November 29, 2009

Route 66 business dream rooted highway's heyday

Gus Lizalde bought Chambless, a title town and former pit stop in Route 66's hey-day. With the interest of solar development and a national monument, he hopes to revitalize the rest stop.(Kurt Miller/The Press-Enterprise)

The Press-Enterprise

His love of the automobile and the way a sunset illuminated a Mojave Desert mountain range inspired Gus Lizalde two decades ago to invest in a piece of Route 66 history.

He bought Chambless, a wide spot at the corner of Cadiz Road and National Trails Highway, part of old Route 66. It's a far flung outpost, halfway between Barstow and Needles, that once offered gas, food and lodging to motorists headed into or out of California.

Lizalde's dream of restoring Chambless to its mid-20th century heyday remains unfulfilled.

The gas station, store, restaurant, motel cabins and RV spaces are surrounded by barbed wire. Rattlesnakes hide out in the crumbling buildings. Only a few dozen cars pass by in a day.

But the Mojave Desert sunshine that dominates the landscape may soon be Chambless' economic savior, or so Lizalde hopes.

Dozens of large-scale solar energy projects are proposed on the publicly owned land that extends as far as the eye can see in every direction.

Lizalde, an Escondido resident and a manager at a San Diego County car dealership, said energy construction would bring workers who might want a convenient place for gas, a burger, a few groceries or a bed for the night.

"To bring this back, I need commerce," Lizalde said. "I need people coming through the front door. These solar projects will mean commerce."


One of the solar developments would blanket eight square miles along Route 66 just west of Lizalde's property. Two more to the south are proposed on some 80 square miles.

The federal Bureau of Land Management is processing 78 applications for desert energy projects between Ridgecrest and Mexico. So far, none has been approved.

Lizalde's excitement about the solar projects explains why he is worried about a move to create what backers have called a Mother Road National Monument. It would honor Route 66 and its colorful past as a conduit for dust-bowl refugees flooding into California and later as an east-west ribbon of freedom for vacationing Americans.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is drafting federal legislation that would create the monument on public land in eastern San Bernardino County, from the Mojave National Preserve on the north to Joshua Tree National Park on the south. It is expected to prohibit energy development in some areas.

Monument supporters fear development of too many wind and solar projects in territory used by the desert tortoise, a threatened species, and other wildlife.

Environmentalists are especially concerned about projects, such as the two near the Cadiz Valley south of Chambless, that would be built between wilderness areas, said Elden Hughes, a longtime environmental activist who has fought to protect the desert. Developing in such areas can impede animals that range between protected territories; such travel helps maintain their health and genetic diversity, experts say.

Standing in front of his boarded-up buildings, Lizalde pointed out a passing BNSF freight train to the south and a white limestone pit mine to the west.

"This is a good place for solar," he said. "It's not pristine."

A stocky man with a dark complexion, Lizalde looks younger than his 45 years. He radiated enthusiasm as he walked by scraps of twisted metal, old pipes and other debris. He described his vision for a multimillion-dollar makeover.

"It's going to be a full-blown restoration to the way it was built," Lizalde said. "I want to bring back that nostalgia."

The renewed Chambless would feature "totem" gasoline pumps with meters that look like clock faces. Lizalde said he wants to track down original pump bodies and retrofit them with modern gas-delivery and metering systems.

The main building would have a 1950s-style diner, a tavern and a souvenir/convenience store. He intends to fix up the nine concrete cottages behind the main building and build a swimming pool in the shield shape of the Route 66 road sign.

For the trailer park area, Lizalde envisions hauling in about 50 vintage Airstream trailers, refurbishing them and renting them out.

Why Airstreams? "They are so cool," he answered.


Chambless, or Camp Chambless as it was once known, was built by local settlers of the same name and opened in the early 1930s to serve the motorists using Route 66, which ran between Chicago and Santa Monica.

The business suffered after Interstate 40 opened in 1973, bypassing Chambless and a few other gas station-café stops that depended on Route 66 traffic.

Lizalde, a car buff who played with Hot Wheels as a kid and restored a 1967 Porsche as young man, said he was driving a Mustang in 1989 to visit family in Laughlin, Nev., when he first saw Chambless. The view and the history captured him, and four months later, he found himself signing papers to buy the property for about $250,000.

He said he took two years off to run the gas station, store, restaurant and motel, catering mostly to employees of a nearby agricultural operation, Cadiz Inc.

He had to close the businesses in 1993, he said, when environmental regulations forced him to remove underground fuel-storage tanks and clean up gasoline-contaminated soil at a cost of about $250,000. Other Route 66 gas stations that had been struggling to hang on also closed, Lizalde said.

With too little traffic passing by, he couldn't justify the investment needed to re-open the Chambless business, he said.

Time and nature have taken a toll on the place.

A wind storm blew off the roof extension that had shaded the gasoline pumps. To make the area safe, Lizalde said, he had to remove the concrete pillars that held it up.

Meanwhile, he has paid property taxes, fencing costs and other expenses.

"It reminds me of the movie, 'The Money Pit,' " he said.

Albert Okura, who owns the town of Amboy about 13 miles west of Chambless, said he wishes Lizalde success on his renovation.

"It's going to be an uphill battle," Okura said. "Gus is a good idea man, but it is hard to translate ideas into money."

It won't be easy, Lizalde acknowledged.

But construction of the solar plants should provide about three years of businesses, giving him time to market the place as a Route 66 destination.

"This will probably be the biggest restoration project all the way to Chicago," he said. "It will be the nicest facility on the road. And that will be a pretty good brag."

November 27, 2009

Radical secularists won't allow a cross in the desert

by Newt Gingrich
Washington Examiner

In the vast desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas is the 1.6 million acre Mojave National Preserve. Located within the preserve, in an area so remote that an hour can pass between cars traveling by, sits a seven-foot cross on the top of a hill.

There used to be a cross there, that is. Today, the cross is covered by a plywood box, looking for all the world like a blank billboard on a lonely rock outcropping.

The reason the cross is covered is as simple as it is dangerous: The cross is the latest target of radical secularists who seek to drive every manifestation of God and faith from our public spaces, however remote.

That these secularists would target a cross that sits literally in the middle of nowhere speaks to their fanaticism. That they would seek to destroy it speaks to their totalitarianism. For religious freedom to exist anywhere, it seems, is a threat to them everywhere.

For 75 years, what has become known as the Mojave Cross has stood on a remote outcropping in the desert known as Sunrise Rock. The cross was first erected in 1934 by the Death Valley chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars to honor the servicemen and -women who lost their lives in World War I.

For more than six decades, the cross stood, as it does at war memorials across the country, in memory of the American war dead. But about a decade ago, a park service employee in the preserve decided he was offended by the presence of a cross on federal land.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, he sued, arguing that the cross violates the constitutional prohibition on government establishment of religion. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals -- the same court that ruled the words "under God" unconstitutional in the Pledge of Allegiance -- agreed and ordered the cross removed.

But then Congress got involved and came up with a solution. The land the Mojave Cross sits on was transferred from the federal government to the VFW, thus removing the constitutional issue, for some, of a religious symbol on federal land.

But even that solution was not enough for the radical secularists. They've taken the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where justices heard arguments in the case earlier this fall.

It's anybody's guess how the high court will rule or if will rule on the merits of the case at all. But it's clear to the nation's veterans what is at stake.

Literally thousands of other monuments and memorials on public lands display the cross and other religious imagery. If the court finds the Mojave Cross "offensive" for the ACLU and its allies, the crosses and other expressions of religious faith that honor our war dead elsewhere are in jeopardy as well.

It's a tragic irony that the men and women who died protecting our religious freedom may be denied theirs after death.

For the Founders, religious liberty and freedom of religious expression were indispensable supports to political freedom. But for the radical secularists, the truth is just the opposite: They see religious freedom as an obstacle to their political project to remake America into something our Founders wouldn't recognize.

We've seen this kind of totalitarianism before. As we relate in our upcoming movie about Pope John Paul II and the end of communism in Eastern Europe , communists sought to systematically eliminate the cross in Poland in order to better control the Polish people.

As we enter the Christmas season, it's important for Americans of all religious faiths to understand how important a cross in the desert -- a cross they may never see -- is to the survival of our liberty.

We are a nation founded on the truth that our rights come from God, not government.

