October 30, 2009

945,000 acres protected from mining for 20 years

Federal agency withdraws critical environment in Southern Nevada

Petroglyphs are shown in the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area. The area is part of 945,000 acres in Southern Nevada that the Bureau of Land Management is protecting from new mining activity in Southern Nevada for 20 years. (Mona Shield Payne/Special to the Sun / File photo)

By Mary Manning
Las Vegas Sun

The Bureau of Land Management signed an order today that withdraws almost 945,000 acres of sensitive public lands from new mining activity in Southern Nevada for 20 years.

The bureau said it had taken the action to protect 24 areas of critical environmental concern in Clark and Nye counties. Existing mining and geothermal claims will not be affected, the order said.

The sensitive areas include cultural sites, such as petroglyphs and archaeological sites, and wildlife habitat that is crucial for survival of the Mojave Desert tortoise, the southwestern willow flycatcher bird, woundfin and Virgin River chub fish and other species in the Ash Springs area.

These critical areas had been threatened from growth in the Las Vegas Valley, the bureau said. In order for threatened and endangered species to recover, their habitats need to be protected, the order said.

The lands affected in the critical areas have been temporarily set aside since the Clark County Conservation of Public Land and Natural Resource Act of 2002 was passed. BLM extended that order in 2007.

The withdrawal order will be published in the Federal Register on Monday.

Last December, the Center for Biological Diversity submitted comments supporting the withdrawal while the public hearing process was under way.

"The BLM's actions demonstrate a commitment by that agency to protect Southern Nevada's natural and cultural heritage," said Rob Mrowka, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. "It is significant action, but the threats from sprawl development, groundwater exploitation, illicit off-road vehicle use and poorly located energy projects remain and will continue to be a challenge for federal land managing agencies."

Some of the areas listed in the land withdrawal order include Amargosa mesquite trees, Ash Meadows, Arden historic sites, Arrow Canyon, Gold Butte and town site, Hidden Valley, Keyhole Canyon, Mormon Mesa tortoise habitat, Rainbow Gardens, Red Rock Spring, River Mountains, Sloan rock art and Virgin River critical areas.

Interior Blocks New Mining to Protect Tortoise in Southern Nevada

New York Times

The Interior Department issued an order today banning new mining on nearly 1 million acres in southern Nevada to protect the desert tortoise and other protected species.

The order blocks new claims for the next 20 years but does not affect existing mine operations. Interior originally proposed the ban in late 2007.

The Bureau of Land Management had already designated the tracts in question as "areas of critical environmental concern," as much of the land forms river corridors that provide habitat for desert tortoises and endangered birds and fish.

The area is also a historic hot spot for gold mining, and U.S. Geological Survey evaluations suggest more mineral deposits remain in the region.

Lisa Belenky, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has filed several lawsuits against potential desert development to protect the tortoise, said the order adds desperately needed protection.

"This is a very important step to make sure there won't be mining companies coming in to override the protections," Belenky said, adding that the large quantities of mining wastes were incompatible with protecting natural resources.

But Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said putting almost 1 million acres off-limits to new mining ignores larger threats to the tortoise -- oil and gas development, agriculture and natural predators.

"Mining operations have a great deal of successful experience in protecting the desert tortoise," Raulston said. "As such, it seems incongruous to single out mining."

October 29, 2009

Tug-of-war over future of public land in Mojave Desert far from over, despite sweeping protections

Access to land such as Joshua Tree National Park is a key issue to many. (2003 / The Press-Enterprise)

The Press-Enterprise

Fifteen years have passed since the historic California Desert Protection Act set aside millions of unspoiled acres as wilderness, elevated Joshua Tree and Death Valley to national park status and created the Mojave National Preserve.

The legislation was the largest land conservation bill in the continental United States, hailed for its safekeeping of a long-ignored 6.37 million acres of landscape that counts "singing" sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones and world-class climbing boulders among its attractions.

"It was a hell of a battle. We didn't know how hard it would be," said Elden Hughes, of Joshua Tree, former chairman of the Sierra Club's desert committee. "I don't care where in the United States you were, you could hear me shouting when it passed."

Now, proposals are pending for desert landfills, airports, housing developments, renewable energy projects and water harvesting, pushing a new generation to find ways to balance such pressures with the need for open space.

The process has to be a consensus, said Ralph Hollenbacher, a manager at Chevron, which is planning several solar projects.

"You don't have to please all of the people, but you have to please most of the people," he said. "What may be developable for one individual may be a national monument for another."

Among Chevron's projects is a 4,000-acre development near the southeast border of Joshua Tree National Park. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management vetoed the company's two previous site choices because they were in sensitive areas, Hollenbacher said.

With new urgency, environmentalists are filing lawsuits not just to protect endangered species from urban sprawl, but also from climate change. And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is crafting legislation that would set aside millions more acres in the Mojave.

"If you look at the California desert, it's wedged in between two of the most rapidly expanding areas of the country, greater Los Angeles and greater Las Vegas. With that comes some intense development pressure," said Mike Cipra, California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Proponents of the Desert Protection Act laud it as a guardian of great expanses that provide solitude, inspiration and a refuge for wildlife. Almost 3.5 million acres were declared wilderness, which puts it off-limits to vehicles, mining and energy development. Hiking, hunting, camping and livestock grazing are allowed.

Critics say the protections are too extreme and make the land inaccessible to all but a small percentage of the population.

Some people contend that development in the desert is a necessary, and inevitable, way of keeping the state economically viable and meeting sustainable-energy goals. But others say it would prompt plant and wildlife extinctions and bring indelible changes to one of the state's last uninhabited spaces.

Competing viewpoints

Donna Charpied, an organic jojoba farmer, has lived in Desert Center for 29 years. For almost the entire time, she has been fighting the proposed Eagle Mountain landfill, which would dump Los Angeles County trash into an old iron ore pit within two miles of Joshua Tree National Park wilderness, where threatened desert tortoises roam. The case is pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Desert Protection Act missed a "big piece of the puzzle" by not including Eagle Mountain, Charpied said. She also is fighting energy development plans that would bring new roads and other changes.

"There are going to be places we've gone all our lives that we won't be able to, and it's not because it's protected, but because it's fenced," said Charpied, who also worries about air quality and industrialization from the projects.

Arkansas resident and retired Riverside firefighter Hallett Newman has a similar complaint about access, but it has to do with wilderness protections.

"They're closing down way too much desert," he said. "Few people have the opportunity to visit the interiors of wilderness areas because of their physical ability, when you have to hike and carry everything with you."

John Stewart, resource consultant for the California Association of 4WD Clubs, said some of his favorite spots are no longer accessible by road.

"I love getting out in the desert, driving the washes and the old roads to see where they go. You find beautiful vistas, places to have a campfire at night under the stars, places of solitude. These are places you can't really hike to."

Future protections

Environmentalists are hanging their hopes on new legislation by Feinstein, who also carried the 1994 bill.

Feinstein's latest piece, expected to be introduced within days, purportedly would create a national monument and protect public land in eastern San Bernardino County, south of the Mojave preserve.

The monument would encompass thousands of unspoiled acres of former railroad land stretching from Barstow to the Colorado River. The Wildlands Conservancy bought the land and turned it over to the BLM in 2004 for preservation. But the BLM has accepted applications for energy developments on much of that acreage.

David Myers, the Oak Glen-based conservancy's executive director, said Feinstein's bill would alleviate many impacts of renewable energy, which can consume massive amounts of water, scrape the land bare and disrupt wildlife corridors.

"If you look at the desert as a body, this will save a lot of the vital organs. It saves the heart of the desert," Myers said. "It's really important to think big and protect big landscapes."

His group supports wind and solar projects on private land already disturbed by farming or other activity.

So does Jim Dodson, one of the original Desert Protection Act proponents.

"There's enough land out there so we can have parks and monuments and wilderness and still have enough land left over for renewable energy generation," he said. "It just requires some reasoned analysis and forethought."

October 28, 2009

PIPELINE PLANS: Judge kills water ruling

Permission for agency to tap three rural valleys rejected


For the moment at least, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has lost the water it hoped to pump to Las Vegas in the first phase of its proposed pipeline across eastern Nevada.

