October 31, 2008

1.1 million Utah acres of public land closed to off-highway vehicles

Daily Sentinel

The Bureau of Land Management on Friday approved five new Resource Management Plans for field offices in Utah that will close almost 1.1 million acres, or 13 percent, of public lands to off-highway vehicle travel in these areas, according to a news release.

Off-highway vehicle travel on designated roads is still allowed on 7.6 million acres, or 88 percent of public lands in the five field office areas of Moab, Kanab, Price, Richfield and Vernal.

The new plans replace 25-year-old plans and better address “the need for improved recreation opportunities, better management of cross-country travel to protect natural resources, the use of best management practices to mitigate the impacts of energy development activities and additional safeguards for the protection of environmentally sensitive areas,” the BLM’s release said.

The BLM is managing 361,000 acres of the 2.2 million acres of land officials considered to be eligible for wilderness characteristics in the five plans.

According to the new plans, 53 percent of the acreage open to oil and gas leasing will be subject to stricter environmental controls, and 18 percent of the lands within the planning areas are unavailable for any energy leasing.

“BLM has committed in each of the plans to find innovative ways to minimize the footprint on public lands. This is done through best management practices, including directional drilling, well placement and sound muffling,” the release said.

Many of the plans were started in 2001 and were approved after protests were reviewed by its director and the state of Utah.

Bush administration pushing hard to open Utah lands to energy development

By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune

The Bush administration is in its final push to open millions of acres in Utah and the West to energy development and along the way, critics warn, possibly destroy prospects for wilderness designation for thousands of acres of redrock desert.

On Friday, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will release five of six long-range management plans that will open 80 percent of 11 million acres in southern and eastern Utah to oil and gas drilling and designate 20,000 miles of motorized recreation routes.

The actions of the lame-duck administration outrage conservationists, especially since the BLM's plans would have the force of statute for at least 10 years and would be difficult to alter.

"These [plans] are a very obvious attempt of the Bush administration to cement its legacy in Utah," said Steve Bloch, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "[They] are a road map to ruin for Utah's magnificent public lands."

And on Election Day, when citizens most likely will be focused elsewhere, the BLM will announce an oil- and gas-lease sale involving large swaths of public land considered worthy of wilderness status - including artifact-rich Nine Mile Canyon, Desolation Canyon and areas around Dinosaur National Monument.

The actual sale will be held the Friday before Christmas - "the bow atop the massive gift to the oil and gas industry we've seen for the last eight years," said Suzanne Jones, regional director of The Wilderness Society's Central Rockies office.

But the BLM is acting on order from Congress, which in 2001 decided the plans, some of them 30 years old, needed recrafting to reflect new priorities, including increased demand from oil and gas developers and explosive growth in off-road recreation.

In May, a Bush administration study re-emphasized policies established in 2005 that would speed carbon-based energy development with minimal restraints unless federal public-land managers found it "absolutely necessary" to preserve other resources. The directive urged the BLM to find ways around "obstacles" to drilling, which the administration identified as well-established environmental-protection law, municipal development, private-property concerns, wildlife and national parks.

The Moab, Kanab, Vernal, Richfield and Price district plans are now final. Only the Monticello plan remains pending, waiting for state officials to sign off.

In a Thursday announcement, the BLM called the achievement "a collaborative effort in balanced stewardship for the future" that included protections for environmentally sensitive areas while supporting energy resources.

The agency said 53 percent of the more than 8 million acres open to oil and gas leasing would be subject to stricter environmental controls than before the plans were drawn, with about 18 percent of the 11 million acres unavailable to leasing under any circumstances. Less than a half of 1 percent of the public lands would be protected for their special beauty and solitude.

The resource plans came in slightly past their Sept. 30 fiscal-year deadline and cost $35 million, said Don Ogaard, lead planner for the BLM's Utah office. Though 87 protests numbering several hundred pages were filed during a 30-day period, all of them were dismissed or resolved to the BLM's satisfaction, he said.

During public-comment periods, the plans drew fire from all sides. Oil-industry representatives complained of too many restrictions on exploration, and county officials agreed. Conservationists objected to drilling in sensitive lands and laying out so many trails for motorized recreation because OHV users represent a small minority of those who visit the area. Off-roaders disliked the new directive to close Utah's BLM lands to cross-country travel in favor of a trail system. The Environmental Protection Agency criticized the Price, Moab and Vernal plans for inadequate air-quality reviews, lack of analysis of OHV impacts and a failure to evaluate energy extraction's effects on global climate disruption.

Highlights from each area's plan

Monticello: Anasazi ruins in Cedar Mesa, Dark Canyon and Butler Wash will take a back seat to hikers, cyclists and off-roaders when the BLM eliminates protection associated with areas of critical environmental concern in favor of special-recreation designation.

Richfield: Nearly all of more than 2 million acres of public lands in six counties surrounding Richfield will be open to oil and gas drilling and off-highway recreation. OHVs will be allowed into areas of Factory Butte previously closed for endangered-species protection and wilderness-quality lands.

Price: Energy development is the top priority for 2.5 million acres in Carbon and Emery counties and that's fine with county officials who believe their share of the revenues will make possible a more diverse economy in the future. Nearly 1 million acres previously found to have wilderness traits likely won't ever be so designated.

Vernal: A public outcry about wildlife, wilderness and cultural resources in the Vernal area led federal officials to close 186,917 acres to drilling, nearly three times the amount of land the agency wanted off-limits when it released its draft plan for the Book Cliffs and the Uinta Basin a year ago.

Moab: Hiking, biking, grazing, drilling, hunting and off-roading advocates squared off over the plan for 1.8 million acres of red-rock desert near Moab, leaving the BLM to sort out solutions that satisfy few and anger many.

Kanab: The plan for 550,000 acres of public land in Kane and Garfield counties includes 1,462 miles of OHV trails. About 27,000 acres will be managed for wilderness qualities, but the fine print says the BLM would allow OHV travel across those acres, likely making them ineligible for future wilderness designation.

Grijalva: Bush policies bad for federal public lands

Tucson Region

By Tony Davis
Arizona Daily Star

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ)

The Bush administration mounted a "concerted strategy" to reduce protections for federal public lands and to open them to all types of industry, a Tucson congressman says in a new report.

The report lists more than 40 actions by federal agencies such as the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management that Rep. Raúl Grijalva says harmed public lands.

They often allowed mining, timber and other private industry to exploit resources at the environment's expense, he claims.

Grijalva, a Democrat, is a congressional leader on public lands issues, as he chairs the National Parks, Forest and Public Lands subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee.

However, Bush administration officials and agency managers have generally defended their actions, calling them efforts to restore balance to public lands policy after eight years of Clinton administration policies that more commonly sided with environmentalists. Federal officials have also cited budget pressures in explaining some of the decisions.

Here are capsule accounts of some of the actions criticized in Grijalva's report, their effects on Arizona, and the federal agencies' responses:

Border fence
Grijalva's report criticized the Department of Homeland Security for repeatedly invoking a 2005 federal law allowing it to waive environmental laws — such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act — to build a 670-mile border fence.

The congressman is co-sponsoring a bill to rescind provisions of that law. Grijalva and environmental groups say the fence blocks wildlife movements and fragments habitat crucial for the survival of dozens of imperiled species, including jaguars, wolves and pronghorn antelope.

Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff said the fence, now about half-finished, is needed to block the illegal entry of terrorists, to impede drug smuggling, human smuggling and gang activity, and to counteract the environmental effects of illegal immigration.

Chertoff has used the law four times to waive dozens of environmental laws and regulations to build nearly 500 miles of fence, including segments along more than 200 miles of Arizona's border with Mexico.

Grand Canyon uranium mining
Grijalva has pushed through a measure to prevent uranium mining on 1 million acres adjoining Grand Canyon National Park for a year. But Interior Department officials have refused to withdraw the area from mining, and they are fighting to repeal underlying regulations.

Two potential uranium-mining exploration sites are being drilled on BLM land north of the national park. Environmental groups are suing to force the Interior Department to withdraw those lands, on the grounds that the radioactivity from the uranium could leak into the groundwater or the Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon.

There's a long history of uranium mining north of the Canyon, and it is "very responsible mining," counters Scott Florence, director of BLM's Arizona Strip office. It's all underground, with "a very small footprint" on the surface, Florence says. "They are not a big open-pit mine."

Loaded-gun parks
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has proposed a regulation allowing visitors to national parks and wildlife refuges to carry loaded, concealed weapons if they have proper permits. Today, visitors can pack only unloaded guns. The new rules would affect Arizona and other states that already allow concealed weapons in state parks.

Grijalva says the new rule would cause widespread confusion among gun owners because many national parks are located in two or more states with different gun rules.

Interior says it wants to respect states' ability to determine who may possess firearms within their boundaries. The National Rifle Association says park visitors should be allowed to carry guns for self-defense.