If we give a handful of radicals and an imperial judiciary the power to decide that they, not our Creator, grant us our rights, we will be giving them the power to take our rights away.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has published 19 books, including 10 fiction and nonfiction best-sellers. He is the founder of the Center for Health Transformation and chairman of American Solutions for Winning the Future. For more information, see His exclusive column for The Examiner appears Fridays.

November 25, 2009

Lawsuits triggers delay of BLM wild horse roundup

Carrol Abel

Calico Mountains wild horse band, June 2009. (BLM)

In response to a lawsuit filed in Federal District Court on Monday, the Bureau of Land Management has postponed a controversial roundup and removal of almost 3,000 wild horses from five Nevada herd management areas. The US Department of Justice announced the delay Tuesday night.

A Preliminary Environmental Assessment for the roundup brought a huge public outcry in the form of 10,000 responses into BLM's Winnemucca office. The now infamous roundup of wild horses from the Calico Complex, originally scheduled to begin December 1, would remove 80-90% of the population estimated at 3,095 horses. The document states that the range cannot support that many horses but also admits to 2,500 cattle that will remain.

William Spriggs, Esq. of Buchanan, Ingersol and Rooney, pro bono attorney for plaintiffs In Defense of Animals (IDA) and wildlife ecologist, Craig Downer, said in response to the announcement, " We welcome this moratorium on the capture and inhumane treatment of the Calico horses. The BLM plan for a massive helicopter roundup of these horses is entirely illegal."

Though the roundup is now delayed until December 28, IDA and Mr. Downer plan to file a motion today for a permanent injunction to prevent the roundup entirely. "We are confident that the court will agree that America's wild horses are protected by law from BLM's plan to indescriminately chase and stampede them into corrals for indeterminate warehousing away from their established habitat." said Spriggs.

JoLynn Worley, BLM representative, says the agency still intends to issue it's formal decision regarding the Preliminary Environmental Assessment some time on Tuesday.

Momentum is growing in the public sector for a moratorium on all roundups. Almost 200 animal rights and wild horse advocate groups have united in the call to stop the roundups and are pressing for a Congressional investigation. Of the many issues in question is the inequitable use of public lands under a multiple use policy. A habitat summary done in July of 2008 by the Animal Welfare Institue shows that the BLM administers over nineteen million acres of public lands..... lands set aside by law for wild horses and burros..... lands that are no longer used for that purpose.

County Assumes Ownership of Victor Valley Museum & Art Gallery

Brad Mitzelfelt
Mitzelfelt Memo

In a move that assures the continued operation of a High Desert cultural and educational institution, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors on November 3 accepted ownership of the Victor Valley Museum and Art Gallery in Apple Valley.

"I want to commend all of the volunteers, cities and local businesses who have built the Victor Valley Museum and Art Gallery into a vibrant and important institution in the Victor Valley during the past three decades," said First District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, who asked the Board to support his proposal to assume ownership of the museum. "In the current economic climate, it became impossible for the museum to meet its obligations, and I was relieved when they approached me and offered to convey the museum to County ownership."

The Victor Valley Museum had its origins in 1976 when local memorabilia and artifacts were gathered and displayed in various public buildings in the High Desert for the nation’s bicentennial celebration. Several individuals and community service groups expanded on this grass-roots effort and in 1987, Jess Ranch granted approximately four acres to the newly formed Victor Valley Museum Association. By 1993, the Association had constructed the 13,080-square-foot Victor Valley Museum in the Town of Apple Valley.

With a decline in fundraising revenues, the museum faced the possibility of closing its doors. In July, members of the Victor Valley Museum Association approached Supervisor Mitzelfelt with a proposal to convey the museum to the County.

The memorabilia and artifacts will be catalogued and the building renovated. New displays and exhibits will be developed along with new outreach and educational programs in order to bring the museum up to the accreditation standards attained by the County’s existing museum. The museum will be partially closed during that process, but the public will still have access to meeting rooms.

The one-time cost to make needed improvements to the museum is estimated at $192,953, and includes costs for staff, services and supplies, operating expenses and payment of liens, escrows and outstanding loans.

The County has received commitments from many financial supporters of the museum to continue their support. Contributions from businesses, residents and local government, including $15,000 from the Town of Apple Valley, along with fees for facility use and educational programs, will be used by the museum to meet ongoing operational costs, with the County contributing additional funds if necessary.

November 24, 2009

Edison demolishes Daggett solar tower

Light from 2,000 mirrors passing through four aim points (the observer sees only two) reflects off dust particles, water vapor and superheated air to produce the strange "points of light" phenomenon when Solar Two was in operation.

Victorville Daily Press

DAGGETT • A myriad of solar power projects are sprouting up all over the Mojave Desert, but on Tuesday one came tumbling down.

The central tower for the Solar One and Solar Two demonstration projects stood near Daggett for almost 30 years — a landmark that defined the desert landscape. The projects themselves paved the way for similar technology to be used on a larger scale and foretold the current solar power gold rush.

But for about 10 years it hasn’t produced any solar energy. It has been empty for about four years, according to Paul Phelan, manager for Edison’s Power Production Engineering Department. In June Southern California Edison and CST Environmental, a Brea-based demolition firm, began dismantling it. On Tuesday, Edison and CST personnel strapped explosives to two of the tower’s four legs and brought the structure to the ground.

“It’s always sad to see a facility like this torn down,” Phelan said. “Newer companies are building on the (project’s) research and development. From that standpoint it paved the way for newer technologies considered today.”

Three Things You Absolutely Must Know About Climategate

by Iain Murray
Pajamas Media

They’re calling it “Climategate.” The scandal that the suffix –gate implies is the state of climate science over the past decade or so revealed by a thousand or so emails, documents, and computer code sets between various prominent scientists released following a leak from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in the UK.

This may seem obscure, but the science involved is being used to justify the diversion of literally trillions of dollars of the world’s wealth in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by phasing out fossil fuels. The CRU is the Pentagon of global warming science, and these documents are its Pentagon Papers.

Here are three things everyone should know about the Climategate Papers. Links are provided so that the full context of every quote can be seen by anyone interested.

First, the scientists discuss manipulating data to get their preferred results. The most prominently featured scientists are paleoclimatologists, who reconstruct historical temperatures and who were responsible for a series of reconstructions that seemed to show a sharp rise in temperatures well above historical variation in recent decades.

In 1999, Phil Jones, the head of CRU, wrote to activist scientist Michael “Mike” Mann that he has just “completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps … to hide the decline”(0942777075). This refers to a decline in temperatures in recent years revealed by the data he had been reconstructing that conflicted with the observed temperature record. The inconvenient data was therefore hidden under a completely different set of data. Some “trick.”

Mann later (2003) announced that “it would be nice to try to ‘contain’ the putative ‘MWP,’ even if we don’t yet have a hemispheric mean reconstruction available that far back” (1054736277). The MWP is the Medieval Warm Period, when temperatures may have been higher than today. Mann’s desire to “contain” this phenomenon even in the absence of any data suggesting that this is possible is a clear indication of a desire to manipulate the science. There are other examples of putting political/presentational considerations before the science throughout the collection.

Secondly, scientists on several occasions discussed methods of subverting the scientific peer review process to ensure that skeptical papers had no access to publication. In 2003, Tom Wigley of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, complained that paleoclimatologist Hans von Storch was responsible for “the publication of crap science ‘in order to stimulate debate’” and that they “must get rid of von Storch” (1051190249) as an editor of the journal Climate Research (he indeed subsequently resigned).

This could prove to be climate science's Vietnam.
In 2005, Michael Mann said that there was a “fundamental problem w/ GRL now,” referring to the journal Geophysical Research Letters published by the American Geophysical Union (AGU), because “they have published far too many deeply flawed contrarian papers in the past year or so” and “it is probably best to do an end run around GRL now where possible.” Tom Wigley responded that “we could go through official AGU channels to get him [the editor of GRL] ousted” (1106322460). A few months later, the editor of GRL having left his post, Mann comments, “The GRL leak may have been plugged up now w/ new editorial leadership there” (1132094873).

Having seemingly succeeded with Climate Research and Geophysical Research Letters, the most recent target of the scientists’ ire has been Weather, a journal of the Royal Meteorological Society (RMS). Phil Jones commented in March 2009, “I’m having a dispute with the new editor of Weather. I’ve complained about him to the RMS Chief Exec. If I don’t get him to back down, I won’t be sending any more papers to any RMS journals and I’ll be resigning from the RMS” (1237496573).

