April 23, 2009

BLM seals abandoned mines in the desert

From Staff Reports
Barstow Desert Dispatch

The Bureau of Land Management is moving to seal abandoned mines in the Mojave desert.

Working with a new public/private partnership called Fix a Shaft Today!, the BLM recently sealed a mine shaft in the Mojave National Preserve near the Nevada border and one on BLM land near Ludlow, according to a release from the bureau. The Mojave National Preserve, California Department of Conservation Mine Reclamation, 4Granite Inc., and PUF-SEAL partnered with the BLM on the projects.

Before closing the mines, the BLM surveyed them to make sure they were not being used as habitat by bats or other wildlife, according to the release. The California Department of Conservation Abandoned Mine Lands Unit has identified about 165,000 mine features on 47,000 abandoned mine sites in the state.

BLM spokesman David Briery said that the bureau expects to get funding for abandoned mine closures from the stimulus package, but have gotten no official word.

The BLM California Desert District is kicking off a public scoping period for an assessment that will address safety hazards associated with abandoned mines. For more information, contact Sterling White at 951-697-5239.

Mojave National Preserve slated for stimulus funds

By ABBY SEWELL, staff writer
Barstow Desert Dispatch

BARSTOW • About $7.2 million in federal stimulus funds will go to projects in the Mojave National Preserve.

The National Park Service announced its list of about 800 park infrastructure projects totaling $750 million to be funded by the stimulus package Wednesday. About $97.4 million will go to 97 projects in California.

The projects in the Mojave National Preserve include installing solar panels on the roof of a park office in Baker and solar electric-powered lights in the maintenance yard, restoring habitat, gating off and closing abandoned mines, maintenance on back country park roads and spraying dust suppressant on Kelso Dunes Road.

“In general, this recovery act is going to help with deferred maintenance projects, it’s going to help visitors, and it’s going to provide jobs for local economies,” said park service spokeswoman Holly Bundock.

Bob Bryson, chief of resource management at the Mojave National Preserve, said the stimulus funds will allow the park service to carry out projects that have been in the works for some time but have lacked funding.

There has been a push from the Department of the Interior’s inspector general and from others, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to deal with the issue of abandoned mines in the parks, he said.

Bryson said the abandoned mines remain a popular tourist attraction and he was not aware of any deaths in mines in the Mojave preserve, but people have died in Death Valley and in other areas of the desert, including near Calico Ghost Town.

Bids must be awarded on the projects to be funded by the stimulus money by the end of September 2010, he said.

“It’s great we’re able to do things we wouldn’t be able to do (otherwise), but the problem is being able to do it relatively quickly, because after all, the idea is to be able to get the money out to the private sector and create jobs,” he said.

Bundock and Bryson did not have an estimate of how many jobs would be created by the projects in the Mojave. Bryson said most of the work would be contracted out to small businesses.

Officials in the park service’s Washington, D.C., headquarters looked at shovel-ready projects in the categories of construction, deferred maintenance, energy efficient equipment replacement, trail maintenance, abandoned mine closures and road maintenance, Bundock said.

Park Service warns of solar projects' impacts to Mojave Desert

New York Times

A National Park Service official has warned the Bureau of Land Management that approving dozens of solar power plants in southern Nevada could dramatically impact water supplies across the arid region.

An estimated 63 large-scale solar projects are proposed for BLM lands in the region, and the plants are expected to use a large amount of groundwater to cool and wash solar panels, according to the Feb. 5 memorandum sent by Jon Jarvis, director of the Park Service's Pacific West Region, to BLM's associate state director in Nevada.

Jarvis also wrote that the Park Service is concerned that the projects could produce air and light pollution, generate noise and destroy wildlife habitat near three NPS properties: the Devils Hole section of Death Valley National Park, the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Mojave National Preserve.

"In cases where plans of development have been submitted, the vast majority of these projects propose to use utility-scale, concentrating solar power technologies" that "can be expected to consume larger amounts of water" for cooling than other technologies, Jarvis wrote.

"In arid settings, the increased water demand from concentrating solar energy systems employing water-cooled technology could strain limited water resources already under development pressure from urbanization, irrigation expansion, commercial interests and mining," he wrote.

As such, the proposed solar plants "potentially face several water-rights related obstacles in obtaining the necessary water for their projects."

BLM officials did not publicly respond to the issues raised in the memo, although Linda Resseguie, a BLM project manager in Washington, said there is "great sensitivity" within the agency to concerns over solar power plant siting.

The bureau is conducting a programmatic environmental impact statement to be released this fall that will gauge the effects of proposed solar power development on Nevada and five other Western states, and discuss management strategies for how best to address the issue.

Avoiding sensitive lands

Environmental groups welcomed the Jarvis memo, which was disseminated this week by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Critics say they hope the memo will prompt the Interior Department to develop an overarching plan for siting renewable energy projects like solar arrays, wind farms and geothermal plants in environmentally sensitive areas.

"We think the greater significance has to do with the fact that the Interior Department has no plan for solar energy development on public lands," said Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director.

The Nevada controversy highlights the emerging conflict between the Obama administration's plans to greatly expand the use of renewable energy and the concerns of those who fear solar arrays, wind farms and geothermal plants could disrupt or destroy wildlife habitat and soak up precious water supplies in the arid West.

While environmentalists say they support the expansion of alternative energy, some groups have raised objections to large solar arrays and wind farms that would displace endangered animals and plants and damage their habitats. They also have raised concerns about environmental damage caused by the expected build out of thousands of miles of new transmission lines necessary to bring the electricity from remote regions to power-hungry customers.

The $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes massive federal incentives and tax breaks to encourage the build out of a new power grid and associated infrastructure for renewable energy development.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that developers will build dozens of wind farms, solar arrays and geothermal plants over the next four years with an estimated 7,574 megawatts of electricity generation capacity -- enough to power roughly 6 million homes for a year.

Many of the projects will be built on public land in the West.

Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said her group welcomes the renewable energy investment as long as projects are sited in areas that have already been disturbed. Suitable sites could include the more than 250,000 abandoned mines on public lands across the West, she said

BLM, the Forest Service and other agencies have indicated they are studying such proposals, including locating renewable energy projects on EPA-designated brownfields.

"The degraded places are probably just as hot, and probably get just as much sunlight, as the pristine places," PEER's Ruch said. "As long as you're in the region the exact locations should not matter much."

Targeting the West

Federal lands currently support an estimated 20 wind farms, solar arrays and geothermal energy plants across 5,000 acres managed by BLM and the Forest Service. An additional three renewable energy plants have been approved for 3,000 acres of public land in Arizona, California, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. In total, the existing and approved renewable energy projects promise 577 megawatts of capacity -- enough to power 460,000 homes (Land Letter, Feb. 5, 2009).

But that number could swell dramatically over the next few years, as BLM and the Forest Service work through an estimated 400 applications for new wind and solar projects for federal land. If approved, those projects would cover 2.3 million acres in seven Western states and generate an estimated 70,000 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power more than 50 million homes.

"I think like many others, the BLM has been caught off guard by the sheer volume and intensity of what's happening," Delfino said.

Meanwhile, energy companies have targeted the expansive Mojave Desert on the Nevada-California border as an emerging hub of solar energy development.

The area includes millions of acres of undeveloped, federally managed land that receives high solar intensity year-round. But the Mojave Desert is also home to a wide array of wildlife, including desert tortoises and rare plants like the Rusby's desert-mallow, the cave evening primrose and the Mojave milkweed, said Sid Silliman, energy chairman for the Sierra Club's San Gorgonio Chapter based in Riverside, Calif.

"I think sometimes the perception is the desert is barren, and that's just not true," Silliman said. "It's a very fragile environment, very diverse."

The potential loss of such habitat is driving new concerns about a proposed solar array for San Bernardino County near the Mojave National Preserve -- one of the three NPS sites Jarvis said could be at risk from large-scale solar projects.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System project, as proposed by Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy Inc., would cover 4,065 acres and produce enough electricity to power nearly 200,000 homes.

The plant would use an air-cooled system that requires less water, according to officials familiar with the proposal. But it is one of more than 100 energy projects proposed for the Mojave region, most of them solar projects. Just east of the Ivanpah site is another proposed 4,000-acre solar plant, Delfino said.

"It's great there's interest in developing renewable energy," she said. "We just need to take a deep breath and think more about what we're doing and how best to do it."

April 22, 2009

California Desert national park units receive $20M

Wesley G. Hughes, Staff Writer
Contra Costa Times

The White House on Wednesday authorized $97 million from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds for job-intensive work in California national parks, including more than $20 million for the job-needy Inland region.