Seven retired National Park Service directors opposed the proposal, telling Kempthorne it would impair park rangers' ability to protect people and natural resources.

Off-road vehicles
Grijalva says environmentally harmful off-road vehicle use is out of control and growing rapidly on public lands. The vehicles have damaged cultural sites, disturbed wildlife habitat and destroyed private property, Grijalva says.

"Irresponsible off-roading has become such a menace that it is now the single greatest threat to American landscapes," a retired Forest Service official, Jack Gregory, testified at a congressional hearing in April.

A Tucson BLM official says the agency is trying to keep off-road vehicles under control, using trained volunteers on motorcycles and ATVs to go on patrol, pick up trash and talk to off-roaders about proper use.

"As more people are out on public lands, our challenges will always be there," said Brian Bellew, BLM's Tucson manager. "But we are coming up with much better means of dealing with those resource conflicts."

Air quality in national parks
The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed changing air quality regulations to make it less likely that emissions from new power plants near national parks would be in violation.

Grijalva says the regulation, still pending, would let companies seeking to build plants near national parks, including the Grand Canyon and Saguaro National Park, circumvent congressionally established pollution limits.

EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn said the rule is part of an agency program to prevent air quality degradation in national parks and would not change the level of emissions allowed in clean-air areas.

Roadless rule
Throughout President Bush's tenure, federal officials have sought to overturn a last-minute rule instituted by then-President Bill Clinton that would ban logging, road building and development on 58 million acres of national forests and grasslands. That includes 420,000 Coronado National Forest acres in Southern Arizona.

In 2005, the Forest Service approved a new rule allowing state governments to petition federal officials to exempt these forest lands in their states from wilderness designation.

There have been conflicting lower-court rulings on whether the decision failed to consider environmental impacts. The decisions are under appeal.

October 29, 2008

BLM hosts marine base expansion meeting

Recent meetings were informational only. Official scoping meetings will be held in December.

Jeanne Kiloh, a weekend resident of Johnson Valley, talks with Marine Corps representatives about how the expansion could specifically affect her family and the property they own. Staff photo by Katherine Rosenberg

Lucerne Valley Leader

VICTORVILLE - The Bureau of Land Management Friday hosted two informational meetings on the potential expansion of the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base into the Johnson Valley off-highway vehicle recreation area.

The purpose of the meetings, which were also held in Twentynine Palms last week, was to expand the stakeholder list as well as to give area residents the opportunity to better understand future plans.

“We’re information gathering and data sharing in an open house-style event as part of the land withdrawal application,” said Roxie Trost, a Field Manager for the BLM’s Barstow office.

On Sept. 15 the U.S. Department of the Navy filed an application requesting the Secretary of the Interior to process a land withdrawal ad reservation of public lands for military training exercises at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center —the nation’s largest such training center.

The request was for 420,000 acres, including 348,000 acres of BLM land, some of which comprises the 135,000 acres requested from the Johnson Valley off-highway vehicle site. At its current 188,000 acres, that represents 70 percent of the area that would be off-limits to recreators.

Trost said that the BLM is a cooperating agency, while the Marines are the lead in the Environmental Impact Statement review period that is upcoming. That is expected to take two years, and in the meantime, official scoping meetings —where residents and stakeholders can state their opinion the record — are to begin in December.

And while Trost said that the idea of these meetings is to encourage residents to become a part of the process from the beginning, she fears some people in attendance won’t go to the scoping meetings because they attended the informational meeting.

That won’t be the case for Jeanne Kiloh, who came to the meeting to gather packets and all the information she can arm herself with before petitioning politicians and gearing up neighbors for the scoping meetings.

“We own a property between Johnson Valley and Landers and from the looks of it, we aren’t too far from the base line — and by not too far I mean 1,000 feet,” Kiloh said. “We’re not too happy so we came out to protest , but then you find out that the President and Congress will make the final decision and it makes you feel a little powerless.”

Kiloh calls herself a weekender, and said she is a group of about 50 people who live and recreate in the same area. She is planning to meet with them to share what she learned at the meeting.

“My attitude about it is we need to train our troops and I understand why they need more space, but not in my backyard. I’d like to give them the wilderness side to the east,” Kiloh said.

Captain Amy Malugani of the Marine Corps said many people feel like Kiloh in that they support the expansion to better equip the troops.

Malugani explained that the extra space is needed in order to train a large-scale Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which can consist of 3,000 to 20,000 Marines and Navy Sailors in one exercise. Training all at once is the only way to properly train, she added.

And as the Marines set about determining which path is best, the goal is to work with the BLM and the stakeholders and residents to make it a win-win situation.

“I can say this confidently: The Marine Corps, we’re good neighbors and good stewards of the environment and we will continue to be just that,” Malugani said.

October 28, 2008

Rand Mountain off-road trails re-open Nov. 1

The Western Rand Mountains ACEC (green) is located immediately northeast of the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (yellow). The Western Rand Mountains ACEC expansion area (blue) was proposed under the 1993 Rand Mountains Fremont Valley Management Plan. The Rand Mountains Fremont Valley Management Area is outlined in red.
Tina Forde
Tehachapi News

Two off-road trails in the Rand Mountain Management Area that have been closed while the Bureau of Land Management worked on a court-ordered environmental protection program will re-open Nov. 1.

A judge ordered closure of the trails four or five years ago, Davis said, so management could prepare an education plan to protect the environment. Phase one of new plan requires off-roaders to obtain a no-cost permit and an ID card before using the trails.

“In the future you are going to have to register,” Davis said.

According to the Sheriff's office and the BLM, Phase II of the environmental enforcement “will begin at the termination of Phase I, in approximately one year, and expand to a permit program and fee to cover the administrative costs of the program, including law enforcement, monitoring, maintenance and the implementation of the permit program. Phase II will include a mandatory online educational program and written test before purchasing a permit to operate motor vehicles in the Rand Mountain Management Area.”

Bureau of Land Management Enforcement Rangers and Kern County Sheriff’s Office Off-Road Vehicle Team will be working jointly to patrol the Rand Mountains Management Area.

“Law enforcement will be directing enforcement efforts toward riders who are riding outside the designated areas and riders who are on closed trails,” the press release said.

For the 10 a.m. inaugural ceremony, Kern County Supervisors Don Maben and John McQuiston will join BLM employees, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office Off-Road Vehicle Team, off-road vehicle recreational users and the public at the southern end of the Rand Mountain Management Area on Trail R5 near Camp C.

According to directions by Sgt. Tyson Davis, supervisor of the Sheriff’s Off-Road Vehicle Team, take California City Boulevard east to the Randsburg-Mojave Road, turn onto the dirt road where the sign says “To Camp C,” following it to the R-5 and R-50 trails.

October 27, 2008

Reid's Deadly Land Grab

Washington DC Examiner

One reason Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is talking about calling the Senate back to the nation’s capital after the election is to seek passage of his Omnibus Land Management Act of 2008. Enactment of this 1,000+ page monstrosity of a bill will be disastrous for American energy independence, as well as for hundreds of millions of poor people living on the edge of starvation around the globe. If that connection seems strained, consider the following:

Reid’s bill is actually a combination of more than 100 separate bills, each of which adds to the lands owned by the federal government in the American West. It’s not enough that the federal government already controls more than 650 million acres of Western land. Reid and company want to put millions more acres under the dead hand of the federal bureaucracy, and thereby prevent development of rich new energy resources that could help free America from dependence upon foreign oil. Experts agree there are billions of barrels of recoverable oil in oil shale areas of these lands, as well as massive stores of natural gas and coal. As Americans for Tax Reform notes in a recent letter to the Senate, “by restricting access to land for energy exploration, this legislation is limiting the potential of the economy and directly interfering with America’s entrepreneurial drive. By creating unnecessary new ‘conservation’ programs, million of additional acres of land will be managed by a vast government bureaucracy.”

By locking up these lands from energy exploration and development, Reid’s bill would inevitably result in gas again costing $4 per gallon and even more. Food prices will resume their upward climb, along with the costs of everything else that requires energy to be produced and marketed. Such cost spirals won’t be limited to America because OPEC’s monopoly would be strengthened globally, meaning upward pressure on prices everywhere. As disturbing as that prospect is for Americans, the effects of Reid’s bill will be catastrophic for millions of poor people in the Third World. Dr. Calvin Meisner reminds us elsewhere on these pages that when energy prices rise, so does the cost of food and that means death for the most economically vulnerable people in Africa and Asia. Historian Paul Johnson estimates that tens of millions of poor people in those regions died following OPEC’s 1973 oil price shock. Their deaths resulted from malnutrition, disease and related afflictions when their subsistence incomes were forced even lower by OPEC greed. Millions more will be similarly doomed today by the hunger holocaust that will surely follow if Reid’s bill becomes law.

