November 29, 2008

Environmentalist group seeks Pickens' wife's help to remove cattle from rangeland

Associated Press

Wild horses are seen on the at the Pryor Mountain National Wild Horse Range in south-central Montana. (AP Photo/Bureau of Land Management, Ann Boucher)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Conservationists are looking to the wife of Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens to help push for federal reforms that they say will help thousands of wild horses and save rangeland in the West.

Madeleine Pickens recently announced plans to create a refuge for wild horses. She came up with the idea after hearing that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management was considering euthanizing some of the animals to control the herds and protect the range.

WildEarth Guardians wants to take Pickens' plan further by proposing a solution the group believes would resolve public land grazing conflicts that have resulted in the horses needing a home.

"Our proposal will not only benefit these animals where they currently live, but also enhance wildlife and watershed protection on federal public land," the group told Pickens in a letter sent Wednesday.

Pickens, who is negotiating the purchase of the land for her refuge, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

WildEarth Guardians is advocating congressional legislation that would allow ranchers who have grazing permits on federal public land to relinquish the permits in exchange for compensation. The idea is that livestock would be removed from the allotment, leaving a refuge for wild horses and other native animals and plants.

Mark Salvo, director of WildEarth Guardians' campaign to protect the West's sagebrush landscape, said he believes voluntary grazing permit buyouts are catching on with ranchers.

"Public land grazing is a challenging business pursuit," he said. "It's really difficult to raise livestock profitably on arid Western public land, particularly when you're competing against not only feedlots in Kansas, Nebraska and Florida, but also in Brazil and Japan and Argentina. These are changing times on our Western public land, and livestock grazing is a fading economic activity."

"If we drive food production out locally,
we're going to be depending on foreign food..."

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, disagrees. She noted that agriculture, including ranching, is among the top economic drivers for New Mexico and that outsourcing food production by pushing ranchers from the land could have dangerous consequences.

"If we drive food production out locally, we're going to be depending on foreign food," she said.

Cowan said one concern surrounding the retirement of grazing permits is that wildlife would no longer have access to the supplemental feed and water that ranchers provide for their livestock on public land.

Another concern, she said, is that private land surrounding public grazing allotments would not be protected from development without ranchers who maintain the land for their agricultural operations.

Cowan said conservationists have pushed for years for permit buyout legislation. This time, she said, they are trying to ride a publicity wave created by Pickens' interest in the wild horses.

WildEarth Guardians maintains that voluntary permit buyouts would be "economically rational" and "ecologically imperative."

"It's also politically pragmatic," Salvo said. "It's a way to resolve grazing conflicts in a way that everybody can agree."

He said support by Pickens and other wild horse advocates would be invaluable to any effort to create a national permit buyout program.

The BLM estimates that 33,000 wild horses and burros roam the open range in 10 Western states. The agency wants that population to be about 27,000 to protect the herd, the range and other foraging animals.

Those horses that too old or considered unadoptable are sent to long-term holding facilities, and the BLM has said the cost of keeping animals in the facilities has caused them to consider euthanasia as a last resort.

November 28, 2008

Drought deepens strain on a dwindling Colorado

Flows falling: California first in line as Utah, other states fight for water.

By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune

The Colorado Basin states have been anxious about their shares of the Colorado River as early as the 1900s. The signing of the Colorado River Compact in 1922 was an important milestone in the management of the Colorado River and became the foundation for the law of the river. This compact included the seven Colorado River Basin states, and apportioned water from the Colorado River between the Upper and Lower Basin states.

The drought gripping Utah, Southern California and the rest of the Southwest this century shows no sign of ending. Scientists see it as a permanent condition that, despite year-to-year weather variations, will deepen as temperatures rise, snows dwindle, soils bake and fires burn.

That's grim news for all of us in the West, perhaps most especially for the 10 million residents along the northern stretch of the Colorado River -- Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado -- whose water rights are newer, and therefore junior, to those in Southern California, Nevada and Arizona.

Making matters worse, the Colorado -- the 1,450-mile-long lifeline that sustains more than 30 million souls and 3.5 million acres of farmland in seven states, 34 tribal nations and Mexico -- is in decline, scientists warn.

Even so, demand for the Colorado's water echoes from city leaders, industry giants, oil drillers, farmers, fishers, ranchers, boaters, bikers and hikers -- along with silent pleas from wildlife and the ecosystem. Trend analyses by federal scientists, probably conservative, predict the population dependent on the river will reach at least 38 million during the coming decade.

Right now, California, with the most senior rights and the largest share of the Colorado under a 1922 law, is struggling with a statewide water shortage. Not enough rain has fallen in the southland, as weathercasters like to call it, home to 18 million people, roughly half the state's population.

California already uses all of its Colorado River allocation. As the drought has worsened, Southern California water bosses have labored to keep the taps running through a host of conservation schemes. Meanwhile, water managers in Utah and the Upper Basin are working to get all of their water rights in use, even as their cities and counties register some of the highest per-capita consumption in the nation.

Demand is up. Flows are down. Something has to give. And when it does, Utah could be in trouble if it doesn't change its wasteful ways -- just as 19th-century explorer Maj. John Wesley Powell predicted.

The West lacks water, he wrote in his 1879 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, With a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah. "Disastrous droughts will be frequent."

Law of the River

The 1922 Colorado River Compact may have given California water rights senior to the other six states, but the Metropolitan Water District (Met), which supplies up to 60 percent of the water for 19 million people spread across six Los Angeles-area counties, made its claims after the state's allocation already had been divvied up. That means the most populous part of California is last in line among its peers when water runs low.

"If California ever did take a shortage," said Assistant General Manager Roger Patterson, "Met would take the hit."

That's already happened.

In 2003, California had to curtail its Colorado River use to its 1922 allocation of 4.4 million acre-feet per year, enough water for about 8 million households. Previously, under water-sharing deals with Arizona, the Golden State had been funneling about 5.2 million acre-feet.

Because of its junior standing, Met had to eat about half the total shortage. No one else in the state had to cut supplies, Patterson said.

In February, Met agreed to a rationing plan for most of Southern California, including Los Angeles and San Diego. It expects to add 5 million residents during the next five years. Since the Pacific Ocean blocks growth to the west, the district is pushing eastward, where it's hotter.

A federal judge has ordered California water managers to leave 30 percent more water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Northern California to stave off fish kills and keep the massive estuary healthy. More for the environment means less for Los Angeles.

Other populous regions of California also have taken steps to ensure a good water supply.

  • Developers in Riverside, Kern, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties must guarantee a 20-year water supply before they build.

  • The state has brought back a water bank, last used 17 years ago, in which Southern California cities can buy water from willing Sacramento Valley farmers. However, given the high prices farmers can get for their crops, especially rice, willing sellers might be hard to find.

  • Orange County residents are drinking recycled sewer water.

  • In San Diego County, the Coastal Commission greenlighted a $300 million desalination plant adjacent to a state beach. The operation still has to meet lots of conditions -- which probably will make the plant more costly to build and run -- but even if completed would supply no more than 9 percent of San Diego's current needs.
Met residents have cut back to about 185 gallons of water per person per day. Residents of Long Beach are down to 115 gallons.

"If Long Beach can do this," said Kevin Wattier, the city water department's general manager, "so can every other city in Southern California."

Splish, splash

Upstream, Utahns on average use 291 gallons of water per person per day, a rate second only to Nevada. In Salt Lake County, it's 255 gallons; Washington County, 350 gallons; Kane County, a bloated 430 gallons.

Sixty percent of Utah's water goes for outdoor use, including landscaping and agriculture. In California, agriculture consumers about 85 percent. California, however, is the fifth-largest farm economy in the world. By comparison, Utah's agriculture profile is nearly nonexistent, contributing less than 1 percent to the state's economy.

The system might seem out of balance. Yet no state, not even Nevada, which has the measliest Colorado allocation, wants to reopen the 1922 Colorado River Compact that divided the water. Each fears getting an even worse deal. Nor does anyone know what soon-to-be-settled Navajo claims on the river will mean to both basins.

There is, however, a growing sense that the Colorado Basin states are all in this together.

"Everybody ought to share in the reality of the river," said former Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam, now director of Washington County-based Citizens for Dixie's Future. "And there ought to be great flexibility in how we use it without losing it."

Dozens of scientific studies issued since 2004 have documented the Colorado's decline.

The river's annual flow has averaged 11.7 million acre-feet this decade, according to federal records. In 2002, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation measured only 6.2 million acre-feet passing Lee's Ferry below Glen Canyon Dam, the lowest flow of the decade. Even after this year's above-average precipitation, Lake Powell and Lake Mead combined are at 57 percent capacity.