Joshua Tree will receive more than $5 million, Mojave, more than $7 million and Death Valley, almost $8 million parks. The announcement details how the jobs will be created and on which projects.

At Mojave National Preserve, for example, there will be restoration of natural landscape and resource habitat, isolated uses of solar-powered lights and solar panels, temporary closure of multiple mines and spray Kelso Dunes Road with dust palliative.

Among the jobs at Joshua Tree are maintaining camp and picnic area sites; repair, treat and stabilize roads and trails parkwide and repair damaged section of 49 Palms Canyon Trail.

Death Valley projects include conversion of the Stovepipe Wells water plant to photovoltaic power and replace roofs on seven historic houses.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said, "I am thrilled that money from the economic recovery package will help improve California's national parks and ensure these treasures are preserved for our children and our grandchildren."

April 20, 2009

Park Service Protests Big Solar Expansion in Nevada Desert

National Parks Will Suffer from Water Withdrawals, Pollution and Habitat Loss

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)

Washington, DC - The National Park Service is sounding an alarm about plans for scores of big solar power plants in Southern Nevada, according to an inter-agency memo posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). NPS predicts harm to national parks in the region due to water scarcity, habitat disturbance, air pollution, sound pollution and light pollution lightening night skies.

The February 9, 2009 memo from NPS Pacific Regional Director Jon Jarvis to the Acting Nevada U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Amy Leuders details concerns about 63 utility-scale solar projects slated for BLM lands in southern Nevada. Jarvis cites potential negative impacts for Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Mojave National Preserve, and the Devils Hole section of Death Valley National Park.

Above all, Jarvis stressed the lack of water to operate the solar facilities:

"The NPS asserts that it is not in the public interest for BLM to approve plans of development for water-cooled solar energy projects in the arid basins of southern Nevada, some of which are already over-appropriated, where there may be no reasonable expectation of acquiring new water rights in some basins, and where transference of existing points of diversion may be heavily constrained for some basins."

"Except for the sun, there is little that will be 'green' about mega-solar plants in the desert," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that a key dilemma is that the places of greatest solar potential are also the most arid. "There is not enough water in the desert to run utility-scale water-cooled solar plants."

Concerns about the negative impacts of big solar facilities and the transmission corridors they require to deliver power to market has led U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) to propose the creation of a new national monument covering more than a half-million Mojave Desert acres to exclude BLM solar leases.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has promised to assemble a comprehensive energy plan that will presumably minimize these inter-agency conflicts. In February, Secretary Salazar suspended BLM oil and gas lease sales in Utah following protests from NPS about negative effects on nearby national parks.

"A comprehensive energy plan is needed but cannot depend solely on public lands," added Ruch. "America's deserts should not become national sacrifice zones for energy farms."

PEER is urging alternative approaches such as rooftop solar installations. Southern California has vast areas of open roofs that do not require huge new transmission corridors. In addition, there are large private lands, such as degraded cotton and alfalfa farms, that have little current ecological value. On public lands, BLM should limit "Big Solar" power-plants to desert areas that have already been despoiled, such as toxic waste sites and abandoned mines. Co-locating solar plants with already compromised lands not only minimizes loss of wild habitat but also reduces the maintenance burden on BLM of keeping these damaged lands in exclusion.

April 19, 2009

Birds return to Owens Lake, unexpectedly

Hoping to control dust, L.A.'s DWP poured ankle-deep water into a Central California lake bed. Now tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds stop there.

Shorebirds gather on ponds at Owens Lake the evening before the lake-wide bird census.

By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Lone Pine, Calif. -- Teams of biologists fanned out across the vast playa of Owens Lake on Saturday to take a full accounting of one of environmentalism's unintended successes: tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds roosting on a dust-control project.

The 100-square-mile lake just east of Sequoia National Park was transformed into dusty salt flats after 1913, when its cargo of snowmelt and spring water was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Since 2001, however, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has flooded portions of the lake bed to control choking dust pollution.

Nature quickly responded to the ankle-deep sheet of water delivered by the $500-million dust-control project's plumbing system. First to appear on the sheen of water tinged bright green by algae were brine flies. Then came migrating birds that feed on them and peregrine falcons that feed on the birds.

This year, Audubon California designated Owens Lake one of the 17 most important bird areas in the state and a globally important wetlands in the making.

Peering through a spotting scope in the direction of a chaotic chorus of gulls and waterfowl, Michael Prather, a botanist who helped organize the lake-wide bird census, said, "We believe there are more birds at Owens Lake now than at any time since its water was diverted in 1913."

Moments later, the birds lifted off the water in a clatter of wing beats.

"There's a palpable tenseness among these migrating birds," he mused. "It's almost as though, having little time to spare, they are tapping their feet, anxious to get moving to their ultimate destinations."

As he spoke, about 20 species of shorebirds and waders -- long-billed curlews, yellowlegs, American avocets, black-necked stilts, sandpipers, black-bellied plovers, Wilson's phalaropes, dowagers and whimbrels -- were bulking up their fat reserves to complete a journey that would take them from wintering grounds as far south as Argentina to breeding areas in the boreal forests and shores of Alaska, Canada and the Arctic.

Owens Lake is an eerily flat, shimmering landscape, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, surrounded by spiky lava flows and banded hills between the 14,000-foot Sierra Nevada on the west and the 11,000-foot Inyo Mountains on the east.

In fall and spring, it now attracts about 50,000 birds, including roughly 500 snowy plovers, a shorebird listed as a species of special concern. Breeding on sandbars and in thatches of grass are colonies of yellow-headed blackbirds.

One team crisscrossing the white, crunchy lake bed was led by DWP biologist Debbie House and Jon Dunn, co-editor of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Western North America.

Dunn used a spotting scope to count hundreds of birds on the far side of a spreading pond, calling out their numbers and species to House, who recorded the tallies on a clipboard.

"I've got 250 cinnamon teal, 40 redheads, 85 California gulls, 10 lesser scaup and two peregrine falcons hunting ducks along the shore," he said. "There's also 13 ring-billed gulls and a white-faced ibis."

"Osprey!" added Tony Brake, a retired neuroscientist who volunteered for the day.

A few miles to the south, Prather's team surveyed wildlife pecking at waterborne insects and brine shrimp in and around brackish ponds. Highlights included what Prather excitedly described as "a scopeful of Franklin's gulls!"

Not bad birding for one Saturday morning.

Hoping to end decades of conflict with Owens Valley residents, Los Angeles has tried a variety of methods to cut air pollution, including flooding, plants and gravel. Amid drought concerns, the dust-control project, which has been dogged by cost overruns, is experimenting with a $105-million waterless process called "moat and row." The process attempts to capture airborne dust particles in a specifically configured ridged landscape.

As it stands, each year the project uses about 60,000 acre-feet of water worth about $54 million -- enough to supply 60,000 families.

The annual bird surveys at Owens Lake, which began in 2007, aim to create a database that the DWP, environmental groups and state wildlife and lands authorities can use to develop more efficient and environmentally sensitive dust-control efforts.

By 2 p.m. Saturday, Dunn said the numbers were looking good for dozens of species.

"Excellent day; good conditions and lots of birds, even a few rarities: Lapland longspurs, Baird's sandpipers and a Herring gull," he said. "We're pleased with the results."

April 18, 2009

Desert clash in West over solar power, water

Advocates of alternative energy stymied by overtaxed aquifers, tiny fish

Associated Press

Mike Bower, left, a biologist with the National Park Service, with Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor Cynthia Martinez in Devil's Hole, the endangered Devil's Hole pupfish's only natural habitat, in Death Valley National Park in Nevada.

OAKLAND, Calif. - A westward dash to power electricity-hungry cities by cashing in on the desert's most abundant resource — sunshine — is clashing with efforts to protect the tiny pupfish and desert tortoise and stinginess over the region's rarest resource: water.

Water is the cooling agent for what traditionally has been the most cost-efficient type of large-scale solar plants. To some solar companies answering Washington's push for renewable energy on vast government lands, it's also an environmental thorn. The unusual collision pits natural resources protections against President Barack Obama's plans to produce more environmentally friendly energy.

The solar hopefuls are encountering overtaxed aquifers and a legendary legacy of Western water wars and legal and regulatory scuffles. Some are moving to more costly air-cooled technology — which uses 90 percent less water — for solar plants that will employ miles of sun-reflecting mirrors across the Western deserts. Others see market advantages in solar dish or photovoltaic technologies that don't require steam engines and cooling water and that are becoming more economically competitive.

