June 30, 2009

U.S. works to speed solar energy development in the West

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signs an order that sets aside some 676,000 acres of federal land -- more than half in California -- for study and environmental reviews.

By Julie Cart
Los Angeles Times

The Obama administration on Monday announced that it would put solar energy development in the West on a fast track, with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signing an order that sets aside more than 1,000 square miles of public land for two years of study and environmental reviews.

Although the clean-energy initiative identifies some 676,000 acres of federal land for study, more than half -- 351,000 acres in the Mojave Desert -- are in California. According to maps released by the Interior Department, the solar project areas abut the border of Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave Preserve and two national wildlife refuges in the southeastern part of the state.

The proposed California solar-generating areas are projected to have the annual capacity to produce 39,000 to 70,000 megawatts of electricity at full development -- enough to serve millions of homes. There are three large solar projects undergoing environmental review in the state.

President Obama has promised to promote the use of federal land for the production of alternative energy and has set a goal of obtaining 10% of the nation's electricity from renewable sources by 2010. Salazar vowed to have 13 "commercial-scale" solar projects under construction by the end of 2010.

Federal land managers have already announced plans to establish areas of concentrated wind and geothermal energy harvesting. The Bureau of Land Management has gotten about 470 renewable energy project applications. Those include 158 active solar applications, covering 1.8 million acres.

Monday's announcement in Las Vegas opens up land in six Western states to leasing by private companies. "We are putting a bull's-eye on the development of solar energy on our public lands," Salazar said.

Conservation groups reacted to the announcement with praise but cautioned that even so-called green projects could conflict with protected lands and sensitive species.

"We support the identification of the best places for renewable energy on public lands," said Alex Daue of the Wilderness Society. "We can't have a repeat of the oil and gas industry, where it's spread wide across the landscape anywhere they want. We need a focused look at places where there's the least conflict and highest opportunity for success."

In California, the Mojave Desert is already the scene of intense interest from energy companies and a land rush to apply for solar leases. Environmentalists are monitoring maps so that leasing doesn't take place in wilderness, areas of importance for wildlife and other resources, and high-value recreation sites. The Mojave is home to all of that, including national parks, threatened and endangered species and one of the West's most popular off-road-vehicle recreation areas.

Salazar said federal agencies had already ruled out solar leasing on protected lands and would examine potential effects on wildlife before allowing projects to proceed. The two-year environmental study will cost $22 million, he said.

Burning Man survives suit by burned man

from Burning Man 2005 - A Photoessay by Scott London

Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle

If you approach the flames at the Burning Man festival, you're taking your chances of getting burned.

That was the verdict Tuesday from a state appeals court in San Francisco, which refused to reinstate a festivalgoer's damage suit against the promoter of the annual celebration in the Nevada desert.

Anthony Beninati, a Los Angeles-area resident, was badly burned at the September 2005 event in Black Rock City, Nev. A college-educated real estate manager, he was making his third visit to the weeklong festival, which culminates with the incineration of a 60-foot wood sculpture.

Once the Burning Man topples, participants are invited to throw objects into the bonfire. Beninati planned to contribute a photo of a friend who was supposed to come with him but had recently died in a motorcycle accident.

He walked 7 to 10 feet into the burning embers, with flames on either side of him, threw in the photo, then took a few more steps forward, tripped and fell into the fire.

Beninati's hands were burned and one arm was permanently injured, said William Kronenberg, a lawyer for Black Rock, the San Francisco company that promotes the festival. He said paramedics flew Beninati in a company-supplied helicopter to be treated.

Beninati's suit accused Black Rock of negligently allowing people to approach the fire without safe pathways. But the First District Court of Appeal, upholding a judge's dismissal of the case, said anyone who takes part in an event with obvious dangers - downhill skiing, mountain climbing or walking up to a bonfire - knowingly risks injury.

"By continuing to walk into the fire, Beninati assumed the risk that he might trip and fall," presiding Justice Ignazio Ruvolo said in the 3-0 ruling. "The risk of falling and being burned by the flames or hot ash was inherent, obvious and necessary to the event."

Ruvolo said such suits have been barred in California since 1992, when the state Supreme Court dismissed damage claims by a participant in an office touch-football game.

Beninati's lawyers were unavailable for comment.

June 29, 2009

Accelerated solar site review includes Mojave Desert acreage in the Inland region

The Press-Enterprise

The U.S. secretary of the interior on Monday declared 676,000 acres of the Southwest -- half in Riverside and San Bernardino counties -- as prime areas for large-scale solar energy development.

The action means that applications to build projects in the 24 solar study areas, including vast sections of desert in the two counties, will be fast-tracked to meet federal energy goals, Secretary Ken Salazar announced at a news conference in Las Vegas.

President Barack Obama has ordered that 10 percent of the nation's power come from renewable sources by next year and 25 percent by 2025.

The streamlined review and approval process would take one year, instead of three to four years, Interior spokesman Frank Quimby said.

Three of the study areas are in the Mojave Desert: one off Highway 40, northwest of the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, and two east of Joshua Tree National Park.

The federal proposal includes four times as much land as environmental groups wanted.

The Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and other groups had recommended 85,000 acres in the Mojave, said Steve Borchard, district manager of the Bureau of Land Management's California Desert District.

But the newly announced priority areas cover about 338,000 acres. The government estimates that if that land is fully developed, the solar energy plants could produce 37,500 to more than 67,500 megawatts of electricity, enough to provide power to millions of homes. Not necessarily all of the land will be developed, Salazar said.

Currently, 31 of the 35 projects already in the works in the study areas, which span six states, are in the California desert, Borchard said. The BLM and Department of Energy are drafting environmental studies for the solar development zones, which will save time on the permitting process.

Joan Taylor, California-Nevada desert energy chairwoman for The Sierra Club, called the declaration "a knife through the heart of the desert."

The territories the government selected cover much more land than what's needed to reach renewable energy goals, she said. They also cross wildlife corridors that connect the Mojave Desert ecosystems and are too close to the Joshua Tree National Park, she said.

Taylor and other environmentalists said the government should start closer to urban centers, where energy transmission lines already are in place, rather than focusing on core desert areas.

Only lands with the most sunshine, suitable slope, proximity to roads and transmission lines or designated energy corridors, and containing at least 2,000 acres of BLM-administered public lands were considered for solar energy study areas. Important wildlife habitat and wilderness as well as lands with conflicting uses were excluded, according to a government news release.

The highest priority will be given to 13 projects that are furthest along in planning and will be able to meet a December 2010 deadline for funding and the creation of 50,000 jobs through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, said Greg Miller, renewable energy program manager for the California desert district.

Ten of those projects are in his district. They include Stirling Energy's Solar One near Barstow and Solar Two in El Centro; Britesource near Primm, Nev.; three Chevron projects, one near Barstow and two along Interstate 10 between Desert Center and Blythe; a First Solar project in Desert Center; Nextera near Blythe; and Solar Millennium in Ridgecrest, Miller said.

The BLM still is considering 92 solar project applications in other areas of the desert.

June 28, 2009

Howard Hughes and the atomic bomb

Why the Central Nevada Test Area conducted only one nuclear test puzzles even the aficionados.

Steel well casing marking the location of the 1968 1-megaton Faultless hydrogen bomb test in the old Central Nevada Test Area. Ralph Vartabedian / Los Angeles Times

By Ralph Vartabedian
Los Angeles Times

At the center of a desolate valley in the middle of Nevada, more than a dozen miles from the nearest paved road, one of the few signs of human activity is a rusty steel well casing that juts oddly out of the desert floor.

Nobody lives here, but it has a name: the Central Nevada Test Area. It was once a hub of scientific activity. Today, it is an abandoned outpost of the Cold War.

In the lore of the nuclear arms race, the Central Nevada Test Area has occupied a special place of mystery. Only one test was ever conducted there, and even for aficionados, the reasons have never been entirely clear.

Amid the emptiness, an 8-foot-tall cylinder bears a message to future generations from Glenn T. Seaborg, once chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

"Project Faultless January 19, 1968: A nuclear detonation was conducted below this spot at a depth of 3,200 feet," reads a brass plaque on the casing.

The explanation of its purpose is terse: "The device, with a yield of less than one megaton, was detonated to determine the environmental and structural effects that might be expected should subsequent higher yield underground nuclear tests be conducted in this vicinity."

At the bottom of the vertical shaft, there's a load of radioactive rubble.

"No excavation, drilling and/or removal of materials is permitted without U.S. government approval within a horizontal distance of 3,300 feet from the surface ground zero," the plaque warns visitors.

