Boxer has introduced in the U.S. Senate, McKeon acknowledged that their sometimes “divergent” political perspectives did not impede their ability to forge a successful alliance to further this shared agenda.

“Working with Senator Boxer on this has really been encouraging. I feel that together we’ve achieved more than either of us may have initially anticipated would be possible,” McKeon said. “Barbara really wants to make sure that this bill will move forward and that we can accomplish this important goal for our constituents – and all those that visit this remarkable area.”

For her part, Senator Boxer’s office has released a statement mirroring her sense that a genuine consensus has guided this legislative effort.

“I am thrilled that Congressman Buck McKeon and I, together with countless local officials and residents, were able to forge a bipartisan compromise to protect these truly spectacular lands,” Boxer stated. “From the majestic High Sierra to the stunning White Mountains and their ancient Bristlecone Pine forests, to the beautiful northern San Gabriel Mountains, Californians will be able to enjoy this striking beauty forever. We will continue to work together to make sure that this natural legacy can be left to our grandchildren and their grandchildren.”

Boxer and McKeon’s Eastern Sierra and Northern San Gabriel Wild Heritage Act legislation will, if enacted, give wilderness designations – the highest level of protection and conservation for federal lands – to a total of 472,803 acres of public federal lands and 52 miles of wild and scenic rivers.

The tracts of public lands to be provided protection under the proposed legislation includes, according to an informational packet handed out by the California Wild Heritage Campaign:

  • White Mountain Wilderness: America’s largest and highest desert mountain range, which contains the largest expanse of alpine tundra in western North America, the highest peak in the Great Basin, the second largest “unprotected roadless area” in the lower 48 states and is home to world’s oldest living trees, the ancient Bristlecone Pines.
  • Hoover Wilderness Additions: The northern Hoover Additions (“west” and “east”) includes 12 miles of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail and the headwaters of the West Walker River. The southern portion, mostly high plateaus rising above the west shore of Mono Lake, is home to a reintroduced population of the endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep.
  • Granite Mountain Wilderness: East of Mono Lake, Granite Mountain is a varied landscape that contains sage grouse, deer migration corridors, raptor nesting sites and wild horses.
  • Owens River Headwaters Wilderness: More than 100 seeps and springs form the headwaters of the Owens River, just east of the San Joaquin ridge between Mammoth and June Lakes. Considered the most important Eastern Sierra river system, the area includes Glass Creek Meadow and the region’s largest old growth red fir forest.
  • John Muir Wilderness Additions: The legislation would move the current wilderness boundary down from the crest to include more of the steep Eastern Sierra scarp.
  • Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness: This area is located south of Palmdale/Lancaster on the north slope of the San Gabriel Mountains and includes 8,200-foot Mt. Williamson and the headwaters of Little Rock Creek.
  • Magic Mountain Wilderness Noted as a “scenic backdrop to the Santa Clarita Valley, Magic Mountain’s chaparral-covered hillsides and live oak canyons drain into the Santa Clara River.”
  • Amargosa Wild & Scenic River: The only river flowing into Death Valley, the Amargosa supports more than 280 bird species, including several which are identified as threatened or endangered.
  • Owens Headwaters Wild & Scenic Rivers: The Owens River headwaters include Glass Creek, Deadman Creek and Big Springs, supporting one of America’s most noted and popular trout fisheries.
  • Piru Creek Wild & Scenic River: Located northwest of Castaic, Piru Creek is one of the few year-round catch and release trout fishing streams in southern California.
According to information provided by both McKeon and Boxer, their bills, drafted to cover the above areas, have resulted from a unique collaborative effort based upon input from local community leaders, leading conservation groups, sportsmen, public lands access advocates and business owners.

Representative McKeon stated that he has been working to preserve and enhance recreational opportunities in the Eastern Sierra with these stakeholders since his election to office in 2001. With this bipartisan effort moving on parallel tracks in both bodies of Congress, he anticipates that such efforts will now be rewarded.

“I think she (Sen. Boxer) can definitely get this done (passage of her bill in the U.S. Senate) over there,” McKeon said, “and I think we can certainly get it done in the House.”

McKeon also noted his confidence that the joint effort will culminate in gaining support from the White House.

“I think that President Bush will clearly see the value in this shared bill for our District,” said McKeon, “and I absolutely believe I will gain his support in signing this well-designed legislation.”

McKeon, noting his recent successful interaction with the President, said, “I’ve been in the Oval Office on a couple of recent occasions, to witness President Bush signing bills into law that I’ve worked on just as hard – and for which I felt equally committed to their value.”

May 26, 2008

Desert Tortoise Population Dwindles

The Desert Tortoise, which has lived and maintained virtually the same look for over 200 million years, is now dwindling in the southwestern desert of Utah. The population of this fascinating creature has decreased substantially in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve since 2000. Eight years ago there were an estimated 3,200 tortoises roaming the reserve’s 62,000 acres, and now that number has dropped to 1,700.

A biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in St. George, Ann McLuckie, is concerned about the species which spends 95 percent of its time underground. She is fascinated by the tortoise; its shell can span 15 inches across, it bobs its head oddly during courtship, and it makes bizarre hissing, grunting, and whooping noises.

The Desert Tortoise is federally protected and lives predominantly in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve in Utah’s Washington County, which was established 12 years ago to protect wildlife from human intrusion . The species has benefited from this protection, but has fallen prey to other circumstances.

The Desert Tortoise, although a desert dweller, can only live so long during a drought. When freestanding water dries, the tortoise eats less and tends to weaken, due to their inability to digest food and expel salt.

Other predators such as fires which destroy the primary food sources of the tortoise - cacti, grasses, and wildflowers - threaten their longevity.

Coyotes have also become predators; as recent fires have destroyed their primary food sources, they have shifted their diets to tortoises. According to McLuckie, the Desert Tortoise is feeling the long term impacts of a large fire which spread through the reserve in 2005.

Due to stress from fire and drought, there is a concern that the already-weak tortoises may be more susceptible to an upper respiratory infection, which was first discovered in Utah’s tortoise population in the 1970s. McLuckie says that stress in a population can “exacerbate the disease”.

Roy Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Reno, Nevada, is especially concerned with the mortality rates in the Red Cliffs area. In the past, it was seen as a stronghold for the Desert Tortoise, but its density has decreased and mortality rates have increased in the past few years.

Bringing more tortoises to the area has been informally proposed, but keeping track of the animals can be difficult due to the percentage of time they spend underground. Tracking devices are affixed to some of the tortoises. Averill-Murray claimed, "We know they can live 60 years in the wild and even longer in captivity. They can even live longer than the researchers studying them."

Route 66 museum celebrates eight years

By Helen Bendure
Desert Dispatch

The Route 66 Mother Road Museum is busy preparing to celebrate their eight years of service to this area. This special event will be Saturday, June 14 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. There are no admission or parking fees.

The museum is at 681 North First Ave., from West Main Street, take First Avenue north and then take the first turn right after crossing the bridge over the railroad tracks.

Most years they have held their anniversary on a Saturday about mid-June in the museum and the area surrounding historic Casa del Desierto, Barstow’s Harvey House. The grand opening was July 4, 2000. But with July 4 activities already planned and some miles apart, the day was not a very good one for another important event. Future museum anniversaries were held at an earlier date.

Most years, a very popular car show has been presented, and it will be this year also. It is open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The show is open to all vehicles regardless of year including stock, classic, un-restored, motorcycles and hot rods. Pre-registration is $15. Beginning June 9, the fee will be increased to $20. The first 75 entries will receive goody bags plus a free regular car wash from Sparkle Car Wash. At least 10 special trophy awards designed and hand crafted by Eddie Cordova will be presented to winners. Vendors will display motor merchandise for sale.

The museum always has interesting displays and history items and a exceptionally fine gift shop so make it a point to visit there.

There is to be a super raffle with lots of prizes. One prize is a certificate to “Sleep in a Wigwam” in Rialto, (a favorite among travelers). The committee will work until the last moment to gather more prizes and surprises. If you have items for the raffle or goody bags items to give, please contact Debra Hodkin through the museum.

DJ Kev Dog will be returning to announce and play those popular 1950s, oldies and hotrod tunes to the delight of everyone.

