March 31, 2008

Petrified Forest park expansion stalled


"It's so important, but the Park Service can't figure a way to pay for it or trade for it."

By Dennis Wagner
USA TODAY

Larry Baldwin, a Holbrook private investigator stands at the site of petrified wood theft on state land near the Petrified Forest National Park in 2002. Beneath him is the site of an unearthed 70-foot petrified tree.
Mark Shaffer, The Arizona Republic

PHOENIX — Government plans to more than double the size of Petrified Forest National Park appear to be in jeopardy because Congress has failed to come up with the cash to buy surrounding properties it approved for expansion in 2004.

Without government funding, an irreplaceable treasure of dinosaur bones and Indian ruins may be lost as ranchers sell off their spreads for subdivision and development, according to David Gillette, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

Petrified Forest is just one of 56 federal historic and recreation sites that "could lose land inside their borders to developers this year," according to a study to be released April 8, by the non-profit National Parks Conservation Association.

The report, "America's Heritage: For Sale," identifies Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland as other examples.

Glenna Vijil, a realty officer with the National Park Service, said only one small tract of land has been acquired since expansion was approved. She acknowledged that prices have risen dramatically in three years, and subdivision could drive them higher.

Calculating the total price of expansion lands is guesswork, she said, because there is no current appraisal. Vijil estimates the figure for the Petrified Forest acquisition at about $20 million based on land prices of about $150 per acre.

Vijil said the problem is chronic at national parks nationwide. Because Petrified Forest is now in the top five on a priority list, she added, "I'm optimistic that we will get funding … even if it's just a start."

Andrea Keller Helsel of the National Parks Conservation Association said there was no projected cost for the expansion when it was authorized.

According to Helsel, Congress has appropriated $44.4 million for National Parks expansion purchases in 2008. The National Parks Service has a wish list of 1.8 million acres it would like to acquire, she said, at a projected cost of $2 billion.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who chairs the Committee on House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, has proposed a mandatory spending program of $100 million annually over the next decade. Petrified Forest sprawls over nearly 100,000 acres of unique geological turf between Heber and Holbrook, Ariz. Scientists say surrounding ranchlands are peppered with relics that could serve as windows into prehistoric eras.

After hearing testimony from paleontologists and archaeologists in 2004, Congress agreed to more than double the park's size, authorizing a 125,000-acre expansion. The Park Service put dotted lines on maps to show the new boundaries.

The government has offered no money to ranchers since then. Federal land-exchange proposals flopped. And, now, one of the most critical parcels — Twin Buttes Ranch — is up for sale.

Twin Buttes Ranch, which covers 60 square miles, including some lease lands, is a veritable museum of dinosaur skeletons and Pueblo ruins preserved by a convergence of geography and natural history, Gillette said.

Gillette testified during a 2004 congressional hearing that the Triassic Period, 220 million years past, is frozen in time here along with centuries-old Indian ruins. He told lawmakers that the land holds "a bonanza of secrets" that may help in dealing with present-day environmental problems.

"Gut-wrenching stories of predator-prey interactions, floods that carried trees as large as giant redwoods into log jams, and the humble beginnings of our modern world can be pried from the rocks. … We cannot afford to lose these stories, or the ability to share them," Gillette testified.

Owner Mike Fitzgerald, 57, said he supported government plans to acquire his land. Cattle prices had fallen, and drought wiped out his herd. So he sat back and waited for an offer that might fund his retirement.

"I have a lot more petroglyphs (ancient rock art) on my place than the park has," Fitzgerald noted. "We had a ranger come through here and he says, 'Gosh, you've got enough for two national parks.' "

Fitzgerald said he thought his lands would be purchased within a few years, but nothing happened. Last month, he quit waiting and put up a "For Sale" sign, with an asking price of $10.5 million.

Even his Scottsdale real estate agent, Brett Rubin, frets that the public is about to lose a priceless resource. "It's so important, but the Park Service can't figure a way to pay for it or trade for it," Rubin said. Fitzgerald said he'd like to be a good steward. But if a developer comes along with cash, "I'd take it. I feel like the government had their chance."

Fitzgerald got the Twin Buttes, oddly enough, as part of a federal land exchange in 1986. At that time, his family owned a ranch near the Painted Desert.

He said the government was trying to resolve a turf dispute between the Hopi and Navajo tribes and needed land to make the deal work. So the Fitzgeralds swapped for this giant tract between Holbrook and Heber, Ariz., only to have the government want it back two decades later.

Wagner reports for the The Arizona Republic

Lucerne Valley may face repeat water crisis


Melven Ashley of Lucerne Valley works on installing a water pump on a 55-gallon barrel so that he can transport water back to his property near Cody Road in Lucerne Valley last summer.

KATHERINE ROSENBERG, LV Leader Editor
Victorville Daily Press

LUCERNE VALLEY — The community could face a repeat of the water crisis from August 2007, a county official warned during the last meeting of the Municipal Advisory Committee board meeting.

State officials once again have Lucerne Valley water purveyors and water haulers on their radar, said Michael Orme, District Director for 1st Disrict Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, who covers Lucerne Valley.

“Every water hauler must be licensed or the state will come back,” Orme said. “Consider yourselves warned.”

The 300 locals who are using hauled water have had time to come into compliance, and have been offered hauling services from three local companies, and there is one local purveyor with a temporary license, though he said he has sold next to nothing.

Orme believes the state board has plans to return, because they were tipped off that many people in Lucerne Valley choose to ignore the licensing requirements, opting instead to use whoever provides service the cheapest.

One local resident asked Orme whether there was a way to ward off a potential sequel to last year.

“Solutions? Yes, go to a licensed provider,” Orme said.

No time frame has been given for when the state officials might return, but the point of Orme bringing the issue up at the MAC meeting was so that everyone has time to come into compliance.

March 28, 2008

Cataloging history


Mojave River Valley Museum plans first comprehensive inventory in its history

By Jason Smith, staff writer
Desert Dispatch

BARSTOW - It may look like a very strange yard sale, but it's not.

Volunteers spent Friday morning moving an antique grandfather clock, hundreds of rocks, minerals, fossils and other artifacts from the Mojave River Valley Museum on Friday into boxes for vehicles waiting in the parking lot. The spring cleaning was needed to prepare the museum for a $25,000 re-carpeting project, paid for by city and federal funds.

While closed, volunteers will catalogue the museum's collection, estimated at more than 10,000 pieces, some on loan from private collectors and the San Bernardino County Museum. The museum will remain closed for at least two weeks, depending on the time it takes to complete the project and reset displays, said the museum's president, Steve Smith. It is the first time the museum has closed in about 30 years, he said.

Smith said that the organization has never made a comprehensive list of its items before because the volunteers that run the museum lack the time necessary to complete the massive project.

"It's a matter of finding a volunteer who has the ability and has the time to do it," Smith said. "If we had the money, we'd hire someone to do it, but we don't."

Among the museum's items to be cataloged:

• A circa-1940s radio transmitter used in former Barstow radio station KWTC that operates on vacuum tubes. The museum still has boxes of spare vacuum tubes and allegedly still works, Smith said.

• A collection of about 20 Native American baskets from the Anastasi, and Pueblo Indian tribes and other across the south western United States and the world.

• Part of the more than 800-pound Bishop Rock, named for Samuel Bishop, who founded the town of Bishop. Bishop wrote his name on the rock to mark the location of supplies for the camel led Beale expedition in 1857. The rock was found in a riverbed, taken by helicopter and recovered by the Bureau of Land Management. It became the property of the museum about 20 years ago.

• A fossilized tooth from a Dire Wolf, believed to have lived more than 10,000 years ago. The tooth was found at a construction site in Victorville in 2006 and is believed to have been one of the first found in the High Desert, said the museum's vice-president, Bob Hilburn.

March 27, 2008

Desert tortoises set for speedy transfer from tank site



By JENNIFER BOWLES
The Press-Enterprise

Biologists will begin gingerly removing 770 desert tortoises Saturday from land the Army wants to use for tank training in the San Bernardino County desert.

"Every tortoise has to go quickly and gently to its new location," Kenneth Nussear, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said about the reptiles threatened with extinction.

Nussear co-wrote a 129-page guide on how to delicately move the tortoises from an expansion area along the southern border of the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, north of Barstow.

The $8.5 million effort, several years in the making and unprecedented in scale in California, is expected to take two weeks as the tortoises are moved a few miles south.

It culminates a 20-year battle pitting environmental groups against the military in what became known as tanks vs. tortoises.

