May 31, 2009

Inland desert power line projects unearthing possible murder mysteries

The Press-Enterprise

As energy officials begin surveying Southern California's deserts to prepare for solar power development, they are making some unexpected discoveries: human remains.

The bones of at least two people were found last month by biologists conducting wildlife surveys required for solar projects in the Mojave Desert, a sparsely populated region that covers thousands of square miles. The survey crews found one set of bones near Baker and another on the extreme edge of California near the border town of Primm, Nev.

Both finds are being investigated. The identities and causes of death have not been determined.

At least one of the biologists, far from being creeped out, said finding human remains is "interesting."

Alice Karl was surveying land May 18 just outside of Primm and west of Interstate 15 when a member of her crew came across the skull and other scattered bones, along with some clothing.

Karl, whose home base is Davis, was working for Southern California Edison, which intends to improve power lines to transmit electricity from solar plants planned in the area.

She said finding human bones isn't much different than finding the skeleton of a large animal.

"No, it is not creepy. ... We are biologists," Karl said. "It is a little unusual."

Not all that unusual, though.

Karl said she has found four sets of remains in her 31-year career. She figures at least one, discovered about eight years ago near Desert Center in Riverside County, had been murdered: The skull had a bullet-sized hole in it.

In the Primm case, Karl said the crew identified the bones' location and called authorities.

Four days earlier, another wildlife survey crew came across a human skeleton near Interstate 15, about 10 miles east of Baker.

On April 2, college geology students doing field work near Interstate 10 about 20 miles east of Desert Center found a human jawbone, triggering an investigation into a possible homicide, Riverside County sheriff's Sgt. Dean Spivacke said.


So far, not much is known about the remains found in May, other than both were men, said David Van Norman, a deputy coroner investigator for the coroner's division of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

It takes a state laboratory more than four months to analyze DNA from skeletal remains and seek matches with DNA records kept in a national database, Van Norman said. In California, state law requires close relatives of people missing more than 30 days to submit DNA samples for the database.

A skeleton found last year in an off-roading area south of Barstow was identified this week through DNA analysis as a missing San Diego County man. Officials are now working to track down his next-of-kin, Van Norman said.

Law enforcement officials said they expect more remains to turn up as energy companies prepare to build solar plants in the desert.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is processing 78 applications to put solar plants on more than 1,000 square miles of public land between Ridgecrest and El Centro. Each would require surveys to determine what sensitive plants and animals are in the project's path.

Having so many people on the ground finding remains will help solve murder and missing person cases, Van Norman said.

The sooner a body is found, the more evidence can be gathered from bones, such as DNA samples, clothing and personal effects, he said.

"I am just delighted by this," Van Norman said. "These remains are people who otherwise would not be found."

Wildlife biologists offer more than just additional sets of eyes scanning remote places.

They are trained scientists who can tell the difference between animal and human bones, Karl said. They walk specified grids. And they carry global positioning devices that can pinpoint the locations of what they find.

Karl said she's happy to help authorities.

"We could close a few cases," she said.

May 29, 2009

A solar plant that's worth its salt

The mineral is a key part of a Santa Monica firm's proposed alternative energy project in the desert. The technology was proved workable in a pilot project near Barstow in the 1990s.

Solar Two, a pilot project near Barstow, proved more than a decade ago that power can be produced by using molten salt. A Santa Monica energy firm is planning to build a larger version at an undisclosed desert site by 2013. The plant would generate enough electricity for 100,000 homes. U.S. Department of Energy Sandia Laboratories

By Peter Pae
Los Angeles Times

Just past Barstow on Interstate 15, Las Vegas-bound travelers can eye a tower resembling a lighthouse rising out of the desert encircled by more than 1,800 mirrors the size of billboards.

The complex is often mistaken for a science fiction movie set, but it is actually a power plant that once used molten salt, water and the sun's heat to produce electricity.

Now a storied rocket maker in Canoga Park and a renewable energy company in Santa Monica are hoping to take what they learned at the long-closed desert facility to build a much larger plant that could power 100,000 homes -- all from a mix of sun, salt and rocket science once believed too futuristic to succeed.

The Santa Monica-based energy firm SolarReserve has licensed the technology, developed by engineers at Rocketdyne.

"Molten salt is the secret sauce," said SolarReserve President Terry Murphy.

It is one of at least 80 large solar projects on the drawing board in California, but the molten salt technology is considered one of the more unusual and -- to some energy analysts -- one of the more promising in the latest rush to build clean electricity generation.

"It's actually something we'll likely see in a few years," said Nathaniel Bullard, a solar energy analyst with New Energy Finance in Alexandria, Va. "It's moving along in a nice way, and they have good capital behind it."

SolarReserve, which is financing and marketing the project, said it is working on agreements with several utilities to buy electricity generated from the plant. It hopes to have several announcements in a few months that could help jump-start construction of the first plant, which would probably be on private land in the Southwest, Murphy said.

The company last fall secured $140 million in venture capital.

The plant could begin operating by early 2013. It would use an array of 15,000 heliostats, or large tilting mirrors about 25 feet wide, to direct sunlight to a solar collector atop a 600-foot-tall tower -- somewhat like a lighthouse in reverse.

The mirrors would heat up molten salt flowing through the receiver to more than 1,000 degrees, hot enough to turn water into powerful steam in a device called a heat exchanger. The steam, like that coming out of a nozzle of a boiling tea kettle, would drive a turbine to create electricity.

The molten salt, once cooled, would then be pumped back through the solar collector to start the process all over again. "The plant has no emissions, and if you have a leak or something, you can just shovel it up and take it home with you to use for your barbecue," Murphy said.

The molten salt can be stored for days if not weeks and then used to generate electricity at any time. Many other solar technologies work only when the sun is shining. Storing electricity in a battery works for cars and homes but not on a massive scale that would be needed to power thousands of homes.

"You can put that into a storage tank that would look much like a tank at an oil refinery," Murphy said. "We can store that energy almost indefinitely."

While there are high hopes for the technology, some environmentalists have criticized solar-thermal plants for requiring vast tracts of land as well as precious water for generating steam and for cooling the turbines.