This issue is all the more important because the scientists involved in these discussions have repeatedly accused their critics of being irrelevant because they fail to publish in the peer reviewed literature. For example, in October this year, Mr. Mann told Andy Revkin of the New York Times:

[L]egitimate scientific skepticism is exercised through formal scientific circles, in particular the peer review process. Those such as [Stephen] McIntyre [the target of much of the criticism in the CRU Papers] who operate almost entirely outside of this system are not to be trusted.
If you are saying on the one hand that you will not take notice of someone until they have been published while on the other you are working behind the scenes to stop any such publication, I would venture to suggest that you are not operating with any degree of bona fides either towards the media or the legitimate scientific process.

Finally, the scientists worked to circumvent the Freedom of Information process of the United Kingdom. Nowhere is this better evidenced than in the email reproduced in full below (minus Dr. Jones’ contact details):

From: Phil Jones To: “Michael E. Mann”
Subject: IPCC & FOI
Date: Thu May 29 11:04:11 2008


Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4?
Keith will do likewise. He’s not in at the moment – minor family crisis.
Can you also email Gene and get him to do the same? I don’t
have his new email address.
We will be getting Caspar to do likewise.
I see that CA claim they discovered the 1945 problem in the Nature paper!!
The context in the subject header is clearly the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOI), while AR4 refers to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. What is most important to know here is that, according to the Taxpayers’ Alliance in the UK, “at least one FOI request on exactly this correspondence had apparently been submitted by a David Holland on May 5th 2008.”

The Freedom of Information Act, however, explicitly forbids deletion of any material subject to a FOI request. The penalty for such a criminal act is a fine of up to £5,000. Presumably being found guilty of such an act, or even suggesting it, would also bring about significant disciplinary procedures at any reputable university. A complaint has been made to the British information commissioner.

This is, however, just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to attitudes toward FOI. Numerous other references are made about ways to avoid divulging information (the following summaries are by the blogger Bishop Hill):

Tom Wigley discusses how to deal with the advent of FoI law in UK. Jones says use IPR argument to hold onto code. Says data is covered by agreements with outsiders and that CRU will be “hiding behind them.”(1106338806)

Jones says that UK climate organisations are coordinating themselves to resist FoI. They got advice from the Information Commissioner [!](1219239172)

Jones tells Mann that he is sending station data. Says that if McIntyre requests it under FoI he will delete it rather than hand it over. Says he will hide behind data protection laws. Says Rutherford screwed up big time by creating an FTP directory for Osborn. Says Wigley worried he will have to release his model code. (1107454306)
There appears to be a prima facie case that there was a conspiracy to prevent the release of information subject to FOI.

There are many other disturbing revelations in the CRU Papers, including a particularly disturbing assessment by a computer programmer of the state of CRU data. These have yet to be fully analyzed.

So what does this all mean? It does not mean that there is no warming trend or that mankind has not been responsible for at least some of the warming. To claim that as result of these documents is clearly a step too far. However, it is clear that at least one branch of climate science — paleoclimatology — has become hopelessly politicized to the point of engaging in unethical and possibly illegal behavior.

To the extent that paleoclimatology is an important part of the scientific case for action regarding global warming, urgent reassessments need to be made. In the meantime, all those responsible for political action on global warming should stop the process pending the results of inquiries, investigations, and any criminal proceedings. What cannot happen is the process carrying on as if nothing has happened.

This could prove to be climate science’s Vietnam.

Iain Murray is Vice-President for Strategy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, and author of "The Really Inconvenient Truths: Seven environmental catastrophes liberals don't want you to know about - because they helped cause them," from Regnery.

November 22, 2009

Desert search continues for woman missing five years

Peter Sellas lowers Hunter, a cadaver dog, into Red Dog Mine in Ludlow to look for the body of April Pitzer. Sheriff's detectives believe she was murdered and dumped in one of the thousands of mine shafts in San Bernardino County. An anonymous tip and a link between Pitzer and Red Dog Mine's owner led to the search of this mine. Pitzer, originally from Arkansas, disappeared in 2004. (Gabriel Luis Acosta/Staff Photographer)

Stacia Glenn, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

LUDLOW - Only a rusted ladder and slabs of rotten wood could be seen in the tunnel of darkness that stretched 100 feet below the cold desert ground.

A bone-searing breeze blew red dust into the faces of about 50 search and rescue personnel who remained heavily bundled as the sunrise lifted temperatures just above 40 degrees.

They'd camped out the night before, just yards from the Red Dog Mine, where iron ore miners once crawled and coughed and party-goers came in their wake to hang out.

It was in this musty old mine that a determined detective hoped to find the remains of April Pitzer, a young mother who disappeared in June 2004 after deciding to move back home to Arkansas.

Pitzer, 30, was last seen by her roommate, who said he helped her pack and drove her around to say her goodbyes. A friend of the family reported Pitzer missing two weeks later.

Sheriff's homicide Det. Steve Pennington has received several tips that Pitzer was killed and hidden in a mine. Following a few fruitless searches, he began coming out on his own time to poke around the mines.

They first searched the Red Dog Mine in 2005 after discovering that it was owned by the best friend of Pitzer's then-roommate, Chuck Hollister.

"I firmly believe she's out there," said Gloria Denton, Pitzer's mother, who flies out from Arkansas twice a year for searches. "Every time I leave, it just breaks my heart. But I will never give up. It's not over until we bring April home."

When authorities first searched the Red Dog Mine, they found a white suitcase and clothing in a nearby ravine that Denton recognized as her daughter's. And though search and rescue crews have rooted through the mine looking for signs of April, they found nothing.

This particular mine was created in 1902 and is now owned by Bagdad Chase Mine Co. It stopped operating in 1979, though locals were known to party and even live in the mine that is now closed off by a metal grate.

A 30-foot metal mine head once used to pull iron ore out of its depths still towers above. Piles of lumber, a wire mattress frame, shards of broken glass and empty spraypaint cans are discarded beneath it. A bullet-riddled target of Osama bin Laden has been tacked to one frame. Another features a bumper sticker reading "Save a child. Shoot a drug dealer."

That bumper sticker has been plastered on countless trash cans, gates and mine beams in the vast desert.

The Red Dog Mine hasn't been the sole focus in Pitzer's disappearance. Detectives have scoured others, including the Golden Mine, where they found a white cross and a roach clip engraved with Hollister's name 150 feet down.

But no Pitzer.

There are about 22,000 mines in San Bernardino County. The task of pinpointing which mine she was dumped in is daunting to detectives.

"Somebody knows something, they're just not calling us," Pennington said. "It's hard to believe there are people out there who just don't care."

To make matters more difficult, both Hollister and his best friend have died. Detectives believe they may have been involved in Pitzer's disappearance, but now do not know how to prove it.

A recent tip was called in that search and discovery crews were looking in the right place but they "hadn't gone far enough."

Assuming that the caller was talking about the Red Dog Mine, they assembled Nov. 14 to try again.

For the first time, two cadaver dogs were lowered into the mine.

Crews spent two hours setting up safety mechanisms for people - and dogs - to be lowered into the mine. At 10 a.m., Peter Sellas and his black Labrador Retriever, Hunter, strapped on harnesses and walked to the mouth of the mine.

He clung to the ladder with his right hand and clutched Hunter with his left, trying to keep the dog relaxed as crews above fed more rope for them to descend into the mine.

When the pair reached the first level 20 feet below, searchers pulled up their harnesses and dropped down flashlights.

Seven minutes later, handler Sharon Gattas and her Golden Retriever, Denver, made the same trek into the seemingly endless black hole.

They unleashed their dogs and carefully picked their way over broken wires and slivers of wood that litter the mine's floor. Hunter and Denver sniffed the walls, the floors and especially a small mound of dirt on the very bottom.

"They didn't hit on anything and they searched like little mad men," Gattas said, adding that she doesn't believe Pitzer is buried in the Red Dog Mine. "It's very unfortunate. But (the mine) is very well-traveled and somebody would have seen her."

Pennington acknowledges that Pitzer may not be in a mine. In fact, a clue scribbled on a truck stop bathroom wall in Oregon indicates that Pitzer was buried in the open desert outside Barstow.

While cleaning a Love's truck stop bathroom in September 2004, an employee stumbled across a tile that read "Want to find a missing girl from Arkansas? I-15, 3 miles east of Barstow."

Searchers scoured that area three separate times, but found no sign of Pitzer.