A 2007 U.S. Geological Survey report found that, by 2050, rising temperatures in the Southwest could rival those of the nation's fabled droughts, including the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Hotter weather is expected to reduce Colorado River runoff by at least 30 percent during the 21st century.

If the USGS is correct, and if this century's trend persists, average annual flow in the Colorado could fall to 8.2 million acre-feet per year.

Imagine that. The Law of the River requires 9 million acre-feet to pass Lee's Ferry on the way to the Lower Basin and Mexico. Under a strict interpretation of the law, the Upper Basin could be left with nothing.

A far more likely scenario would have the states banding together to rework the river allocations. But when Arizona Sen. John McCain suggested just that during his failed presidential campaign, the shrieks emanating from Colorado's halls of power were enough to prompt the Republican nominee to back down.

Pipeline dream

Dennis Strong, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, in October told the state Water Development Commission that the state is using about 1 million acre-feet of its yearly 1.4 million acre-foot allotment from the Colorado.

Tribal water settlements yet to be signed would take up about 186,000 acre-feet, he said. New agricultural uses, mostly dedicated to controlling the salinity of the water that flows back to the Colorado, would take 35,000 acre-feet. Municipal and industrial uses along the river corridor would account for 5,000 acre-feet, and the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline would need 100,000 acre-feet, leaving about 74,000 acre-feet unused, theoretically.

Utah water managers are pushing the $1 billion-plus pipeline, which would lavish more water on a Dixie desert region likely to feel the full brunt of global climate disruption and permanent drought within the next 40 years.

The state hasn't actually secured rights to the 100,000 acre-feet for the pipeline. Strong said that would have to be nailed down by 2010, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to issue the license necessary to start building it. He's confident the water will come.

By 2040, the pipeline's water would be entirely committed to a regional population of about 400,000, Strong said.

Given current scientific warnings about the shrinking Colorado, that prospect looks shaky.

But Strong isn't worried. He's skeptical about global warming, though he "sees evidence" of it.

"Water managers," he said, "have been dealing with drought forever."

Sharing -- by the numbers

The 1922 Colorado River Compact divided the river during a wet cycle that assumed an average annual flow of 16.5 million acre-feet.

The law requires that 9 million acre-feet per year pass Lee's Ferry below Glen Canyon Dam every year to serve the Lower Basin states and Mexico. That leaves 7.5 million acre-feet for the Upper Basin.

An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to supply one or two Western households a year.

Sixty years ago, recognizing the danger of promising too much, the states amended Upper Basin allocations: Colorado would get 51.75 percent; Utah, 23 percent; Wyoming, 14 percent; and New Mexico, 11.25 percent.

More recently, the Upper Basin states acknowledged the drought and agreed that they will base their percentage allotments on 6 million acre-feet per year rather than the 7.5 million acre-feet assumed in the Colorado Compact.

"Nature acts, people argue." -- Voltaire

Based on analysis of many recent climate-model simulations, the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that warmer future temperatures will reduce future Colorado River flows and water supplies. Reduced flow also would contribute to increasing severity, frequency and duration of future droughts.

Steadily rising population and urban water demands in the Colorado River region will inevitably result in increasingly costly, controversial and unavoidable trade-offs to be made by water managers, politicians and their constituents. These increasing demands also are impeding the region's ability to cope with droughts and water shortages. --National Academy of Sciences

"I wish to make it clear to you, there is not sufficient water to irrigate all the lands which could be irrigated, and only a small portion can be irrigated. I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict." -- Maj. John Wesley Powell, 1893

Navajo water a wild card in river's future

Old rights: 1908 decision gave tribe part of the river

By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune

The commission that created the 1922 Colorado River Compact knew that Mexico, the Navajo and other tribes had rights to the river, but when it divvied up the presumed 15 million acre-feet annual flow, it didn't define the claims.

In 1944, the United States and Mexico agreed that Mexico would get 1.5 million acre-feet per year, resetting the assumed baseline river flow at 16.5 million acre-feet. Four years later, the commission set the Upper Basin states' shares on a percentage basis rather than an absolute allocation.

Still no mention of Indian tribes, even though an 1850 treaty with the Navajo Nation, reinforced by a 1908 Supreme Court ruling, guaranteed water rights necessary for a permanent homeland.

In 2003, the Navajo Nation sued the Interior Department, seeking to force the U.S. government to, at last, quantify the tribe's rights.

Some Navajos say a strict interpretation of the treaty and the 1908 ruling in Winters v. United States shows the tribe's rights trump all others because they were affirmed before the 1922 Colorado Compact.

Navajo leaders, however, are pursuing negotiations rather than going back to the Supreme Court. That's because they realize the justices could wipe out the earlier Winters ruling.

The approach has polarized Navajos, with some alleging the tribe's attorney, Stanley Pollack, a white man, isn't fighting hard enough.

Political science professor Dan McCool, who heads the University of Utah's American West Center and has written books about Indian water rights, praises Pollack.

"What his critics don't understand is the Winters decision is just judge-made law. It's never been in statute," McCool said. "Both sides realize if they go to the Supreme Court, they could win big or they could lose big. That's why so many cities and counties and states want to negotiate with the tribe."

The Navajo Nation could claim up to 100,000 acre-feet of water in Utah and up to 800,000 acre-feet in total. That prospect should have an impact on planning for the Lake Powell Pipeline, McCool said. "Navajo claims make it even more risky."

No one believes the Navajo would use all the water to irrigate corn and potatoes in the desert. But the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has estimated more than 30 percent of Navajos on the reservation have no plumbing.

The bureau calculated the lack of running water costs the equivalent of nearly $113 per thousand gallons because tribal members must pay to have water hauled or go to water vendors and truck it themselves.

McCool said negotiations could result in an agreement that would allow tribes to lease their rights. "Some of the people downstream and upstream are going to be paying rent to the Navajo, which actually isn't a bad idea."

Missing woman's body found in Mojave National Preserve

Luisa Aguilar Ventura, 58, was reported missing Nov. 17. Her grandson, Arturo Hernandez, 18, and his pickup truck are being sought.

Luisa Aguilar Ventura

By Esmeralda Bermudez
Los Angeles Times
Stacia Glenn
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

The body of a 58-year-old woman missing since last week was found in the Mojave National Preserve on Tuesday morning.

Luisa Aguilar Ventura was reported missing by relatives in Pomona on Nov. 17 after she failed to arrive in Madera, Calif., north of Fresno, with her 18-year-old grandson, Arturo Hernandez. She and her grandson, Arturo Hernandez, 18, were heading from Las Vegas to Madera. Ventura last spoke to her family when the two left Las Vegas at 6 p.m. on Nov. 16.

The incident is being investigated by homicide detectives, but so far has not been ruled a homicide, said Arden Wiltshire, spokeswoman with the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. Authorities are searching for Hernandez.

"We don't even know if he's aware that she died," Wiltshire said about Ventura's grandson, adding that there were no signs of trauma on Ventura's body. The coroner's report has not been released. "We need to talk to him," she said.

A passing truck driver discovered Ventura's body near the Nevada and California state line in Cima and about 100 yards from Cima Road, south of the 15 Freeway. Ventura and Hernandez were traveling in a gray 2002 Toyota Tacoma, license plate 6Y27079. Authorities are searching for the truck.

Anyone with information is asked to call the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department homicide detail at (909) 387-3589.

‘I’m Shocked, Shocked To Discover Land Use Going On Here’

by Vin Suprynowicz
Las Vegas Review-Journal

Once you’ve passed through the entrance gate to one of America’s magnificent national parks or monuments, what do you see?


In most cases, mile upon mile of nothin’.

The sweeping grandeur of the Grand Canyon is not visible from any common entrance point to the national park of that name. Expect to drive several miles before you see the first signs directing you to various hotels and overlooks. (Entering from the north, LOTS of miles.)

Florida’s Everglades area the same way. Yes, the historic wetlands have been shrunken by unwise water projects further north, but many a child has gazed out upon the sweep of mostly dry grasslands after passing the “now entering” sign, asking, “Where’s the swamp? Where’s the gators?”

The traveler does not come upon these scenic wonders immediately, because those who planned these vast impoundments understood the concept of a “buffer zone.” With few exceptions, the scenic vistas are surrounded by five to 10 miles – or more – of empty space. This was done so that those enjoying the scenery would not have to gaze upon carnivals and trailer parks and used car graveyards teetering at the edge of Bryce Canyon or Yosemite Falls.

Outside the parks and monuments, the federal government may control even vaster acreage. But those lands are turned over to the U.S. Bureau of land Management, which has a different mission, seeing that those less sensitive lands are used in ways that benefit the nation.

Yet listen now to the green extremists, complaining that mining or tree-cutting or grazing is “allowed, only one valley away” or “once ridge line away” from a national park or monument.