The National Park Service is worried about environmental consequences of solar proposals on government lands that are administered by the Bureau of Land Management. It says it supports the solar push but is warning against water drawdowns, especially in southern Nevada. In the Amargosa Valley, the endangered, electric-blue pupfish lives in a hot water, aquifer-fed limestone cavern called Devil's Hole.

"It is not in the public interest for BLM to approve plans of development for water-cooled solar energy projects in the arid basins of southern Nevada, some of which are already over-appropriated," Jon Jarvis, director of the Park Service's Pacific West Region, wrote to the BLM director in Nevada.

'Water is a big concern'

Jarvis' e-mail from February, obtained by The Associated Press, noted that the rare pupfish's dwindling numbers prompted Nevada to ban new groundwater allocations within 25 miles of the pool.

Jarvis urged the BLM to promote technologies that use less water and hold off on permits until it finishes its assessment of the solar program next year. The BLM tried suspending new applications last year but relented under pressure from industry and advocates of renewable energy.

"Water is a big concern and the desert tortoise is a major concern, and the amount of site preparation is a concern," said Linda Resseguie, a BLM project manager. The government in reviewing each project wants to make careful decisions over what it considers "a potentially irreversible commitment of lands," she said.

Water is among the complications in deserts where more than 150 solar applications have been submitted for hot spots in Nevada, California, and Arizona, plus a few in New Mexico.

Companies are wrestling with routes for long-distance transmission lines and habitat for the threatened desert tortoise. They also are worried about a proposal being developed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for a Mojave national monument, which could put up to 600,000 acres off-limits alongside already protected park and military lands. It could affect at least 14 solar and five wind energy proposals.

The Spanish-owned energy company, Iberdrola, has submitted 12 applications in four states. Its solar managing director, Kim Fiske, said her company is planning to use photovoltaic technology in Amargosa Valley but elsewhere will evaluate each site's feasibility for water. Photovoltaic systems use conducting material to convert sunlight directly to electricity and need only nominal amounts of water to wash their solar panels, compared with the traditional steam-turbine solar that uses much larger volumes of water for cooling towers.

"Water usage is becoming the larger issue. Some companies still want wet cooling and say it's less efficient to do dry cooling, and they need 10 percent more land to get the same output," said Peter Weiner, an attorney representing solar companies. Some are exploring hybrid systems that use water during the hottest part of the day.

Plans in flux

The government won't say how much water would be needed by applicants because those proposals are still in flux. But National Park Service hydrologists last fall tallied more than 50,000 acre feet per year — nearly 16.3 billion gallons — proposed by applications in Amargosa Valley alone, or enough to supply more than 50,000 typical American homes. Nevada previously said the basin could support only half that. Since then, some companies have dropped out or switched to photovoltaics, making that estimate of 16.3 billion gallons outdated.

Nevada's policy and legal mandates restrict water in the driest areas. California regulators warn that wet-cooled projects face an uphill climb. The two under review there so far on government land use minimal water. First up is Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy's five-square mile, air-cooled, mirror complex near the Mojave National Preserve.

In Arizona, most solar proposals are away from populous areas with the most water restrictions.

Water is "a hot button for everybody," said Fiske. "Everyone is concerned about water. It's probably one of the biggest issues."

April 17, 2009

Wildflowers blooming at higher Desert elevations

Victor Valley Daily Press

There’s one way to tell when spring arrives in the desert: Look for the wildflowers.

Experts say wildflowers are currently blooming at higher elevations throughout the Mojave Desert and wider areas of California, while lower elevations may have already past their seasonal peak.

Visitors to the Mojave National Preserve will see desert dandelions blooming the most, near Kelbakker and Cima roads, says Linda Slater, chief of resource interpretation at the preserve.

Slater said she has not seen any budding Joshua trees yet.

Officials from the Bureau of Land Management say the wildflower season generally begins with an early spring in desert regions throughout Southern California, working its way northward. Weather plays a big part in determining when the season begins, and can also dictate the abundance of the flowers.

By the time May arrives, the brilliant yellow, orange, pink, red, white, and blue carpets of wildflowers in the lower desert will begin to fade due to the increasing heat of the advancing Mojave summer, according to officials from the Barstow BLM office.

Many other species of wildflowers may also be visible in portions of the preserve, said Lesley Thornburg, operations manager for Cadiz Inc., a land and water resource development company based in Los Angeles. Observers can expect to see lupine, cecilia, desert chicories, cacti, daisies, pincushions, Mojave asters, wild rhubarb, purple mat and fiddleneck, among others.

While 2009 wasn’t the best season for wildflowers locally, enthusiasts might consider the following locations:

• Summit Valley Road, south of Hesperia

• South Apple Valley, along Bowen Ranch Road and Roundup Way.

• Kramer Junction, Highway 395 near Highway 58

Call off the fight

Counties should accept court ruling

Salt Lake Tribune

It's time for Kane and Garfield counties to quit wasting Utah taxpayers' money chasing a court ruling they have been repeatedly denied.

Kane County argued before U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins in 2007 that the federal Bureau of Land Management should recognize what the county called "valid existing rights" to roadways within the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

Jenkins ruled that county officials had not proven the rights of way under state law and the BLM is not required or authorized to recognize county road claims.

Last year U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell told Kane County it had no authority to remove BLM signs limiting motorized vehicles on roads the county claims in the monument. Now a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals has affirmed Jenkins' ruling in an appeal brought by the counties against the U.S. Department of Interior and the BLM.

The counties have said they have valid claims to the rights of way under a 2005 federal judge's ruling that made state law the standard for deciding ownership of roads on federal land. But state law dictates that each and every road claimed under RS2477, the Civil War-era mining law that gave local governments the right to build roads over federal lands, must be proven in court.

When RS2477 was repealed in 1976, the repeal contained a grandfather clause protecting "existing rights of way." Utah law requires proof of "continuous use and maintenance" for 10 years prior to 1976 on each road claim.

Kane and Garfield want to sidestep the requirement by forcing the BLM to recognize their claims. But their repeated unsuccessful attempts to get the courts to agree, financed by taxpayer money, have got to stop.

What the courts are saying is really not that hard to understand: Local governments and people in Jeeps and all-terrain vehicles don't have an unfettered right to use public land any way they choose. And they can't get away with misinterpreting the law to claim access to public lands that belong to every American, not only those who happen to live nearby.

The BLM has a mandate to protect the public's lands while allowing people to use it for a variety of purposes. The national monument is protected because of its scenic, recreational and archaeological value. Access to the land must be limited in order to maintain those values.

Roads with longtime value to local residents for transportation can be "grandfathered in," but only by a court.

April 15, 2009

Southern California water agency to cut supplies by 10%

It is the first time such action has been taken since the early 1990s drought. Statewide water conditions remain below average for the third consecutive year, officials say.

By Bettina Boxall
Los Angeles Times

Canal on a farm near El Centro.

The board of Southern California's major water wholesaler voted Tuesday to effectively cut water deliveries across the region by 10% this summer.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has warned for months that the state's drought and environmentally driven cutbacks in water shipments from Northern California would leave demand higher than the supply.

"We're short," said Jeffrey Kightlinger, the water district's general manager.

The cuts are the agency's first since the early 1990s drought.

The Metropolitan Water District, which imports water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta and the Colorado River and sells it to local water districts, will achieve the reductions by imposing penalty rates. Local utilities that use more than their allocation will have to pay more.

In anticipation, Los Angeles is poised to adopt conservation rates aimed at getting residents to reduce their water use by 15%.

Statewide water conditions have improved in recent months but they remain below average for the third consecutive year.

Total storage in the Colorado River basin is also slightly better than last year. But a persistent drought in the basin has left the river's reservoirs at 54% of overall capacity. Lake Mead, which supplies Southern California, is 46% full, although it will get more water from upstream Lake Powell as the season progresses.

Last year, the Metropolitan Water District cut supplies to agricultural customers and it has suspended regional groundwater replenishment. All told, agency officials said they will deliver roughly 20% less water than three years ago.

The reduced deliveries have meant less sales revenue for the agency, which is also facing rising costs.

As a result, the agency will hike its prices by nearly 20% in September -- in addition to the penalty rates. The increase comes on top of a roughly 14% rate increase last year.

County plans to pipe water into Pioneertown

Yucca Valley district may supply neighbors

By Jimmy Biggerstaff
Hi-Desert Star

Project areas of two proposed pipelines to bring water to Pioneertown.

PIONEERTOWN — The environmental impacts of a proposal to supply water to this community’s 114 water customers was discussed at a Pioneertown Property Owners Association meeting at the church on Mane Street April 7.

Guest speaker Jim Oravets, San Bernardino County engineering manager, began his presentation by outlining the well-known challenges this community has with its water supply.