In a strongly worded order issued last week, a district judge overturned a 2008 state ruling that granted the authority permission to tap groundwater from three valleys in central Lincoln County.

Judge Norman Robison ruled that State Engineer Tracy Taylor "abused his discretion" and "acted arbitrarily, capriciously and oppressively" when he cleared the authority to pump more than 6 billion gallons of groundwater a year from Cave, Delamar and Dry Lake valleys.

The senior judge from Gardnerville wrote that the state's chief water regulator traditionally requires "specific empirical data" before allowing groundwater to be transferred out of a basin. This time, though, the state engineer is "simply hoping for the best while committing to undo his decision if the worst occurs," Robison wrote.

Authority officials are expected to challenge the judge's ruling, which spokesman Scott Huntley described as biased and "flat-out wrong."

"We believe there are numerous grounds for appeal," Huntley said. "There was some evidence the judge may have come into the case with a prejudged opinion."

Las Vegas water officials filed applications in the three valleys in 1989 as part of a grab for unappropriated groundwater across the southern half of the state.

In July 2008, Taylor granted the authority less than half of the water it was seeking in Cave, Delamar and Dry Lake valleys. He ordered the wholesale water agency to develop a monitoring and mitigation program and to collect data for at least two years before exporting any water from the area.

A month later, a group of ranchers, environmentalists and others opposed to the pipeline challenged Taylor's decision.

New Mexico-based attorney Simeon Herskovits represents many of those pipeline opponents. In a statement Tuesday, he applauded Robison for reversing "an obviously unsound decision by the state engineer."

"There can be no doubt that the long-term interest of all Nevadans will be best served by the judge's decision to use common sense and reason in applying Nevada's water law," Herskovits said.

The Nevada Supreme Court would hear any appeal brought by the state engineer's office, the water authority or both.

For now, there appears to be some confusion about how state officials should proceed.

Robison ordered Taylor's decision on the three valleys to be "vacated and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this decision," but officials do not know exactly what that means.

"My understanding is there will either be an appeal or we're right back before the state engineer doing it all again," Huntley said.

"I think we're just digesting it right now to be honest with you," said Susan Joseph-Taylor, the chief hearing officer for the Nevada Division of Water Resources.

A message left for Robison was not returned Tuesday.

By as early as 2013, the authority could start pumping groundwater south through a pipeline that could stretch into White Pine County, more than 250 miles away, and cost between $2 billion and $3.5 billion.

Cave, Delamar and Dry Lake valleys compose the first phase of the project. The water the authority plans to tap there could supply more than 37,000 Las Vegas homes.

The controversial pipeline was first proposed to feed growth in the Las Vegas Valley, but now it is seen by its backers as an insurance policy for a community that gets 90 percent of its water from a single source: the drought-stricken Colorado River.

Opponents argue that the arid valleys of eastern Nevada cannot sustain large-scale groundwater pumping, which they contend would threaten to destroy wildlife and livelihoods of ranchers and farmers.

In August, water authority board members voted unanimously to forge ahead with the permit process and other preparations for the pipeline.

Authority officials have said they will call for a final vote on whether to the build the project should the surface of Lake Mead slip below 1,075 feet, a low-water mark not seen since 1937 when the reservoir was being filled for the first time.

On Tuesday, the reservoir was holding at about 1,094 feet above sea level.

October 23, 2009

Navajos to reclaim bones misidentified as poet's

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — A few months ago, the family of Everett Ruess, an idealistic young artist who vanished on a wilderness journey in 1934, was ready to accept his grim fate — that he had been killed by Indians.

They prepared to cremate remains that were found in wild Utah redrock country, which would have forever sealed the legend of Ruess with ashes in the Pacific Ocean.

But nagging doubts led four nieces and nephews to another DNA lab, which reported the bones were from another, unknown person. It was a stunning reversal for a legend-busting story in National Geographic Adventure last spring.

For Ruess flame keepers, it was proof the man never wanted to be found. For the family, it was only more grief.

"It's very difficult for us," Brian Ruess, a 44-year-old software salesman in Portland, Ore., said Thursday. "Our interest was more for closure than romanticism. It's tough."

Ruess said the family was "very close" to cremating remains of somebody who wasn't their uncle. Now the family is shipping the bones and a few artifacts to the Navajo Nation reservation where they were discovered last year. Scientists say the remains are most likely those of a young Navajo Indian.

So how did the original DNA researchers get it so wrong, and where does family go from here?

Brian Ruess said the family doesn't know where to turn to solve the mystery of their uncle.

"The story is about Everett. We just found the wrong grave," said David Roberts, a contributing editor of the magazine, who weaved a Navajo legend describing Ruess' murder by other Indians to a site where an elder said he hastily buried the body.

"It's possible he's there, nearby," Roberts said Thursday. He plans no further search.

Others believe the rest of the story holds up. It relies largely on an account of a Navajo elder who waited decades to reveal that he had witnessed the murder of a white man resembling Everett Ruess.

The story was originally revealed to Daisy Johnson, who lived on the Navajo reservation, by a medicine man who blamed her grandfather's cancer on having handled Ruess' remains decades earlier. Johnson died of ovarian cancer Aug. 25. Her brother, Denny Bellson, followed the accounts to a burial site. He might have gotten the location wrong.

A measure of the power of the Everett Ruess myth was the backlash and threats that followed Robert's story. Brian Ruess said the family disavows zealots who didn't want to hear that he "lasted for a month and was killed by Indians" on his final wilderness journey.

"People want their heroes to succeed," Brian Ruess said. "Everybody likes a happy ending."

Before Everett Ruess vanished, setting off from Escalante, Utah, he wrote a final letter to his family in California that "as to when I revisit civilization, it will not be soon" and "it is enough that I am surrounded with beauty." He was 20, a gifted poet who had explored the Southwest over much of four years.

Initial DNA tests were termed "irrefutable" months ago by University of Colorado researchers. On Wednesday, they said they had been unable to duplicate the results on a second try, but don't know how they erred. Other experts suggest they mixed DNA from Ruess' survivors with that of the discovered bones, contaminating the results.

Scientists at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md. — considered one of the world's pre-eminent authorities on DNA research — say they have better technology for evaluating badly degraded DNA and made the right call.

"It was definitely not a match," said Mike Coble, research section chief for the Maryland lab. "Our results were very convincing."

Coble said his lab took on the Ruess mystery as a challenge, refusing the family's offer of payment for its services. They had one femur, a leg bone, to work with for DNA testing.

The structure of the bone suggested a man in his early 20s — the right age for a Ruess match — but military scientists say the DNA was distinctly Navajo, while anthropologists say other parts of the skeleton — a jaw bone and a tooth — suggested a Native American.

The DNA testing wasn't easy.

"The fact this bone was lying in desert soil so long, it was actually reddish-pink, the color of the soil. That can create problems when you do genetic testing," Coble said.

The Armed Forces lab is dedicated to identifying remains of U.S. soldiers and is working cases as old as from World War II.

Earlier this year, it disproved a legend of the Russian revolution, confirming that two missing children of Russian Czar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, did not survive the slaughter that left the rest of the family in a mass grave in 1918. Remains of the czar's only son and a daughter were recovered from another location.

Coble said nothing about DNA science is easy or simple and that the technology was still evolving. The testing by a colleague of his, Dr. Odile Loreille, use techniques employed at only one other U.S. lab, in New York, for criminal cases.

University of Colorado biologist Kenneth Krauter, who handled the initial DNA tests of Ruess' supposed remains, used equipment considered reliable only for good DNA samples, Coble said. Krauter readily conceded his error and said he was using "inappropriate" technology.

October 22, 2009

Heat, heavy coverage hurt bird hunting

Jim Matthews, Outdoor Writer
Inland Empire Daily Bulletin

APPLE VALLEY - Upland bird hunters reported seeing good numbers of quail and chukar throughout most of Southern California's deserts and foothill regions, but rain just before the opener, then heat and heavy hunting pressure over the weekend, made for difficult conditions and low hunter success.

"At Goat Springs, there was approximately the same number of vehicles you'd find at a large car dealership," said Rick Bean of Hesperia about a popular chukar hunting spot in the West Mojave off Highway 247 between Barstow and Lucerne Valley on opening day. While Bean and his hunting partners, Matt and Debbie Gangola of Glendora, didn't bag a bird - in spite of seeing a covey with 60 or more birds - two young hunters they met near a guzzler north of Goat Springs managed to get seven chukar between them.