They scanned surveillance footage of the men who came in and out of that bathroom but couldn't match them to any of Pitzer's friends or acquaintances.

Denton believes her daughter was abandoned in the desert and she refuses to give up the search. She wants answers, and she wants Pitzer's daughters, now ages 9 and 11, to know the resting place of their mother.

"What it would give me is knowing that I did my job as a mom, that I've seen it through and I brought her home to lay her to rest," Denton said. "It's the best thing I could do for her."

Anyone with information on Pitzer's disappearance is asked to call Pennington at (909) 387-3589.

Tim DeChristopher's wild legal ride

He disrupted an oil and gas lease auction last year by posing as a buyer. Now a judge has rejected his last-ditch defense strategy.

Tim DeChristopher.

Los Angeles Times

Tim DeChristopher created quite a circus at an auction of federal oil and gas leases in Utah last December when he bid for and won 14 parcels worth $1.8 million -- and then announced that he had neither the intention nor the money to pay for them. In fact, he was just a college student (an economics major, it turns out) unleashing a bit of havoc to protest drilling and global warming, an environmentalist frustrated by "incrementalism" who was desperately trying to shake things up.

He succeeded. His stunt halted the bidding, grabbed national headlines and renewed debate about civil disobedience and the appropriate limits of protest. Many of the leases, which would have permitted drilling on more than 110,000 pristine acres of public land in Utah, including some of America's most beautiful and environmentally sensitive red-rock desert, were subsequently canceled. But for DeChristopher, there have been serious consequences. He was charged with making false statements and interfering with an auction (who knew that was a felony?) and faces up to 10 years in prison and fines of $750,000 if he is convicted on both counts.

Hero? Lawbreaker? Stooge? The answer probably lies somewhere in between. It's hard not to sympathize with DeChristopher's sense that signing petitions and turning off the lights are an insufficient stand to take against something as enormous and potentially catastrophic as global warming. It's also hard not to applaud the sheer audacity and comedy of his scam. At the same time, DeChristopher did break the law, and people who break the law in acts of civil disobedience generally have to pay the consequences for their audaciousness -- it's a part of the tactic. That's what we said in an editorial last year, expecting the controversy to die down soon.

But it turns out that DeChristopher wasn't quite done with us. With his trial approaching, he and his lawyers announced that they would mount what's known as a "defense of necessity" or "choice of evils" defense. Rather than hiding behind technicalities or throwing himself on the mercy of the court, DeChristopher planned to address the issue head on, arguing that global warming poses such an immediate and dire threat that his illegal actions were justified. His lawyers said they hoped to call witnesses such as former Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus and NASA scientist James Hansen, who has been leading the fight against greenhouse gas emissions since the 1980s. In short, DeChristopher hoped to turn a relatively straightforward criminal case into a judicial inquest on climate disruption; global warming itself would be on trial.

The tactic is not entirely new. A similar defense was brought in the case of six Greenpeace activists who caused about $50,000 worth of damage to a coal-fired power station called Kingsnorth in Britain in 2007 while occupying a smokestack in an effort to shut down the plant. A jury acquitted all six.

But last week, DeChristopher's attorneys were informed by U.S. District Judge Dee Benson that they had not met the threshold requirements for a choice-of-evils defense. Benson, who had already said he was "reluctant to open my courtroom to a lengthy hearing on global warming," ruled that the supposed harm that would have resulted from the sales of the leases was not imminent in the sense that, say, a fire causes imminent danger. What's more, DeChristopher had "reasonable, legal" ways to stop the auction other than breaking the law -- such as filing a lawsuit or demonstrating with the other activists outside the building. Nor, the judge said, could DeChristopher have reasonably anticipated that his actions would stop the sales.

So much for that bit of guerrilla theater; it's back to square one for DeChristopher and his lawyers. In our view, the judge was probably right, but it's a shame. A global warming trial would have been more sensational, more educational and, frankly, more fun. As for DeChristopher, we still believe he must pay a price for flouting the law, but it would be disappointing if he had to spend too much time atoning for what was, in the end, a creative act of civil disobedience.

On Foot: Trona Pinnacles are vaguely familiar

Chico Enterprise-Record

RIDGECREST — Bob, our old Ford Explorer, was parked at the base of the Trona Pinnacles while we explored this desert oddity Nov. 17.

I kept glancing back at the site of our bouncy buddy, a four-wheel drive vehicle that has taken us through some pretty rough terrain in the past few years.

Even though I was certain I had never been this way east of Ridgecrest and south of China Lake Naval Weapons Station, the scene looked vaguely familiar.

It was the last day of a five-day trip Thomas and I had taken to visit a petroglyph site in the Southern California desert. Thomas had spent hours on the Internet researching the area and we came up with a dozen things to see. We narrowed our list to a few sites and the Trona Pinnacles was our last stop.

The pinnacles are tufa towers that formed when this flat sandy area had once been the bottom of ancient Searles Lake. Searles Lake was one of five large main lakes that had been part of the Owens Lake System long ago when the last glaciers melted and filled these empty places with water. This lake system stretches from the top of Owens Valley south to the Mojave Desert and east beyond Death Valley.

It just shows the desert isn't always as it appears. What's dry and desolate now was once a lush, verdant area that supported thousands of herds of Bighorn Sheep, antelope, sloths and other wild game that supplied ancient Indians with food, tools and clothing.

We left Ridgecrest before 8 a.m. and drove about 20 miles east along Highway 178 to the turnoff to the pinnacles.

The pinnacles are made of tufa, much like the tufa found today at Mono Lake along Interstate 395. But the Trona Pinnacles were formed some 10,000 to 100,000 years ago when carbonated brine bubbled up through the lake bottom and formed calcium carbonate. The calcium carbonate mixed with deposits of algae colonies, creating long horizontal tubes that were left standing when the lake dried up.

Shapes vary from tombstones, wide and flat, to tall lean towers, to ridges and cones.

The landmark is open to the public and free with some 500 pinnacles spread out over 14 square miles. Overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, there are driving and walking trails through the area.

We left Bob at the trail head and walked up the hill to the highest concentration of pinnacles. Long ago, someone had dug a tunnel into one of the larger tufas. It was actually supported by iron bars on either side of the doorway, and Thomas couldn't resist walking in. It was empty, as one would expect, but a little creepy nonetheless.

The trail went over a high point where several tall tufas had mounds of deteriorating debris around their bases. From there, we looked out over the landscape and could see the southern group's odd silhouettes in the morning sun.

We headed for the main group of tufas in the center. As we plodded along the road for about 20 minutes, we realized desert distances can be deceiving.

What looked like it might be just across the way was easily two miles. We eventually ended up among a thick group of "tombstone" shaped tufa. We found a number of old tin cans, shotgun and pistol shells and bits of glass, all aging in the desert sun.

We rounded the largest group and headed back to the main road. A half-hour later, we came to the north group and stopped again to look at these towers of stone. Some are 140 feet tall.

Back at the parking area, again I had that odd feeling of familiarity.

It was finally on our way out we stopped by several signs that explained the mystery. The pinnacles have been the backdrop for many TV shows and movies through the years, including "Lost in Space," "Planet of the Apes," and "Star Trek V."

Next time, we see Renegade Canyon and what some say is the highest concentration of petroglyphs in the western hemisphere.

November 20, 2009

Groups file lawsuit to stop mining near Grand Canyon

Suzanne Adams
Kingman Daily Miner

KINGMAN - New mining jobs in the Arizona Strip area may be put on hold. The Center for Biological Diversity, the Grand Canyon Trust and the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit Nov. 16 challenging a Bureau of Land Management permit for the Arizona 1 Mine.

"I'm very disappointed," said Mohave County Supervisor Gary Watson when he heard of the lawsuit. "It's absolutely absurd to me to lock up one of the richest deposits of uranium in the continental United States."

"As far as we're concerned we have all the necessary permits," said Denison Mines Corp. President and CEO Ron Hochstein, which owns the uranium mine. The company is not named in the lawsuit.

The mine is located 45 miles south of Fredonia and north of the Grand Canyon National Park. It is one of three mines owned by Denison within the boundary of a 1 million-acre area south and north of the Grand Canyon that the federal government is considering withdrawing from all mining for the next 20 years.

The company is still working on air quality permits for the other mining claims it has in the area. At this time, the federal government is not allowing any new mining claims in the area.

In their lawsuit, the conservation groups are claiming that the BLM failed to update a 1988 environmental assessment before issuing a permit to Denison in September.

