July 30, 2009

Wild donkeys to be removed from area

Burros will be relocated over 100 miles away

Desert Dispatch

Greg Cook lassos a baby burro during a round-up in Panamint Valley at Fort Irwin in 2005. Over 60 burros were removed during that gathering, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

FORT IRWIN • Up to 100 burros — wild donkeys — at Fort Irwin and areas bordering Death Valley National Park will soon be rounded up and relocated over 100 miles away.


Fort Irwin officials have said that burros roaming outside designated areas are causing a nuisance and have contracted with the Bureau of Land Management to remove the animals.

According to Anthony Chavez, BLM range land management specialist, natural springs at Fort Irwin have attracted large numbers of burros.

“When you only have one water source...where else are they going to go? They’re going to concentrate there and have some impact,” Chavez said, noting that other animals, like desert tortoises have to share the area and have been negatively impacted. Fort Irwin shares the same space as the desert tortoise, which has been listed as a threatened species since 1992.

According to Clarence Everly, natural resources program manager at Fort Irwin, burros will even show up during soldier training.

Burros “roam through live fire training areas on the installation,” Everly wrote in an e-mail. Training halts each time this happens, he noted.

“These burros pretty much roam freely between Fort Irwin and public land,” Chavez said.

Fort officials have contracted with the BLM to remove up to 40 donkeys from around the military base, including areas near the Goldstone Deep Space Network Complex, starting in late August, according to Alex Neibergs, wild horse and burros specialist for the BLM. The burros’ new home, although temporary, will be Ridgecrest, which is about 150 miles northwest of Barstow. Another 40 to 60 burros will be trapped at Owl Hole Springs near Death Valley.

The burros will be kept at the BLM’s holding facility in Ridgecrest, where they will then be put up for adoption.

This isn’t the first time that burros have been removed from the fort. In 2004, 17 burros were captured and removed, according to Neibergs. In 2005, 66 were removed.

Neibergs said the four-legged, 400 lbs. creatures are relatively easy to domesticate and are often used as pets or guard animals for livestock.

“They go quick. It’s hard for us to keep burros,” said Chavez.

The BLM is required to take public comments when an animal gathering requires helicopters or motorized vehicles, according to Spokesman David Briery. The Barstow Field Office has tentatively set a public hearing for late August, said Briery.

Senate passes bill to close Nevada's Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site

The $34.3-billion energy measure would also allow water transfers to help California farmers suffering from severe drought conditions. Similar legislation has been approved by the House.

Associated Press
Los Angeles Times

Outside Yucca Mountain.

Washington -- The Senate on Wednesday passed a $34.3-billion energy spending bill that backs up President Obama's promise to close the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility in Nevada.

The bill, passed by a 85-9 vote, also covers water transfers to help farmers in California and hundreds of water projects by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The House passed a similar bill two weeks ago. Once the measures are reconciled, the bill will go to the president for his signature.

The Yucca Mountain project, 90 miles from Las Vegas, was designed to hold 77,000 tons of waste but has been strongly opposed by the Nevada delegation.

The move fulfills Obama's campaign promise to close Yucca Mountain, which was 25 years and $13.5 billion in the making. It would, however, leave the country without a long-term solution for storing highly radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.

The 1987 law requiring waste to be stored at Yucca Mountain remains on the books, however, so the project could in theory be revived. The Yucca Mountain project would still receive the $196.8 million budgeted by Obama for work on the site, although the money wouldn't be used to ship waste there.

The Senate also adopted an amendment by California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to allow water transfers to help California farmers suffering from severe drought conditions.

"I view this as a breakthrough in the water wars in California," Boxer said. "We were able to bring environmentalists together with the water districts."

The provision would facilitate transfer of water from the eastern portion of the San Joaquin Valley to the western part of the valley that has been particularly affected by a multiyear drought. Comparable language is in the House measure.

July 29, 2009

Korean Visitor Dies Of Heat Exposure

Mesquite Dunes. (James Gordon)

Death Valley National Park
National Park News

The park received notification that several people were down with heat-related issues at the Mesquite Dunes area near Stove Pipe Wells on the afternoon of Sunday, July 26th.

Rangers were on scene within minutes and found six people at their vehicle who were all displaying symptoms indicating varying degrees of heat exposure. All were South Korean nationals. They told the rangers that another member of their party had collapsed in the dunes and had been dragged into what scant shade was available.

Rangers John Fish, Jennifer Yeager, and maintenance worker Kit Oesterling, with assistance from one of the members of the party, located the woman under a creosote bush and determined that she had expired. She was identified as 52-year-old Sohee Koo. Koo and other members of her group were from a Buddhist monastery; they were traveling together, but not as part of a commercial tour group.

The ambient air temperature at the time was 123 degrees Fahrenheit, with ground temperatures approaching 140 degrees.

The Inyo County Sheriffs Office and the Inyo County coroner were advised of the situation and responded. Group members were triaged and treated at the scene by rangers. Two of them showed symptoms of heat exposure, but refused further medical treatment.

Communications proved to be a challenge because only a few members of the group were able to speak English and cultural protocols required them to communicate through a group elder who did not speak English. Next of kin and South Korean consulate notifications were made by the Inyo County Sheriffs Office with assistance from district ranger John Fish.

Most of the rangers assigned to this mission had to be diverted to a vehicle fire at Towne Pass 13 miles west of the incident scene, leaving Fish and ranger Amber Nattrass to finish patient treatment, investigation and assist with the recovery of Koo’s body.

The Inyo County Sheriff’s Office is the lead agency in this investigation.

July 27, 2009

Edison dismantles Daggett solar project

The central tower used in the Solar Two project in Daggett in the 1990s awaits dismantling on Wednesday. (Staff Photo by Jessica Cejnar)

Desert Dispatch

DAGGETT • Motorists traveling from Barstow to Needles may notice a change in scenery as they pass Daggett.

At a time when companies are developing solar energy sites all over the Mojave Desert, Southern California Edison and CST Environmental — a Brea-based demolition company — are busy dismantling one of the first projects to successfully store solar energy for use on cloudy days and at night.

Solar Two, built in Daggett in 1993, was a demonstration solar project that paved the way for other projects in Arizona and Spain to use the same technology on a larger scale, said Paul Phelan, manager of engineering in technical services for SCE’s Power Production Department.

But this year Phelan said SCE requested funds from the California Public Utilities Commission to decommission the project. The site wasn’t being used and break-ins were becoming a problem, Phelan said. Also, other parties, including SunRay Energy — a solar power company located in Malta — had expressed interest in possibly building another renewable energy facility near where Solar Two currently sits, Phelan said.

“Those are currently under evaluation by Edison’s Corporate Real Estate Department,” he said.

During its operation, Solar Two put 10 megawatts — enough to power about 6,500 houses — of electricity back into California’s power grid at the peak of summer, Phelan said. Almost 2,000 mirrors converged on a central tower where salt was heated until it became liquid. Phelan said the heated salt turned water into steam, which was used to run a turbine to generate power.

“They had two storage tanks that were insulated so they could store that salt in molten form until they needed it,” Phelan said. “They could run that again through the heating cylinder during dark hours or on cloudy days.”

