March 30, 2009

Lost In An Energy Wilderness

Energy Policy: The House approves a Senate-passed omnibus bill that puts 2 million more acres of energy-rich land off-limits. We need a government that leads us out of the energy wilderness and not into it.


Last Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed on a 285-148 vote the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (S.22), which confirms our theory that no good comes from legislation labeled "comprehensive" or "omnibus."

S.22 is a smorgasbord of 160 bills totaling more than 1,300 pages and, no, we're not sure how many who voted for it actually read it. A stimulus bill it is not, for it locks up an additional 2 million acres to the 107 million acres of federally owned wilderness areas. That total is more than the area of Montana and Wyoming combined.

Speaking of Wyoming, 1.1 million of these newly restricted acres are in that state. This bill, which also provides $1 billion for a water project designed to save 500 salmon in California, takes about 8.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 300 million barrels of oil out of production in that state, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The energy resources walled off by this bill would nearly match the annual production levels of our two natural gas production states — Texas and Alaska. As Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., points out: "We are not suffering from a lack of wilderness areas in the United States. According to the Census Bureau, we have 106 million acres of developed land and 107 million acres of (officially declared) wilderness land."

Earlier this year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar canceled 77 Utah oil and gas leases that had gone through seven years of studies, negotiations and land-use planning. They were rejected because temporary drilling operations might be "visible" from several national parks more than a mile away. We are not making this up.

Some of these parcels are in or near the Green River Formation, an oil-rich region in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming that's been called the "Persia of the West."

This formation has the largest known oil shale deposits in the world, holding from 1.5 trillion to 1.8 trillion barrels of crude. The Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory indicates 800 billion of these barrels are recoverable with current technology.

In comparison with Saudi Arabia's oil resources, America's recoverable oil shale resources are nearly three times as large, according to a 2008 report by the Utah Mining Association. As the report notes, the West's oil shale provides America with the "potential to be completely energy self-sufficient with no demands on external sources."

According to the BLM, 16% of the 607 million acres of land owned by the federal government is designated as wilderness in the form of 708 National Wilderness Areas located in the U.S. This bill adds over 80 new wilderness designations or additions to federal lands.

Paul Spitler of the Wilderness Society told CNSNews this is just dandy. "There are some landscapes that are simply more important for their scenic, natural, recreational and ecological values than they are for oil and gas development," he said.

We beg to differ. You can see the sun setting on America's energy and economic future over these landscapes.

Most of the locked-up lands are in Western states where there's enough oil shale to satisfy America's needs for the next 200 years. Modern technology can extract these vast resources from the earth with a minimal footprint.

Technology for shale-oil extraction is certainly further along than getting energy from switch grass or producing cellulosic ethanol. If we're going to stimulate anything, let's stimulate shale-oil production.

It took Moses 40 years to lead his people out of their wilderness to the Promised Land. The green lobby and its friends in Congress are leading the American people in the opposite direction.

Conservationists restore East Mojave guzzlers

Guzzler #S-18 near Goffs, California. (Chris Ervin)

by Leslie Ervin
Exclusive Field Report

Goffs, CA -- The Goffs Cultural Center provided camping facilities for an important work group during the weekend of March 27-29. Cliff McDonald of Needles, California, and XX of his volunteers staged their operations at Goffs while they made day trips to repair five wildlife water guzzlers in the area.

What is a wildlife water guzzler, you ask? Guzzlers come in many shapes and sizes and are made of different materials depending on the wildlife population they are intended to serve. The ones in this area consist of a concrete slab that collects rainwater and funnels it into an underground tank. The tank is covered and has a sloped opening that allows animals and other creatures to walk in and out to reach the water. Guzzlers are vital to desert wildlife like deer, bobcat, coyote, cougar, quail, bighorn sheep, and desert tortoise.

Most of the local guzzlers were built decades ago and over time they develop cracks and collect debris, which makes them less effective. Cliff’s volunteers come prepared with trucks full of equipment to make the appropriate repairs. The work first involves prepping the pad. Chippers are used to clean off the old sealant and then QUIKRETE concrete bonding adhesive is applied to the cracks. Two coats of Merlex are then applied over 24 hours to seal the pad so the water runs down into the underground water tank. The tank is also cleaned out and tortoise nets are installed so the tortoises can get out of the tank.

On Saturday, my husband Chris and I were interested in witnessing this work firsthand, so we took a break from our weeding at Goffs and drove to the closest worksite, just two miles up Mountain Springs Road. When we arrived at guzzler #S-18, they had already fixed the cracks in the pad and were cleaning out the tank. Since this guzzler happened to be in a particularly lush area of spring flowers, we wandered around a bit to take photos. When we returned, they had finished sealing the pad and were moving on to the next work site. You can see how nice the guzzlers look when they finish.

Finished guzzler #S-18. (Leslie Ervin)

The group assembled at Goffs consisted of volunteers from the High Desert Chapter #759 of Quail Unlimited, the California Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, and…. On Saturday and Sunday they divided into work groups and headed out to the guzzlers. They even brought along a cooking crew who whipped up such delicacies as eggs and elk sausage and elk burgers. Those of us fortunate enough to be at Goffs during that time enjoyed exchanging sleepy pre-dawn greetings and friendly waves as their caravans rolled back into camp at the end of the day.

Cliff has been the driving force behind restoration of water sources inside the Mojave National Preserve and surrounding areas. He coordinates with groups like Quail Unlimited, the Safari Club, the Bureau of Land Management, and California Fish and Game to accomplish this important work. He was recently honored with a $5,000 grant as one of three finalists in the 2009 Budweiser Conservationist of the Year Award sponsored by Budweiser and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF).

If you are interested in helping this worthy cause by volunteering or making a donation, you can contact Cliff at 760-326-2935.

Obama to sign lands bill before 5 days of comment

Stephen Dinan
Washington Times

President Obama on Monday will sign the omnibus land conservation bill - yet again breaking his vow to allow five days for public comment before he affixes his signature to legislation.

The bill passed the House on Wednesday, but the White House didn't post the measure for comments until Friday, leaving just two weekend days and parts of Friday and Monday for the public to register comments - short of the president's five-day pledge. The bill was posted for only several hours before the White House announced that Mr. Obama would sign it, indicating the president had made up his mind well before many comments could have been submitted.

The White House said issues are still being worked out with the five-day policy and that the president's scheduled departure Tuesday to London for a meeting with world leaders makes it necessary to short-circuit things this time.

"In most cases, we have posted legislation with five days' notice. We are working to resolve a few issues with the congressional calendar, and in this instance, in light of the president's international trip, the bill will be signed before departure," said spokesman Ben LaBolt, who vowed that the administration intends to live up to the policy.

"We will continue to post legislation on our Web site for comment as it moves through Congress, and plan to have the full policy implemented in the coming weeks," he said.

The land bill has taken a convoluted path to the president's desk, and Republican critics said Mr. Obama's failure to wait is simply the latest procedurally dubious step in a Democratic effort to jam through a controversial bill.

"If there was ever a bill in need of more input and comment, it's this one - but it didn't get that in Congress and it doesn't appear the administration will allow time for that either. That's too bad, because there is a better way," said Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican.

"The history of this bill in the House has been one of strained procedure, stifled debate, constitutional flaws, inclusion of measures without merit, and amendments to apparently non-amendable bills," he said. "The people and their representatives have been shut out, and we have a poor end product because of it - one that will trample rights, hurt the management of our lands and hinder the economy and energy independence."

During the campaign, Mr. Obama pledged that when there's "a bill that ends up on my desk as president, you, the public, will have five days to look online and find out what's in it before I sign it."

On his campaign Web site, he vowed that would mean he "will not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days."

Of the nine bills Mr. Obama has signed so far in his term, he has signed six of them less than five days after Congress sent them to him. Of the other three, only on one did he wait more than five days from the time the bill was officially presented to him, according to Thomas, the Web site of the Library of Congress that tracks legislation.

Some of those bills were emergency legislation, such as the stimulus-spending bill and a continuing resolution to keep the government funded while Congress hashed out 2009 spending. The administration said that for other bills, it sometimes posts a link to the measure and allows comments even before it is officially presented to the White House, so the tally can be misleading.

The lands bill combines dozens of parks, wilderness and conservation projects, some of which had passed individually but others that hadn't received scrutiny, into a single bill.

Republicans on Capitol Hill blocked the legislation for months as they tried to remove parts they said were wasteful or counterproductive, including items such as new national parks that the National Park Service says it doesn't even want.