Chris Coston of Orange was hunting near Ord Mountain, another popular chukar spot in the West Mojave, and said there were hunters everywhere, but that most guys he spoke with had "one or two birds each."

"There were a lot of birds, a lot of birds," said Coston, who managed to bag two chukar on opening Saturday and then another pair in the same area on Sunday.

Farther north, chukar hunters in the Southern Sierra Nevada, White and Inyo mountains, along with the popular Red Mountain region, all had similar reports: lots of birds but tough hunting conditions. Several hunters complained of chukar flushing well out of range in the Rand Mountains, but the hunting pressure was very high in that area, like the West Mojave, and it was warm.

The Mojave National Preserve had an excellent hatch of quail and chukar this year, but rain apparently scattered the birds and then warm weather made hunting difficult. Most hunters reported seeing birds, but success seemed to be about only a quail per hunter, with the chukar even tougher, flushing out of range.

Ed Tolman, along with his son Andreas and father DeLoy, and Dave Hancock and Ted Werner, all of the Chino Hills area, were out in the preserve Friday and saw good numbers of quail scouting for the opener. But opening day they managed to bag only five quail between them. Werner and Andreas Tolman wore themselves out chasing chukar over some nasty terrain, seeing 120 or so birds but unable to bag a single one.

Jack Ingram of Chino managed to get six Gambel's quail in two days of hunting in the Mid Hills region of the preserve.

"The birds were hard to locate, but I did get into a couple small coveys," said Ingram on Monday.

"I had my shots and I could have taken a limit for the weekend if I were on my game. As it was, I will be grilling six up tomorrow for dinner."

In the Imperial Valley and near the Salton Sea, quail numbers were reported to be well up from the past couple seasons, but the heat made the birds difficult to hunt, especially after the coveys were scattered opening morning.

Along the lower Colorado River, there were generally pretty good reports of quail numbers from Yuma to Needles. Robert Pierce, who managed Walter's Camp south of Palo Verde, said there were a lot of birds in the desert washes this year, and he and his brother-in-law managed to get 11 birds between them on Sunday of opening weekend, after being skunked the day before.

"There were a lot of birds out there, but there are too many guys with quads who chase them on those things and then jump off and shoot them," he said.

"I'm from Texas, where you get out and walk and hunting quail behind dogs, and it's just a shame that quail season was so badly abused.

"On Sunday the quads were gone, the jeeps were gone, and we got 11 birds in four hours of hunting. All the coveys were big, massive, with 20 to 30 birds."

A number of hunters complained about unethical hunters sitting on desert water sources (you can't stay on a water source for more than 30 minutes, so wildlife can come to water) and people on quads who didn't use normal hunter etiquette.

With another warm weekend forecast, it doesn't look like the next weekend of the season will be any better than the first.

October 21, 2009

HWY 62 Art Tours start Saturday

By Kurt Schauppner
The Desert Trail

MORONGO BASIN — Art and artists will once again be the focus of attention in the Morongo Basin in late October and early November as the open studio art tours, redubbed the HWY 62 Art Tours, return, thanks in part to the Morongo Basin Cultural Arts Council.

“We are trying to make this more recognizable,” Twentynine Palms artist Mita Barter said of the tour’s name change. “A lot of people from out of the area don’t know where the Morongo Basin is.”

A lot of them, however, do know where Highway 62, also known as Twentynine Palms Highway, can be found.

“It is the artery of the Morongo Basin. We like to think of it as the ARTery of the Morongo Basin. It is the road that connects us all,” Barter said, comparing Twentyine Palms Highway to Route 66. “This is our mother road.”

The tours, giving residents and visitors a chance to visit local artists in their studios, will visit the west side of the Morongo Basin, including Yucca Valley, Morongo Valley, Pioneertown, Flamingo Heights, Landers and Joshua Tree, Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 24 and 25.

Venues during the first weekend will include the Purple Agave Art Gallery, Water Canyon Coffee Company, the Wishbone Gallery and the Integratron

Tours will take place in the east side of the Morongo Basin, including Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms and Wonder Valley, the next weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.

Venues during the second weekend will include the Morongo Basin Life Drawing League, 29 Palms Creative Center and Gallery, 29 Palms Art Gallery and the Wonder Valley Labyrinth.

Some venues, including the Hi-Desert Nature Museum, the Red Arrow Gallery, Crossroads Cafe, Studio Godot and True World Gallery, will take part in the tour on both weekends.

Something new for this year’s tours will be a music component, with musicians playing at many of the studios on the tour with help from local musician and sound engineer Ted Quinn.

Maps to each of the tour venues will be available at the Yucca Valley Chamber of Commerce, 56711 Twentynine Palms Highway, the Joshua Tree Chamber of Commerce, 61325 Twentynine Palms Highway, and the Twentynine Palms Chamber of Commerce, 73660 Civic Center Drive, and in the Hi-Desert Star and Desert Trail.

Tour participants will also have the opportunity to purchase full-color programs for $10 online at www.hwy62arttours.com.

The two-weekend event will also see a celebration of Joshua Tree National Park’s 15th anniversary as a national park from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 24 and 25 at the Starlite Courtyard in downtown Joshua Tree.

The entrance is between Instant Karma Yoga and the True World Gallery.

Admission is free.

Live music will be played all day and beer and wine will be served after 5 p.m.

Food and beverage vendors will be on hand, or participants are invited to bring takeout from one of the local restaurants.

If you go;

What: HWY 62 Art Tours

When: Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 24, 25 and 31 and Nov. 1

Where: Artists studios around the Morongo Basin

Information: http://www.hwy62arttours.com/

October 19, 2009

Did Utah blink in Snake Valley talks?

Water » New documents show Beehive State's position changed after Nevada's threats.

By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune

About halfway through secret four-year negotiations on how a reluctant Utah could share the Snake Valley aquifer with Nevada, a Silver State official and a Las Vegas water utility threatened they could take the matter to court or to Congress, memos and e-mails show.

The correspondence, released under an open-records request from the Great Basin Water Network, illuminates Nevada's no-surrender insistence that Snake Valley water be split 50-50, even though Utah officials believed that impossible.

The documents also appear to undermine recent assurances from Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, that the proposed water-sharing agreement is as good for Utah as it is for Nevada.

It's not, critics have said repeatedly at public meetings and in comments submitted to the Utah Division of Water Rights since the August announcement of a draft deal with Nevada to plumb the west desert.

"It might be an exaggeration to say we got rolled, but we surely backtracked," said Steve Erickson of the Great Basin Water Network. "I was surprised the state backed down on all those positions and that they're advocating this agreement so adamantly when once they were opposed to them."

Many critics have denounced the agreement as a giveaway to Las Vegas at the expense of an aquifer that can maintain equilibrium only with its current water drawdown.

On Monday, Styler acknowledged that the correspondence with Allen Biaggi, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, showed he and other Utah negotiators believed their neighboring state's demands spelled trouble for Utah.

Styler also said he agreed with many of the nearly 200 or so critical comments his department has heard since announcing a tentative agreement with Nevada to divide evenly an estimated 132,000 acre-feet of Snake Valley water a year.

"It makes me smile to see those comments," he said, because those are the very points we've been hammering at all this time."

Nevada negotiators "were dead set they had to come up with a 50-50 [split]," Styler said. "We were saying there was no way, when we're already using more than half that."

A key problem was a U.S. Geological Survey study that estimated Snake Valley's aquifer could yield up to 132,000 acre-feet of water a year. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, enough to irrigate an acre of ground with a foot of water or supply water to one or two households.

But Styler said a sustainable drawdown would be only 105,000 to 111,000 acre-feet per year. The proposed agreement would divvy 108,000 acre-feet, with Utah getting 60 percent. The remaining 26,000 acre-feet of "reserve" water, Styler said, couldn't be tapped unless both states agree, "if it's even there."

Even if it is, said Snake Valley resident Kathy Hill, "I think 108,000 acre-feet may be on the upper end of realistic."

In a Sept. 30, 2006, memo to Biaggi, Styler said the Southern Nevada Water Authority, frustrated with the pace of the negotiations, had threatened to take the matter to its congressional members, who could try to change a 2004 law requiring both states to agree on a water split.