The array of the mirrored heliostats for the SolarReserve plant would take up about two square miles. Transmission lines would also be needed to transport the power where it's needed. With dozens of solar, wind and geothermal projects planned for California's deserts, some fear that this unique habitat will be destroyed.

But SolarReserve officials said that the plant would use one-tenth the amount of water required by a conventional plant and that mirrors will be "benign" to the environment.

The technology, with the exception of using salt, is similar to those that Rocketdyne engineers developed for the nation's more notable space programs.

At the sprawling Canoga Park facility, the engineers who came up with the SolarReserve technology also developed the power system for the International Space Station, the rocket engine for the space shuttle, and the propulsion system for the Apollo lunar module.

Rocketdyne's aerospace heritage stretches back to the earliest years of rocket development, when it was founded shortly after World War II to study German V-2 rocket technology. After becoming part of Rockwell International in the late 1960s, the company was sold to Boeing Co. in 1996.

United Technologies bought the Rocketdyne unit from Boeing for $700 million in 2005 primarily for its expertise in rocket engines. It didn't know about the solar project until after the acquisition.

Now Rocketdyne believes it can generate $1 billion in revenue from making the components for the plant, including the tower that would collect the sun's concentrated heat from thousands of mirrors.

The solar collector in many ways is similar to the inside of a rocket nozzle that has to withstand thousands of degrees of heat, said Rick Howerton, Rocketdyne's program manager for concentrated solar power who previously worked on the space station program.

The solar-thermal technology was proved workable more than a decade ago at the Barstow pilot plant. But the complex was shuttered in 1999 when the cost of natural gas fell to one-tenth of what it is today.

Also there wasn't as much concern for the environment then, Murphy said. "It was ahead of its time. The market hadn't caught up to it."

Suicide Victim Found Near Ibex Dunes

Ibex Dunes.

National Park News

On Saturday, May 23rd, BLM ranger Dave Brenner found an unattended car on Giant Mine Road just outside the park’s boundary near the Ibex Dunes area in the southeast corner of the park.

A check with dispatch showed that the car belonged to a missing person who was deemed at risk and reportedly armed with a handgun. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that the man, 52-year-old David Penn of Lancaster, California, had been missing since April 30th.

Brenner subsequently found Penn’s remains on a rock pile. There was a loaded Sig Sauer P229 40 caliber handgun near the body and only one set of tracks leading to that location, which matched the footwear found on the body.

The Inyo County coroner later determined that Penn had died of a single gunshot wound to the chest. GPS coordinates later showed that the body was approximately 150 feet inside the park boundary.

Penn was reportedly despondent over a recent separation and pending divorce. Next of kin notifications were made by the Inyo County Coroner’s Office. The Inyo County Sheriff’s Department is leading the investigation.

May 28, 2009

ECV dedicates Desert Training Center monument

Clamper officials pose with pride, after their latest historical monument installation.

D. Westermeyer, BLM
NewsBytes Issue 374

On May 1-3, 2009, the Ancient and Honorable Order of E. Clampus Vitus, Billy Holcomb Chapter 109, descended upon the small town of Desert Center, California for their annual Spring Clampout event. Four hundred and twelve members in black hats and red shirts adorned with tin badges, buttons and pins gathered to initiate fifty three “Poor Blind Candidates” (PBC’s) into the organization under the reign of Noble Grand Humbug, Rick Gavigan.

For the unknowing, E. Clampus Vitus (members are commonly referred to as Clampers) is a fraternal organization dedicated to the preservation of western heritage that is active in state, local, and county Historical Societies. The Holcomb Chapter has worked with the Bureau of Land Management and the California Department of Transportation to place roadside plaques at--as E. Clampus Vitus describes them--“greater and lesser historical sites within San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.

Since October 1969, they have erected and dedicated 109 plaques, including those along parts of the Mojave Road, The Patton Desert Training Center (C.A.M.A.), Route 66, Speed of Light Experiments, various historical buildings and other edifices, local native sites and ruins, and other varied and sundry persons, places and events of historical significance.”

Besides initiating new members during the Clampout, the Clampers erected a concrete monument and brass plaque commemorating the site of the 36th Evacuation Hospital for the Desert Training Center (DTC). Later renamed the California-Arizona Maneuver Area, the training center encompassed an 18,000 square mile area in the Mojave Desert and served as the country’s foremost armor training facility and maneuver area where American soldiers were trained in ground and air combat as well as desert warfare from 1942 to 1944.

The size of the training center made it the largest military installation and maneuver area in the world. It was eventually to become the training ground for more than a million troops in seven armored and thirteen infantry divisions. Major General George S. Patton Jr. was the first Commanding General of the DTC tasked with organizing large scale maneuvers necessary to prepare American soldiers for combat against the German Afrika Korps in the North African desert.

As part of the DTC, the 36th Evacuation Hospital was a 400-bed unit that provided care to sick and wounded soldiers under combat conditions. The unit was instrumental in developing procedures for training doctors and nurses and later served in the Pacific theater of operations where it took part in the New Guinea, Luzon, and Leyte campaigns, the occupation of Japan, and was stationed in Vietnam from 1966 to 1969.

The BLM now manages the majority of the land where the training camps existed. While little remains of the original encampment of the 36th Evacuation Hospital, the layout of streets, tent sites, and patterns of hand-laid rocks for unit insignias can still be seen on the ground.

The site is located along Interstate 10 near the town of Desert Center and can be reached by traveling east of Indio or west of Blythe. The monument is located at the northeast corner at the intersection of Ragsdale and Eagle Mountain Roads at the Eagle Mountain offramp

While visiting the area, please remember that the camp sites are considered Historical Period Archaeological sites eligible for the National Register. The use of metal detectors and the collection of artifacts by individuals are strictly prohibited. Visitors are welcome to walk through the area after parking near the monument or along Eagle Mountain Road but please refrain from driving off the paved roads.

While the BLM completed the required paperwork, environmental review and provide archeological assistance, the Billy Holcomb Chapter was responsible for organizing and funding the monument construction and dedication.

For addition information on the Billy Holcomb Chapter of ECV, visit their website.