Route 66 has added spots to feature noted personalities who wish to show support to Route 66 and the museum here. Look for noted artists Phil Yeh of the comic book “Dinosaurs Across Route 66” and cartoonist Phil Ortiz of The Simpsons. Joe de Kehoe will be present with his book, “The Silence and the Sun” published in 2007. The book is well researched, visually effective with dozens of pictures giving historical account of people, places and events on old Route 66 in Eastern Mojave Desert. There will be book signing.

Albert Chura of the Route 66 town of Amboy will have food available. Manoj Patel of the famous “Wigwams in Rialto” will be on hand. Expect lots of vendors— for food, gifts and displays for your enjoyment.

Debra Hodkin, Museum Curator and Manager, said, “It will be a fun family affair!”

And she is looking for volunteers to help with the celebration. Let her know if you will help.

The Mother Road 66 Museum is open Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 255-1890 for information during open hours or leave a message or check the Web site

Event flyers and vendor applications ($25, each) may be downloaded from the Web site. And the WARM (railroad museum) is also free and “next door” — another good place to visit.

And do mark your calendars for the 2008 Route 66 Museum anniversary celebration on Saturday, June 14 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Needles casts an envious eye elsewhere

The desert town, feeling slighted for years, considers joining booming Nevada or Arizona. But there are doubts on both sides of the Colorado River.

By David Kelly, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

NEEDLES, CALIF. -- Depending on their mood and whom you talk to, people in this parched railroad town clinging to the eastern edge of California call it the poor stepchild, the redheaded stepchild, the ugly stepchild of San Bernardino County.

They grouse about not getting their roads paved, about being 220 miles from the county seat, about being a dumping ground for parolees and sex offenders -- all the while gazing enviously across the Colorado River at boomtowns in Arizona and Nevada.

"The building codes are stricter here, the taxes are higher," said Patricia Scott, a nurse. "I cross into Arizona and it's growing by leaps and bounds. We are the only community in the tri-state area that hasn't grown, and it's probably because we are in California."

Kohl's, Target and Sam's Club stand like beacons on the not-so-distant shore. Gas is almost a dollar a gallon cheaper across the river. Casinos beckon. Cities mushroom. And Needles slowly fades away.

"Have you been downtown?" asked City Councilman Richard Pletcher. "It's like little Hiroshima. It's HiroNeedles."

Resentment has been mounting for years, but the county's decision to reduce the Colorado River Medical Center, the town's once proud hospital, to a small urgent-care facility has sparked open rebellion. Needles is now considering leaving California to join Nevada or Arizona or to create its own independent county.

"This is not a publicity stunt. We are serious about secession," said former Mayor and Councilman Roy Mills. "Look at Nevada, they are booming. Look at Arizona, they are booming. We want to level the playing field. I was initially skeptical about splitting off, but the more I learn about it, the more doable it seems."

In many ways, people here have already left; they just haven't moved. They often dine, shop and work across the river. Their schools' sports teams compete against teams in Nevada and Arizona, not California. And for fun they usually head to Las Vegas, Lake Havasu or Laughlin, not west to Barstow.

"I think leaving California may be our last chance," Pletcher said. "Are we supposed to just dwindle down to a puff of smoke?"

A city commission is investigating the options. Not that leaving would be easy. Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress would have to approve.

"It will be tremendously challenging, but people don't feel their voices are being heard," said City Manager William Way. "At one time, Needles was the place to be. Now it's struggling to find itself, find its place in the sun, so to speak."

Founded in 1893 with the arrival of the railroad and named after the pointy mountains south of town, Needles calls itself "The Best Kept Secret on the Colorado River." But the sun-blasted city is struggling.

A handful of businesses dot old Route 66 as it meanders through the dusty downtown past decades-old burger joints, weathered Craftsman homes and the gritty railroad depot. Shade is scarce, and the temperature can hit 125 degrees.

Yet this tightly knit community rallies when threatened.

In 1965, it prevented the rerouting of I-40 through Searchlight, Nev., a move officials believed saved Needles from winding up a ghost town. And in the late 1990s, it helped fight off attempts to put a nuclear waste dump in Ward Valley, 22 miles to the west.

The 25-bed hospital is the latest battleground. It has treated patients for 56 years and remains one of the few services residents don't need to cross a bridge to use.

Needles took over the hospital itself. To cut costs, staffers are working without benefits or overtime. Yard sales are being held to raise money.

"The county of San Bernardino has never liked us. We have always been their ugly stepchild," said Pam Andrade, a respiratory therapist. "They led us to believe they would turn this place around. They are like a lying spouse in a relationship that keeps lying and lying, and eventually you can't believe anything they say."

Brad Mitzelfelt, a San Bernardino County supervisor who represents Needles, disputes that. The town is home to 11 county offices and benefits from numerous county services, including a library, an airport, a regional park and law enforcement, he said.

"Needles may be better served in another state, but that's because California has a disadvantageous business climate that hurts them when they try to compete against Nevada or Arizona," he said.

Tom Bright owned two NAPA Auto Parts stores -- one in Bullhead City, Ariz., one in Needles. He said he paid 10 times more in workers' compensation insurance in California than in Arizona. A gas can at his Needles shop cost $19.99. In Arizona, it was $5.99. He sold chemicals and paint in Arizona that he couldn't sell in California because of environmental regulations.

"The labor laws, the overtime laws, the environmental laws are all stricter in California," he said. "If you were to fly over Needles, then over Lake Havasu, Bullhead, Laughlin, you would see that Needles hasn't grown at all. I'd be happy if it left."

Bright already has. He recently moved to Arizona.

But quitting the state is an uphill battle for the city.

With the exception of West Virginia's leaving Virginia during the Civil War, American secession movements generally have failed.

Wendover, Utah, tried to join West Wendover, Nev., in 2002, a move derailed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

In the late 1980s, San Bernardino County voters rejected an attempt to create a county running from the Cajon Pass to Needles. And a group of Northern California and southern Oregon counties declared the independent state of Jefferson in 1941. The movement lives on today with its own flag, radio station and "interim capital" at Yreka.

"There is more and more talk about secession, not just here but all over the country," said Brian Peterson, a Jefferson spokesman. "The government is out of touch with our individual lives. I would tell Needles to stick with it, keep your head and have a goal in mind. Is secession what you really want, or do you want to feel empowered?"

That raises another question: If Needles were to secede, would anyone want it?

Councilman Mills thinks so.

"Nevada would get 15 miles of shoreline where they could put up a casino or other developments," he said. "This is not a lopsided situation."

Others aren't so sure.

"In terms of whether they are better off, they need to look at more than just the business climate and weigh the services they get now," said Virginia Valentine, manager and chief executive for Clark County, Nev., which would absorb Needles if it joined that state.

"It's true we have no state income taxes, but the idea that we have more money for services . . . well, I don't know if that's the case."

Mayor Jeff Williams thinks the whole thing is a bad idea.

"The county has bent over backward to help us," he said. "I think this is saber-rattling. But I want to look at it objectively. What will we lose? What will we gain? Is it even possible? I don't want to bash the county and then have this effort fail. Then we really will be the redheaded stepchild."

In town, talk of secession is often met with a raised eyebrow or wry grin. Yet it taps into a sense of alienation just under the surface.

"I think it's extremely ridiculous in this day and age that the county supervisors can't come out and see what we need," said Sandi DeLeon, part owner of the Country Garden Cottage shop downtown. "They think this is Egypt out here. They may get lost and wander around the desert for 40 years."

Leina Kaylor said loving Needles takes time.

"When you first drive through, it is hot and ugly -- and it isn't until you stop and meet the people that you realize what a nice place it is," she said.

Barely a mile from downtown, along the river, Needles feels very different. It's as much as 10 degrees cooler beside the broad ribbon of blue. The homes are well-tended, the views stunning. This is the "coastline" some believe is Needles' best selling point to a new state.

Jack Murray, 82, likes it too. He likes to sit in his front room and watch the ducks float by. He likes gazing at the desert. And he loves Needles -- Needles, Calif.

"It's so calming and peaceful here," said the retired locomotive engineer. "I think having a hospital is vital, but I don't think leaving California is a real good idea. I think it's utter nonsense in all reality. I'm happy right where I'm at."

May 25, 2008

Environment a contradiction for Babbitt

Ex-governor's critics question his motives

by Dennis Wagner
The Arizona Republic

Jack Kurtz/The Arizona Republic
Former Governor, Secretary of the Interior and Democratic Presidential candidate Bruce Babbitt hikes the trails in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve.