Democrats were afraid of facing an open debate in the House and used parliamentary tactics, including combining the bill with another measure, to deny Republicans the ability to offer amendments on the House floor.

The bill did pass overwhelmingly, with bipartisan support, by a 285-140 vote in the House and a 77-20 vote in the Senate.

Emily Lawrimore, a spokeswoman for Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the top Republican on the Natural Resources Committee, said Democrats "jammed this $10 billion, 1,200-page bill" through Congress and that Mr. Obama is doing the same at the White House.

"It appears that the administration's 'sunset before signing' pledge should be renamed 'sign before sundown.' This is another unfortunate example of Democrats' inability to live up to their promises of a more open and transparent government," she said.

Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, says the omnibus bill that the president is slated to sign Monday is "in need of more input and comment."

Mr. Obama's pledge to have bills available for comment does put him apart from other presidents, but voters appear ready to hold him to the higher standard he set. On Thursday, when Mr. Obama hosted a virtual town hall, one of the submitted questions that Mr. Obama didn't get to answer was why he wasn't following through on his five-day rule.

Asked at the daily White House briefing about the pledge later that day, press secretary Robert Gibbs said he thought that all except for the stimulus bill had met the five-day comment period.

"I think, in fact, on at least a couple of occasions we've not signed bills when we normally planned so that some of them could be reviewed," he said.

Asked by ABC's Jake Tapper whether the five-day rule was "a commitment the president intends to uphold from now on," Mr. Gibbs was unequivocal: "Yes, sir."

To the victors

Letters to the editor
Los Angeles Times

Re “Major wilderness bill OKd,” March 26

The Times' photo and story are so misleading. You have a Republican aide in the picture touting the victory. Although it might be true that Republican Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita supports the wilderness bill, most Republicans don't.

You got it so wrong. A Democrat should be quoted regarding the victory, or a staunch environmentalist.

Gerald Orcholski

March 27, 2009

California's Solar Flare-Up

Energy: The governor wants to carpet the desert with solar panels. The senator says it will destroy the ecosystem. The battle between environmentalists and conservationists is one of alternative energy's big drawbacks.


We have commented frequently on how our energy needs have been thwarted repeatedly by the not-in-my-back-yard (Nimby) crowd and the new Banana (build-absolutely-nothing-anywhere-near-anybody) phenomenon.

Environmentalists and conservationists have long fanned local fears to block oil and gas exploration from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Outer Continental Shelf. Even nonpolluting and carbon-free nuclear power plants have been stopped dead in their tracks.

So it's delicious irony to watch conservationists and environmentalists at each other's throats over where to site the alternative energy facilities and transmission lines designed to save us from our carbon addiction and our dependence on coal and foreign oil.

One of the problems with wind and solar, aside from the fact the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine, is that they are land-intensive and require vast amounts of acreage to gather their little nuggets of energy.

In January, three solar researchers wrote in Scientific American that by 2050 America could get all of its electricity just from solar panels in the Southwestern desert. All that would be necessary would be 46,000 square miles, or about one-third of the state of New Mexico, America's fifth-largest state. Al Gore repeated this proposal before the Senate Energy Committee in February.

Based on this idea, some 19 companies involved in 14 solar and five wind projects have submitted applications to build solar and wind facilities on a parcel of 500,000 acres in California's Mojave Desert that would seem ideally suited for a solar or wind farm.

These companies are encouraged by a 2006 California law that requires utilities to produce 20% of the state's electricity from renewable resources by 2020. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to up that to 33%.

Not so fast, says California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. She says the land in question was donated or purchased over time for the express purpose of blocking development. "I'm a strong supporter of renewable energy and clean technology," she says, "but it is critical that these projects are built on suitable lands."

"This is unacceptable," she wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "I urge you to direct the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) to suspend any further consideration of leases to develop (these) former railroad lands for renewable energy or for any other purpose."

The plan faces several obstacles aside from the obscene amounts of land required. It also requires huge amounts of water in a water-starved region. Solar panels accumulate dust, dirt and sand and have to be continually cleaned with water. Not much thought has been given to finding enough water to wash down 10,000 square miles of solar panels every month.

Then there's the problem of getting the power from where it's produced to where it's needed. From the Mojave, high-voltage lines are separated from customers by two large national park properties, several wilderness areas and military facilities such as the Marine base at Twentynine Palms. And don't forget the angry communities and endangered critters.

"If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave desert, I don't know where the hell we can put it," an irritated Schwarzenegger told an audience at Yale University. Some have made their own suggestions where to put it. They involve where the sun doesn't shine.

Our own suggestion is, once again, to classify nuclear power as a renewable resource, which in fact the reprocessing of spent fuel rods makes it. Then use infrastructure money from the stimulus package to subsidize a job-creating building program, sort of a domestic Manhattan Project.

That would satisfy the energy needs and rules of both California and the nation. It would create "green" jobs and energy. And you wouldn't have to carpet the Mojave Desert with solar panels.

Feinstein Stands in Way of California Desert Wind Power Project

Environmental Leader

The California Energy Commission estimates that as many as 160,000 acres of desert lands in California are needed to meet its 33 percent renewable energy goal by 2020. However, by proclaiming a portion of these lands a naitonal monument, a prominent Senator may stand in the way of wind power development.

California’s Bureau of Land Management has on its desk 130 applications for solar and wind energy development in the state’s deserts, covering public land in excess of 1 million acres.

Several of the applications are located in the eastern Mojave Desert on or near property previously owned by Catellus that was donated to or by purchased by the Department of the Interior for conservation.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., intends to introduce legislation to establish a national monument on these lands, a move that would restrict future wind power development.

A national monument designation would ensure that hundreds of thousands of acres between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve are protected in perpetuity, according to a press release from Feinstein’s office.

March 26, 2009

Grand County to join state, Carbon County in fighting SUWA legal complaint

by Craig Bigler
Moab Times-Independent

By a 4-3 vote, the Grand County Council last week chose to intervene in a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court of Washington, D.C. by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and others against the Bureau of Land Management. The complaint alleges the BLM’s new resource management plans do not adequately address air quality issues, issues of climate change, and the impact of ORVs on cultural resources.

The motion to intervene was made by councilman Gene Ciarus and seconded by Ken Ballantyne. They were joined by Pat Holyoak and Chris Baird in the majority vote. Audrey Graham, Chris Conrad, and Bob Greenberg voted against.

According to the resolution the Utah Attorney General will represent Grand County along with the State of Utah and Carbon County. If conflicts arise among those parties, “they shall meet and confer” to resolve those conflicts, the resolution states.

However, the parties may have to retain independent counsel to resolve conflicts. When the potential cost to the county was discussed as a reason to not intervene, Grand County Attorney Happy Morgan said the attorney general has sometimes helped with costs, as he did when the county had to cope with several expensive murder trials in 2004.

Council chairman Greenberg presented a memo he prepared to support his contention that the health, safety, and welfare of county citizens are not threatened by the complaint, as the resolution states, and that there is no need to intervene.

Ciarus said that a confidential memo prepared by Morgan refutes both Greenberg’s memo and his conclusion, especially because it depends on information provided by John Harja, director of the Governor’s Public Lands Policy Coordination Office. “He changes quite a bit,” Ciarus said.

Because Morgan’s memo was submitted to the council as confidential information, a copy was not released to the public.

Ciarus said the county has a vital interest in the court action because the new RMP’s travel plan is identical with the county’s travel plan, which is based on the county’s general plan and calls for new roads for mineral exploration. He expressed concern that if SUWA wins in court the travel plan will be jeopardized.

He also argued that, if SUWA wins its case, then the county’s RS 2477 claims to class D roads will be jeopardized.

According to Harja, Greenberg’s memo states, “the most likely outcome [of the court] is that the parties to the suit will agree to have the BLM amend the portions of the RMP that are in dispute.”

According to Richard Rathbun, assistant Utah Attorney General, there are no RS 2477 issues at stake, Greenberg wrote. He also quoted a disclaimer from the RMP itself: “Nothing in this document is intended to provide evidence bearing on or addressing the validity of any RS 2477 assertions.”

Council member Baird said that he agreed with SUWA “somewhat,” and he worried about potential costs if Grand County’s interests diverge from Carbon County’s. But he said he voted for the resolution because he felt Grand must be part of the process.

Wilderness protection bill gets Congress' OK

The legislation gives maximum federal protection to more than 2 million acres in nine states, including more than 700,000 acres in California.