October 24, 2008

Omnibus Land Package: More Energy Off Limits

The Heritage Foundation

1082 pages.

$3 billion in earmarks.

At least 8.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 300 million barrels of oil off limits.

Congress is at it again. In an attempt to squeeze an omnibus package during the lame-duck session, Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid said that beginning November 17th a debate over a public lands bill that includes 160 pieces of legislation will take place.

The bill contains ridiculous earmarks such as $3.5 million to celebrate the 450th birthday of St. Augustine Florida in 2015 and $5 million on botanical gardens in Hawaii and Florida.

Now, I’m as big of fan of botanical gardens as the next guy, but is this really how we should be allocating taxpayer dollars?

Even more alarming is the more than 100 different land-grab bills (bills allowing federal government to take ownership of land) that would restrict access to valuable energy resources including oil shale areas. The reality is that the federal government already owns 650 million acres of land, including 85% of Nevada, 69% of Alaska, 57% of Utah, 53% of Oregon. Basically, the government owns the West.

Strange Maps has a great map of the United States and the percentage of federally owned land here. Does the government really need more?

An estimated 1.2 trillion to 1.8 trillion barrels of oil is available in the Green River Formation, an area which expands through most of Colorado and parts of Utah and Wyoming. Although not all the land would not be taken by the government under the bill, recoverable oil refined from oil shale would provide another resource for fuel production. According to the U.S. Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management, a moderate estimate of 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil from oil shale in the Green River Formation is three times greater than the proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.

Senator Reid recently tried to sneak an oil shale ban in a bill in the midst of the financial crisis. Bundling all the spending projects in an omnibus package makes it difficult for Senators to vote against it if it includes a project for their respective state. But Senator Tom Coburn is standing against it:

"Congress’ approval ratings are at an all-time low because the American people understand that never before in our nation’s history have the priorities of the United States Congress been more at odds with the priorities of the American people. The majority’s willingness to spend a week or more debating a lands bill loaded with frivolous projects and radical environmental provisions when we are facing our greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression is a case study in Congress’ misplaced priorities.”

We should remember that, even though we are facing a financial crisis, energy prices are still high. I’ve posted this quote from our Senior Policy Analyst Ben Lieberman before, but it’s worth mentioning again:

"Good energy policy is easy to distinguish from bad energy policy: Good policy leads to more supplies of affordable energy, and bad policy leads to less.”

We need as much supply as we can get and this bill is taking energy resources off the table. Only in Washington.

Marines Corps' plans to acquire land raise residents' concerns

The Press-Enterprise

Desert residents said Thursday that they fear Marines Corps plans to expand the 932-square-mile Twentynine Palms combat training center will take their homes, curtail their off-road recreation and destroy wildlife habitat.

More than 50 people attended the first of three public meetings the military and U.S. Bureau of Land Management are hosting this week to answer questions about the proposal to expand the training center by as much as two-thirds.

"I'm very concerned," said artist Thom Merrick, of Wonder Valley, a rural area that borders the eastern side of the existing military land.

"It's like living next to a giant that knows no end to its hunger."

Merrick said he and several other Wonder Valley residents can't tell from the maps provided by the military whether their homes are inside the proposed expansion area.

In introductory remarks, Col. Wes Weston assured the crowd of about 100 gathered Thursday at Twentynine Palms Junior High School that nothing had been decided yet.

"It's very early in the process," he said.

There will be many public meetings and a thorough environmental study, and the final plan ultimately would require approval from Congress and the president.

The military contends additional land is needed to test weapons systems on the MV-22 Osprey vertical takeoff aircraft and the Joint Strike Fighter, the Marines' first stealth jet.

Military officials want enough space for three battalions to maneuver simultaneously using live ammunition accompanied by air support. Each battalion would have about 1,000 Marines aided by other troops performing command and logistics duties.

"This is to make sure we train the Marines and make sure they are ready for combat," Weston said.

But many of the residents who showed up Thursday were more worried about losing land than fighting wars.

The 424,000 acres identified by the military cover almost 76,000 acres of private property and most of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area, a 189,000-acre playground for motorcyclists and other off-roading enthusiasts.

Veteran off-roader Pat Geer, of Yucca Valley, said she is worried about the possible loss of Johnson Valley to dirt lovers like her.

"I've been off-roading for decades, and it's in my heart," she said. "There's not much free land left."

The expansion area encompasses an array of geological features, such as Bristol Dry Lake, known for its salt mining; Amboy Crater and the surrounding lava fields; and the Sheephole Mountains and Cadiz Valley.

Several wilderness areas border the land the Marines are seeking.

D-Anne Albers, who lives in Wonder Valley and works with Defenders of Wildlife environmental group, said the expansion area includes prime desert tortoise habitat north of Johnson Valley and bighorn sheep habitat east of the training center.

The expansion could take territory the animals need at a time when desert wildlife habitat elsewhere is being claimed for solar and wind projects, Albers said.

"It would be very bad. The desert is just getting eaten up."

A Navy research group looked at 11 other potential training sites in the nation, including Fort Bragg and Camp Pendleton, but only Twentynine Palms has sufficient airspace and land, according to the Navy's application to acquire public lands.

Two additional public meetings are scheduled today in Victorville: 1 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn, 12603 Mariposa Road.

October 23, 2008

County postpones resolution on Johnson Valley

The battle: 1st District Supervisor Mitzelfelt supports the Marine base expansion, but hopes to protect the local economy and the country's largest off-roading site.

The issue: The largest Marine Corps training center in the country, the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, is looking to expand by as much as 420,000 acres.

An application was filed on Sept. 15, 2008, by the U.S. Department of the Navy for the land withdrawal.

The proposal: The application for withdrawal includes 135,000 acres — or 70 percent — of the Johnson Valley off-highway vehicle area.

Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt is hoping to pass a county-wide resolution urging decision makers to look east for expansion — away from Johnson Valley.

Lucerne Valley Leader

LUCERNE VALLEY - Although county officials have consistently shown their support for the expansion of the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base’s training center, 1st District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt Monday released a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors geared towards protecting Johnson Valley off-highway vehicle area.

The report was to be an agenda item at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, but it was indefinitely postponed until a later meeting, as county officials would like to further examine the consequences of backing an eastern expansion plan.

The recommendation item was to, “adopt resolution No. 2008 in support of proposal to expand U.S. Marine Corps Training Facilities in Twentynine Palms to the east, and in support of maintaining the status of the BLM Johnson Valley Open Area and maintaining all current uses therein.”

But at the suggestion of another county official, the recommendation was postponed until such a time that the board can look at the ramifications of an eastward push.

“I have expressed my concern with expansion into the Johnson Valley open area. But the eastern expansion currently could very likely close Amboy Road, which is a very significant highway. That is very worrisome to me and I think we need to address that as well in our position. As a former Marine, I'm very familiar with the type of training they do there. They do need more space, but we do need to study the impact on our constituents,” Mitzelfelt said at Tuesday’s meeting.

David Zook, spokesman for Mitzelfelt said that the Supervisor still believes that an eastward move away from Johnson and Lucerne Valleys is the way to go, but the county as a whole has not decided on a position.

On Sept. 15 the U.S. Department of the Navy filed an application requesting the Secretary of the Interior to process a land withdrawal ad reservation of public lands for military training exercises at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center —the nation’s largest such training center.

The request was for 420,000 acres, including 348,000 acres of BLM land, some of which comprises the 135,000 acres requested from the Johnson Valley off-highway vehicle site. At its current 188,000 acres, that represents 70 percent of the area that would be off-limits to recreators.

“Johnson Valley is ... providing economic benefits to the surrounding communities and opportunities for off-highway vehicle enthusiasts and many others to enjoy recreation in the desert,” the recommendation said. “Additionally, Johnson Valley is a popular site for photography and filming of movies, commercials and other productions which generates additional economic benefits.”

As to the push to move east, the report goes on to say that they are “mostly unpopulated, are not heavily used for recreation, and have been used in the past for military training. They do not have surrounding communities as is the case in the Johnson Valley, and they would provided a viable alternative to the original proposal.”

Now, looking at possibly having to close Amboy Road, which leads to Interstate 40, officials are saying they need more time to secure their position.
“Obviously we need to study a little bit more,” Mitzelfelt concluded.

County Analysis

San Bernardino County is home to two Marine Corps installations, including the largest training center in the country, the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) at Twentynine Palms. The MCAGCC has determined that it requires additional space to provide more realistic training and proposes to expand its facilities westward from its existing site toward and into the Johnson Valley open area. On September 15, 2008, the U.S. Department of the Navy, in accordance with the Engle Act, filed an application requesting the Secretary of the Interior to process a proposed legislative withdrawal and reservation of Public Lands for military training exercises involving the MCAGCC at Twentynine Palms. The areas being considered for withdrawal total more than 420,000 acres, including approximately 348,000 acres of public Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and 72,000 acres in non-federal ownership in and around the Johnson Valley.