There are two, Oravets explained: quality and quantity.

Of eight existing wells, two are unusable, one has very high arsenic and fluoride levels and the remainder exceed the maximum contaminate level for arsenic or uranium.

Additionally, there is an insufficient supply to serve the town. Regulations require that the county provide the maximum day demand with the largest production well out of service.

The maximum capacity of wells here is 28,000 gallons per day, with a required maximum day demand of 35,000 gallons per day. However, well pumps turn off after two to three hours.

No new water meters have been sold here for a decade. New homes either drill their own wells, which further depletes the scant, poor municipal supply, or purchase hauled water.

The county is required by law to provide water for its residents. Herein lies the challenge — where to lay the pipeline and from where to import the water?

Three options have been explored:

  • Run a pipeline up Pioneertown Road and pump in Hi-Desert Water District water;

  • Run a pipeline across Skyline Ranch Road and use water from the Reche Basin in Landers; or

  • Sink a well in the Pipes Canyon Wildlands Conservancy property.
A fourth option generally considered infeasible is to treat the existing supply with in-home, under-the-counter filtration systems.

Regarding drilling in the Pipes Canyon Preserve, Oravits said, “There were some differences that could not be resolved and the offer was taken off the table.”

Skyline is favored

The county advocates the Skyline Ranch pipeline and pump station, which staff says entails putting down about three miles of line and would produce a projected 100 gallons per minute of water imported from Landers.

According to Oravets, most comments sent to the county supported this option.

Officials are seeking grant money for the project, which will comply with California Environmental Quality Act requirements. Herein lay a rub with residents vis-à-vis the county.

Oravets figuratively tip-toed through several common questions posed about environmental concerns:

  • Will Skyline Ranch Road remain open during pipeline installation?

  • Are easements required? [Yes, or condemnation by eminent domain.]

  • Will this open up Skyline Ranch area to development? [No.]

  • Does the project give Hi-Desert Water District 200 gallons per minute to get Pioneertown residents 100 gallons per minute? [The additional capacity is for emergencies.]

  • Will the water be drinkable? [Yes.]

  • Will Hi-Desert Water District control Pioneertown’s water supply? [Pioneertown would contract with HDWD to provide water.]
The water will be drinkable, Oravits said, eliciting murmurs of approval from the audience.

The county also supports a proposal for recharging State Water Project water into Pipes Wash, a project deemed by some officials as necessary to export water from the Reche Subbasin to supply drinking water to Pioneertown.

“Our basic issue is exportation of water out of Reche Subbasin violates state law,” Marina West, general manager of Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency, said after the meeting.

April 13, 2009

Court denies Utah counties' monument road claims

Counties sued over water rights and road access

By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune

Kane and Garfield have lost another round in their years-long court fight for more road and water access in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday upheld an earlier ruling that the Kane County Water Conservancy District, which is seeking to drill a culinary well within the monument, doesn't yet have a case.

In their 32-page ruling, the judges said that because the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which crafted the management plan for the monument's 1.9 million acres, hasn't completed an environmental analysis on Kane's request to drill the well in Johnson Canyon, the county cannot show it has been harmed.

Kane County, the Kane County Water Conservancy District and Garfield County sued the Interior Department and the BLM to challenge the monument plan on both road and water-right access.

Mike Noel, executive director of the water district and Kane's representative to the Utah House, said the monument plan allows water rights of way only under certain circumstances that make it difficult for his water district to tap its water right, whose headwaters are within the monument boundaries.

The proposed well site is on land proposed for wilderness study, which the BLM already has identified as having wilderness-quality resources.

Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski warned that riparian areas on the monument could be jeopardized if Kane County is allowed to siphon the water.

Earthjustice is representing the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Alliance as interveners in the lawsuit against Interior.

Kane's water district wants to drill a new well on federal land, Noel said, because too many ranches in the narrow canyon have septic systems that could contaminate a water line laid on private property.

The Denver appeals panel also upheld a lower-court ruling that counties seeking ownership of certain roads across federal land must take their claims to federal court, road by road.

This marks another time a federal court has responded the same way to lawsuits over road claims filed under a Civil War-era law, called Revised Statute 2477, that Congress abolished in 1976.

BLM spokesman Larry Crutchfield said nearly 1,000 miles of roads and trails are open to motorized access within the Grand Staircase -- with about 600 miles open to off-highway-vehicle recreation.

April 12, 2009

Eldorado Canyon Mine Tours, where they first went to strike gold

The gold mine was active from 1861 to 1941. Now, it attracts about 10,000 people each year.

By Jay Jones
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Nelson, Nev. - Long before Las Vegas was incorporated in 1905 -- and even longer before the arrival of casinos -- the desolate, inhospitable and therefore unsettled desert of southern Nevada was known for just one thing: its mineral-rich rock. The land is pockmarked with the remains of old gold and silver mines, most of which petered out almost as quickly as they were dug.

The Techatticup mining camp was one of the exceptions, a place where men "chased the vein" for more than 80 years. From 1861 until the start of World War II, men toiled underground in Eldorado Canyon near the hamlet of Nelson, about 40 miles southeast of what's now the Vegas Strip.

Having operated a canoe rental business along the nearby Colorado River for many years, Tony Werly was looking for a fixer-upper -- a place where he could one day retire -- when he and his wife, Bobbie, bought the dilapidated remains of the Techatticup encampment in 1994.

"Everything had fallen apart. There were no doors or windows," Bobbie recalls, adding that the only residents of the ramshackle, trash-strewn buildings were mice and pack rats.

While exploring the 51-acre property, Tony struck his own pay dirt. Two days before closing escrow, he discovered a long-obscured mine entrance, hidden behind mud and rock.

It took the Werlys and their children five years to clear away the muck and to restore the old buildings. Their labors brought the old mine site back to life, creating an unusual tourist attraction. Here, adults and children can enjoy a tour of an actual gold mine and explore the lovingly renovated buildings.

Bill Ferrence, a visitor from nearby Boulder City, Nev., likes that the attraction -- known officially as Eldorado Canyon Mine Tours -- isn't overdeveloped. Folks in search of a burger and fries will have to look elsewhere; all that's sold here are soda and bags of chips.

"It doesn't appear that they're trying to make a living doing what they're doing. They do, but they don't appear that way," Ferrence says of the business, which attracts about 10,000 visitors a year.

Bobbie Werly gives a tour to seventh-graders visiting on a field trip, beginning with a talk about the area's history before leading the kids inside the mountain.

"Everywhere that you'll see has been hand-drilled and totally done by candlelight," she explains. In the early years -- before dynamite reached these parts -- miners using hand tools could chip away only about 3 feet of rock a day.

The ore was turned into gold bars in the camp's smelter and then hauled to the Colorado River to be moved downstream to Yuma, Ariz., and then on to San Francisco by way of the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean.

"This was Nevada's only ocean port," Bobbie says of the period before the construction of several dams ended steamboat traffic on the river.

That, however, isn't nearly as intriguing to most of the students as the fact that Beyoncé did a photo shoot here a few months ago. Jaws drop and eyes widen as they're shown the issue of Cosmopolitan in which the pictures appeared.

Bobbie also shows visitors clips from several of the movies filmed here. They include "3000 Miles to Graceland" and "Breakdown." The place has also provided the backdrop for music videos.

Many visitors -- especially youngsters -- experience a chill once inside the mine, a sensation that has nothing to do with the drop in temperature. They're told about the ghost that haunted the miners.

Tony, who has extensively researched the mine's history, shares that the ghost is apparently that of R.B. Jones, an outlaw who shot a foreman at the mine before being hunted down and killed.

"He would come up and walk beside the miners in there," he explains. "It freaked them out.

"When we take Boy Scouts in there, they'll tell you they're not afraid of the dark, but they won't be the first one down the tunnel," Tony adds, with a chuckle.

He explains that the mine owed its longevity not to the huge amounts of gold inside, but to its remote location, which kept the number of willing workers low.

"They only had maybe 40 men down here at a time. The nearest town was 200 miles away," he says. "Not even a killing was a good enough reason to bring the sheriff out here from Pioche [Nev.], 'cause it's a one-week horse ride."

America's entry into World War II in 1941 brought a shift in national priorities and an end to production in Eldorado Canyon.

But, Tony notes, there still is gold in them there hills. "There's $1 million worth of gold in there," he says. "But it'll cost $2 million to get it out.

"[The price of gold] is going to have to go up a lot more to beat the tourism," he says.

April 11, 2009

Town files for mesa annexation

by Rebecca Unger
Hi-Desert Star

The proposed Yucca Mesa annexation area is shown in dark green. The current northern Yucca Vally town boundary is shown in light green.