On Nov. 4, the BLM announced that on Dec. 19 they will auction off the rights to drill for oil or gas on more than 50,000 acres of BLM land close to or adjoining three national parks in Utah: Arches, Dinosaur, and Canyonlands.

“This is a fire sale,” shrills Stephen Bloch, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, “the Bush administration’s last great gift to the oil and gas industry.”

“We find it shocking and disturbing,” says Cordell Troy, chief National Park Service administrator in Utah. “That’s 40 tracts within four miles of these parks.”

Read it again. Four miles outside the parks’ existing buffer zones.

Franklin Seal, spokesman for the environmental group Wildland CPR, contends “If you’re standing at Delicate Arch, like thousands of people do every year, and you’re looking through the arch, you could see drill pads on the hillside behind it. That’s how ridiculous this proposed lease sale is.”

See people earning an honest wage, working to heat our homes and fill our gas tanks … by using binoculars, perhaps?

In an era when economically struggling Americans actually celebrate when gasoline prices fall below three dollars a gallon – when this nation needs to develop all its domestic resources to reduce its dependence on foreign oil – there’s nothing “silly” about creating wealth and real jobs by allowing entrepreneurs to risk their own capital developing our own resources.

If the borders of the Arches National Park were not properly drawn to create an adequate buffer, it’s odd no one noticed this before. In such specific cases, the BLM might certainly compromise on a parcel or two.

But these protests are like complaining someone “almost broke” the 65 mph speed limit by driving 63 mph, or that they “almost violated” the drinking age by serving beer to a 23-year-old.

“I’m puzzled the park Service has been as upset as they are,” Selma Sierra, BLM director for the state of Utah, tells The Associated Press. “There are already many parcels leased around the parks.”

Details, details. What does that matter, when there’s serious posturing to be done?

Soon we’ll be hearing about unsightly land uses “within a hundred miles of a national park!” Since many national parks sit in closer proximity to each other than that, here in the West, such an “exclusionary zone” would bar millions of acres of deserts scrub from any productive use.

Which, one begins to suspect, is precisely what the green extreme has in mind.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the daily Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Developer to pay $753 per acre for tortoise mitigation

Pahrump Valley Times

Corrections Corporation of America will pay a fee of $753 per acre for disturbing desert tortoise habitat, in a biological opinion for the federal detention center approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

That would amount to $51,957 for 69 acres of disturbed habitat in an agreement approved Oct. 9. The check will be paid to the Clark County Desert Tortoise Conservation Program for habitat enhancement and acquisition for desert tortoises in the wild.

The agreement was released after the filing of a Freedom of Information Act request by the Pahrump Valley Times.

A tortoise-proof fence will be required around the perimeter of the project, including the detention center water storage tank and drainage ditch. Another 51 acres of the 120-acre property will not be disturbed, the opinion said.

The issuance kicks off an 18-month period in which CCA is expected to construct and have ready for occupancy a federal detention center to house up to 1,500 inmates awaiting trial in federal court or deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The fee is much higher than the $550 per acre for a high-habitat zone and $250 in a low-habitat zone proposed in a habitat conservation plan covering up to 150 acres in Pahrump Valley -- a plan that was rejected by Nye County commissioners.

After months of haggling with the Fish and Wildlife Service, county officials balked at paying a fee suggested by consultant Julene Haworth to submit the plan after being told the plan would be free.

"I think there is definitely still a need because there are still species affected on private land," said Amy LaVoie, U.S. Fish and Wildlife deputy assistant field supervisor. "The urgency may have dropped a little bit because of the economy. I know there were a lot of planned developments in the Pahrump area."

County Commissioner Gary Hollis said he was belatedly engaging in discussions on desert tortoise mitigation plans so state USFWS Director Bob Williams "didn't send his storm troopers" down to Pahrump.

County Commission Chairman Joni Eastley had concerns the agency could stop construction in Pahrump if contractors didn't have the necessary agreement for an accidental take of desert tortoise.

"We have not decided whether to enact any enforcement at this time, especially with some of the developers coming forth and wanting to do their own plan," LaVoie said.

Pahrump is awaiting a desert tortoise habitat conservation plan for the 426-acre site on Highway 160 just southeast of Dandelion Road formerly planned for a fairgrounds and now being considered for a water park and western theme village.

In March 2007, the USFWS said the desert tortoise was a species that may be present at the proposed federal detention center site at 2250 E. Mesquite Ave. in Pahrump. A site visit on Nov.12-13, 2007, found 13 desert tortoise burrows but no actual tortoises. The service estimated the site would have very low densities ranging from zero to 10 tortoises per square mile.

"Human activity in the area may result in tortoise mortality from vehicle encounters, increased predation from ravens, illegal collection of tortoises and degradation of the habitat from disturbance, fragmentation and the spread of non-native plants," the opinion said.

However, the USFWS concluded that based on mitigation measures, already increased levels of disturbance in the area and the small area of disturbance proposed for the center, "The project, as proposed and analyzed, is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the threatened desert tortoise."

A qualified biologist will be required to direct the placement of temporary fencing along East Mesquite Avenue during construction, in areas next to desert tortoise habitat, a recommendation made by the Fish and Wildlife Service to the consultant for the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee.

That was the result of a site visit and past observations of tortoises crossing the road, Williams wrote.

A field contract representative approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service would be hired to implement an education program for construction workers; conduct a pre-construction clearance survey flagging any burrows, feeding sites or nesting sites; define disturbance areas and install desert tortoise exclusion fencing before construction.

A biologist will be on call during construction to move any desert tortoises out of the project area.

If the installation of the tortoise proof fence occurs during their active period from March to October, an authorized biologist will be present to ensure no tortoises are harmed. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates two tortoises could be killed during construction. The fencing would be monitored daily.

November 27, 2008

Future power lines, pipelines will cut across wildlife refuge

Las Vegas Review-Journal

WASHINGTON -- Despite the pleas of nature advocates earlier this year, the Desert National Wildlife Refuge will be included in 1,622 miles of federal land crisscrossed by future power lines and pipelines.

The inclusion is part of a final report released Wednesday designating land in Nevada as part of an energy corridor network throughout the West.

Part of one corridor runs for about 25 miles along the southeastern edge of the 1.6 million acre Desert National Wildlife Refuge north of Las Vegas. Nature advocates at public hearings in Southern Nevada earlier this year urged federal officials to delete the corridor.

But it could not be done, according to a final environmental impact statement issued by the departments of Energy, Interior, Agriculture and Defense. The agencies collaborated after Congress set direction for them in a law enacted three years ago.

"It is not like it is going to
destroy the refuge..."
- John Hiatt,
Red Rock Audubon Society

The route intersecting the Nevada refuge "was retained because of there being no other viable option for relocating the corridor," the report states. It added that the agencies would seek approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that manages the haven for desert shrubs, bighorn sheep and the desert tortoise.

Release of the environmental report is one of the last steps before the energy corridor network can be finalized. It designates 6,112 miles of federal land in 11 states where future power lines and oil, gas and hydrogen pipelines could be funneled through the bureaucracy to build more energy infrastructure. Most corridors would be two-thirds of a mile wide.

John Hiatt, conservation chair for the Red Rock Audubon Society, said the energy corridor that runs through Clark County follows a tortuous path around the Sheep Mountains and then north and west of the Spring Mountains.

Hiatt said the route pleased nobody, including the federal officials who detoured it "150 extra miles" around the metropolitan area. In the process, they did not bypass the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.

"It is not like it is going to destroy the refuge, but it is a death by a thousand cuts and this is the first big cut," Hiatt said. "It definitely has a big impact. Essentially it removes all sense of naturalness from a fairly wide corridor which will be disturbed numerous times for fuel lines, gas lines, whatever they want to do. It is a bad situation with no simple answer how to solve the problem."

Jill Moran, a BLM spokeswoman, said the corridor designations do not automatically green-light development projects. Further environmental studies would be required for specific proposals before they can be permitted, although some studies may not need to be as extensive because of the groundwork being laid now.

The initiative also commits federal agencies to cooperate to reduce red tape for developers. Moran said the corridors will be formally designated through a record of decision that will be issued before the end of the year.

In Nevada, 34 corridors were identified. About 69 percent of the mileage already is designated for utility or transportation rights of way. BLM officials could not immediately identify which corridors would be newly designated in the state.

The Bush administration's work to designate energy corridors "has ruffled a lot of feathers in the environmental community out West," said John Tull, conservation director of the Nevada Wilderness Project.

The maps favor coal, oil and gas, and "look like another handout for traditional energy sources," Tull said. "It doesn't have the foresight for a renewable energy plan."

How the corridors might look different "is entirely the discussion that needs to go forward," he said. "I don't know what they would look like but that discussion has not taken place."