Johnson Valley is home to the largest Off-Highway Vehicle area in the region at 188,000 acres, providing economic benefits to the surrounding communities and opportunities for off-highway vehicle enthusiasts and many others to enjoy recreation in the desert. Additionally, Johnson Valley is a popular site for photography and filming of movies, commercials and other productions which generates additional economic benefits.

The U.S. Department of the Navy’s application for legislative withdrawal would remove 135,000 acres or more than 70 percent from Johnson Valley and make most of the area off-limits to the public. Additionally, live-fire training could be incompatible with the desires of surrounding communities. Economic benefits derived from filming productions and from OHV visitors will be lost and the OHV opportunities will be unlikely to be replaced, resulting in overcrowding at remaining OHV areas and possibly encouraging illegal riding in environmentally sensitive, nondesignated areas.

Areas to the east of the current MCAGCC are mostly unpopulated, are not heavily used for recreation, and have been used in the past for military training and other uses. BLM manages the majority of the land to the east. They do not have surrounding communities as is the case in the Johnson Valley, and they would provide a viable alternative to the original proposal.

The County of San Bernardino supports the expansion of the MCAGCC and also supports the preservation of the current recreational uses in and around Johnson Valley, but recommends that the Marine Corps expansion focus on areas to the east that will have greatly reduced impact on recreation and local quality of life. There are significant areas contiguous to currently proposed expansion areas that would likely provide training benefit at minimal cost to natural resources. Government studies have shown limited wilderness values in the area, and the Marines have an outstanding tortoise protection program.

This proposal is a balanced global approach that takes into consideration new and complex issues facing the desert, provides resource protections while at the same time provides the least impact to constituents, residents and public land users and adequately accommodates the needs of MCAGCC. This type of approach is most important at this time in light of the more than 1,000 square miles of public lands under application for solar development in the California desert as well as proposals for new wilderness designations.

Approval of this resolution will formalize San Bernardino County’s support of the U.S. Marine Corps Expansion Plan to the east of the Training Facility in Twentynine Palms. In addition, the resolution supports protecting the status of Johnson Valley and maintaining all current uses therein while providing a viable and publicly supportable solution to the need for expansion of the Marine Corps training facility in Twentynine Palms.

This resolution shall be presented to the Bureau of Land Management, United States Marine Corps, Department of Defense, and affected members of the California Congressional Delegation. The Director of Legislative Affairs and Federal Lands Consultant shall advocate this position to Congress and the Administration as appropriate.

October 22, 2008

Oasis of The Quack

Desert Rattler

By Ken Layne
LA City Beat

Soda Springs. Photo by Ken Layne

Just a few miles south of Interstate 15 and its spastic weekend traffic of creeping truckers and cretin Vegas tourists, there is an oasis out of some cheap Saharan dream. It sits at the end of a gravelly road that wraps along the glossy brown volcanic rock piles to the west, as the desert gives way to saltbush and actual wet marshland, thick with cattails and tall green reeds, busy with dragonflies and hidden water birds.

This is Soda Springs, where mineral waters are forced from the Earth at the western edge of a vast dry lakebed circled by the jagged mountain ranges that run across Mojave National Preserve. Out of this wild panorama rise neat rows of palm trees – monster California and Mexican fan palms, six decades of dead fronds reaching to the ground. The palms lead to a small village from another time.

The lonely boulevard is divided by a wide median stocked with more trees, an old nesting box for owls or bats, and park benches facing the small lake ringed by willows. The coots have the run of the pond, a half-dozen of the goofy white-billed black creatures gliding across the water.

On a steamy still day as the season’s last monsoon thunderstorms cook up over the eastern mountains, I walk down the empty street in the 104-degree heat, stopping in the shade of huge smoke trees. The town, abandoned on this Saturday, consists of a handful of white plaster buildings along the grandly named Boulevard of Dreams – rows of dorm-style guest rooms are across the way, with small shared patios between them. The grandest building, also closed up, has an outdoor dining room with the whole Eastern Mojave for a backdrop, a crescent of those giant Mexican palm trees framing the scene.

This is, ultimately, the reward for living in this desert with its foreclosed exurbs and off-road motorcycle morons and campaign yard signs warning against gay marriage when neither marriage nor gays seems to exist in these strip-mall trailer-park pawn-shop wastelands: The most stunning parts of the Mojave, the ones that still remain, are always empty of people.

I walk back along the water and kneel down for a look. Just below the pond’s surface, handsome little fish dart around – Mohave tui chub, the last pure specimens, accidentally saved from extinction or cross-breeding by a curious character who introduced the rare critters from a nearby spring, their last natural existing refuge, when he built his little acre-and-a-half lake.

For 30 years, from 1944 to 1974, the self-appointed doctor and preacher lived out here, presiding over his arid empire of health potions and faith. He was “The Reverend” Curtis Springer, “Doc Springer” to his friends, and anybody who mailed an envelope of cash to the world-famous Zzyzx Mineral Springs was indeed his friend.

To build his Moroccan-inspired oasis, Springer bused in Los Angeles winos from skid row – they got food and a bunk for their troubles, but most headed back to Fifth Street once they figured out booze wasn’t part of the menu.

When his hotel and cross-shaped soaking pool and radio studio were completed, Springer broadcast his invitation to anyone with the means to travel out to Soda Springs and take his many cures. Generous donations were expected. To those who couldn’t afford a visit to his enchanting resort on the desert but listened to his sermons carried by more than 300 radio stations, he offered mail-order cures both commonsensical and absurd – it’s hard to argue with carrot juice and mineral baths, but his “Mo-Hair” baldness cure consisted of rubbing Soda Lake salts on the scalp while hanging your head upside down and holding your breath.

The quack complaints eventually made their way to the Law, in the late 1960s, after Springer had plied his weird trade for a quarter century. In 1969, while another Mojave mystic prepared to bring his Family back from Death Valley to Hollywood, Doc Springer went on trial for selling bogus medicine. He served 49 days but his troubles weren’t over. The Feds went after him for squatting on Bureau of Land Management property – he had nothing but a mining claim on the 12,000 acres, and he was selling Zzyzx Springs residential lots to his loyalists.

But why Zzyzx? It was the last word in the English language, Springer claimed, so it was the last word in health. Go to the Kelso Deport museum in the Mojave National Preserve and you can hear recordings of Springer’s smooth bullshitter’s voice.

Doc Springer was forced off his creation in 1974, and died in Las Vegas a dozen years later. He was an old-time crook who never really hurt anybody and provided some adventure for bored, gullible Americans during our long-gone Era of Prosperity.

Today, Zzyzx is the Desert Studies Center, part of Cal State Fullerton and home to UC Riverside’s occasional extended education outings for the peculiar few who want to spend a weekend learning about rocks and bugs. There are no services for the traveler and no reason to exit the interstate.

Desert cross may lead to landmark ruling

The Supreme Court soon will decide whether to take up the case of the monument to fallen service members in Mojave National Preserve. At stake is a new definition of the church-state separation.

Henry Sandoz and his wife, Wanda, visit the monument to fallen service members in Mojave National Preserve. The Supreme Court may decide its fate. Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

By David G. Savage
Los Angeles Times

Reported from Washington — A long-running dispute over a cross in the Mojave National Preserve in Southern California may give the Supreme Court a chance to shift the law on church-state separation.

Bush administration lawyers urged the justices last week to take up the case and to reverse a series of rulings that would "require the government to tear down a cross that has stood without incident for 70 years as a memorial to fallen service members."

The appeal may be well timed. For two decades, the court has been closely divided over the presence of religious displays -- such as a Christmas tree, the Ten Commandments or a cross -- on public property.

Three years ago, the justices were evenly split in a pair of cases involving the Ten Commandments. They upheld, 5 to 4, a granite monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol, but struck down a similar display inside a courthouse in Kentucky in another 5-4 ruling.

Soon afterward, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who said both displays were unconstitutional, retired. She was replaced by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

"I think the court is poised for a major change as to the Establishment Clause," said UC Irvine Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, referring to the 1st Amendment's ban on "an establishment of religion."

"Under Chief Justice [William H.] Rehnquist, there were four votes to say the Establishment Clause is violated only if the government literally establishes a church or coerces religious participation," said Chemerinsky, who argued one of the Ten Commandments cases before the high court. "Now, I think there are five."

The Mojave cross is in a remote location on federal land in San Bernardino County, near the border with Nevada. It dates to 1934, when the Veterans of Foreign Wars erected a wooden cross atop an outcropping known as Sunrise Rock.