YUCCA MESA — Tensions have been running high for months in the unincorporated community of Yucca Mesa, as some folks brace for what they call a takeover by their neighbor to the south, the Town of Yucca Valley.

On March 30, the Town filed an application with the county Local Agency Formation Commission to expand its sphere of influence to shadow that of the Hi-Desert Water District.

It was the formal move toward annexation that Yucca Mesa residents have been bracing for for months.

The annexation would place 14,348 acres of the mesa into the Town’s sphere of influence in a boundary extending east to Sunny Vista Road in the unincorporated area more associated with Joshua Tree.

Andy Takata, Yucca Valley’s town manager, reminded the citizens of the mesa that physical annexation into Yucca Valley is ultimately up to them. Should things ever progress that far, Yucca Mesa would have to vote to approve the annexation.

“It could make sense in 20 years,” observed Takata, reaffirming the expense of taking on the service needs of the mesa, “but fiscally, it doesn’t make sense right now.”

Kathleen Rollings-McDonald is the executive director of LAFCO, and confirmed this week that the wheels of municipal review grind slowly.

“We don’t expect a hearing anytime before the next four months,” she said.

A Yucca Valley review last August figured the annexation would add approximately 1,148 households in the mesa to the Town Council’s sphere of influence.

According to the county, adding an area into a sphere of influence indicates a government plans at some point in the future to fully annex that area into its boundaries.

The annexation of the mesa would represent a 14.2 percent increase in Yucca Valley’s population and a 56.3 percent increase in land area.

Suggestion began with fire study

The sphere of influence annexation process started in August of 2005 when San Bernardino County sought to consolidate some fire districts and sent that request to the Local Agency Formation Commission. LAFCO recommended that the Yucca Valley Fire Protection District included expansion.

At the same time, the commission recommended the Town of Yucca Valley annex Yucca Mesa, which is in the Yucca Valley fire district, into the Town sphere of influence.

When mesa residents first got wind of the plan last August, the Yucca Mesa Improvement Association sent Jim Sammons to the Town Council. To many on the mesa, the initial process signaled intent by Yucca Valley to physically annex the area.

“We don’t want to be involved with the Town if we can help it,” said Sammons.

“I’m not sure Yucca Valley wants Yucca Mesa,” Councilman Chad Mayes said in humor. Mayes was referring to findings that the Town would have to pony up about $600,000 a year to take over services for the mesa that are currently provided by the county.

Mayes made it a point to go on record with Yucca Valley’s position: “We don’t see annexation in the near future.”

However, the independent firm that studied annexation for the Town was “unequivocal” in its assessment that the Town could extend and improve the level and quality of municipal services to the mesa.

The review envisioned the creation of a district to collect special assessments and maintain roads.

‘We don’t want to be destroyed’

Since the council meeting of Aug. 28, the citizens of the mesa have mobilized.

During the November elections, petitions against the annexation were available for signature at Yucca Mesa’s polling site, and thanks to that and other petition events, the signature count is now up to 2,200.

Their impassioned protests for independence have reached a broad audience, garnering support from fellow Homestead Valley Community Council members from Flamingo Heights, Landers and Johnson Valley. They’ve also shared their concerns with the Morongo Basin Conservation Association.

Elizabeth Karman is the new voice for the recently formed Stop Yucca Mesa Annexation Coalition.

“It feels like a train is about to run over us,” stated Karman. “They’re trying to do this very sneaky. They think we’re stupid and they can just take us over. We’re not stupid, we’re hard-working people, and we don’t want to be destroyed by Yucca Valley.”

The coalition’s fears, as articulated on its Web site, are that LAFCO may require the Town to pre-zone the sphere of influence area, “which could include industrialization and tract homes on small lots.”

The nightmare scenario continues with paving over of dirt roads and mandatory sewer connections “at the residents’ expense,” bright street lights, signs and traffic signals polluting the dark skies, and a prohibition against keeping horses and other ranch animals.

April 9, 2009

Solving Congress

Remember the days when our elected representatives to Congress would attempt to accomplish something by actually introducing a bill, debating it, and voting on it?

By Bill Schneider
New West

I confess to having an old-fashioned view of how our senators and representatives should serve us. It goes something like this: They listen to the concerns of their constituents, decide to introduce a bill to address those concerns, have hearings and debate the issue in a fair and open forum, and then vote on it.

Think now. When is the last time you’ve seen Congress do that? You probably can’t remember any such success in recent history because, well, they don’t do that any more.

Nowadays, all Congress does earmarks and riders that often end in massive compilations like the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, both a hundred or more bills that should’ve been introduced, debated, and voted on individually in the light of day, all piled up as a thousand or more pages of head-scratching legalese that no member of Congress even reads before voting on it.

Is this the only way we can get anything done?

A lobbyist friend compared our current system to sausage making, but I’d almost rather let my grandkids watch sausages being made let their civics teachers tell them the bald truth about how laws are made.

If a senator or representative agrees with constituents that we need a new project or program, does he or she introduce a bill get it done? Hardly. Instead, our elected representatives instinctively and immediately start thinking earmark and how they can work the power structure of Congress to get their earmark tacked onto must-pass legislation.

Once passed, politicos rush to the media to brag about it, but they don’t boast about how they did it.

Instead, they say, “the omnibus bill contained funding for the museum or airport or water treatment plant.” We used to call that “bringing home the pork.” Now, we call it “earmarking,” which has insidiously become an incurable addiction.

President Obama promised repeatedly during his campaign to put an end to making law with earmarks and riders, but he praised and signed the public lands and stimulus bills, which were little more than colossal collections of riders and earmarks.

Most maddening, perhaps, is Congress tacking major legislation impacting millions of people onto must-pass bills as a rider and sneaking it into the law books with no debate or daylight, let alone a recordable vote. I’ve written extensively about my least favorite rider of them all, the Federal Lands Recreational Enhancement Act of 2004. Thanks to the Bush administration’s engrained goal of commercializing and privatizing public lands, Congress secretly gave us a runaway escalation of recreational fees to access and use the land we own.

Another excellent recent example is the so-called “wolf kill bill.” Both its sponsors, Senators John Barrasso (R-WY) and Jon Tester (D-MT), are out there beating their chests about getting it “passed,” but no talk of how it magically appeared in the public lands omnibus bill--no fanfare, no local hearings, no press releases about what our senators were doing, no chance for constituents to support or oppose it. Yet, suddenly, it’s the law of the land.

The wolf bill is probably a good idea that enjoys support from both sides of the issue. In addition to providing more reliable compensation for losses livestock producers suffer from wolf depredation, it encourages ranchers to take preventive actions to reduce future losses, both livestock and wolves. And the cost is barely enough to light five cigars back in the Beltway--a mere million bucks per year for five years.

Even with such a bill, one with strong support, we can’t do it right? I talked to one lobbyist who spent years working on the public lands legislation, and he didn’t even know the wolf compensation rider was in the bill. Ditto, I suspect, for many members of Congress who voted for it.

Riders aren’t insignificant add-ons; they’re real laws that affect a lot of people and require proper procedure and visibility. Earmarks should be part of the budget process or introduced as spending bills and given fair hearings, debates and votes.

I’ve heard the counterargument. There’s so much for Congress to do and it takes so long to do it that we need the earmarks and riders to accomplish anything, but I don’t buy it. Instead, it seems politicians prefer the new way because it helps keep all but political insiders in the dark.

Clearly, Congress loves earmarks and riders, and it’s easy to see why.

  • Earmarks help incumbents get re-elected by pumping pork into their states and districts.

  • Packing hundreds of earmarks and riders from many congressional districts into one omnibus bill gives more senators and reps something for their constituents. As the omnibus grows, the “yea” vote count grows. Otherwise a senator in Oregon has little incentive to vote for a wilderness in Virginia or vice versa. The omnibus approach locks up both votes by designating a new wilderness in both states. Consequently, the process greases the skids to the White House.

  • Our elected officials and lobbyists can partake in the earmark/rider process in the twilight without hearings, unhappy constituents, and pesky reporters asking questions and writing their own articles instead of using releases from congressional press offices. (Just in case you haven’t noticed, politicians expertly orchestrate news on their activities.)
But at least it’s our best example of bipartisanship. Both parties are equally guilty and addicted, and both on the hook for the skyrocketing deficits they’re unloading on our children and grandchildren.

But alas, there has been progress. For decades, the whole earmarking process was nearly invisible, but no more. People are noticing. It’s a common campaign issue. Congress has even approved new policy that requires senators and representatives to publicly declare earmarks they request. For decades, they didn’t even make this information public!