The technology used in the Solar Two project didn’t exist except in peoples’ minds at that point, said Thomas Mancini, concentrating solar power program manager at Sandia National Laboratories, who worked with the project’s heliostat field. A consortium of 10 to 13 agencies, including Sandia Labs, SCE and the Department of Energy, were trying to demonstrate the project at a large enough level that the next step that could be taken would be to build commercial plants and operate them, Mancini said.

“What Solar Two did was provide experience levels with molten salt enabled projects in Spain, which is operating now,” he said, adding that Solar Two’s predecessor, Solar One, a water steam-driven plant operated at the Daggett site in the 1980s, was also the first project of its kind. “There are several power tower developers out there developing steam and molten salt. (They) build off the experience we had back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.”

SCE Spokesman Paul Klein, said the materials in the solar panels will be recycled. The glass will be disposed of as waste at a licensed landfill because the mirrored backing on the glass contains small amounts of lead, he said.

“Also, where possible, equipment — such as the turbine generator — will be sold as used equipment,” he said. “Remaining scrap metal will be sold for scrap value and recycled.”

Wildflower reserve concerned about proposed racetrack

Each year, thousands of people behold the state flower at the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. A proposed motor sports park nearby has environmentalists, visitors, residents and parks officials nervous.

During peak seasons, the desert landscape beyond Lancaster turns into a lush welcome mat. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times / April 1, 2009)

By Ann M. Simmons
Los Angeles Times

During peak seasons, the hardened landscape in the desert beyond Lancaster turns into a golden welcome mat for the thousands who come to see the poppy fields.

It's a dizzying spectacle that the state estimates draws upward of 100,000 visitors a year to the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. There's a trail, an interpretive center and not much else -- except the sensory experience of viewing the state flower in full bloom.

But the neighborhood could be changing.

An Orange County man who owns 320 acres of Mojave Desert land next to the poppy fields wants to carve out a 3.6-mile course for racing, driving and testing cars. The proposed Fairmont Butte Motorsports Park would be used primarily for events sponsored by car clubs and racing organizations.

But the fact that the track would be only a mile from the state-protected reserve has alarmed environmentalists, residents, visitors and state parks officials, who fear the loss of serenity and vast stretches of land where wildflowers frequently grow.

"It's a terribly inappropriate business for that area," said Milt Stark, president of the Poppy Reserve/Mojave Desert Interpretive Assn., a volunteer group that gives tours and talks at the wildflower sanctuary.

"Visitors who come to see the poppies come out there to have peace and quiet."

Tom Malloy sees it differently. For the last seven years he has been trying to win approval to develop a motor sports park on his land, which is near the tiny community of Fairmont. The land is vacant, used primarily by trespassers who are looking for a place to race motorcycles or shoot guns.

"I feel the racetrack, run the way I want it run, would be an asset to the area," said Malloy, who owns a Los Angeles-based shoring equipment firm.

The racetrack would operate only during the daytime, Malloy said, and there would be no grandstand or large seating area, allowing for only a few spectators. He doesn't anticipate a throng of racing enthusiasts pouring into the area.

But according to a draft environmental impact report filed with Los Angeles County earlier this month, the park could expose nearby residents to dust during construction and excessive noise once it is up and running. It could also adversely affect the area's wildlife, which includes lizards, badgers and burrowing owls.

Most upsetting for flora and fauna lovers, the proposed racetrack would result in the loss of almost 140 acres within the project site, where seasonal wildflowers such as poppies, California buckwheat scrub and purple needle grass typically grow.

Though mitigation measures have been suggested to help reduce the dust, muffle the noise and decrease the risk of harm to wildlife, "no feasible measures exist" to prevent to loss of the wildflower fields, according to the impact report. The effects would be "significant and unavoidable."

Kathy Weatherman, a state parks superintendent in the Tehachapi area, said that in 2005 her agency sent a notice to the county's planning department outlining concerns about the proximity of the proposed track to the 1,800-acre reserve.

The southern portion of the project site falls within the boundaries of a county-designated "significant ecological area," a designation meant to protect the habitat of rare, endangered or threatened plants or animals.

Malloy contends that his venture will actually help the area. If given the go-ahead, he said, he would clean up the spent bullet casings that now litter much of the site, along with the trash and used household items that have been dumped there.

Trespassing motorcycle enthusiasts, whose bootleg racing sessions have transformed vegetation-ripe soil into bare dirt, would have to "go someplace else," he said.

Stark and others said the racetrack probably would attract more bikers and "people who are interested in that kind of thing."

Dean Webb, a local environmental activist and an Antelope Valley resident since 1960, said people driving on California 138 will be drawn to the track, bringing traffic and a stream of off-roaders.

"I hate to put it this way, but it would be, 'There goes the neighborhood,' " Stark said.

Not only the neighborhood, but the entire ambience of the community, said Mike Powell, who volunteers at the reserve. He worries that if Malloy gets approval, other enterprises will ask to set up shop nearby.

"That project represents the start of a significant threat to the kind of lifestyle and environment that many people moved out here for," Powell said.

The tranquillity and stark landscape are what compelled Northridge resident Linda Wang to visit the poppy reserve one recent season. She couldn't envision having a motor sports park nearby.

"I think it would be a little weird," she said.

July 26, 2009

Save the habitat, kill the turtles

Las Vegas Review-Journal

When -- in the name of heaven, I demand to know -- are those responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act going to do something about remediating the habitat devastation and starting to recover the minuscule remaining population, before it has dwindled past the point of no return, of that brave and noble beast, the poodle?

What? Are you serious, Vin? There are, like, 68 million domestic pet dogs in this country, and the poodle is the seventh most numerous breed. There are millions of poodles out there.

As a matter of fact, purebred poodles are among the 4 million to 6 million dogs euthanized in America each year because homes can't be found for them. America's dog and cat problem is not species extinction; it's overpopulation.

Well, to anyone tempted to respond in that manner, let me clarify for you what the Endangered Species Act is really all about. You see, the number of poodles living in domestic captivity doesn't count. Once we have succeeded in getting the noble poodle listed as threatened or endangered -- as it most certainly is, in the traditional range of its wild habitat -- all that will matter is the number of wild, untouched acres set aside. Once you've developed a house and a yard and put two happy poodles in it, for purposes of the federal ESA, you might as well have just shot the pups, because you have destroyed wild poodle habitat, and we are going to count your poodles as "taken," meaning dead. In fact, we may have to take steps to stop you from allowing them to breed, up to and including "euthanizing" your captive slave dogs, since "Unlimited breeding of an endangered species in captivity is something the community has to look into."

You think I'm making this up? Here in Las Vegas, Clark County's Desert Conservation Program -- a well-paid division of the county Department of Air Quality and Environmental Management -- is currently going hat in hand to the appropriate chain of federal agencies, asking "permission" to amend the so-called Desert Tortoise (and 77 other critters, including bugs and mosses) Habitat Plan, with the purpose of "allowing" the county to develop an additional 215,000 acres of adjoining stinking desert in the decades to come.

The theory, you see, is that any human activity which "moves dirt" destroys tortoise habitat, and cannot be allowed unless developers obtain federal permits for the "incidental take" of tortoises (regardless of whether a single tortoise is seen or killed), including a fee or fine of $550 per acre, which is used to build "tortoise fences" to keep the turtles from crossing the road to get to water, and so forth.