Just why the government detonated a bomb here is even more puzzling given that the sprawling Nevada Test Site was already set up officially for nuclear testing about 100 miles south.

Philip Coyle, the former test director of the Nevada Test Site, has rarely spoken about the issue, but he does know the answer. It involves a peculiar effort by the government to placate one of the wealthiest men in the world.

In the 1960s, the U.S. and Soviet Union were engaged in an all-out nuclear arms race to see who could build and then detonate the biggest weapons -- almost a nuclear war by proxy. But in this fight, each side bombed itself.

Every time a big hydrogen bomb was detonated on the Nevada Test Site, the tremors would shake the penthouse suite atop the Desert Inn in Las Vegas about 75 miles away and the frayed nerves of its sole resident, multibillionaire Howard Hughes.

At the peak of testing, a bomb was going off about every three days. Before there was a national environmental movement, Hughes became the most unlikely -- and no doubt most powerful -- opponent of nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War.

"Has anybody ever tried to compute the price paid . . . for the privilege of laying waste, mutilating and contaminating for all the days to come millions of acres of good, fertile, vegetated Nevada earth . . . through the damage wrought by these explosions?" Hughes wrote in a 1967 memo to his aide Robert Maheu.

At the time, Hughes not only controlled the Las Vegas Strip and part of the nation's oil-drilling industry, but also one of the nation's largest defense contractors, Los Angeles-based Hughes Aircraft Co.

Hughes wrote a rambling letter to President Johnson, asking him to stop nuclear testing. And he dispatched aides with envelopes each containing tens of thousands of dollars for many of the candidates for the 1968 presidency, according to the authoritative Hughes biography "Empire."

It was long assumed that Hughes' efforts were ignored.

But Coyle said in a recent interview that the Atomic Energy Commission was under so much heat from Hughes, as well as other hotel owners, that the agency ordered a test to see whether a big detonation farther from the Strip would reduce the shaking there.

"Howard Hughes was unhappy with the situation and complained about it to the AEC," Coyle recalled. "That's why Faultless was done."

The Faultless test involved one of the biggest hydrogen bombs ever detonated in the Lower 48 states. Unexpectedly, the violence of the blast caused the earth to sink 8 feet and opened gaps 3 feet across. It did not reduce the problem of shaking in Las Vegas, either, Coyle recalled.

Although many of the practices of the U.S. nuclear weapons program during the Cold War are incomprehensible by today's standards, the very survival of the nation seemed to hinge on its success.

"It is surreal to look back on some of these things," Coyle said. "It was a different time."

June 26, 2009

Sprucing up Palmdale's historic grave sites

Time is running out for descendants of the city's settlers to improve plots at a cemetery that the city will soon take over as Pioneer Memorial Park.

Marge Kimbrough, 81, right, visits family members’ graves with granddaughter Holly Kimbrough, left, daughters Kristi Kimbrough and Renee Kimbrough Kroeger and Renee’s husband, John Kroeger. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

By Ann M. Simmons
Los Angeles Times

Glen Settle, 97, knew he had to act fast.

The concrete marker on the grave of his sister Aileen, who died in 1918 at just 3 days old, was worn and faded. It needed to be replaced.

So earlier this month, a friend helped Settle erect a new gray granite stone engraved with a baby angel at the plot in the Historic Palmdale Cemetery.

Settle is among a group of descendants of the city's early settlers buried in the cemetery who are rushing to repair or replace grave markers, monuments and headstones before a July 16 deadline, when the city will take over general maintenance of the property that will be rededicated as Pioneer Memorial Park.

The cemetery will be closed to future renovations and burials, unless people can prove they owned plots before the city's 2006 resolution to close the grounds to interment. The cemetery includes at least 200 graves, and they will be maintained as they are now.

"It's nice to know that it will be taken care of now," said Settle, whose family arrived in Palmdale in 1908. "I think it means a lot to the old-timers."

The cemetery is one of the few reminders of the early Palmdale settlement known as "Palmenthal," said city spokesman John Mlynar. About 60 families of Swiss and German descent traveled mainly from Nebraska and Illinois and settled in the area in 1886.

They founded a Lutheran church. One family donated 20 acres to the church, which includes about 2 1/2 acres at the northeast corner of 20th Street East and Avenue S that are known to have graves. By 1899, most of the pioneers had moved away from Palmenthal because of drought, land deed issues and competition from a neighboring community called Harold, in an area now known as central Palmdale. The newcomers settled closer to the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks, Mlynar said.

The cemetery continued to be used by other settlers, but it eventually fell into disrepair, a victim of overgrown vegetation, graffiti, trash and vandalism. The last burial on record was in 2001, but that remains in dispute because the former property owner officially closed the cemetery to burials in 1999.

In 2006, the city committed about $220,000 to clean up the cemetery, with $30,000 more allocated for annual maintenance of the site. Ground-penetrating radar equipment was used to check for additional unmarked graves, Mlynar said. In 2008, a wrought iron fence was erected around the cemetery to guard against further destruction.

"The city and the community respect this place as the final resting place of the pioneers of the city," said Noel Doran, Palmdale's deputy city attorney, who has helped steer the municipality through the legal process of creating a pioneer park. "It's an opportunity for our generation and future generations to connect to the past."

Genealogists and historians praised Palmdale's efforts to create a pioneer memorial park at a time when some cities and counties are allowing historic cemeteries to languish.

Sue Silver, state coordinator for California Saving Graves, a group dedicated to preserving and restoring endangered and forgotten cemeteries, said human "apathy and moral decay" had contributed to the demise of some of these historic sites.

"To me it's not a matter of economics, it's a matter of being ready and willing to commit the time and the effort," Silver said, noting that Palmdale "deserves a lot of credit."

Some jurisdictions have been slammed for allowing historic cemeteries to be turned into play parks and soccer fields. In the early 1970s, outrage erupted over a decision to convert a portion of San Diego's Calvary Cemetery into a public park. And today, some Ventura residents are fighting to get the city's Cemetery Memorial Park restored to its original state. In the mid-1960s, the grave markers of more than 3,000 of the city's most influential pioneers were unceremoniously removed, and the cemetery was transformed into a city park.

At the Palmdale cemetery, grave markers bear names of pioneer families, including Jonas, Nagel, Ritter and Munz. Descendants recalled that they created a town with stores, a blacksmith shop, a bakery and a shoe shop.

Barry Munz, 48, whose great-grandparents are among those buried in the historic graveyard, said his descendants were grain and livestock farmers. Historical records show that one of the Munzes' started a pioneer turkey ranch in Antelope Valley and developed the Holland strain of white turkey.

Ralph Ritter, 80, recalled that pioneer members of his family owned an abundance of land, flourishing orchards and a winery. His grandfather had immigrated to the U.S. from Germany and later moved to California.

Other early families included the Settles, Kimbroughs and Coursons.

Plots lie in clusters across the rugged desert floor, spotted with California junipers, Italian cypress and at least one Joshua tree. A horseshoe-shaped path made of decomposed granite allows passage around the graves.

Relatives of the deceased have been encouraged to place grave markers, monuments, headstones and other embellishments in accordance with the cemetery's simple, non-gaudy style. Walkways, statues and gargoyles are not allowed for individual graves.

Marge Kimbrough, 81, whose deceased husband is among 11 Kimbrough family members buried in a cordoned-off lot at the cemetery, said she was thrilled that the graveyard was being preserved.

"We are such a transient state, it's important to keep some of the old legends from the past," Kimbrough said. "I think we all like to feel our roots."

Munz said that given the cemetery's age and prior deteriorating state, "something needed to be done. The city stepping in was by far the best for the overall community."

June 23, 2009

County fire department hopes to fund station with stimulus money

By DAVID HELDRETH, staff writer
Desert Dispatch

SAN BERNARDINO • The San Bernardino County Fire Department is applying for stimulus funds to pay for the construction of a fire station in Amboy that will reduce emergency response time on Interstate 40.

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to authorize San Bernardino County Fire Chief Pat Dennen to apply for federal funds Tuesday. The funds will pay for the construction of fire stations near Big Bear, 29 Palms and Amboy, a city about 85 miles east of Barstow off of Interstate 40. The proposed Amboy station would handle fires, car accidents and other emergency situations on the freeway.

There are no fire stations on Interstate 40 between Newberry Springs and Needles, according to Dennen. Dennen said the Newberry Springs Fire Department runs calls on Interstate 40 when they have resources available. The county fire stations in Harvard and Needles can take more than an hour to respond to service calls on Interstate 40 due to the distance the fire engines have to cover.