And letters from two years ago make it clear Utah didn't want to base a 50-50 agreement on the USGS estimate, which the federal agency said was only 67 percent reliable and included water used by the plants that now keep Snake Valley soil from blowing straight to the Wasatch Front.

"The harder Utah looks at that criteria, the less reasonable it looks to Utah," Styler wrote to Biaggi on July 31, 2007. "We are unaware of any reasoning that would lead us to conclude a 50/50 split is equitable or based on any scientific or legal grounds."

Hill and her husband, Ken, have a farm in Partoun in Juab County and work in Tintic School District. Kathy Hill said she has studied the documents and finds them both reassuring and frustrating.

"The Utah negotiators," she said, "were saying exactly what we're saying now."

She disliked the tone of Biaggi's 15-page correspondence of Oct. 9, 2007, which said Utah's refusal to negotiate in good faith causes Nevada "injury" -- a key component of any lawsuit -- and that after Utah added a new negotiator the previous spring, the discussion "regressed from its earlier movement toward common ground."

That negotiator is Dean Baker, a Nevada rancher who has spent millions of dollars fighting Nevada's plan for the Las Vegas pipeline.

"I was so outraged when I read that," Hill said.

Biaggi said Monday he wouldn't apologize for the letter's tone.

"At the time, the negotiations were not going well," he said. The letter "lays out the state of Nevada's position and what was at stake for both states ... if the two states could not get an agreement."

The proposed deal

The Southern Nevada Water Authority wants to build a 300-mile pipeline that would siphon 50,000 to 60,000 acre-feet of water from the Snake Valley to support current and anticipated growth in Las Vegas.

An acre-foot supplies up to two households for a year.

A draft water-sharing accord, advanced as a hedge against court battles, would divide a presumed 132,000 acre-feet a year between Utah and Nevada.

But the agreement doesn't authorize pumping. Nevada's state engineer would make that decision in 2019 if the deal becomes final or in 2011 if it does not.

Opponents include Salt Lake, Utah, Millard and Juab counties, west desert ranchers, Utah and Nevada conservationists, the Utah Medical Association and the National Park Service.

The Utah Department of Natural Resources backs the proposed accord as do the Washington County Water Conservation District, Ivins City and the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The many meanings of a cross


The dispute over a cross in the Mojave points to how entangled religion and culture are.

By Gregory Rodriguez
Los Angeles Times

I'm all for the separation of church and state. I believe that government endorsement of any particular religious sect or tradition has a corrosive effect on both the state and the faith in question. But I also think the attempt to separate religion from government is veering toward a foolish, parochial and ultimately impossible quest to separate religion from culture.

Last week, the ACLU of Southern California's Peter Eliasberg argued the case of Salazar vs. Buono before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, which involves a cross that has stood, in various forms, for 75 years as a memorial to World War I veterans in the Mojave Desert, elicited a heated exchange between Eliasberg and Justice Antonin Scalia.

In a debate over whether the cross, which is on property surrounded by the Mojave National Preserve, violates the 1st Amendment ban on the establishment of religion, Eliasberg argued that a cross "is the predominant symbol of Christianity" that "signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind from our sins." Therefore, it shouldn't be allowed to "stand alone" as a war memorial in a national park. Scalia offered a different definition. "The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead," he said. The Times reported that Scalia "sharply disagreed" with Eliasberg.

Eliasberg responded: "I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew," he said.

Scalia wasn't persuaded: "I don't think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that the cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that's an outrageous conclusion."

I see Eliasberg's point, but Scalia's notion that the cross has become a generalized symbol of memorial strikes me as true too. Sure, you might suspect that Scalia, a practicing Roman Catholic and a well-known conservative, is simply seeking an argument that would allow the cross in this case to pass constitutional muster, but he's also accurately pointing to how entangled religion and culture are.

Eliasberg's reading that the cross has a specialized religious significance symbolizing the son of God who died for mankind's sins seems way too narrow an interpretation. Does it mean that? Yes. Does it have other significance? Absolutely.

Consider another common symbol, the Star of David. It is a symbol of Judaism, but it is also an ethnic, national and political symbol. It'd be hard, then, to say that its significance is entirely spiritual or theological.

Sometimes, religious symbols have historical significance that in some contexts can transcend their theological meaning. Five years ago, under threat of a lawsuit by the ACLU, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to remove a cross from the county seal. In the iconography of the seal, which had a number of symbolic images on it, the cross stood for the Catholic missions whose founding in the late 18th century signaled the dawn of modern Los Angeles history. But the ACLU claimed it represented "an impermissible endorsement of Christianity by the county government." The supervisors didn't fight it, but they should have.

In his 1996 book, "The Truth of Broken Symbols," philosopher and theologian Robert C. Neville observed that in predominantly secular societies, religious symbols often lose their theological specificity and become broadly generalized. In fact, he points to the American military cemetery in Cambridge, England, where a "sign explains that a Star of David on a tombstone signifies the grave of a Jewish soldier whereas a cross signifies 'all others.' " Likewise, he notes that "clergy blessing governmental ceremonies are performatively invoking divine aid by their very presence but are likely to pray in terms so general as not to be specific to their own religion's symbol system."

Culture is moving toward greater syncretism, something you can see in the increase in interracial marriage and the election of a black president. As for religion, a recent survey found that Americans who don't identify with any religion -- now 15% overall and 22% of all adults ages 18 to 29 -- make up the fastest-growing religious "tradition" in the country.

The problem with the ACLU's approach to religious symbols is that it's zero sum and old school -- it is, dare I say it, puritanical. Its narrow vision could rob the public sphere of symbols we need to understand who we are, what we're about and where we came from.

The truth is that even as we become a more secular country, religion will continue to be an integral part of our society, history and culture. Indeed, our very notions of politics and good government are the legacy of zealously religious people. Even our ideals of religious freedom and church/state division have roots in the theological convictions of Colonial and Revolutionary-era Baptists and Presbyterians as much as in the Enlightenment. Even if we don't as a nation profess one faith or another, religion is at the core of American identity. To seek to root it out of civic life and culture altogether is not only impossible, it's silly.

15th Anniversary Celebration of the California Desert Protection Act

by Michael Gordon

Please join the National Park Service and the National Parks Conservation Association to celebrate this historic anniversary at Mojave National Preserve’s Kelso Depot Visitor Center in Kelso, California. Entertainment, education, food, and an incredible line-up of speakers will add to your enjoyment of our celebration, located at the Historic Kelso Depot in the heart of Mojave National Preserve. Only a few miles from the 700-foot tall Kelso Sand Dunes.

Signed into law on October 31, 1994, the California Desert Protection Act designated 7.8 million acres of land as wilderness, changed areas previously designated as national monuments into Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, and established Mojave National Preserve. This bill was the single largest land protection bill in the history of the lower 48!

The California Desert Protection Act is important because it established Mojave National Preserve and expanded Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks," said Mojave Superintendent Dennis Schramm. "Before its passage in 1994, Death Valley and Joshua Tree were designated as National Monuments."

Activities during the event include guided hikes and tours, distinguished speakers, children's activities and more.

The Fort Mojave Tribal Band and Needles Select Choir will perform, and Cowboy Poet Rob Blair will recite poems inspired by his life in the Mojave.

Lunch can be purchased at The Beanery lunch counter inside the Kelso Depot. Kelso Depot was built in 1924 and served as a Union Pacific station until 1986. The building was renovated and re-opened in 2005 as Mojave National Preserve's visitor center. The spectacular mission-revival style building now houses a museum, information center, bookstore, lunch counter, and art gallery.

The bookstore operated by Western National Parks Association will be open, and many regional authors whose books are on sale will be available for book signings.

Western Artist Susan Altstatt has a solo show in the Desert Light Gallery of the Kelso Depot Visitor's Center beginning October 10th and running through January 3rd, 2010. Twenty-two pieces of Susan's work focused on the East Mojave will be displayed, and selected prints will be available. Susan has been painting off and on for the past 50 years. Her media is primarily acrylic on canvas.