Wow. Under that theory, there must be practically no tortoises left in the Las Vegas Valley, which has now been heavily developed for decades. Right?

Actually, officials have rounded up more than 10,000 of the little buggers, right here in the Vegas Valley, turning them over to the Fish and Wildlife's Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, where they and their progeny are farmed out as pets, or for experiments. Those that aren't euthanized for having runny noses, you understand. Marci Henson of the county's Desert Conservation Program estimates about 2 percent of the poor little "threatened" reptiles get "euthanized."

("Run, little tortoises, run!" as former County Commissioner Don Schlesinger once put it.)

Sometimes, on a Saturday morning, I drive around this town, visiting garage sales. I've seen quite a few kids playing with their desert tortoises in their driveways. Cliven Bundy, the last cattle rancher in Clark County, tells me when the Kern River pipeline people came through and did a federally mandated tortoise population density study as part of their required Environmental Impact Statement, they found several times more tortoises per acre on the lands where the Bundys have water tanks for their cattle than they found in the hot, dry desert -- and literally 10 times the tortoise population density -- the highest densities recorded -- right here in the Las Vegas valley.

This isn't even counterintuitive. Early explorers found precious few tortoises in the dry Mojave desert, where the toothless reptiles struggle to find enough water and edible tender shoots. The Spaniards found only shells and thought them extinct. These animals developed in an ecosystem which had large toothy vegetarians -- deer, elk, whatever -- to crop back the brush, a role now filled only by cattle.

In the 1920s and 1930s, tortoise populations swelled artificially as ranchers ran cattle on these lands and killed the tortoises' main predators, the coyote and the raven.

As "environmentalists" have succeeded in running the ranchers off the land, the cattle have vanished, no one is any longer shooting coyotes and ravens, and thus tortoise populations have slumped back to historically normal levels.

Are there now more tortoises, or fewer, than when cattle grazed the land? How many tortoises are there? Fish and Wildlife is still working to establish a "baseline population number," Ms. Henson replies.

Twenty years after the tortoise received an "emergency listing" as a threatened species in 1989, they're still trying to establish a "baseline"? So when will they be able to tell us whether we have enough new tortoises, bred in their joyous cattle-free paradise, to de-list the species and allow humans to get back to developing our land as we see fit? Eighty years from now? Eight hundred?

Twenty years and no one has done a simple control experiment, releasing 300 tortoises on Cliven Bundy's grazed land with its water tanks and cattle, and another 300 tortoises on an adjoining dry, desolate and cattle-free valley, coming back three years later to count which valley has more tortoises and which seem healthier?

All this bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo is based on the presumption that any "human interference" with the dry and stinking desert ruins it as tortoises habitat, when the truth -- that tortoises actually do much better with people around, just like roaches and pigeons and hummingbirds -- stares us right in the face.

Cue "Thus Spake Zarathustra." Remove the blindfold, please. No, Mr. Tortoise, you haven't died and gone to heaven. We call this ... a golf course.

If they really wanted more tortoises, any old desert rat can tell them the solution is to shoot ravens and coyotes. Mind you, I'm not recommending that. We've got plenty of tortoises right now.

These people don't care about tortoises -- they're euthanizing them, for heaven's sake. The tortoise -- or whatever moss or bug or flycatcher eventually takes it place -- is merely a stand-in, a cat's paw, to give federal bureaucrats and their lunatic green pals complete control over development of private land in the West.

Just how fecund are those 10,000 captive tortoises, I asked Marci Henson.

"Oh, we think a lot of those ten thousand were pet tortoises, we believe as few as 2 percent may have actually been wild."

How can they tell -- the turtles came in wearing little knitted sweaters and booties? They keep trying to sit up and shake hands?

Besides, Ms. Henson said, quite seriously, "Unlimited breeding of an endangered species in captivity is something the community has to look into."

"To stop it?" I asked.

"Yes," said Marci Henson.

July 23, 2009

Suicide Victim Found At Inholder Residence

Mojave National Preserve
National Park News

On July 21st, a woman contacted the information desk at the Kelso Depot Visitor Center and said that she hadn’t heard for a while from her father, Michael Obert, who was staying at an inholder (sic) residence within the park (sic). She asked that a ranger check on him, as he’d left a message for her the previous day saying that she should send help if he was not heard from by 8 a.m. on the 21st.

Ranger Brian Cooperider and a San Bernardino County deputy sheriff drove to the residence near Cima and discovered Obert dead of a gunshot wound. He was lying face forward with a .22 caliber handgun underneath him and as single gunshot wound in his head.

The county coroner was notified, as was his daughter.

July 22, 2009

Navy weapons unit produces a high-desert boomtown

The Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake plans to add 1,000 civilian jobs by 2011, spurring construction projects in nearby Ridgecrest that are drawing workers from across the West.

By Alana Semuels
Los Angeles Times

Ridgecrest, Calif. -- While the rest of California struggles with joblessness and budget woes, this high desert city is proof of the power of government spending. Uncle Sam has helped turn it into a modern-day boomtown.

A hospital, three hotels and a pizza restaurant are under construction on the main drag, where heavy equipment clears land once covered by sage and creosote bushes. Crooked "No Vacancy" signs are a familiar sight at local motels, whose parking lots are jammed most weeknights with contractors' oversized pickup trucks. Job recruitment billboards greet drivers heading toward Ridgecrest on California 14.

Once known as Crumville, this parched community of 28,000 about 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles has become the land of opportunity. At least for those who don't mind isolation, searing heat and little entertainment beyond Wednesday night karaoke at the local bar.

"We don't have Disneyland, we don't have an opera house," Mayor Steven Morgan said. "But California is having economic troubles, and we have jobs."

The source of those help-wanted billboards -- and the engine of Ridgecrest's economy -- is the U.S. Department of Defense. The Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, situated on the 1.1-million-acre testing range known to many here simply as China Lake, expects to add 1,000 civilian jobs by 2011, many of them good-paying engineering and computer science posts.

About 4,300 civilians are currently employed on the base. The weapons division is also spending $200 million on research centers, labs and other buildings where it will continue to develop armaments for the Navy and Marines.

In response, the local hospital and school district are pouring millions into renovations to prepare for growth. And developers are building houses and hotels to accommodate base visitors, hiring contractors from across the West.

The result is that Ridgecrest has been largely insulated from the state's downward economic spiral.

The city's unemployment rate of 8.4% in June was well below the state's 11.6% average and is much lower than the 14.7% rate in surrounding Kern County. Home values are also holding up better than in many other areas. The median in Ridgecrest in May was $165,000, down 8.3% from May 2008. That compares with a 42% plunge in Kern County over the same period.

There's no question that Ridgecrest has felt some fallout from the larger economic downturn. A Mervyn's closed when the department store chain went out of business, and a car dealership was lost when its owner moved it to Los Angeles.

But despite a $250,000 decline in sales tax revenue, Ridgecrest will still end the fiscal year with a $1-million cushion.

That relative security has made Ridgecrest an oasis of jobs -- although not everybody's happy about it.

When a government commission recommended in 2005 that naval defense research be consolidated at China Lake, employees at the Navy weapons station in balmy, seaside Point Mugu in Ventura County were aghast. A poll of workers there showed that about 80% of those slated for transfer said they'd rather quit than move to the desert.