In nearly 40 years of public service, Bruce Babbitt developed a reputation for defending endangered species, trying to undam rivers and setting aside wilderness areas.

But the onetime Arizona governor and former Interior secretary also has worked as a lobbyist for developers, a lawyer for industry and a speculator in public lands.

Today, though Babbitt is chairman of the World Wildlife Fund, some environmental groups paint him in a different hue of green - the color of money.

The turncoat criticism is so harsh and passionate that Northern Arizona University several months ago erased Babbitt's name from a series of conservation seminars because of opposition from conservation groups.

In some ways, the controversy over Babbitt's environmental record is in sync with paradoxes that have defined much of his storied career.

He grew up in one of Arizona's most prominent ranching families but never rode the range. He majored in geology yet wound up with a Harvard law degree. He is painfully shy as a public figure, with a Jimmy Stewart stammer, yet ran for president.

In a book on Arizona politicians, University of Arizona Professor James W. Johnson characterizes Babbitt as "the perfect combination of Eastern slick and Western hick."

Yet the seeming contradictions of his ecological niche are the most perplexing. How does someone write a book on the importance of preserving open spaces yet advocate housing tracts on pristine California coastal properties where endangered critters live?

Why would Babbitt serve as legal counsel for a ski resort that wanted to spray man-made snow on the San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff despite objections from Native Americans? Years ago, he had joined tribal members in proclaiming the mountains sacred.

"I still don't understand it," said Sandy Bahr, a Sierra Club Southwest representative. "We and the tribes were all really disappointed . . . a sense of betrayal."

Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Lands Project, said as Interior secretary, Babbitt oversaw enormous trades of federal property in the name of conservation - deals that Blaeloch describes as public rip-offs.

The sharpest criticism comes from muckraking journalists Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, who wrote in an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times: "No better case for cynicism about politics is currently available than the career of Bruce Babbitt."

Babbitt, 69, shrugs off the aspersions as an inevitable part of public life.

"There are going to be critics, and you just can't be spooked by it," he said, sipping coffee after a hike at Piestewa Peak on a visit to the Valley from his Washington, D.C., base.

"I've always had my differences with the orthodox environmental community, which is premised on a view that we are opposed to all development. I've never been in that sphere. I've always been into managed development.

"People want to grab me and say, 'Hey, you're an environmentalist. You're one of us, 100 percent.' Never have been, never will be."

Arizona roots

Reared in Flagstaff, Babbitt was heir to an empire of ranches, trading posts and mining claims. The Babbitt name is a touchstone of Arizona history, tracing back to five Babbitt brothers and their enterprises in the late 19th century. For Bruce Babbitt, a relative of one of the brothers, wilderness was in his blood. He roamed Arizona's forests and deserts to hunt, fish and explore, fascinated with the science and history.

"My commitment to the outdoors was never about ranching," he said. "It was just an instinctive attachment to the landscape."

Babbitt settled on a career in geology, earned his degree at Notre Dame and then accepted a Marshall Scholarship to the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England.

While working as an intern with a petroleum company in the Andes, Babbitt said, he became more interested in working with the poor than looking for oil. In the mid-1960s, he entered Harvard Law School and wound up marching with civil-rights demonstrators in the South. After graduation, he spent two years doing anti-poverty work with Volunteers in Service to America.

Babbitt said he realized that politics, even more than law, offered remedies for social injustice. He returned to Phoenix and went to work as a lawyer, became politically active and was elected attorney general in 1974 at age 36.

Four years later, after the death of Gov. Wesley Bolin, Babbitt became governor by succession.

He won two subsequent elections, and supporters reel off a list of accomplishments that include creation of the state's Department of Environmental Quality and signing America's first groundwater protection law.

Babbitt said the latter act forever identified him as a conservationist even though his motive, in part, was to ensure that future generations could grow.

"We can easily look at the groundwater code and say it's a developer law," he said. "I never really thought of myself as an environmentalist until my governor years, when people started giving me awards."

Eye on the White House

From his office at the state Capitol, Babbitt gained national attention as co-founder of the Democratic Leadership Council and chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

The New York Times pointed to him as an emerging leader in "neo-liberalism," which embraced traditional Democratic goals of social justice and civil rights along with conservative limitations on government size.

Babbitt launched a presidential campaign in 1987 and toured the nation. But he never caught on with voters. (His favorite quip: "We were in it right up to the beginning.")

In 1994, when Babbitt was appointed by President Clinton to head the Interior Department, environmental leaders were elated. Sierra Club Southwest spokesman Rob Smith called the selection "very good news for the environment."

Babbitt announced that his theme would be restoration of public lands so "we can create, or re-create, a landscape that was seen by Lewis and Clark, Kit Carson and our forebears." He traveled the nation calling for dams to be torn down. He introduced a forest protection philosophy that, for the first time, recognized wildfire as a natural part of healthy ecosystems. He defended the Endangered Species Act from political attacks and, in his own words, "saved it from extinction."

Industry groups and conservatives assailed Babbitt as a "green barbarian," decrying his efforts to increase mine royalties and grazing fees on public lands.

At the same time, some environmentalists began criticizing federal-land swaps supported by Babbitt that they alleged gave sweetheart terms to developers.

Babbitt said he was working for citizens, not special interests, but got caught in a crossfire between extremists. The federal exchanges ensured protection for wilderness areas, he said, while providing industries with lands for economic development that provided jobs and resources.

He said he learned that environmental purists inevitably fail because they push too far, undermining economic growth and alienating the public. "Green dogma is a ticket to oblivion," he said.

Fred DuVal, a friend for 25 years who served with Babbitt on political campaigns and at Interior, said eco-critics make DuVal heartsick because they are so far off base. Babbitt achieved conservation while others whined or pontificated, but he is so modest he refused to allow any monument to be named for him, Duval said. "It frustrates me because his accomplishments have eroded from public memory so quickly, and they are so profound," he added.

During eight years at the Interior Department, DuVal said, Babbitt helped set aside more wilderness than ever before in U.S. history. He wielded the Endangered Species Act to block damaging development. He worked to create nearly 10 million acres of new national monuments, five in Arizona. He also returned wolves to Yellowstone National Park and shepherded laws protecting the Everglades and other endangered treasures.

"He's certainly an environmentalist," said Mike Gauldin, former spokesman at the Interior Department. "But he's also had to learn how to get things done . . . . Sometimes that involves making concessions around the edges."

Snow Bowl saga

As the Clinton administration was closing, Babbitt received a prestigious national award for creating the National Landscape Conservation System and initiating "a new direction in American conservation history."

Then he joined Latham & Watkins, a Beltway law firm with a Darth Vader reputation among environmentalists. Within weeks, Babbitt was supporting plans for a nuclear-waste dump in Nevada and working with Arizona developers on land-swap deals.

But the Snow Bowl episode is what really crushed conservationists. While heading the Interior Department in 2000, Babbitt had joined Native Americans and conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, in a successful campaign to shut down pumice mining on the alpine peaks overlooking his hometown.

"This mountain is sacred in my religion," Babbitt declared at the time. "The first Franciscan missionaries saw this mountain from the Hopi mesas and named it after the founder of their order, after Saint Francis, who is the patron saint of ecology. What I see here today . . . is purely and simply a sacrilege."

Five years later, Babbitt was in federal court defending the ski resort's plan to cut down trees and spray the slopes with frozen, treated wastewater. Although Babbitt is no longer involved, an opposition Web site still shows his double image with a caption that calls him "the two-faced politician."

Babbitt said he joined Latham & Watkins to earn a living and represented only clients or causes he respected. He denied any betrayal. He defended snowmaking on an existing recreation site in the national forest as an "appropriate use" and said treated wastewater would not desecrate the holy mountain.

But resentment in his hometown remains palpable: This spring, a public furor erupted at Northern Arizona University when plans were announced to offer a "Bruce Babbitt Lecture Series on Western Conservation." Protests ended when the former governor's name was dropped from the title.

An obscure bird

Babbitt acknowledged shifting his position on at least one other issue, leading to accusations of hypocrisy.

While at the Interior Department, he listed the California gnatcatcher as a threatened species and used it to establish a building moratorium across much of Southern California's coast.