The Army wants to expand its training grounds by 131,00 acres to accommodate faster-moving tanks and longer-range weaponry.

But some of that land is considered critical for the tortoises to survive. The decline of the reptiles, which have lived in the Mojave Desert for hundreds of thousands of years, has been blamed on disease, predation by ravens, habitat loss and off-roading, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Congress eventually signed off on the expansion, offering up $75 million in 2000 to help protect the species.

The military will relocate the tortoises even though two environmental groups recently threatened to sue to stop the project. The Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors filed a 60-day notice about two weeks ago, saying they were concerned the new habitat is lower-quality, has pockets of diseased tortoises, and is plagued by illegal dumping and off-roading.

Military environmental lawyers reviewed the group's claims and determined the effort can begin as scheduled, John Wagstaffe, a Fort Irwin spokesman, said Thursday.

Lisa Belenky, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the groups were hoping to avoid going to court but will consider seeking an injunction to invalidate a permit issued by the federal wildlife agency that is allowing the move to go forward.

"We're only trying to make sure they're protected as best as they can be," she said.

Tortoise Hunt

Starting Saturday, biologists will scour the desert floor listening for radio signals to pinpoint the location of the tortoises, already outfitted with transmitters glued atop their shells. The moving crew will include a variety of state and federal biologists and a company contracted by the Army.
If the tortoises are in their burrows, the ground will be tapped to encourage them to emerge, and if need be, their shells will be gently nudged, said Roy Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"You can often retrieve them from burrows really easy and without causing a lot of stress by knocking on the front door," Averill-Murray said. "It doesn't always work but it sure is convenient when it does."

The reptiles can measure up to 15 inches from head to tail and weigh up to 15 pounds. They'll be placed into containers and moved in an air-conditioned vehicle or helicopter to their new habitat, which is mostly public land overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Once released, they'll be provided drinking water for 15 to 20 minutes, and then placed into an unoccupied tortoise burrow if available or in the shade of a shrub.

Tortoises must be moved carefully.

A frightened tortoise can squirt out all the water stored in its bladder, a move that can lead to dehydration and death, Averill-Murray said.

"They don't get a lot of chances to drink, so we definitely have to take precautions," he said.

Tortoises normally get their water from puddles that form during rain, or they will dig a small hole in the ground to collect water, Averill-Murray said.

"They have an amazing ability to suck up water in their nose from the ground or a rock," he said. "And if they can't get enough, they'll suck it up by eating mud."

Moving Preparations

The $8.5 million price tag covers several years of preparation, Fort Irwin spokesman Wagstaffe said.

Special mapping was done by the Redlands Institute, the research arm of the University of Redlands, to help scientists determine where to move the tortoises, said Lisa Benvenuti, the institute's resource manager.

Scientists don't want the tortoises moved too close to roads or to terrain with hard soil where they can't dig burrows. Places near power lines are also bad for the reptiles, because predators can perch above.

"You certainly don't want to put tortoises where ravens live. You're just giving them a snack," Benvenuti said.

The moving effort was delayed last spring because a lack of rain left the desert landscape with few plants for the tortoises to eat, Nussear said. The move must be made in the spring while the tortoises are still active.

The animals hunker into their burrows to escape the heat during the summer, he said.

Nussear, who helped relocate tortoises from housing developments near Las Vegas, said it takes about a year for them to become adjusted to their new surroundings.

"Each has its own requirements," he said. "When it finds a place it likes, it settles in."

He said the reptiles in Nevada did well after the move. They reproduced and had a survival rate as high as resident tortoises.

Researchers will monitor tortoises after they are moved from Fort Irwin, especially keeping an eye on an upper-respiratory disease found in tortoises in the expansion area and the new habitat.

The Army also wants to use land in Superior Valley west of Fort Irwin for tank training, so biologists will next figure out where and when to move those tortoises.

A relocation effort won't occur in the eastern expansion area where the tortoise numbers are so low it wouldn't be worth the effort, Averill-Murray said.

March 24, 2008

Solar panels could come to Lucerne Valley



Proposal part of power trend


Lauren McSherry
Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun



Lucerne Valley was named after the acres of alfalfa farmed by the city's founders. Now, under an application to develop 21 square miles of the valley, rows of glossy solar panels could redefine the area.

The Cannon Power Corp. in Rancho Santa Fe submitted an application last month to the Bureau of Land Management to construct photovoltaic panels in the Lucerne Valley Dry Lake bed, according to Bureau of Land Management documents.

Lucerne Valley, which is located about 20 miles east of Apple Valley, is situated in the Mojave Desert of western San Bernardino County.

The Cannon proposal is the latest project to garner attention in what is being characterized as the desert's latest "Gold Rush" - only this time it's a race to scoop up land for renewable-energy projects.

BLM, which is entrusted with the stewardship of 6.1 million acres of public land in the county, is fielding more than 100 applications for renewable-energy projects, said San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, who represents the 1st District.

Two of the largest proposed solar projects, one for 59 square miles and another for 82 square miles, could be built in Ward Valley, north of Twentynine Palms, according to BLM documents. The applications to construct solar projects of 20 square miles or more exceeds the number of wind power projects of the same size, documents show.

The BLM's California Desert District, which encompasses the High Desert, saw a rapid increase in the number of renewable-energy applications in 2006, following a renewable-energy policy rolled out by the governor and the passage of the federal Energy Policy Act, said Al Stein, deputy district manager.

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors adopted a memorandum of understanding with BLM last week, setting guidelines to jointly review the environmental impact of photovoltaic and wind power projects. The agreement is expected to ensure there are more opportunities for the public to weigh in during the environmental review process.

"That's what a lot of this is about, giving the public a chance to comment," Mitzelfelt said on March 18 before the board adopted the agreement. "I want to make sure the benefits at least balance or outweigh the costs."

The projects have environmental consequences and their sheer size means less land will be left for other uses, such as hiking and ranching, he said.

Last month, the regional branch of the Sierra Club estimated roughly 110 square miles of the Mojave Desert could be developed for renewable-energy projects, based on the applications submitted to BLM.

Project applicants and BLM officials contend that only a fraction of the land they apply for is actually developed. Further complicating the situation, some companies submit multiple applications for the same locations.

"It's very difficult to put a number on it," Stein said. "We've tried to avoid that because it doesn't accurately reflect anything."

'Corridors' of power are finding resistance

Hal Wells / Los Angeles Times
If the Energy Department is allowed to proceed with its grid project, some of the transmission lines stand a chance of being routed through Joshua Tree National Park. Such prospects have drawn lawsuits from environmental groups.


The nation's electric grid needs beefing up, but critics say a federal plan is too big and ignores clean energy sources.

By Judy Pasternak, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- There is wide agreement that the nation needs to upgrade the aging system that delivers electricity from power plants to consumers -- a grid that is already overtaxed and facing a 43% increase in demand over the next two decades.

But opposition is growing to the way the Bush administration has interpreted Congress' instructions to improve the grid.

The Energy Department is making it easier to build high-voltage transmission lines in vast stretches of the country, but objections have been raised by environmentalists, lawmakers and states that would lose the right to veto power lines within their borders.

The 2005 Energy Policy Act gave the Energy Department the right to designate "national interest electric transmission corridors" where the federal government can step in to permit transmission towers and wires that have been rejected or delayed by states. In the corridors, the U.S. can also condemn private land along a power line route.

Now the department has set up two corridors that are actually huge swaths of territory. The western zone includes Southern California and western Arizona. The eastern zone cuts from New York to Virginia and inland across large sections of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.

Transmission of electricity is critically congested at the core of each zone, the Energy Department said. The federal authority in the corridors is already attracting interest from utilities, including Southern California Edison.

But critics say that the zones are too large and were drawn to favor power from plants that run on fossil fuels rather than cleaner sources such as wind, solar and heat from the Earth's interior, which also will need transmission if they are to be part of the country's energy mix. The chosen contours of this plan, they say, will exacerbate global warming and pollution.

They have also cited the potential effects on farmland and natural habitats. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has listed the eastern zone as one of its "11 most endangered places" because of Civil War battlefields, stretches of the Appalachian Trail, designated historic districts and scenic rivers that could fall within power line paths.

But administration officials like to compare their initiatives to President Eisenhower's creation of the interstate highway system, and they say it will help keep energy prices down.

"The grid is the ultimate balancing act. The larger the grid is, the easier it is to balance," said Kevin Kolevar, an assistant secretary of Energy who directs the 3-year-old Office of Electricity Delivery and Reliability.