In the meantime, "I will be surprised if there will not be lawsuits real quick," Tull said. "That's pretty much the only course of action left."

November 26, 2008

Agency backs off from land auctions

Bureau of Land Management will defer oil and gas exploration leases for some sites close to national parks. Environmentalists had accused Bush administration of giving energy industry a parting gift.

By Nicholas Riccardi
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Denver -- The Bureau of Land Management on Tuesday backed off from plans to auction more than a dozen leases to explore for oil and gas on the doorstep of several national parks, deflecting accusations by environmental groups that it was handing a "parting gift" to the energy industry before the Obama administration takes over.

The agency still will proceed with more than 100 lease sales at a Dec. 19 auction. BLM officials did not return calls for comment Tuesday night, but they released a statement with the National Park Service after a Monday meeting, saying the two agencies had come to an agreement on protecting the environment.

"This constructive dialogue between our agencies has resulted in a positive outcome," Selma Sierra, the BLM director in Utah, said in the statement. "This is important for two sister agencies with environmental stewardship missions."

It was unclear Tuesday night precisely how many sales were being deferred -- environmentalists counted 34, and the BLM's statement identified at least 18. But environmental groups said that was not enough. They noted that the Park Service had identified 93 of the leases as problematic.

"Putting oil and gas exploration and industrial zones in the Southwest causes irreparable damage," said David Nimkin of the National Park Conservation Assn. "It's like burning Rembrandts to heat the castle. I'm not sure we're that desperate."

About 360,000 acres of available lease sales in Utah were quietly announced on election day, including leases near Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument. The BLM bypassed the National Park Service, which normally is allowed to weigh in on leases near parks.

The disclosure of the auction several days later sparked complaints that the Bush administration was trying to rush the leases before leaving office. The co-chair of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, John Podesta, said the new administration may try to reverse the sales.

Mary Wilson, a BLM spokeswoman, said early Tuesday that the agency had erred by initially leaving the Park Service out of the loop. But she defended the process, noting that the agency conducts auctions every four months and has sought to auction some of the parcels for as long as five years.

"We're doing what we're mandated to do," she said.

The BLM said it waited to offer the leases until it finalized new management plans for more than 11 million acres of land in Utah last month. Wilson said the new plan has environmental protections in it, but critics of the BLM said it opens pristine land to exploration and is the legacy of an administration obsessed with drilling.

"This is the cementing of the Bush administration legacy in Utah," said Stephen Bloch, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

He noted that leases will still be sold in "wilderness-quality" areas such as Nine Mile Canyon, an area with many Native American artifacts. "That's their parting gift to the industry and the American public to conduct this at the last minute."

November 25, 2008

Democrats brace for ‘midnight rules’ from Bush

White House hastens to put new regs in place – and out of Obama’s reach, watchdogs say.

Mountaintop removal: New rule would let miners dump debris closer to rivers and streams. This site is in Kayford Mountain, W.Va. (Jeff Gentner/AP)

By Mark Clayton
The Christian Science Monitor

Will last-gasp “refinements” to the Clean Air Act let power plants locate near national parks next year? Will a new federal rule allow coal-mining debris to be dumped closer to streams? Will factory farms soon get a pass on reporting hazardous chemical releases?

So goes the worry list of environmentalists awaiting what they suspect may be an avalanche of last-minute “midnight rules” by the Bush administration that favor industrial polluters by relaxing or undermining environmental standards.

It has become a rite of outgoing presidents to push through, in their final weeks, federal regulations they favor to extend their policies beyond their administrations. Once such a rule is formally enacted by being printed in the Federal Register, the law usually requires another 30 to 60 days to pass before the rules take effect. After that, a rule can be very difficult to reverse.

But while a rule is not yet in effect, it is vulnerable. A raft of last-minute rules that President Clinton did not publish quickly enough were put on hold the day after President Bush took office in 2001. By contrast, Mr. Clinton’s “Roadless Rule,” which restricts road building on federal land, was published and in effect in time. It has been impossible for the Bush White House to undo. Apparently mindful of this, White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) chief Joshua Bolten, in a memo this spring, had told federal agencies to have rules to his office for vetting no later than Nov. 1 so they could be in effect by Jan. 20, 2009 – Inauguration Day.

But there is rising hope among environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers that any last-minute onslaught will be blunted this time, if not turned back entirely. They look to a little-known and little-used law called the Congressional Review Act of 1996.

The CRA gives Congress fast-track authority to hold filibuster-free votes on regulations if they were enacted within a certain time frame – 60 legislative days – after Congress had adjourned. Given Congress’s frequent adjournments this year, the law may allow the new Congress to vote on regulations enacted by the Bush administration as far back as June, regulatory experts say.

“Usually these rules are very difficult to reverse, except this year might be different,” says Veronique de Rugy, a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and an expert on midnight regulations. “Congress could use the CRA, and that would create an expedited process to repeal any rule by simple majority vote. I suspect this time we’re going to see a lot of that happening.”

One key reason the CRA is not often used is that it requires a rare alignment of stars in the political sky: President and Congress must be of the same party. That’s because CRA legislation can be used only at the beginning of a new presidential term, and all CRA bills go to the new president – who can veto them. Presidential vetoes are unlikely this time, since the incoming Obama administration is on the same wavelength as the incoming Democratic-majority Congress.

Ironically, the 1996 law was passed by the Republican-dominated House, led by Newt Gingrich, to try to thwart the first-term Clinton White House from pushing through its own midnight rulings.

Congressional aides say Demo­crats are already fine-tuning CRA-based legislation to turn back some expected rules if the Obama administration is unable to do so through executive action. One expected Bush rule, for example, would undermine the Endangered Species Act – critics say – by relaxing requirements for federal agencies to consult about the effects of their actions on endangered species and critical habitat.

“We are drafting legislation as we speak to block the rule that would harm the Endangered Spe­­cies Act,” says Eben Burnham-Snyder, an aide to Rep. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts. Mr. Markey chairs the House Select Committee on En­­ergy Inde­pen­dence. “It would be something you’d see very quick action on – and that’s why we’re making sure to have legislative language action-ready,” Mr. Burnham-Snyder says.

That sort of ramping-up on Cap­­­­­itol Hill cheers environmentalists.

“Obviously the Bush administration has made a conscientious effort to get these rules done in a way that’s more difficult to overturn,” says Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club.

“But they apparently didn’t take into account the potential of the timing in the CRA to overturn some of these things.”

Bush administration spokesmen dispute such a dour characterization of the administration’s efforts, saying that most rules now in the pipeline have been in the public eye and subject to public comment for several years.

“This president set out with a very aggressive en­­vironment­al agenda when he took office – and this is the culmination of this work,” says Jon­­­athan Schra­der, a spokesman for the Envi­ron­mental Protection Agency. “Some of the New Source Review work [part of the Clean Air Act] was set out as long ago as 2004…. None of this is a surprise. It’s the culmination of years of work … to keep the environment clean and safe.”

Some dimensions of the Bush rule-writing push are beginning to emerge.

Between Nov. 1 and Nov. 20, at least 47 new federal rules from the En­­viron­­mental Protection Agency, the Depart­ment of Interior, and the De­part­ment of Energy were being reviewed by the Of­­fice of Management and Budget, according to Ms. de Rugy’s tally of OMB data. Of those, 15 are “economically significant” rules – that is, having an impact of $100 million or more, she says.

At that rate, there could be more than 70 economically significant rules enacted between Nov. 1 and Jan. 20, the day President-elect Obama takes office, de Rugy says. By comparison, just eight economically significant regulations were reviewed by OMB during the same period a year ago. Under President Clinton, the OMB reviewed 49 economically significant rules between Nov. 1, 2000 and Jan. 20, 2001, when George W. Bush took office.

If President Bush keeps to that pace, the Obama administration may be faced with hundreds of rules that could come under CRA review. There have been 307 rules enacted by those three federal agencies alone since July, 63 of them economically significant, de Rugy says.

“There’s a lot that the president can do using his executive authority without waiting for congressional action, and I think we will see the president do that,” said John Podesta, Obama’s transition chief, in a FOX TV network interview.

For those rules that have already been published, reversing them won’t be easy. And even the CRA has a downside. It must be used wisely or it may do more harm than good. For one thing, once the CRA has been used to repeal a rule, the agency cannot reintroduce a modified rule on that issue, potentially leaving legislative and enforcement gaps, de Rugy notes.

It’s also unclear whether CRA allows many rules to be bundled together so they can be voted on to reverse them en masse. They may have to be addressed one at a time, which is de Rugy’s interpretation of the law.

That could be a problem, given the landslide of last-minute rules that seems to be coming.