"The mine has been down for more than a decade," said Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust. It would be prudent to re-evaluate the area, he said. New information has been collected about the area's groundwater and endangered species, and changes to BLM management policies have happened since the mine was closed in 1992, he said.

The conservation groups are also claiming that the BLM did not examine the validity of mine's claim and did not request a new plan of operation for the mine.

The conservation groups state in a news release that the mine's old operation plan expired when it was closed, and the company never established that there was a viable uranium deposit in the area, which is required in order to file a mining claim.

All claims pertaining to the mine have been kept in good standing since the mine was staked in the 1980s, Hochstein said.

The conservation groups have not requested a halt to any mining activity in the area, but they may in the future, Clark said.

Watson said he agrees that mining should not be allowed in the Grand Canyon National Park, but the Arizona 1 Mine is outside of park limits and Denison has met all of the permit qualifications.

According to company's Web site, the mine would employ 32 people and cost $2.3 million to get started. It would mine begin mining in the first quarter of 2010. The company plans to get about 857,000 pounds of uranium ore over the next three years and is expecting to sell it for between $53 and $65 per pound.

November 19, 2009

A Leviathan of Land: Perspective on the Size of the US Gov’t In Pictures

Robert Gordon
Heritage Foundation

With the takeover of health care and frenzied government growth front and center, many are wondering when we will - if we haven’t already - reached a tipping point that fundamentally alters America. Much of what’s been done is described as a temporary fix. However, as President Reagan noted, “There is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program.”

With this reinvigorated discussion of how big is too big, it is worthwhile to remind Americans of just how massive the Federal government already was before our current woes began. There are few more striking measures of the government’s size than the land mass of the Federal estate. The vast majority of federal lands fall within one of four agencies: the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Agriculture’s US Forest Service.

At over 258 million acres, the Bureau of Land Management alone is bigger than France and Germany combined. When combined with the other aforementioned agencies, the land area is equal that of ten European nations as shown in the accompanying graph (click it to see a larger version).

Lawsuit Abuse Charge by Western Lawmakers Enrages Enviro Groups

By PHIL TAYLOR of Greenwire
New York Times

"Don't be messin' with my rice bowl."

Poor government oversight has allowed advocacy groups to squander taxpayer money on frivolous lawsuits that drain the budgets of federal land management agencies without the knowledge of the public or Congress, a group of Western lawmakers told Attorney General Eric Holder in a letter released this week.

Specifically, members of the Congressional Western Caucus charge that environmental groups have used the Equal Access to Justice Act to win back millions of dollars in attorney fees for lawsuits filed against the Forest Service and other federal agencies.

Caucus members have "great concern about the apparent abuse of EAJA by certain organizations, and the lack of accountability and transparency in the operation and distribution of funds under EAJA that have contributed to this abuse," says the letter, signed by 23 Republican senators and representatives.

But environmental groups, while endorsing recommendations for greater public access to EAJA records, said the research supporting the claims, done by a Wyoming lawyer and former Interior special assistant in the Reagan administration, is spurious and greatly misrepresents the share of funding they receive under the act and a similar program called the Justice Fund.

Attempts to reach the attorney, Karen Budd-Falen, through her Cheyenne office were unsuccessful. An assistant said she was out of town and unable to answer questions.

Budd-Falen's research, however, remains posted on the Web site of the Idaho-based Western Legacy Alliance, which helped fund her work and lobbied the Congressional Western Caucus to investigate. Alliance member Jeff Faulkner, in a statement, went so far as to accuse environmentalists of "shaking down federal government programs so they can access taxpayer dollars to fund their radical agendas."

But Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of eight groups targeted by Budd-Falen and the Congressional Western Caucus, said the claims against the nonprofit groups are outrageous. Among other things, Suckling said the letter's claim of EAJA abuse by environmental groups "is sheer nonsense, as it fails to cite even a single example of abuse."

Moreover, the Western caucus's attempt to single out environmental groups' use of EAJA reimbursements ignores the fact that that law has awarded even greater sums to other plaintiffs whose claims against the government had nothing to do with environmental concerns.

Well-intentioned law

Congress passed the Equal Access to Justice Act nearly 30 years ago to allow individuals, small businesses or public interest groups to be reimbursed for the cost of attorneys that represent them in cases of alleged wrongdoing by the federal government.

The law allows average citizens and nonprofit groups to hold federal agencies accountable for violations of environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, but also to provide greater government accountability in a number of other policy spheres, including copyright and trademark infringement, disability and retirement pay, and fair housing.

But ever since Congress lifted reporting requirements for EAJA payments in 1995, the public has been left in the dark about how much money groups have received under the act and for which cases, the letter says.

"We have no clue as to what is actually being spent on this program," said Utah Rep. Rob Bishop (R), chairman of the CWC and ranking member of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. "The sad part is this has become a cottage industry that groups use to fund further lawsuits against the government."

Under the guise of "public interest," groups intent on sealing off Western lands to ranchers and energy companies have abused EAJA to further their narrow political agendas, the letter states.

"EAJA is an important tool for protecting citizens' rights against the federal government," the letter says. "Sadly, its abuse undoubtedly has far reaching consequences on both public lands management decisions and for all American taxpayers."

Research cited by the letter found $4.7 billion was awarded from the U.S. Treasury's Justice Fund from 2003 to July 2007, though it is unclear how much of those funds went to environmental groups. The same memo identifies less than $1.7 million in EAJA payments to environmental groups from the Forest Service from 2003 to 2005.

The CWC letter requests information on how the Justice Department keeps records of EAJA disbursements and urges the agency to bring the act "back into the sunshine" by building a searchable public database listing the names of organizations that have received reimbursements for attorney fees and for which cases.

Bishop said the caucus has yet to receive a response from Justice but that members are prepared to introduce legislation requiring greater disclosure of EAJA payments.

"The entire caucus is united on this front," Bishop said.

A Justice Department spokesperson could not confirm whether Holder had received the letter and did not respond to questions about the department's EAJA record keeping.

Spotty evidence?

While supporting the call for greater disclosure of EAJA disbursements, environmental groups rejected charges that they have abused the act in order to siphon money from the federal government.

"There is absolutely nothing abusive about the EAJA paying fees to attorneys who overturn illegal government decisions," said Suckling of CBD. "That is exactly what the law was created for."

EAJA reimbursements are awarded only if a group wins a lawsuit against the government, Suckling noted. The law stipulates that plaintiffs receive $125 per attorney hour from the government when they win a case. Groups also receive money from the Treasury Department's Justice Fund for cases in which DOJ finds they have "prevailed," or achieved the purpose of the litigation.

John Kostyack, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation's conservation and global warming programs, said EAJA is a critical mechanism for nonprofit groups to ensure the government enforces laws protecting natural resources and wildlife. But, he said, advocacy groups are hardly padding their coffers with government money earned from lawsuits.

The amount of money that environmental groups receive under EAJA and the Justice Fund is meager compared to groups' overall operating costs, he said. NWF took in $88 million in total revenue in 2008, Kostyack said, so EAJA "certainly doesn't fund continuation of our legal efforts."

Kostyack said he was troubled by claims in Budd-Falen's memo that he says bend the truth and others that are patently false. For example, the memo's claim that NWF has filed 427 lawsuits over the last 15 years is a gross overestimate, by between 200 and 300 cases.

Fighting back

An attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity on Tuesday sent a letter to Budd-Falen and the Western Legacy Alliance in Idaho, which published the Sept. 15 memo on its Web site, warning that its accusations are misleading and defamatory and demanding its removal from any Web sites or publications.

Among other things, CBD strongly refutes the memo's claim that it and seven other environmental organizations received "billions" of dollars from EAJA, the letter from attorney Brent Hendricks states. The letter further states that the distribution of false claims about the groups' use of EAJA money is "injurious to our reputation, and constitutes 'malice' in its reckless disregard for the truth."

In fact, Hendricks said, the $4.7 billion in Judgment Fund money awarded by the government came from claims involving 96 federal statutes, only seven of which are environmental.

Most of the money was awarded for cases involving the Federal Tort Claims Act, Foreign Claims Act, Fair Labor Standards Act and Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the letter states.

"To claim that eight environmental organizations -- or even all environmental groups in the country -- have received 'billions' in attorney fees is not only inaccurate and defamatory, it is misleading and deceitful regarding a matter of public concern," the CBD letter says.