By Richard Simon and Bettina Boxall
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Los Angeles and Washington Bettina Boxall -- Congress on Wednesday approved the largest expansion of the wilderness system in 15 years, bestowing the highest level of federal protection on 2 million acres in nine states and launching one of the most ambitious river restoration efforts in the West.

The bill, the first major conservation measure set to be signed by President Obama, would designate as wilderness almost as much land as was set aside during George W. Bush's entire presidency. It passed the House on Wednesday, 285 to 140, after clearing the Senate last week.

In California--which now has 14 million acres of wilderness (second only to Alaska, which has more than 57 million acres) -- the bill would protect about 700,000 additional acres from new roads and most commercial uses such as new mining, logging and energy development.

Included in the legislation is $88 million to help fund a project to return year-round flows and a prized salmon run to the San Joaquin River for the first time since the 1940s. The bill also would provide $61 million toward cleanup of polluted groundwater in the San Gabriel Valley.

The legislation passed Wednesday is an amalgam of about 160 bills, including measures to strengthen the protection of Oregon's Mt. Hood; designate President Clinton's boyhood home in Hope, Ark., a national historic site; create a commission to plan for the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, Fla.; and designating the River Raisin battlefield in Monroe, Mich. -- site of a bloody battle in the War of 1812 -- as a unit of the national park system.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said at a news conference after the vote that the bill is the "most important piece of conservation legislation Congress has considered in many years."

California land to be designated as wilderness includes about 40,000 acres in the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles County. The bill would create the Magic Mountain Wilderness -- named for a mountain northeast of Santa Clarita, not the Six Flags amusement park -- and the Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness, west of Angeles Crest Highway.

About 428,000 acres in the Eastern Sierra would be protected, as would about 147,000 acres in Riverside County (including parts of Joshua Tree National Park) and about 85,000 acres in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks -- including the Mineral King Valley area that was the site of an environmental battle in the 1960s when the Disney company tried to build a ski resort there.

The legislation also would strengthen protections of scenic rivers, including eight in California that stretch from the upper Owens River in the eastern Sierra to Piru Creek in Los Angeles County.

In addition, the bill would add about 8,400 acres to the 272,000-acre Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument near Palm Springs, and order a study on whether the World War II Japanese American internment camp at Tule Lake should be part of the national park system.

"We're ecstatic," said Sam Goldman, California wilderness coordinator at the Wilderness Society.

The bill brought together members of opposing parties who were eager to trumpet their conservation efforts and water projects.

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita, a conservative Republican who worked with liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to push for the wilderness designation in the Eastern Sierra and San Gabriel Mountains, alluded to his unusual situation.

"We have some people who used to be my friends who are not happy with me, and we have some people who used to hate me who now think I'm great," he said. Showing pictures of mountains and rivers in his district, he added: "Places like this are treasures that we should try to preserve."

But the measure drew opposition from a number of congressional Republicans and business and property-rights groups, who attacked it as a land grab that would close off public land to energy production.

"If Congress and the administration are serious about jump-starting our economy, they cannot limit responsible American energy production of any kind, including oil and natural gas," said Barry Russell, president and chief executive of the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America.

The $88 million for the San Joaquin River is aimed at ending one of California's legendary water fights.

So much of the river is diverted to irrigate farmland on the east side of the agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley that about 60 miles of it has turned into a bed of dust. Its lower reach is so polluted with runoff and agricultural drainage that it is known as "the lower colon of California."

A chinook salmon run that once was one of the West Coast's most bountiful was wiped out after Friant Dam was built in the 1940s and most of the river's Sierra-fed flow was sent into two giant irrigation canals.

Environmentalists went to court two decades ago to get back some of the San Joaquin's water and won a court settlement in 2006. The legislation authorizes the federal government to carry out the settlement and spend $88 million on restoration efforts.

"It's going to initiate one of the largest river restoration projects in the nation. It's a great day," said Monty Schmitt of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been involved in the river fight since its inception.

Under the settlement, farmers will give up some of their irrigation supplies. Altogether, more than $400 million in state and federal funds and environmental fees will be spent on restoration and water management projects to help farmers offset their irrigation losses.

Schmitt said the goal was to have spring chinook salmon swimming up the San Joaquin within three years.

During Wednesday's debate, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) contended that the settlement would hurt farmers. "If this Congress isn't capable of delivering water to people, perhaps we can ask the United Nations for help," he said. "Maybe they would be willing to deliver water, distribute humanitarian aid and rebuild the San Joaquin Valley."

But Rep. George Radanovich, a fellow Central Valley Republican, said that the settlement would resolve a years-long legal battle that threatened farmers' water supply, and that it "gives the agricultural community some control over their water future."

The new wilderness designations will be the latest additions to the 107-million acre National Wilderness Preservation System, created when President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act in 1964.

The measure's passage has emboldened environmentalists to push for even more wilderness designation.

Boxer is working to protect an additional 1.4 million acres of wilderness in California, including areas in the Angeles, Klamath, Lassen and Los Padres national forests.

All of California's Democratic representatives supported the bill. (As House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco usually doesn't vote, but she said she backed the bill.)

All of the state's Republicans voted against it except for Rep. Mary Bono Mack of Palm Springs and McKeon, who also sponsored bills to create wilderness areas in their districts. Rep. Gary G. Miller of Diamond Bar did not vote.

March 24, 2009

Interior secretary: Rules allow donated land to be considered for renewable energy projects

The Press-Enterprise

U.S. Secretary of Interior Kenneth Salazar has declined Sen. Dianne Feinstein's request for a halt in processing applications for renewable energy projects on Mojave Desert land donated to the federal government for conservation.

Salazar, in a March 19 letter released by Feinstein's office Monday evening, said U.S. Bureau of Land Management rules allow the donated land to be considered for solar and wind energy and other development.

"I assure you that every effort will be made to avoid the most environmentally sensitive and valuable areas," Salazar wrote.

Feinstein, a California Democrat, looks forward to working with Salazar and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to find the best locations for energy projects, said her press aide, Laura Wilkinson, in an interview Tuesday.

Feinstein still plans to introduce legislation to protect the donated land, Wilkinson said.

At issue is about 600,000 acres between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve. The acreage was acquired with $40 million raised by The Wildlands Conservancy, based in Oak Glen, and $18 million from a federal water and conservation fund.

Conservancy representatives said that when the land deal was negotiated, then-President Bill Clinton and other officials assured them the land would remain undisturbed.

"It's a real disappointment," said David Myers, executive director of the conservancy. "I suppose the word of the federal government isn't worth much."

Energy companies are seeking free land from the government, he said. "Our acquisition of this land is now subsidizing the destruction of it," he said.

Myers said he is grateful that Feinstein is fighting to preserve the land.

In a March 3 letter, Feinstein urged Salazar to stop the BLM from processing applications for 15 solar energy projects sought on the donated land. The BLM is a division of the Department of Interior.

"Unfortunately, many of the sites now being considered for (energy) leases are completely inappropriate and will lead to the wholesale destruction of some of the most pristine areas in the desert," Feinstein's letter said.

In response, Salazar said renewable energy is a priority and that efforts are under way to establish energy-development zones in less sensitive areas.

Feinstein wants desert swath off-limits to solar, wind

In a move that could pit environmentalists and alternative energy industries against each other, the senator wants hundreds of thousands of acres in California designated as a national monument.

By Richard Simon
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington -- While President Obama has made development of cleaner energy sources a priority, an effort is underway to close off a large swath of the Southern California desert to solar and wind energy projects.

In a move that could pit usual allies -- environmentalists and the solar and wind industries -- against each other, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is preparing legislation that would permanently put hundreds of thousands of acres of desert land off limits to energy projects. The territory would be designated California's newest national monument.

The move has triggered cries of NIMBY-ism on Capitol Hill.

"If there is such strong support for renewable energy, then why are they moving to block renewable energy production in their own state?" said Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee.

Myron Ebell, an energy expert with the pro-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, called Feinstein's effort "just the first example of how hard it is going to be to realize President Obama's dream of a green-energy economy."

Feinstein disputed that she is engaged in a not-in-my-backyard campaign. "I'm a strong supporter of renewable energy and clean technology -- but it is critical that these projects are built on suitable lands," she said.

The area of concern to Feinstein is between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park, off old Route 66 between Ludlow and Needles. The area includes desert tortoise habitat, wildlife corridors, cactus gardens and the Amboy Crater -- an inactive volcanic crater where portions of the 1959 movie "Journey to the Center of the Earth" were filmed.