“The Bush administration is working in a way that it hopes to be more effective in cementing these rules in place,” says Matt Madia, regulatory policy analyst for OMB Watch, a liberal-leaning government watchdog group. “It’s going to be more difficult for the Obama administration to do anything, so it’s going to be in the hands of Congress.

Proposed rules on environment

The Bush administration is preparing to put scores of new rules on the books in its waning days, a phenomenon known as “midnight regulation.” Several dozen rules regarding environmental issues are involved, including some that could have major impacts.

Here are some of the more controversial proposed rules, according to OMB Watch, a liberal-leaning government-watchdog group in Washington:

Mountaintop mining. The proposed new rule would allow mining companies to dump rock and dirt from mountaintop-­removal mining closer to rivers and streams.

Endangered species consultation. The rule would alter implementation of the Endangered Species Act by letting federal land-use managers approve projects like highways, mining, or logging without consulting federal habitat managers and biological health experts responsible for species protection. Currently, consultation is required.

Air pollution near national parks. The proposed rule would ease current restrictions that make it difficult for power plants to operate near national parks and wilderness areas.

Runoff and air pollution from factory farms. Under new rules, factory farms could let their runoff pollute waterways without a permit. (The rule circumvents the Clean Water Act, allowing for self-regulation.) Another rule would exempt factory farms from reporting air pollution emissions from animal waste.

New Source Review changes. The rule would change the Environmental Protection Agency’s New Source Review program, which requires new facilities or renovating facilities to install better pollution-control technology, by making fewer facilities subject to its requirements.

Environmental impacts of fishery decisions. The rule would transfer the responsibility for examining the environmental impacts of federal ocean-management decisions from federal employees to advisory groups that represent regional fishing interests. The rule would also make it tougher for the public to participate in the environmental assessment process required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

Dust ordinance stirs off-road resentment

by Peter Corbett
The Arizona Republic

It was intended to clear the air, but it appears Scottsdale's dust ordinance has stirred up resentment among off-road vehicle enthusiasts.

They were kicked off popular trails in the Granite Mountain Multiuse Area this summer while other users - jeep tours, equestrians and mountain bikers - continue to kick up dust on the state land in north Scottsdale.

"It's just another ridiculous bureaucratic mess that the public gets caught in," said Jeff Gursh of the Arizona Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition.

The coalition had worked with city and state officials to manage the 16,000-acre Granite Mountain area northeast of Pima and Dynamite roads and to keep motorized riders and others on signed trails.

Now that responsible riders are gone, Gursh said there is no one to keep a close eye on the state trust land that the city one day hopes to add to its McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

That has led to a series of problems, he said, including:

Rogue riders cutting fences and riding wherever they choose.

Contractors dumping construction waste.

Illegal shooting and vandalism of gates, signs and information kiosks.

Meanwhile, mountain bikers and hikers continue to park on the unpaved access points into the Granite Mountain trails, which, according to Gursh, should not be allowed under the dust-control ordinance the city adopted in March.

And there is confusion about allowed uses since most access points do not have signs that say off-road vehicles are prohibited.

Scottsdale police Sgt. Mark Clark said officers have been issuing warnings to off-road riders to make them aware that the Granite Mountain area is closed to motorized recreation.

Scottsdale spokesman Pat Dodds said the city is doing its best on enforcement, with limited resources, on a huge expanse of land.

Scottsdale prohibited off-road vehicles in the Granite Mountain area because it wants to acquire the state trust land for its preserve.

"We want to keep the folks out who would do damage to it," Dodds said.

Scottsdale is also writing a policy that would allow Jeep tours in the area but phase them out, he said.

Scottsdale and other municipalities adopted dust-control measures this year aimed at cutting air pollution. State law requires the stringent measures to meet federal regulations.

November 24, 2008

Pioneertown zone may go commercial

By Stacy Moore
Hi-Desert Star

Riders reenact a Pony Express mail delivery in Pioneertown every year to lead up to Grubstake Days.

PIONEERTOWN — The county government is moving to change this community’s downtown zoning from residential to commercial to allow more businesses to locate in this former Western-movie backdrop.

Dave Dawson, a senior planner with San Bernardino County’s Land Use Services Department, said county staff is working on the process to change the land designation from special development residential to special development commercial.

It will affect 30 acres bounded by Rawhide Road on the north, Curtis Road on the east, Tom Mix Road on the west and Pioneertown Road on the south.

The zoning change would have to be approved by the planning commission in a meeting that probably won’t happen until February 2009 or later, Dawson said.

The zoning change was requested last year while the county was updating its General Plan, he said.

“If there’s ever to be a viable economic entity again out there, we have to have some commercial designation,” Dawson declared.

The rezoning is not being considered for a specific business, said Dawson, who emphasized, “There is no project on the board at this time.”

Construction of single-family houses would not be allowed in the new zone; the only type of housing allowed would be multi-family or a combination of home and business. Dawson offered an example of a dentist who kept an office in the front of his building and lived in back.

Existing single-family homes would be allowed to stand if the zoning changes, he said, as long as the buildings were properly permitted.

Dawson expressed hope that new businesses would help Pioneertown in the long run.

“Eventually, the town will hopefully come around with more economic vitality,” he said.

According to Dawson, businesses applying for permits would have to take into consideration the community’s Old West architecture and nature.

Pioneertown resident Guy Hann, whose house on Mane Street would fall inside the new zone, drafted a petition asking people to oppose the project.

“I have a problem with some of the types of businesses that they would allow,” Hann said when reached at his office Friday afternoon. “The types of businesses they would allow under special permitting are just ridiculous. There are alcoholics’ halfway houses and homeless shelters and those sorts of things, which wouldn’t be copacetic with the character of Pioneertown at all.”

Hann also pointed out new horse stables and livestock corrals would not be allowed in the commercial zone. “That’s what this little community is about,” he declared.

Dawson said existing horseback riding facilities and homes with corrals would be allowed to remain in the new zone.

Hann’s main fear is how much he doesn’t know about the plan. “Their agenda is unknown,” he said. “They’re not willing to disclose who has requested this revision or who initiated it. It’s their contention it’s just the County of San Bernardino that initiated it.”

“I’m scared of the unknown,” he concluded. “I just don’t know what kind of repercussions this would have on my home.”

Public hearings before the planning commission and board of supervisors will be scheduled at a later date.

Federal energy-corridor plan criticized

By Stephen Speckman
Deseret News

Critics last week flayed a new federal plan for about 6,000 miles of energy corridors on nearly 3 million acres in 11 states, saying the strategy fails to protect "treasured" public lands.

In the meantime, state lawmakers endorsed a proposed bill Wednesday that seeks to create a task force to focus on where to site utility transmission corridors in Utah. Rocky Mountain Power's manager of government affairs, Kevin Boardman, told members of the Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee that his company would like to be part of the task force.

"I think going forward this is going to be a primary issue before the state," Boardman said. He referred to the "challenges" his company recently encountered when Box Elder County residents, citing health concerns, objected to a $4.1 billion, 90-mile corridor running through the county into Idaho.

The bill to create the task force will be considered during the 2009 legislative general session, which begins in January.

The Wilderness Society said in a statement Thursday that a newly proposed federal plan plots a corridor a "stone's throw away" from the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area. The group also pointed out that another corridor would cut through Moab and skirt within a few yards the boundary of Arches National Park.

Watchdogs also fear a corridor will be allowed to slice through Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The new corridors in Utah would be used for oil and natural gas pipelines and electric transmission lines.

The Bureau of Land Management and Department of Energy were given some credit Thursday for moving certain "objectionable" corridors, imposing protective management conditions and clarifying that pipelines cannot be sited without an environmental review.

But the plans cannot be considered a success "because they inadequately address renewable energy, cut out the public's right to protest and will turn national monuments and wildlife refuges into industrialized energy corridors," said Wilderness Society senior counsel Nada Culver.

November 22, 2008

Roundtable Claims Victory as Senate Delays Lands Bill

Roundtable Applauds Congressional Allies for Standing Firm Against Lame Duck Consideration of The Omnibus Lands Bill

News Blaze

The Western U.S. came out a winner as the U.S. Congress was unable to pass a massive lands bill this week that would have placed millions of acres of federal lands under enhanced federal control.

Some Congressional leaders had sought to ram the bill through this past week's "lame duck" session of Congress. But public opposition -- rallied in part by the Roundtable and other Western groups, as well as the opposition of key Members of Congress -- blocked the land grab bill from being brought up.

Congressional leaders vowed to try to pass the bill when the Congress reconvenes in January 2009.