Finding enough skilled people "is a challenge," said Doris Lance, a spokeswoman for the China Lake facility. She recently left the base to work in Arizona. Last month, the weapons division added two additional recruiting billboards on the 101 Freeway in Ventura County in addition to its giant "Now Hiring" signs on California 14.

Building contractors, too, have long had a tough time coaxing laborers to commute to the desert for work, said Mark Crisci, executive vice president of K Partners Hospitality Group, which completed a 93-room SpringHill Suites in Ridgecrest last year and is currently building a Hampton Inn across the street.

Not anymore. With the construction industry hammered by the housing bust, hard hats are now grudgingly making the drive.

Jim Buford, a pipe-fitter from Buena Park who is working on the new hospital, said that a couple of years ago he could ignore requests to work out of town. But threatening to quit won't gain him much leverage with his employer now, not when Ridgecrest is one of the only places to find work.

Laborers fill the town's motels during the week. The Motel 6 is nicknamed the construction frat house because the men stand outside their teal green doors at night drinking beer.

Stephen Edstrom, a road grading superintendent, flies every week from his home near Ogden, Utah, to Las Vegas, then drives about 240 miles to Ridgecrest. He misses his family, he said. But he needs the paycheck.

"You've got to do what you've got to do," he said, dipping his feet in the pool at the town's Econo Lodge. "This is the only job I could find."

Several big projects are underway. The Sierra Sands Unified School District is investing $25 million to modernize its schools. Ridgecrest Regional Hospital is spending $70 million to add units to its 80-bed facility by 2010.

Others are in the pipeline. The planning commission recently approved a 223-lot housing development. And the city is negotiating to bring in a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

In May, 109 homes were sold in Ridgecrest, more than triple the number sold in May 2008, according to Zillow.com.

"It's a good economy here in Ridgecrest," said Stan Dye, an entrepreneur who is building a pizza parlor on the town's main thoroughfare, China Lake Boulevard.

You can't swing a dead cat in Ridgecrest without hitting a Ph.D
Twentysomethings who wouldn't have given Ridgecrest a second glance in better times are finding it preferable to the unemployment line. Currently, about 75% of the young professionals offered jobs at China Lake accept them, said Betty Miller, head of the professional recruitment office at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division. That's higher than in previous years.

Andrew Gray, a 28-year-old UC San Diego graduate, wasn't impressed by Ridgecrest when he first visited the base to interview for a job as a test manager. "The job looked cool, but the town didn't," he said.

He accepted the position and has adapted fairly well, though he visits L.A. every other weekend to attend business school part time. Because of the base's research center, his boss likes to say that you can't swing a dead cat in Ridgecrest without hitting a Ph.D.

Settling in Ridgecrest is a matter of perspective, said Billy D. Williams, a 30-year-old computer scientist who moved from Lompoc, Calif., last year.

He can walk into the local sports bar, Tommy T's, and know everybody, he said. He's gotten involved in a pool league in town, and he officiates at town baseball and football games.

It's a far cry from New York, where he lived for years, he said, but he's willing to make sacrifices to work to support the military mission.

"You have to take this place for what it's worth," he said. "If you compare the rest of the world to New York, you'll be disappointed."

July 21, 2009

Justices set hearing date for cross arguments

Video promoting WWI memorial has received 1 million hits

By Bob Unruh
© 2009 WorldNetDaily

The U.S. Supreme Court has announced it will hear arguments over the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial Oct. 7, when the future of a seven-foot-tall cross consisting of two welded pipes will be considered.

The memorial, erected in 1934 by World War I veterans to honor all fallen soldiers, stands in the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve.

For decades, it served as a reminder to honor the fallen veterans of the United States until a former National Park Service worker who lives in Oregon sued for its removal, according to Liberty Legal Institute, which has been working on defense of the emblem.

A district court decided the memorial was unconstitutional in 2002 and issued an injunction requiring its removal in 2005. Since then, the memorial has been covered, first with a tarp and currently with a plywood box, awaiting a determination from the high court.

"The case is part of a larger trend of assaults on war memorials with religious imagery and all displays with religious symbolism on public property," Liberty Legal said.

The case, Salazar et al vs. Buono pits five veterans groups representing more than 4 million veterans, including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Military Order of the Purple Heart against the American Civil Liberties Union.

Liberty Legal launched a public campaign called Donttearmedown.com to publicize the dispute, and a video about the situation has been viewed more than 1 million times.

"Our nation is only as secure as we remember those who have given their lives for the freedom that we now have," said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of Liberty Legal Institute and attorney for the veterans groups. "The issue of saving this veterans memorial is something nearly every American will be interested in."

The ACLU claims the memorial violates the First Amendment and has insisted the cross, which originally was unprotected federal property, be destroyed.

The American Center for Law and Justice, Liberty Counsel and the Thomas More Law Center have all filed briefs with the court 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."

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 its creased face under certain light conditions.

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.

July 20, 2009

Interior halts uranium mining near Grand Canyon

Salazar bars new claims on 1 million acres for environmental impact study

Conservationists contend mining leaves the Grand Canyon vulnerable to environmental damage and that no new operations should be proposed when the old mining sites haven't been cleaned up. (John Moore / Getty Images)

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The Interior Department announced Monday it is temporarily barring the filing of new mining claims, including for uranium, on nearly 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon.

The land is being set aside for two years so the department can study whether it should be permanently withdrawn from mining activity, according to a notice published in the Federal Register online. The notice covers 633,547 acres under the control of the Bureau of Land Management and 360,002 acres in Kaibab National Forest.

The announcement comes ahead of Tuesday's congressional hearing on a bill to set aside more than 1 million acres of federal lands north and south of the canyon. The bill's sponsor, Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, and environmental groups had been looking to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for temporary protections at the Grand Canyon while the legislation is pending.

The announcement drew an immediate objection from the mining industry. National Mining Association Vice President Luke Popovich said current laws and regulations are effective for protecting the environment from mining activity.

"This decision appears on its face to be wholly unjustified and even dumbfounding in view of the near 10 percent jobless rate," Popovich said.

Environmentalists applauded the decision.

"This decisive action to protect the Grand Canyon sends an important signal that President Obama is committed to prioritizing the public interest when it comes to managing America's natural resources," said Jane Danowitz, U.S. public lands program director at the Pew Environment Group.

The Interior Department under President George W. Bush was unresponsive to efforts to ban new uranium mining claims. The House Natural Resources Committee invoked a little-used rule to stop any new claims for up to three years, but Interior officials refused to recognize the action and continued to authorize additional mining claims.

A coalition of environmental groups sued, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management later rescinded Congress' right to withdraw lands from mining and other activities in emergencies.

Since then, environmentalists and Grijalva have been hanging their hopes on Salazar for temporary protections.

Any companion bill to Grijalva's in the Senate is unlikely to come from Arizona's two U.S. senators. Republicans John McCain and Jon Kyl told Grijalva in a letter last month that adequate protections already exist.

Conservationists contend mining leaves the Grand Canyon vulnerable to environmental damage and that no new operations should be proposed when the old mining sites haven't been cleaned up.