Since then, the cross has been replaced several times. The current cross -- two white metal pipes welded together -- stands less than 8 feet high, but can be seen from Cima Road, about 11 miles south of Interstate 15.

The dispute over the cross arose in 1999, when the National Park Service considered and rejected a request to put a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine at a nearby trail head. Afterward, the park service said it planned to remove the cross.

But Congress intervened, blocking the agency from taking down the cross. In 2001, Frank Buono, a retired park service employee, sued the park service with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union chapter in Southern California. Buono, a Roman Catholic, alleged that the cross was an unconstitutional religious display on public land.

A federal judge and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for Buono, saying the cross must be removed. But Congress intervened again and told the Interior Department to give the VFW the acre of land under the cross.

Undaunted, the 9th Circuit struck that down too, saying it "would leave a little doughnut hole of land with a cross in the midst of a vast federal preserve." A "reasonable observer would perceive" this as a "government endorsement of religion," the ruling said.

U.S. Solicitor General Gregory G. Garre urged the high court to review the 9th Circuit's decision, saying it was wrong for at least two reasons: First, Buono, the park service employee, did not have standing to sue over the display of the cross, and second, Congress had solved the problem by giving the land to a private group.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has been skeptical of according standing to litigants who cannot show that they have suffered an "actual injury" of some sort. A ruling in favor of the government on the standing issue could have a broad impact, as it would be hard for any objectors to prove that a religious symbol on government property had caused them a true injury.

The two sides also disagree over who is violating the essence of the 1st Amendment. The ACLU and the 9th Circuit said the park service should not show a "preference" for Christianity over Buddhism by allowing a symbol of one while forbidding the other. But the Bush administration's lawyer countered by saying the court's order to tear down the cross could be seen as "demonstrating hostility toward religion."

Next month, ACLU lawyers will file a brief urging the court to turn away the government's appeal. A decision on whether to take up the issue may come in December or January.

County Efforts Help Secure Funds for Increased Desert Fire Protection

by David Zook
Best Syndication News

Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt.

BARSTOW – San Bernardino County First District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt today announced success in an effort by San Bernardino and other Western counties to secure additional federal funds to offset the costs of providing services in areas with large federal land ownership and low property tax base.

The Supervisor said he intends to ask the Board of Supervisors to use these funds, which could amount to $5.6 million over four years, to build and staff a much-needed fire station along a remote portion of Interstate 40, along with other fire and emergency service improvements. Mitzelfelt has proposed that a new County fire station be built in the area between Ludlow and Amboy, where accident response times from the Barstow, Baker or Needles areas can be as long as 45 minutes to an hour.

The additional funds are a result of the President’s October 3rd signing of the financial institutions “bailout” legislation, which included an unprecedented allocation of full funding for the Department of Interior’s Payments In Lieu of Taxes program (PILT). PILT partially assists counties in funding local services in areas dominated by federal lands, like the Mojave Desert, but it has not been funded to the level authorized by statute since its inception in 1976.

Supervisor Mitzelfelt serves on the National Association of Counties (NACo) Public Lands Steering Committee. The committee has directed the advocacy efforts of NACo, who along with San Bernardino County's public lands consultant and Director of Legislative Affairs and other Western counties helped secure the additional dollars.

"I'm gratified to see our efforts over the past eight years to increase PILT funding helped elevate this issue to a high-profile position within a high-profile legislative package,” Mitzelfelt said.

This progress may be considered the most recent in a series of steps by Mitzelfelt to improve fire safety in outlying areas. Supervisor Mitzelfelt's efforts to plan a fire station to serve Interstate 40 in the area between Ludlow and Amboy first moved ahead on June 24 when Mitzelfelt secured Board of Supervisors approval for $300,000 to go toward design work for the station.

A second proposed station in Goffs would augment fire protection and rescue services to the eastern Mojave Desert and the transportation corridors of I-40, Highway 95 and Route 66 (National Trails Highway). The station would also provide the communities of Baker, Needles, Havasu Lake and Kelso with additional backup resources. The proposed Goffs station took its first step in August when the Board of Supervisors approved the sale of surplus land to the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District. Goffs is situated 30 miles west of Needles and 50 miles east of Amboy.

Supervisor Mitzelfelt credits increased safety along the interstate corridors between Nevada and California to the County’s fire station in Baker that opened in two years ago, along with increased staffing and equipment. These resulted from significant General Fund support. He also credits mutual aid with other agencies, including the Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow Fire Department, which responds to hundreds of calls off the base per year. Mitzelfelt recently recognized Base Fire Chief Robert Wyman for his department’s recent selection as the Best Large Fire Department in the Defense Department.

Finally, the Board of Supervisors on September 16 approved a proposal by Supervisor Mitzelfelt to donate a surplus fire engine to the Yermo Community Services District (CSD). The CSD, which provides fire protection services in Yermo and the surrounding area – including the County’s Calico Ghost Town Regional Park – was in need of an additional fire engine after recent breakdowns of other equipment.

October 21, 2008

Public meetings set on proposed Marine expansion at Twentynine Palms

The Press-Enterprise

People who want to learn more about Marine Corps plans to add as much as 424,000 acres to the Twentynine Palms training center will have a chance this week at three public meetings.

Military officials have said they need the additional territory for weapons testing and live-ammunition exercises to enhance their ability to fight terrorists.

The expansion would include almost 76,000 acres of private property and most of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area, a 189,000-acre mecca for motorcyclists and other off-roading enthusiasts. It also would include habitat for desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and other wildlife.

The meetings -- one Thursday in Twentynine Palms and two Friday in Victorville -- are an early step in the three- to five-year expansion process. The plan will be scrutinized in a detailed environmental study and ultimately would require approval from Congress and the president.

Military and U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials will make introductory statements and then be available at tables to answer questions, said Capt. Amy Malugani, a spokeswoman for the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.

Military officials said the land added to the training center would be used to test weapons systems on the MV-22 Osprey vertical takeoff aircraft and the Joint Strike Fighter, the Marines' first stealth jet.

The military's contention that the training grounds are needed for national security isn't necessarily a slam-dunk justification, according to a study published this week by a North Carolina State University professor.

"The government can no longer rely solely on the 'war on terrorism' and 'national security' as arguments to maintain a crisis situation where local people willingly sacrifice protection of their 'homeland,' " Kenneth Zagacki said in a university news release.

The study examined how the U.S. Navy abandoned plans this year to acquire more than 30,000 acres for a landing field in rural North Carolina -- land the Navy had been saying for five years was needed for national security, Zagacki said.

Residents there opposed the expansion and put the Navy in an "awkward position" by arguing that the landing field would destroy the very homeland the military was trying to protect, wrote Zagacki, a professor of rhetoric, in his study published in the Southern Communications Journal.

Malugani said the military has made no final decisions on the Twentynine Palms proposal and could use the information gathered at the public meetings to develop alternative plans.

"No lands have been acquired," she said.

October 20, 2008

Land grab bill laden with earmarks and anti-energy

Staff Report
Tulsa Today

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK)

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK) released the following statement regarding the Senate Democrat Majority’s plan to devote a week or more of the Senate’s post-election special session debating a 1,082 page, $3 billion earmark-laden omnibus bill that expands federal land control over millions of acres of U.S. property, and restricts energy exploration over millions of acres of U.S. territory.

“Congress’ approval ratings are at an all-time low because the American people understand that never before in our nation’s history have the priorities of the United States Congress been more at odds with the priorities of the American people. The majority’s willingness to spend a week or more debating a lands bill loaded with frivolous projects and radical environmental provisions when we are facing our greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression is a case study in Congress’ misplaced priorities,” Dr. Coburn said.

“While the Senate would prefer to pass this omnibus package after the election, the American people have a right to understand the Senate’s post-election agenda before they go to the polls,” Dr. Coburn said.

Egregious bills and provisions contained in the omnibus package include the following:

  • Bill S. 2229 that takes about 8.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 300 million barrels of oil out of production in Wyoming, according to the Bureau of Land Management. The energy resources walled off by this bill would equal our domestic natural gas production for 15 years.

  • Bill S. 27 that would spend $1 billion on a water project designed to save 500 salmon in California. At $2 million a head, each salmon would be worth far more than its weight in gold.

  • Bill S. 2359 to spend $3.5 million to celebrate the 450th birthday of St. Augustine Florida in 2015.

  • Bill S. 2875 that spends $4 million to protect livestock from wolves.

  • Bill S. 1969 that spends $250,000 to help bureaucrats decide how to designate Alexander Hamilton’s boyhood home.

  • Bill S. 2220 to spend $5 million on botanical gardens in Hawaii and Florida.