After leaving office, however, Babbitt went to work for several companies planning megadevelopments in the area. One of them, Washington Mutual, came up with a $2 billion housing project at Ahmanson Ranch in Ventura County.

Babbitt declared the design a "national model of smart, innovative and environmentally responsible development." He also complained that the Endangered Species Act was too rigid and should be watered down.

Local activist Chad Griffin was so outraged that he told reporters, "Bruce Babbitt still sees green; it's just a different shade of green than he saw as Interior secretary."

Asked to explain, Babbitt said he came to believe that using an obscure subspecies to stop housing developments from Los Angeles to San Diego was a tactical error. Congress would have been so upset and under so much pressure that the Endangered Species Act would have been overturned, he said.

As it turned out, Babbitt said, Ahmanson Ranch had a classic win-win outcome: Outrage over the project prompted California to buy the property, so Washington Mutual made a profit and the public got a new state park.

Babbitt today

Today, Babbitt travels the globe as unpaid chairman for the World Wildlife Fund, the largest conservation organization in the world.

He no longer practices law or works as a lobbyist. He does some consulting.

He visits universities giving speeches about the threat of global warming. He calls for the removal of salmon-killing dams on the Snake River in Washington state. He goes before Congress seeking money for wildlife refuges.

He also was involved in a deal to give the National Park Service a private ranch next to Petrified Forest in return for developable federal land near Buckeye. Asked if the objective was to make money or protect nature, Babbitt shrugged. "Clearly, it is both."

More than anything, Babbitt said, he remains on a mission to press for land-use planning that recognizes the importance of open spaces, especially in Arizona. He cited Tucson as a limited success, metro Phoenix as a sprawling failure.

Meanwhile, Babbitt said he doesn't fret about a legacy.

"There's no need to do a lot of hand-wringing about that," he said. "In the sweep of time, the facts speak for themselves."

Mojave National Preserve an enjoyable way to experience the desert

Margo Bartlett Pesek
Las Vegas Review-Journal

Midhills campground

The Mojave National Preserve remains an underused outdoor resource for Southern Nevadans. Despite its proximity to this rapidly growing population center, the huge region of desert and mountains just across the California border, draws most of its visitors from points more distant in Southern California. Quite a few desert-loving foreigners also find their way to this preserve, but visitor volume never spoils the silence and solitude most travelers there to enjoy.

From Las Vegas, a drive of one and one-half to two hours, takes visitors to the interior of the Mojave National Preserve. Roughly bordered by Interstate 15, the Nipton-Searchlight Road, U.S. 95 and Interstate 40, the preserve sets aside an enormous triangle administered by the National Park Service. A few paved roads and 2,200 miles of other roads and rough tracks access the sprawling preserve, but more than half of it remains roadless.

The Mojave National Preserve contains enough variety in landscape to provide year-round recreational opportunities. When summer's heat makes its lowest elevations uncomfortably hot, visitors enjoy cooler temperatures in more mountainous parts of the preserve. Winter brings occasional snow to the higher elevations, but moderate temperatures down lower. Springtime often greets visitors with joyously colored wildflower displays, while autumn provides weeks of mild days and nights with a chilly edge.

If visitors from Southern Nevada have just a day to spend in the Mojave Preserve, they can sample its highlights on a loop trip to old Kelso Depot, an historic railroad structure now serving as an interpretative center, and nearby Kelso Dunes, mountainous sands among the highest in the nation. Head south on Interstate 15 past Primm to the Nipton Road exit. Drive four miles to the Morningstar Mine Road. Follow this paved road south 22 miles to Cima, Calif., then 19 miles to Kelso. The restored depot welcomes visitors daily. The dunes lie a few miles south, reached on foot from a parking area just off the highway. Return by taking Kelbaker Road from Kelso 34 miles through a forest of Joshua trees on Cima Dome to Baker, Calif., just 100 miles from Las Vegas on I-15.

Those with more time to spend should consider staying overnight or longer within the Mojave National Preserve. The preserve includes two developed family campsites, access to another at Providence Mountains State Recreation Area within the preserve, a group site suitable for horses and several undeveloped primitive sites. The National Park Service also allows backcountry camping just about anywhere, so long as the site lies half a mile from a road and a quarter of a mile from any water source.

If you are not in an RV or pulling a trailer, you can use the Cedar Canyon Road from a few miles south of Cima. The first few paved miles give way to a graded road. Swept by wildfire three years ago, the area continues to recover. Rough or sandy in places, this road heads east through foothills to Black Canyon Road. Turn there to reach near Mid-Hills Campground. The 26-unit campground situated in a woodland of pinyon and juniper partially burned. Campers find cooler temperatures at 5,600 feet. Bring firewood from home and be very careful of fires.

Hole-in-the-Wall Campground, the group and equestrian campground and an information station lie a few miles south of Black Canyon Road. Campers find a 35-unit main campsite and two walk-in tent sites at Hole-in-the-Wall. At 4,400 feet, temperatures are about what they are at Red Rock near Las Vegas. Fees at both developed campgrounds are $12 or $6 for those with park passes. One of the preserve's main trails connects the two developed campgrounds, an eight-mile trek. Ask at the ranger stations about other hiking trails.

Providence Mountains State Recreation Site offers a six-unit campsite, hiking trails and tours of Mitchell Caverns. It lies five miles off Black Canyon Road a few miles south of Hole-in-the-Wall. A modest entry fee, camping fee and cave tour fee apply. Those with RVs and trailers should approach this area from I-40 to the south. Access I-40 from the road through Kelso, I-15 at Barstow to the west or U.S. 95 to the east.

May 23, 2008

Off-roaders Leaving Environmentalists in the Dust

It's a zero-sum game between conservationists and four-wheelers, according to a University of Idaho academic, and one that those who favor the pristine can never win

By Melinda Burns

Off-roaders may be winning the battle for access to public lands, and there's not much environmentalists can do about it, according to a new study from the University of Idaho.

Because of their traditions and built-in policies, the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are inherently predisposed to favor motorized recreation, said Patrick Wilson, an associate professor of natural resource policy in the university's department of conservation social sciences.

Historically, Wilson said, the managers of public lands have focused on such uses as timber, mining and grazing. Now, he said, they're trying to accommodate an explosion in recreational use, especially by off-roaders. The agencies seek compromises because that's how American democracy resolves conflicting claims.

And they find it easier, Wilson said, to set aside specific areas for off-roaders than to defend "a diffuse set of indirect ecological values.

"If the foes of motorized recreational interests think they're going to see them off, they're wrong," he said. "The American system of government doesn't produce the outcomes that conservationists are asking for. Motorized recreation is going to ebb and flow, but it's here to stay. If you're interested in scaling back the use, it's going to be a lot harder than you think."

During the 1980s and 1990s, off-road driving of jeeps, cars, motorcycles, pickups and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) became one of the fastest-growing outdoor sports in the United States, a February 2008 Forest Service report shows. Between 1995 and 2003, the sales of off-road vehicles tripled to more than 1 million per year. Today, there are believed to be nearly 10 million such vehicles in the U.S. Nearly one in five Americans over the age of 16 has ridden one in the past year.

While off-road use on national forest lands has increased sevenfold during the past 30 years, Kathleen Mick, the program manager for motorized recreation in California's national forests, disputes Wilson's contention that off-roaders are getting the upper hand. The Forest Service, she said, now regards "unmanaged" recreation — such as off-roaders carving "doughnuts" in fragile meadows — as one of the four greatest threats to the health of the nation's forests and grasslands (along with fire, invasive species and the loss of open space).

Presently, 11 out of 18 forests in California allow off-roaders to travel cross-country, away from designated roads and trails. Under a federal order, though, most California forests have until late this year to draw up maps showing off-roaders where they can and can't go. The rest of the nation's forests have until 2010 to finish the maps.

"There won't be vast open acres of the national forest where people can drive where they want," Mick said. "Motor vehicles will be allowed on designated roads and trails. The federal agencies do a very delicate dance. Our mission has always boiled down to caring for the land and serving people, and we do our best to balance that."

But Wilson regards the forests' mapping effort as another win for off-roaders. He said it puts motorized recreation on a par with conservation, implicitly rejecting the premise that the primary goal should be to preserve the forest for future generations.