There are as many as 10,000 existing mining claims on BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands near the Grand Canyon for all types of hard-rock exploration. Some 1,100 uranium mining claims are within five miles of the Grand Canyon National Park.

The protections offered by Salazar won't include uranium mining claims already filed near the Grand Canyon, the official said. It's not possible to prevent existing claims under the General Mining Act of 1872 unless Congress was to appropriate money for the department to buy up the claims, he said.

Former Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Rob Arnberger said he would welcome any protection that Salazar offers, but permanent withdrawal is the goal.

"Are we prepared to allow the landscape to be torn up adjacent to the park, to threaten the hydrological and the natural resources of that park?" Arnberger said. "My answer to that is no. Don't open it up to exploration."

July 19, 2009

Invasive quagga mussels a growing threat

Soaring population clogging West's waterways; cleanup costs rising, too

The Associated Press

Since quagga mussels invaded Lake Mead in 2007, the population has soaring into the trillions. The mussels raise operation and maintenance costs by untold millions. (Felicia Fonseca / AP)

LAKE MEAD NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, Nev. - Two years after an invasive mussel was first discovered at Lake Mead, the population has firmly established itself and gone on a breeding binge, with numbers soaring into the trillions.

Despite efforts to stop their spread, scientists say it's only a matter of time before quagga mussels appear throughout the West's vast system of reservoirs and aqueducts, raising operation and maintenance costs by untold millions.

Water agencies and wildlife managers in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah have put in place aggressive measures to try to prevent their spread, including mandatory decontamination or quarantine of boats traveling from infested areas or chlorinating some water inlets to try to kill off the mussels.

But as their counterparts in the northeast and Great Lakes region have found, eradicating the mussels is virtually impossible. The thumb-size mollusks attach to almost anything and can clog drains and pipes, freeze up cooling systems, kill off native species and render power boats inoperable.

"Over time, maybe not this decade or the next, I would think eventually they'll be almost around the country," said Amy Benson, fishery biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Florida.

Arriving in ship ballast

Quagga mussels, and their close cousin, zebra mussels, were introduced to the Great Lakes in the ballast of ships from eastern Europe and the Ukraine in the 1980s. Since their arrival at Lake Mead in 2007, their numbers have multiplied exponentially.

Populations of the mussels still are expanding in the East into the quadrillions, and there's no sign the growth is slowing, said Tom Nalepa, a research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Michigan. But he said the population can't expand forever.

"The populations are going to stabilize at some point, and they're going to become adjusted to the system or the system is adjusted to them, but we're not at that point yet," Nalepa said. "We're still trying to figure out what the ultimate consequences are going to be."

In the West, the mussels have colonized the lower Colorado River, which 27 million people rely on to irrigate crops, produce drinking water and operate businesses.

Lake Mead is just one of a string of huge reservoirs on the Colorado that store and divert water into aqueducts and pipelines feeding parts of California, Arizona and Nevada. Sharp shells litter the lake's beaches, and boats docked in marinas can't leave without being decontaminated for fear a mussel might hitch a ride to another waterway.

West's warmth helps species

The warmer weather in the West has allowed the quagga mussels to reproduce much more quickly than in the East. One adult female quagga can release up to a million eggs in a single year, and their microscopic larvae float freely downstream.

Water managers say the best way to prevent their spread is making sure boats traveling from one waterway to another are mussel-free. Lake Powell requires mandatory boat inspections, and California has trained dogs to sniff out the mussels at inspection points. Boats also can be quarantined at the California border if a single mussel is spotted on them.

"They can be prevented, and this is what people have to get into their heads," said Wen Baldwin, a National Park Service volunteer who confirmed the quagga mussels at Lake Mead. "Unfortunately there are some people who say, 'they are going to get here no matter what.' Maybe they will, but every year you hold them off, you're dollars ahead."

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California expects to spend between $10 million and $15 million a year to address quagga mussel infestations in its 242-mile Colorado River aqueduct and reservoirs. The agency delivers water to 19 million people in Los Angeles and surrounding areas.

Ric DeLeon, the district's quagga mussel control coordinator, told U.S. lawmakers last year that the price tag for controlling the invasive species and their impact on business, the power industry, water companies and communities in the East is in the billions, and likely will soar in the West.

The increased costs are likely to drive up utility rates for consumers as systems are upgraded, divers spend more hours scraping mussels and researchers try to figure out just how the mussels behave and the impact they're making.

"Who is going to pay for that?" Baldwin said. "It ain't going to be Santa Claus; it's going to be the consumer."

At Hoover Dam, mussels first colonized intake towers and other structures. What started off as one or two mussels every square foot has increased to 55,000 mussels in the same space, said Leonard Willett, the lower Colorado River mussel coordinator for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The mussels also are in pipes that cool generators, compressors and transformers, which could disrupt operations.

One of the infestation's side effects has been that the mussels can affect water quality and clarity. That's a major concern at Lake Tahoe on the border of California and Nevada.

From May 1 to July 8, some 6,300 boats were inspected at the lake, known for its pristine waters. Of those, 470 were decontaminated, and 10 found to have mussels never were launched. Jeff Cowen, a spokesman for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, said an infestation of mussels at the lake would mean an economic loss of $22 million a year.

Recreation areas are focusing on educating boaters, using slogans such as "Don't move a mussel," "Stop aquatic hitchhikers," and "Drain, clean and dry." Bryan Moore, a biologist at Lake Mead, said most boaters are cooperative.

"They definitely don't want to be the person who spread it to another lake," he said.

July 18, 2009

Range War In the West

There is a range war in the West. Why should you care? Because wherever you live in America sooner or later it will affect you.

By Patrick Dorinson
New West

There is a range war out West. And unless you live in Idaho or Nevada or any other Western state you probably have no idea what is happening or why you should care. But wherever you live in America you should care because sooner or later it will affect you.

This range war is between ranchers who have worked the land raising cattle and sheep for over a century and environmental outlaws whose stated goal is driving them off the very land they need to survive and prosper. Today’s weapon of choice is not a Colt .45 or a Winchester rifle, but something much more deadly—the lawsuit.

So what’s the issue?

There are more than a quarter of a billion acres of public lands in the West. For over century a system has been in place to allow livestock ranchers and resource entities controlled access to portions of public land.

Over the years there have been bitter disputes between ranchers and environmentalists over whether this practice should continue. For the ranchers this is about their very survival and the survival of the livestock industries that contribute so much to the economies of many Western states—1 ranch job creates 7 jobs to support the industry.

Recently, reasonable mainstream environmental and conservation groups like the Nature Conservancy have worked closely with the public lands stakeholders to find common ground that can address both the needs of the land while preserving a way of life essential to the West. Working together, ranchers and conservationists listened to each other and came up with plans to ensure the survival of both.

But some fringe environmentalists like the Western Watersheds Project (WWP) have no interest in compromise and consistently use and abuse our legal system to deny ranchers and other interests their rights to use public lands, especially for grazing.

WWP and its leader Jon Marvel, a transplanted Easterner that has designed huge homes for the rich and famous in Hailey, Idaho, continue to wage war against the ranching industry by pushing to let the land return to a pristine state with no cattle. I have news for Mr. Marvel, before the cattle came to the West, huge herds of elk and buffalo roamed the plains and valleys for centuries and I’ll bet they ate grass and tramped through streams.