More than 157,000 miles of high-voltage wires in the U.S. shoot electricity to areas where the energy is needed. But the electrical grid as currently constituted is really four separate regional sets of wires, with few connections between them.

Additions to this infrastructure have been slow, with only 668 miles of interstate transmission built since 2000. Each state makes a separate decision on its part of the route.

Kolevar said the new zones were large to allow for flexibility in determining the sites for the lines, so that sensitive areas could be avoided. As for fossil fuels versus alternatives, the department is "generation-neutral. We really are," he said.

The crux of the problem lies with proposals for power lines that cross state borders, Kolevar said. States, he said, "can't take a confederate point of view and not consider the needs of their neighbors."

There is one escape hatch for states in the corridors, he said. When three or more states form a compact for transmission planning, the federal government will cede its authority to that regional group. "We need to see these states coming together, binding themselves to one another," he said.

Like others backing the federal zones, Kolevar cited a line running through Virginia and West Virginia that took 16 years to get approved. The national interest corridors are "a backstop" to speed up development, he said.

Southern California Edison was the first to look into taking advantage of the new backstop authority. Company representatives met with federal regulators last month about a 500,000-volt line it wants to build between the Palm Springs area and power plants near Phoenix that generate electricity using natural gas. Both ends of the line are in the Southwest Energy Corridor unveiled by the Energy Department in October.

California has approved the portion of the line within its borders, but Arizona's utility commissioners vetoed their part of the project last May because California hadn't built any new power plants of its own for decades.

One Arizona commissioner referred to the proposed line as "a 230-mile extension cord into Arizona." Another said, "I don't want Arizona to become an energy farm for California," adding that his state would get all of the pollution and none of the power.

Southern California Edison is exploring an appeal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Commission officials said their approval would not be automatic, and they would consult with the states.

On the other end of the country, a Dominion Power executive testifying at a Virginia utility commission hearing pointedly refused to rule out going to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission if the state turned down its request to build a 65-mile 500,000-volt line through the countryside and into West Virginia and Pennsylvania. All three states are in the Mid-Atlantic Energy Corridor.

West Virginia's public service commission staff has already challenged the need for its section of the line, concluding that the regional grid operator has exaggerated the threat of blackouts by 2011.

Environmental groups have filed separate federal lawsuits against the designation of each national interest corridor. On Thursday, Virginia sued the Energy Department in the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee plans to hold hearings on transmission, and Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said he expected the corridors issue to come up.

Fifteen senators, including presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, requested the hearing. The 2005 energy act did not anticipate such large expanses of land being brought under federal control, they wrote.

The corridors were "the best thing we could think of," Bingaman said. "We're just now learning how it's going to work. We will look to see whether it's being implemented the way we intended."

But Nada Culver, senior counsel for the Wilderness Society, said the Energy Department failed to examine alternatives to a major, rapid buildup in transmission lines -- options such as building new and perhaps clean-source power plants, or plans to conserve energy. "Do you need them, or do you just want them?" she asked.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) agreed. "We all want a reliable grid, but let's get experts to put on the record what is needed," he said. The department also should get more public input before proceeding, Casey added: "This is pretty serious stuff and we need, at a minimum, due process."

Fifty-two of Pennsylvania's 67 counties are in the eastern national interest corridor, he said, "but there was just one public meeting, in Pittsburgh." Pittsburgh is near the state's western border.

This month, the Energy Department denied requests for new hearings on the interest zones, stating that "fair and ample opportunities" for comment had been provided.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) had a different criticism. He said his state, "the windiest in the country," should be considered a national interest area. Wind-energy resources are generally in parts of the country with few transmission lines.

March 23, 2008

Bighorns facing smaller habitat


Federal agency wants to reduce protected area by more than 50%

By Mike Lee, Staff Writer
UNION-TRIBUNE [San Diego]

With their chiseled forms, sure-footedness and coiled horns, bighorn sheep have long symbolized the rugged American West. They grace everything from heavy-duty trucks to the helmets of football teams.

But by 1998, bighorns in San Diego, Riverside and Imperial counties had been ravaged so much by disease, harmed by development and preyed on by mountain lions that only 280 remained. They were added to the list of the nation's most imperiled species.

Since then, several public agencies and nonprofit groups have helped bighorn sheep in the Peninsular Ranges of Southern California steadily climb back from the brink of extinction.

Today, about 800 bighorns roam the arid backcountry from the U.S.-Mexico border to the San Jacinto Mountains. Peninsular bighorn sheep also live in Baja California, but they are not included in the population classified as endangered by the U.S. government.

In the spring, visitors to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park can sometimes spot lambs nimbly trailing their mothers across rocky outcroppings in search of water.

But the sheep's recent run of good fortune may be about to end, according to some advocates for bighorn recovery. They are concerned that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed trimming protected sheep habitat by more than 50 percent, from 844,897 acres to 384,410.

“Those of us who have put (the bighorn) recovery plan together are totally shocked. . . . These animals need high-value habitat to make it in this world,” said Mark Jorgensen, superintendent at the desert state park.

In October, Fish and Wildlife Service officials said their 2001 map of the lands considered essential to Peninsular bighorn recovery – classified as “critical habitat” – grossly overstated the core area.

They said their current proposal is based on a revised method for identifying the territory needed for the protection of bighorn sheep. For instance, the agency excluded high-elevation and densely forested areas because federal officials said bighorns typically do not live there.

“We focused on areas that have documented, repeated use by bighorn sheep and contain the specific habitat . . . necessary for bighorn,” said Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Jane Hendron in Carlsbad.

The agency plans to hold public hearings about its sheep-habitat proposal, but has not set dates.

The critical-habitat designation is important because it requires any activities that the federal government undertakes, funds or authorizes to be scrutinized for potential harm to threatened and endangered species.

The Bush administration has dramatically reduced critical habitat for several species. In December, environmentalists filed lawsuits against the Fish and Wildlife Service in U.S. District Court because they said many of the agency's habitat reductions lack scientific justification.

Michael Senatore, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, which helped bring the lawsuits, said the environmental group is negotiating settlements with federal lawyers.

While those cases play out, bighorn advocates are keeping one eye on whether the Fish and Wildlife Service will adjust its habitat proposal and the other eye on the sheep's well-being in the backcountry.

Jorgensen and others are cautious about proclaiming success for bighorn recovery efforts because of how quickly sheep can succumb to disease. In recent weeks, for example, biologists in Nevada said pneumonia may have wiped out a herd of 110 bighorn sheep in the northwestern part of the state.

“Bighorn (numbers) can plummet a lot quicker than than they can increase,” Jorgensen said. “We need to secure their future before we let our guard down.”

After decades of conservation work and the addition of protective laws, several high-profile species have made big comebacks in recent years. Yellowstone grizzly bears, bald eagles and California brown pelicans have recently made headlines for meeting recovery goals.

Peninsular bighorn sheep are not in that category yet, but they may get there if the overall population holds steady for several years and it increases in some parts of their range.

At the start of the 19th century, as many as 2 million bighorns roamed North America. Today, the Bighorn Institute in Palm Desert puts their numbers at about 70,000.

“They were doing quite well until, unfortunately, humans started throwing some obstacles in their way,” said Randy Rieches, curator of mammals at the Wild Animal Park near Escondido. “This is a species that we owe something.”

As settlers and ranchers spread across the landscape in the 19th and 20th centuries, their domesticated cattle and sheep brought diseases that the wild sheep were not able to fight. Some wildlife experts compare it to the way smallpox and measles decimated American Indians, who lacked immunity to diseases brought to the New World by European explorers.

In 1982, a group of biologists started the Bighorn Institute to help prevent the sheep from dying out in the Peninsular Ranges.

At the time, ewes were producing lambs, but most were dying from bacterial pneumonia, said Jim DeForge, executive director of the institute. He linked pneumonia to diseases such as bluetongue and parainfluenza III that are common in domesticated livestock.

“We couldn't turn the diseases around in the 1980s. All we could do was document it,” DeForge said.

To make matters worse, the building of resorts in the California desert during modern times means that golf courses and homes now cover land that bighorns once roamed. The resorts' lush grass creates what one biologist calls an “attractive nuisance” for the sheep, which may be killed by cars as they enter developed areas.

The reproductive biology of bighorn sheep adds another level of difficulty. Ewes typically have one lamb at a time, which means that populations tend to grow very slowly. The combined result was that the Peninsular bighorn population crashed, from 1,170 sheep in 1971 to 280 in the late 1990s.

At that point, Peninsular bighorns' future was so bleak that they were given federal protections under the Endangered Species Act as a distinct unit of the desert bighorn family.