  • Visitor Center open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Activities begin at 10 a.m.
  • Susan Altstatt, Western artist
    solo show in the lower gallery
  • Kelso is 34 miles south of I-15 at Baker on Kelbaker Road
  • Celebration event at 1 p.m.
  • Lunch concessions available
The Turtle Mountains by Susan Altstatt

This event is free and open to the public!

For more information call 760-252-6100 or visit us online at www.nps.gov/moja

You can download a flyer for this event here.

October 18, 2009

Environmental concerns delay solar projects in California desert

Several companies seek to build renewable-energy facilities on public land -- a goal backed by the White House -- but the slow permit process and fears over imperiled species have hindered construction.

UC Riverside scientist Jim Andre looks for a rare cactus in the Ivanpah Valley, near the site where BrightSource Energy has proposed building a solar-energy facility. (Mark Boster / September 15, 2009)

By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from El Centro, Calif. - Across the desert flatlands of southeastern California, dozens of companies have flooded federal offices with applications to place solar mirrors on more than a million acres of public land.

But just as some of those projects appear headed toward fruition, environmental hurdles threaten to jeopardize efforts to further tap the region's renewable energy potential.

The development of solar-power facilities in the desert has been a top priority of the Obama administration as it seeks to ease the nation's dependence on fossil fuels and curb global warming. In addition, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has urged that the state meet one-third of its electricity needs from renewable sources by 2020.

Companies are racing to finalize their permits and break ground by the end of next year, which would qualify them to obtain some of the $15 billion in federal stimulus funds designated for renewable energy projects. At stake is the creation of 48,000 jobs and more than 5,300 megawatts of new energy, enough to power almost 1.8 million homes, according to federal land managers.

But the presence of sensitive habitat, rare plants and imperiled creatures such as desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and flat-tailed horned lizards threatens to stall or derail some of the projects closest to securing permits.

"There are significant environmental issues involved in the California gold rush-like scenario unfolding in the desert," said Peter Galvin, conservation director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "We are not going to just roll over when critical wild lands and last habitats of endangered species are in the mix."

Beyond the environmental issues is a bureaucratic one: State and federal regulatory agencies are hobbled by mandatory work furloughs and a lack of experience in processing utility-scale renewable energy project applications.

Removing that obstacle has become a top priority, with Schwarzenegger and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signing an agreement last week to help state and federal authorities expedite renewable energy development in the desert.

"The California process, our state process, is slow, the federal process is slow," Schwarzenegger said. "And this is why it is important that we go and create this kind of partnership so we can move through that and get rid of the red tape."

Salazar characterized the effort to facilitate a rapid and responsible move to large-scale renewables on public lands as a preeminent conservation issue of the 21st century. "If we fail, the rest of the world will move ahead of us," he said. "There is no reason for the U.S. to come in second on this agenda. And we won't."

One of the biggest projects is slated for 6,500 acres of public and private land just north of Interstate 8 near El Centro. Arizona-based Stirling Energy Systems said its Solar Two facility would create 700 jobs.

In a surprise setback, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in June to reconsider its decision not to list the flat-tailed horned lizard as an endangered species.

Stirling is investing heavily in strategies to minimize potential conflicts. Sean Gallagher, Stirling's vice president of marketing strategies and regulatory issues, said the company recently reduced the size of the project from 900 megawatts to 750 to avoid an area strewn with Native American artifacts.

The company also plans, with help from the Bureau of Land Management, to identify and buy 6,500 acres of flat-tailed horned lizard habitat elsewhere in Imperial County to help conserve the species. "That won't be an inconsiderable expense," Gallagher said.

In a worst-case scenario for the company and community boosters, the Fish and Wildlife Service could decide that the project threatens the lizard's existence and shut it down.

Peninsular bighorn sheep became an issue in March 2008 when company surveyors spotted two adult females and two lambs ambling down a dry wash in the heart of the Stirling site, miles from their usual mountain haunts.

Company officials and federal land managers have dismissed the incident as an aberration, speculating that the sheep were accidentally driven into the area by hunters or off-road vehicles. But some environmentalists are concerned that the federally endangered sheep may have followed a previously unknown migration corridor.

A coalition of environmental groups sued the Fish and Wildlife Service this month for slashing critical habitat designations for the sheep.

That worries Andy Horne, chief of natural resources development for Imperial County.

"We have the highest unemployment rate of any county in the state, so this [project] is very important to us," Horne said. "We've pegged our future on it."

As for the threatened reptiles, he mused, "If I were a flat-tailed horned lizard, I'd welcome the chance to get under the shade of one of those solar mirrors and take a little nap."

Even further along in the permitting process is BrightSource Energy, which plans to start construction in March on a 6-square-mile solar facility in eastern San Bernardino County's Ivanpah Valley.

BrightSource says the site is ideal, in part because it has been used for cattle grazing and off-road vehicles. It also has a major gas line and two major transmission lines.

Ivanpah is "a showcase of world-class technology and environmentally friendly development, and serves as a catalyst for economic growth," said company spokesman Keely Wachs.

But environmental groups say it would destroy what they see as a relatively pristine habitat that is home to a colony of about 30 threatened California desert tortoises. It is also studded with endangered cactuses, including varieties of cholla, a ground-hugging species also known as "horse tripper."

Of particular concern are BrightSource's plans to move the California desert tortoises. Environmentalists say the tortoises often die as a result of attempts to relocate them.

The Sierra Club has recommended that the company instead develop its facility in wide open, ecologically disturbed areas a few miles to the east, next to Interstate 15.

"We believe there is room for solar energy development in the California desert," said Joan Taylor, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's California/Nevada desert energy committee. "But there is no reason to put it in the wrong place."

BrightSource is "very concerned about the welfare of the desert tortoise," Wachs said, adding that the company has worked extensively with regulators and environmental groups to come up with a strategy that protects the species.

State and federal regulatory agencies are reviewing BrightSource's tortoise relocation plan, but one state official was critical of the project's location.

"BrightSource did not choose an ideal site. They are going to have to do some serious mitigation," said Dan Pellissier, Schwarzenegger's deputy secretary for energy and development.

He said the state energy commission and Bureau of Land Management "are working on a plan" that would require the company to buy three acres of habitat elsewhere for each acre developed. "It looks like we'll get them through" the permitting stages, he said, "and we'll end up with a responsible process that will keep us from ever allowing this to happen again."

Meanwhile, pressure to approve solar plants continues to mount in Bureau of Land Management offices throughout Southern California.

"Bullying us to step up the pace won't help," said Greg Miller, head of a new team created to speed up the bureau's permitting of renewable energy projects. "We're going to do this right; this land belongs to the American people."

October 15, 2009

County looks to save Victor Valley Museum

Apple Valley may pitch in up to $15,000 per year to support Victor Valley Museum

By Brooke Edwards
Lucerne Valley Leader

APPLE VALLEY • San Bernardino County is working on a plan to take over the struggling Victor Valley Museum, with intentions to remodel the site and expand its representation of High Desert history.

“One of my priorities as supervisor has been to bring a county museum to the High Desert,” 1st District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt said Friday, “so this idea brought to me by the Victor Valley Museum seemed like a natural partnership.”

The nonprofit museum approached Mitzelfelt in July with concerns over its ability to stay open, with donations reportedly down some 75 percent.

“We’ve knocked on every door in town,” said Doug Shumway, president of the museum’s board. “Even our biggest donors just couldn’t do it. They’re having to lay off people from their own staff.”

Without help, Shumway told the Apple Valley Town Council, the museum would be out of money and possibly forced to close its doors this month.

The museum offered to transfer its title to San Bernardino County in order to keep the 33-year-old community resource intact.

An estimated $250,000 to update the facility would be paid out of Mitzelfelt’s district funds. Ongoing operational costs would be borne by the County Museums Department and be offset by fundraising, with eligibility for more grants as the museum is brought in line with accreditation requirements for its displays.

Discussions are also under way with local cities to help fund operations, which Shumway said average $6,000 per month. On the agenda for yesterday’s council meeting was a plan for Apple Valley to commit up to $15,000 per year in support.

Mitzelfelt worked with the San Bernardino County Museum and County Administrative Office to develop a plan for a seamless transition.

In the first phase, the county would refurbish and upgrade existing exhibits, expand outreach programs and remodel the exterior and interior of the facility. This would result in a temporary partial closure, officials said, where residents could use portions of the facility on a limited basis.