Dennen said the Amboy station and a planned station in Goffs, a community about 130 miles east of Barstow off of Interstate 40, would cut response time down.

“If a family is on (Interstate 40) in a minivan and it flips and they get trapped, it could take an hour for someone to get out there to help them,” Dennen said. “That makes it hard for me to sleep at night. I want to try and get a series of stations built similar to what exists on Interstate 15.”

Dennen is submitting an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for $12.6 million to fund the construction of the three new fire stations. The Amboy station is estimated to cost $4.9 million. The funds will come from the 2009 American Recovery & Reinvestment Act Assistance to Firefighters Fire Station Construction Grant Program. The grant money will be awarded by September of 2010.

Dennen said he believes the department will likely get the grant money.

“The federal government is looking for projects that are shovel ready,” Dennen said. “A shovel ready project is something that can be completed in two to three years. They want something that can get people to work as soon as possible. The Angelus Oaks and Amboy stations are great examples of projects that are shovel ready.”

Dennen said Albert Okura, who owns Amboy, donated the land the station will be built on to the county fire department. The county fire department’s 2009-10 budget has money appropriated to pay for the design of the Amboy station. There are also funds set aside for the construction of the station in the 2010-11 budget. Dennen said the station will most likely employ a crew of three firefighters including a captain when it opened, but staffing would increase over time.

Andy Silva, a spokesman for the First District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, said although the funding for the station is already in place, the grant money would allow the county to save money or use it to pay for other projects.

Proposed San Bernardino County Fire Department Amboy station by the numbers.

$4.9 million - cost to build station
13,700 - average number of people a day who drive I-40 near Amboy
60 - miles from Newberry Springs Fire Department to Amboy
84 - miles from San Bernardino County Fire Department’s Needles station to Amboy

Supervisor Secures Funding for Rural Fire Stations

Mitzelfet Memo
Press Release

On June 23, Supervisor Mitzelfelt secured approval to create a budget reserve that will reach approximately $5 million to build fire stations in the remote areas of San Bernardino County. The Board of Supervisors agreed during a final budget hearing to set aside additional federal funds for construction of fire stations over the next several years.

"I would like to thank my fellow Board members for agreeing that this extra funding should be targeted to provide fire coverage in underserved and underfunded areas of the remote desert," said Supervisor Mitzelfelt. "It has been a public safety priority of mine to build fire stations along the Interstate 40 corridor."

Response times on Interstate 40 can be up to an hour or longer because fire crews have to come from Needles, the Barstow area or even Baker. The distance between Barstow and Needles on I-40 is 150 miles. Supervisor Mitzelfelt is committed to building a new fire station in Amboy, about halfway between Barstow and Needles, and another one near Goffs, about 40 miles west of Needles.

The additional funding is from the federal governmentís Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, which allocates money to states and local jurisdictions that have areas of federal land, which do not generate property taxes. PILT payments are meant to partially offset the cost of providing public services on and around public lands, but the program was never fully funded until last year.

The County had been receiving about $1.8 million in annual PILT payments for the past few years. Congress last year agreed to fully fund the program through 2012 and the County received $2,877,981 in 2008 and $2,958,395 in 2009. Supervisor Mitzelfelt convinced the Board of Supervisors to use the difference, about $1 million per year for five years, for the desert fire stations.

The Board had previously agreed to spend $300,000 for design and engineering of the Amboy station, with another $2.6 million budgeted for construction in Fiscal Year 2010-2011.

In a separate action, the Board agreed to seek $12.6 million from a federal stimulus grant program that is targeted for fire station construction and improvements. If the County receives the grant, it would pay for the new Amboy station, and for new facilities to replace aging fire stations in Wonder Valley and Angeles Oaks.

June 20, 2009

Desert icon Joshua trees are vanishing, scientists say

Mike Cipra, a desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, examines a burned Joshua tree showing signs of growth. Scientists say the effects of global warming could make Joshuas extinct within a century. (Kurt Miller / The Press-Enterprise)

The Press-Enterprise

A breeze stirs the silence at Joshua Tree National Park as a red-tailed hawk takes flight from the spiky arm of one of the namesake plants in search of breakfast.

It's a scene that national parks protector Mike Cipra has witnessed many times. Still, he can't contain his enthusiasm on this early morning outing, despite the gloomy topic he's discussing with a visitor -- the probable extinction of the Joshua tree in the park that bears its name.

The ancient plants are dying in the park, the southern-most boundary of their limited growing region, scientists say. Already finicky reproducers, Joshua trees are the victim of global warming and its symptoms -- including fire and drought -- plus pollution and the proliferation of non-native plants. Experts expect the Joshuas to vanish entirely from the southern half of the state within a century.

The loss would be devastating, said Cipra, who is California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit group that evaluates conditions at national parks and lobbies for their preservation.

"Joshua trees aren't just iconic pictures on a postcard. They're essential to a functioning ecosystem," he said. "We're going to be losing a lot of what makes this place special."

The quirky, almost comical trees are really plants, a relative of the yucca.

Pictured on U2's 1987 album "The Joshua Tree," they look like desert sentries, with fibrous trunks and twisting, outstretched arms.

Joshua trees are a foundation species, providing habitat for other animals that otherwise would disappear, said Cipra, 34, his brown boots crunching on the desert floor as he surveys the boulder-studded Queen Valley. Besides the foraging hawk and a scrub jay calling nearby, there are Scott's orioles that build hanging nests in the trees, rodents that pry food from its seed pods and the Yucca night lizard, the smallest lizard in North America, which nests under its fallen branches, he said.

Growing up in Long Beach, Cipra discovered Joshua trees at 16, when he asked his parents if he could ditch school to camp and explore with a friend in what was then the national monument. The city boy, who went on to USC on an academic scholarship, drew up a list of reasons he wanted to visit the park, top among them the variety of animals he would see.

Cipra said his experience in the desert was life-changing. He went on to become an interpretive ranger at the park -- where his wife works as a biologist -- and now lobbies for governmental policy to protect it. Among the causes he supports is the pending congressional cap-and-trade plan that would limit carbon dioxide emissions and provide money from refiners and power plants to manage the effects of climate change.

"Some experiences in the natural world can be transformative. That's the power of national parks," Cipra said.

'Worst-case scenario'

Predictions for the fate of the Joshua trees, and the web of life they support, are based on six models of climate change developed by Ken Cole, a biologist and geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz., and plant ecologist Kirsten Ironside of Northern Arizona University.

In all of the climate models that looked ahead 100 years, there were no new trees in Joshua Tree National Park, and significant death of existing trees.

"With the Joshua tree, it's like a worst-case scenario. Maybe 80 percent of the current populations will be unable to persist," he said.

The plants were prolific and widespread 11,000 years ago, Cole said, when their seeds were carried long distances from Mexico north to Nevada in the dung of the Shasta ground sloth, now extinct. Now, seeds are transported only short distances by rodents.

The future will bring a temperature increase of about seven degrees, similar to the change between the Ice Age and modern time, Cole said, and with that will come drought and fires.

Fires in Joshua Tree National Park used to be rare, occurring every 50 to 100 years, he said. But in the 1970s, the frequency of fires in the park increased to every three to 10 years.

Fires are fed by non-native plants such as red brome and cheatgrass that remain dry after wildflowers and other natives blow away. Where there used to be dirt patches between vegetation, the invasive grasses provide a continuous bed of tinder that carries fire from plant to plant, he said.

As an example, park spokesman Joe Zarki points to the largest blaze in park history, the Juniper Complex Fire of 1999. Caused by a lightning strike and fed by non-native grasses, the blaze consumed almost 14,000 acres of century-old junipers, pinyon pines, scrub oak and healthy Joshua tree forests, and forced evacuation of the west end of the park. The invasive species, often transported along roads by passing cars, feed on the nitrate and ammonium deposited in the soil by car emissions. Edith Allen, a UC Riverside professor of plant ecology, has found that the levels of those chemicals in the park are 15 to 30 times higher than those in an undisturbed ecosystem.

The park has changed its policy on fires from letting them burn to suppressing them entirely because so much habitat was being destroyed. It can take as long as 200 years for some desert plants to mature.

"The big question that a lot of people are asking about Joshua trees and plants in general: 'Can they (plants) move into new habitats fast enough to keep pace with climate change?' They are running a very slow race," said Christopher Smith, an assistant professor of biology at Willamette University in Salem, Ore.