Judge orders new plan for dam releases into Grand Canyon

Federal officials must reconsider the irregular water releases from Glen Canyon Dam, which may harm the humpback chub, an endangered fish.
Endangered Humpback Chub (AZ Game Fish)

By Nicholas Riccardi
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Denver -- Federal officials must reconsider how they release water from Glen Canyon Dam into the Grand Canyon in order to protect an endangered fish, the humpback chub, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

Environmental groups have long argued that the irregular releases from the dam just above the canyon damage the fish's native environment, erode beaches and wash away ancient ruins in the canyon.

Nikolai Lash of the Grand Canyon Trust, which filed a lawsuit along with Earthjustice, said the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation should release water in regular flows, which would do less damage. "They're better at preserving the beaches, the archaeological sites and the fish," he said.

Officials at the bureau could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

For much of its existence, Glen Canyon released water on timetables designed to benefit Southwestern power companies, whose demand for hydroelectric power peaks during the day.

Last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reversing an old agency opinion, found that the fluctuating dam releases did not violate the Endangered Species Act. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge David G. Campbell ruled that that revision was improper and ordered the agency to reconsider how the dam flows may harm the endangered fish.

Campbell gave the government until November to file a new plan and ordered that, should it find the releases threaten the chub, it must propose a new schedule.

May 27, 2009

450 acres burn near historic gold mine

Hi-Desert Star

The Lost Horse Fire burns in Joshua Tree National Park Sunday evening. Ignited by an unknown cause Sunday afternoon, the flames burned through Monday and were declared contained at 8 a.m. Tuesday. (Preston Drake-Hillyard photo)

JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK — Fire burned about 450 acres over two days near Lost Horse Mine here before it was fully contained at 8 a.m. Tuesday, park officials said. “There are still a few firefighters out there — crews checking for hot spots,” Ranger Pam Tripp said Tuesday afternoon.

Twelve visitors who were hiking near the flames were evacuated by helicopter Sunday. “They got caught and weren’t able to hike out themselves,” park Chief of Interpretation Joe Zarki said.

No one was hurt in the fire, and the hikers who were evacuated were not in immediate danger, Zarki added.

Thanks to the efforts of firefighters and support staff, park Superintendent Curt Sauer said, the historic Lost Horse Mine and stamp mill escaped the blaze unscathed.

“The timely and professional response of fire crews to the Lost Horse Fire minimized effects of the fire to native vegetation and to irreplaceable historic resources,” Sauer said.

“Given that no firefighter or park visitor was hurt in the process, that’s about as good of an outcome as we can expect.”

Zarki said the Lost Horse Fire ignited shortly before 4 p.m. Sunday and was spotted by hikers. Park officials immediately began mobilizing firefighting resources when they received word of the blaze at 4:30 p.m.

The fire burned Joshua trees, piñon pines, junipers and scrub brush in a remote area of rugged hills between Geology Tour Road and Keys View Road.

Personnel and equipment from the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, CalFire, the U.S. Forest Service and San Bernardino County Fire were called in and an ambulance from Morongo Basin Ambulance was kept on hand.

Aircraft dropped water on the flames Sunday evening and resumed the job Monday morning.

Working through Sunday night, firefighters took advantage of cool evening temperatures and light winds to begin establishing a line around the flames, Zarki reported.

Ten fire trucks and one hand crew worked the fire on the ground, while two spotter aircraft and one helicopter provided air support.

Today, a single helicopter and hand crews will be on mop-up duty.

The Cap Rock Nature Trail and its parking area were used as the incident command center.

Cap Rock and the scenic drive to Keys View have reopened, but the Lost Horse Mine Road and trailhead and the Oyster Bar and Hall of Horrors parking areas remained closed Tuesday.

All other park areas and facilities remained open to visitors throughout the fire.

The cause of the blaze remains under investigation.

Park officials urge visitors to build fires only in provided fire grills and never leave a campfire unattended.

May 25, 2009

Ranchers worry Utah will give in on water issue

By John Hollenhorst

UTAH'S WEST DESERT - A David and Goliath battle in Utah's west desert is warming up again. Ranchers standing up to the so-called "Las Vegas water grab" are raising fears Utah will give in too easily, possibly to avoid retaliation by a powerful Nevada senator.

It's pretty clear Utah officials want a friendly deal with Nevada and not a water war. The question is, how much water can Las Vegas pump along the border before it starts to hurt Utah?

This week, the federal government launches the latest round of scientific studies.

Pumping groundwater is what made the west desert bloom for generations of farmers and ranchers. They've lined up mostly against plans by Las Vegas to drill wells near the border. The big city wants to pump an aquifer that's mostly under rural Utah.

Rancher Dean Baker said, "If they take all the water they say is available, there won't be a live plant left that puts its roots in the water."

But Utah officials have been negotiating an agreement with Nevada. They say it will protect Utah's interests.

Mike Styler, Utah's director of natural resources, said, "Yes, I believe they could take some water and not affect Utah."

Even farmers 60 miles from Nevada worry the pumping could affect them. In small-town Delta, there are worries Las Vegas will set a precedent for big cities sucking away water from farms.

Delta farmer Ray Lyman said, "I think it's in the back of all of our minds as farmers."

Nevertheless, Utah officials say Las Vegas should get some of the water it wants. The question is, how much?

"Both sides have agreed that nothing will be done to harm that current use of water," Styler said.

Opponents this weekend bought full-page ads in both Salt Lake newspapers. They're clearly worried Utah has all but decided to give in. They think Utah is driven partly by the desire to protect a pet project from retaliation by Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the proposed Lake Powell pipeline.

Dean Baker said, "A bargaining chip in the whole process. So there is a real urge to get it done."

But Mike Styler said, "In my mind that has nothing to do with this project."

The two states could finalize an agreement sometime next year. Opponents say "What's the rush? Why not hold off until the last scientific studies are done?" But Utah officials argue, any agreement can be altered if new science comes in.

Mojave veterans memorial

The Mojave Cross at Sunrise Rock. (Liberty Legal Institute)
Washington Times
By Glen M. Gardner Jr.