Phase two would be intended to attract existing patrons and new ones through new exhibitions, programs, lectures, travel programs and other outreach events.

As more visitors flow to the museum through these upgrades, the county also plans to re-examine staffing levels, hours of operation and programs, to ensure the viability of the museum for years to come.

The museum was created in 1976 in the halls of the Victorville courthouse as a bicentennial project, Shumway said. It was moved to its current site, 11873 Apple Valley Road, in 1992.

“I have long admired our Victor Valley Museum and the dedicated patrons and volunteers who have kept it a viable amenity for our community,” Mitzelfelt said. “I am also glad to be able to step in at a time of need and secure the future of the museum.”

October 14, 2009

Stampede to Oblivion

George Knapp and Matt Adams
WorldNow and KLAS

Half of the country's wild horses are in Nevada and the BLM is gathering them off of public land in record numbers with increasingly thin justifications behind the roundups.

Critics allege the BLM has repeatedly engineered or otherwise contributed to the conditions on public ranges, which are later used to justify the removal of horses. Fences have cut the horses off from water and forage all over the west, which BLM then uses as a reason to round them up.

Overall, BLM has gathered a quarter of a million horses off the public range, but what's happening now is different from previous years, both in scale and long-term intent, and it is happening with virtually no oversight.

"They are saying, ‘Okay, we will do what we want.' They just totally caved in. What the public doesn't already realize is that these greatly reduced herd management areas are already a very serious reduction. But now they're just going for broke. They are saying, ‘Hell, get rid of them,'" said Craig Downer.

"We have taken the number of horses off the range by over 50-percent in 20 years. For these people to say the horses are out of control, the numbers are out of control, there isn't anything out there that's realized a 50-percent decrease in the last two decades. Certainly not the number of cattle out there," said Jerry Reynoldson.

By almost any measure, there has been a dramatic shift. The pace of the government roundups has jumped over the last several years, averaging more than 9,000 head per year. As of early 2009, there are more than 33,000 horses in places like Ridgecrest, California or Fallon, Nevada -- more horses than exist on the open range.

Once they get to government corrals, they're no longer wild horses. Essentially they become wards of the state -- welfare horses living off the public dole and for the rest of their lives, they will be warehoused at either government pens or private ranches.

Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp explores how the wild horse program got in such bad shape and what can be done to turn it around, including a plan by billionaire philanthropist Madeleine Pickens that would create an eco-tourism destination featuring the horses.

If you would like to order a copy of Stampede to Oblivion, you can contact Mary Mercado at mmercado@klastv.com.

California metal mine regains luster

Fears of a shortage of rare-earth minerals used in high-tech applications has bolstered an effort to reopen production at the Mountain Pass Mine in the Mojave Desert.

The pond that fills the bottom of the Mountain Pass rare-earth metal mine reflects the terraces. Digging is expected to resume by the second half of 2011 after the water is pumped out. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

By Martin Zimmerman
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Mountain Pass, Calif. - Fear of a shortage of rare-earth metals used in high-tech military and industrial products has spawned global efforts to reopen abandoned mines, including the formidable Mountain Pass Mine in California's Mojave Desert.

Discovered in the 1940s by uranium prospectors, Mountain Pass contains an array of rare earths, including cerium and lanthanum, in concentrations almost double those found at the world's biggest rare-earth mine, China's Bayan Obo.

"You're looking at the greatest rare-earth deposit in the world," says operations manager John Benfield as he ushers a visitor around the 2,200-acre site 60 miles southwest of Las Vegas.

Benfield's employer, Molycorp Minerals in Colorado, has just begun a two-year effort to restore Mountain Pass to its former role as a leading global producer. Those plans were given a boost recently amid fears that China was poised to ban exports of some of the scarcer rare-earth metals and to sharply limit shipments of others.

Although the Chinese government has sought to allay those concerns, a possible ban served as a reminder that the Asian nation is nearly the sole source worldwide for rare-earth metals and is likely to remain so for at least the next two years.

"You always want multiple sources for your raw materials," said Jim Hedrick, commodity specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey. "There could be a natural disaster that significantly disrupts the supply, or there could be geopolitical issues. . . . All it takes is for one person to antagonize another."

The reopening of the mine and related processing facilities would create about 900 jobs at Mountain Pass -- about 100 people work there now -- and provide U.S. companies with a reliable source for many key rare-earth metals.

These minerals, such as samarium and neodymium, are prized for chemical properties that make them indispensable in a variety of industrial and military uses including polishing glass, oil refining and manufacturing missile guidance systems.

They also play a crucial role in the development of "green" technologies such as hybrid cars, wind turbines and compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Heat-resistant magnets made with rare-earth alloys are key components of the electric motor in the Toyota Prius, for example. And lanthanum, one of the most abundant rare earths found at Mountain Pass, is used to make the car's nickel-metal hydride battery.

Mining operations ceased at Mountain Pass in 2002 amid environmental concerns and cut-rate competition from China, though processing of previously dug ore continues.

On a recent Friday, as the weekend traffic flowed on Interstate 15 toward Las Vegas and the temperature hovered around 110, the ore processing facilities hummed with activity. But the crushing mill and the conveyors that fed it with rock from the mine were silent.

The mine itself is about 1,500 feet across -- impressive to the uninitiated but smallish compared with the mile-wide behemoths around the globe where copper, gold and other minerals are excavated.

There's no giant earthmoving equipment rumbling about. Most of it was sold off when the mine was shut down. A small pump floats on the surface of the brackish green water 300 feet below. The only other signs of life in the pit are red-tailed hawks circling the mine's terraced sides in search of lunch.

Molycorp hopes to generate big profit at Mountain Pass by building an integrated manufacturing chain that starts with raw ore and ends with finished products ready for market.

"We don't want to be just a supplier of basic materials to other industries," said Benfield, the operations chief. "We want to develop our own technologies so we can determine our own destiny rather than rely on others. We're not just a mine."

The U.S. was once the world leader in rare-earth metal production. But low-cost competition from China has given that nation a near monopoly on rare-earth exports. In addition, China is becoming a key producer of rare-earth magnets.

That worries some analysts who fret that China could dominate the market for next-generation clean-energy technology in much the same way that a handful of oil-rich nations now control the bulk of world oil supplies. The fact that China and the U.S. are currently engaged in a trade tiff over tire imports hasn't soothed matters.

"They've been reducing exports of rare-earth metals for years," commodities analyst Jack Lifton said. "A few years ago, they exported 50% of their production. Now they're down to 25%. They could be down to zero by 2015 because their own demand is going up."

Rare-earth anxiety has spurred a global hunt for the minerals and is bringing back into production mining operations that have been closed for years, such as Mountain Pass.

Toyota Motor Corp. and other big users of rare-earth metals, such as Hitachi Ltd., are exploring ways to reduce their dependence on Chinese exports. They're using smaller amounts of rare-earth metals, recycling more, testing alternative materials and looking for new sources of supply.

Most of the rare-earth metals aren't all that rare. "Almost any rock you pick up has rare-earth elements in it," noted Thomas Monecke, a geology professor at the Colorado School of Mines.

The most common, cerium, is more plentiful than copper. The two rarest, thulium and lutetium, are 200 times more common than gold.

But unlike coal, iron and other industrially useful minerals, they are difficult to separate and can be mined profitably only when found in dense concentrations, such as at China's Bayan Obo mine and in clay deposits in that country's southern region.

The only other place on earth known to harbor such dense concentrations is Mountain Pass.

Molycorp, a former Chevron Corp. subsidiary, was sold to a group of private equity investors last year. Chevron had acquired the mine when it bought Unocal Corp. in 2005 and is still responsible for cleaning up some wastewater spills from past operations.

The mine's new owners are in the midst of an ambitious plan to pump out the millions of gallons of water at the bottom of the open-pit mine and resume mining by the second half of 2011.

Once ore is again coming out of the ground, Molycorp wants to install advanced extraction processes that will enable the company to achieve purities as high as those found in Chinese rare-earth metals but at a lower cost. They are also looking for joint venture partners to begin producing their own rare-earth magnets.

It will cost $100 million to $400 million to make that plan a reality. Molycorp Chief Executive Mark Smith said the company was exploring a variety of financing options including issuing debt or selling stock.