WWP regularly sues the federal government, challenging rancher’s permits on technicalities and burying officials in a flood of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. It is estimated that just to fill the current requests it would take one person 6 years, working full time. This means that trained range managers and scientists who should be out working with the ranchers and other users of public lands are instead filling out paperwork. If you are a taxpayer you should be outraged.

I said earlier that even if you didn’t live in the West this would affect you in some way. Eventually the price of beef will rise as there will be fewer cattle merging into the food supply. And these activities might also put a severe crimp in the Obama administration’s desire to upgrade the electricity grid, build new pipelines to carry the West’s abundant natural gas to the rest of the nation, take advantage of the wind corridors that dot the West and build solar farms in the region’s deserts.

It’s already happening. Interior Secretary Salazar recently came to California to talk up building solar farms on public land near the Mojave Desert. But California Senator Dianne Feinstein is dead set against it, as are radical environmentalists. They’ve been complaining about lack of renewable energy for years and now that it might happen they suddenly develop a bad case of NIMBYism.

Why? Because these hypocrites don’t want any of that on public land either and you cannot achieve the president’s energy goals unless you use the West’s vast public lands.

Finally you should care because this type of bullying and intimidation is just plain wrong. And it’s hard to deal with folks whose goal is to drive ranchers out of business and destroy a way of life that has survived for over a hundred years despite the hardships inflicted by man and Mother Nature.

Patrick Dorinson is a communications strategist specializing in media relations, public affairs, political communications, crisis communications and government relations. During the Clinton Administration, he received Presidential appointments in communications to the General Services Administration, NASA and the Department of Energy. During California’s historic recall election of 2003, Dorinson served on press staff for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign and transition teams. After the election he was tapped by Governor Schwarzenegger to be Deputy Secretary for Communications for the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency. Mr. Dorinson graduated from the University of Oregon, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in History.

July 17, 2009

House sides with wild horses, burros

GOP criticism of bill may foretell troubles in Senate

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Galloping to the aid of the nation's wild horses and burros, the House voted Friday to rescue them from the possibility of a government-sponsored slaughter and give them millions more acres to roam.

But the effort may get penned up in the Senate.

The bill passed the House, 239-185, with Republican opponents arguing that it underscored wrongheaded Democratic priorities by focusing on animals instead of people at a time when the nation's unemployment rate is approaching double digits.

An estimated 36,000 wild horses and burros live in 10 Western states. Federal officials estimate that's about 9,400 more than can exist in balance with other rangeland resources. Off the range, more than 31,000 other wild horse and burros are cared for in corrals and pastures.

The plan aims to reduce the number of animals kept in holding pens awaiting adoption and to reduce the stress on land currently set aside for them.

Supporters mobilized after the Interior Department announced last year that it might have to kill thousands of healthy wild horses and burros to deal with the growing population on the range and in holding facilities.

'Disgrace to our heritage'

Republicans dismissed the measure as welfare for horses, but Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said a majority of Americans would not support slaughtering healthy animals or keeping them in holding pens for years at a time.

"The status quo is a national disgrace," said Rahall, chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources. "It is a disgrace to our heritage."

However, no comparable bill has been sponsored in the Senate, which doesn't bode well for final passage of the measure. Both houses would have to approve the legislation before it could be sent to the White House for President Barack Obama's consideration.

Some lawmakers from Western states said Congress is mismanaging the nation's wild horse population by preventing the Bureau of Land Management from keeping populations at a level that's appropriate for the environment. They said more horses will just make the problem worse.

"This bill is based on emotion and not science," declared Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., saying the bill would elevate wild horses above threatened and endangered species in her state.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that enacting the Restore our American Mustangs Act would cost about $200 million over the next five years. Currently, the wild herds roam over about 33 million acres of Western land.

To comply with the bill, the Bureau of Land Management would need to find an additional 20 million acres, primarily after 2013, at a cost of up to $500 million, according the CBO. But Rahall said those estimates don't reflect new language in the bill that makes adding millions of acres of rangeland a goal rather than a legal requirement.

Rahall said the bill would actually save the government money by reducing the amounts now devoted to caring for the animals in corrals and on pastures. He said slaughtering healthy animals to control their population should not be an option.

"How in the world can a federal agency be considering the massive slaughter of animals the law says they are supposed to be protecting?" he said.

While Rahall said the cost estimates were overblown, Republicans weren't buying it. House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said even debating the bill was an insult to people looking for work and small businesses trying to keep their doors open.

"It doesn't make any sense that we're debating a welfare program about wild horses when the American people really want to know, 'where are the jobs?"' Boehner said.

'Animal care disaster'

The bill would give the government authority to enter into cooperative agreements to establish wild horse sanctuaries on nonfederal lands. It also would attempt to bolster an adoption program and sterilize more animals. It would prohibit the killing of healthy wild horses and burros and restrict time spent in holding pens to six months.

The Humane Society of the United States supports the legislation, saying the current program of rounding up wild horses and keeping them in holding pens is a "fiscal and animal care disaster."

"We have got to get off the current treadmill of spending millions of tax dollars rounding up wild horses and caring for them in captivity, and instead make wider use of fertility control as a humane population management tool," said Wayne Pacelle, the organization's president and CEO.

In Friday's vote, 206 Democrats supported the measure and 47 opposed it. Among Republicans, 33 voted for it and 138 against.

July 16, 2009

Utility expresses interest in water project

The Press-Enterprise

Western Municipal Water District in Riverside is among five Southern California suppliers that have expressed interest in a controversial proposal to store and draw water from ancient aquifers in the Mojave Desert, officials confirmed Thursday.

The $200 million project in the Cadiz Valley, about 40 miles east of Twentynine Palms, would involve burying 44 miles of pipeline to move surplus Colorado River water to an underground basin the size of Rhode Island.

The water rights under 35,000 acres belong to Cadiz Inc., which also wants to tap water from beneath nearby dry lake beds that it says would otherwise be lost to evaporation.

The Los Angeles-based company announced last month that five water providers signed letters of intent to evaluate the project and share the costs of an environmental review, with options to buy the water. Cadiz Inc. identified Golden State Water Co. in San Dimas, a private company serving desert communities in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, as one of the interested parties but would not identify the others until an agreement is reached.

However, Anaheim Public Utilities, serving 110,000 customers, also has signed "a non-binding letter of interest" on the project, spokeswoman Margie Otto said.

Western's general manager, John Rossi, acknowledged that his district is considering joining the project, which would divert water from the Colorado River Aqueduct for storage. In dry times, the water would be returned to the aqueduct for use by customers. Western serves Corona, Norco, Lake Elsinore and parts of Murrieta, Temecula and Riverside.

"We're just trying to understand the technical merits at this point. We think the project may be able to provide some additional reliability," said Rossi, whose district gets most of its water from Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which built and operates the 242-mile Colorado River Aqueduct.

Cost is a factor, he said.

Water from the project will cost more than supplies from MWD, which charges about $600 per acre-foot for untreated water and $800 per acre-foot for treated supplies. The Cadiz water could cost an additional $278 per acre-foot and up to $445 more per acre-foot if it's treated, according to the district's published rate table. An acre-foot is enough to serve two families for a year.