The story, Wilson said, is repeated at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, where the Park Service invested heavily during the 1950s in road expansion and winter lodging, paving the way for today's snowmobiles — and today's lawsuits.

After spending 10 years and $10 million on environmental studies, the Park Service recently imposed a cap of 540 snowmobiles per day at Yellowstone, down from 720, effective next November. The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club and other groups promptly filed suit, seeking to ban snowmobiles and allow only snowcoaches, a kind of tour bus on skis.

The International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association is trying to intervene in the case, and the State of Wyoming has sued, too, arguing that the reduced cap on snowmobiles is illegal.

"The ATV users have a lot of political clout," Wilson said. "They make the argument that the public lands are not exclusively for ecological protection. It's far easier for the ATVers to hold on to what they have than it is for the environmental community to overcome that."

Jay Turner, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Wellesley College, said Wilson's arguments are well-founded.

"He highlights for us the scale and scope and challenge that motorized recreation interests pose," Turner said.

"As larger-scale proposals for protecting the public land were broached by advocacy groups in the '80s and '90s and were actively considered by the Clinton administration, that made the motorized groups nervous. That's in part why they have organized as well and as effectively as they have."

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act, designating 71 new wilderness areas in the Mojave Desert. Wilderness areas are off-limits to motorized recreation, and some scholars point to the legislation as evidence that off-roaders may not be "winning." Just this month, they noted, President Bush signed into law the Wild Sky Wilderness, protecting 106,000 acres in the Washington Cascades.

Peter Alagona, a Harvard Environmental Fellow and a historian of land management, and Kevin Marsh, an associate professor and a historian of public lands at Idaho State University, also said it's an oversimplification to frame the debate in terms of off-roaders vs. environmentalists. They note that there are fishermen, hunters, mountain bikers, horse packers, hikers and backpackers who support resource protection on public lands.

The crux of the problem with off-roaders, Marsh said, is that the agencies lack the courage and the support to enforce their own regulations.

"It's not that the rules are wrong," Marsh said. "Nobody is willing to put the resources into enforcing those rules."

The Park Service has done the best job in controlling off-roaders because of — and not in spite of — its long tradition of managing recreation, Marsh said. "The Forest Service and the BLM are dealing with it way over their heads. The BLM has the smallest tradition of managing recreation and the biggest problem with off-road vehicles."

A case in point is the Algodones Dunes in Southern California, a spot visited by more than 100,000 off-roaders on holiday weekends. The dunes are home to the desert tortoise and Peirson's milk-vetch, species designated by the federal government as threatened.

By order of former President Richard Nixon, 26,000 acres of the 160,000-acre dunes were closed to off-roaders in 1973. The closed area was designated as a wilderness in 1994 under the Desert Protection Act. The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group, sued for a larger closure, and the BLM recently banned off-roaders from an additional 49,000 acres. The ban is temporary, pending the completion of a new management plan. More than half the dune system remains open to off-roaders.

"We're predisposed to manage for multiple use," said Stephen Razo, a spokesman for the California desert district of the BLM. "We have been known to close routes. We have been known to open routes. Each side says we're always taking away.

"We feel like if everyone is mad at us, we're probably doing our job."

Last Stand for the Mojave Cross?

Supreme Court Only Option to Stay Removal of Giant Cross after 9th Circuit Ruling

Press Release
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)

WASHINGTON, DC - May 23 - The seven-year battle to force the National Park Service to remove a giant cross from the middle of the Mojave National Preserve is nearing an end, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has rejected yet a fourth attempt by the Bush administration’s Justice Department to keep displaying the cross against claims that doing so violates First Amendment prohibitions against government endorsement of religion. The cross must now come down unless the Justice Department appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The latest in an unbroken string of adverse rulings came on May 14, 2008 when the Ninth Circuit turned back a Justice Department petition to reconsider (rehear en banc) its September 2007 decision striking down a congressionally mandated land exchange to save the cross as a “a sham” and a transparent “attempt by the government to evade the permanent injunction enjoining the display of the Latin cross” on federal land. In its latest ruling, the appeal court reached an “undeniable conclusion that the government’s purpose in this case is to evade the injunction to keep the cross in place…”

This decision found improper an act of Congress that mandated an exchange that would convey one acre of federal land inside the Preserve containing the “the Mojave Cross National Memorial” into private hands. This exchange provision was added by Congressman Jerry Lewis (R-CA) to the 2003 Defense Appropriations Act. The Ninth Circuit ruled that the purpose of the land exchange was to preserve the cross, the presence of which on national park land violates the First Amendment:

“…carving out a tiny parcel of property in the midst of this vast Preserve – like a donut hole with the cross atop of it – will do nothing to minimize the impermissible government endorsement.”

In 1998, the current eight-foot metal cross was bolted onto rocks on a rise in the Preserve. In 1999, prompted by a demand from the ACLU of Southern California, former NPS Superintendent Mary Martin met with the private person responsible for the cross and asked if he would remove it. He refused and defiantly vowed to put the cross back if removed. Taking “no” for an answer, Ms. Martin acquiesced. At the same time Ms. Martin denied a request from another party to install a Buddhist stupa (domed shrine) at the cross site, threatening the individual with citation or arrest if he attempted to place a stupa on park land. For the District and Circuit Courts, there was no question of unconstitutional conduct, in part, because the NPS restricted the site to symbols of only one religion.

“The Bush administration and its congressional allies have tried every contortion to safeguard this undeniably Christian symbol and, in so doing, tarnish our constitution,” stated PEER Board member Frank Buono, the former deputy superintendent of Mojave National Preserve who brought the suit, noting that the legal arguments marshaled by the government could have undermined Park Service authority over private lands inside parks. “It is time for the Justice Department to stop this inane crusade.”

The Mojave Cross is one of several instances in which the Bush administration has pushed Christian displays and creationist interpretations in national park facilities – an effort PEER calls “Faith-Based Parks.”

Extortion and environmentalism

Steve Williams, Opinion Page Editor
Victorville Daily Press

The Bureau of Land Management’s California branch manages 15.2 million acres of public lands in the state, which works out to some 15 percent of California’s total surface area. But for environmentalist activists, that’s not enough.

So it uses environmental protection pretexts to extort even more private land and place it off limits to the general populace.

A case in point is what’s going on with offshore drilling in California, particularly areas directly west of Santa Barbara. There, a Houston oil company, Plains Exploration & Production Co., has agreed — in exchange for the right to slant drill from one of its four offshore platforms to tap into an undersea oil field — to donate 200 acres of oceanview property along the Gaviota coast, and an additional 3,700 acres it owns in Santa Barbara’s wine-growing region. Both the oceanview and wine-country acreage would be used for public parkland.

Since 1969, when an oil spill off Santa Barbara helped launch the modern environmental movement in California, environmental groups have fiercely — and almost always successfully — opposed any development of offshore oil deposits along the California coast, including using protracted litigation, congressional moratoriums and bureaucratic delays. But PXP, lured by the skyrocketing price of oil, made the offer of the land — plus donating millions of dollars to fund projects aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions, including low-emission public buses.

The extortion — which is basically what this is — has apparently worked. A lawyer for the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center has said the Center supports the “deal”. The inescapable conclusion, of course, is that if the money — or the land — is right, environmental groups are more than willing to look the other way.

And who will ultimately pay for the environmentalists’ extortionate ways? You. In higher gasoline prices.

And then there’s this example, much closer to home.

Back in April, Arnold Schwarzenegger ended a speech on California’s role in fighting climate change by singling out the Mojave Ground Squirrel’s role in delaying construction of the new power plant on 388 acres at Southern California International Airport (formerly George Air Force Base). The plant will include a solar facility which will generate about 50 megawatts of the plant’s eventual 700-megawatt capacity.

But the solar part is to be built on land where rumors exist that once upon a time Mojave ground squirrels were seen in the area, and because of that the California Department of Fish and Game has slowed the approval process. That drew Schwarzenegger’s ire, and he said so. The delay, Schwarzenegger said, is “because of an endangered squirrel, an endangered squirrel which has never been seen on that land where they're supposed to build the solar plants. But if such a squirrel were around, this is the kind of area that it would like, they say.”