Dennis Rehberg (R-MT) just did this, in fact, announcing a list of 335 requested earmarks with a price tag of more than $1 billion, down from $1.5 billion he wanted last year when he didn’t have to make it public. Will this public spotlight lesson our zeal for earmarks? Perhaps. More and more politicians now condemn earmarks as the cause of wasteful spending. Witness Walt Minnick’s (D-ID) recent declaration that he wouldn’t request any earmarks, even for pet Idaho projects.

(Guess this proves earmarking is not a partisan issue. Our local “conservative” Republican wants all this pork and “liberal spending” and our local Democrat comes out against all earmarks.)

Politicos could push back and say it’s a cop-out for writers to criticize them. After all, they automatically and voluntarily become targets, deserved or not, the minute they announce their candidacy. And they might have a point. Are we the real culprits? We love our pork, don’t we? We don’t care if it’s an earmark as long as we get our new road, bridge, building, right?

So, will it ever change? I hope so. But realistically, I suppose the mess we’ve created is so huge and entrenched and popular with the power-hungry people we elect that it has become too big of a problem to solve.

April 8, 2009

Constitutional Clash Over Defunct Land Exchange

Major Religious Establishment Case Rooted in Moot Mojave Cross Deal

Press Release
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)

WASHINGTON - In a potentially far-reaching Establishment Clause case, the U.S. Supreme Court will examine a congressionally-mandated one-acre land exchange to an entity that no longer exists in order to maintain a large cross in the middle of a national park. The case, Buono v Salazar, illustrates that abusive federal land exchange practices may yield even worse constitutional law, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Western Lands Project.

The nearly eight-year case involves attempts by the Bush administration to prevent court-ordered removal of an-eight foot cross from the Mojave National Preserve. In 2003, after losing an appeal of a court-ordered removal of the cross, the Bush administration supported a rider by Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), tacked onto the Defense appropriations bill, to trade the one federal acre with the Mojave Cross into private hands. The private party named by the rider is the Barstow chapter of the "Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post #385E". But that VFW Post's charter was revoked in May 2007 and declared "defunct" by the organization.

Nonetheless, the Bush Justice Department persisted in bringing the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, which accepted the case for its fall docket. The Justice Department is seeking to reverse U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court rulings that the land exchange was "a sham" and a transparent "attempt by the government to evade the permanent injunction enjoining the display of the Latin cross" on federal land.

"This land exchange is both bad policy and bad law," stated Chris Krupp, staff attorney for the Western Lands Project, which monitors federal land trades and other public land practices. "We would hope the Obama administration takes a step back to see whether the public interest is served by pursuing this case."

The Mojave Cross is but one of a series of instances in which the Bush administration supported displays of Christian symbols (such as bronze plaques of Bible verses) or materials (for example, a creationist book claiming that the Grand Canyon was the product of Noah's Flood 6,000 years ago) inside national parks.

"Not another penny of taxpayer money should be spent pursuing former Attorney General John Ashcroft's fundamentalist agenda," said PEER Executive Jeff Ruch, whose organization calls these Bush-backed religious efforts "Faith-Based Parks". "The underlying land exchange is a nullity and should not be the basis for this Supreme Court tipping the scales on separation of church and state."

Since a federal district court first ordered the removal of the Mojave Cross back in 2002, the cross has been covered by a shroud. In the ensuing years, the removal has been upheld in an unbroken string of decisions and appeals.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

April 7, 2009

Public Land Mismanagement

Environmental, fiscal and economic irresponsibility in the name of protection.

Terry L. Anderson and Reed Watson


"This legislation guarantees that we will not take our forests, rivers, oceans, national parks, monuments and wilderness areas for granted, but rather we will set them aside and guard their sanctity for everyone to share. That's something all Americans can support."

Those were the words of President Barack Obama on March 30 when he signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act that placed an additional 2 million acres of public land under the federal government's most stringent use restrictions. To anyone who knows the record of public land management, however, these words of preservation and unanimous support ring hollow.

If we used a measure like our stock indexes as a public land management barometer, it would be lower than the Dow Jones. Consider three measures of public land stewardship.

Environmental Irresponsibility--Decades of fire suppression by the Forest Service have disrupted natural fire cycles and turned many western forests into tinderboxes waiting to burn. Dense stands of spindly deadfall and underbrush now occupy land once characterized by open savannahs and large, widely spaced trees. One result is larger, more intense fires that burn the publicly owned forests to the ground. Indeed, by the Forest Service's own estimates, 90 to 200 million acres of federal forests are at high risk of burning in catastrophic fire events. Bans on thinning and salvage harvesting have not only exacerbated the fire danger in public forests but it has also left them more susceptible to disease, insects and high winds. Not only do the fires put enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, the fact that the forests are dead or dying means that they are not sequestering carbon, as healthy ones do.

Fiscal Irresponsibility--What makes the ecological mismanagement of federal lands even more difficult to swallow is the price tag that comes with it. Every year, U.S. taxpayers spend billions of dollars on public land management, but the way in which these funds are allocated--through the congressional budgeting process--ensures the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service respond to the will of politicians.

The result is what has been called "park barrel politics," which persists while the National Park Service maintains an estimated $9 billion backlog of construction and maintenance projects. Lest you think financial mismanagement is confined to the Park Service, consider that between 2006 and 2008 the Forest Service lost on average $3.58 billion each year. Similarly, the Government Accountability Office testified in Congress that in 2004 the BLM earned approximately $12 million in grazing revenues but spent $58 million implementing its grazing program.

Economic Irresponsibility--Environmental and fiscal mismanagement of federal lands may be obvious, but the economic effects of federal land mismanagement are subtler. Consider the debate over drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Economist Matthew Kotchen, University of California, Santa Barbara, offers an interesting thought experiment: What if environmentalists owned ANWR's oil? Kotchen theorized a surprising result might occur if the environmentalists could use the estimated $1.08 trillion in revenues ($921 billion after subtracting estimated costs of finding, developing, producing and transporting the oil) to address climate change. But since environmentalists do not own the oil under ANWR, the asset will likely remain underground.

In her new book, Who is Minding the Federal Estate?, Holly Fretwell describes additional economic consequences of shifting from active to passive public lands management: "Local communities suffer from lost jobs and business activity as sawmills close down" while "the nation's taxpayers lose revenues from their natural assets."

Is this new law likely to make a difference in terms of the environmental, fiscal or economic performance of federal land managers? "No" is the simple answer because the law does not change the underlying structure of federal land management or the incentives land managers face. Putting another 2 million acres into wilderness, the strictest non-use designation only adds those to the more than 100 million wilderness acres in the "unmanaged" category and turns a potential asset into a liability.

Establishing the 26-million-acre National Landscape Conservation System will only add more red ink to the BLM's hemorrhaging budget. Fretwell notes that less money is available to maintain federal lands as the percentage of wilderness land increases. This is partly due to the fact that wilderness designation results in more litigation than productivity. For example, as wilderness and endangered species issues forced the Forest Service to reduce timber harvests in Washington and Oregon from more than 6 billion board feet in the late 1980s to one-tenth that amount in 2006, its cost of offering 1,000 board feet of lumber for sale increased to $182 from $53. Jack Ward Thomas, President Bill Clinton's chief of the forest service, says litigation has tied land management agencies in a giant "Gordian knot," one which the legislation just signed by the president is likely to pull tighter.

If Obama wants to craft land use policy that "all Americans can support" and afford, he should make land and water management less subject to politics and more to economics. Given that the federal estate is worth trillions of dollars, Obama should make land management agencies turn a profit. States do this with their school trust lands, earning $5.62 for every dollar spent compared to an average of $0.76 for every dollar spent on national forests. Similarly, a forthcoming study from the Property and Environment Research Center shows that forest management on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana earns $2.04 for every dollar spent compared to $1.11 on the Lolo National Forest, one of the few "profitable" ones. We should be better stewards of our land and water, and we can be without it adding to a burgeoning federal debt.

Terry Anderson is the John and Jean DeNault Senior Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and executive director of the Property and Environment Research Center, Bozeman, MT, where Reed Watson is director of applied programs.

We must stop collaborating with environmentalists


Idaho Statesman

Land ownership was the compelling force that brought people to America in the first place, and the first purpose of the founding fathers was to protect the "unalienable rights" of an individual to own and control the use of private property.

The 1873 Timber Culture Act and the 1877 Desert Land Law both provided for free transfer of government land to private ownership. For the first 150 years, the objective of American land policy clearly was to get government land into private ownership. However, the distribution of government land to private ownership ended with the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act. Subsequently, radical environmentalists were the driving force behind the 1964 Wilderness Act. In 1976, The Federal Land Policy and Management Act officially set "public domain" lands in concrete. Since the '70s, federal land policy has shifted 180 degrees, making free enterprise and private property rights an obstacle to be overcome rather than a value to be protected.