Within a few years, the sheep's numbers started to rise – to about 400 in 2001 and about 800 today.

Biologists credit the variety of sheep-protection efforts. For instance, the institute started raising bighorn sheep in captivity in Riverside County, releasing them into the wild and then studying them closely to learn details about their health and behavior. To date, 118 bighorns born or rehabilitated at the institute have been added to the Peninsular Ranges.

In addition, land managers started removing livestock from parts of the bighorn sheep's range to control the spread of diseases. In 1987, Anza-Borrego park officials airlifted dozens of wild cattle out of the park.

Those efforts dramatically reduced the disease pressure so that today it is not thought to be a major limiting factor for bighorn recovery.

Despite the gains, biologists note that sheep populations are fragile and swings can be caused by factors as fundamental as rainfall, which dictates how much food the plant-eating animals have in the desert.

On that front, this spring is a good one thanks to a series of winter rainstorms. “We will have a lot of successful reproduction across the desert this year,” said John Wehausen, a bighorn researcher in Bishop for the University of California.

PENINSULAR BIGHORN SHEEP

  • Habitat: Steep slopes, canyons and washes in desert regions
  • Diet: Acacia, encelia, sweetbush and other desert plants
  • Range: Parts of Baja California and the Peninsular Ranges of San Diego, Imperial and Riverside counties, including the San Jacinto, Santa Rosa, Vallecito and In-Ko-Pah mountains
  • Threats: Habitat loss, high predation rates and diseases
  • Population in 1998: 280 in the United States
  • Population today: About 800 in the United States
  • Reasons for increase: Captive breeding program, fewer disease outbreaks and habitat protection
SOURCE: Bighorn Institute

Since 2001, guarding species is harder

Endangered listings drop with little-noticed procedural and policy moves

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post

With little-noticed procedural and policy moves over several years, Bush administration officials have made it substantially more difficult to designate domestic animals and plants for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Controversies have occasionally flared over Interior Department officials who regularly overruled rank-and-file agency scientists' recommendations to list new species, but internal documents also suggest that pervasive bureaucratic obstacles were erected to limit the number of species protected under one of the nation's best-known environmental laws.

The documents show that personnel were barred from using information in agency files that might support new listings, and that senior officials repeatedly dismissed the views of scientific advisers as President Bush's appointees either rejected putting imperiled plants and animals on the list or sought to remove this federal protection.

Officials also changed the way species are evaluated under the 35-year-old law -- by considering only where they live now, as opposed to where they used to exist -- and put decisions on other species in limbo by blocking citizen petitions that create legal deadlines.

As a result, listings plummeted. During Bush's more than seven years as president, his administration has placed 59 domestic species on the endangered list, almost the exact number that his father listed during each of his four years in office. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has not declared a single native species as threatened or endangered since he was appointed nearly two years ago.

'Something has to be done'
In a sign of how contentious the issue has become, the advocacy group WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking a court order to protect 681 Western species all at once, on the grounds that further delay would violate the law. Among the species cited are tiny snails, vibrant butterflies, and a wide assortment of plants and other creatures.

"It's an urgent situation, and something has to be done," said Nicole Rosmarino, the group's conservation director. "This roadblock to listing under the Bush administration is criminal."

Developers, farmers and other business interests frequently resist decisions on listing because they require a complex regulatory process that can make it difficult to develop land that is home to protected species. Environmentalists have also sparred for years with federal officials over implementation of the law.

Nevertheless, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton added an average of 58 and 62 species to the list each year, respectively.

One consequence is that the current administration has the most emergency listings, which are issued when a species is on the very brink of extinction.

And some species have vanished. The Lake Sammamish kokanee, a landlocked sockeye salmon, went extinct in 2001 after being denied an emergency listing, and genetically pure Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits disappeared last year after Interior declined to protect critical habitat for the species.

Administration officials -- who estimate that more than 280 domestic species should be on the list but have been "precluded" because of more pressing priorities -- do not dispute that they have moved slowly, but they dispute the reasons.

Struggling to cope
Bush officials say they are struggling to cope with an onslaught of litigation, but internal documents and several court rulings have revealed steps the administration has taken to make it harder, and slower, to approve listings.

Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall said his agency, which decides on most proposed listings of endangered species and their critical habitat, has been hamstrung by a slew of lawsuits and has just begun to dig out. He told the House Appropriations interior subcommittee last month that his agency will make decisions about 71 species by Oct. 1 and an additional 21 species a year later.

"Lawsuits, starting in the early '90s, have really driven things," Hall said, adding that the administration has tried to keep species from declining to the point where they need to be listed. "I'm feeling pretty good we're back on track to do the job the way it's supposed to be done."

In court cases, however, a number of judges have rejected decisions made by Hall's agency and have criticized its slow pace. On March 5, a U.S. district judge in Phoenix ordered Interior to redesignate bald eagles in Arizona's Sonoran Desert as threatened after the agency delisted the entire species last summer.

Three weeks before Interior officials rejected a petition to keep the desert eagles listed, a scientific advisory panel it convened wrote that the population "appears to be less viable than populations in other parts of the country" because it had fewer than 50 nesting pairs. Survival usually requires 500 breeding pairs.

The Fish and Wildlife Service never released that report, along with internal agency documents showing "substantial" evidence that the Arizona eagles should be kept on the list: Both the report and the documents were unearthed under the Freedom of Information Act by the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group.

In another case, Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled in late January that Interior violated the law when it did not act on 55 endangered and threatened foreign species that the department had described as qualified to be listed. The department has listed six foreign species during Bush's term.

"If the Service were allowed to continue at its current rate, it is hard to imagine anytime in the near or distant future when these species will be entitled to listing," the judge wrote. "Such delay hardly qualifies as 'expeditious progress' and conflicts with the purpose of the ESA to provide 'prompt action' [if there is] substantial scientific evidence that the species is endangered or threatened."

At NatureServe, a private nonprofit that does independent scientific assessments that the government often uses in crafting conservation policy, Vice President and Chief Scientist Bruce Stein said the decline in listings has been "dramatic. . . . It shows a shift in both funding and policy priorities."

In one such shift, senior Interior officials revised a longstanding policy that rated the threat to various species based primarily on their populations within U.S. borders. They then argued that species such as the wolverine and the jaguar do not need protection because they also exist in Canada or Mexico.

In another policy reversal, Interior's solicitor declared in a memo dated March 16, 2007, that when officials consider whether a significant portion of a species' range is in peril, that "phrase refers to the range in which a species currently exists, not to the historical range of the species where it once existed." The memo added that the Interior secretary "has broad discretion" in defining what is "significant."

Effectively eliminating deadlines
For a two-year period, Fish and Wildlife also said that if the agency identified a species as a candidate for the list, citizens could not file petitions for that species, effectively eliminating any legal deadlines. The result, said Kieran Suckling, head of the Center for Biological Diversity, was to create "endangered species purgatory." In 2003, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton overturned the policy on the grounds that it allowed the agency to "avoid their mandatory, non-discretionary duties to issue findings" under the act.

In addition, the agency limited the information it used in ruling on the 90-day citizens' petitions that lead to most listings. In May 2005, Fish and Wildlife decreed that its files on proposed listings should include only evidence from the petitions and any information in agency records that could undercut, rather than support, a decision to list a species.

Unsigned notes handwritten on May 16, 2005, by an agency official, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, attributed the policy to Douglas Krofta, who heads the Endangered Species Program's listing branch. The notes said employees "can use info from files that refutes petitions but not anything that supports, per Doug."

Hall said the agency abandoned that policy in late 2006, but he issued a memo in June 2006 that mirrors elements of it, stating, "The information within the Service's files is not to be used to augment a 'weak' petition."

As listings have slowed, lawsuits challenging the administration's practices have skyrocketed, according to the biodiversity center, which specializes in endangered-species issues. There have been 369 listing-related suits against Bush, compared with 184 against Clinton. "The Bush administration has effectively killed the listing program," said Suckling, whose group's petitions and suits have driven 92 percent of the listings under Bush.

The Justice Department would not release figures on how the government has fared defending endangered species suits or how much it has cost taxpayers. Officials acknowledge they have not done well in the courts: Hall said he is frustrated that judges demand a higher burden of scientific proof to deny a listing or to take a species off the list than to list a species.