"The current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher than at any time in the past million years of the Earth's history, and it is clear beyond any reasonable doubt that increasing carbon dioxide will cause the Earth's climate to warm very rapidly," he said.

Park scientists are trying to prevent the spread of the invasive grasses into new areas of the park through monitoring and removal.

They also are encouraging re-vegetation after fires by planting "seed islands," sprouts of native plants surrounded by fencing and a slow-release watering gel. One of those plants, blackbrush, is critical to development of new Joshua trees. The Joshuas grow through the middle of the dry, prickly bush, which protects seedlings from gnawing rabbits and rodents.

No new trees

The National Park Service is grappling with a plan for dealing with climate change. The agency is waiting for national direction on the issue, and so far there is no battle plan, said Zarki, the park spokesman.

Eventually, it could mean mass plantings of Joshua trees and other threatened species, but that raises ethical and logistical questions that are far from being resolved, said Todd Esque, a research ecologist with the USGS in Henderson, Nev. Among those considerations is the source of the seed; purists emphasize local seed to preserve existing resources, while other advocate hybridized seeds to help the plants respond to change, he said.

While Joshua trees will be the losers in the global warming lottery, other plants will thrive.

Palm Springs biologist Jim Cornett, who has studied Joshua trees throughout the Southwest for 20 years, has found that desert fan palms have dramatically increased in the region, as has saguaro cactus of the Sonoran desert.

Cornett has monitored Joshua trees on 10 study sites in California, Utah, Nevada and Arizona. On all but two of the 2½-acre plots, Joshua trees are dying; at Saddleback Butte State Park near Lancaster, there hasn't been a new tree in 20 years.

But in the upper elevations of Cima Dome, in Mojave National Preserve north of Joshua Tree National Park, and Lee Flat at Death Valley National Park, the plants are flourishing, he said. They also are prospering in Tonapah, Nev., their northern boundary where none existed a century ago because it was too cold. Those locations provide more rainfall and the winter cold snaps necessary for the Joshua trees to flower and produce seeds, he said.

Cornett blames the plant deaths on drought, which could be a result of global warming, he said. After each period of drought, more new Joshua trees died off, he said. That included the 42-foot Emily's tree, the largest in Joshua Tree National Park, which was estimated to be 150 to 300 years old when it died three years ago.

"The good news is that humans have the capacity to slow down this rate of climate change and to minimize these impacts," Cornett said. "Other animals don't have that capacity. They're helpless witnesses."

June 18, 2009

Woman dies in crash in preserve

From Staff Reports
Desert Dispatch

CIMA • A 28-year-old woman died from injuries she sustained when her car rolled on Morning Star Mine Road Wednesday morning.

Natasha Nichol Leinaala Mahelona, of Hawaii, was driving northbound on Morning Star Mine Road, around 120 miles east of Barstow inside the Mojave National Preserve, when she lost control of her car according to California Highway Patrol officer Taj Johnson.

Johnson said there were no witnesses, but the car appeared to have rolled several times. Mahelona was pronounced dead at the scene.

The CHP is investigating the accident.

Clouds over solar energy projects

BrightSource Energy, which built a solar generating complex in the Negev Desert in Israel, above, has similar plans for California. (Eilon Paz/BrightSource, via Associated Press)

New York Times

SACRAMENTO — When a company called Ausra filed plans for a big solar power plant in California, it was deluged with demands from a union group that it study the effect on creatures like the short-nosed kangaroo rat and the ferruginous hawk.

By contrast, when a competitor, BrightSource Energy, filed plans for an even bigger solar plant that would affect the imperiled desert tortoise, the same union group, California Unions for Reliable Energy, raised no complaint. Instead, it urged regulators to approve the project as quickly as possible.

One big difference between the projects? Ausra had rejected demands that it use only union workers to build its solar farm, while BrightSource pledged to hire labor-friendly contractors.

As California moves to license dozens of huge solar power plants to meet the state’s renewable energy goals, some developers contend they are being pressured to sign agreements pledging to use union labor. If they refuse, they say, they can count on the union group to demand costly environmental studies and deliver hostile testimony at public hearings.

If they commit at the outset to use union labor, they say, the environmental objections never materialize.

“This does stress the limits of credibility to some extent,” a California energy commissioner, Jeffrey Byron, said at one contentious hearing, “when an attorney representing a labor union is so focused on the potential impact of a solar power plant on birds.”

Union leaders acknowledge that they make aggressive use of the environmental laws, but say they do it out of genuine concern for the sustainability of California’s power industry, not just as a negotiating tactic. And they contend they do not abandon valid environmental objections to a project just because a company signs a labor agreement.

“We’ve been tarred and feathered more than once on this issue,” said Marc Joseph, a lawyer for California Unions for Reliable Energy. “We don’t walk away from environmental issues.”

At proposed fossil-fuel power plants, the union group has long been accused of exploiting environmental laws to force companies into signing labor agreements. The tactic is a subject of perennial discussion in the California legislature, which has considered, but never passed, bills to strip labor of its right to participate in environmental assessments.

What is new is that California Unions for Reliable Energy, a coalition of construction unions, appears to be applying this approach to new-age renewable energy projects, especially solar power plants, which are being fast-tracked to help meet the state’s green power target.

Lawyers for the union both negotiate labor agreements with solar developers and participate in the environmental review of the projects.

California Unions for Reliable Energy insists it is pursuing the long-term interests of its members. If energy projects are held to high environmental standards, the group says, more of them will ultimately get built, and that will mean more union jobs.

Nationwide, as billions of dollars in public and private investment flow to renewable energy projects, the environmental and labor battles being fought in California could prove to be the opening skirmishes of a larger fight over the emerging green economy.

Should Rust Belt factories converted to making solar components and wind turbines be union shops, gateways to the middle-class for a new generation of workers in the green economy? Or will the green economy look more like the service economy, with low-paid employees installing rooftop solar panels and retrofitting buildings?

For the labor movement, green jobs represent an opportunity to regain relevance after years of declining membership.

“Unions are trying to get a foothold in solar, wind and other new green occupations,” said Philip Mattera, research director for Good Jobs First, a labor-oriented research group in Washington.

“We’re at a turning point that will have an impact on the future of the whole economy, and a lot of unions are gearing up.”

But skeptics fear that union control of renewable energy projects will saddle the nascent industry with high costs and undermine its competitiveness.

“These environmental challenges are the unions’ major tactic to maintain their share of industrial construction — we call it greenmail,” said Kevin Dayton, state government affairs director for the Associated Builders and Contractors of California. “The future of solar energy is jeopardized by these unions holding up construction.”

In California, project labor agreements can raise costs on a project by about 20 percent, Mr. Dayton estimated.

The fights of the moment center on solar farms proposed for tens of thousands of acres of desert and agricultural land.

When the utility giant the FPL Group ignored entreaties from California Unions for Reliable Energy to use union labor on a planned 250-megawatt solar farm, it was hit with 144 data requests, demanding details on things like “the engine brand, model, and horsepower rating” of a water pump engine, “the number of man-hours devoted to focused tortoise surveys, by location” and “the role of each individual that participated.”

In filings with the California Energy Commission, Ausra has accused the union group of abusing environmental laws in a bid to extract a labor agreement. FPL’s lawyers accused the group of trying to stall the company’s solar project.

Bob Balgenorth, chairman of the labor group, makes no apologies for pushing hard for union jobs from solar developers while scrutinizing the environmental impact of the projects. “You only have so much land that can accept solar power plants,” said Mr. Balgenorth, who has cultivated strong ties with conservation groups.

“So the question is, should that land be used for low-paid jobs or should that land be used for high-paid jobs?”

Some solar developers say that signing a labor agreement is simply an unavoidable cost of doing business.

“Let’s just say that it is clear to us from experience that if we do not enter into a project labor agreement, the costs and schedule of the project is interminable,” said Douglas Wert, chief executive of Spinnaker Energy, a San Diego company hired to build two solar farms for Portuguese developer Martifer.

After Stirling Energy Systems filed plans with California regulators to install 30,000 solar dishes on 10 square miles of desert land, its executives got a call from Mr. Joseph, the union lawyer. Sean Gallagher, a vice president for Tessera Solar, the development arm for Stirling, said the company declined Mr. Joseph’s request to commit to using union labor.

California Unions for Reliable Energy subsequently filed 143 data requests with the company on the final day such requests could be made, and later intervened in a second, 850-megawatt Stirling solar project.