The massive, 1076-page measure included more than 150 bills that would:

  • Create or expand a number of wilderness areas;

  • Establish new conservation areas;

  • Create/ add to wild and scenic designations;

  • Designate new national scenic trails;

  • Add new national and historic park units;

  • Add nearly a dozen new national heritage areas.
Of greatest concern to the Roundtable is the inclusion within the package of language that would statutorily establish the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

"Stopping this huge package from being rammed through the Congress is a big win for Westerners," said Britt Weygandt, Executive Director of the Roundtable. In particular, Weygandt lauded the efforts of Senator Tom Coburn (OK) and Representative Rob Bishop (UT), who led the fight to put the brakes on the package.

"Postponing consideration is the right thing to do. It is our hope that Congress will use the additional time to reconsider some of the package's more troubling provisions," Weygandt added, noting the Roundtable's particular concerns with provisions seeking to codify NLCS. The U.S. Department of Interior's Inspector General recently initiated an investigation for possible violations of anti-lobbying law, by federal employees, related to the NLCS provisions.

The NLCS is comprised of 27 million acres of federal lands administered by the BLM including National Monuments, National Conservation Areas, Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, and National Scenic and Historic Trails. The vast majority of these lands are located in 12 Western states. The bill would give federal land managers the ability to alter the long-standing multiple use management philosophy of the BLM by elevating the conservation purposes above other purposes for NLCS units. To see a comprehensive breakdown of how each Western state is impacted by NLCS codification, go here.

The Roundtable had taken a lead role in rallying Westerners to oppose this huge federal land grab, spearheading efforts with dozens of other Western business, county, and fiscally conservative organizations who were concerned the bill would curtail the development of energy resources and public access for recreation on wide swaths of federal lands. Over the past several months, numerous letters from the Roundtable have been sent to Congressional Members calling on them to postpone consideration of this massive package.

While some of the provisions in this omnibus bill are non-controversial, there were key sections that raised serious concerns for Western multiple use access, agricultural, recreation, business, county, energy, and fiscal groups. "This legislation would give opponents of multi-use the ability to limit recreational access and restrict economic activity to vast "landscape-wide" areas," noted Weygandt. "This could mean agriculture, energy exploration and production and other economic uses could become imperiled on huge swathes of Western public lands."

"Certainly, for Westerners, there are always very real trade-offs involved with any public lands designation. We believe such bills need to be considered individually so each can evaluated carefully," said Weygandt. "Bulk packaging of legislation has a checkered record for Congress. It doesn't work well on Appropriations bills. It certainly doesn't work on land designations, where such designations can mean the difference between economic health and peril for Western communities. We hope the 111th Congress will do this the right way, letting each of these measures rise or fall on their individual merits."

November 21, 2008

Grijalva another rumored Cabinet pick from Arizona

Washington Post, cite him as leading contender for Interior

The Arizona Republic

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz

Arizona could lose not one but two of its elected officials to President-elect Barack Obama's cabinet.

Just days after officials with Obama's transition team said Gov. Janet Napolitano is the top choice for Homeland Security secretary, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., has emerged as a leading contender for secretary of the Interior.

Grijalva, 60, is Tucson native and son of an immigrant Mexican farmworker. He served as Hispanic co-chair for Obama's presidential campaign and has been a fierce critic of the Bush administration's environmental policies. He serves on the House Committee on Natural Resources, and chairs the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee.

The Interior secretary traditionally comes from a Western state, where management of public lands is a key issue. The administration post oversees public lands and serves as a steward for the nation's Indian reservations.

On Friday, The Washington Post and the political Web site said Grijalva is a top contender for the post. Both cited transition officials as sources.

Grijalva could not be reached Friday, but spokeswoman Natalie Luna said the congressman has not received any word from Barack Obama's transition team. "He said he hasn't been contacted," Luna said, adding, "I think he would give it really good thought."

Luna said her boss has a "good rapport" with the president-elect. "I think he (Obama) knows the congressman's background, what he's interested in and passionate about," she added.

Last month, Grijalva issued a scathing report titled, "The Bush Administration's Assaults on Our National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. The 23-page critique accuses the President of carrying out "a concerted strategy" of reducing the protections for federal properties, "opening up these lands for every type of private, commercial and extractive industry possible."

Rodolfo Espino, assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University, said such an appointment would make sense.

Grijalva is an up-and-comer who recently became co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Espino, sharing Obama's liberal vision on public land policy. He also carries little baggage as a politician, worked on the presidential campaign and hails from a Western state where land issues are crucial.

If appointed, Grijalva would be the third Interior secretary from Arizona, following in the footsteps of Stewart Udall (1961-69) and Bruce Babbitt (1993-2001).

The Interior Department manages about 500 million acres of federal land, or one-fifth of the United States. It oversees 67,000 employees in a bureaucracy that includes the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Geological Service.

Environmental leaders were thrilled at the prospect of Grijalva assuming the secretariat. Mining, ranching and other land-use industry representatives expressed dismay.

"Talk about a 180 from where we are today," said Richard Mayol, communications director at the Grand Canyon Trust. "That is certainly something that we would love to get behind, something we would cheer."

By contrast, Basilio Aja, executive director for the Arizona Beef Council, said Grijalva has been "singularly focused on monument declarations," setting aside federal property so that it cannot be mined or grazed. Especially in tough economic times, he said, it will be critical to take advantage of federal grazing lands for food production.

Grijalva, serving his third term in Congressional District 7, was a Tucson schools trustee in the 1970s and '80s, then served on the Pima County Board of Supervisors from 1988 to 2002.

He has long been regarded as an environmental advocate, leading efforts to regulate hard-rock mining and establish a National Landscape Conservation System. He recently told The Arizona Republic that Bush's administration sold away public resources to private interests, performing "more like real-estate agents than stewards of (public) lands."

Sandy Bahr, conservation director for the Sierra Club in Arizona, praised Grijalva's efforts to ban uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, calling him a "real leader."

"Obviously he knows the West and the importance of public lands," Bahr said. "Arizona has been well-served by him, particularly on the kinds of issues that the Department of Interior addresses."

Bush angers environmentalists with last-minute rule changes

Many of the 'midnight regulations' open wilderness for oil and gas drilling, and loosen environmental safeguards. President Bush has pushed 53 through in three weeks, researchers say.

By Jim Tankersley
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — As the hour grows late, President Bush, like many chief executives before him, seems to hear the call of the wild.

Honoring a tradition that dates at least to the Reagan administration, Bush is pushing through a bundle of controversial last-minute changes in federal rules -- many of them involving the environment, national parks and public lands in the West.

President Clinton used his final weeks and months in office to strengthen a host of environmental rules and lock up federal lands with wilderness and other protective designations. Bush is using the same window of opportunity to open wilderness for oil and gas drilling, and to loosen safeguards for air, water and wildlife.

In recent days, the Bush administration announced new rules to speed oil shale development across 2 million rocky acres in the West. It scheduled an auction for drilling rights alongside three national parks. It has also set in motion processes to finalize major changes in endangered species protection, allow more mining waste to flow into rivers and streams, and exempt factory farms from air pollution reporting.

Researchers who track "midnight regulations" say Bush pushed 53 of them through the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the last three weeks, nearly double the pace of Clinton at this point in his final year.

Some of the most controversial rules deal with the environment -- a legacy-cementing area where Bush diverges sharply from Clinton and from President-elect Barack Obama.

In the mid-1990s, when Clinton was in the White House, the GOP-controlled Congress established rules designed to rein in late-inning regulatory changes. But the move has had little effect.

Outgoing presidents "have an incentive to push stuff that the next administration won't be in favor of," said Veronique de Rugy, a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University who tracks midnight regulations. "It's your last chance . . . to extend your influence into the future."

White House officials say they've taken pains to avoid a late-term blitz. Spokesman Tony Fratto said that Bush is keeping roughly the same regulatory pace as last year, and that many rules won't be enacted because agencies missed a Nov. 1 deadline for final action, set earlier this year by Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten. Bolten's order allows exceptions for what are considered extraordinary circumstances.

"It's unprecedented in the history of administrations to try to do something this way, and do it the right way," Fratto said.

Environmental activists and government watchdogs, on the other hand, say Bush rushed several of the rules to completion so that Obama could not easily overturn them.

Obama can summarily reverse anything not enacted by the time he takes office, a lesson Bush learned by blocking several of Clinton's last-ditch environmental measures, such as a ban on road-building in national forests.

"The Bush administration is trying to prevent Obama from doing to it what it did to Clinton," said Matt Madia, a regulatory policy analyst for OMB Watch, a Washington-based watchdog group.

Under federal rules, it takes 60 days to enact an economically "significant" regulation, which carries an estimated impact of $100 million or more. Other regulations take 30 days. Today is the deadline for "significant" regulation, though Fratto calls it "irrelevant to our process."