Enter the massive 2009 omnibus public lands bill just passed by Congress. The Owyhee Canyonlands portion designates a whopping 517,000 acres of new Idaho wilderness and releases a paltry 199,000 acres of wilderness study areas. It also places 316 miles of Idaho rivers under federal control in a state already 63 percent federally owned. Why not just give Idaho back to the federal government and get it over with?

Idaho is a natural resource state, not a tourist mecca or a federal preserve. Idaho's congressionals should concentrate their efforts on restoring Idaho's natural resource industries, and stop "collaborating" with the environmental pantheists who destroyed Idaho's rural economy.

While the Idaho delegation, the environmentalists and the media are exchanging high fives over their latest wilderness victory, attention needs to be drawn to federal legislation known as the Clean Water Restoration Act, which in all likelihood will resurface in the new congressional session.

It will give the United States "all water subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, the territorial seas, and all interstate and intrastate waters and their tributaries, including lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams) mud flats, sand flats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, natural ponds ..." and the rainwater your grandma used to save in a wooden barrel.

Who knows? If this legislation moves forward, at least grandma's rain barrel might survive the takeover with a little collaboration, consensus and compromise!

Lenore Hardy Barrett, a Challis Republican, is an Idaho House member.

April 5, 2009

The Road to Area 51

After decades of denying the facility's existence, five former insiders speak out

Built in Burbank, the OXCART needed cumbersome transport to Area 51, with road signs removed, road banks leveled, and trees removed.

Los Angeles Times Magazine

Area 51. It's the most famous military institution in the world that doesn't officially exist. If it did, it would be found about 100 miles outside Las Vegas in Nevada's high desert, tucked between an Air Force base and an abandoned nuclear testing ground. Then again, maybe not— the U.S. government refuses to say. You can't drive anywhere close to it, and until recently, the airspace overhead was restricted—all the way to outer space. Any mention of Area 51 gets redacted from official documents, even those that have been declassified for decades.

It has become the holy grail for conspiracy theorists, with UFOlogists positing that the Pentagon reverse engineers flying saucers and keeps extraterrestrial beings stored in freezers. Urban legend has it that Area 51 is connected by underground tunnels and trains to other secret facilities around the country. In 2001, Katie Couric told Today Show audiences that 7 percent of Americans doubt the moon landing happened—that it was staged in the Nevada desert. Millions of X-Files fans believe the truth may be "out there," but more likely it's concealed inside Area 51's Strangelove-esque hangars—buildings that, though confirmed by Google Earth, the government refuses to acknowledge.

The problem is the myths of Area 51 are hard to dispute if no one can speak on the record about what actually happened there. Well, now, for the first time, someone is ready to talk—in fact, five men are, and their stories rival the most outrageous of rumors. Colonel Hugh "Slip" Slater, 87, was commander of the Area 51 base in the 1960s. Edward Lovick, 90, featured in "What Plane?" in LA's March issue, spent three decades radar testing some of the world's most famous aircraft (including the U-2, the A-12 OXCART and the F-117). Kenneth Collins, 80, a CIA experimental test pilot, was given the silver star. Thornton "T.D." Barnes, 72, was an Area 51 special-projects engineer. And Harry Martin, 77, was one of the men in charge of the base's half-million-gallon monthly supply of spy-plane fuels. Here are a few of their best stories—for the record:

On May 24, 1963, Collins flew out of Area 51's restricted airspace in a top-secret spy plane code-named OXCART, built by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. He was flying over Utah when the aircraft pitched, flipped and headed toward a crash. He ejected into a field of weeds.

Almost 46 years later, in late fall of 2008, sitting in a coffee shop in the San Fernando Valley, Collins remembers that day with the kind of clarity the threat of a national security breach evokes: "Three guys came driving toward me in a pickup. I saw they had the aircraft canopy in the back. They offered to take me to my plane." Until that moment, no civilian without a top-secret security clearance had ever laid eyes on the airplane Collins was flying. "I told them not to go near the aircraft. I said it had a nuclear weapon on-board." The story fit right into the Cold War backdrop of the day, as many atomic tests took place in Nevada. Spooked, the men drove Collins to the local highway patrol. The CIA disguised the accident as involving a generic Air Force plane, the F-105, which is how the event is still listed in official records.

As for the guys who picked him up, they were tracked down and told to sign national security nondisclosures. As part of Collins' own debriefing, the CIA asked the decorated pilot to take truth serum. "They wanted to see if there was anything I'd for-gotten about the events leading up to the crash." The Sodium Pento-thal experience went without a hitch—except for the reaction of his wife, Jane.

"Late Sunday, three CIA agents brought me home. One drove my car; the other two carried me inside and laid me down on the couch. I was loopy from the drugs. They handed Jane the car keys and left without saying a word." The only conclusion she could draw was that her husband had gone out and gotten drunk. "Boy, was she mad," says Collins with a chuckle.

At the time of Collins' accident, CIA pilots had been flying spy planes in and out of Area 51 for eight years, with the express mission of providing the intelligence to prevent nuclear war. Aerial reconnaissance was a major part of the CIA's preemptive efforts, while the rest of America built bomb shelters and hoped for the best.

"It wasn't always called Area 51," says Lovick, the physicist who developed stealth technology. His boss, legendary aircraft designer Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson, called the place Paradise Ranch to entice men to leave their families and "rough it" out in the Nevada desert in the name of science and the fight against the evil empire. "Test pilot Tony LeVier found the place by flying over it," says Lovick. "It was a lake bed called Groom Lake, selected for testing because it was flat and far from anything. It was kept secret because the CIA tested U-2s there."

When Frances Gary Powers was shot down over Sverdlovsk, Russia, in 1960, the U-2 program lost its cover. But the CIA already had Lovick and some 200 scientists, engineers and pilots working at Area 51 on the A-12 OXCART, which would outfox Soviet radar using height, stealth and speed.

Col. Slater was in the outfit of six pilots who flew OXCART missions during the Vietnam War. Over a Cuban meat and cheese sandwich at the Bahama Breeze restaurant off the Las Vegas Strip, he says, "I was recruited for the Area after working with the CIA's classified Black Cat Squadron, which flew U-2 missions over denied territory in Mainland China. After that, I was told, 'You should come out to Nevada and work on something interesting we're doing out there.' "

Even though Slater considers himself a fighter pilot at heart—he flew 84 missions in World War II—the opportunity to work at Area 51 was impossible to pass up. "When I learned about this Mach-3 aircraft called OXCART, it was completely intriguing to me—this idea of flying three times the speed of sound! No one knew a thing about the program. I asked my wife, Barbara, if she wanted to move to Las Vegas, and she said yes. And I said, 'You won't see me but on the weekends,' and she said, 'That's fine!' " At this recollection, Slater laughs heartily. Barbara, dining with us, laughs as well. The two, married for 63 years, are rarely apart today.

"We couldn't have told you any of this a year ago," Slater says. "Now we can't tell it to you fast enough." That is because in 2007, the CIA began declassifying the 50-year-old OXCART program. Today, there's a scramble for eyewitnesses to fill in the information gaps. Only a few of the original players are left. Two more of them join me and the Slaters for lunch: Barnes, formerly an Area 51 special-projects engineer, with his wife, Doris; and Martin, one of those overseeing the OXCART's specially mixed jet fuel (regular fuel explodes at extreme height, temperature and speed), with his wife, Mary. Because the men were sworn to secrecy for so many decades, their wives still get a kick out of hearing the secret tales.

Barnes was married at 17 (Doris was 16). To support his wife, he became an electronics wizard, buying broken television sets, fixing them up and reselling them for five times the original price. He went from living in bitter poverty on a Texas Panhandle ranch with no electricity to buying his new bride a dream home before he was old enough to vote. As a soldier in the Korean War, Barnes demonstrated an uncanny aptitude for radar and Nike missile systems, which made him a prime target for recruitment by the CIA—which indeed happened when he was 22. By 30, he was handling nuclear secrets.

"The agency located each guy at the top of a certain field and put us together for the programs at Area 51," says Barnes. As a security precaution, he couldn't reveal his birth name—he went by the moniker Thunder. Coworkers traveled in separate cars, helicopters and airplanes. Barnes and his group kept to themselves, even in the mess hall. "Our special-projects group was the most classified team since the Manhattan Project," he says.