A Western Legacy Alliance spokeswoman said the group received Hendricks' letter but would not remove Budd-Falen's memos from its Web site because they were "opinion editorials" and were considered a form of free speech.

"She's being very conservative in just looking at specific cases," said Kassy Perry, a spokeswoman for the group. "Everything she wrote is validated in the research."

The alliance is funded by its members, most of them ranchers, and does not claim nonprofit status, Perry said.

As for the Congressional Western Caucus, Bishop said in a statement that its members remain concerned "that there may be abuse, but no one can know the truth about how EAJA operates until we begin to shed light on a program that has operated without Congressional oversight since 1995. Taxpayers deserve to know how their hard earned tax dollars are being spent."

November 16, 2009

County Supervisor, Concerned by BrightSource Mega Solar Project Impacts, Calls for Full Review

Submitted by
David Zook
Best Syndication News

Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt – photo: Dan Wilson

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – The highest ranking local elected official representing the area of the proposed BrightSource Ivanpah solar project today said the mega project's environmental impacts as proposed are too great, and that its proponents should adhere to established standards of environmental scrutiny for large-scale developments.

“Huge developments that level ecologically sensitive public lands must not be allowed an alternative review process that's distorted by the political agenda du jour,” said Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, who represents most of the Mojave Desert.

"This project is planned on land that the BLM along with a local coalition of industry and environmental groups long ago identified as habitat for protected species," Mitzelfelt said. "This solar project in its current configuration could compromise nearly twenty years of efforts to protect habitat and appropriately grow Desert communities."

Mitzelfelt, representing San Bernardino County's huge First District, said regulators will hold the habitat loss associated with the BrightSource project against other projects – including renewable energy projects in less environmentally sensitive areas closer to California labor markets – without providing offsetting economic benefits to San Bernardino County. He added that there are many renewable-energy projects he expects to support, including some solar, pending full environmental reviews.

"This project would create jobs for mostly Las Vegas and electricity for mostly San Francisco at the expense of Southern California’s Mojave Desert,” Mitzelfelt said.

News media are reporting that the project is being "fast-tracked" through environmental reviews and that it will rely on union labor from California sources up to 200 miles away. That is as opposed to the more realistic scenario that envisions the jobs going to the Las Vegas job market, which is little more than an hour’s drive away.

Mitzelfelt observed that large projects, including highways, power plants and a military base expansion in the area, typically have faced multi-agency reviews that have stretched for five years up to 20 years.

“You can't be responsible here while cutting every corner,” said Mitzelfelt, who added that he considers the Ivanpah project's impacts on habitat, water resources and scenic vistas "significant, unmitigatable and not worth the environmental price."

November 14, 2009

Remains May Be Tourists Missing 13 Years

Bones Found in Death Valley May Be From German Party Whose Abandoned Van Was Found in 1996

Egbert Rimkus, Georg Weber and Cornelia Meyer, three members of a party of German tourists who disappeared in Death Valley 13 years ago, their van found with three flat tires on a remote road with most of their possessions gone. Two hikers discovered bones that may belong to the missing party on Thursday Nov. 12, 2009, police said. (AP/Inyo County Sheriff/NPS)

Associated Press

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. Skeletal remains found in Death Valley may belong to one or more of the four German tourists who vanished in searing summer heat 13 years ago, authorities said Friday.

Two hikers discovered the bones Thursday in a remote area of the famous Mojave Desert park. The hikers were search-and-rescue workers from Riverside County but they were off duty at the time, Inyo County sheriff's spokeswoman Carma Roper said.

Identification for one of the missing tourists was found near the bones, she said.

"We're fairly certain" that the remains are those of one or more of the long-missing visitors, Roper said. However, formally identifying the remains will be a long process, she said. The cause of death also must be determined.

"At this point, it's being handled like a criminal investigation ... but there is no evidence of foul play at this point," Roper said.

The remains were found southeast of Goler Wash, a rugged area accessible only by 4-wheel-drive vehicles. The area is several miles south of the spot where an abandoned minivan the tourists had rented was found months after they were reported missing.

Roper said it would be a relief to solve a mystery that stretches back to 1996.

"I know a lot of people have invested a lot of their time and energy and emotions into concluding the case," she said.

The park near the Nevada border is considered the hottest and driest location in North America.

The four who vanished in the 3-million-acre wilderness on July 22, 1996, were Dresden residents Cornelia Meyer, 27; her 4-year-old son, Max; her boyfriend, architect Egbert Rimkus, 34, and his 10-year-old son, Georg Weber.

They had arrived in the United States earlier in the month and were touring in a Plymouth Voyager minivan rented in Los Angeles.

They checked out of a Las Vegas hotel room on July 22 and arrived in Death Valley the same day, records indicated.

Temperatures in the park that week had topped 120 degrees.

The visitors bought an information booklet at the visitor center and then apparently stayed overnight in the park and the next day took a dirt road into a remote area.

An entry in German and dated July 23, 1996, was left in a guest book kept in a box on a metal pole in an abandoned mining camp. It indicated the visitors were going through "the pass" - possibly a reference to Mengel Pass, a dirt trail that crosses the barren Panamint Range, a barren mountain range on the park's southwestern border.

The entry was signed "Conny, Egbert, Georg, Max."

They weren't heard from again.

On Oct. 23, the locked van was found mired in sand in a ravine off roadless Anvil Spring Canyon, amid rolling hills at an elevation of 3,000 feet and far from usual tourist routes. Three tires were shredded and one had come loose from the rim.

Searchers found a beer bottle a quarter-mile away that appeared to have come from a package found in the van.

Inside the van were rolls of exposed photo film, sleeping bags, empty gallon water containers, the Death Valley information booklet and an American flag apparently taken from a stone cabin in Butte Valley, five miles away.

No tracks that could have been made by the missing tourists were found. No passports or personal effects such as keys, a purse or wallet were found.

A team of 45 searchers, eight horses and four helicopters from California and Nevada law enforcement agencies combed the area but found nothing more.

Bones may solve mystery of missing Death Valley tourists

Rental van was found with four flat tires, but searchers never located four German visitors who disappeared in 1996.

By Teresa Watanabe
Los Angeles Times

A 13-year-old mystery involving the disappearance of four German tourists in the sweltering desert of Death Valley may have ended Friday, when authorities announced that bones that may be their skeletal remains had been found.

In a statement, Inyo County Undersheriff Jim Jones said that personal identification belonging to one of the tourists was found near the skeletal remains, which were discovered by two hikers Thursday in a remote area of Death Valley National Park.

The four tourists -- Cornelia Meyer, 28; her 4-year-old son, Max; Egbert Rimkus, 33; and his son, Georg Weber, 10 vanished in July 1996, when temperatures at the park reached 115 degrees. The Dresden residents had been touring the Southwest and had not been seen since signing a visitor register at the Warm Springs area at the southwestern end of the park.

Three months after disappearing, their dark green minivan, which was rented at Los Angeles International Airport, was found in Anvil Spring Canyon. All four tires were flat and tire tracks indicated that the group had driven on shredded tires and bent wheels for about two miles, authorities said then.

Only a beer can and other debris were found near the van.

Although no foul play is suspected, Inyo County sheriff's spokeswoman Carma Roper told the Associated Press that the discovery was being handled as a criminal investigation.

She added that it would take a long time to formally identify the remains and determine the cause of death.

Authorities have searched throughout the years but failed to undercover any further evidence until this week.

November 13, 2009

Supervisor opposes massive solar project in San Bernardino County

Environmental News
Los Angeles Times

A solar energy project proposed for development on public land in the Mojave Desert would create jobs mostly for Las Vegas and electricity for San Francisco at the expense of the relatively pristine area of east San Bernardino County where it would be built, San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt said Friday.

In an interview, Mitzelfelt, whose district includes the Ivanpah Valley project site about 20 miles south of Las Vegas, said BrightSource’s proposed 440-megawatt, 4,000-acre Solar Electric Generating System, “should not go forward.”

The system is among 130 renewable energy applications to build wind and solar projects on more than a million acres of public land under review by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and California Energy Commission. Companies hope to begin construction on about a dozen of those projects by late next year.

State and federal regulators said the BrightSource project is furthest along in the process and could break ground late next year. Conservationists, however, are concerned about its impacts on several rare bat, bird, plant and reptile species including the threatened California desert tortoise.

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 dependency on fossil fuels and address climate change.