"That section of the road is as pristine as it was when travelers came across it in the 1920s and '30s," said James Conkle, chairman of the Route 66 Alliance.

Boundaries for the proposed monument have yet to be drawn up. But David Myers, executive director the Wildlands Conservancy, said it probably would be in excess of 800,000 acres. Feinstein said in a Capitol Hill interview Tuesday that she was sending her staff to the desert -- and would probably visit the area herself next month -- to consider what areas should be made off limits to green-energy projects and where they should be permitted.

Feinstein, who regards the 1994 California Desert Protection Act as one of her proudest achievements, noted that the Wildlands Conservancy spent more than $40 million buying the former railroad land in the desert and turning it over to the government in one of the largest land purchases in California history, with the intent of protecting it. "I feel very strongly that the federal government must honor that commitment," she said.

The Bureau of Land Management is reviewing 130 applications for solar and wind energy development in the California desert, covering more than 1 million acres of public land, according to Feinstein, who recently discussed her concerns with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. At least 19 projects have been suggested in the area where the monument has been proposed, Myers said.

Salazar said in a letter to Feinstein that projects in the desert would be "carefully considered" before any decisions were made and that "every effort will be made to avoid the most environmentally sensitive and valuable areas." But he also noted that developing cleaner energy sources was a priority.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a speech last year at a Yale University climate-change conference: "If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don't know where the hell we can put it."

In November, Schwarzenegger signed an executive order decreeing that a third of the state's electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. A major boost in solar and wind power is an essential component of the state's plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions under its landmark global warming law. About 12% now comes from renewable sources, excluding large hydropower plants.

His administration, however, has signaled that it will work with Feinstein to "craft legislation that jump-starts renewable energy development, provides for vital transmission infrastructure in the right places and protects the Mojave Preserve for all time," according to a statement from Karen Douglas, chairwoman of the California Energy Commission.

A number of companies pursuing solar or energy projects said they hoped to work with Feinstein to fashion legislation that would satisfy her, environmentalists and the industry.

"It's frustrating. We really do have competing national priorities here," said Paul Whitworth, whose San Diego-based LightSource Renewables hopes to put in a solar project on about 6,000 acres near Amboy. "We spent a lot of time researching the desert, and consulting with the BLM to make sure we didn't apply on top of an area of critical environmental concern, or area with other issues. . . . Now, there's uncertainty on whether these projects will go ahead."

"What we all know about Sen. Feinstein is that she's long been a champion for both environmental issues and renewable energy issues," said Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Large-scale Solar Assn. "I'm certainly hoping that there's some pathway that we can find here to meet the mutual goals we all have."

A representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who has fought congressional actions to close off areas to oil and gas drilling questioned where energy projects would be built, if not in the remote desert.

"If you're going to take the desert away from us, where are you going to allow it -- Los Angeles?," said Bill Kovacs, the chamber's vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs.

Feinstein is in a strong position to influence any decisions. She chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that writes the Interior Department's budget.

March 21, 2009

Feinstein seeks to block solar power from desert land

Associated Press

The Mother Road National Monument designed by the Wilderness Conservancy on behalf of Senator Dianne Feinstein will; 1) fill in the blanks missed by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, 2) block development of renewable energy sources in the East Mojave Desert, 3) force the Marine Corps to expand the base at Twentynine Palms to the west, and 4) thereby eliminate off-road recreation and residents from Johnson Valley.

WASHINGTON (AP) — California's Mojave Desert may seem ideally suited for solar energy production, but concern over what several proposed projects might do to the aesthetics of the region and its tortoise population is setting up a potential clash between conservationists and companies seeking to develop renewable energy.

Nineteen companies have submitted applications to build solar or wind facilities on a parcel of 500,000 desert acres, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Friday such development would violate the spirit of what conservationists had intended when they donated much of the land to the public.

Feinstein said Friday she intends to push legislation that would turn the land into a national monument, which would allow for existing uses to continue while preventing future development.

The Wildlands Conservancy orchestrated the government's purchase of the land between 1999-2004. It negotiated a discount sale from the real estate arm of the former Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroad and then contributed $40 million to help pay for the purchase. David Myers, the conservancy's executive director, said the solar projects would do great harm to the region's desert tortoise population.

"It would destroy the entire Mojave Desert ecosystem," said David Myers, executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy.

Feinstein said the lands in question were donated or purchased with the intent that they would be protected forever. But the Bureau of Land Management considers the land now open to all types of development, except mining. That policy led the state to consider large swaths of the land for future renewable energy production.

"This is unacceptable," Feinstein said in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "I urge you to direct the BLM to suspend any further consideration of leases to develop former railroad lands for renewable energy or for any other purpose."

"If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave desert, I don't know where the hell we can put it..." - Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
In a speech last year, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger complained about environmental concerns slowing down the approval of solar plants in California.

"If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave desert, I don't know where the hell we can put it," Schwarzenegger said at Yale University.

But Karen Douglas, chairman of the California Energy Commission, said Feinstein's proposal could be a "win-win" for energy and conservation. The governor's office said Douglas was speaking on the administration's behalf.

"The opportunity we see in the Feinstein bill is to jump-start our own efforts to find the best sites for development and to come up with a broader conservation plan that mitigates the impact of the development," Douglas said.

Douglas said that if the national monument lines were drawn without consideration of renewable energy then a conflict was likely, but it's early enough in the planning process that she's confident the state will be able to get more solar and wind projects up and running without hurting the environment.

"We think we can do both," Douglas said. "We think this is an opportunity to accelerate both."

Greg Miller of the Bureau of Land Management said there are 14 solar energy and five wind energy projects that have submitted applications seeking to develop on what's referred to as the former Catellus lands. None of the projects are close to being approved, he said.

The land lies in the southeast corner of California, between the existing Mojave National Preserve on the north and Joshua Tree National Park on the south.

"They all have to go through a rigorous environmental analysis now," Miller said. "It will be at best close to two years out before we get some of these grants approved."

Feinstein's spokesman, Gil Duran, said the senator looks forward to working with the governor and the Interior Department on the issue.

"There's plenty of room in America's deserts for the bold expansion of renewable energy projects," Duran said.

March 19, 2009

Lands bill displays Senate egoism over common sense

Senate defeats five Coburn amendments, accepts one

Press Release
Senator Tom Coburn M.D. (R-OK)

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK) released the following statement today after the Senate’s passage of the Public Lands Act.

“Parochialism and short-term political expediency have once again trumped common sense in the United States Senate. The public lands bill handicaps future generations with additional debt and new barriers to both renewable and traditional energy resources in our own country,” Dr. Coburn said.

“Today, we rejected transparency and the ability to know the size and cost of federal property so we can better manage our resources. We rejected transparency because we prefer darkness and a lack of accountability. We rejected eliminating earmarks because we want to look good back home even if we undermine our future. We rejected the ability to access energy both renewable and traditional. We rejected prioritizing the needs of our national parks, which are deteriorating in the face of at least a $10 billion maintenance backlog because we prefer new ribbon cutting ceremonies to the hard work of upkeep and oversight,” Dr. Coburn said.

“The American people also should be disappointed that in a time of economic turmoil the United States Senate has devoted seven weeks to a bill that could have been done in two weeks. Seventy of the bills in this package, which I supported, could have passed by voice vote. Had the majority agreed to a simple and open amendment process months ago we could have been focusing on more important issues. The fact that one-third of the Senate supported some of my amendments demonstrated that this bill was too complex and controversial to pass essentially in secret with no debate, no amendments and no recorded votes,” Dr. Coburn said.

Background on Coburn amendments:

  • The Senate voted 79 to 19 to table, or kill, Coburn Amendment 680, which would have barred new construction projects for national parks until all current sites are fully operational and pose no health or safety threat to the public. The National Park Service is currently facing a $10 billion maintenance backlog.

  • The Senate voted 65 to 33 to table, or kill, Coburn Amendment 679, which would have nullified the provisions within the lands bill prohibiting renewable energy development on public lands.

  • The Senate voted 63 to 35 to table, or kill, Coburn Amendment 675, which would have prohibited the use of eminent domain for any provision authorized in the bill.

  • The Senate voted 58 to 39 to table, or kill, Coburn amendment 677, which would have required annual report detailing total size and cost of federal property.