Final approval will no doubt eventually be given, but not without a little more environmentalist extortion. Victorville has agreed to “set aside” about three acres for every acre used up by the plant, for a total of 1,315.5 acres, some of which might have to be acquired through eminent domain, i.e., the city will pay off any property owners who lose their land to protect Mojave ground squirrel habitat. So taxpayers are going to fund one more bit of environmental extortion. And never mind what it’s costing to delay the project because of the imagined existence of a ground squirrel.

May 20, 2008

Mining law reform stalls

By Kim Chi Ha

The General Mining Act of 1872 turned 136 this month, despite a hard push by environmental groups and congressional Democrats to replace the measure.

Reform supporters had high hopes the Old West-era law would be updated and royalties would be placed on mining operations for the first time. One bill passed by the House would generate about $40 million annually to clean up abandoned mines that pose environmental hazards in the West.

“We’re in a period now with exceptionally high metal prices; companies are making billionaire dollars,” said Dusty Horwitt, public lands senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group.

“Now is the time for change,” he said.

A dispute over how much the royalty should be and who should pay, however, continues to bedevil reform efforts in the Senate.

Although a number of Senate Democrats back broad reform, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has opposed efforts to impose royalties on existing mine operations, as the House bill would do. Few issues are as personal for Reid: His father was a gold miner and his state’s economy depends heavily on the industry.

“One of the elements of the House bill is to set royalties on existing operations, and that is something that Sen. Reid will not support,” said Jon Summers, a spokesman for Reid.

“We’re paying very close attention to the work that’s being done with this bill, and he’s going to move forward with mining reform but in a way that protects Nevada’s industry and all the jobs that come with it.”

An employee at a mining operation makes on average $69,000 a year. The industry employs more than 52,000 workers, according to the state mining agency.

Reid also collects a significant amount of campaign cash from the industry. Mine operations contributed more than $100,000 to Reid from 2001 to 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Reform advocates know they won’t be able to get much done without Reid’s help.

“The road of reform needs to go through Nevada, where 85 percent of hard-rock mining takes place,” said Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining.

“Sen. Reid is probably the No. 1 person to provide the kind of leadership needed here to get this done.”

Originally signed into law during the Indian Wars, when Ulysses S. Grant was president, the Mining Act enables mining companies to buy public lands for as little as $5 an acre and to operate on those lands without paying a royalty. It was designed to bring both economic development and settlers to the West.

Over the subsequent administrations of 35 presidents, mining companies have extracted an estimated $245 billion worth of minerals from public lands without having to pay royalties.

Oil and gas and coal producers, by contrast, already pay royalties to federal coffers.

Like those other commodities, prices for hard rocks have skyrocketed in recent years, creating an old-fashioned boom time for the industry.

Revenues of Barrick Gold Corporation and Newmont Mining Corporation, two of the largest claim holders in Nevada, jumped in the first quarter of 2008. Barrick Gold, which reported a $1.12 billion profit in 2007, reported first-quarter net income of $514 million.

The House passed a bill last year that would impose an 8 percent royalty on new mines and a 4 percent royalty on existing operations.

Industry representatives contend that an 8 percent royalty would be the highest in the world and would discourage companies from opening new mines in the United States. The 4 percent royalty on current operations could push companies to shift more operations overseas.

“We’re already operating in the highest-cost region in the world; therefore, that would be very punitive on mining investments in the U.S.,” said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, the industry’s main lobbying arm.

“A royalty on current operations would penalize the industries that have already been in operation and didn’t base their business plan on having to give up more of their earnings, or we’re just going to drive another industry offshore.”

Some companies would accept royalty payments, Popovich said. But the royalty should only be applied to future mine operations, he said. Another condition is the royalty should be taken off of profits, not gross revenues, to accommodate for rising “input costs” like labor, steel and energy, Popovich said.

Environmental groups contend the industry can afford to pay more.

“That 8 percent royalty doesn’t affect the mining industry at all, it doesn’t limit their access, and it doesn’t cut their revenue,” said Keren Murphy, spokeswoman for the Sierra Club.

Popovich said the revenues companies are now getting may be temporary, but a royalty would be forever. The mining industry is cyclical, and despite the current demand for minerals on the world market, there is nothing to prevent the market from crashing should China or India slow its growth, Popovich said.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are more then 500,000 abandoned mines that will cost $50 billion to reclaim.

The Bureau of Land Management, Office of Surface Mining, the Forest Service and the EPA often fund the cleanup for these sites. The EPA has spent about $2.2 billion to reclaim abandoned mines.

The royalty in the House bill would generate only $40 million a year.

The bill also imposes new environmental safeguards on mining operations. The industry contends that they are duplicative to current laws like the Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

“The current environmental laws in place to regulate the industry for hard-rock mining aren’t working, and we can see that,” said Lauren Pagel, spokeswoman for Earthworks.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has held a series of hearings to examine the hard-rock mining industry, but a draft bill remains under discussion.

“A big part of our work at this stage right now is finding a consensus on certain provisions such as royalties and environmental protections,” said Bill Wicker, spokesman for the Senate committee.

“When you look at the law and see how antiquated it is, there’s no reason why Congress should not be tackling this issue. If the Senate fails to take action, it will serve as yet one more example of why many believe Washington is broken.” said Danowitz of the Pew Campaign.

May 18, 2008

Laughlin tour bus crashes - 1 dies, 21 hurt

The charter bus operated by Royal American veered from the highway into a dirt median, overturned and skidded 100 feet, officials say. A Los Angeles woman was ejected and died at the scene.

Firefighters stand beside a bus that crashed on Interstate 40 outside of Barstow, Ca., killing a female passenger. Courtesy of the San Bernadino County Fire Department

By Deborah Schoch, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

One woman died and 21 others were injured when a tour bus en route from Culver City to Laughlin, Nev., overturned Saturday on an isolated stretch of Interstate 40 in the Mojave Desert, officials said.

Six helicopters and at least nine emergency vehicles, some recruited from nearby military bases, shuttled injured passengers to area hospitals.

Eight of the victims were severely hurt and 13 others suffered minor to moderate injuries. Most or all were from West Los Angeles, a California Highway Patrol spokesman said.

Faith Creer, 31, of Los Angeles, died at the scene when she was ejected from the bus after it veered from the highway onto the dirt median, toppled on its side and skidded 100 feet, said CHP Officer Taj Johnson.

Some passengers escaped by crawling through the frame of the shattered front windshield, aided by other passengers and drivers who pulled over at the scene, where temperatures soared to 101 degrees.

The identities of the others on the bus were not released, but San Bernardino County Fire Department spokeswoman Tracey Martinez said they boarded the charter at Fox Hills Mall in Culver City. The bus was operated by Royal American Tours & Charter of Glendale, she said. Company officials could not be reached for comment.

Creer's mother said her daughter was on a casino trip, and another relative said she was traveling with her husband.

The crash occurred shortly before 11 a.m. on the eastbound lanes of I-40 about 40 miles east of Barstow and 132 miles west of Laughlin.

The bus was traveling in the left lane about 70 mph when it drifted about 40 feet onto the dirt median, Johnson said. The speed limit is 70 mph on the stretch of highway.

"We don't know why he allowed it to drift," Johnson said. "The driver himself didn't know why it drifted."

As the driver tried steering back onto the pavement, the bus fishtailed, overturned and skidded on its side, Johnson said.

"It's pretty torn up," Martinez said. "It was laying on the driver's side. The front windshield was out."

Six passengers were admitted to Loma Linda University Medical Center, including four who were airlifted there, a hospital official said. One passenger was unharmed, officials said.

About 20 relatives and friends of the victims waited inside the hospital and near the emergency room Saturday evening. Some were crying. Others tried to comfort one another. Most said they were too anxious and emotional to talk.

Two more victims were at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, one in critical condition, the other stable. Three were at St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley.

Three other passengers were treated for minor injuries at Colorado River Medical Center in Needles, Calif.

Fort Irwin and the Marine Corps Logistics Base near Barstow sent rescue vehicles.

The eastbound lanes of I-40 were closed and traffic was diverted to side roads, Martinez said. The CHP is investigating the cause of the accident.

No other vehicles were involved.

Royal American Tours, founded in 2002 by Madanyan Enterprises Inc., transports passengers for tour operators, employers, casino trips, senior centers and other groups, according to the company website.

In December 2005, a Royal American bus filled with passengers burst into flames on Interstate 10 on its way to a casino in Indio, according to the Riverside Press-Enterprise. The bus was destroyed, but no passengers were injured, the newspaper reported.