Since 2001, Jay Tutchton, general counsel for WildEarth Guardians, has filed 25 suits seeking listings and critical habitat designations for 45 species for several clients. He has won every time.
© 2008 The Washington Post Company

March 22, 2008

Off-road enthusiasts air concerns to Rep. Hunter



“The real endangered species in California is the family who wants to get out and have some elbow room in the great outdoors.” - Rep. Duncan Hunter



By Mike Lee
UNION-TRIBUNE


EL CAJON – Maintaining access to public lands in the face of several competing forces topped the list of concerns that off-road vehicle enthusiasts paraded in front of Rep. Duncan Hunter at a “town hall” meeting Saturday.

The Alpine Republican invited off-roaders to share their concerns with him and Mike Pool, the California director for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The agency manages many popular off-road areas in the California desert and elsewhere.

The group of about 150 didn't hold back, taking the meeting at Cuyamaca College in El Cajon well past the two-hour block for which it was scheduled.

“As our sport continues to grow, our race routes are shrinking,” said Paul Kirby, president of the Roadrunner Off Road Racing Club in the Imperial Valley. “We are just crowded into too small of an area.”

Kirby and others from across Southern California outlined what they see as the major threats to their use of the backcountry: The expansion of military training activities, environmental restrictions and alternative energy projects.

“There is almost a feeding frenzy for the desert lands in California,” said David Hubbard, a Carlsbad lawyer who represents off-road interests.

One of the most immediate issues is the possibility that the Marine Corps will annex Johnson Valley, a popular off-roading area at the edge of the Twentynine Palms base.

Several off-roaders said Saturday that they hope Hunter can help broker a compromise that will allow families to continue riding there by the thousands.

“If we lose Johnson Valley, we have lost a mecca for rock-crawlers,” said Bob Green of Santee.

Hunter, who has a long history of support for the military and for off-roaders, offered no promises, but said he'd talk with Marine Corps officials in coming weeks to see if any alternative arrangements could meet training demands without canceling civilian recreation at the site.

“Right now, I don't have any good answers for Johnson Valley,” Hunter said. “This is something I need to work on.”

Another prominent theme of Saturday's meeting was frustration with environmental rules and conservation groups that try to limit off-road recreation. In particular, off-roaders are worried about proposals to create more wilderness areas in California and other Western states to the exclusion of motorized vehicles.

Hunter has long shared such concerns. “The real endangered species in California is the working family who wants to get out and have some elbow room out in the great outdoors,” he said to cheers.

On that front, however, it's not clear how much relief off-roaders will get, given significant support for some wilderness designations and the strict demands of the federal Endangered Species Act.

“We have to factor in species conservation,” said Pool, noting that one of his main goals is to prevent the listing of additional species.

The Bureau of Land Management also finds itself in the middle of a tussle over alternative energy resources. Federal and state initiatives to boost solar, wind and geothermal power production have generated enormous interest in the bureau's desert lands.

Off-roaders told Hunter they are sympathetic to the need for clean energy sources, but they don't want recreation lands covered in solar panels or geothermal pipes.

“When something is taken away from us, we should get something back,” said Megan Grossglass, spokeswoman for the Bakersfield-based Off-Road Business Association. “Designate for us some new trails . . . so it's not just lose, lose, lose all the time.”

Southland deserts splashed with color

The wildflower season is in full bloom, drawing droves of tourists, painters and nature lovers to deserts.

By Mary Engel, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

BORREGO SPRINGS, CALIF. -- Jeff Sewell's paintbrush chased the slanting light across a field of desert sunflowers. Gold. Ocher. Flecks of palest yellow. Then the sun sank behind the San Ysidro Mountains, and the only field left glowing was the one on Sewell's canvas.

Even so, the seascape painter from San Juan Capistrano could hardly bring himself to pack away his easel.

"This is like something I've never seen," he said, waving at the carpet of wildflowers laid out before stark hillsides of dirt and rock. "It's a whole new planet."

The two dozen painters in the second annual Borrego Springs Plein Air Invitational, which got underway Sunday, didn't seem to mind that this spring's wildflowers don't match the legendary 2005 bloom. The inaugural gathering, after all, met in 2007, a drought year, when Anza-Borrego Desert State Park got a mere three-quarters of an inch of rain. "They got skunked last year," Sewell said.

This year the 600,000-acre park, which stretches from Riverside County's southern border through San Diego County almost to the Mexican border, has received about 4 1/2 inches of rain since July 1. That's far less than 2005's record 13 inches, which led to record numbers of wildflowers and wildflower oglers, but it's enough to give this crop of plein-air painters -- artists who capture outdoor images in natural light -- a broad palette of yellows, pinks, whites and blues. (Each artist at the event creates two paintings a day through Friday, and the works are displayed and sold at numerous community receptions throughout the week.)

If 2005 was an A+ year, wildflower aficionados are grading 2008 a B or B+.

"It's a beautiful, charming season," said Mary Ekelund, a Wisconsinite who retired to Borrego Springs in 2003. "The number of flowers isn't everything."

Ekelund volunteers for the park, the Anza-Borrego Institute and the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Assn. Avoiding the fields along Henderson Canyon Road that set Sewell to swooning, she guides visitors to quiet, out-of-the-way places without crowds.

She recently led a group of five women from La Jolla -- the youngest was 81 -- up a gentle slope through Sunshine Canyon, rewarding them with glimpses of pale yellow ghost flowers and the pink tufts of fairy dusters.

Wildflower season is to Southern California deserts what fall's changing leaves are to Ekelund's native Midwest, but less predictable and more intense.

"Where we live near Lake Superior, we have the same madness for a few weekends," said Ekelund, who still spends summers there. "But here you've got San Diego and Los Angeles so close," and the crowds keep coming.

Crowds earlier this month prompted the weekly Borrego Sun to editorialize against cars stopping in the middle of roads. But by mid-March, the first caterpillar had been spotted picnicking on carpets of wildflowers, a sure sign that the season is peaking -- or moving north.

On the hour-and-a-half drive north to Joshua Tree National Park, the yellow swaths of dune evening primrose and desert sunflowers give way to a kaleidoscope of desert Canterbury bells, mallow, chia, chuparosa and desert chicory -- indigo against apricot next to deep purple, scarlet and white. Scores of tourists from Japan, Germany, Canada, San Diego, Los Angeles and nearby Twentynine Palms line up at the park visitors center.

Drive-by wildflower viewers stop at marked pullouts, read interpretive signs and snap digital photos of the nearest clump of color. Die-hard flower enthusiasts strike out in search of blooms like birders with their life lists.

Bigelow's monkey flower? Check. White pebble pincushion? Check. Purple mat? Bladderpod? Desert lily?

Check.

Check.

Check.

The timing of rain is almost as important to good wildflower years as the amount, said Linda Slater, a ranger at the Mojave National Preserve, northeast of Joshua Tree. The rain that has fallen on Southern California deserts through the winter and into the spring have been adequate and, more important, evenly spaced.

"Starting in November, we've had rain every single month," Slater said. "It's as nice a year as I've ever seen here."

The stars of a desert spring are the annuals, ephemeral plants that need rain to sprout. An early rain can cause some seeds to germinate, but if enough well-spaced rains don't follow, the plants remain stunted and put out a flower or two at best, Slater said.

In good years, well-spaced rains cause annuals to erupt among the widely spaced desert perennials, the year-round plants that have adapted to the inhospitable environment by storing water in fleshy tissue protected by thorns, establishing deep roots or shedding leaves and appearing more or less dead much of the year.

In a good spring, these perennials join the show. Joshua trees put out waxy white blooms. Long-stemmed yellow flowers wave above silver-green brittlebush. Ocotillos, typically as bare as bundles of kindling, put out stubby green leaves along branches tipped by lipstick-red blossoms that disappear as quickly as the rain.

After a few weeks, the annuals die, leaving behind seeds for the next year. Or years. The tough little seeds of desert wildflowers have evolved to wait things out. This year's blooms have waited since 2005, a relatively short span in desert time.

The 1.6-million acre Mojave National Preserve, in southeastern California between Interstate 15 and Interstate 40, is typically the last of Southern California's desert parks to bloom and the least visited.

With the season just getting underway there, the Kelso Depot information center is seeing about 300 visitors on weekends, up from its usual 50 but far fewer than the crowds at Anza-Borrego, Joshua Tree or Death Valley National Park. "Mojave preserves that sense of isolation and being out in the desert alone," Slater said.

Anyone seeking isolation in the other desert parks will have to wait out the wildflower season.

March 21, 2008

California desert omitted from conservation bill

New Scientist [UK]

A six-million-acre "glitch". That's what US Senator Diane Feinstein called a huge swathe of California desert left out of a major US conservation bill.