“Obviously, there is a lot of political pressure to get this project expedited and under construction,” Mitzelfelt said. “But its impacts in San Bernardino County and sensitive and scenic Mojave Desert environment are not worth the benefits.”

“I would do everything I could to advance a project that would provide jobs, induce economic investment and increase the tax base in our county,” he said. “This is not that project.”

BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs disagreed.

"Considering the project has been going through a state and federal environmental review process for more than two years, and will generate 1,000 jobs, $250 million in wages and more than $400 million in local and state tax revenue, we're surprised to see the supervisor's press release," Wachs said in a statement.

"We look forward to meeting with Supervisor Mitzelfelt and his staff," Wachs added, "to clarify any misunderstandings they might have about the Ivanpah project."

Tainted water runs beneath Nevada desert

The state faces a water crisis and population boom, but radioactive waste from the Nevada Test Site has polluted aquifers.

A "typical American house" on the Nevada Test Site, one of two that survived the May 5, 1955, detonation of a 29-kiloton device named "Apple II" on Yucca Flat. (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times)

By Ralph Vartabedian
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Yucca Flat, Nev. - A sea of ancient water tainted by the Cold War is creeping deep under the volcanic peaks, dry lake beds and pinyon pine forests covering a vast tract of Nevada.

Over 41 years, the federal government detonated 921 nuclear warheads underground at the Nevada Test Site, 75 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Each explosion deposited a toxic load of radioactivity into the ground and, in some cases, directly into aquifers.

When testing ended in 1992, the Energy Department estimated that more than 300 million curies of radiation had been left behind, making the site one of the most radioactively contaminated places in the nation.

During the era of weapons testing, Nevada embraced its role almost like a patriotic duty. There seemed to be no better use for an empty desert. But today, as Nevada faces a water crisis and a population boom, state officials are taking a new measure of the damage.

They have successfully pressured federal officials for a fresh environmental assessment of the 1,375-square-mile test site, a step toward a potential demand for monetary compensation, replacement of the lost water or a massive cleanup.

"It is one of the largest resource losses in the country," said Thomas S. Buqo, a Nevada hydrogeologist. "Nobody thought to say, 'You are destroying a natural resource.' "

In a study for Nye County, where the nuclear test site lies, Buqo estimated that the underground tests polluted 1.6 trillion gallons of water. That is as much water as Nevada is allowed to withdraw from the Colorado River in 16 years -- enough to fill a lake 300 miles long, a mile wide and 25 feet deep.

At today's prices, that water would be worth as much as $48 billion if it had not been fouled, Buqo said.

Although the contaminated water is migrating southwest from the high ground of the test site, the Energy Department has no cleanup plans, saying it would be impossible to remove the radioactivity. Instead, its emphasis is on monitoring.

Federal scientists say the tainted water is moving so slowly -- 3 inches to 18 feet a year -- that it will not reach the nearest community, Beatty, about 22 miles away, for at least 6,000 years.

Still, Nevada officials reject the idea that a massive part of their state will be a permanent environmental sacrifice zone.

Access to more water could stoke an economic boom in the area, local officials say. More than a dozen companies want to build solar electric generation plants, but the county cannot allow the projects to go forward without more water, said Gary Hollis, a Nye County commissioner.

The problem extends beyond the contamination zone. If too much clean water is pumped out of the ground from adjacent areas, it could accelerate the movement of tainted water. When Nye County applied for permits in recent years to pump clean water near the western boundary of the test site, the state engineer denied the application based on protests by the Energy Department.

(The department did not cite environmental concerns, perhaps to avoid acknowledging the extent of the Cold War contamination. Instead, federal officials said the pumping could compromise security at the test site, which is still in use.)

"Those waters have been degraded," said Republican state Assemblyman Edwin Goedhart of Nye County, who runs a dairy with 18,000 head of livestock. "That water belongs to the people of Nevada. Even before any contamination comes off the test site, I look at this as a matter of social economic justice."

Even before the Cold War turned the landscape radioactive, the test site was a forbidding place, as empty a spot as any in the country.

Creosote and sagebrush covered much of the gravelly terrain, punctuated by soaring mountains and crusty lake beds. In the winter months, snow covered the 7,000-foot Pahute Mesa, and a few herds of wild horses roamed the high country.

In 1950, President Truman secretly selected the site for nuclear testing and withdrew the federally owned land from public use.

In early 1951, atomic blasts started lighting up the sky over Las Vegas, then a city of fewer than 50,000. Early atmospheric tests spawned heavy fallout, and some areas are still so radioactive that anybody entering must wear hazardous-material suits. Later tests were done underground, leaving hundreds of craters that resemble otherworldly scars.

Each of the underground detonations -- some as deep as 5,000 feet -- vaporized a huge chamber, leaving a cavity filled with radioactive rubble.

About a third of the tests were conducted directly in aquifers, and others were hundreds or thousands of feet above the water table. Federal scientists say contamination above the aquifers should remain suspended in the perpetually dry soil, a contention that critics say is unproven.

In the hottest zones, radioactivity in the water reaches millions of picocuries per liter. The federal standard for drinking water is 20 picocuries per liter.

Federal officials say they don't know how much water was contaminated. Whatever the amount, they say, extracting it would be prohibitively expensive, and even if the radioactive material could be separated, it would have to be put back in the ground elsewhere.

Although radiation levels in the water have declined, the longer-lived isotopes will continue to pose risks for tens of thousands of years. The Energy Department has 48 monitoring wells at the site and began drilling nine deep wells in the summer.

Bill Wilborn, the Energy Department's water expert at the site, said the water is moving about two-thirds of a mile every 1,000 years from low-lying Yucca Flat, where 660 nuclear tests were conducted.

At the higher Pahute Mesa, where 81 of the biggest and deepest tests occurred, the water movement is more complicated. It generally flows downhill toward Beatty and the agricultural district of Amargosa Valley. On average, it is moving 1 3/4 miles every 1,000 years, but the annual pace ranges from about 1 foot to 18 feet, Wilborn said.

"The good thing is that it is not highly mobile," he said. "There are not a lot of nearby [people], and we are not pumping to accelerate the flow."

Federal scientists concede that much is unknown about the test site, whose vast size and complex geology make it a difficult place to study in detail.

Based on their calculations, government geologists acknowledge that the forward plume of radioactive water under Pahute Mesa should have already crossed the site boundary, although it has yet to be detected by monitoring wells. Some experts worry that the contamination could reach deeper aquifers that move much more quickly.

Because the contaminated water poses no immediate health threat, the Energy Department has ranked Nevada at the bottom of its priority list for cleaning up major sites in the nuclear weapons complex, and it operates far fewer wells than at most other contaminated sites.

The test site receives about $65 million a year from the department's $5.5-billion annual nuclear cleanup budget. By contrast, about $1.8 billion a year is spent on the Hanford plutonium production site in Washington state, even though soil and water contamination there is one-thousandth as severe as in Nevada.

Although Nevada has not pressed for compensation or replacement water so far, public officials say they are considering such action.

They have been emboldened by their recent success in blocking a federal plan to build a nuclear waste dump adjacent to the test site at Yucca Mountain.

"All the attention has been on Yucca Mountain. Now if the battle has been won on Yucca Mountain, then you may see some attention that will focus on cleaning up the test site," said Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), who wrote the authoritative history of the Nevada Test Site.

The state attorney general's office recently put a temporary halt on dumping low-level radioactive waste from other states at the Nevada Test Site. Under pressure from the office, the federal government agreed this year to conduct a new environmental analysis of the site.

"Once we have the new environmental impact statement, then we will be able to talk about the federal government compensating the state," said Marta Adams, senior deputy attorney general.

Said Allen Biaggi, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources: "We have every expectation of the federal government cleaning up the Nevada Test Site. . . . It would cost a lot, but our groundwater is worth it."

November 11, 2009

Put water deal on hold


Deseret News

Until recently, Utah negotiators may have felt they were in a weak position when it came to working out a deal with Nevada over the future of Snake Valley water. It was assumed that Nevada could simply pump right up to its border, which was why Utah fought to get a federal bill to include a provision that Utah and Nevada would reach an agreement on the water before any of it could be pumped.

That position has now changed. In a ruling handed down last month, Judge Norman Robinson of Nevada's 7th Judicial District said the Nevada state engineer "abused his discretion" by granting water rights to the Southern Nevada Water Authority in three valleys on the Nevada side of the area. Specifically, the judge said the decision was made without considering how downstream users would be impacted and without using sound science. The consequences to people downstream, he said, could be "oppressive."