It was a different story after BrightSource Energy pledged to hire union-friendly contractors to build its Mojave Desert solar power plant complex. Despite questions raised by environmental groups about the project’s impact on wildlife, the union group took no action, according to commission documents.

Mr. Joseph said that the labor group wants to mediate between environmentalists and BrightSource, which is based in Oakland, Calif.

“We’re actually hoping that we can help resolve these issues in a way that allows that project to go forward and gives maximum protection to the desert tortoise,” he said.

He said he sees “absolutely no conflict of interest” in seeking labor agreements from solar developers while challenging the environmental effect of the projects. “It is in the interest of construction workers to have good middle class jobs — and to have conventional and renewable power plants that are sustainable,” Mr. Joseph said.

The union group’s strategy drew plaudits from environmentalists when the group was winning agreements from developers to cut pollution from fossil fuel power plants. But as some conservation groups ally themselves with business interests to push for a rapid rollout of renewable energy, strains are showing in the so-called blue-green alliance.

Some environmental groups are worried that the labor tactics will delay green energy projects and cause a backlash, but they are reluctant to go public with criticisms of the labor movement.

Others, like the Natural Resources Defense Council, are trying to steer clear of the controversy.

The council “hasn’t taken a position on whether union labor should or shouldn’t be used in these projects,” said Sheryl Carter, the group’s co-director of energy programs.

And still others defend the labor group’s role.

Carl Zichella, the Sierra Club’s director of western renewable programs, said California Unions for Reliable Energy had been effective at extracting concessions that aid the environment.

“It’s not a warm fuzzy thing they are doing; it’s a very self-interested thing they’re doing,” he said. “But it has a large ancillary public benefit.”

June 13, 2009

Cactus rustling's prickly past


In the early 1900s, gardeners took a shine to the prickly plants, and 'cactus rustling' was born.

This postcard from the collection of historian Sam Watters shows a colorized rendering of a Moreland Distillate Truck in the Mojave Desert. (Sam Watters)

Los Angeles Times

L.A. gardeners have been going native for more than a century. Around 1900, nurseryman and plant sleuth Theodore Payne pushed for West Coast flowers and shrubs. His word was gospel: "Be a good Californian: Be loyal to your own state and keep your landscape Californian." Payne was not alone. The Garden Club of America, founded in 1913, helped bring native plants to thousands of homes, and its female members replanted countrysides wrecked by industrial sprawl.

Native gardeners delivered their message with moral fervor, convinced that good people raise good plants. But their actions weren't so high-toned when it came to planting grandma's cactus patch.

Cactuses were survivors like L.A.'s settlers and reminded Southlanders how far they'd come. Cactus said: "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore." As Southern California developed, new homeowners ordered shaggy pitahaya, yucca, aloe, euphorbia, senecio and agave for bungalow backyards.

Horticulturists working for nurseries and competitive collectors met demand by developing a cactus league of their own. They raided Arizona, Cuba and Guatemala. In 1918, expert Paul Howard prowled along the Texas- Mexico border. With dynamite, hammers, wedges and chisels, he blasted ancient specimens from their native terrain for deportation north to the West Adams greenhouse of his patron, oil millionaire Edward L. Doheny.

The less ambitious headed to the Colorado Desert, a checkerboard of private and public land overseen by the federal General Land Office. Undeveloped acres were an untapped, and unpoliced, mine of cactus gold. All a plants man needed was transportation between remote fueling depots.

Nominated by his peers as Mr. Truck of California, Watt Moreland was an early Los Angeles inventor. In 1909, at an auto show held in Hamburger's department store in downtown L.A., he introduced a long-range motor. The following year Moreland opened the Moreland Motor Truck Co. He manufactured six models with a Gasifier engine fueled by distillate, a form of diesel. Distillate got 60 miles to a gallon and was cheaper than oats for a horse.

Watt marketed his trucks through newspapers, trade magazines and postcards. In one, two workers hang out in a Joshua tree, a species uprooted for suburbia and sliced and diced to make surgical splints. Below, more men wait by a Moreland, some desert loot barely visible in back. The running board boasts that this cactus chariot has passed an unspecified "Official 2000 Mile Fuel Test," guaranteeing the eco-tourist and eco-thief a safe round trip between backyard and God's garden.

When Spanish Revival haciendas were fashionable in the 1920s, "cactus rustling" by car became an interstate hobby. Back seats and trunks were ideal for transporting stolen plants back to L.A. for replanting in courtyard pots. Persistent poaching denuded the Mojave and stripped Devil's Garden along the road from L.A. to Palm Springs.

Minerva Hamilton Hoyt of Pasadena came to the rescue. Supported by the Garden Club of America, she promoted desert preservation at plant exhibitions. In 1928, she shipped cactuses by rail and air for display at New York's annual flower show. In 1930, she organized the International Deserts Conservation League. At Hoyt's urging, Mexican President Pascual Ortiz Rubio set aside a 10,000-acre cactus forest near Tehuacán and anointed Hoyt the "Apostle of Cacti."

She pushed the Hoover administration to create a California cactus park, but her effort failed as the Depression deepened. It took Franklin D. Roosevelt to realize her vision. In 1936, the president established Joshua Tree National Monument. Hoyt helped stop the crime wave and Moreland closed shop in 1942. But cactus theft continues. Officials in Arizona embed tracking chips in saguaros residing at the Saguaro National Park. In Palm Desert, police patrol to protect their city's plants.

Going native has never been easy. At what cost do we transplant the exotic and rare from remote canyons and unprotected hillsides? Is a cactus that matures in one desert still native when it's in yours?

June 12, 2009

The London Bridge: 38 Years as One of Arizona's Biggest Attractions

As the London Bridge approaches its 40th year in Lake Havasu City, it remains one of the busiest attractions in all of Arizona. Accounting for millions of visitors, this famous structure is responsible for making Lake Havasu City what it is today.

Lake Havasu City, Ariz. -- A stately icon known the world over through reputation and song, the London Bridge is one of the most famous bridges in the world. While many know of its current location, the story of how this famous structure came to reside in Lake Havasu City, Arizona is an interesting one.

The London Bridge moved to this desert community in 1968, after being purchased by town founder Robert P. McCulloch. He was looking for something to put his fledgling community on the map, and when his partner C.V. Wood, known for designing Disneyland, heard about the bridge going up for sale, they knew this was the hook they were looking for.

“They really wanted something that was going to make Lake Havasu City famous,” said Ruth Brydon, curator of the Lake Havasu Museum of History. “They knew having the London Bridge in their new city would attract a lot of attention, and new residents.”

The bridge, originally designed by John Rennie and opened in London in 1831, was one of many to inhabit that spot. Historians believe the first London Bridge may have been constructed as early as 50 A.D. by Roman soldiers. Since then numerous structures have spanned the river Thames, including the one now living in Arizona.

Due to its sheer weight as well as heavy traffic flow, the solid granite bridge was sinking slowly but surely into the soft sediments on the bottom of the river Thames. The leaders of the city of London knew a replacement needed to be built, but there was debate on what they would do with their beloved bridge. The decision was made to find someone interested in purchasing it.

They knew a lot of people would be interested in the old bridge, but they wanted it to be for the right reasons. “The fear was someone would take the bridge’s stones and use them for other projects. They wanted the new owner to reassemble it, make it an attraction somewhere so it may live on,” Brydon said.

McCulloch and Wood drafted a bid in the hopes of being able to bring the bridge to Lake Havasu City. They estimated the cost of dismantling the structure at $1.2 million, then doubled that figure to give the city of London a 100 percent return on their investment. Figuring someone else could come up with that same formula, McCulloch then added $1,000 for each year of his age, to come up with the final bid of $2.64 million.

McCulloch’s bid was declared the winner and the bridge was dismantled. Each brick was given a number corresponding with its arch and location within that arch. The stones were then loaded on to barges, where they were shipped across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and on to Long Beach, where they completed the rest of their journey by truck.

The bridge’s delivers to the US also created an interesting historical note. When being checked through customs, the bridge was listed as an “antique”. This lead to the bridge’s official title as World’s Largest Antique.

Assembly took a few years, as not only did the bridge have to be rebuilt to meet Department of Transportation standards, but the channel had to be dug because at that time, the bridge had no water to stand over. “Back then, the island was a peninsula. While crews were busy dredging the channel, the dirt from the dig was used to support the arches while they were reconstructed,” Brydon said. Historical photos offer documentation of this support process.