The bill, which was passed to the House of Representatives last week, aims to strengthen the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS). This protects more than 850 parcels of federal land scattered across the American west from urban sprawl, and a thumbs-up from Congress would ensure this protection is permanent.

The bill has been hailed by politicians and conservation groups as analogous to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, which manages the US network of national parks and monuments.

But some watchdog groups are concerned by the exclusion of a New Hampshire-sized portion of the California Desert Conservation Area, which is covered by NLCS.

The reasons are unclear, says Jeffrey Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Washington DC. "As best we can tell, omitting the land would allow utilities to build power transmission lines and open it up to energy development," he says.

House bill sponsor Mary Bono Mack has a different story: she points out that wind farms, two military bases and an interstate highway already built on the land make it unsuitable for a single protection scheme.

Feinstein has vowed to include the area in the Senate's version of the bill.

March 20, 2008

Four artists picked to compete for sculpture project

Magic Morning by John W. Hilton

K Kaufmann
The Desert Sun

The Palm Desert Art in Public Places Commission took the first step Wednesday toward the creation of a public sculpture honoring the Coachella Valley's early outdoor artists who set up their easels in the 1930s, '40s and '50s near the road now known as Painters Path.

The commission voted 5-0 to recommend that the city pay $2,000 honoraria to four artists to come up with designs for the piece, which would be placed in a desert landscape garden by the city's Visitor Center on Highway 111.

The sculpture will show two artists - one male, one female - at work at their easels. The life-size installation could also include a plaque listing some of the artists who lived and worked in the valley.

The winner of the competition would be awarded a $250,000 commission for the piece.

"This was such an important milestone in painting in America and this area, and it's pretty much overlooked," said Norma Bussing, chairwoman of the commission.

The first half of the 20th century saw about 200 painters working in the desert, according to Richard Twedt, the city's public art manager. These "plein air" painters - literally painters who work in the open air - included artists such as Fred Chisnall, the cartoonist Jimmy Swinnerton, John Hilton and Agnes Pelton, a contemporary of Georgia O'Keeffe.

Painters Path in Palm Desert was given its name because artists often set up their easels in the desert near the road.

"We're losing so much of that part of the desert they painted," said Hal Rover of the Historical Society of Palm Desert, which is archiving papers about the early art scene in Palm Desert.

"They painted in all the canyons," Rover said, "(They) went to the north shore of the Salton Sea; all the painters got together and worked together."

The recommendation for the sculpture will go to the City Council in April, Twedt said. If approved, the four artists chosen for the competition would probably submit their designs later this year, he said.

The four artists are Terry Allen, Deek Clements, H. Clay Dahlberg and Gary Lee Price, all recognized figurative sculptors.

March 18, 2008

Environmentalists intend to sue over Fort Irwin tortoise-relocation plan




By JENNIFER BOWLES
The Press-Enterprise





Environmental groups on Monday put three federal agencies on notice that they intend to sue over a plan to move nearly 800 desert tortoises from land where the Army is expanding its tank-training center near Barstow.

The notice from the Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors comes just two weeks before the Army was planning to move the reptiles, which are threatened with extinction, from the southern expansion edge of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin and onto public lands closer to Interstate 15.

It is the latest salvo in what became known as tanks vs. tortoise -- a more than 20-year effort by the military to expand the training center to accommodate faster-moving tanks. Troops come to Fort Irwin from across the country to train against a home team that acts as the enemy.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the groups are not against the so-called tortoise translocation since Congress approved the center's expansion. But, she said, the new land is lower-quality habitat, and has pockets of diseased tortoises, mines, and illegal dumping and off-roading.

"If it's a place where the tortoises are going to survive, we'd like it managed more like a tortoise preserve," Anderson said.

John Wagstaffe, a Fort Irwin spokesman, said Army officials have not yet received the 60-day notice of intent to sue and he could not comment on it.

As it stands, he said, 770 tortoises will be moved at the end of the month over a two-week period onto 13 one-square-mile plots. Those plots were chosen by scientists and other experts from the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Nevada, Reno, and the University of Redlands, he said.

Wagstaffe said the Army paid $900,000 to install fencing along Fort Irwin Road and Interstate 15 to prevent the reptiles from getting killed by vehicles. In addition, underpasses below the road were constructed to the tortoises could migrate to other areas.

Anderson said she hoped the Army would avoid a lawsuit by improving the relocation plan.

The notice was also sent to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees some of the translocation lands, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

March 15, 2008

Some desert areas left out of protection plan

Jay Calderon, The Desert Sun
Snow covers the San Jacinto mountains overlooking the valley's windmills. The mountains are in the area that would be protected.

Diana Marrero
Desert Sun Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Nearly 7 million acres of California desert would not receive federal protection under a proposal to protect 26 million acres of national monuments, historic trails and wilderness areas that dot the West.

The unprotected land constitutes about two-thirds of the 10.6 million-acre California Desert Conservation area, which runs from the Mexican border to Mono Lake up north.

Although the entire swath is now considered part of the National Landscape Conservation System, a large chunk would no longer receive that designation under the bill.

Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, has been a strong proponent of the bill, which would officially recognize as conservation lands millions of acres across the West, including the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains.

The mountains, considered national monuments, would still receive protection under the bill, but a large part of the California desert near the mountains would not because the lands don't have a "national" label.

The congressional designation for the system - it only has administrative approval now - would ensure a more constant source of funding for those lands, much like the national parks, conservation experts say.

"It's a matter of, 'Is the glass half empty or is it half full?'" said Bono Mack, a co-sponsor of the bill. "At this point in time, I want a bill that will move and that will pass and get signed by the president."

The move to take a large part of the California conservation area out of the system could be the result of opposition from utility companies, off-road vehicle drivers and mining interests, said Daniel Patterson, an ecologist and director of the southwest office of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which advocates for federal employees.

"We're not sure why Congresswoman Bono is trying to pursue an anti-conservation position on a very important issue in her district," said Patterson, who argues the bill means the California conservation area will be denied any additional funding that goes to lands in the national system.

Bono Mack says she doesn't see the bill as "excluding land."

"We have taken boundaries and said these are our highest priorities," she said. "There is nothing deliberately excluding land in the future."

Feinstein pushing for larger area as part of the bill

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is speaking with Senate leaders about adding a large part of the California conservation area to the bill, spokesman Scott Gerber said.

"Sen. Feinstein is trying to make it crystal clear and leave no ambiguity the land in question should be included in the National Landscape Conservation System," he said. "We want to make sure these lands have the same protection as other conservation areas."

Among the areas not included in the bill is the Big Morongo Preserve.

The desert conservation area was created by Congress in 1976.

It became part of the national conservation system through administrative action by former President Bill Clinton during his last term in office. But they have not received the attention or funding they deserve, say advocates who are now pushing for Congress to set the designation.

Kevin Mack, a conservation system director for the Wilderness Society, says that although the group would love to see more lands included in the national system, they are satisfied the bill protects "the crown jewels" of the public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The lack of designation won't change the way the agency manages the land in the California conservation area, spokesman Tom Gorey said.

"The legislation isn't going to change that," he said.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the bill sponsor and chairman of a natural resources subcommittee with jurisdiction over the issue, said he has deferred to the California delegation on whether more of the California conservation areas should be included in the bill.

But he says he's happy with the overall measure.

"I'm very happy with it," he said. "It's a landmark piece of legislation."

March 14, 2008

Where to find wildflowers




By Mark Wheeler
Hi-Desert Star



MORONGO BASIN — Wildflower watchers have already begun to find good floral shows in many locations. Low desert flowers have already started to appear and the bloom is moving uphill as the days grow longer and warmer.

Desert Lily

Like all living organisms, different species of plants have habitat preferences and growth routines. Wildflower hunters who want to see a reasonably wide range of the many species that grow in this region must start looking early and in many different places.

Following is a short guide to some key locations. Between them, they represent a range of elevation, soil and topographical differences. Anyone exploring most or all of them will stand a good chance of seeing a fine collection of the local native plants that make this part of the southwest desert so special in the spring.

SOUTH BOUNDARY OF JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK

Either drive through the park to this location or take I-10 south to the Cottonwood entrance. Driving time one-way from the Morongo Basin going either way will be about an hour.

On the open slope below the mountains that line the park boundary on its south side are fields of standing flowers. Most notable at the present time is the blue and deep-purple chia plant. Although the poppies are starting to fade on the boundary itself, a drive on into Cottonwood Canyon will find them in fresh glory and remarkable abundance.