  • Bill S. 1680 to spend $3 million on a “road to nowhere” through a wildlife refuge in Alaska.
“I’ve objected to wasteful, pork-barrel spending bills for many years whether offered by Democrats or Republicans. This bill is among the most egregious I’ve seen not just because of what it contains but because it blatantly puts short-term parochial politics ahead of the long-term interests of the country in a moment of national peril. The American people want Congress to address our economic crisis, not erect new barriers to energy exploration and reward special interests in their states,” Dr. Coburn said.

“Voters who are eager for real change should tell their elected representatives it’s time to set common sense priorities. Treating salmon as worth more than their weight in gold is not change. Change also means focusing on the long-term health of our economy rather than the short-term politics of parochialism. If Congress had approached the housing bubble and mismanagement at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with as much foresight as we do the upcoming birthday of St. Augustine Florida in 2015 we would be in much better shape financially,” Dr. Coburn said. “And can we wonder why the public distrusts Congress when we are asking taxpayers to spend $250,000 not on the task of protecting their homes, but the boyhood home of Alexander Hamilton?”

“While the majority may complain about my ‘unprecedented obstruction’ I make no apologies for denying Senators the privilege of passing this reckless and irresponsible bill by a secret non-recorded voice vote that allows for no debate and no amendments. The Majority Leader, who sets the Senate schedule, could have forced an open debate and vote on this package whenever he wished this past year. Unfortunately, the majority wanted to delay action on this bill until after the election precisely because they did not want voters to hold them accountable for erecting new barriers to American energy exploration and spending billions on ridiculous pet projects,” Dr. Coburn said.

“The greatest obstruction to our economic recovery is not any one Senator’s insistence that the Senate do its job and debate bills in the open, but short-sightedness of members of Congress in both parties who have lost the will and ability to set common sense priorities,” Dr. Coburn said.

Editor's Note: Detail summary of the more than 100 provisions of the bill here.

October 15, 2008

Construction begins on Victor Valley fire station

Joint city-county station will serve Hesperia's west side and Oak Hills

Dignitaries including Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-41), Assemblyman Anthony Adams (R-59) and First District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, break ground on San Bernardino County Fire Station 305 Tuesday morning. Photo by Peter Day

Beau Yarbrough
Hesperia Star

Construction on Hesperia's fifth fire station began in earnest Tuesday morning.

Firefighters, dignitaries and construction workers converged on a 3.5-acre lot on Caliente Road, west of Interstate 15, the future site of San Bernardino County Fire Station 305.

The new fire station will be the city's first since Station 304 at Eucalyptus Street and 11th Avenue was built in 1991, and the first built in cooperation with San Bernardino County.

"We've got a great relationship with the county fire department," said Leonard, himself a retired city and county firefighter. "I see great things in our future."

Both the city and county benefit from the new jointly built station, as its future coverage area will include both Hesperia and Oak Hills (which is the county's jurisdiction).

"Our current station in Oak Hills is inadequate; it needs to be replaced," said San Bernardino County Fire Department Division Chief Dan Wurl. "This station is going to be one that supports the troops out there, doing the job we ask them to do."

Money for the project was in question at one point: Before leaving office as First District Supervisor in late 2006, Assessor Bill Postmus proposed using $2.8 million intended for Station 305 to refurbish the assessor's San Bernardino office. In the uproar after the proposal became public, supervisors yanked the proposal off their agenda before it ever came to a vote.

In addition to local dignitaries and fire officials, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-41), Assemblyman Anthony Adams (R-59) and First District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt were also on hand to mark the occasion.

"All of us know, as we see the fires raging this very day," Lewis said, "The challenges ahead. ... We know that we're all in this together."

Lewis said building new stations in Southern California was especially important as the region is gripped by "a drought that seems to go on forever."

"This is exactly what leadership is," Adams said. "It's putting aside personal interests in the pursuit of common goals."

"When a fire truck shows up to your home," Mitzelfelt said, "It doesn't really matter what the logo on the side of it says."

The 18,478 square foot station has a price tag of $6.4 million and should be completed in a year.

Hesperia's first fire station, Station 301, will also be remodeled this fiscal year, Leonard said.

October 14, 2008

Promoting Offbeat History Between the Drinks

Among the sites given plaques by California members of E Clampus Vitus are the grave of the unknown prospector on a lonely stretch of Route 395 near Mono Lake. Jim Wilson/The New York Times

New York Times

TWAIN HARTE, Calif. — Strange where a road trip can begin: a dorm room, a bar stool or Page 283 of the W.P.A. Guide to California.

It is on Page 283 that a reader can find the barest mention of The Order of E Clampus Vitus, one of the oldest and oddest entities in a state known for having a few, a Gold Rush-era organization whose goofball sensibilities are offset by a single, serious pursuit: a tendency to plaque all things historical, an obsession that continues to this day.

With little more than mortar and their ever-present red shirts, the Clampers, as the organization’s members are known, have placed more than 1,000 bronze, wood and granite plaques throughout California, from the remote stretches of coast to mining towns like this one, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

The group’s handiwork appears on roadsides, lakesides and at the sites of former brothels, breweries and ballrooms. Jails and forts have been plaqued, and so have whaling stations. Historical drinks have been commemorated — and, no doubt, imbibed — along with ghost stories, stories of heroism and plenty of tall tales in between.

“It’s a common saying that no one has been able to tell if they are historians that like to drink or drinkers who like history,” said Dr. Robert J. Chandler, a senior historian at Wells Fargo Bank and a proud member of the group’s San Francisco chapter. “And no one knows because no one has been in any condition to record the minutes.”

Whether a historical drinking society or a drinking historical society, the Clampers claim tens of thousands of members in 40 chapters across seven Western states, though nowhere are the group’s strange ways more alive than in California, where members are said to have included Ronald Reagan; John Huston, the film director; and Herb Caen, the famous San Franciscan master of the three-dot journal. Some Clamper membership claims, of course, can be suspect. It is true, however, that many noted historians have been members, as is the current director of the State Office of Historic Preservation.

The group’s specialty is the lesser-known nuggets of history.

“I think these guys felt there were a lot of things that weren’t being covered,” said Michael Wurtz, an archivist at University of the Pacific, whose Clampers archives include photographs, letters and travelogues of trips by past members. “And it’s a whole other type of history. There’s a public element. Rather than the ivy-covered walls, this is the stuff we can go out and touch.”

Take the tiny mountain hamlet of Volcano, Calif. (pop. 101), the site of three plaques, including one devoted to the potent Gold Rush drink known as moose milk. (Mix bourbon, rum and heavy cream. Drink. Do not repeat.)

Or Murphys, a town with wooden sidewalks where the Clampers have erected the Wall of Comparative Ovations, devoted to Californians like John Thompson, a pioneer known as Snowshoe who carried mail over mountain passes, and the saber-toothed tiger that prowled the same territory eons before and was “a formidable adversary.”

Then, there is the pure oddity, like an upside-down house in the eastern town of Lee Vining, built by a long-forgotten silent-film actress named Nellie Bly O’Bryan, who found inspiration for the house in bedtime stories. (The plaque, appropriately enough, is also upside down.)

That the writers of the Works Progress Administration, also charged with chronicling the state’s history, would cross paths with E Clampus Vitus is not surprising. Founded in the 1840s, the Clampers fizzled as the Gold Rush did, but were re-established in San Francisco in the early 1930s, just before the W.P.A. project began.

A few years later, the W.P.A.’s guide to California described the “revived” group as a “gold miners’ burlesque fraternity,” citing its plaque at a tavern in San Francisco favored by Joshua A. Norton — the famed British lunatic who once declared himself the emperor of California. That plaque is now gone, as is the building that housed the saloon, but the local chapter, Yerba Buena, survives.

Even today, the points of interest in the W.P.A. guide to California, published in 1939, shadow those pinpointed by Clampers over the years, like the elegant eastern Sierra fishing hole called Convict Lake (“a pellucid sheet of blue,” according to W.P.A.) and Bodie, a high-desert ghost town that was barely functioning when the W.P.A. guide was published and that the Clampers helped preserve as a state park years later.

For members, the Clampers’ ties to those long-bygone eras — and them that survived ’em — seem to make for potent male bonding in the present day.

“It’s a brotherhood, where men can be men,” said Sid Blumner, a retired economics professor and Clamper since 1969, who has compiled a master list of the group’s plaques.

And sometimes the men act like boys. Established as a parody of more serious minded fraternal groups like the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows, the Clampers spoof ceremonial titles. Their chief executive is Sublime Noble Grand Humbug.

The group’s motto is “Credo Quia Absurdum,” or roughly “believe because it is absurd.” (E Clampus Vitus, after all, is meaningless in Latin.) Members raise the money for the plaques and install them in cooperation with localities. “We don’t get paid for this,” said Ron Wells, 43, a carpenter and a Clamper “plaquero,” the man with the mortar. “It’s just something you do in your heart.”