The process moved especially quickly in the case of oil shale. In July, the administration proposed rules that would eventually lead to leasing 2 million acres of public land in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming for oil shale extraction, even though serious questions remain about how much power and water -- a particularly scarce resource on much of that land -- would be needed to make it work.

The rules were finalized this week.

The American Petroleum Institute praised the move as "an integral step" toward increased domestic energy production. "It lays the groundwork, lets investors know what they're going to face going forward," said Andy Radford, a senior policy advisor for the institute.

Environmentalists cried foul. Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) said Bush had "fallen into the trap of allowing political timelines to trump sound policy."

Activists also accuse Bush of disregarding public comments on a proposal to change how the Endangered Species Act guides federal projects. Currently, federal agencies must check with government species experts before building a dam or paving a road.

Bush would allow the agencies to determine on their own if they were putting protected species in danger. The change would be "absolutely necessary if we're going to move projects forward," said William Kovacs, vice president of environment, technology and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Opponents say administration officials breezed through 250,000 public comments -- most of them criticizing the proposal -- in less than a week. "They've clearly made a predetermined decision to issue it no matter what the public comments say, which is not what we're supposed to do in this country," said Andrew Wetzler, director of the endangered species project at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The NRDC, the Sierra Club and other groups also oppose several rules not subject to the deadline and likely to be enacted soon, including eased restrictions on mountaintop mining near streams, reduced pollution reporting for large farms and weakened air quality controls near national parks.

If those rules are approved, Obama would need to initiate a potentially cumbersome process to revise them.

"They wouldn't be able to just put out a notice and just overturn them the next day," said Karla Raettig, the legislative representative for wildlife conservation for the National Wildlife Federation. A little-used law from the 1990s might allow Congress to overturn many of the regulations.

Tankersley writes for our Washington bureau.

November 19, 2008

Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2008

Senator Reid calls peers into lame duck session to debate controversial bill

Environmental Analysis

Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT)

One would think with all the talk of bailouts and a faltering economy, the subject of preserving "wilderness" areas would not be high on the Congressional agenda. But alas, it appears this is not the case as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently announced he is calling back his peers in a lame duck session to try and pass the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2008.

This initiative is being decried by property rights advocates as a massive land grab by Uncle Sam, and rightly so. The over 1,000 page bill not only contains some $4 billion in pork barrel spending, but also creates a number of new (and unnecessary) "conservation" programs which will put bureaucrats in charge of millions of new acres of our nation's lands. The Act is certain to gum up the works of those individuals trying to make use of their property with a new layer of red tape, and most tragically, it may ultimately force the American taxpayer to fund the buyout of new tracts that are currently owned by private individuals. This, at a time when the Federal government already owns an astonishing 650 million acres and self-admittedly claims it is struggling with maintenance issues.

Not surprisingly, many Americans in rural areas oppose the creation of new National Heritage Areas. But perhaps a bit more odd to many, it appears even constituencies who voted for Barak Obama in large numbers are also showing their distaste for this bill.

According to a recent poll by the National Center for Public Policy Research, 52 percent of African-Americans oppose legislation to create new National Heritage Areas while only 37 percent support it. This opposition probably reflects the fact that many minorities are particularly vulnerable to home price increases, and prices would likely rise following National Heritage Area designation. It will be interesting to see if findings like this give pause to the legislation's supporters.

November 18, 2008

Boulder's infamous 'land-grab' case settled

Kirlins say they will only have to cede 12 percent of south Boulder lot

By Heath Urie
Daily Camera

Two Boulder neighbors have settled a land dispute that made national headlines and prompted state legislators to change the law that allowed it to happen.

Don and Susie Kirlin, who originally lost 34 percent of one of their two vacant lots to neighbors Richard McLean and Edith Stevens, agreed to cede about 12 percent of the million-dollar property instead, the couples announced Tuesday.

“This settlement allows the parties to put this long-standing and difficult dispute behind them,” they wrote in a 48-word joint statement.

Under the terms of the agreement, which still must be sent from the Colorado Court of Appeals to Boulder District Court Judge James C. Klein for final approval, McLean and Stevens will own a five-foot strip of the Kirlins’ next-door lot, widening to nine feet at the north end of the property.

The total transaction equals 540 square feet of the 4,659-square-foot lot.

The settlement ends a high-profile case that divided the south Boulder neighborhood after Klein’s October 2007 decision to award the land to McLean, a former judge and Boulder mayor, and Stevens, an attorney. The couple sued for the Hardscrabble Drive property under the centuries-old law of adverse possession, which allows trespassers who openly use land for 18 years to claim it as their own.

The case, which the Kirlins had appealed, prompted public protests; death threats against McLean and Stevens; and an unsuccessful effort to fight Klein’s reinstatement in this month’s election. It spurred changes to Colorado’s adverse possession law, and spawned a new law prohibiting judges from hearing cases involving current or former judges from the same district.

Both couples called the settlement agreement a win-win situation: the Kirlins will be able to sell the property with enough land left to allow a house to be constructed on it, while McLean and Stevens will retain access to a path around the side of their house.

“I would have never done something like this to my neighbor, however I am happy that it’s finally over,” Don Kirlin said.

Stevens said the settlement ends a tense chapter in the neighborhood’s history.

“I think that the community will be relieved to see that the case is settled,” she said.

‘A fully buildable lot’

Although they’re still disappointed the lawsuit ever happened, the Kirlins said that having at least some of the valuable land back is satisfying.

“It’s cost me over $400,000” to fight the lawsuit, Don Kirlin said, “and after spending it, I only get to lose 12 percent of my property that I already owned.”

He said the property, with its expansive view of the Flatirons, is now for sale — listed at $925,000. A house with a footprint as large as 1,540 square feet could be built on it, he said.

“The end result is, and the most important part to me, is that it allows a fully buildable lot,” Don Kirlin said.

The investment, he said, was always meant to finance the couple’s “dream home,” which they still intend to build on their adjacent lot.

The terms of the settlement include provisions that allow construction crews to use the piece of the lot owned by McLean and Stevens for access to the site, but whoever buys the property must agree to restore the McLean-Stevens land to its original state after construction.

Don Kirlin said his neighbors approached him with the offer to settle the longtime dispute.

“I think their gut feeling was, and their legal counsel advised them, that there was a good chance they would lose in the court of appeals,” he said.

Kirlin said his neighbors stand to gain more from the deal than just land.

“Their friends abandoned them,” Don Kirlin said. “They want to try and attempt to regain some of their stature in the community.”

‘I don’t know why it took them so long’

McLean and Stevens said they had always hoped to settle the case, which was prompted by construction of a fence that cut off a path they had used unquestioned for 26 years.

They have said on several occasions that they tried to resolve the dispute without resorting to a lawsuit.

“You always are trying to settle the case without raising the level of antagonism, without incurring a lot of attorney’s fees, and we had hoped from the very start, before we filed the lawsuit, that we would be able to settle the case,” Stevens said.

The couple has long said their lawsuit was about preserving their right to use the land to access their own backyard, based on their two decades’ of previous use.

“I think from the very start, our goal was to retain access to the back of our property and to protect the trees and shrubs that we planted there,” Stevens said.

McLean echoed his wife, saying he wished the resolution could have come sooner.

“I’m quite satisfied with it, because we made the offer nearly a year ago,” he said. “I don’t know why it took them so long.”

Negotiations have been ongoing for more than a year, and the Kirlins said previous terms weren’t acceptable them.

‘Nobody had to lose this case’

In the year since the Boulder case gained national attention, Colorado lawmakers decided to revamp the law of adverse possession. As of July 1, the law gives judges the power to force adverse possessors to pay for the land they win, and to compensate the original owner for back property taxes and interest.

The case was unique for the way it affected the public, said Andy Low, attorney for the Kirlins.

“Out here in the West, people feel very strongly about property rights,” Low said. “It touched on a lot of people’s concerns about their own property.”

He said both couples were eventually able to rise above the “bitterness” that comes with lawsuits like this one, and reach a compromise.

“Ultimately, I think the headline for me is the case has a happy ending,” Low said. “Nobody had to lose this case, which is very unusual.”

Kimberly Hult, attorney for McLean and Stevens, agreed.

“This settlement should resolve the dispute in its entirety, including the appeal,” she said.

No one claims drone that crashed near El Mirage Dry Lake

Jason Pesick, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

One of the many flying contraptions that buzz above the desert crashed Monday morning near El Mirage Dry Lake.

But details about the crash remain a mystery. No one will claim responsibility for what local officials said was an ultralight drone. It's not clear why the device crashed or what purpose it served before its demise.

After the crash, law enforcement officials called Fort Irwin military police to the scene.

But the drone belonged to San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., not Fort Irwin, said Fort Irwin spokesman Etric Smith.