Many Americans think of Memorial Day as a three-day weekend at the beach, but to those of us who have worn the uniform and to our families, who also have sacrificed, Memorial Day is a day of remembrance.

Remembering is what a group of veterans had in mind in 1934 when they erected a simple memorial in the shape of a cross to honor 53,000 Americans who had died in battle during our nation's 19-month involvement in what was called the "War to End All Wars."

Seventy-five years later, the U.S. Supreme Court will determine whether that gesture of respect violates the U.S. Constitution's separation of church and state. This is because the memorial resides on federal property in the middle of California's Mojave National Preserve.

More is at stake, however, than just the fate of a 7-foot-tall white cross atop Sunrise Rock - currently covered with a plywood box by lower court order. The real issue behind Salazar v. Buono is whether the use of religious symbolism in veterans memorials on public property violates the Establishment Clause.

If the High Court rules in favor of the plaintiff, every such memorial across the land will be in jeopardy of being torn down - and the ultimate loser will be America. That's because veterans memorials help our nation remember what came before.

To remember how half of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence took up arms to fight the British. How a nation divided in 1861 would emerge bloodied but still united four years later. How the United States would help defeat tyranny in two world wars in the 20th century and then outlast communist oppression during a 45-year Cold War. And how a new generation of warriors has picked up that mantle of responsibility to protect and defend America when others would rather just criticize.

The critics argue that organized religion and its symbols have no place in government even though our country was founded on religious freedom and tolerance.

The irony is that those who often protest the loudest are also the most intolerant. They twist the meaning of the Establishment Clause - which prohibits the government from creating a national religion or endorsing one religion over another - to imply the Founding Fathers wanted all things religious separated from all things governmental.

Military veterans know there are a great many things in our country that are worth protecting with our voices or lives if necessary.

Veterans memorials deserve protection because without them, the story that is our nation cannot be told properly. And if that story is not told, the service and sacrifice of more than 1 million Americans who have died in uniform will be forgotten.

The essence of Memorial Day is to remember our fallen from all wars. That is what those World War I veterans meant so long ago in the middle of the desert, and that is what I hope the High Court will consider when it hears the case in the fall, because public land also means "our" land.

Glen Gardner, a Vietnam War veteran from Round Rock, Texas, is the national commander of the 2.2 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. and its Auxiliaries. For more information on the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial, go to

May 24, 2009

DesertXpress execs say they can start building high-speed train to Vegas in 2010

The DesertXpress will travel 184 miles from Victorville to Las Vegas in 84 minutes.

Andrew Edwards, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

VICTORVILLE - Construction crews could begin work on a proposed high-speed rail line to Las Vegas as early as next year, executives with the company behind the project said.

"The strong need for the project is clear and obvious," said Andrew Mack, vice president of Las Vegas-based DesertXpress Enterprises.

The DesertXpress idea is based on the assumption that Vegas-bound Southern Californians would be willing to pay to park their cars Victorville and forego the time and potential frustrations of freeway travel. The company says it can build the route with private funding.

The proposed high speed rail route a separate from the proposal to establish a Maglev route from Las Vegas to Anaheim.

As planned, the DesertXpress line would allow Southern California passengers to board trains at a north Victorville train station and speed to Sin City as quickly as 150 mph. The line, which would generally follow the route of the 15 Freeway, would feature 183 to 200 miles of track, depending upon its ultimate alignment.

DesertXpress is still awaiting approval from the federal government. The firm has completed a draft environmental impact statement and Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Rob Kulat said the agency could make a decision in nine months.

Mack said DesertXpress' business model is similar to that of a toll road, and the firm plans to rely on ticket revenues to recoup the initial investment.

DesertXpress reports that construction and other start-up costs will total $3.5 to $4 billion. and that the line could be built in four years. The midpoint fare price is projected to be about $50.

Victorville mayor pro tem Tom Rothschild, a DesertXPress supporter, said a high-speed rail line can be built in the near future. He thinks Maglev, which uses magnetic force to levitate and propel trains, is not yet practical.

"Maglev is great, don't mistake me. I think it's the greatest technology for the next half of this century," Rothschild said.

DesertXpress' draft environmental statement projects that the establishment of a high-speed rail station in Victorville could create 361 to 463 jobs for Victorville. Rothschild views the proposal as a boon for his city.

"For us, it would be incredible. We've got a lot of developable land in the freeway corridor," he said, referring to the northern part of the city where DesertXPress' station could be built.

If DesertXpress happens, Mack said the most logical city to expand to would be Palmdale, where he said the train could link to the proposed California High Speed Rail system.

But in Barstow, 25 miles north of the proposed Victorville station, there's a question of whether DesertXpress should stop there as well.

DesertXpress' environmental document reports that although ridership studies did not support a station there, the company is studying the feasibility of a station at Barstow Outlet Mall based on the concerns of Barstow officials.

"We had the freeway come and take out Route 66, and we know what that means here," Barstow planning consultant Paul Secord on a video recording of special meeting of the Barstow City Council that was held April 28.

May 20, 2009

Congress votes to allow loaded firearms in national parks

NRA VICTORY: Legislation allows others across country to do what is already allowed in most of Alaska.

Anchorage Daily News
Staff and Wire Reports

ro-gun forces won a major victory in Washington on Wednesday when Congress voted to allow people to carry loaded weapons in most national parks and refuges.

The action was a major defeat for supporters of gun control, who earlier in the year won a court reversal of a Bush administration policy that first lifted the restrictions on loaded firearms on those public lands.

Some Alaskans -- their minds filled with visions of pistol-packing tourists climbing aboard Denali National Park buses armed to the teeth -- had joined with a variety of national organizations in challenging the Bush decision to allow guns in the parks.

But National Park Service officials in Alaska never expressed much concern about the change.

Legislation creating vast new parks and refuges in Alaska in 1980 specifically left millions of acres open to firearms, and there have been no serious problems, according to Alaska region park service spokesman John Quinley.

Rangers in places such as Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Lake Clark Park and Preserve and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve are accustomed to running into people carrying loaded guns. And the agency has long given a tacit endorsement to people packing firearms into some of these areas for survival and safety reasons.