It can be assumed that people living on the Utah side of the area are just as much downstream as those in Nevada.

"Oppressive" would be a good word to describe how many ranchers in Utah, and even Nevada, feel about the proposal to pump water from beneath their land to sustain growth in Las Vegas. As a front-page story in this newspaper on Sunday detailed, the people who would be affected by the pumping have firsthand knowledge of how precious water is to their way of life. One man described how his own water needs once dried up the well of a neighbor. That puts some perspective on what might happen if tens of thousands of acre-feet are pumped out.

Beyond that, there are scientific questions that cannot easily be answered. If water beneath the valleys was pumped, would fragile greasewood shrubs die, thus leading to loose soil and more frequent dust storms? Would pumping allow contaminated water near the Great Salt Lake to spread underground, leaving the soil above contaminated, as well?

The only definitive way to answer these questions may be to pump the water and see what happens. But even though a draft agreement between the states calls for the close monitoring of environmental impacts, such problems may prove easier to prevent, by not allowing pumping, than to fix.

We hope the Snake Valley Aquifer Advisory Council now asks Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to suspend negotiations with Nevada, and that he agrees. Herbert has yet to sign off on the draft agreement between the states.

Nevada is planning to appeal Judge Robinson's decision. At the least, Utah should back away pending that appeal. The need to quickly get an agreement in place, at least from Utah's point of view, has now vanished.

Court nixes proposal for dump near Joshua Tree

Plan would have created ‘largest landfill in the U.S.'

Colin Atagi
The Desert Sun

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a lower court's rejection of a plan — 20 years in the making — that sought to turn a former iron ore mine near Joshua Tree National Park into the “largest landfill in the United States,” according to the decision.

Tuesday's ruling was a setback for proponents of the controversial Eagle Mountain Landfill, who say it would bring much-needed jobs and revenue to the Coachella Valley and the surrounding region.

But landfill opponents called Tuesday's ruling a “landmark victory” for the animals who call the national park home and the more than 1.3 million people who visit the park every year.

The appellate court's 2-1 decision upheld a 2005 district court decision that overturned the land exchange needed for the 4,654-acre Eagle Mountain Landfill, which was proposed for a former iron ore mine near Joshua Tree National Park.

“Thank God this thing is over; it's been going on for more than 20 years,” said Eagle Mountain resident Donna Charpied, who lives two miles from the proposed site with her husband, Larry. “It's time for the government to stop with this nonsense.”

U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Timlin said in September 2005 the proposal was based on a flawed land swap between the Bureau of Land Management and developer Kaiser Ventures because the government undervalued the property.

Under the land deal, the government provided 3,481 acres near Joshua Tree to Kaiser.

In exchange, Kaiser offered the government 2,486 acres of private land plus $20,100.

Meanwhile, partner Mine Reclamation Corp. of Palm Desert agreed to sell its interest to Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County for $41 million.

Rick Stoddard, Kaiser's chairman and chief executive, said he believes his company's environmental analysis was “more than adequate.”

“Our steadfast belief continues to be that the Eagle Mountain landfill's environmental analysis was more than adequate and that the proper legal procedures were followed in completing the land exchange,” he said.

The company plans to seek a review of the decision by a broader panel of 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judges, Stoddard said.

The project site, which is surrounded on three sides by Joshua Tree National Park, could have received as much as 20,000 tons of Los Angeles County trash on a daily basis. The landfill's total capacity would have been 708 million tons.

Proponents, including the late Riverside County Supervisor Roy Wilson, argued the landfill would have benefited the Coachella Valley by creating jobs and generating nearly $1 billion for the county.

Opponents argued the landfill would have harmed the wildlife and air quality in the desert and Joshua Tree. As many as 1,500 people live in the area during winter, Charpied said.

“I wouldn't care if it was just three people affected; they shouldn't put garbage on a train and travel 200 miles and pollute the finest air quality in the nation,” she said.

The landfill would attract ravens and coyotes, which prey on young desert tortoises, while limiting the amount of space for bighorn sheep, said Mike Cipra, California Desert Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

“There's a really robust and healthy population of desert bighorn sheep, and the health of that sheep depends on their ability to move,” he said. “If the sheep are isolated over time, they'll eventually going to have a lot of inbreeding and potentially not survive.”

November 10, 2009

Historical marker restored to former glory

Chimney Rock historical marker prior to being vandalized in 2008.

Lucerne Valley Leader

LUCERNE VALLEY - Thanks to the efforts of anonymous good Samaritans, the historical maker signifying the Battle of Chimney Rock has been restored to its former glory.

Ravaged by vandals nearly a year ago, the site has sat in ruins as local organizations tried to come up with the means to replace the stolen metal.
Since it was never established which group was the site’s “caretaker” it became difficult to proceed.

Chamber of Commerce representatives Lorane Abercrombie and Susan Waldron were interested in doing what they could in order to replicate the plaque, until they found out it had been taken care of for them.

“I got a call and they said it was done,” Abercrombie said. “I thought they meant they had gotten the plaque polished, but they said ‘no, it’s completely finished.’”

She said that the donation was meant to be a gift to the community of Lucerne Valley, and that the people who gave it wished to remain anonymous.

And while more than 10,000 people pass by the monument each day, few know the significance behind it.

“In the early days, natural springs in what is now Lucerne Valley provided good camping grounds for Indians on their way into the San Bernardino Mountains to gather pinon nuts. The Indians resented white pioneers settling in the territory and committed some violent acts against them. Instead of discouraging the settlers, it caused them to marshall forces and attack the Indians. (On) Feb. 1 1867, a decisive battle at Chimney Rock caused the Indians to retreat and leave the territory to the white pioneers,” according to

November 7, 2009

Judge reinstates attempt to protect flat-tailed horned lizard

The ruling follows the 9th Circuit's rejection of a Bush administration policy against listing the reptiles as threatened. The Department of Interior is expected to make a decision by next November.

A flat-tailed Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma mcalli) tries to hide in the dry mustard plants in the Coachella Valley Preserve. (Cameron Barrows)

By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

Chalk one up for the flat-tailed horned lizard.

In the latest round in a 16-year legal battle to keep the squat lizard with dragon-like head spines safe from urban encroachment in its Southern California and Arizona haunts, a federal judge has reinstated a 1993 proposal to list the creature as a threatened species.

U.S. District Judge Neil V. Wake's ruling earlier this week in Arizona follows a recent U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals order that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reconsider its earlier decision to deny the lizard protection under the Endangered Species Act.

That decision rejected a Bush administration policy that environmentalists said favored development at the expense of the lizard and many plants and animals across the nation.

Since 1993, the agency has withdrawn three proposals to list the lizard on the grounds that it was hard to find and, therefore, difficult to classify as threatened. Each withdrawal was successfully challenged in court by conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club and the Horned Lizard Conservation Society.

In the meantime, the lizard's population has continued to decline in Arizona, California and Baja California largely because its habitats of gravel pans and dunes have been taken over by farming, housing, off-road vehicles, geothermal leases, gravel pits, golf courses, military exercises and border fences between the United States and Mexico.

The Department of the Interior is expected to make a final decision about the status of the flat-tailed horned lizard by November 2010.

"The lizard is certainly as deserving of federal protection today as it was 16 years ago," said attorney Bill Snape, who represented the Center for Biological Diversity in the matter. "Hopefully this is the final chapter in the lizard's long and tortured legal history."

The lizard -- 3 1/2 inches long and a voracious consumer of harvester ants -- once inhabited wide swaths of the Colorado and Sonoran deserts.

Listing the lizard as threatened could potentially affect the ongoing rush to build huge solar energy facilities across the desert flatlands of Southern California, said Allan Muth, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and director of the Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center, south of Palm Desert.

"Amid all the applications being submitted to develop solar energy plants, it doesn't look like things will get any better for the flat-tailed horned lizard," Muth said. "If listing the lizard as a threatened species means people will take a little more time to think these things through, that's a good thing."

Anticipating a protection declaration, Stirling Energy Systems plans to mitigate the environmental impact of its proposed Solar II facility on 6,500 acres of flat-tailed horned lizard habitat near the Imperial County city of El Centro by purchasing prime lizard habitat elsewhere and donating it for conservation.

The proposed facility was recently renamed Tessera Solar's Imperial Valley Solar Two by Stirling to reflect the name of its sister company.