He also would consider investments from foreign investors, including Chinese.

The goal is to achieve a production rate of 20,000 tons of rare-earth products a year by January 2012, Smith said. That would meet about 20% of global rare-earth demand, based on last year's total worldwide production of around 124,000 tons, he said.

While Mountain Pass prepares to restart mining operations, mining companies are pushing to develop other known rare-earth deposits, such as those in Canada, Brazil and Australia.

The Chinese also are hunting for overseas sources, though worries about the country's control of world supplies is hampering those efforts. A Chinese mining company recently pulled out of a deal to expand its ownership stake in Australian rare-earth miner Lynas Corp. after the Australian government protested.

Although efforts to diversify the world's sources of rare-earth metals are welcomed in many quarters, Lifton notes that, as at Mountain Pass, these new locations won't become significant producers overnight.

"Until then," he said, "we'll just have to tiptoe through the Chinese tulips."

October 11, 2009

International Camel Races celebrates 50 years in Virginia City

They snort. They spit. Sometimes they bite. They may be the most ornery animals on four legs – at least any animal you would consider riding. And they’re coming to Northern Nevada’s Virginia City to race.

The Virginia City International Camel Races celebrate its 50th running Sept. 11-13, 2010 in this Wild West town, offering high drama in the high desert hills outside of Reno. While the dromedaries are not known for their speed – some even choose to go the wrong way on occasion – the awkward gallops, jockeys hanging on for dear life, and the whooping of the crowd is a spectacle worth seeing.

A piece of Nevada history

The camel races started as a lie, when Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper in 1959 made up a story about camel racing on the Comstock. The story found its way into other newspapers, and eventually the San Francisco Chronicle and the Phoenix Sun challenged each other to a race.

So the races were on, the year that the “Misfits” starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, and directed by John Huston, were in Virginia City filming the movie. Huston, riding for the Chronicle, won the first camel race.

In true Virginia City spirit, the Camel Races began as a hoax. Camels were introduced to the American frontier as pack animals, and were brought to the Comstock to carry salt and general supplies. As Virginia City grew and the V&T Railroad took over the drayage chores for the area, the sometimes disagreeable and smelly animals were turned loose in the hills, and eventually disappeared.

Bob Richards, late editor of Lucius Beebe's "Territorial Enterprise," wrote a fictitious account of the city's "Camel Races" in 1959, and followed up the next year with an editorial announcement of the upcoming races. Local residents, wise to this form of humor which dates back to the tall tales of Mark Twain and Dan DeQuille, early "Enterprise" reporters, watched the first real race that year.

The San Francisco "Chronicle" took up the challenge thrown down by Richards; and movie director John Huston charged to victory in that first race on a camel borrowed from the San Francisco Zoo. In 1962, Ostrich Races were added to the event, and in 1987 Virginia City took the competition to its sister city, Alice Springs, Australia, and added "International" to the title.

October 8, 2009

Justices weigh constitutionality of war memorial cross

By Bill Mears
CNN Supreme Court Producer

A judge ruled that the Mojave Cross must be covered until a First Amendment issue can be resolved.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court offered conflicting concerns Wednesday over a cross, erected as a war memorial, that sits on national parkland in the Mojave Desert and whether it violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Conservative members of the bench suggested that Congress acted properly when it tried to transfer land around the Mojave Memorial Cross to veterans groups, an effort to eliminate any Establishment Clause violation. A federal appeals panel had blocked that land swap.

"Isn't that a sensible interpretation" of a federal court injunction banning the display on government property, Justice Samuel Alito asked.

But Justice Stephen Breyer was adamant that the government had not acted in good faith. "You are violating this injunction" that ordered removal of the cross, he told the government's lawyer.

The swing vote -- as he is in many hot-button issues -- may be Justice Anthony Kennedy, who questioned attorneys on both sides but did not indicate how he was leaning.

At issue before the justices is whether the display violates the first 10 words of the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

More specifically, can one individual who protests the cross have legal "standing" to take his case to court and prevail? And do congressional efforts to minimize the appearance of a constitutional violation carry any weight? Find out more about the other cases before the court »

The 6-foot Latin cross was erected by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars in a remote part of the California desert in 1934 to honor war dead. It has been rebuilt several times over the years, and Easter services are held on the site every year.

The land now is part of the Mojave National Preserve, a unit of the National Park Service, encompassing 1.6 million acres, or 2,500 square miles.

A former Park Service employee brought suit, saying that such symbols represent government endorsement of the Christian faith. A federal appeals court ultimately agreed and rejected a move by Congress in 2003 to transfer a tiny portion of the land where the cross sits back to the VFW as a privately held national memorial.

The area in question is a prominent outcropping known as Sunrise Rock.

The appeals court noted that the land-transfer effort singled out the VFW for special treatment and that officials had rejected a proposal to erect a nearby Buddhist "stupa," or shrine. Jewish and Muslim veterans groups complain that the Mojave Cross symbolizes the sacrifice of Christian veterans, excluding other faiths.

The oral arguments focused almost exclusively on the congressional action to transfer the cross to private hands. That suggested a very narrow ruling in coming months, which would not produce a sweeping statement on when religious symbols on public land represent state "endorsement" of a particular faith.

Solicitor General Elena Kagan, defending the continued presence of the cross, said it was "a sensible action Congress took" to cure any First Amendment violation.

Chief Justice John Roberts appeared to support the government but did note the danger of Congress "singling out someone, a private property owner, who's using his property in a particular a religious way." When Kagan suggested that the government could put up a sign noting the cross was privately owned and operated, Roberts was unconvinced.

"But it hasn't done anything like that. It doesn't say for other property owners that have a ramshackle shack, that they want people to know this isn't the government's property," Roberts said. "Under your hypothetical, it would be only religious property that would have these special warning signs."

The ACLU is representing Frank Buono, the former Park Service employee who raised his objections in the original lawsuit. Attorney Peter Eliasberg told the court that "the government had favored one party to come on, contrary to the government's own regulations, and erect a permanent symbol while not allowing others."

Scalia scoffed at that suggestion. "I don't think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that's an outrageous conclusion."

Several hypotheticals were offered by members of the bench, possibly indicating how broadly or narrowly their ruling will be applied.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wondered whether the donated Argonne Memorial Cross at Arlington National Cemetery should be dismantled. Eliasberg thought not, because a range of religious symbols appear on nearby individual gravestones.

What if a cross went up on the National Mall, next to the Lincoln Memorial, Stevens asked.

How about selling only a square foot around the Mojave Cross to private hands, Roberts asked. The legislation would have permitted one acre to be sold.

Some veterans groups have come out strongly in support of the cross.

"The real goal of the veterans group is to stop this really disgraceful conduct of having war memorials that have been up for 75 years be coming under attack because of political correctness or whatever mood of the day," said Kelly Shackleford, director of the Liberty Legal Institute, representing the VFW. "This was not put up by the government. It was put up by veterans. This is the symbol they chose."

Eliasberg took a more personal stand after the arguments. "My father is a Jewish war veteran, my grandfather was a Jewish war veteran in World War I, and to say that a cross represents the sacrifice of the 250,000 Jews who fought for this country in World War I is simply not true, and it's very rare that the government chooses the predominant religious symbol of one religion and puts it forth and says this honors us all."

The case is Salazar v. Buono (08-472). A ruling is expected early next year.

October 6, 2009

Mojave's contentious cross


Will the Supreme Court stand up for the 1st Amendment?

Los Angeles Times

Christian crosses and other religious symbols are common sights in a military cemetery, and appropriately so. But the U.S. Supreme Court will be asked today to approve a war memorial in California's Mojave National Preserve that consists entirely of an 8-foot-high cross. It would offend the 1st Amendment if the court endorsed this discriminatory display in a public space. Even worse would be a broad decision opening the way for other such displays.