An Alaska region brochure on dealing with bears in wildland parks notes the dangers firearms pose to people inexperienced in their use, but also advises:

"A .300-Magnum rifle or a 12-gauge shotgun with rifled slugs are appropriate weapons if you have to shoot a bear. Heavy handguns such as a .44-Magnum may be inadequate in emergency situations, especially in untrained hands.

"State law allows a bear to be shot in self-defense if you did not provoke the attack and if there is no alternative, but the hide and skull must be salvaged and turned over to the authorities."

The only Alaska parks closed to the carry of loaded firearms have been Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park in Skagway, the Sitka National Historic Park and the old sections of Denali, Katmai and Glacier Bay national parks.

That could change if the president signs the legislation passed by the House on Wednesday in a vote of 279-147. The Senate approved similar legislation a day earlier.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, was an outspoken supporter in the House. He has been asking for the rule change since 2007.

"Murders, rapes, robberies and assaults happen each year on National Park Service land, and the victims don't have the right to carry a firearm and protect themselves,'' Young said in a prepared statement. "The Second Amendment grants us the fundamental right to protect ourselves. Anyone who knows me knows that I will always defend our right to bear arms and protect ourselves and our loved ones. Current Park Service Regulations require that firearms transported in national parks be unloaded and encased. This makes them useless. Guns are allowed in most park areas in Alaska, and that should be the case across the country."

Both Alaska senators, Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Mark Begich, a Democrat, voted in favor of the legislation which drew broad, bipartisan support in both chambers.

In the House, 105 Democrats joined 174 Republicans in supporting the change, which was attached to a bill imposing new restrictions on credit card companies. The gun legislation basically tracks with Young's position that guns should be allowed into national parks and wildlife refuges under the terms of whatever state laws apply.

The Associated Press called the vote "a bitter disappointment for gun-control proponents, who watched as a Democratic-controlled Congress handed a victory to gun-rights advocates that they did not achieve under Republican rule. Many blamed the National Rifle Association, which pushed hard for the gun law."

"The NRA is basically taking over the House and Senate," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., a leading gun-control supporter. "If the NRA wins, the American people are going to be the ones who lose."

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said liberals might believe that, "but the American people won't buy it."

"The fact is American gun owners are simply citizens who want to exercise their Second Amendment rights without running into confusing red tape," Hastings said.

Hastings and others said the bill aligns regulations for national parks and wildlife refuges with those for the national forests and Bureau of Land Management holdings. The GOP called the existing policy outdated and confusing to those who visit public lands, noting that merely traveling from state-owned parks to national parks meant some visitors were violating the law.

A majority of Democrats in both the House and Senate opposed the gun measure, but enough Democrats voted for the bill that the final tally in both chambers was large in its favor.

Democratic leaders decided against trying to remove the gun provision after Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., was able to insert it into the popular credit card measure. Lawmakers and aides said there was not enough time to send the bill to a House-Senate conference committee -- where it could be removed without a vote -- and still get it to President Barack Obama by Memorial Day as he has requested.

"There's a lot of momentum to get this done," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, R-Ariz.

Grijalva, chairman of national parks subcommittee, opposed the gun measure, but said the "sense of urgency from the White House" to get the credit card bill approved, combined with the NRA's clout, were impossible to overcome.

Theresa Pierno, executive vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association, which has fought the gun rule in court, criticized Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer for allowing the vote.

"By not taking a stand to prevent this change, they have sacrificed public safety and national park resources in favor of the political agenda of the National Rifle Association," Pierno said, adding that the gun provision had no public hearing or other review.

In a statement after the vote, Pelosi called inclusion of the gun measure unfortunate and said it undermines the nation's gun safety laws.

"There is no compelling argument for replacing the Reagan administration's rules regarding guns in national parks, and certainly not as part of legislation designed to protect Americans during difficult economic times," Pelosi said.

Chris W. Cox, chief lobbyist for the NRA, said the group pushed for the gun measure but that its power in Congress was being overstated. The NRA does not set the agenda there, he said. Cox also disputed a claim by the Humane Society of the United States that the gun bill would increase wildlife poaching in national parks.

"The NRA is opposed to poaching and always has been," he said. "We've supported enhanced penalties for illegal activities, including poaching. The Humane Society has zero credibility when it comes to Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners."

National Park Rangers and Park Advocates Outraged by Votes Allowing Loaded Guns in National Parks

National Parks Conservation Association

"We are disappointed in the members of the House and Senate who allowed this amendment to pass, as well as in President Obama. By not taking a stand to prevent this change, they have sacrificed public safety and national park resources in favor of the political agenda of the National Rifle Association. This amendment had no hearing or review, and will increase the risk of poaching, vandalism of historic park treasures, and threats to park visitors and staff."

"These are special protected places, where millions of American families and international visitors can view magnificent animals and majestic landscapes and experience our nation's history, including sites where lives were lost to preserve our American ideals.

"The Reagan Administration's regulation requiring that guns carried into these iconic places be unloaded and put away is a time-tested, limited and reasonable restriction to carry out an important and legitimate goal of protecting and respecting our national parks, monuments and battlefields. It is a tremendously sad day that it has been thrown out by political leaders from whom we expect more."

Statement by Bill Wade, Chair, Executive Council, Coalition of National Park Service Retirees:

"Passage of this legislation that would allow firearms of all kinds in national parks is an absolute travesty. There is simply no need for it, given the extremely low risks that visitors face in national parks compared with everywhere else.

"Legislators who voted for this amendment now have to live with the fact that they have, in fact, increased the risk to visitors and employees, as well as the risk to wildlife and some cultural resources. Moreover, they've just contributed to diminishing the specialness of this country's National Park System. We hope the American people register their disappointment in the actions of these legislators."

Statement by Scot McElveen, President, Association of National Park Rangers:

"Members of the ANPR respect the will of Congress and their authority to pass laws, but we believe this is a fundamental reversal from what preceding Congresses created the National Park System for. Park wildlife, including some rare or endangered species, will face increased threats by visitors with firearms who engage in impulse or opportunistic shooting."