In the last five years, at least three tour buses owned by other companies have been involved in accidents in the desert, according to news reports.

At least one man died and more than 50 people were injured in March 2005 when a tour bus bound for an Indio casino collided with a fire engine on I-10.

Nineteen people were hurt in September 2004 when a Las Vegas-bound tour bus overturned in a thunderstorm on Interstate 15.

About 100 people were injured in March 2003 when a tour bus bound from Las Vegas to Los Angeles crashed into another bus in a construction zone along I-15.

Bus overturns in Calif. desert, 1 dead, 22 hurt

Associated Press

LUDLOW, Calif. (AP) — A casino trip turned deadly when a charter bus overturned on a Mojave Desert freeway, killing a woman and injuring 22 others.

The bus was heading to the gambling town of Laughlin, Nev. on Saturday when it crashed about three miles east of the town of Ludlow, about 115 miles southwest of Las Vegas, San Bernardino County Fire Department spokeswoman Tracey Martinez said.

"There were no other vehicles involved," she said.

Faith Creer, 31, of Los Angeles was flung from the bus after it veered from Interstate 40 onto a dirt median, toppled on its side and skidded 100 feet, California Highway Patrol Officer Taj Johnson said.

Eight other people were severely injured and 14 had minor to moderate injuries. The driver was among the injured, who were all adults.

Authorities shut down the interstate's eastbound lanes for several hours. Helicopters and ambulances, some from nearby military bases, transported the injured to hospitals.

Investigators were studying skid marks and hoped to talk to the driver to determine the cause of the crash.

The bus is owned by Royal American Tours & Charter of Glendale. It was not immediately clear what group had chartered the bus, and a man who answered the phone at Royal American's office said he did not have any details about the trip or the crash. The bus had picked up its passengers at a mall in Culver City.

May 16, 2008

Judge orders Kane County to remove road signs in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

By Judy Fahys and Joe Baird
The Salt Lake Tribune

Cottonwood Canyon Road in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Kane County's ongoing bid to claim ownership of roads in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and surrounding federal lands suffered a serious, and perhaps fatal, blow today.

U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell ruled that the placement of 39 county road signs in the monument is illegal because it violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution - which declares that federal law trumps state and local law. She ordered the county to remove the signs in the next 20 days.

"By placing signs within the monument, the county has encouraged, sanctioned and facilitated public motor vehicle use of federal lands that [the Bureau of Land Management] officially closed to protect the monument's values," Campbell wrote in her 33-page decision, issued late this afternoon. " . . . the county's signs create a direct conflict with federal land management directions, in violation of the Supremacy Clause."

At least for now, the case settles a five-year-old tussle between conservation groups and the county, which basically invited off-road traffic on trails in protected areas of the monument, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the Moquith Mountain Wilderness Study Area and the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area.

Campbell said the county must first prove in court that it has rights-of-way in those areas before directing vehicles over wildlands controlled by federal agencies, including the BLM and the National Park Service.

"Certainly, the county correctly notes that federal land management agencies must manage the land without disturbing 'valid existing rights,' " Campbell wrote. "But this truism does not help the county, as the court has already found that the county has not established any valid existing rights."

Kane County claimed the roads under RS 2477, a Civil War-era mining law that granted rights-of-way across public land. The law was repealed by Congress in 1976, but existing claims were grandfathered in, leading to numerous disputes.

A landmark 2005 ruling by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals declared that state law - in Utah, 10 years of continuous use prior to 1976 - is now the standard for counties to claim ownership of roads. But Campbell ruled that Kane County must first prove its claims meet the continuous use standard.

Kane County's attorney, Shawn Welch, said county officials will need to analyze the ruling before deciding how to proceed.

"We're reviewing the decision and considering our options," Welch said. But the county, he added, "believes it is complying with the law."

Efforts to reach Kane County Commissioner Mark Habbeshaw, who has spearheaded the road ownership fight, were unsuccessful.

The Wilderness Society and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the groups that filed suit over the Kane County roads, applauded the ruling.

SUWA attorney Steve Bloch said it "confirms a basic point of law that continues to escape the county" that federal law trumps state and county law on federal public lands.

"You can't go out and rip up federal signs contrary to the Supremacy Clause," he said. "Saying you have a right of way doesn't make it true. You have to prove [a claim to a road]; you have to prove it in court."

May 15, 2008

Another court loss for Mojave National Preserve Cross

By RYAN ORR Staff Writer
Victor Valley Daily Press

PASADENA — An opinion from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling that prohibits leaving the eight-foot tall Mojave Cross atop a rock in the Mojave National Preserve, where it has been for 70 years.

First erected by World War I veterans, the Mojave Cross has been designated as a national memorial by Congress and has been strongly supported by the American Legion at its national convention.

The recently released opinion upholds prior rulings that deems the cross unconstitutional — a religious artifact on public land.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, sponsored a land exchange bill that would have given the land where the cross is located to Veterans of Foreign Wars, so that the cross could remain.

The recent ruling says that a lower court did not abuse its discretion in stopping the government from proceeding with the land exchange.

Lewis plans on urging the Department of Interior and Department of Justice to take the issue all the way to the Supreme Court.

Five judges from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dissented from the decision and believed the ruling should be reversed.

“The congressman is very encouraged by the dissents, and he feels they lay out very well what he’s always believed, that this was never a religious artifact, it is simply a memorial to honor veterans,” said Jim Specht, spokesman for Lewis.

In their dissent, a similar case is cited where the Supreme Court went the other way, Specht added.

Specht said that as soon as Lewis can reach the Department of Interior, he will urge them to continue the fight in the Supreme Court.

May 14, 2008

Bill to protect county mountains, rivers passes House committee

California Desert and Mountain Heritage Act

Keith Matheny
The Desert Sun

A bill to protect additional Riverside County forests, mountains and rivers was passed by the U.S. House's Natural Resources Committee today, paving the way for a floor vote in the full House.

Sponsored by Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, the bill would permanently protect four new wilderness areas, expand six existing protected areas, and add additional protected land to the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. It would include 190,000 acres of wilderness in areas including Joshua Tree National Park.

The protected lands in the bill would help preserve the habitat of the threatened Peninsular bighorn sheep, desert tortoise and mountain yellow-legged frog, as well as many other species including mule deer, mountain quail and bald eagles.

"These lands make up a valuable part of our heritage, and I am pleased that we are now one step closer to ensuring that they are preserved for future generations," Bono Mack said in a statement.

It would also designate the North Fork of the San Jacinto River, Fuller Mill Creek, Bautista Creek and Palm Canyon Creek as potected Wild and Scenic Rivers.

"These four rivers are natural treasures hiding in plain sight," said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers, a national organization dedicated to river protection.

"As more and more people move to Riverside County, we can't afford to let these vital links to our past be swallowed up by our future."

The bill is sponsored in the Senate by California Democratic U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. It has broad local support, including from Riverside County supervisors, municipalities, chambers of commerce and others. The Coachella Valley Association of Governments and 11 municipalities have formally endorsed the legislation.

"It's terrific to see a bill that truly balances the diverse needs of our community, protecting our region's open space, preserving our high quality of life while maintaining and enhancing our economy -- the California Desert and Mountain Heritage Act succeeds on all counts," Palm Desert Councilman Jim Ferguson said in a statement.

Palm Springs Mayor Pro Tem Ginny Foat praised the legislation for its "positive impact on our community's recreation opportunities, quality of life and local economy."

EDITORIAL: A tortoise tale

Desert critters and the Endangered Species Act

Las Vegas Review-Journal

Native Las Vegan Harry Pappas was appointed to the Bureau of Land Management Citizen Advisory Council by then-Rep. Barbara Vucanovich. He later represented the State Rifle & Pistol Association on the Clark County Tortoise Advisory Council.

"They said the (desert) tortoise was threatened, so they had to fence off these huge areas and shut out all the cattle, which means no one is out there shooting the coyotes and the raven or trapping the lions anymore, so of course that wrecked the hunting," Mr. Pappas recalled, back in 2001. "They said anyone who found a tortoise had to turn it in" to Clark County authorities.