As well as these two species, there are also lupine and numerous other desert wildflowers growing in the area. This is the place to see and photograph fields of tall flowers waving against rocky landscape backgrounds.

PINTO BASIN, JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK

From the Morongo Basin, enter into the park at either the Joshua Tree or Twentynine Palms entrances. The park road from either station will arrive at the Pinto Wye where a branch road goes east and south to Cottonwood campground and ranger station.

Pinto Basin starts at a roadside attraction called Cholla Garden — well marked — and continues for as far as the eye can see to distant mountains. Flowers are blooming from the Cholla Garden all the way to the Cottonwood station. Take advantage of the established pull-outs to stop and get out of the car for a while and walk among the many different species that are currently in peak bloom.

This is a good place to find low-growing mat flowers like the evening primrose and verbena. Lucky observers might also find specimens of the desert five spot and anyone willing to walk out to the sandy hills that can be seen north of the Turkey Flats parking area — well marked — should also find the desert lily.

IRON AGE ROAD, EAST OF 29 PALMS ON 29 PALMS HIGHWAY

Driving east of Twentynine Palms on Twentynine Palms Highway, flower hunters will find much to see for about 30 miles, all the way to Iron Age Road. At this point the bloom tends to disappear as the road proceeds into geographically very arid country.

This is also a good place to see the mat-forming primrose and verbena shows. Those with a sharp eye may also find the seldom-seen yellow evening primrose. Once this flower has reached full maturity, it is one of the true photographic beauties.

Soil composition of the landscape in this area alternates between very sandy and very rocky. Take time to explore both surfaces. Although many plants will grow on both surfaces, each habitat will support collections that are specific to that type of earthen bed.

For instance, in the sandier areas, desert lilies are currently blooming and small but very colorful gilia will be found where it is rockier.

MISSION CREEK PRESERVE

The bloom in this area is just starting to gain momentum and should be good until about the end of March, or perhaps into the first week of April.

The preserve is about 14 miles west of Yucca Valley on Twentynine Palms Highway, and 2.3 miles north of the highway on the Mission Creek road. Visitors can park at the gate and walk in; special arrangements for limited auto entry can also be made by calling 369-7105.

Located in the low desert, the preserve shelters a large number of Colorado Desert plants. Currently, several hillsides are covered with fields of the deep blue canterbury bells, and very large bushes of fiesta flower are evident everywhere.

This is one of the few local places with a large population of owls clover, a shorter version of the taller and more familiar Indian paintbrush.

INDIO HILLS/DILLON ROAD

Right now, traveling east on Dillon Road from Desert Hot Springs to Thousand Palms Canyon Road will more than reward the hopes of any flower watcher. Brown-eyed primrose lines both sides of the roadway and large stands of neon yellow desert dandelion dot the landscape in every direction. With every mile farther east, the brittle bush also begin to add their golden canopies to the view.

Turning south on Thousand Palms Canyon Road will take travelers to the Coachella Valley Preserve. Hiking trails here will take visitors to a variety of different plant habitats, from palm grove to sand dune to rocky wash and hillside.

LOCATIONS YET TO BLOOM

Watch for the bloom to start very soon at higher elevations. When it hits Yucca Valley, one of the best places to see flowers is in the Sky Harbor area. Farther uphill at Black Rock in Joshua Tree National Park, hiking trails give flower watchers access to many different flowering habitats. This is a terrific place to look for species variety.

Upper and Lower Covington in the park are also superb flower hunting locations when the bloom is on. Reach both places by driving up La Contenta Road from Twentynine Palms Highway on the town’s east end. Proceed directly across Alta Loma and on out the dirt road to the park boundary and follow signs from there.

JTNP’s Queen Valley, where the Wonderland of Rocks is located, will also be blooming soon. Hikers might want to explore the Juniper Flats region or hike along any segment of the California Riding and Hiking Trail. Ask for directions at the entrance stations. Motorists will find much to see anywhere along the roadway.

Later in the spring, the Queen Valley is an excellent place to look for cactus flowers, and they should be very good this year. An especially good place to look for them is at the base of Queen Mountain.

By end of March and early April, the roadway between Pioneertown and the road into Pipes Canyon Preserve should be spectacular. The preserve itself is still closed due to fire damage.

For further information about JTNP locations, call 367-5522 or the park’s wildflower hotline at 367-5500. Hi-Desert Nature Museum at 369-7212 is also an excellent local source of wildflower information.

Wildflowers blooming this year after rains


Verbena and evening primrose blooming along a roadside in the Mojave National Preserve.


By Jason Smith, staff writer
Desert Dispatch


BARSTOW - Visitors to the sand dunes and desert lands around Barstow can see something they haven't seen for years: blossoming flowers.

Area national parks are seeing wildflower blossoms that they haven't experienced since 2005, said Linda Slater, a park ranger at the Mojave National Preserve.

"It already is a good year for wildflowers," she said. "Compared to last year, it's a really good year."

Some flowers such as the yellow-petaled Evening Primrose are most visible in the lower elevations of the preserve now. Joshua trees and some species of cacti will likely bloom in the coming weeks, she said. She said the preserve has seen about 200 visitors per day at its Kelso Depot Visitor Center a substantial increase over last year at this time last year.

"Everybody's asking about flowers," she said. "We're seeing a lot more people camping around the preserve."

She said she expects the wildflower bloom to reach its height in the coming weeks and end sometime in May. This year's rains have caused flowers to spring this year where they were not last.

"Basically what we've had is one decent soaking rainfall every month," she said. "That'll produce a decent bloom."

In Death Valley National Park, wildflowers are also blooming now, said Charlie Callagan, a naturalist with the park. He said the one and a half inches of rain the park received last year wasn't enough to produce the spectacular blooms for which the area is known. Still, visitors in search of fields of flowers are filling up the park's campgrounds and motels.

"This is probably one of the better years we're seen since 1998 and 2005," he said. "This is probably the third best year we've had in decades."

Anthony Chavez, a rangeland management specialist with the Barstow office of the Bureau of Land Management, however, predicts a typical year for wildflowers in the region.

"You have wildflower blooms, but I wouldn't consider this a spectacular year by any means," he said. "But anything's better than last year."

He said the wildflowers many people think of are annual plants such as Desert Marigolds, Sand Verbinas, Native Phacelia and Popcorn Flowers, which complete their life cycle in one growing season and die after flowering. Periennel plants produce seeds every year and last more than one growing season.

Chavez was in the Ord Mountains Thursday gathering samples of annually flowering plants and found 784 pounds of vegetative material this year. BLM crews found no evidence of annually flowering plant growth last year at this time due to the severe drought, he said.

He said that if annual wildflowers haven't already bloomed or begun to bloom than they won't this season. He said this weekend's projected rains won't make any difference.

"Once an annual plant has germinated, you can pour an ocean of water on it but it's not going to grow any taller," Chavez said.

High Desert fastest growing region in county





RYAN ORR Staff Writer
Victorville Daily Press







SAN BERNARDINO — The Victor Valley is the fastest growing area in San Bernardino County and is expected to retain that title for some time.

For residents of the Victor Valley, that means an ever-changing community. However, with the rapid increase in population, it may change the 1st District more than some expect.

If the supervisorial districts were redrawn right now, 40,000 residents would have to be cut out of the 1st District and added to another, said 1st District Brad Mitzelfelt.

The districts will be redrawn after the 2010 census, when that number will probably be much larger.

That means that there are some communities currently in the 1st District — which includes the entire Victor Valley — that won’t be in two years.

The purpose is to make the district equal, so that each one comprises roughly one-fifth of the county’s population.

“The foreclosure increase is a temporary setback,” said Mitzelfelt. “We will be the fastest growing area in the community for the foreseeable future because we have the most land.”

Mitzelfelt would not speculate on which communities may be excluded when the districts are redrawn. After the 2000 census, Joshua Tree was cut out of the 1st District and Wrightwood, where Mitzelfelt resides, was added.

Despite the 2000 redistricting evening out the populations in each district, the California Department of Finance estimated in 2007 the 1st District had 445,530 residents. That’s 67,000 residents more than the county’s 5th District.

San Bernardino County’s charter calls for having five districts, which leaves out the possibility of adding a sixth.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were three well-organized yet unsuccessful drives to make the High Desert into its own county.

The motivation then, for what would have been called Mojave County, was not population growth, but keeping tax dollars in Victor Valley communities, said Dick Pearson, who was involved in the movement.

Mitzelfelt said that currently the High Desert benefits from being part of San Bernardino County.