But MWD rates have increased 35 percent in the past couple of years and are expected to jump 20 percent next year, he said, so "we're going to compare the two, and may the best price win."

Officials at Western will decide within the next couple of months whether to move forward with the environmental study, Rossi said.

The Cadiz project has been rejected and reworked in the eight years since it was first proposed.

Environmentalists say it would deplete ancient groundwater that feeds area springs and sustains local wildlife. One-third of the aquifer sits below the Mojave National Preserve.

Joshua Tree resident Elden Hughes, former chairman of the Sierra Club's desert committee, said his group worries about mixing salty Colorado River water with the pure Cadiz groundwater that is thousands of years old.

He also questioned the wisdom of drawing water from just under the surface of Bristol Dry Lake. Without the moisture, dust would threaten air quality of Mojave National Preserve, Hughes said.

Cadiz Inc. already is pumping from the aquifer to water grapes, citrus and vegetables the company grows in the area. Drawing off more would deplete the aquifer, Hughes said.

Scott Slater, general counsel for Cadiz Inc., said the plan has been reformulated to address environmental concerns. The company has partnered with the Natural Heritage Institute to ensure the project's sustainability, will allow solar development on up to 20,000 acres and is open to dedicating land for open space.

The project isn't limited to Colorado River water, he said. Water could be added to the pipeline system through exchanges with other sources and stored there. It also would capture tens of thousands of acre-feet of water that is now lost to evaporation, Slater said.

The project has changed quite a bit since it was rejected in 2002 by MWD, which was to be a partner and help build the pipeline. The agency backed out because of cost and environmental concerns.

Officials at MWD said Thursday that they were unaware of the latest on the project.

"Our questions deal with making sure there would be capacity in the aqueduct to accommodate any transfer, and would the participants be willing to pay the full system access fee -- the wheeling rates. Those are our considerations," said Bob Muir, MWD spokesman.

July 15, 2009

Conservation Commission to buy Big Morongo parcel

Erica Felci
The Desert Sun

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve (BLM)

Coachella Valley officials are spending $3.9 million to acquire 638 acres in Big Morongo Canyon, the largest land purchase since the desert multi-species protection act went into effect last fall.

The Coachella Valley Conservation Commission last week approved buying the habitat lands. Officials say they saved $1.1 million.

The deal should be finalized in August.

The property, along the north part of Indian Drive, is a significant parcel as it was part of the now-defunct Palmwood project. The golf resort was once envisioned as an economic boost to Desert Hot Springs, and was a key reason the city initially opted out of the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.

This land is part of a “significant wildlife corridor,” said Katie Barrows, environmental resources director for the Coachella Valley Association of Governments.

“Acquisition of the Palmwood parcel will be a significant step to ensuring conservation of this rich natural area and access to trails for generations to come,” Rancho Mirage Councilman Richard Kite, chairman of the conservation commission, said in a statement.

The 75-year, $2.2 billion multi-species act — designed to preserve land and habitat for 27 of the desert's endangered and protected species — went into effect in October. Since then, the conservation commission has acquired about 227 acres of habitat land.

During the 12 years it took valley and county officials to develop the plan, about 60,000 acres were acquired.

Barrows said there was interest in acquiring additional land in the area around Palmwood.

Desert Hot Springs City Council in November rescinded its earlier approval of the Palmwood development and decertified the project's Environmental Impact Report.

City officials in recent months have been working on Desert Hot Springs becoming a full member of the valleywide conservation effort.

In what is a first step to that inclusion, the city has been working with various agencies regarding conservation in the 4,000 acres they are looking to annex near Interstate 10.

About 1,900 acres make up land eyed for habitat.

Officials continue to study what is needed to amend the original plan to let the city join. That amendment would have to be approved by every jurisdiction that's already in the plan.

“By next summer, our hope would be that Desert Hot Springs can adopt the multi-species plan” and its related regulations and fees, City Manager Rick Daniels said.

July 13, 2009

Air pollution linked to increased fire threat

Fire-fueling plants thrive on nitrogen-enriched soil

Air pollution may indirectly contribute to the increase of wildfires in the desert. Fire-stoking weeds now thrive in the desert soil, enhanced by the nitrogen in the soil deposited by air pollution. (Jay Calderon, Desert Sun file photo)

Keith Matheny
The Desert Sun

Air pollution from engine exhaust — largely carried here from Los Angeles by the wind — isn't just harming people's health. It's also pushing native plant species toward extinction in and around the Coachella Valley, and indirectly contributing to increased wildfires in the desert.

Edith Allen, a University of California, Riverside botany professor, has spent years working with a team studying the impacts of engine exhaust pollution on native and invasive plant species in parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, including the Coachella Valley.

The research has found that car exhaust is inadvertently making plant fertilizer — nitrates, a form of the naturally occurring nitrogen that plants can readily use for food, Allen said.

The nitrates drop out of the atmosphere and onto the soil, where rain allows plants to absorb it through their roots, Allen said.

“Up to a point it's a good thing,” she said. “But we also know that weeds take up nitrogen. They're better at taking it up than crop plants or wildland plants.”

The nitrogen is naturally flushed away over time in areas where it rains frequently, Allen said. But in the desert, with only a handful of rainy days in a year, the nitrogen is able to accumulate, she said.

Invasive weeds were accidentally introduced to the region through movement of people, crop seeds and livestock over centuries, Allen said.

“In the desert, they are from the dry regions of Europe and North Africa,” Allen said.

Exhaust-related air pollution is helping the invasive weeds to flourish.

“Because they take up nitrogen more rapidly and grow more rapidly, they produce more seeds,” Allen said. “They are more competitive than the native plants and they replace the native plants.

“Areas that once were covered with native vegetation — including areas of the Coachella Valley — are covered with with invasive plants from the Mediterranean.”

Change in fire cycle

In the western valley and areas in and around Joshua Tree National Park, the plants thriving on the exhaust-provided nitrates are often invasive grasses.

“Those exotic grasses are the ones that are effecting the fire ecology in the park,” said Joe Zarki, a longtime ranger at Joshua Tree.

“They create carpets out in the desert where previously we had a lot of open, bare ground. When they die every year, they create fuel.”

It's leading to wildfires that are more intense and happen more often, experts said.

The desert burned “very infrequently” over hundreds of thousands of years, Allen said. But the cycle changed around the mid-1980s, she said, as air pollution worsened in the Los Angeles area and moved into the region.

“Now what we see is some areas of the desert burning whenever there is a wet year,” she said.

“There are areas that have burned three times since the 1980s. That's not part of our natural fire cycle. There's something different going on.”

The most severe of the more frequent desert fires was the Sawtooth-Millard fire in July 2006.

The lightning-started fires combined to burn more than 85,000 acres in the Morongo Basin near Yucca Valley and in the San Gorgonio Wilderness north of Cabazon. They led to a man's death, cost more than $21 million to fight and nearly $12 million in property damage.

In July 2005, the Mojave National Preserve, near the old mining town of Kelso north of Twentynine Palms, had its largest wildfire in modern history, a lightning-started blaze that burned more than 70,000 acres.