"It had nothing to do with us," he said. "The reason the authorities called us is that we were the nearest installation."

General Atomics spokeswoman Kimberly Kasitz said she does not comment on crashes and that she doubted the flying machine belonged to her employer.

General Atomics is a high-tech company that manufactures unmanned aerial vehicles, according to the company's Web site.

The company's research and development facility is located in Adelanto, which is a 25-minute drive from El Mirage. General Atomics also operates a flight operations facility in El Mirage where flight testing, training and other work is done. According to the company, the El Mirage location has office space, a hangar and a runway.

Mickey Quillman, Bureau of Land Management chief of resources in the Barstow office, said military aircraft, such as the Predator unmanned aircraft, constantly fly in the area.

No one was injured in Monday's crash, which took place inside the fence at the El Mirage Dry Lake shortly before 10 a.m.

"The nearest home was like a quarter of a mile away," said San Bernardino County fire spokeswoman Tracey Martinez.

California Desert's six million acre question mark

Bill Establishing Landscape Conservation System Fudges on CDCA Inclusion

News Release
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)

Washington, DC — Legislation slated as the first order of business for the incoming 111th Session of Congress to codify the National Landscape Conservation System inexplicably excludes most of what some call its crown jewel, the California Desert Conservation Area. The real reasons behind this exclusion are a mix of politics and plans for large-scale industrial development of the California desert, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

At issue is the level of protection accorded to more than six millions acres – an area bigger than New Jersey – of the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA) which includes sections of three major American deserts: the Sonoran, Mojave and Great Basin. Congress is considering giving a statutory charter to the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS), a network of national monuments, historic trails and conservation areas within the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) created by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt late in the Clinton administration.

CDCA was created by Congress before the advent of the NLCS and has always been considered part of that system. In fact, BLM official maps and fact sheets show CDCA as included within NLCS.

Overruling its California staff, BLM Headquarters quietly decided that CDCA would not be included in the pending codification legislation but has offered no public explanation. Documents obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) contain this conclusion:

“No, CDCA would not be included in the NLCS under the current pending legislation. BLM has reviewed the legislative history…and found it inconclusive in regard to this question. Our intent is to use this information only upon request.”

PEER has asked for the underlying legal opinions leading to this conclusion but the agency has not responded, and today PEER filed a federal lawsuit to obtain the withheld documents. In the materials released to PEER is this exchange between a BLM official and the head of a multiple use group:

“You told me why the Cal. Desert was excluded from the NLCS legislation…Part of the answer was the huge amount of solar energy installations already in place and the potential for more. Right?”

“Stunning and ecologically important places such as Big Morongo Preserve and Afton Canyon will be left open to development if the California Desert Conservation Area remains on the legislative cutting room floor,” stated California PEER Coordinator Karen Schambach. “The unspoken plan is for corporate conversion of large parts of the CDCA into giant energy farms and transmission corridor superhighways.”

The local congressional representative, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), reportedly wants to keep most of the CDCA out of the NLCS, while the state’s senior senator, Diane Feinstein, has pledged to have the entire CDCA included. To paper over the difference, the bill managers for the 153-bill omnibus measure containing the NLCS authorization will add a floor amendment stating that “public land within the CDCA is administered by the BLM for conservation purposes” but that language will leave to BLM discretion which lands will actually be included in the NLCS.

“Why does the National Landscape Conservation System need to be dismembered in order to become permanent?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the Interior Inspector General is currently investigating alleged collusion between BLM officials and organizations sponsoring the NLCS bill. “The omission of the California desert is no glitch; this is a hidden development agenda cloaked in happy talk about conservation.”

Cattlemen Ask Senate To Oppose Omnibus Public Land Management Act Of 2008

News Release

Washington, D.C. – R-CALF USA – on the recommendation of its Private Property Rights Committee – sent a formal letter to members of the U.S. Senate to encourage them to oppose the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2008.

“This is a massive land grab bill that could further restrict private property rights of cattle farmers and ranchers – people who care deeply for, and manage, our nation’s natural resources – and we strongly urge the Senate to oppose this piece of legislation,” said R-CALF USA Private Property Rights Committee Co-Chair Ray Cunio. “The federal government already owns more than 650 million acres, much of which is inadequately maintained and poorly managed. Unfortunately, some in Congress seem intent on placing even more land under federal control.”

R-CALF USA believes this particular legislation would subject millions of acres of land to government control and regulation and could prevent U.S. citizens from exercising their right of property ownership and wise multiple use of federal lands. The bill grabs so-called “wilderness areas,” “heritage areas,” and “scenic rivers,” and extends damaging centralized command and control of these lands.

“Specifically, this legislation could infringe on U.S. cattle farmers’ and ranchers’ vested and/or riparian water rights and restrict their constitutional right to keep and own property and make decisions concerning its use,” explained R-CALF USA Private Property Rights Committee Co-Chair Harlan Hentges. “This bill also creates new ‘conservation’ programs that would effectively encumber property rights, and millions of additional acres of land will be controlled by a vast and unaccountable bureaucracy. Ultimately, this bill forces American taxpayers to pay for an unnecessary restriction on the beneficial use of these valuable resources.

“Simply put, this legislation is blatantly contrary to our national principles, needlessly restricts property rights and unnecessarily restricts individual liberty,” he emphasized. “We urge all Senators to protect the citizens of the United States – taxpayers – and vote against the Omnibus Land Management Act of 2008.”

R-CALF USA (Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America) is a national, non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring the continued profitability and viability of the U.S. cattle industry. R-CALF USA represents thousands of U.S. cattle producers on trade and marketing issues. Members are located across 47 states and are primarily cow/calf operators, cattle backgrounders, and/or feedlot owners.

November 17, 2008

Unmanned aircraft crashes in dry lake bed

Aerial vehicle narrowly misses homes

Staff Reports
Victor Valley Daily Press

Crash site of an unmanned aerial vehicle that went down Monday morning in the dry lake bed near El Mirage. Residents near the crash site say they heard the engine make a sputtering sound just before seeing it crash.

EL MIRAGE — An unmanned aerial vehicle went down Monday morning at El Mirage Dry Lake, said a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management.

Residents living at the edge of the dry lake bed reported hearing the engine of the aircraft begin to sputter and saw it crash, narrowly missing a couple of homes.

One of the residents, who asked that his name not be used, said the unmanned aircraft constantly fly over the community along the dry lake. He said that sometimes the drones are very close to the ground and have buzzed his house.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. uses the old El Mirage airport as a testing and research area for the unmanned aircraft. The facility is located about 5 miles northwest of Adelanto.

Predator unmaned aerial vehicles are assembled and tested in the area. Predators can be equipped to conduct both reconnaissance and attack operations. NASA officials at Edwards Air Force Base have also deployed Predators to observe wildfires.

Majority of African-Americans Oppose Public Lands Bill

Will African-Americans Continue to be Taken for Granted Even After Historic Election? Vote on Harry Reid's Omnibus Public Lands Bill Will be Key Test

Press Release
The National Center for Public Policy Research

Washington, DC - Senator Harry Reid's effort to pass the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act this week will be a key test of whether congressional liberals continue to take African-American support for granted, says the Washington, DC-based National Center for Public Policy Research.

The Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, an amalgamation of more than 100 bills that would place new restrictions on energy exploration, home construction, and business activity, has been scheduled by Harry Reid (D-NV) for a vote during this week's special lame duck session of the Senate.

The bill would restrict use of millions of additional acres of land, both public and private, through the creation of new National Heritage Areas (a program creating de facto federal zoning), new wilderness area designations, and management practices that would clear the way for special protections for so-called "view scapes," "sound scapes," and even "smell scapes."

But according to a new poll just released this morning by The National Center for Public Policy Research's Public Opinion and Policy Center, 52% of African-Americans oppose the legislation while only 37% support it.

"This is a key test of whether liberal politicians listen to African-Americans who cast 95% of their votes for Barack Obama and accounted for nearly one-quarter of all of President-elect Obama's votes," said David A. Ridenour, vice president of The National Center. "Black Americans don't want more land locked up if it means restricting energy development and home construction, driving up the price of both. And that's precisely what this bill would do."

Minorities are particularly vulnerable to home price increases and prices would likely rise following National Heritage Area designation.

An econometric study previously commissioned by The National Center noted, "The weight of increased home prices falls most heavily on minorities, the disadvantaged and the young, fewer of whom already own homes. The 'haves' who already own homes ride the price bubble created by restricted growth policies while the dream of ownership moves further away from the 'have-nots.'"

The poll surveyed 800 African-American adults and has a margin of error of +-3.46%.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a non-partisan, non-profit educational foundation based in Washington, DC. It has joined Americans for Tax Reform and over 100 other organizations in raising concerns about the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act.