Harry Martin's specialty was fuel. Handpicked by the CIA from the Air Force, he underwent rigorous psychological and physical tests to see if he was up for the job. When he passed, the CIA moved his family to Nevada. Because OXCART had to refuel frequently, the CIA kept supplies at secret facilities around the globe. Martin often traveled to these bases for quality-control checks. He tells of preparing for a top-secret mission from Area 51 to Thule, Greenland. "My wife took one look at me in these arctic boots and this big hooded coat, and she knew not to ask where I was going."

So, what of those urban legends—the UFOs studied in secret, the underground tunnels connecting clandestine facilities? For decades, the men at Area 51 thought they'd take their secrets to the grave. At the height of the Cold War, they cultivated anonymity while pursuing some of the country's most covert projects. Conspiracy theories were left to popular imagination. But in talking with Collins, Lovick, Slater, Barnes and Martin, it is clear that much of the folklore was spun from threads of fact.

As for the myths of reverse engineering of flying saucers, Barnes offers some insight: "We did reverse engineer a lot of foreign technology, including the Soviet MiG fighter jet out at the Area"—even though the MiG wasn't shaped like a flying saucer. As for the underground-tunnel talk, that, too, was born of truth. Barnes worked on a nuclear-rocket program called Project NERVA, inside underground chambers at Jackass Flats, in Area 51's backyard. "Three test-cell facilities were connected by railroad, but everything else was underground," he says.

And the quintessential Area 51 conspiracy—that the Pentagon keeps captured alien spacecraft there, which they fly around in restricted airspace? Turns out that one's pretty easy to debunk. The shape of OXCART was unprece-dented, with its wide, disk-like fuselage designed to carry vast quantities of fuel. Commercial pilots cruising over Nevada at dusk would look up and see the bottom of OXCART whiz by at 2,000-plus mph. The aircraft's tita-nium body, moving as fast as a bullet, would reflect the sun's rays in a way that could make anyone think, UFO.

In all, 2,850 OXCART test flights were flown out of Area 51 while Slater was in charge. "That's a lot of UFO sightings!" Slater adds. Commercial pilots would report them to the FAA, and "when they'd land in California, they'd be met by FBI agents who'd make them sign nondisclosure forms." But not everyone kept quiet, hence the birth of Area 51's UFO lore. The sightings incited uproar in Nevada and the surrounding areas and forced the Air Force to open Project BLUE BOOK to log each claim.

Since only a few Air Force officials were cleared for OXCART (even though it was a joint CIA/USAF project), many UFO sightings raised internal military alarms. Some generals believed the Russians might be sending stealth craft over American skies to incite paranoia and create widespread panic of alien invasion. Today, BLUE BOOK findings are housed in 37 cubic feet of case files at the National Archives—74,000 pages of reports. A keyword search brings up no mention of the top-secret OXCART or Area 51.

Project BLUE BOOK was shut down in 1969—more than a year after OXCART was retired. But what continues at America's most clandestine military facility could take another 40 years to disclose.

ANNIE JACOBSEN is an investigative reporter who sat for more than 500 interviews after she broke the story on terrorists probing commercial airliners.

April 2, 2009

Bighorn sheep herd growing

State of California not surveying nor issuing enough tags to reduce sheep numbers

Jim Matthews
Outdoor Writer
San Bernardino Sun

Arizona has more than 7,000 desert bighorn sheep and issues about 100 tags to hunters each year. Nevada has 5,000 desert sheep and issues 60 to 70 tags each year. California probably has more desert sheep than Nevada, but probably not quite as many as Arizona. So how many tags do you think we issue? California issues fewer than 20 tags most years. This coming fall, because our state game agency didn't complete aerial surveys this season, the state will probably only issue 16 or 17 bighorn tags, and two of those will be sold to the highest bidders.

California should have more bighorn sheep than Arizona. But even at today's sheep population levels, we should be issuing 60 to 80 tags for hunters each fall. That would require the DFG to do accurate surveys on all of the state's sheep herds, determine which ones could support hunting, and change how it determines how many tags are issued. The reality is this agency can't even survey the hunted herds because of budget constraints. This is a catch-22. The game programs generate money for the DFG, but when they are cut, revenue declines so they can't pay to do the work necessary to allocate more tags which would generate more money.

"If Cal Fish and Game was doing its job, we should have a minimum of 35 tags each year," said Gary Thomas, a volunteer with the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep. Thomas said that the added study necessary to increase tag numbers and give the state vital information on sheep herds in the state would require two or three people assigned to the desert sheep program.

The DFG has five biologists working on Sierra Nevada bighorn because they are in danger of becoming extinct, and there's federal funding for endangered species.

But there's not a single full-time staff position devoted to desert sheep. This is despite the fact that herds have been growing the last decade, and there are several herds that could support a tag or two each year, but they aren't hunted because the DFG doesn't have the data.

Thomas said Society maintains water sources and does informal surveys in desert mountain ranges each year, and they have noted growth in many herds. But the DFG has to have documentation on herd increase and can only issue one tag for every 15 mature rams (most states issue three to five tags for every 15 mature rams). They don't know how many sheep live in most desert ranges because they can't afford the expensive helicopter time required to count them.

Thomas said it's time to come into the 21st century and use trail cameras to make population estimates, correlating them with occasional ground and aerial surveys to assure accuracy. Both the National Park Service, on the Mojave National Preserve, and the Society are now placing cameras on desert water sources and the data flowing in is astounding. Thomas says it is simple to identify many individual animals and herd groups and he thinks accurate population estimates will be relatively simple once the techniques are tested and developed.

Then maybe we could see an increase in bighorn tag numbers.

But this is about far more than additional hunting opportunity. If 10 more tags are sold, the state would be able to fund the two to three biologists necessary for the DFG to monitor all the desert herds and fund additional habitat and relocation programs. How? If two of the "new" tags were raffle tags, each of those could raise $150,000 to $200,000 per year or more with a minor promotion program in the state's sporting goods stores.

That infusion of funding, if earmarked for desert sheep, could help restore bighorn populations back into dozens of historic ranges where they disappeared over 50 years ago, which was the original intent of having a hunting program - to fund restoration of the herds.

When the hunting program began, the motto was "10,000 by 2000" - 10,000 bighorn sheep statewide by the year 2000 because of the additional funding it would generate. We could have been there if the DFG had done its job aggressively. But we've lost our way with bighorn and so many other state wildlife and fishery programs.

Student is charged with obstructing Utah land auction

He says his false bids on oil and gas parcels were acts of civil disobedience against the exploitation of public sites. The two felony charges carry up to 10 years in prison and a $750,000 fine.

Associated Press

Tim De Christopher.

Salt Lake City -- A college student was charged with two federal felonies Wednesday for what he contends were acts of civil disobedience -- making false bids to run up auction prices on oil and gas parcels on public land near Utah's national parks.

At the Dec. 19 lease sale, Tim DeChristopher grabbed a bidder's paddle, drove up prices and won 22,000 acres of land for $1.79 million, an amount he later said he didn't have the means or intention to pay.

DeChristopher "repeatedly said he intended to disrupt the lease-bidding process," U.S. Atty. Brett Tolman said in announcing the charges. "Today's indictment is our answer to his decision."

A grand jury charged DeChristopher with one count of interfering with a federal auction and one count of making false representations at an auction, Tolman said. The penalty could range from no punishment to a combined sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a $750,000 fine.

DeChristopher, 27, a University of Utah economics student, will be issued a summons to appear in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City. No arraignment date has been set.

He isn't affiliated with any major environmental group but has said that he infiltrated the auction as a protest. He made no apologies Wednesday for obstructing the lease of land in Utah's red-rock country.

"This auction was a fraud against the American people and a threat to our future," DeChristopher said. "My motivation to act came against the exploitation of public lands, the lack of a transparent and participatory government and the imminent danger of climate change."

One of his lawyers, Patrick Shea, said prosecutors hinted weeks ago that the case could be settled with a misdemeanor plea bargain instead of a felony punishable by prison time.

"Nobody was hurt. No property was destroyed," Shea said.

The auction was already being challenged by environmental groups, who won a court stay on the sale of some parcels. Weeks later, new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar rescinded 77 of the leases, saying they were too close to national parks and never should have gone up for sale under the Bush administration.

The defense contends that DeChristopher caused no financial harm to the government or legitimate bidders, but at least one bidder disputes that.

"We are angry," said Daniel Gunnell, managing partner of Twilight Resources of Orem, Utah, who said he lost parcels when Salazar rescinded them and paid extra for other parcels when DeChristopher ran up bids.

"Tim DeChristopher is a guy who walked in the auction without a penny and cost our company $600,000," Gunnell said.