After three years of work, the London Bridge was dedicated with a tremendous ceremony October 10, 1971. The Lord Major of London was in attendance, as well as numerous international dignitaries, celebrities and local residents who now called Lake Havasu City home. Decades later, the celebration is still commemorated in a weeklong festival known as London Bridge Days.

Even 38 years later, the London Bridge remains an integral part of the community. “We have so many people who come to us who want to see the bridge,” said Jan Kassies who runs the Visitor Information Center beneath the bridge. “People from England come to see it, as they remember when it was back in their country. They like saying they walked across one bridge on two continents,” he laughed.

While many remember the bridge from England, they often remark at how different it looks. “The stones used to be black when it spanned the Thames,” said Gary Asbury, who runs London Bridge Ghost Tours which takes a look at haunted history of the bridge. “The soot from countless chimneys had coated the stones. But the desert sun bleached it out, so the stones now look more like they did when they were originally quarried.”

Some marks left on the bridge while in London, however, are more indelible. Bullet holes riddle one of the arches, the result of an allied airplane shooting down a German aircraft at the base of the bridge. “The London Bridge is the only structure in the continental United States that has damage from the Second World War,” Kassies said. “We even had someone in the visitor center who confirmed the story about the German fighter plane shot down by a Spitfire in front of the bridge. He was there.”

The allure of the bridge certainly attracts a lot of attention, as an estimated 3.5 million people visit it each year. Traffic counts have put the number of cars crossing the bridge on any given day at 10,000, and still countless more boating beneath it.

“The London Bridge is a central part of Lake Havasu City and who we are as a town. It’s the reason the city is such a popular destination. People come for the lake, for the beautiful scenery and the activities, but the London Bridge is what got their attention,” said Kassies.

NV Energy to buy power from Searchlight solar plant

By Steve Green
Las Vegas Sun

The small town of Searchlight in Southern Nevada moved another step toward becoming a big energy center Thursday with the announcement of a deal by NV Energy to buy power from a big solar plant planned for the community.

Searchlight, on U.S. 95 between Boulder City and the California town of Needles, is already proposed to be the site of a big wind energy farm to be operated by Duke Energy. With 161 turbines producing 370 megawatts of power on public land totaling 26,000 acres, that project could serve 100,000 homes.

NV Energy and American Capital Energy announced Thursday they have entered into a long-term power purchase agreement for the sale of energy produced from ACE's 20-megawatt solar photovoltaic power plant to be constructed in the desert near Searchlight, 55 miles south of Las Vegas.

The project, expected to be completed by mid-2010, will be larger than the 14-MW photovoltaic plant completed in 2007 at Nellis Air Force Base. The Nellis plant, toured by President Obama on a recent visit to Las Vegas, is the largest photovoltaic facility currently operating in the United States, NV Energy said.

At 20 megawatts, the Searchlight plant will serve about 4,000 homes, said Tom Anderson, ACE's director of Southwest Business Development. In comparison, Acciona's Boulder City solar plant generates 64 megawatts. It uses a different technology in which concentrated sunlight heats a liquid.

"This is another major step in our commitment to bringing power from renewable resources to the citizens of Nevada," Michael Yackira, NV Energy president and chief executive, said in a statement on Thursday's deal. "Our state is blessed with abundant solar, geothermal and wind resources, and expanding the use of these resources through power purchases of this kind or direct investment in renewable projects is one of our top priorities."

Terms of the power purchase agreement, which is subject to approval by the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada, were not disclosed.

The agreement will assist NV Energy in meeting Nevada’s renewable energy standard, which was recently increased by the Legislature. The standard now requires that 25 percent of energy be generated by renewable resources and energy efficiency and conservation programs by 2025.

The companies said all of the electricity output from the plant will go to customers of NV Energy’s southern service territory.

Construction of the project is expected to create more than 120 jobs and will further develop Nevada’s burgeoning renewable energy workforce, the companies said.

"American Capital Energy is excited about the Searchlight Solar I solar PV project. We are honored to have been selected to work with NV Energy to deliver clean, renewable solar energy to Southern Nevada," Tom Hunton, CEO of Massachusetts-based ACE, said in a statement.

In a presentation earlier this year to the Searchlight Town Advisory Board, ACE officials said the plant is planned for 215 acres of private land 1 mile northwest of U.S. 95 and state Highway 164 headed toward Nipton, Calif.

Anderson said the cost of the project isn't being disclosed and that the deal with NV Energy will help the company obtain financing for the project.

The company plans to work on construction permitting this year and start building the plant in early 2010, assuming the power-purchase deal is approved by the Public Utilities Commission.

ACE, he said, has built about 20 energy projects while its executives combined have built hundreds of such projects.

He said ACE has been working with the Searchlight community and feels it has support there for the project.

"NV Energy is becoming one of the more progressive renewable energy utilities," he added.

June 10, 2009

Edison to decommission Mohave power plant

The company closed the coal-fired facility in Laughlin NV in 2006 because it needed expensive upgrades.

Associated Press
Los Angeles Times

The owners of the closed Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev., said Wednesday that they would decommission the coal-fired power plant, which once supplied electricity to 1.5 million homes.

Southern California Edison Co. operated the 1,580-megawatt plant since it came online in 1971, and the company owned 56% of the facility on the Colorado River.

Edison shut down the plant in 2006 because it needed pollution-control upgrades to comply with a 1999 Clean Air Act settlement, a new water supply and pipeline upgrades costing $1.1 billion.

The plant's owners said they would decommission the plant and remove the generating facility from the site. Its operating permits will be terminated next year.

The utility is considering selling the property or constructing a renewable-energy project. Edison spokesman Gil Alexander said the utility had studied the property, its topography and the climate to determine whether it would be suitable for a renewable project, but no decisions had been made.

Roger Clark, air and energy director for the Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff, Ariz., one of the groups that sued over pollution controls, said he was pleased that the owners would dismantle the plant and were considering renewable energy.

"It's the final chapter on the story of Mohave as a coal plant," Clark said. "Until the owners decided to go ahead and decommission it and take it apart, there was always a chance someone could buy it and crank it up again."

Edison had planned to upgrade and restart the power plant but said in June 2006 that the plant needed too many repairs for the effort to go forward.

The Salt River Project, which owns 20% of the plant, later sought to take over operation from Edison but abandoned the effort in 2007 after its offer to buy Edison's ownership interest was rebuffed.

Other owners of the plant included Nevada Power Co. with 14% and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power with 10%.

June 9, 2009

Memorial cross finds 3 allies in Supreme Court fight

By Drew Zahn

The Mojave Cross.

A World War I memorial cross built in the Mojave Desert by the Veterans of Foreign Wars to honor their fallen comrades has come under attack from the American Civil Liberties Union, which claims the display on federal land violates the First Amendment. The ACLU has further fought against transfer of the cross to into private hands, insisting instead that it be destroyed.

But as the fate of the cross rests now with the U.S. Supreme Court, three new allies have come to the side of the VFW and the memorial it established 75 years ago.

The American Center for Law and Justice, Liberty Counsel and the Thomas More Law Center have all filed briefs with the court this week in support of the monument, calling the ACLU's case ill-founded.

"Passive displays like the World War I Memorial, the Ten Commandments, Nativity scenes, or statements like the National Motto do not force anyone to participate in a religious exercise and, thus, do not establish religion," said Mathew D. Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, in a statement. "This case reveals the extreme lengths the ACLU will go to in order to erase religious monuments.

"For 75 years this cross in the Mojave Desert did not disturb anyone," Staver continued. "It stood as a memorial to the heroes of World War I. Removing this memorial would be an insult to our war veterans. Doing so under the guise of the First Amendment is an insult to the Framers of the Constitution."

As WND reported, the Mojave Desert Memorial Cross in the Mojave National Preserve was erected in 1934 by World War I veterans who wanted a place to remember their lost trench-mates from the big war.

But the ACLU, representing a man from Oregon who has alleged he might drive on a desert road in California and might be offended by the cross, has won lower court rulings that the cross must cease to exist.

After a federal district court held that display of the cross violated the Establishment Clause within the First Amendment, Congress directed the Department of the Interior to convey one acre of property that included the memorial to the VFW in exchange for a five-acre parcel of equal value. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit determined that the cross – and the land transfer – violated the Establishment Clause. Further, the cross has since been enclosed in plywood to prevent people from seeing it until the case is resolved.

The ACLJ, however, representing itself and 15 members of the House of Representatives – House Minority Leader John Boehner, Todd Akin, Michele Bachmann, Roy Blunt, Eric Cantor, Randy Forbes, Scott Garrett, Walter Jones, Jim Jordan, Doug Lamborn, Thaddeus McCotter, Jeff Miller, Mike Pence, Joseph Pitts, and Joe Wilson – believes the ACLU has overstretched its preferred definition of the "separation of church and state" yet again.