Cameron Barrows, a research ecologist at the UC Riverside Center for Conservation Biology, sees a clear connection between engine exhaust pollution and the more intense, more frequent wildfires.

“You end up with very high concentrations of nitrogen from the Banning Pass to Snow Creek and the Desert Hot Springs area, and more towards Joshua Tree” National Park, he said.

“Not surprisingly, that's where most of our wildfires have been.”

A vicious cycle

The pollution-created nitrogen in soils, the invasive grasses and wildfires all create a vicious cycle that works against native desert species — Joshua trees, junipers, pinyon pines, chaparral, creosote bush and more.

“Once the fires go through, the desert vegetation is not adapted to fire,” Allen said.

“It takes a long time to recover, and in fact it does not recover. What it turns into is a greater abundance of invasive grasses.”

Zarki notices the trend at Joshua Tree National Park.

“We're seeing a type conversion from older, more mature type plants to exotic grasses and annual wildflowers,” he said.

“There are unknown ecological consequences to that. If you're a plant or animal that's best adapted to junipers and pinyon pines, and they're getting burned up and not getting a chance to re-establish themselves, there is a significant impact.”

The phenomenon isn't isolated to the Coachella Valley and high desert.

“It's an international problem,” said Andrzej Bytnerowicz a senior scientist studying air pollution with the U.S. Forest Service's Southwest Research Station in Riverside.

“We have huge problems in China, for instance, related to air pollution acting as plant fertilizer.

“I think we have to be much better in publicizing what we know. Ozone has been discussed for three, four, five decades. But nitrogen deposition, it's been maybe talked about for 10 years.”

Though the long-term ramifications of the pollution's effect on desert plant life look dire, Allen said she remains hopeful that the situation will turn around.

“Now that we have a federal administration in Washington that is willing to allow California to take the lead, I think air pollution issues are going to get better,” she said. “I think the air is going to get cleaner and some of these issues about invasive grasses and fire are going to get better.”

July 2, 2009

Autry, Southwest museum feud has echoes of western duel

Supporters of the Southwest Museum contend that the loss of exhibits to the Autry National Center of the American West in Griffith Park and an accompanying diminished role for the museum will lead to the demise of the 95-year-old hillside landmark — which is the city’s oldest museum.

By Bob Pool
Los Angeles Times

The Griffith Park facility's desire to borrow Indian artifacts from its smaller Mount Washington partner sparks worries about the Southwest Museum's future.

It could have been a scene right out of a Gene Autry horse opera -- a cowboys-versus-Indians-style faceoff, potshots being fired by both sides, a hero riding to the rescue in the final reel.

That seems to be the plot line of the drama that is playing out between backers of the Autry National Center of the American West in Griffith Park and those of the Southwest Museum a few miles away in Mount Washington.

The Autry museum wants to double its size and display some of the Southwest's American Indian artifacts as a way of broadening and diversifying its depiction of the early American West.

Whoa, say Southwest's supporters. They contend that the loss of exhibits and an accompanying diminished role for the museum will lead to the demise of the 95-year-old hillside landmark -- which is the city's oldest museum.

The proposed $95-million Autry project would add 25,000 square feet of new gallery space, four classrooms and several children's rooms to its site at the Los Angeles Zoo parking lot next to the 5 Freeway.

From the beginning, the focus of the Southwest Museum has been Native American culture. Its founder, Charles Lummis, became intrigued by the plight of American Indians in 1884 and '85 when he walked across the country from Cincinnati to Los Angeles.

Lummis built a home that is a landmark in the Arroyo Seco and is now yards from the Pasadena Freeway. He returned often to Arizona and New Mexico to study Indian culture and assist Native Americans. In 1907 he began planning the Southwest Museum, which opened seven years later.

In recent years, however, the museum struggled financially. Its directors agreed in 2003 to merge with the Autry, which began underwriting the smaller museum's operating costs of more than $100,000 a month.

But a Mount Washington neighborhood group, Friends of the Southwest Museum, has watched warily as Autry museum leaders have planned their expansion.

The two sides had a showdown meeting Tuesday at City Hall, when a City Council panel met to sign off on an environment report for the enlarged Griffith Park museum.

Both camps came armed with dueling expansion plan ideas -- Autry with a brochure promising "exciting innovations" that would "transform the visitor experience in Griffith Park," and Southwest backers with one proposing that the 12-acre Mount Washington site be "re-visioned" to take advantage of the nearby Gold Line train station with such features as a new stage, a restaurant, improved parking and expanded gallery space.

The afternoon debate before a standing-room-only crowd extended into the evening hours.

John Gray, the Autry's chief executive, told council members meeting as the city Board of Referred Powers that his museum "always anticipated expansion" in Griffith Park. He disputed suggestions that the Autry was, in essence, looting the Southwest Museum of its artifacts and preparing to convert it for another use.

Architect Brenda Levin explained how the enlarged Autry will scrap its current Spanish motif for a more nonspecific look. It would feature a "convergence canyon" that would integrate artifacts and artwork from the Southwest Museum with those of the Autry's collection, which some critics say has tended to lean heavily toward the pop-culture mythology of the cowboy Wild West.

Opponents of the expansion argued the project was too big, its effect on the Southwest Museum would be too major, and the Autry's compensation to the city for its 12 acres of parkland -- $1 a year -- was too meager.

Nicole Possert, head of a coalition to preserve the Southwest Museum, complained of the "myth consistently spun by the Autry" that the Mount Washington landmark will not be adversely effected by the Autry's expansion.

It was City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents the Mount Washington area, who broke the stalemate. He proposed that the city require Autry officials to sign an "airtight" written pledge to protect both the Southwest Museum and its 250,000 artifacts before the expansion proceeds.

The board agreed to delay consideration of the project for a month to give the two museums time, as Councilwoman Janice Hahn put it, "to codify" a future operating

July 1, 2009

BLM finds funds for trash service

By MEGAN GLENN, Staff Writer
Imperial Valley Press

An unidentified quad rider steers past a pile of half-buried trash in the Glamis sand dunes in January. PAUL NILSON FILE PHOTO.

The Bureau of Land Management has identified funds to continue providing trash service at the Imperial Sand Dunes for the 2009-2010 season, assuming that no changes are made to the bureau’s budget, which has yet to be approved by the Senate.

Cathy Kennerson, chief executive officer of the El Centro Chamber of Commerce, said that while working on its budget for this year, the bureau said it recognized the need to continue providing trash service.

“You can’t expect the 1.4 million people who visit the dunes to all clean up every bit of trash,” Kennerson said.

The bureau was unable to provide trash service in February because of budget shortfalls. Imperial County signed an agreement with Allied Waste for $125,000, to provide trash service to finish out last season, which ended in May.

David Briery, a public affairs officer with the bureau, said the money for the October 2009 to May 2010 season is projected come from a combination of state and federal funds.

“It was something the BLM felt they should do,” Briery said about continuing the trash service.

Also, the bureau’s federal funding bill, recently passed by the House of Representatives, includes language inserted by U.S. Rep. Bob Filner to provide for trash services.

The bill increases funding for the entire bureau and includes the statement: “The committee is concerned about the Bureau of Land Management decision to stop trash collection services in the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area … and expects BLM to restore trash pick-up services.”

That bill is now heading toward the Senate for final approval.