Statement by John Waterman, President, U.S. Park Rangers Lodge, Fraternal Order of Police:

"One should ask, what do guns have to do with credit cards? We are disappointed that Congress chose to disregard the safety of U.S. Park Rangers, the most assaulted federal officers, and forgo the environmental process set up to assure the protection of our national parks. If signed by President Obama, this will clearly be a change in his rhetoric towards taking better care of our environment and protecting federal employees."

Statement by Theresa Pierno, Executive Vice President, National Parks Conservation Association: NPCA is a non-profit, private organization dedicated to protecting, preserving, and enhancing the U.S. National Park System.

May 15, 2009

Assemblyman blasts park service interference in solar projects

Pahrump Valley Times

Assemblyman Ed Goedhart, R-Amargosa Valley, fired off a scathing letter to National Park Service Regional Director Jonathan Jarvis, saying Jarvis' objections to building solar power plants on public lands was "totally out of step with national policy to create jobs through clean energy and increase national security."

The letter, dated April 27, said Jarvis' letter to Amy Leuders, acting state director of the Nevada Bureau of Land Management, is a "misguided attempt" to influence BLM and U.S. Department of Energy policies.

Jarvis' letter said the National Park Service supports BLM efforts to promote renewable energy. But he added, "The NPS asserts that it is not in the public interest for the BLM to approve plans of development for water-cooled solar energy projects in the arid basins of Southern Nevada."

Solar power plants using water-cooled technology would use large amounts of water, Jarvis wrote. He urged the encouragement of air-cooling and photo-voltaic technology.

Areas with high solar energy potential also are areas of scarce water resources, he wrote.

Jarvis asked the BLM to consider regional impacts of large-scale solar projects on National Park Service facilities like Devil's Hole, Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Mojave National Preserve.

Jarvis said affects that should be evaluated include water availability, degradation of visual resources like the night sky, air quality impacts from construction and operations, sound impacts if turbines or cooling towers are used and interruption of wildlife habitat.

"Depending on the location of these projects, large-scale concentrating solar energy projects in Southern Nevada that require large amounts of water potentially face several water rights-related obstacles in obtaining the necessary water for their projects," Jarvis said. "These obstacles are based around several rulings and orders that the Nevada State Engineer's office has issued in recent years."

In particular he referred to Amargosa Valley, where the state engineer ruled the basin is over-appropriated by 18,000 acre feet per year and applications for new water rights will be denied.

Goedhart said state engineer's ruling 1197, issued last November, precludes moving points of diversion for water rights in Amargosa Valley closer to Devil's Hole, home of an endangered pupfish.

But Goedhart added, "Farmers who sell or lease their existing water rights can keep the existing wells in place by piping the water to the solar project site. Indeed some water right diversions will be moved north and away from Devil's Hole, mitigating any current effects on Devil's Hole."

"I personally have spoken to the governor's office, and Nevada will not stand in the way of converting agricultural water to commercial water for the purposes of power generation, a higher, value-added, economic benefit," Goedhart wrote.

Jarvis said the state engineer issued an order holding in abeyance applications for water rights in basins north of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, where solar energy projects were proposed pending further studies.

Jarvis quoted ruling 5115 pertaining to that water basin, which states, "The state engineer does not believe it is prudent to use substantial quantities of newly appropriated ground water for water-cooled power plants in one of the driest places in the nation particularly with the uncertainty as to what quantity of water is available from the resource, if any."

"Please note that the deputy engineer does not set policy. We in the Nevada State Legislature, in conjunction with the governor, set policy," Goedhart wrote.

Goedhart said a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed the construction of 2,000 megawatts of solar power plants in Nevada would create $500 million in taxes, 5,900 construction jobs for six years and 1,200 full-time operation and maintenance jobs.

Goedhart said Nevada's economy is struggling with the contraction of gaming, real estate and tourism.

"Any, and I repeat any attempt to override Nevada water law and compromise its sovereignty over the waters of the state of Nevada will be vigorously opposed," he wrote.

May 13, 2009

College group finds Gila monster on field trip

Only 26 other times has a Gila monster been seen in California since 1861

A group from Cuesta on May 2 made only the 27th siting of a gila monster in California since 1861 during a visit to the Providence Mountains in the East Mojave National Preserve. (Ron Ruppert/Blake Andrews)

David Sneed Tribune

A group of Cuesta College faculty and students made an unusual find during a trip earlier this month to the Mojave National Preserve — a Gila monster, a large and colorful desert lizard.

The group of 21 was traveling May 2 through the Providence Mountains of eastern San Bernardino County to a field station where they were staying when the lizard was spotted alongside an old mining road. Gila monsters are endemic to Arizona and Nevada, but are seldom seen in California.

Prior to the group’s sighting, there had been only 26 individual sightings in California since 1861, and nine of those may be the same animal on different days, said Ron Ruppert, chairman of the college’s biological sciences division.

“This is a rare animal in California,” he said.

Gila monsters are the largest lizard species in the United States and have bright coloring and a venomous bite. The group climbed out of its vans to watch the lizard and photograph it, student Blake Andrews said.

“The contrast between the vibrant orange and the deep black bumps that were scattered in splotches across his back, popped in the sun,” Andrews wrote afterward.

Finding the big lizard turned out to be a highlight of the natural history field trip to the desert. Nursing student Andrea Reddick said that snakes and lizards weren’t something she was particularly interested in, but she described seeing the Gila monster as one of the best experiences she has had.

“Experiencing the sighting of the Gila monster and understanding the rarity of such an occurrence has made me feel ecstatic to have witnessed it and be part of herpetology history,” she wrote.

The group watched the lizard for about 20 minutes before getting in its vans and driving away.

“Its tail was plump, and the lizard looked healthy,” Ruppert recalled. “Estimated length was 14 to 16 inches total length, but no measurements were taken.”

May 8, 2009

It’s spring in Las Vegas: Mojave Max emerges

By Jeff Pope
Las Vegas Sun

Mojave Max. (BLM)

The temperature topped 80 degrees in Southern Nevada on March 18 and Major League Baseball opened the season on Sunday.