  • By voice vote, the Senate accepted Coburn amendment 682, that will protect park visitors and scientists from criminal penalties for taking stones that may contain insignificant fossils.

  • The Senate voted 70 to 27 to table, or kill, Coburn amendment 683, which would have eliminated frivolous waste in the bill, including federal funding for a birthday party for St. Augustine, Florida, botanical gardens in Hawaii and Florida, a salmon restoration project in California, a study of Alexander Hamilton’s boyhood estate in the Virgin Islands, and historic shipwreck exploration.

March 18, 2009

Feinstein Seeks to Preserve Former Catellus Lands

Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office
Press Release

Washington, DC - U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the author of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, today announced her intention to introduce new legislation to establish a national monument to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres in the Mojave Desert. The former Catellus lands were previously donated to or by purchased by the Department of the Interior for conservation.

"The former Catellus lands between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park were purchased by or donated to the federal government so they would be protected forever. I feel very strongly that the federal government must honor that commitment," Senator Feinstein said.

"That's why I am very concerned about wind and solar development proposals intended for these lands. I'm a strong supporter of renewable energy and clean technology -- but it is critical that these projects are built on suitable lands. The former Catellus lands shouldn't be eligible for development.

So, I intend to introduce new legislation to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of these former railroad lands through a national monument designation. This would provide lasting protection for these lands and prevent development, while allowing existing uses to continue. I also intend to work with local stakeholders to determine whether other local desert lands may be suitable for federal protection at this time.

These former Catellus land acquisitions were financed by $40 million in private donations from The Wildlands Conservancy, $18 million in Land and Water Conservation Fund appropriations and approximately $5 million in a price reduction from Catellus, a real estate subsidiary of the former Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroad. The private parties contributed this large sum of money in the belief that this land will be protected and conserved. Building huge solar facilities on these lands is untenable and unacceptable. Bottom line: the former Catellus lands must be protected from development."

Senator Feinstein recently expressed her concerns about development proposals intended for the former Catellus lands in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, which is available below.

Protecting the Former Catellus Lands

The national monument designation would ensure that hundreds of thousands of acres between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve are protected in perpetuity. Large-scale development would be prohibited within the monument in order to protect the biological and aesthetic integrity of the region and guarantee public access for hunting, hiking, camping and exploring scenic back roads.

The 600,000 acre Catellus agreement was one the largest nonprofit land acquisition donations to the United States in history. Most of the Catellus lands were acquired and donated to the federal government between 1999 and 2004. It included nearly 100,000 acres of land to the National Park Service, over 210,000 acres in 20 wilderness areas to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and hundreds of thousands of acres of important habitat for threatened and endangered species.

The BLM is currently reviewing 130 applications for solar and wind energy development in the California desert, covering more than 1 million acres of public land. Several of these applications are located in the eastern Mojave Desert on or near property previously owned by Catellus. The California Energy Commission has estimated that approximately 100,000 to 160,000 acres of desert lands would be needed for the state to meet its 33 percent renewable energy goal by 2020.

Senator Feinstein was the lead sponsor of the 1994 Desert Protection Act, which provided lasting federal protection for nearly 9 million acres of pristine desert land in Southern California. It established Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve. It remains the largest parks and wilderness bill to impact the lower 48 states.

Letter from Senator Feinstein to Secretary Salazar

March 3, 2009

Honorable Ken Salazar
Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20240

Dear Secretary Salazar:

As the author of the California Desert Protection Act, I am writing to express my strong opposition to the leasing of former railroad lands in the eastern Mojave Desert by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). I also want to make you aware that I am currently preparing legislation to ensure the permanent protection of these lands, which were donated to the federal government for conservation.

As you may know, hundreds of lease applications have been submitted to the BLM for the development of renewable energy projects in the California desert. While I strongly support renewable energy, it is critical that these projects move forward on public and private lands well suited for that purpose. Unfortunately, many of the sites now being considered for leases are completely inappropriate and will lead to the wholesale destruction of some of the most pristine areas in the desert.

Following the passage of the Desert Protection Act, I worked closely with the Department of the Interior, the Wildlands Conservancy and Catellus (the real estate arm of the Union Pacific Railroad) to develop a plan to conserve hundreds of thousands acres of privately held land that checker-boarded much of the eastern Mojave. As part of that agreement, Catellus reduced the selling price of its land, the Wildlands Conservancy contributed $40 million in private donations, and the federal government provided $18 million in Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars to acquire and donate approximately 600,000 acres to the Department of the Interior. As you can see in the attached map, these lands generally cover the area between the Mojave Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park.

The significance of the Wildlands Conservancy-Catellus agreement cannot be overstated. It represents the largest nonprofit land acquisition donated to the American people in United States history. This included the donation of nearly 100,000 acres of land to the National Park Service, over 210,000 acres in 20 BLM wilderness areas, and hundreds of thousands of acres of important habitat for threatened and endangered species. Beyond protecting national parks and wilderness from development, the conservation of these lands has helped to ensure the sustainability of the entire desert ecosystem by preserving the vital wildlife corridors.

Though the Wildlands Conservancy-Catellus agreement and the use of federal conservation funds demonstrated the clear intent of all parties to preserve these lands in perpetuity, I have been informed that the BLM now considers these areas open for all types of use except mining. This is unacceptable! This policy has also led the State of California to include large swaths of former Catellus lands as potential renewable energy zones as a part of its Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative draft proposal. It is important the Department of the Interior act as soon as possible to rectify the situation before more time, effort and money is wasted by government agencies and private industry pursuing projects on these lands that will never come to fruition.

I urge you to direct the BLM to suspend any further consideration of leases to develop these former railroad lands for renewable energy or for any other purposes. Furthermore, I would welcome the opportunity to work with the Department of the Interior on legislation to protect these areas and encourage energy development on more suitable lands within the California desert.

Thank you for your time and consideration of my request. I look forward to working with you on these issues.


Dianne Feinstein
United States Senator

Senate poised to move quickly on Omnibus

Procedural maneuver designed to nullify House vote

By Noelle Straub and Eric Bontrager
Environment & Energy Daily

The Senate today will vote on six amendments to the public lands, water and natural resources omnibus bill and may vote on the final version as soon as tonight.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) yesterday reached an agreement to allow Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) votes on the amendments in return for dropping his objections to the bill. The deal allows for 60 minutes of debate on each of Coburn's amendments and requires 60 votes for final passage. The Senate first passed the omnibus bill in January, 74-21, and a cloture vote Monday was approved, 73-21.

During floor debate yesterday, Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) described Coburn's amendments as largely minor, noncontroversial measures intended as assurances against unintended consequences of the omnibus. He encouraged Republicans to vote for them, saying they "simply improve the bill."

"Why would we want to preserve the right to use eminent domain if we don't have any intention to use it?" - Jon Kyl (R-AZ)

He noted one of the Coburn amendments would prohibit the use of eminent domain to acquire any of the millions of acres that would be protected under the omnibus. Supporters of the package have repeatedly refuted Coburn's claims that eminent domain would be used for any of the lands in the omnibus. "If it is true ... that none of this land needs to be acquired by eminent domain, there is no harm in including the language" of the amendment, Kyl said. "Why would we want to preserve the right to use eminent domain if we don't have any intention to use it?"

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), who has a measure in the omnibus that would designate more than 517,000 acres as wilderness in the Owyhee-Bruneau Canyonlands of southwestern Idaho, said he understood the concerns of Coburn and some other members have but does not share their fears that the package represent "a haphazard attempt to extend the reach of the federal government."

"This is a well thought through management approach," Crapo said. "I don't believe there is a single piece of legislation in this bill that does not have the support of the senator of the state those lands are in."

Crapo said he hopes the Senate will move "expeditiously" on the amendments so that it can pass the omnibus and send it over the House.

Two of Coburn's amendments would strike all provisions that could restrict renewable energy development on public lands and sections that Coburn deems frivolous, such as the $3.5 million to celebrate the 450th Anniversary of St. Augustine, Fla., in 2015. Noting the National Park Service's $9 billion maintenance backlog, one amendment would bar new construction until all current park sites are certified as fully operational, ensuring full access by the public, and posing no health or safety threat.

Other amendments would require an annual report detailing the total size and cost of federal property, prohibit the use of eminent domain for any provision authorized in the bill, and clarify the bill to protect park visitors and scientists from criminal penalties for taking stones that may contain fossils.