In 1934, the Veterans of Foreign Wars erected a cross along with a plaque commemorating the "Dead of All Wars" on an outcrop called Sunrise Rock. In 1999, the National Park Service rejected a request to place a Buddhist shrine near the cross. In 2001, a former National Parks Service employee, a Catholic, filed suit, claiming that the cross violated the 1st Amendment's ban on establishment of religion. In order to evade a court order, Congress voted in 2003 to transfer control of the land on which the cross stood to the VFW in exchange for another parcel.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, that maneuver removes any constitutional problem. Solicitor General Elena Kagan also argues that Frank Buono, the former park service employee who complained about the cross, lacks standing to bring a lawsuit because he hasn't been subjected to "unwelcome religious exercises, indirect coercion or exclusion from the political community." Neither objection is persuasive. The administration takes a narrow view of standing that would put some unconstitutional displays beyond legal challenge. As for Congress' land swap, because the cross will be situated in what the appeals court called a "little donut hole" in a vast tract of land, an observer would have a hard time distinguishing public from private.

This case poses an even greater danger to the 1st Amendment. The court has seesawed confusingly on the constitutionality of religious displays on public property. In separate 5-4 decisions on the same day in 2005, it struck down the posting of the Ten Commandments in courthouses in Kentucky but upheld a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol. Stephen G. Breyer, the only justice to vote for both results, wrote that the latter monument was permissible because it had stood on public land for 40 years without protest. That loose standard could be used to justify the Mojave cross.

In both of the 2005 cases, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor voted to strike down the displays. Her replacement, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., seems less supportive of the idea of a wall of separation between church and state. If Breyer and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy -- a swing vote in religion cases -- don't stand up for the 1st Amendment, this case could blow a gaping hole in that wall.

October 5, 2009

Cross comes before court

MOJAVE PRESERVE: Some argue that the sacred salute to soldiers is not constitutional.

Riverside Press-Enterprise

A cross was erected atop Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve years ago to honor the war dead. (AP photo)

For three quarters of a century, a cross has stood high atop an outcropping of rocks in a far-flung and sun-blasted expanse of San Bernardino County's High Desert.

It was erected by a band of veterans as a tribute to the nation's war dead. It was protected for decades under a solemn promise made to the last living member of the group that built it. It was preserved by acts of Congress orchestrated by Inland Rep. Jerry Lewis.

But should a cross be allowed to stand above public land in the Mojave National Preserve?

That question, the root of a years-long fight over the constitutionality of the cross, may soon be answered. The U.S. Supreme Court will take up the case Wednesday. Their ruling could have far reaching implications on similar memorials around the country and could signal the newly refigured court's position on the constitutional provision prohibiting the federal government from endorsing any religion.

The justices could choose to limit their scope to the Mojave cross in particular. Previous court rulings found the cross is a violation of the Constitution and must come down.

The Supreme Court will address whether a land swap between the government and private landholders that transferred ownership of the land under the cross to a veterans group fixed that violation.

But the court could also revisit the question about whether religious symbols are permitted on public land, said Peter Scheer, executive director for the California-based First Amendment Coalition.

"The law in this area is anything but clear," Scheer said. "This could be huge."

A pledge kept

The white 7-foot cross is simple in its construction: four-inch diameter iron piping lashed together, welded and bolted to rock. Under court order, it stands shrouded within a plywood box. Pending the outcome of the case, either the cover will be removed, or the cross will come down.

The original memorial was constructed in 1934 by a small group of World War I veterans working as miners in the area. Among them was John "Riley" Bembry, a butcher by trade who settled after the war in a cabin in what now is the Mojave National Preserve.

Bembry made it his job to maintain and preserve the cross. The High Desert is home to the Fort Irwin military training center and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms. Gen. George Patton trained his troops in the Mojave Desert and some say tracks from their tanks can still be found.

The cross became a meeting place for military men and their families who made the desert their home, said Lewis, R-Redlands, who became acquainted with the cross about 40 years ago when he was elected to the state Legislature and represented the area. Beyond Easter services, a longstanding tradition at the site, people would routinely gather there for meals served out of an old boxcar, he said.

"It was a way that veterans could come together and tell war stories," Lewis said.

It was over one such meal in 1972 that Bembry met Henry and Wanda Sandoz, who then lived in Mountain Pass. Henry, a miner, and Wanda, a school bus driver, grew close to Bembry, who became a grandfather figure to the couple's children.

Near death in the early 1980s, Bembry broached the subject of the cross in a conversation with Henry Sandoz.

"He knew that his time was short and it was important to him that it be looked after," Wanda Sandoz said. "And he knew Henry was a man of his word."

In the 25 years that followed, vandals more than once tore down various wooden incarnations of the cross. Each time, Sandoz, now 70, replaced them, finally erecting the current metal cross.

Neutrality needed

Frank Buono had just become the first assistant superintendent of the newly created Mojave National Preserve. It was 1995. Until the year before, the sprawling 1.6 million acre territory had been known as "unreserved federal land." ." Such had been the case since it was ceded by Mexico to the United States in 1848.

Buono was driving, taking stock of the reserve, when he spotted the cross looming above the formation known as Sunrise Rock. After some thought, he said, it didn't seem right to have a religious symbol on public land.

"I'm not offended by a cross, per se -- I'm a Christian and I have crosses in my house and in my church," said Buono, 62.

Rather, he said, he felt the cross' very existence on national land amounted to an improper endorsement of a single religion.

Soon after, Buono made a call to the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The organization agreed and, together with Buono, filed a lawsuit seeking removal of the cross.

The cross' defenders say it honors all Americans killed on the battlefield. Peter Eliasberg, the attorney who on Wednesday will argue the case on behalf of the ACLU and Buono, described the government's endorsement of the cross as clear favoritism.

Eliasberg said many Jewish soldiers fought for the U.S. military in World War I.

"To pretend that you can say 'this represents all of you -- this honors all veterans,' when it (the cross) is the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity, is not what the government should be doing," Eliasberg said. "We should be honoring all veterans, not some veterans."

Led by Lewis, Congress in 2001 designated the cross a National Memorial. The designation has been awarded to fewer than 50 memorials around the country, including Mount Rushmore and the Lincoln Memorial.

That the cross remains the only national memorial to World War I further shows the government's endorsement of the symbol, Eliasberg said.

Legislative manuevers

Eliasberg will attempt to convince the court that the question of whether the cross should stand on public land is outside the parameters of the case now before the Supreme Court. That issue, he said, is already resolved.

In 2002, the United States District Court Central District of California ruled that Buono was right and that the cross must come down. A federal appeals court later backed that decision.

But while the appeal was pending in 2002, Congress passed a spending bill to which Lewis had added an amendment prohibiting the government from spending any money to remove the cross.

Lewis acted again in 2003, brokering a land exchange under which an acre of land on which the cross stands was transferred from the federal government to a Barstow post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. In exchange, Sandoz, who now lives in Yucca Valley, agreed to give to the government five acres of land within the preserve.

While the case is known as Buono v. Salazar, for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, it is Lewis who has led the government's defense.

"Congressman Lewis did everything in his power, to his credit or his discredit, to preserve this cross," Buono said.

In 2007, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the land swap didn't solve the problem, concluding that merely "carving out a tiny parcel of property in the midst of this vast preserve -- like a donut hole with the cross atop it -- will do nothing to minimize the impermissible governmental endorsement" of a religious symbol.

It is that question that the Supreme Court has agreed to consider, Eliasberg said.

Much at stake

But the government maintains that the 2007 ruling was improper because there was nothing wrong with the cross' presence in the first place, an argument that opens the door for a broader discussion of the laws relating to the separation of church and state.

Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who will argue the case on behalf of Salazar, also contends that Buono had no right to sue since he is not offended by the cross itself and has not suffered any injury.

If the court agrees, the ruling could curb all future lawsuits from citizens challenging government-sponsored nativity scenes, displays of the Ten Commandments outside courthouses, or any other religious imagery, Scheer said.

But if the cross is ordered down, the decision could lead to the removal of treasured memorials on historic battlefields or national cemeteries around the United States, according to a coalition of veterans groups rallying behind the Mojave cross.

"If a 7-foot cross in the middle of the desert can't be allowed to stand, what do you do with the 24-foot cross in the Arlington National Cemetery?" asked Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel for Liberty Legal Institute, a Texas-based firm that filed a brief in the case on behalf of the veterans groups.

Weighty as those questions may be, for Henry and Wanda Sandoz, the small plywood-encased cross in the middle of the desert is precisely what's at stake when arguments begin Wednesday morning.

"That stupid ugly box -- we hate that box," Wanda Sandoz said. "But in our mind's eye, we can still see what's inside."