“If we became our own small county, I think there would be more attention paid to our local problems. However, there would be a lot less money to solve those problems,” said Mitzelfelt, who added that some time in the future it could be more of a benefit to form another county.

The much anticipated High Desert government center will be like having a county seat in the Victor Valley, Mitzelfelt said.

The 55,000-square-foot center slated for Hesperia will house the majority of county agencies that Victor Valley residents now have to drive to San Bernardino for.

That, combined with the growth of the Southern California Logistics Airport and the jobs it will create, is proof that the Victor Valley will continue to be the fastest growing area in San Bernardino County.

Off-roaders taking on the Marines


Enthusiasts prize site of potential training ground


By Michael Gardner
Union-Tribune


SACRAMENTO – California's off-road riders have launched an aggressive campaign to oppose any move by the Marines to annex Johnson Valley, a nationally acclaimed high-desert recreation area on the perimeter of an important military base at Twentynine Palms.


Rock crawling the "Hammers"

The potential expansion of the battlefield training ground for troops being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan has sparked a conflict between the traditionally conservative off-road community and the military.

It also may pressure Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, a former Army Ranger and outspoken advocate for the military, to choose between his loyalties to the Marine Corps and to longtime off-road allies alarmed over shrinking legal places to ride.

“We're pretty devastated,” said Ed Stovin, president of the San Diego Off-Road Coalition. “It's hard to fight national security when you're at war, but you sure hate to lose the area.”

Stovin said he hopes the off-road community can work with Hunter on a compromise, perhaps pushing the Marines to consider taking land not used for off-roading. “He's a good friend of ours,” Stovin said.

Hunter has not taken sides, said Joe Kasper, a spokesman. “Congressman Hunter supports both the interests of the off-roading community and the potential expansion of the facility to better simulate and prepare our Marines for conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Kasper said.

Hunter plans to address the issue at a meeting with off-road enthusiasts March 22.

Off-roading is a booming sport, with nearly 1 million vehicles registered in California to take to the terrain. About 4 million people ride in state parks set aside for that use, and countless others use federal land.

Off-road advocates say they are squeezed for space by urban demand and environmental-based restrictions.

Growing more alarmed as word spread of the possible land requisition by the Marines, off-roaders this week mounted a four-hour “virtual rally” over the Internet in a show of solidarity. By their count, there were 1,495 messages posted and 33,976 page views within four hours.

Many posts carried a common theme: admiration for troops, hopes that they return home safely and support for the military – but near-unanimous opposition to turning the valley over to the Marines.

“The Marine Corps has a need, but the off-road community also has needs and rights to enjoy and recreate in this well-established off-highway vehicle area,” Philip Hall of National City wrote.
“If this land were unused and dormant, it would be a different situation all together,” Hall's post continued. “But Johnson Valley OHV area already has a purpose and is owned by thousands of tax-paying citizens like myself who are not willing to sacrifice such a pristine locale to be turned into a practice war ground.”

The Marine Corps has issued a statement confirming that it is looking to expand training facilities, but it says no decision has been reached and urges patience.

“This process of simply figuring out what land the base might actually need to meet the Marine Corps training requirements and how it affects other interests could take anywhere from three to five years,” said Jim Ricker, assistant chief of staff at the Twentynine Palms base.

The statement continued: “It is imperative that the Marines receive the most realistic training before deploying into a combat environment that demands split second life or death decisions.”

The 140,000-acre off-highway vehicle area, located southeast of Barstow in San Bernardino County, also is home to the federally protected desert tortoise, a fact that could provoke strident opposition from environmentalists.

Protecting the tortoise was a key issue when the Army expanded training facilities near Fort Irwin a few years ago.

Johnson Valley is under the supervision of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Mike Pool, California's BLM director, is expected to attend Hunter's March 22 meeting with off-road enthusiasts.

John Dearing, a BLM spokesman, said the military followed a regular process before taking other federal lands.

“We have not yet received an application from the Marines,” said Dearing, referring specific questions about Johnson Valley to the military.

The Marine Corps said it plans to prepare an environmental review of alternatives once a decision is made. It promises full disclosure and public participation.

Johnson Valley is nationally known as “the Hammers” – one of the best four-wheeling, boulder-hopping areas in the country, off-roaders say.

The off-roading mecca draws thousands every year to numerous organized events, including rock-racing, rock-crawling and a “King of the Hammers” championship each February. The area's landscape is dotted with Joshua trees, steep red-rock mountains and sandy washes.

Losing the Hammers, one Internet posting read, “would be like baseball losing Wrigley Field or golf losing Augusta.”

Off-road meeting
When: 9 to 11 a.m. March 22.
Where: Cuyamaca College Student Center, 900 Rancho San Diego Parkway, El Cajon. Conference rooms 1207-1208.
Issue: Possible Marine base expansion into a Johnson Valley off-road area.

Congress moves closer to preserving Western beauty

It is considering designating millions of US-owned acres as a permanent conservation system


By Faye Bowers, Correspondent
The Christian Science Monitor


Sonoran Desert National Monument, Ariz. - This swath of desert is in full bloom. The mountainsides blanketed by towering saguaro forests are now dotted with yellow and orange Mexican poppies, purple lupine, and white chicory. The monument is home to three wilderness areas and two historic trails.

These 487,000 acres sit along a corridor between Arizona's two largest metropolitan areas, Phoenix and Tucson, where demographers predict the population will increase from 5 million people to more than 10 million by 2040.

That's a key reason, many conservation and wildlife advocates say, Congress should permanently designate this national monument and more than 800 additional federally managed properties as the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS).

The House Natural Resources Committee moved toward that Wednesday, voting the National Landscape Conservation System Act out of committee. The bill can now be scheduled for a vote by the full House. The Senate, meanwhile, is ready to vote on a similar bill.

"Congress … took a major step toward permanently recognizing the National Landscape Conservation System," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in a statement. "These places are living history books of the American West, and by unifying them into a single system under the [Bureau of Land Management's] careful management, we are ensuring that these irreplaceable treasures ... are preserved for future generations."

These disparate 860 units of land total some 26 million acres and already have some protection. In June 2000, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt established the NLCS by decree to protect the "crown jewels" of the public lands managed by the BLM. The NLCS includes 15 national monuments, 13 national conservation areas, and historic trails.

But BLM officials as well as conservation and wildlife advocates say official designation of the NLCS is essential.

"While I don't have any particular reason to believe other secretaries [of the Interior] will come in and undo the system, the fact is it can be pulled apart to disparate units," says Elena Daly, BLM's director of the NLCS in Washington. "It gives us legislative authority to exist and would require legislative action to undo. It would put us on par with National Park Service."

The congressional stamp of approval also would create a systematic way to manage these areas. Currently, the 860 disparate units don't have the same designations or protections. Some were created by states, others by various departments of the federal government.

"Resource and protection issues cannot be looked at in any kind of comprehensive way until the system is authorized by Congress," says John Shepard, deputy director of The Sonoran Institute, a land conservation group.

Ms. Daly says all 860 units maintain multiple-use components; 99 percent are open for grazing, for example. Some allow for oil and mining exploration. Most permit hunting, horseback riding, hiking, and camping but without the frills of a National Park experience.

There are no hotels, concessions, or regularly scheduled ranger hikes, let alone guides and outfitters. Some are located in rugged, remote areas, and others are near communities, like the Sonoran Monument, which is only a 45-minute drive from downtown Phoenix.

"A multiple-use mandate is great, but it represents a challenge," Daly says. "Competing uses create competing management demands." Daly adds those uses and demands are going to increase as the West continues to grow at such a rapid pace. Creating a system to preserve these lands is essential, she says.

That appears evident at the Sonoran Desert National Monument. Rich Hanson, resource adviser and outdoor recreation planner for the office of the BLM here, points to areas that are being regenerated. Partly because of directing off-road vehicle traffic to designated roads and trails only and partly because of the rainy winter here, the desert is lush. Wildflowers abound, and cactuses – especially the giant saguaros and ocotillo – are plump and green. Besides some cattle grazing on this land, big-horned sheep and desert tortoises live among the rocky hills.

Then, there are the three disparate wilderness areas – each some 60,000 acres – where motorized traffic is not permitted.

Two historic trails are here. The Juan Bautista de Anza trail commemorates the 1775-76 expedition by the Spanish commander to bring colonists westward to settle San Francisco. And there's a leg of the Butterfield Stage route that ran from St. Louis to San Francisco in the mid-1800s.

"The areas and features are different, but we need to protect the objects of importance," Mr. Hanson says.