Last week, the House fell two votes shy of passing the bill under suspension of the rules, a maneuver that shields legislation from amendment or a motion to recommit but requires a two-thirds majority for passage. Senate leaders then devised a strategy to use a bill that had already passed the House -- H.R. 146, a proposal to protect Revolutionary War battlefields -- and strip its contents, replacing it with the omnibus lands bill. Because H.R. 146 has already passed the House, the House Rules Committee can approve a closed rule that would block a motion to recommit, eliminating the GOP's best procedural chance to stymie the bill.

House Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) yesterday said he had not seen Coburn's amendments but doubted that any would jeopardize the omnibus's final passage in the House. He noted that because the House already passed H.R. 146, all it would need is a simple majority vote to concur with the Senate amendment.

Even if the Senate passes the omnibus this week, Rahall said the House would likely not take it up until next week.

Because the omnibus may only require a simple majority, Natural Resources Committee ranking member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) admitted that the bill is all but assured to pass. While pleased that the Reid-Coburn agreement will allow some amendments on the Senate side, he reiterated that House Republicans have never had the same opportunity.

The omnibus would designate more than 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states and would establish three new national park units, a new national monument, three new national conservation areas, more than 1,000 miles of national wild and scenic rivers and four new national trails. It would enlarge the boundaries of more than a dozen existing national park units and establish 10 new national heritage areas.

It would also authorize numerous land exchanges and conveyances to help local Western communities address water resource and supply issues and includes provisions to improve land management.

The revised omnibus bill will also include language from Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) meant to ensure that the omnibus would not close off lands that are already open to hunting and fishing.

March 15, 2009

Needles boy passes away

Tom More, 11/9/1919 - 3/4/2009

Orange County Register

With wonderful memories and saddened hearts we say goodbye to Tom More, aka the "Pigeon Boy". He faithfully released a flock of pigeons during kickoff at Fremont High School every football season; also famous for his "T. More was here" everywhere.

He was 89.

Born in Needles, Ca., raised in Los Angeles only to return to Needles to become a Conductor on the Santa Fe Railroad. He delighted the passengers with folklore of the Indians, desert flowers, turtles, landmarks and the "Harvey Girls".

Blessed husband of Corinne; father of John (deceased) and Chris and daughters-in-law, Anne and Lynn; grandfather of five; great-grandfather of four; uncle to two nieces and three nephews; one sister, Mabel More Schargitz.

He will be greatly missed. A picnic will be held March 28, starting at 1:00 p.m. at Catfish Paradise Park, AZ. Corinne Moore 1-760-326-5005.

March 14, 2009

Group sees 'violation of trust'

WILDLANDS CONSERVANCY: It brokered a BLM deal to protect the desert acres that are now being opened to development.

David Myers, executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy, says he thought the Mojave Desert’s open spaces would be preserved after the conservancy brokered a deal to sell thousands of acres to the Bureau of Land Management. Proposed renewable energy projects will ruin the view from mountains such as Sheephole, Old Woman and Turtle, Myers says. 2004/The Press-Enterprise

The Press-Enterprise

A land conservancy from Oak Glen spent years amassing $45 million in private donations and negotiating the purchase of more than a half-million unspoiled acres in the California desert so it could be turned over to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for protection.

Now, the BLM is considering applications for wind turbines and solar-energy arrays on thousands of those acres.

The proposals on the donated Mojave Desert parcels have riled residents, visitors and members of The Wildlands Conservancy, which orchestrated the land deals involving a broad scattering of parcels in eastern San Bernardino County.

"It's a violation of trust, not only for Wildlands, but for the public. That's part of how we got so much diverse support, including hunters and off-roaders, because this was about public access and enjoying the Mojave Desert," said April Sall, manager of the conservancy's Pioneertown Mountain Preserve near Joshua Tree.

Steve Borchard, the BLM's district manager, said his agency did not commit to preserving land donated by The Wildlands Conservancy.

The BLM has to balance multiple missions on public land, including energy, oil, gas and coal development, livestock grazing, habitat management, and recreational opportunities, he said.

"That is land that belongs to the American people that has been designated by Congress for multiple use by the American people," including renewable energy generation, Borchard said.

Renewable energy now provides about 12 percent of the state's energy needs.

By 2020, state law requires that investor-owned utilities get 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy, a move to reduce dependence on foreign oil and ease climate change caused in part by traditional coal-fired plants.

The BLM is considering 162 applications for large-scale solar and wind projects on more than a million acres in its California Desert District.

When the conservancy-government land deal concluded in 2004, no one saw the renewable energy rush coming, Borchard said.

The land transfer was the largest of its kind in state history.

It involved 160-acre parcels laid out like a checkerboard along either side of the railroad tracks from Barstow to the Colorado River, the result of a grant from the government in the 1800s to spur development.

If the land had been sold to private parties, access to hundreds of miles of roads and public lands could have been restricted.

Conflicting Uses

The conservancy's purchase from Catellus Development Corp., a spinoff of the Santa Fe Railway, tapped $18 million from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, intended to preserve and develop access to outdoor recreation facilities, a congressional report says.

Now conservancy leaders are lobbying for a Mother Road National Monument south of the Mojave National Preserve to protect the lands from development, a 10- year-old idea that became more urgent with the "feeding frenzy" of energy applications, Sall said.

After The Wildlands Conservancy donated the land to the government for public use, the BLM dubbed the parcels "some of the most pristine and scenic areas in the California desert," valuable for their sand dunes, cinder cones and habitat for the endangered desert tortoise and bighorn sheep.

The land is also "some of the most valuable for solar development on earth," Borchard said recently.

The BLM already has pre-empted from energy development more than 8 million acres of wilderness and critical habitat, he said.

A 40-mile stretch of Route 66 near Amboy also has been deemed too historically valuable to build on, he said.

Borchard said wind and solar projects under consideration cover only 19,546 acres, or 8 percent, of the donated Catellus land.

More than half the projects probably will never be built, he said.

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who was instrumental in the Catellus land deal, vowed this week to ensure that the federal government honors its commitment to protect the property.

Conservationists said they don't oppose renewable energy, but they prefer rooftop solar units, or larger projects on land that already has been disturbed, such as abandoned farms.

They say transmission lines needed to carry the energy through the desert should be along existing corridors, such as Interstate 10.

Gary Thomas, of Upland, a board member of the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep, said he fears the effects of widespread desert development on the habitat of the 3,000 or so bighorn sheep in the greater Mojave.

His group builds and maintains watering holes for large game in the desert.

Habitat corridors linking open space are needed to preserve the genetic viability of sheep populations; without such diversity, the populations could die off in 60 years, Thomas said.

"Those (energy) farms are nothing more than an open pit mine without a pit," he said. "They are going to go in and clean everything out to bare dirt, then they fence them and everything that was living in that place will be gone."

The BLM's Borchard said conservationists are overstating the habitat-corridor issue. Bighorn sheep travel miles, not tens of miles, he said, and applying the issue of connectivity on such a large scale is "bunk."

David Myers, executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy, has vowed to maintain the Mojave's wide open spaces, a job he thought had been taken care of with the Catellus deal.

The renewable energy projects will ruin the view from mountains such as Sheephole, Old Woman and Turtle.

"You would climb a peak in an island in the sand to have this vista, and the higher you climb, the more industry you would see," he said.

Land In Question

592,847 acres of former railroad land donated to the government

19,446 acres of those proposed for wind and solar-energy development

March 13, 2009

Alliance proposes establishing Route 66 national monument

The Press-Enterprise

Preservationists worried about military expansion and renewable energy development in the California desert are pitching a plan to create a vast national monument east of Twentynine Palms and protect 70 miles of historic Route 66.

The groups have been meeting with government leaders in recent weeks to enlist support for their far-reaching plan, which would:

Designate "Mother Road National Monument," which could be twice as big as Joshua Tree National Park.

Preserve an off-road vehicle area southeast of Barstow that has been threatened by expansion of a military training base.

Protect more than a half-million acres of scattered desert land donated to the federal government as open space but now subject to energy development.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., signaled this week through an aide that she will craft legislation to protect the donated property.

Large-scale solar and wind energy projects are proposed on thousands of those acres.

The monument would encompass as much as 2.4 million acres in southeastern San Bernardino County, said Elden Hughes, a member of the Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee.

The region is defined by desert valleys, stark mountain ranges and forgotten towns along the old Route 66, a major east-west route until interstates replaced it.

The Wildlands Conservancy, based in Oak Glen, raised about $45 million to buy Mojave Desert land from the Catellus Development Corp., a former arm of the Santa Fe Railway.