The Clampers thrived in the overnight towns that sprang up after the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 1848 — the red shirts they wear now are meant to symbolize the red long johns worn by many prospectors. The early members were often the ones with the pans.

“The Clampers were the ones out in the streams freezing their butts off,” said Skip Skyrud, a Clamper historian. “The businessmen in the towns, making the money, they were Masons.”

About 50 modern Clampers met recently on a chilly Saturday morning in Twain Harte, a foothill town of about 2,500, to unveil a plaque recalling its rich history, and have some “doin’s,” as their gatherings are called.

The town, about 150 miles east of San Francisco, was once a crossroads named Bald Rock Ranch, between western mining settlements and those over the Sierra Nevada to the east. It was the birthplace of William Fuller, a Miwuk Indian chief who held powwows there. Several of his descendants still live nearby and were in attendance.

Paying attention to things other than “rich old man’s history” has been a big part of the Clampers’ value, said Milford Wayne Donaldson, the state’s historic preservation officer and a member of the San Diego chapter.

“The kings and queens are recognized, but the king- and queen-makers are not,” Mr. Donaldson said. “And ethnic groups were the backbone of a lot this stuff.”

Wearing a top hat and holding a staff made of manzanita, the chapter’s current noble grand humbug, Scott Nielsen, intoned a lengthy description of the plaque’s significance. Another Clamper, Mike Carbonaro, took up the issue of the town’s odd naming.

To wit: Twain Harte was never home to the Mother Lode authors Mark Twain or Bret Harte. The town’s name was picked by a local woman for her favorite authors and originally had a hyphen. Where it went no one knows, and the Clampers still want to find out.

“Let’s see if we can go find that hyphen,” Mr. Carbonaro shouted to the crowd, each in red and wearing vests adorned with pins, flags and ribbons. “What say the brethren?”

The Clampers roared their traditional word of approval — “Satisfactory!” — and then retired, as is also tradition, to a local bar to plan their next lark.

Number of Devil's Hole pupfish increasing

The tiny fish, found only in a small, deep pool near Death Valley, has been on the brink of extinction for years

Devil's Hole pupfish.

By Bettina Boxall
Los Angeles Times

The tiny Devil's Hole pupfish, found only in a small, deep pool in the desert near Death Valley, has been teetering on the brink of extinction for years. In the spring of 2006 there were only 38 of them, down from roughly 500 in the mid-1990s.

The reasons for the decline are unclear. But government scientists trying to reverse the trend appear to be enjoying a bit of success. The autumn count of the iridescent blue fish has risen for three years, to 126 this fall, the first steady increase in more than a decade.

Convinced that the pupfish problems are tied to a shortage of nutrients, biologists took the unusual step of feeding the fish. "It was not done lightly," said Bob Williams, Nevada field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "When you start to artificially augment a wild population, it is a sign the species is really in trouble."

The high-nutrient fish food, made at a federal research lab in Montana, is based on a mix given to Rio Grande silvery minnows in a New Mexico hatchery. The Devil's Hole feeding started last fall and continued over the winter and into spring to try to maintain an adult spawning population.

Winter is the most difficult time for the pupfish, and Williams said supplemental feeding will probably be considered in the coming months.

Devil's Hole is a detached piece of nearby Death Valley National Park, just over the California border. The water-filled cavern is more than 500 feet deep, dangerous enough that, years ago, two scuba divers drowned exploring its depths.

The pupfish are an isolated colony that has survived in the hole for at least 10,000 years, a remnant of wetter times in the desert. They have been found as deep as 66 feet but forage and spawn on a rock shelf near the pool's surface.

Devil's Hole was the subject of a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, when justices recognized its water rights and restricted nearby agricultural pumping that was lowering pool levels to levels lethal to the fish.

October 13, 2008

Advocates say government should save wild horses

By Oskar Garcia

LAS VEGAS – Federal agencies should change the way they manage wild horses on public lands to prevent the animals from going extinct in five years, advocates said Monday.

Karen Sussman, president of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, said the group plans to approach Congress within 30 days to plead for the lives of horses that federal officials are considering euthanizing.

“At the rate that the government is reducing these animals, within five years they are going to be extinct,” Sussman said. “Within five years these animals will cease to exist on public lands.”

Wild horse enthusiasts met in Las Vegas over the weekend to discuss solutions to protect the horses and keep them on public lands. Sussman said the groups will suggest lawmakers redistribute federal money to wild horse programs, return wild horses from federal pens to open land and consolidate federal agencies to free up money for wild horses.

“This is our American heritage right here,” she said. “These animals represent the last living symbol of the American west.”

There are an estimated 33,000 wild horses roaming in 10 Western states. About half are in Nevada, with most concentrated in northern Nevada. About 30,000 more horses are in holding facilities, where most are available for adoption.

The federal agency responsible for overseeing the wild horse population has said it may be necessary to euthanize horses to prevent many more from starving to death on overpopulated ranges. The Bureau of Land Management has said it can't afford to keep growing numbers of horses in federal facilities and that budget drain is keeping the agency from other responsibilities.

The agency has set a target number of wild horses at 27,000.

Last year, about $22 million of the agency's entire wild horse $39 million budget was spent on holding animals in agency pens. Next year, the costs are projected to grow to $26 million with an overall budget that is being trimmed to $37 million.

A spokesman for the BLM in northern Nevada did not immediately return a call seeking comment. The office was closed for Columbus Day.

Sussman said wild horses don't get treated fairly by government officials, despite laws meant to protect them. She said that the wild horse population has dropped by half since 1971, when BLM began managing the population.

BLM rejects House Resources Committee Grand Canyon hardrock mining ban


Federal officials are seeking to abolish a rule that allowed the House Natural Resources Committee to try to block uranium mining and exploration around the Grand Canyon.

by Dorothy Kosich

RENO, NV - The Bureau of Land Management has published a proposed rule which rejects the House Natural Resources Emergency House Resolution enacted in June that bans uranium mining and exploration near the Grand Canyon National Park.

The agency argues that the BLM "continues to believe the emergency procedure to be unnecessary. Like a withdrawal, segregation removes the lands from the operation of the public land laws, including the mining laws."

"Contrary to its implication, the procedures for issuing an emergency withdrawal order do not result in the protection of public lands more rapidly than the completion of a more conventional withdrawal process. Conventional withdrawals of public lands, as necessary and appropriate, will continue."

BLM Director Jim Caswell said, "The BLM recognizes that unique circumstances may arise requiring the withdrawal of land from particular activities in order to preserve resources and values that need immediate protection. We remain committed to working closely with states, local governments, and other stakeholders in the timely withdrawal of land under such critical circumstances."

The proposed BLM rule published Friday in the Federal Register would remove regulations that provide for emergency land withdrawals, such as the one utilized by the House Natural Resources Committee ordering the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw as much as 1,068,908 acres of federal land near the Grand Canyon National Park from any new uranium mining for up to the next three years.

In its published notice, the BLM said, "These regulations are redundant, since public lands can be protected without substantial delay via conventional withdrawal procedures, without resource to the regulations providing for emergency withdrawals. Moreover, constitutional issues may arise whenever a Congressional committee directs the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw lands immediately."

BLM officials estimate there are as many as 10,000 existing mining claims on BLM and the U.S. Forest Service lands near the Grand Canyon for all types of hardrock exploration.

The lawmakers used a seldom-utilized rule in the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act that allows the House and Senate Natural Resources Committee to withdraw lands from mining and other activities in emergencies. A 1983 Justice Department opinion found similar resolutions to be unconstitutional.

The public has until October 25th to comment on the proposed BLM rule change.

October 12, 2008

Celebration of 125 years of Needles history

News West

NEEDLES - The Rotary Club of Needles would like to invite the community out for a day of historical education, food, music and fun on from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday.

The event is being held at the roadside rest on Front Street to celebrate Needles' railroad history during Homecoming week.

“There will be retired railroad workers speaking about the history of the trains and railroad,” said Terri Anderson. For more information contact Dr. Ruth Ross 760-326-6544.

According to the Needles' library archives, the city was founded in 1883 as a result of the construction of the railroad, which crosses the Colorado River. But the Southern Pacific in those days was not a friendly railroad. Drastic measures were taken to prevent the Atlantic & Pacific from entering California and the California Southern from crossing its tracks at Colton, in order to reach San Bernardino. After much litigation, the California Southern won the right to cross and San Bernardino was entered triumphantly by a passenger train on Sept. 13, 1883.

The most startling event occurred when the Southern Pacific hastily built a railway fro m Mojave across the desert to Needles and got there before the Atlantic & Pacific reached the Colorado River. The latter was temporarily stopped and so was the California Southern. The arrival of the railroad at the Colorado River in 1883 actually caused the founding of the town on the banks of the river.