But it didn’t officially become spring in the Las Vegas Valley until Tuesday when Mojave Max, the desert tortoise, emerged from his burrow at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Clark County’s prognosticating weather tortoise emerged officially at 2:37 p.m.

This was the first emergence of the current tortoise known as Max. The previous tortoise died June 30 at an estimated 65 years of age.

The current Max is a male, about 19 years old, that was picked up along Interstate 15 and turned in to the Gabriel Humane Society in California.

Like other Southern Nevada reptiles, he enters a burrow to brumate -- the reptilian form of hibernation -- every winter and emerges when temperatures are right and the days are longer.

Mojave Max has emerged as late as April 14 and as early as Feb. 14 in past years.

Clark County has sponsored a Mojave Max emergence contest so school children can guess when the tortoise will leave his burrow in the spring.

The entries are being tabulated and the official winner will be announced soon. The winning student will receive a year-long pass to federal parks and a laptop computer. The winner’s entire class will receive a field trip to Mojave Max’s habitat, Mojave Max Olympic-style medals and T-shirts, while the winner’s teacher will receive a laptop computer.

May 7, 2009

Suspicious fire guts Charles Manson's remote Death Valley hide-out

The Barker Ranch cabin's rock walls and tin roof are still intact, but its wooden interior beams and window and door frames are reduced to ash. An outbuilding is destroyed.

Fire gutted a remote Death Valley ranch once used by Charles Manson.
(National Park Service)

By Julie Cart
Los Angeles Times

Barker Ranch, the old Death Valley mining camp notorious as Charles Manson's hide-out, has been gutted in a suspicious fire, according to the National Park Service.

"The building is gutted, burned out," said Terry Baldino, a spokesman for Death Valley National Park.

The homestead's rock walls and tin roof were still intact, but its hand-hewn wooden interior beams and window and door frames were all reduced to ash, he said.

An outbuilding, originally built as a garage or workroom, was destroyed, Baldino said.

Park officials said the fire might have started last weekend; it was reported Wednesday. No cause has been identified and the fire is under investigation, Baldino said.

The cabin is in a remote area of the park and is used by backcountry campers. It had a stove and a fireplace, but there is no water source in the area. If the fire was inadvertently set, there was no water available to put it out.

"The thing that is really sad," Baldino said, "is that a month ago we had a restoration crew out to stabilize the place. We were afraid the wood lattice and tin roof would come off. We replaced wood timbers in the sagging roof and cleaned up the interior and the grounds. It was actually in fairly good shape when we finished."

Barker Ranch about ten days earlier on April 26, 2009. (KN6KS / Thomas Hart)

The simple cabin was built in the 1930s by a retired Los Angeles Police Department officer, who, with his wife, had staked a gold claim. The Barker family then bought the house and worked the claim.

In the late 1960s, the Manson gang roamed the barren Death Valley landscape in dune buggies and prepared for "Helter Skelter," a race war that Manson was trying to spark. The phrase was taken from a Beatles song, which Manson believed was encoded with predictions that the conflict would destroy modern civilization. Manson and his followers planned to survive by living in a tunnel, then emerge as leaders of a new world order.

Manson eventually was arrested in the cabin, hiding in one of the cupboards, after a 1969 murder rampage in Southern California that involved the killing of actress Sharon Tate, three friends and a teenager at the pregnant actress' Benedict Canyon home, as well as the slaying of a couple in Los Feliz.

The ranch was the subject of renewed attention recently when a local police detective searched the site for possible clandestine graves. The excavation revealed little more than a few bullet casings.

May 2, 2009

BLM to get $300 million for stimulus projects

By Kathleen Hennessey
The Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Interior Department is sending more than $300 million in federal stimulus money to the Bureau of Land Management to update its facilities and jump-start renewable energy projects across the country, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Saturday.

Salazar said the 650 approved projects will "restore our landscapes and our watersheds" and help fulfill the Obama administration's target for renewable energy development.

Salazar made the announcement at the Red Rock Conservation Area outside Las Vegas. The desert area's fire station was one of several facilities slated to receive solar panels under the effort.

The money is part of the $3 billion sent to the Interior Department under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The $787 billion stimulus bill was intended to spur economic growth and revive the nation's flagging economy.

Salazar said he had no estimate on how many jobs would be created by the $305 million in BLM spending announced Saturday. The total allocation to the Interior Department is expected to create roughly 100,000 new jobs, he said.

The largest chunk of the funding — roughly $143 million — will go toward new construction, deferred maintenance and energy efficiency upgrades on existing facilities, the department said.

The spending also will include $37 million in habitat restoration, $53.4 million in abandoned mine cleanup and $15 million to construct and repair recreational trails.

The BLM manages nearly 260 million acres of land largely concentrated in a dozen Western states. It also administers 700 million acres below the surface, many of which are mined for minerals, oil and gas.

Officials celebrate project to cut water loss on All-American Canal

After decades of planning and legal battles, a concrete lining will prevent seepage along 23 miles in the Imperial Valley.
By Tony Perry
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Gordon's Well, Calif. -- Running through an obscure strip of isolated Imperial County, the All-American Canal rarely gets the attention of the other ditches that have shaped Southern California.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct, which brings water from the Owens Valley; the Colorado River Aqueduct, which supplies coastal Southern California; and the California Aqueduct, which brings water from Northern California, are near major population areas.

The All-American Canal brings copious amounts of Colorado River water to turn 500,000 acres of desert into some of the most productive farmland in the world.

As California struggles with drought, the 82-mile channel could be key. So on Thursday, water officials gathered at the canal to celebrate what they called a rare example of cooperation in the often contentious arena of water politics.

"This event is a big deal," said Karl Wirkus, deputy commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, whose motto is "Managing Water in the West."

At a patch of desert 35 miles east of El Centro and barely 50 yards north of the metal fence that separates the United States and Mexico, officials of several sometimes warring water agencies came together to celebrate the nearly completed project to line 23 miles with concrete to prevent seepage. The section was considered the leakiest part of the earthen canal.

The project is part of an agreement under which the Imperial Irrigation District, the canal's operator, grudgingly agreed to sell some of its mammoth share of the Colorado River to water-deprived San Diego County. The cost of the $300-million project was split between the state government and the San Diego County Water Authority.