By donating land and cash, the group helped the federal government acquire nearly 600,000 acres to add to public land in the desert.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management controls most of it.

Feinstein has not endorsed the Mother Road National Monument concept and other specific provisions sought by The Wildlands Conservancy, Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee and Route 66 preservationists, said Feinstein spokeswoman Laura Wilkinson.

However, the senator plans to ensure the former Catellus land is protected, Wilkinson said.

"Senator Feinstein expects to introduce new legislation to protect additional desert lands in California, which would include a monument designation for the former Catellus lands," Wilkinson said in an e-mail.

Feinstein's office is evaluating what other desert lands may be suitable for protection, Wilkinson wrote.

David Myers, executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy, said he is encouraged by Feinstein's interest.

"This legislation could keep the Mojave Desert, the largest desert in California, intact for perpetuity," he said.

The monument idea drew a cautious response from the county supervisor who represents the area.

Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt said he is worried about haphazard energy development and supports Route 66 preservation efforts.

"The idea of protecting Route 66 tourism and history is something I totally support," Mitzelfelt said. "Whether this is the way to do it, I am not sure."

History And Nature

The Mother Road National Monument would be named after John Steinbeck's description of Route 66 in his 1939 novel, "The Grapes of Wrath," which portrayed 1930s Dust Bowl refugees entering California to seek farm labor jobs.

The monument would contain about 70 miles of the route from Needles through the desert outposts of Goffs, Essex, Amboy and Ludlow.

It would be a tribute to American workers, Myers said.

Jim Conkle, chairman of the Route 66 Alliance, said the monument could become a destination for tourists wanting to experience Route 66's heyday -- the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

Crumbling buildings that housed midcentury gas stations, diners and motels could be renovated for those seeking retro kicks, he said.

Such an opportunity has been lost on other stretches of the route, where original roadside amenities have been torn down.

"We are trying to protect what's left," said Conkle, a retired AAA employee who lives in Phelan, west of the Cajon Pass. "We want people to get out and enjoy it."

The monument, however, would preserve much more than motoring history.

It also would take in a vast area between Twentynine Palms and the Colorado River, and the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park.

The designation would bring protection to patches of open desert surrounding 10 wilderness areas, created in the Desert Protection Act of 1994, said Hughes, of the Sierra Club. It would allow wildlife free movement.

Diverse Interests

The monument designation could block development in about a dozen areas where the BLM is processing applications for wind or solar projects at a time when the Obama administration and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are pushing for such projects to cut greenhouse gases and create jobs.

A new monument also could limit options for proposed expansion of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.

The coalition of environmentalists and history buffs have been working hard to overcome such obstacles through negotiation

"Right now we are going through vetting with user groups," Myers said. "There are a lot of moving pieces."

The proposal the groups are working on would preserve all existing uses on the affected federal lands and leave room for military expansion and solar and wind projects, he said.

Conkle said a key provision would keep the 189,000- acre Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area permanently open to off-roaders.

Hundreds of off-roaders crammed public meetings last fall after the Marine Corps announced an expansion plan that could take in Johnson Valley.

Hughes said the monument proposal would include military expansion into the Bristol Dry Lake area.

San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has plans for an 800-megawatt solar generation plant on 5,120 acres along Route 66 east of Amboy, a development Conkle said would spoil the view for motorists.

A monument designation could force the company to build elsewhere, he said.

Jonathan Marshall, a utility spokesman, said in an e-mail that alternative-energy projects "can be responsibly sited and developed in a manner that does not interfere with these conservation efforts."

Jim Conkle, chairman of the Route 66 Alliance, holds photos of the Mojave Desert near Amboy. The left photo shows the desert as it is, the right one as it would look if a proposed array of solar panels is built. The alliance is one of several history and environmental groups seeking to preserve the desert along historic Route 66 by establishing Mother Road National Monument, comprising about 2.4 million acres of the Mojave Desert. Stan Lim/The Press-Enterprise

March 12, 2009

Protector of the desert's wilderness

"What a beautiful day," environmentalist Elden Hughes, 77, says at the Sheephole Pass east of Twentynine Palms. Rodrigo Peña / The Press-Enterprise

The Press-Enterprise

Desert protector and environmentalist Elden Hughes stood at the top of the remote Sheephole Pass east of Twentynine Palms and gestured toward a legacy that stretched as far as the eye could see.

Beyond a vast valley and bright-white Bristol Dry Lake, the jagged horizon was defined by the successive peaks of the Marble, Clipper and Providence mountains -- ranges preserved in the federal California Desert Protection Act of 1994.

Hughes, 77, a Sierra Club stalwart, fought for years to protect this land. The place still awes him.

"It's just glorious," he said. "You can see the bare bones of the earth sticking through, and it is huge."

It's a fascination that dates to his childhood in the late 1930s, when his mother, Ruby, took him camping in Palm Canyon near Palm Springs and to Death Valley.

Hughes now lives in Joshua Tree, but he grew up on a cattle ranch in Whittier and recalls a youth that included daylong horseback rides between his home and Huntington Beach. The route took him and his horse, Prince, through bean fields and pastures. He later watched urban sprawl slowly consume the hills and fields.

Wilderness offered solace. In the late 1940s, he drove on dirt roads to visit what is now Joshua Tree National Park. In his younger days, he was an avid river rafter, caver and camper.

In the 1970s, he was motivated toward activism after flying over the Mojave Desert and noticing large circular scars where vehicles had damaged the land.

"I thought, 'That has to stop,' " he said.

By the 1980s, as he pursued a career as a computer systems designer and salesman, he was chairman of Sierra Club's California/Nevada Desert Committee and working hard to preserve pristine public land between the Sierra Nevada range and Mexico. He and his cohorts identified 116 desert areas they wanted to protect.

In 1987, he and his wife, Patty, embarked on a two-year campaign to photograph, or have someone photograph, each of the areas. The effort produced a series of photo albums presented to decision-makers in Congress.

Republicans, concerned about creating new limits on grazing, mining and off-road recreation, opposed the preservation effort. Still, after years of hearings and debate, the California Desert Protection Act squeaked through Congress in the fall of 1994.

With the victory, Hughes wiped the sweat off his brow. He and his wife took five baby desert tortoises to the Oval Office when President Bill Clinton signed the bill that protects more than 6 million areas of California desert and created Mojave National Preserve and several wilderness areas in eastern San Bernardino County.

Of the 116 places documented in their photo books, about 10 weren't included in the legislation.

"We got most of it," he said.

Last week, as Hughes scanned the desert from Sheephole Pass, the thunder of artillery fire from the nearby Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Training Center reminded him of a current concern: The military proposes to expand the center, possibly bringing live-ammunition training to land between the Sheephole Valley and Old Woman wilderness areas, both created in the 1994 legislation.

"Does the military really need to expand out there? Hell, no," he said. "Would they like to expand? Sure."

Instead of military training, Hughes said, he hopes to see most of the public land east of the combat center protected so wildlife would be forever free to move among the wilderness areas.

Appreciating the desert takes a certain mindset, Hughes said.

"You must get past the color green," said Hughes, quoting the late writer Wallace Stegner. "And you must get used to an inhuman scale."

Historical Society of Palm Desert honors area artist

Works by three desert landscape painters, all over the age of 90, Carl Bray, Bill Bender and Sally Ward are featured in the show that runs through March 14.

Artist Carl Bray, 91, of Banning, autographs Lee Ulmer's photo of one of Bray's paintings she has at her Palm Desert home, as Vyrla Neal, of Coachella, looks on during a gallery show at the Palm Desert Historical Society.(Richard Lui, Palm Desert Sun)

Jamie Lee Pricer
The Desert Sun

On March 6, the Historical Society of Palm Desert honored a trio of venerable desert artists, including Carl Bray, whose Indian Wells home and studio on Highway 111 has been a valley landmark for more than 50 years.

His canvas of choice is a slab of masonite, perhaps because it is a sturdy medium when you paint in railroad yards or out in the desert.

His most popular subject is the wispy smoke tree that grows in washes.

His painting — influenced by days spent near the Salton Sea with iconic desert artists such as John Hilton, Maynard Dixon, Bill Bender and Clyde Forsythe — ranks him as a prized California artist.

His Indian Wells gallery was a Coachella Valley landmark for nearly 50 years.

Carl Bray was born in 1917 in Prague, Okla. He studied art during the Great Depression at Miami College in the Dust Bowl state, while working on farms to pay his tuition.