The first bridge to cross the Colorado River was built in the area. It was a wooden structure and was eventually replaced by the Red Rock steel cantilever bridge in 1890. The new settlement was named “The Needles,” taken from the sharp peaks at the southern end of the valley.

In the late 1850s, Lt. Edward F. Beale recommended that a fort be established in the area for protection of travelers from Indians. Fort Mojave was built in 1859 and was soon a route along the old Mojave Road, traveled extensively by the military, emigrants to the gold fields of California and adventurers. Once the railroad came to the Needles area, it became a regular stop for the Santa Fe.

Tragedy struck the railroad station in 1906 when the original wooden railway station and Harvey House burned to the ground causing some loss of life.

The station was replaced by a concrete structure, named El Garces, which served as a Harvey House and railway station.

The historic site still stands along the railroad tracks in Needles, and efforts are under way to restore the site.

October 11, 2008

Army suspends relocation of Ft. Irwin tortoises

The $8.7-million effort has stopped because coyotes have killed so many in their new desert location

By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

The Army's National Training Center at Ft. Irwin on Friday suspended its effort to move California desert tortoises off prospective combat training grounds and onto nearby public lands because the animals are being hit hard by coyotes.

The first phase of the $8.7-million translocation effort began in March, when about 670 tortoises were airlifted by helicopter out of the southern portion of the desert base northeast of Barstow to new homes in drought-stricken western Mojave Desert areas.

Since then, at least 90 translocated and resident tortoises in those areas have died, most killed and eaten by coyotes, according to federal biologists monitoring the project.

"We shut it down because of the mortality rate," said John Wagstaff, spokesman for the base.

"It will remain on hold until the Army and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determine the reasons behind it."

Biologists theorize the problem may be connected to severe drought conditions, which have killed off plants and triggered a crash in rodent populations.

As a result, coyotes, which normally thrive on kangaroo rats and rabbits, are turning to tortoises for sustenance.

They also point out that translocated tortoises tend to wander, sometimes for miles, making them lumbering targets for hungry predators.

Gashes and tooth marks in the shell of one translocated tortoise discovered in April by federal biologists indicated that it had been ripped out of the front of its carapace.

Other threats include vehicle traffic and an infectious respiratory disease.

The disease was prevalent in the relocation area, and now the newcomers are catching it.

In July, the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based environmental group, sued the Army, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, accusing them of violating the federal Endangered Species Act in their management of Gopherus agassizii.

In a prepared statement released on Friday, Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the center, said, "We predicted that the translocation of tortoises from Ft. Irwin's expansion would be disastrous and, unfortunately, we were proven right.

"This whole debacle needs to be significantly rethought," Anderson said.

"The loss of so many tortoises is certainly not helping this threatened population."

The tortoise, whose population has fallen to an estimated 45,000 on the public lands in the western Mojave, is protected under state and federal endangered species acts. In 2001, Congress authorized Ft. Irwin to expand into prime tortoise habitat. As mitigation, the Army agreed to move the tortoises to unoccupied public lands.

"The Army cares very much about these tortoises," Wagstaff said.

"That's why we've devoted a lot of money and research to them over the past 20 years."

October 10, 2008

Fort Irwin suspends tortoise translocation

By Abby Sewell
Desert Dispatch

FORT IRWIN • Fort Irwin will not be moving desert tortoises as planned this fall, partially in response to a lawsuit by two environmental advocacy groups.

The U.S. Army began transferring tortoises from an area slated for inclusion in a 118,674-acre expansion of the post in the spring. Since then, researchers working for the Army have been using transmitters to track 411 of the 556 tortoises moved from the southern expansion area, said Roy Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which is working with the Army on the project.

Of the tortoises that were tracked, Averill-Murray said that 80 or 90 have died, many of them falling prey to coyotes. The wildlife service stated in its biological opinion on the moving process that no more than 136 of the translocated tortoises should die.

“We’re getting close to that number, and we still have the entire western expansion area to look at,” he said, referring to a second, larger, group of tortoises originally scheduled to be moved in the spring.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Department of the Army in July, alleging that the agencies failed to conduct extensive enough environmental review before transferring the tortoises. Averill-Murray said that the lawsuit was largely the impetus behind suspending the translocation.

The Army had originally planned to move 40 or 50 more tortoises out of the southern expansion zone this fall, Averill-Murray said. Fort Irwin spokesman John Wagstaffe said that will be postponed for an unknown period, meaning that the post will be unable to start using the area for training exercises as planned.

It also appears unlikely that the transfer of the tortoises from the western expansion area will go forward in the spring, Averill-Murray said.

Researchers will attempt to determine an accurate tortoise population figure for the western expansion area, to assess alternative habitat areas for the tortoises, and to more fully understand how many of the deaths among moved tortoises were related to the removal of the animals from their original habitat.

Averill-Murray noted that coyote predation has risen throughout the Mojave Desert, possibly due to a drought in the region that led to a decline in populations of some of the coyotes’ other natural prey.

Center for Biological Diversity biologist Ileene Anderson counted the suspension of tortoise transfer as a victory. The Center wants to see a less-trafficked area chosen for the tortoises’ new habitat, to minimize dangers from dogs and off-road vehicles, and a higher level of protection for moved tortoises, including possibly fencing their habitat, she said.

October 9, 2008

Army suspends Fort Irwin tortoise relocation plans after deaths of 90 animals

The Press-Enterprise

The U.S. Army has suspended plans to relocate more than 1,000 desert tortoises from Fort Irwin expansion areas this fall and next spring because at least 15 percent of the tortoises moved earlier this year have died.

About 90 of the 556 tortoises moved in the spring are dead, mostly as a result of coyote attacks.

Army and federal wildlife officials said this week that a timeout is needed to determine how many of the tortoises, a threatened species, would have died anyway and how many deaths should be attributed to the relocation effort.

"We didn't foresee this amount of coyote predation," said Roy Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a phone interview Thursday.

Fish and Wildlife granted the permit that allows the tortoises to be moved and has the power to stop the relocation or require changes to ensure the species is not jeopardized.

Biologists tracking relocated tortoises began noticing the deaths within a few weeks after the moves started, according to weekly status reports released by the Army under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Kristin Berry, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was tracking 159 of the tortoises in mid-April when she noted that five had been killed by predators and one apparently had been attacked by a predator and then run over by a vehicle. A predator tore off the front leg of another, leaving its femur exposed.

The mortality rate "is extraordinarily high for a three-week period," Berry wrote in her April 15 report.

New Training on Hold

The military wants to move tortoises from 118,674 acres the Army acquired for training maneuvers with faster-moving tanks and longer-range weaponry. About 5,000 troops rotate through the National Training Center at Fort Irwin near Barstow every month.

The Army has an $8.5 million budget to move nearly 2,000 tortoises and track their movements and health for five years.

With the relocation on hold indefinitely, the military's training plans for the new territory also are on hold. No maneuvers will take place on the land until the tortoises are removed, said Fort Irwin spokesman John Wagstaffe.

Coyote attacks on tortoises typically are rare. But ongoing drought has reduced the coyote's normal prey -- cottontails, jackrabbits and small rodents -- so the predators are hunting tortoises throughout their California and Nevada habitats, Averill-Murray said.

Federal wildlife officials will analyze whether relocating the tortoises made them more likely to be eaten. The wildlife service will produce an official "biological opinion" before the relocations resume, Roy Averill-Murray said.

The Army training center is expanding into tortoise habitat to the south and west of the existing 1,100-square-mile base.

Of the total of more than 1,900 tortoises to be moved, Fish and Wildlife officials had expected no more that 136 to die.

About 75 percent of the 556 animals relocated a few miles south of their home range in March and April had radio transmitters that allowed biologists to determine what happened to them, Averill-Murray said. Of those, at least 90 have died. The fate of the 100-plus tortoises without transmitters is unknown.

Legal Challenge

Two environmental groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors, sued the Army and the Bureau of Land Management in July, contending that the move exposed healthy tortoises to diseased animals and placed them in a poorer-quality habitat.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said Thursday that the relocated tortoises are more vulnerable to coyotes and other predators because, once they are dropped off, they try to return to their homes. Under normal circumstances, they would seek refuge in their burrows, she said.

"It makes them more visible on the landscape, and it makes it easier for coyotes and other predators to spot them and kill them," Anderson said.

Averill-Murray said the relocated tortoises appear to be dying at a rate similar to resident tortoises. He agreed, though, that transplanted tortoises try to return to their original homes. A few have found their way back to the future training area, despite a fence meant to keep them out.

Wagstaffe said the relocation didn't cause all the deaths.

"If a tortoise died of natural causes, it should not be counted against the relocation," he said.

But Anderson characterized the 90 deaths as "a huge hit" on the Mojave Desert tortoise population.

The animals' populations have been shrinking because of habitat loss, disease, predation, crushing by vehicles and people taking them for pets.

The federal government considers the species threatened.