Lester A. Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources, praised more than 300 officials and others at the ceremony for overcoming numerous political, legal and financial problems when much of state government seems paralyzed. He joked that he was carrying a message from the governor: "Congratulations on finally getting something done in this state."

Lining the canal is seen as a major step toward Southern California learning to live within a "water budget" instead of looking to the Colorado River or Northern California for more water.

"The era of limits on the Colorado River imposes new expectations -- and responsibilities -- on all water users," said Brian Brady, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District.

But less seepage from the canal will mean less water for the farmers of the Mexicali Valley, where the aquifer has been replenished for decades by the leaking water.

Lining the earthen canal is expected to save 67,700 acre-feet of water a year.

The water sales agreement between Imperial and San Diego may also mean less fresh water for the Salton Sea, which straddles Imperial and Riverside counties. Less water could mean a smaller, smellier sea, and could possibly lead to dust storms.

"In water projects, there are collateral benefits and collateral damages," said Steve Erie, water policy expert and professor of political science at UC San Diego.

Many of the Imperial Valley's farmers have never liked the water sale agreement. One group sued to block the lining, delaying construction for three years before losing. The Mexican government also sued unsuccessfully to protect Mexicali farmers.

Completed in 1942, the All-American Canal replaced a canal that traveled, in part, through Mexico. It is the longest irrigation canal in the world, according to NASA scientists who have studied satellite pictures. It captures water rushing south toward Mexico and, because much of the Imperial Valley is below sea level, the canal redirects the water north largely through the force of gravity.

The late Imperial Valley farmer-poet Richard Mealey, praising the valley's pioneers, wrote: "They built the mighty All-American, a wonder in its day / A canal that ran a river a hundred miles the other way."

By paying for the lining of the All-American Canal, the San Diego County Water Authority is being allowed to buy a share of the Imperial Irrigation District's allocation from the Colorado River; the district has rights to 70% of the state's portion of the river. Also, several bands of Indians in northern San Diego County will receive additional water to settle years of litigation over water rights.

The lining of the canal had been a dream of water officials for so long that Thursday's ceremony began with a tribute to those who died before the project was finished. Planning began in the early 1980s.

"Man, look at that: Isn't that a beautiful sight? A lined canal," Robert Johnson, former commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, told the gathering.

May 1, 2009

Study: Grazing threatens wildlife habitat in West

Associated Press

Federal grazing allotments active as of 2008 are indicated in tan.

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Conservationists say livestock grazing poses a threat to a wide variety of fish and other wildlife across more than three-fourths of their dwindling habitats on federal land in the West.

Using satellite mapping and federal records, WildEarth Guardians began a study last year matching wildlife habitat and U.S. grazing allotments across more than 260 million acres of federal land in the West.

It includes practically all of the remaining habitat of the Greater sage grouse, a hen-sized game bird the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering adding to the list of threatened or endangered species in 11 Western states from California to Wyoming. The environmental group wants the bird protected.

"The results confirm — in graphic form — previous research finding that incessant, ubiquitous public lands grazing has contributed to the decline of native wildlife," concludes the report entitled "Western Wildlife Under Hoof." The report is scheduled to be released Friday.

The group said continued grazing in ever-shrinking habitat hampers the recovery of fish and wildlife and in some cases threatens them with extinction.

Cattle and sheep trample vegetation, damage soil, spread invasive weeds, spoil water and deprive native wildlife of forage, the report said. It notes that then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said in 2005 that livestock grazing "is the most damaging use of public land."

Mark Salvo, WildEarth Guardians' grazing program specialist and author of the report, said the new data suggest livestock have "done more damage to the Earth than the chain saw and bulldozer combined."

Jeff Eisenberg, director of federal lands for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, criticized the findings as part of an effort to shut down grazing on federal lands.

"There's a number of environmental groups that have decided the best way to spend their time and the money of their funders is to eliminate the families and communities that have made the West what it is today," he told AP in an e-mail. "These groups don't deserve a dignified response."

Don Kirby, president of the Society for Range Management and director of North Dakota State University's School of Natural Resource Sciences, said livestock grazing is an important part of a "landscape management toolbox" that can be used to reduce wildfires and improve wildlife habitat.

"Western rangelands and the wildlife species that live there have coexisted with grazing by large herbivores for tens of thousands of years," Kirby said.

The report found livestock grazing is permitted on 91 percent of the Greater sage grouse's habitat and that grazing operations are active on 72 percent of the habitat. Grazing is active on 55 percent of the federal range of the Gunnison sage grouse and is permitted on 84 percent of it.

Likewise, grazing is permitted on about 80 percent of public land in the historic range of several cutthroat trout species, including 88 percent of the Lahontan and 76 percent of the Bonneville.

It's also permitted on about 75 percent of the federal habitat of four species of prairie dogs.

"The species included in our report are representative of the hundreds of wildlife species that are threatened by public lands grazing," said Salvo, whose group has offices in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

The bulk of the federal land studied is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which issued grazing permits and leases to 15,799 ranchers and other operators covering 128 million acres of U.S. land in 2006.

BLM spokesman Jeff Krauss said the agency has not fully reviewed the report but maintains "well-managed grazing provides numerous ecological and environmental benefits."

Among other things, WildEarth Guardians recommends buying out permits from ranchers and others willing to remove their livestock from grazing land.

"There is a greater economic value in non-consumptive uses of public land — hunting, fishing, birdwatching, hiking, camping — than livestock grazing," the report said.

The Nevada Department of Wildlife shares concerns about dwindling wildlife populations but believes there is a place for grazing on public land, spokesman Chris Healy said.

If ranchers end up selling their land, it could be subdivided and lead to development even more problematic for wildlife, he said.

"It behooves us to get everybody who uses the land to be part of the solution and that's what we've been trying to do with the sage grouse. If one sector or user of the land feels like they are being ganged up on, the odds of coming up with a solution that will work are not good," he said.

On the Net:
WildEarth Guardians
National Cattlemen's Beef Association
Society of Range Management