He moved west to find work in 1936 and landed a job with the railroad in Southern California, where he worked for more than 40 years.

He married his wife, Luella, in 1939. The young couple moved 20 miles east of Niland, little more than a lonely railroad siding. Despite the lack of creature comforts, including air conditioning, the Brays learned to love the desert, and it was here that a shy Bray met the other iconic artists.

The railroad job took Bray and his wife to the Los Angeles area during WWII, where they bought property in rural El Monte, built a house and started their family of four children.

The desert beckoned, though. In the early 1950s, Bray bought a Highway 111 frontage lot in Indian Wells for $1,000. Working weekends and vacations, he built a house and gallery, and the family moved to the desert in 1953. Their backyard, now a golf course, was once the site of one the largest Cahuilla villages in the valley, Kavinish.

At the time there was little development in Indian Wells. The Brays' neighbors included a few cabins, a dance hall, two small groceries, two gas stations, a dance hall and a café. By the early 1960s, those businesses had been demolished, and the Bray gallery remained a signal outpost for miles in either direction on Highway 111.

Bray's art was popular, and people, including a steady fan base of celebrities, stopped by the gallery regularly.

Bray continued working for the railroad while his wife ran the gallery. In the early 1960s, the Brays started to spend summers in Taos, where he had a gallery on the plaza for several years.

Bray retired from the railroad and continued to paint. He figures he's painted more than 6,500 smoke trees. Through the years, he has won dozens of art awards, demonstrated art on TV and has one-man shows throughout the nation and overseas. His paintings are owned by celebrities and held by the city of Indian Wells in its permanent collection.

The couple sold their Indian Wells property in about 2000 and moved to Banning.

Luella died a year ago, and the new owners of the Bray property lost it recently to foreclosure. It's now owned by Indian Wells, and the fate of the city's oldest building is not clear.

Ann Japenga contributed to this story.

Wilderness preservation bill narrowly defeated

Washington Post
March 12, 2009

Washington -- A bill to designate 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness was narrowly defeated in the House on Wednesday when it failed to garner the necessary two-thirds vote.

The measure -- which has passed the Senate -- received 282 yes and 144 no votes, leaving it two votes short. It came to a vote under special rules requiring the super-majority.

Conservation groups and many lawmakers said the package, which combined more than 170 separate bills, would preserve some of the nation's remaining pristine landscapes, but several Republicans argued that it would cost too much and would stand in the way of energy development.

Despite the defeat, Mike Matz, executive director of the advocacy group Campaign for America's Wilderness, said the proposal had significant support and would move forward. "It's a question of timing; that's the big issue," Matz said.

The bipartisan bill would apply to areas including Oregon's Mt. Hood and part of Virginia's Jefferson National Forest. Other affected states are California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Utah and West Virginia.

March 11, 2009

Artists sue Nevada farmer over Burning Man ship

La Contessa in better times.

Associated Press

RENO, Nev.—Two San Francisco artists are seeking nearly $1 million from a Nevada farmer for torching what was once an elaborate replica of a Spanish galleon that sailed the sandy seas of the Black Rock Desert during the annual Burning Man Festival.

The 40-foot replica of the 16th century vessel was owned by artist Simon Cheffins and mechanical engineer Gregory Jones.

Their suit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Reno seeks damages from Michael Stewart, owner of Empire and Orient farms in Gerlach, under The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990.

But like any art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And after sitting abandoned for two years in the harsh Nevada desert, the once iconic ship was more a rusty eyesore than a crowned jewel, Stewart's lawyer Keegan Low said Wednesday.

Stewart considered the ship, which was built on the body of a school bus, to be "junk" and torched it when he acquired the private property where it was stored, court documents show.

Paul Quade, the artists' Reno attorney, said the federal laws "does clearly protect the artists' work from any type of mutilation or destruction," regardless of whether it's on private property.

The suit alleges Stewart made no attempt to contact the owners about its removal.

"There is a responsibility on behalf of a landowner that has a peace of art to ... contact the artists and address the issue as far as removal is concerned and what steps are going to be taken," Quade said.

Being on private property, he said, doesn't entitled a landowner "to burn a peace of artwork because they don't appreciate that art."

"It's not everyone's cup of tea. We acknowledge that," Quade said. "But for someone to be so callous to call it a peace of junk ..."

Stewart, through his attorney, said after it was parked in the fall of 2004 with a broken axle, no one ever came to check on it.

"It sat for two years unattended and abandoned," Low said. "Nobody claimed it, nobody visited it."

Quade said that wasn't true. He said the artists retrieved the ship and exhibited it at Burning Man in 2005.

"The artists checked on it every couple months to make sure it was being properly maintained and taken care of," he said, adding that the last time they visited it was "within a couple of months" of when it was destroyed in December 2006.

La Contessa under fire.

The ship, a popular "artcar" at the annual counterculture gathering, was banned from the festival after 2004 because of safety concerns. The driver of the bus, with limited visibility, maneuvered the massive vessel by radio directions from someone on the deck.

"La Contessa was a work of a recognized stature, widely acknowledged for its artistic merit and internationally know for its unique character," the suit said.

About 100 people toiled on the project that involved thousands of hours and donated funds and grant money, Quade said.

It's bow was adorned by a woman's figure crafted by San Francisco sculpture Monica Maduro and it's inside was described as opulent, with gilded frames and velvet trim. The figurehead was later stolen from the vessel and has never surfaced, Quade said.

The artists parked it on a nearby ranch with permission from owner Joan Grant.

Stewart, a critic of Burning Man, bought the property from Grant in 2004 but allowed her to live there until she died or decided to move. Grant moved in 2005 after her mobile home burned down in a grease fire, documents said.

Stewart acknowledged reducing La Contessa to scrap metal by setting it on fire Dec. 5, 2006.

"On my property next to where Mrs. Grant's burned trailer and partially burned shed was located was an abandoned non-operating school bus built to look like a ship," Stewart wrote in statement as part of a sheriff's investigation into the fire.

"It was more junk to me."

No criminal charges were filed in the case.

Public Lands Bill Defeated in House

By Kate Phillips
New York Times

For now, the mega-public lands bill that would have greatly expanded public wilderness areas, parks and miles and miles of public trails, is stalled. House Republicans managed to maintain enough opposition to the omnibus measure to defeat it earlier today in a vote requiring two-thirds of the House members, by 282-144.

House Democratic leaders had brought the bill to the floor under suspension of the rules, as a way to keep the opposition from altering the legislation through amendments. But getting two-thirds remained dicey. Democrats tried to persuade Republicans (and conservative Democrats) that the bills were gun-friendly by the insertion of an amendment that would have prohibited any effort to close lands in the omnibus to hunting and fishing, but many Republicans still believed the legislation did not include enough gun rights protections.

Three Democrats voted no; 34 Republicans voted with Democrats; and six did not vote. It fell two votes short of passage.

Beyond guns, the House Republican leadership had complained all along that the total size of the bill was extraordinary, and would cost billions of dollars. It also opposed the legislation on the grounds that many pieces of the omnibus, totaling more than 150 bills that would have created new national parks, expanded the boundaries of existing ones, created monuments or “heritage areas” and nationalized trails, had never been thoroughly examined in the House.

The Senate had already passed the bill, S. 22, after Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, scheduled votes on a Sunday in early January for consideration of the omnibus bill.

Republicans also objected to the Democrats’ decision to pursue the vote through a suspension of the rules, contending that the procedure should be used mainly for renaming post offices or ceremonial items as opposed to something as massive as this bill. In addition, private land rights came into play as well as concerns that closing off so much land would affect energy resources.

Representative John Boehner, the minority leader in the House, said today: “The legislation Democrats attempted to force through the House today would have made matters even worse by blocking environmentally safe energy production, increasing gasoline and other energy costs, and costing American jobs we cannot afford to lose.”

A senior Democratic aide in the House said the best option under consideration would be to have the Senate shoehorn it onto another bill and ship it back. House Democratic leaders have not definitively ruled out a floor vote using a simpler rule, needing only a majority for passage, but that move would leave the measure wide open for amendments.

As for the ever-present gun lobby, an amendment by Democrat Jason Altmire, Democrat of Pennsylvania, was meant to assuage those concerned about hunting and fishing rights. And Democrats’ pointed to the N.R.A.’s satisfaction with that amendment. But Gun Owners of America sent out a letter this week objecting to the overall omnibus on many grounds, and urged House members to vote against it.