"So what happened? They got so overrun with tortoises being turned in that they told us they were going to have to start euthanizing them. I said, 'Hold on a minute, here. Euthanize them? Why don't you just drop them out in the desert?' They said, 'Oh no, they'll fight with the native tortoises that already live out there and they'll kill each other, because all these lands are already at saturation levels.' I said, 'Wait a minute, now: Which is it? How can they be "threatened," or "endangered" ... but now you tell us all these lands are at "saturation levels" for tortoises?' "

Cattle weren't the problem, Mr. Pappas has always insisted. In fact, cattlemen formerly reduced the populations of predators including the coyote and the raven, which benefited tortoise populations.

"But now they say the way to protect the tortoise is to fence off the land and not let the ranchers and the hunters in, when the biggest tortoise populations we ever had were in the '50s and '60s, when you had plenty of ranching, and plenty of hunting, and plenty of predator control," Mr. Pappas insists.

Needless to say, it's hard to qualify as a federal bureaucrat if you're not willing to keep repeating the same mistakes. It was also back in 2001 that Congress authorized Fort Irwin -- a prime site for desert combat training near Barstow in Southern California's western Mojave desert -- to expand into prime tortoise habitat. As mitigation, the Army agreed to move the tortoises from the expansion area onto unoccupied public lands, an effort that finally began in March 2008.

But so far, at least 14 of the translocated adult tortoises and 14 resident tortoises in the area have been killed and eaten by coyotes, according to biologists monitoring survival rates of the reptiles, many of which were fitted with radio transmitters.

Fifteen of 70 baby tortoises collected at the training center as part of the relocation program have also died of various causes, Army officials tell the Los Angeles Times.

The problem, they say, might be linked to a severe drought that killed off plants and triggered a crash in rodent populations. As a result, coyotes that normally thrive on kangaroo rats and rabbits are turning to gopherus agassizii for sustenance.

In an effort to prevent further losses, the Army has requested that the predators, described by one military spokesman as a "rogue clan of coyotes," be eradicated by sharpshooters. The hunt, however, has been delayed by bureaucratic red tape.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Tucson, Ariz.-based environmental group, meantime announces it plans to file suit later this month against the Army, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management for allegedly violating the federal Endangered Species Act in their big tortoise move.

William Boarman, an adjunct professor of biology at San Diego State University who's helping direct the translocation project, explains that after the Army decided to expand operations at Fort Irwin, "We were stuck with bad options: move the tortoises or leave them in place, which would have been much worse."

Said U.S. Geological Survey biologist Kristin Berry: "Coyotes didn't seem to be a problem when we started. The question in the back of all of our minds now is this: How could we have determined that this was going to happen?"

Oh, please.

As documented in Vernon Bostic's "Ecology of the Desert Tortoise in Relation to Cattle Grazing," the greatest death loss among Southern Nevada desert tortoises during the severe drought of 1981 occurred in the Crescent Valley Allotment, where cattle had been excluded from grazing.

"On the adjoining Christmas Tree Pass Allotment, which was grazed (by cattle) all year long, the tortoises were relatively unaffected by the severe drought. ... The reason is simple: Cows provide tortoises with both food and drink," wrote Mr. Bostic.

Cattle also help the tortoises by eating off the previous year's dried growth from grasses and other desert plants, clearing the way for new growth close enough to the ground to provide turtle fodder.

The solution? Move the Fort Irwin tortoises not onto parched habitat from which they will only start their long, lumbering walk home, but rather, onto well-maintained cattle grazing lands where local ranchers have improved the springs, putting in windmills, ponds and water tanks.

May 11, 2008

Pima buys land, lots of land


By Chuck Huckelberry
Special to the Arizona Daily Star

Four years ago this month, voters authorized Pima County to spend $164 million for lands that would receive special protection under the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. In that bond election of May 2004, more than 65 percent of those voting agreed that money dedicated to preserving native plants and animals would be money well spent.

The 2004 bond election was by no means the first time local citizens had authorized funds for open spaces. Voters in Tucson and Pima County have repeatedly used the ballot box to reaffirm their affection for their natural surroundings. Some examples:

● In 1974, when our population was 434,000 (slightly less than half what it is today), voters authorized $4.5 million in open space bonds, most of it to create Catalina State Park.

● In 1986, when the population was 630,560, 62 percent of voter approved $16.7 million for parks, open spaces and flood control, bonds used in part to create Colossal Cave and Tortolita Mountain Parks at the eastern and northern extremities of the metropolitan area.

● In 1997, when the population was 784,784, 68 percent of voters approved $36.3 million, in part to expand Tucson Mountain Park and to buy Canoa Ranch south of Sahuarita.

● And in 2004, when the population was just under 1 million, 65.7 percent of voters approved a whopping $174.3 million as the first stage in implementing the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan — probably the largest and most dramatic expression of local values to date.

So far, Pima County has spent roughly $73 million of the 2004 bond authorization to acquire six ranches that include nearly 26,000 acres of private (patented) land and more than 116,000 acres in grazing leases, in addition to smaller parcels known as "community open space" properties.

All of these purchases have been made under the watchful eye of the 11 citizens who form the Conservation Acquisition Commission. This commission has already recommended that in the next bond election the county ask voters to authorize additional bonds to buy land for open space.

The numbers — both the dollars spent and acres purchased — are important, of course, but they don't tell the whole story. The rest of the story must be read in the extent to which the numbers reflect the public will, how that will was translated into public policy, and ultimately how that policy was implemented and what it may mean to future generations.

From policy to plan

The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, our manual for preserving and enhancing our unique landscape, was created in reaction to the announcement in 1997 that the federal government had placed the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl on the Endangered Species List.

That decision required that measures be taken to improve the habitat that might keep the animal from becoming extinct. Invariably, such measures lead to controversies over property rights because they tend to limit where and how land can be developed — exacerbated, in this case, by the fact that the federal government later decided the owl was not endangered.

Before the federal government reversed itself (something it may yet do again), the county turned to some 200 scientists for the best advice on how to protect the owl habitat and simultaneously stop the decline of 55 other native species. The science-based conservation plan that evolved also included participation from an 84-member citizen steering committee and numerous planning panels.

The depth of the debate that preceded adoption of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan in 2001 was unequaled in this region's history. Ranchers, real estate developers, a wide range of environmentalists as well as representatives of a dozen government agencies, remained intimately involved in the fate of 5.9 million acres in Pima County.

The policies that emerged were divided into five categories:

● Critical Habitat and Biological Corridors.

● Riparian (or streamside) Restoration.

● Mountain Parks.

● Historical and Cultural Preservation.

● Ranch Conservation.

Since 2001, these conservation concerns have gradually been expressed in the county's Comprehensive Plan, a document mandated by Arizona law, and more visibly in the huge tracts set aside as part of the Pima County Conservation Land System. The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan provides the scientific rationale for deciding what ought to be protected as part of the Conservation Land System.

The Comprehensive Plan is the document that county zoning officials look to for guidance when developers apply for a rezoning. As an example, if a company buys 10,000 acres already zoned for low density and wants to change that to high density, it would be required to abide by the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, which mandates that 80 percent of the 10,000 acres be set aside as open space.

Land planning tool

Though the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan is a separate entity from the Comprehensive Plan, in a practical sense the two documents are as closely related as interlaced fingers.

Most people familiar with the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan think of it mainly as a way to protect plants and animals and preserve open spaces.

It is that.

But as the adjacent map showing land acquisitions made since 2004 illustrates, the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan is also a regional land use tool, the mechanism that defines our region's urban edge (what other cities refer to as an urban growth boundary).

In that sense, it is the first major commitment that our area has made toward creating a regional land use plan.

Most of the acreage purchased with the 2004 bonds goes into the Conservation Land System to protect entire ecosystems (not merely a park here or there). This approach enhances biological diversity, minimizes the spread of exotic or invasive species and adds to the number of acres that remain roadless.

This means that those who live here 50 years from now will still have access to the natural amenities we enjoy today.

A lot of words have been written lately about the need for regional planning. The accompanying map shows that Pima County, with the help of voters who approved the 2004 bonds, has already taken a giant step in that direction by creating land use patterns that will preserve the best of our natural landscape, history and culture far into the future.

The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan was a first for Arizona and, as several books and magazine articles have noted, it has since emerged as a model for conservation planning throughout the nation.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors has taken the first giant step in creating a sustainable Arizona future. We invite everyone to join us.