"The high court should reject this legal challenge and conclude that the government's action is not only appropriate but constitutional," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ, in a statement. "This case represents the most extreme example of a phenomenon that has plagued the federal courts for decades: Ideologically motivated citizens and public interest groups search out alleged Establishment Clause violations, almost always in the form of a passive religious symbol or display of some sort, and turn it into a federal case because they are offended. It's time for the high court to put an end to this disturbing practice."

Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel for the Thomas More Law Center, added in a statement, "Since the beginning of America, crosses have been used to memorialize our fallen war veterans and to give solace to their families and comrades. Ironically, the Ninth Circuit used the very Constitution these veterans defended with their lives to order the destruction of the memory of their heroic sacrifices."

Furthermore, as WND has reported, the Liberty Legal Institute has launched a website called Don't Tear Me Down that describes the attack on the cross in the desert, which now needs a favorable ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court or faces demolition.

Attorneys with the Liberty Legal Institute, which calls the case a "microcosm" of the trend of hostility towards veterans' memorials in the U.S, say the impact will reach many more memorials than just the one in California. They earlier set up a SaveOurMemorials.com website to warn about the situation.

Besides the Mojave Desert cross, which the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered destroyed, there also has been pending dispute over the Mt. Soledad memorial where an atheist sued for the removal of a cross image, a recent attempt by a religious group called Summum that could have forced the removal of donated Ten Commandments monuments in Utah, an attempt to take the Ten Commandments away from a historic location in Texas, and the order to remove a Ten Commandments reference in Kentucky.

In the Mojave Desert cross dispute, Liberty Legal filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the Military Order of the Purple Heart and others seeking permission for the cross to remain because the land on which it stands originally had been owned by the VFW, which donated it to the government in the 1930s.

The organization responded to the unfavorable court ruling by donating five acres of land to the government and submitting a request that it be allowed to retrieve the monument. A court shot down the plan.

"It is bad enough to say that the veterans’ memorial is unconstitutional, but it is outrageous to say that the government cannot give the monument back to the people who spilled their blood and put it there in the first place,” said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of Liberty Legal Institute and attorney for the veterans groups.

According to the campaign, "If they win and succeed in tearing down this monument, what's next? Imagine what could happen at the Arlington National Cemetery. Will they put bags over all the crosses that mark the graves of our fallen heroes? … We believe America should remember and honor her veterans; and were taking our case to the U.S. Supreme Court to tell the ACLU that they can't tear down our freedom!"

According to a video on the Don't Tear Me Down campaign website, the veterans of World War I chose the rock because of the image of a doughboy that appears in the rock's creased face under certain light conditions.

Veteran Henry Sandoz and his wife, Wanda, have volunteered their time for years to keep up the site.

The campaign warns, "Across America, our precious war memorials are under attack by liberal groups such as the ACLU. These left-wing extremists want to REMOVE ALL public tributes to the brave men and women who gave their lives for freedom simply because these memorials use Scripture, crosses and other religious symbols."

The outcome of the court case "will determine if we can continue to honor and respect our veterans, or if we must wipe their memories from the public square. If not overturned, this case will impact every veterans' memorial and those they were built to remember," the organization said.

"This is a critical case that will once again put the spotlight on the constitutionality of religious displays and the proper role of the government and its actions," said Sekulow. "There's nothing wrong with the government transferring property containing symbols with religious significance to private parties. We're hopeful that the high court will conclude that the long-standing display of this cross does not create a constitutional crisis and that the action by the federal government represented a constitutionally-sound solution."

In a commentary on WND, Rees Lloyd, a longtime California civil rights attorney, veteran and director of the Defense of Veterans Memorials Project, said the same issues also were involved in the long-running Mt. Soledad Memorial case.

Lloyd said judges who are not accountable to the people should not be able to overrule what people want. In the Mt. Soledad case, not only was the memorial approved by voters, Congress and the president agreed to protect it, only to be overruled by a single judge.

In the 17-year-long Mt. Soledad case, a judge eventually said the veterans memorial near San Diego is constitutional and can remain.

"When the cross is considered in the context of the larger memorial and especially the numerous other secular elements, the primary effect is patriotic and nationalistic, not religious," wrote U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns.

"The Court finds the memorial at Mt. Soledad, including its Latin cross, communicates the primarily non-religious messages of military service, death and sacrifice," he said.

June 7, 2009

Underground water storage plan draws fresh concern

City News Service
The Desert Sun

A Los Angeles company with huge landholdings in the California deserts has resurrected its controversial plan to store vast amounts of Colorado River water under the ground, for public agencies to use in dry spells.

The plan by Cadiz Inc. echoes a 1999 proposal that prompted fears of “water mining” in the large desert valley north of the Joshua Tree National Monument. The critics said Cadiz would be able to overdraft amounts of existing groundwater from fragile desert soils while not replacing all of it or distributing the new supplies over the entire area.

But the new proposal has already been endorsed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as a critical water conservation tool during an epic drought.

Cadiz said late Friday it has letters of intent from three municipalities and a large private water company to, in essence, rent water storage facilities from Cadiz in underground basins lying beneath its vast landholdings in the Mojave Desert. The company did not state which government agencies had signed the letters of intent.

Cadiz did say, however, that it had signed a San Dimas-based private water company, Golden State Water Company, as a potential client. Golden State has customers in five Southland counties.

A similar proposal that had the backing of the massive Metropolitan Water District was made in 1999, but the district pulled out in 2002. Environmentalists objected, saying the proposed 44-mile pipeline, wells and injection facilities would mar the desert and harm endangered animals like desert tortoises.

Back in 2002, desert residents said the groundwater storage project would also draw down existing underground supplies, causing desert springs to dry up and endangering bighorn sheep. They also predicted massive sandstorms would likely occur as the Cadiz Dry Lake lost the scant groundwater that keeps the salt and dust in a crust.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked hard questions about the project and noted that most of the aquifer that would be used by Cadiz lies under public land that has since been added to the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Monument.

On Friday, Cadiz said it has picked up an early endorsement from California's governor, who reportedly told Cadiz that he hailed the idea as an “innovative project, utilizing sophisticated water conservation practices.”

Schwarzenegger noted that the underground water storage concept would allow water to be banked without losing liquid assets to evaporation.

The underground aquifer that would be inflated with imported water would be under the Twentynine Palms area.

June 5, 2009

Survey airplane to scan desert details

Flights to collect seismic, groundwater data

By EUNICE LEE, staff writer
Desert Dispatch

In 1992, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists used this airplane, specially equipped with a magnetometer (white boom at rear of aircraft), to measure variations in the Earth's magnetic field. The USGS uses such aircraft to study geologic hazards, mineral resources, and environmental problems throughout the United States. (USGS)

If you happen to see an airplane flying lower than usual over areas of the High Desert in the coming month, don’t be alarmed, say officials from the United States Geological Survey.

The USGS will be conducting low-level flights in a survey project to gather data on seismic fault lines, magnetic fields, ground water flow and other geological measurements starting Saturday, according to Vicki Langenheim, a geophysicist for the USGS based in Menlo Park.

“We’re basically using it to establish a geological framework for the area,” said Langenheim.

For one month, a small aircraft will cruise between Fort Irwin and the Marine Corps Center in Twentynine Palms’ restricted airspace at speeds of 180 mph to 190 mph at 1,000 feet above ground, said Langenheim.

The flights will pass over areas near Barstow, Ludlow, Baker and the Mojave National Preserve, according to the USGS press release. The plane will make one to two trips per day for about five hours at a time during daylight hours, Langenheim noted.

Langenheim said the flights shouldn’t bother residents too much since the small two-engine airplane will fly at constant speeds and won’t be throttling up or making sudden loud noises.

A magnetometer, which looks like a six- to seven-foot-long pole, will be attached to the back end of the plane.

Langenheim said that collecting data on seismic fault lines will help scientists learn more about how earthquakes happen as well as locate groundwater in the desert.

“It’s kind of the building blocks for doing these kind of predictive studies,” she said.

The USGS recently finished a survey flight along the central coast of California that was scheduled to last two months, according to Spokeswoman Marisa Lubeck.

The last time a survey was conducted in the Mojave Desert area was in the early 1980s, according to Langenheim.

June 1, 2009

Renewable energy sparks a probe of a modern-day land rush

Interior Department investigates an acquisition that involves use of public land for renewable energy. A larger issue: establishing standards for private companies using federal stimulus money.

By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

A rush to stake claims for renewable energy projects in the California desert has triggered a federal investigation and prompted calls for reforms to prevent public lands from being exposed to private profiteering and environmental degradation.

Officials said last week that the inspector general's office of the Department of the Interior was investigating Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar Inc.'s recent acquisition of Hayward, Calif.-based OptiSolar, and its unfinished renewable energy projects, for $400 million. The deal gave First Solar control of what the company described as OptiSolar's "strategic land rights" to 136,000 acres of public land in San Bernardino, Riverside and Kern counties.

Bureau of Land Management officials, however, said First Solar acquired OptiSolar's applications to develop that land.

"There is no value associated with a mere application, which could be rejected by us for a variety of reasons," said Greg Miller, renewable energy program manager for the BLM office in Moreno Valley.

"A company can buy another company along with its applications, as long as those applications are not listed as assets. That would be wrong," Miller said. "We're trying to weed out speculators who are filing applications, then waiting for someone to buy them at the highest price."

First Solar spokeswoman Lisa Morse said the transaction was above board. "We now have OptiSolar, and the applications were an important part of it for us," she said. "OptiSolar, which we acquired as a whole, is now a subsidiary of First Solar."

David Brown, special agent in charge of investigations for the inspector general's Western region, declined to discuss any ongoing investigation. But he said that any company that might receive federal stimulus money is a concern and that his office is trying to get ahead of any potential problems by reviewing all such projects.

The investigation comes amid debate over how best to control burgeoning renewable energy industries as they overwhelm the chronically understaffed and underfunded BLM with an avalanche of applications. Environmentalists say the situation is a preeminent conservation issue and a crucial test of the Obama administration's commitment to the environment.

Three years ago, the bureau had six applications for solar energy projects on file. Over the last year, it has received 130 additional applications from 50 companies, covering about 600,000 acres -- much of it in one of the sunniest regions on Earth, the Mojave Desert.

Some applicants are asking for parcels as small as 250 acres. Then there is Cogentrix Solar Investments, which is seeking more than 300,000 acres.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's executive order that a third of the state's electricity come from renewable resources by 2020 -- coupled with billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds expected to become available next year for wind, solar and biofuel projects -- has the BLM whipsawed by opposing forces.

Companies queuing up to develop solar farms say they want to replace imported oil and facilitate a national clean-energy economy. The environmental community also wants to ensure that scenic landscapes and ecosystems are not trampled in the process.

"My concern is that highly speculative and perhaps fraudulent investment games are being played with hundreds of thousands of acres of public land," said Bruce Pavlik, a professor of biology at Mills College.

San Francisco attorney Peter Weiner, whose clients include renewable energy companies and trade organizations, would not go that far.

"The fears of paving over the desert are not well-taken; there will ultimately be many fewer projects than there are applications," he said. "But it would be a mistake to think we can free ourselves from foreign oil and fossil fuels without impacting other environmental values."

In the meantime, applications for proposed renewable energy projects continue to stack up in BLM desert offices.

Hot spots of contention include 600,000 acres of former railroad lands between Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park.

The land was purchased with $40 million in private donations collected by the Wildlands Conservancy and $18 million in federal funds, then donated to the Department of Interior for conservation.

Earlier this year, however, environmentalists were outraged to learn that the BLM was entertaining 19 applications for renewable energy projects on the donated lands, which Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wants to transform into a national monument.

Feinstein urged Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to suspend the applications.

Salazar, in a seeming compromise, responded by saying that "both national priorities -- developing renewable energy and preserving our treasured landscapes -- can be accommodated with careful siting and mutual consideration."

James Wesley Abbott, acting state director of the BLM, sided with Feinstein on Wednesday and instructed all deputy state directors, district managers and field offices to avoid authorizing more applications, or development, on lands acquired under donor agreements.

A coalition of a dozen environmental groups led by the Wildlands Conservancy has identified 137,000 acres of public and private agricultural and degraded desert lands -- all near existing transmission lines -- that could be used for solar energy farms.

"On these alternative lands we can unite what otherwise would be conflicting environmental interests," said David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy.

"It would be a real shame if the public policy for our new green economy was driven haphazardly by speculators," he said.

Flat-tailed horned lizard is between a rock and extinction

The rare reptile may have one more chance, thanks to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

A flat-tailed horned lizard trying to hide in the dry mustard plants in the Coachella Valley Preserve.

By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Palm Springs -- As the sun rose over a wind-swept stretch of desert just east of Palm Springs, Cameron Barrows tramped over a series of dunes, identifying animal tracks in the sand -- kangaroo rat, shovel-nosed snake, cottontail, pocket mouse, sidewinder rattlesnake.

It took nearly two hours to find what he was looking for in the desolate patch framed by Interstate 10, two golf courses, retirement homes, country clubs and stores: fresh tracks of a flat-tailed horned lizard, one of the rarest and most legally contested reptiles in the United States.

"This is the last corner in the Coachella Valley that still has a population of these lizards," said Barrows, a research ecologist at UC Riverside and an expert on the secretive creature with a face that resembles the parched and thorny landscape it prefers. "Nearly all of its habitat in this region has been lost since 1970."

In the latest chapter in a long-running battle to keep the lizard safe from urban encroachment, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider its earlier decisions not to list it as an endangered species.

Environmentalists were elated by the ruling, which rejected a Bush administration policy they said favored development and corporate interests at the expense of the flat-tailed horned lizard and scores of other fragile plants and animals.

"This is the third time in 15 years since the lizard was first proposed for listing that a court has told the Fish and Wildlife Service to go back and review its refusal to protect it," Kara Gillon, senior staff attorney with Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. "We're hoping the third time is the charm. These lizards are running out of time."

The flat-tailed horned lizard is only the latest creature in recent weeks to be reconsidered for special federal protection. In response to lawsuits and petitions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also agreed to reconsider the Tehachapi slender salamander and critical habitat for the Sonoma County population of California tiger salamander.

Over the years, federal wildlife authorities insisted that the flat-tailed horned lizard was simply hard to find and, as a result, difficult to classify as threatened by extinction.

But biologists contend the lizard continues to decline throughout its historic range in Arizona, California and Baja California. In the Coachella Valley, it has been pushed into the tiny refuge by the growing desert metropolis that stretches from Palm Springs to the Salton Sea.

A century ago, the lizard was widespread and dynamic, moving east and west with changes in climate and the availability of sand in what was then a wide-open, treeless landscape. The first waves of significant habitat loss occurred in the 1930s, '40s and '50s as a result of a boom in agriculture.

Later, its historic haunts were fragmented and destroyed by roads, off-road vehicles, light industry, suburban tracts, condominiums and commercial centers. In the Palm Springs area -- the western edges of its range -- some populations were stranded by development and disappeared.

Today, the sole remnant of the population clings to existence in a pocket of dunes, creosote and salt bush within the Coachella Valley National Wildlife Refuge, where a new, unanticipated danger threatens its future. Power poles and exotic palm trees favored by landscapers have become perches used by small falcons to spot prey and launch hunting sorties.

As a result, "flat-tailed horned lizards are no longer found on the edges of their last habitat," Barrows said. "I've suggested that the surrounding palm trees be trimmed in the spring to keep small predatory birds from nesting in them."

Striding across a trio of dunes while scanning the ground for signs of the lizard, he said, "This animal is hard to find even in the best of times. So we count their tracks, which requires a lot of patience and training."

A full day of searching on a recent Saturday yielded six tracks.

The lizard -- 3 1/2 inches long and a voracious consumer of harvester ants -- has been the focus of court battles since it was first proposed for listing in 1993.

Now, in response to legal challenges brought by a coalition of environmental groups -- the Tucson Herpetological Society, Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Horned Lizard Conservation Society and the Sierra Club -- the 9th Circuit Court has ordered the agency to think again about the lizard's survival.

In the meantime, it shares the sun-scorched refuge with another unique and controversial representative of Coachella Valley desert life also threatened with extinction: the fringe-toed lizard, a small reptile with a patchwork of brick-like markings and feet shaped so it can "swim" through loose sand.

Judging from the number of tracks the lizards leave etched in the sand, there many more fringe-toed lizards.

"Will the flat-tailed horned lizard survive? We don't know," said Allan Muth, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and director of the Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center, south of Palm Desert.

"Small, isolated populations tend to wink out. That's why there is so much importance attached to this case."