September 30, 2009

Volunteers gather at Poste Homestead

By Kurt Schauppner
The Desert Trail

The cleanup at the Poste Homestead on Saturday, Sept. 26 was one of 82 statewide projects undertaken as part of National Public Lands Day. (Trail photo by Kurt Schauppner)

WONDER VALLEY — With about 75 participants doing everything from picking up the remains of a burned-out trailer to managing trails to putting up a kiosk and signs, the cleanup project at the Poste Homestead Site on Saturday, Sept. 26 was called a success.

Organized by the Bureau of Land Management with help from several lo-cal groups, including Community ORV Watch, the cleanup was one of 82 projects scheduled around California for National Public Lands Day.

In addition to the satisfaction of helping clean up an historic site, participants received T-shirts, lunch and a mini concert at Palms Restaurant in Wonder Valley.

Another project took people into Joshua Tree National Park to pick up litter, restore trails and make paper pots for Arid Land Restoration.

Mickey Quillman, one of the BLM organizers, said Saturday morning that he and Phil Klasky from Community ORV Watch did some restoration work at the homestead site about six months ago.

“We applaud the BLM and all the groups who came out to clean up and protect this special community resource,” Klasky said Saturday.

He said he thought about holding his office’s National Public Lands Day project somewhere else but added that the people of Wonder Valley convinced him otherwise.

“The people here care,” he said, adding that across the nation some 130,000 people were expected to take part in National Public Lands Day events.

We’ll do some great things today,” Klasky said.

After gathering at the Palms Restaurant a few miles from the homestead site and getting a quick safety briefing — wear gloves and decent shoes, watch out for critters, keep an eye on the kids — volunteers caravanned to the homestead for a morning of hard work.

Diana Akins, pausing between carrying handfuls of trash to a large Dumpster, said she took part in the project to help the community and because of her own memories of the homestead site.

“We used to use the place as a picnic for the kids,” she said. “It’s just gone to heck.”

Mickey Quillman’s wife, Mari, paused between carrying bundles of dried twigs to camouflage an illegal trail to say she was using the day in part as a learning opportunity.

“I am a wildlife biologist,” she said. “I wanted to learn how to do this. I am doing some mine restoration at the Mojave National Preserve and will be looking to close some trails.”

Pauline Dargis drove out from Twentynine Palms to take part in the project after hearing about it on the radio.

“I’ve never actually been out here,” Wonder Valley resident Richard Gosin said while raking a trail.

“I’ve been a weekender since the 1970s,” he said, adding that he still remembers the advertising slogan “blue skies, good water, clean air, sunshine” that drew him out to the area.

BLM Archaeologist Jim Shearer spent part of his time at the homestead removing what was left of the original homestead’s roof.

Time and the elements had made it a safety hazard, he said.

“It’s good, it’s good exercise, great people,” volunteer Chris Carraher said. “You really see, by the end of the day, a big difference.

“We live here right at the edge of the wild desert. This establishes not only the wild values but also the historical values and how that all comes together.”

Judge rejects U.S. management plan for California desert

Bureau of Land Management's proposal for the West Mojave 'does not contain a reasonable range of alternatives' to limit off-road-vehicle routes in the sensitive habitat, the ruling states.

By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

A federal judge has rejected key provisions of a plan for managing millions of acres in the California desert, saying the U.S. Bureau of Land Management designated roughly 5,000 miles of off-road vehicle routes without properly taking into account their impact on public lands, archaeological sites and wildlife.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston on Monday ruled that the West Mojave plan, which the bureau approved in 2006 after a decade of development, is "flawed because it does not contain a reasonable range of alternatives" to limit the number of miles of off-road routes.

She also determined that the bureau's analysis of the routes' impacts on air quality, soils, plant communities and sensitive species such as the Mojave fringe-toed lizard was inadequate, pointing out that the desert and its resources are "extremely fragile, easily scarred, and slowly healed."

"The court recognizes the complexity of the issues presented in this case," Illston said, "and that defendants have been given the difficult task of addressing the interests and needs of OHV [off-highway vehicle] recreationists while at the same time protecting listed species as required by law."

The ruling came in response to a legal challenge brought in late 2006 by a coalition of conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Desert Survivors.

The bureau's "planning was backwards," Elden Hughes of the Sierra Club said in a statement. "They should first analyze the resources, natural, cultural wildlife etc., and then plan the route network. They put the route approvals first."

U.S. Atty. Charles R. Schockey, who represented bureau in the matter, declined to comment on the ruling. However, Illston said she plans to schedule a case management conference to discuss possible remedies.

The plan was designed to provide a comprehensive strategy to conserve and protect sensitive species and their habitats on public lands administered by the bureau, including the desert tortoise and Mojave ground squirrel.

"We believe the plan didn't go far enough in terms of protecting resources," said Lisa Belenky, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Off-road-vehicle use in the west Mojave is very prevalent and increasing, so having the proper protections in place is very important."

"We hope that in light of this decision," Belenky added, "the bureau will rethink and limit the number of routes in these sensitive areas."

September 29, 2009

The Old Secular Cross?

High Court to Consider Issue of Church-State Separation

Henry and Wanda Sandoz are the unofficial caretakers of the Mojave cross, which is covered in a plywood box, near Cima, Calif. (Robert Barnes - The Washington Post)

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Calif. -- It would be easy to miss among the yucca and Joshua trees of this vast place -- a small plywood box, set back from a gentle curve in a lonesome desert road. It looks like nothing so much as a miniature billboard without a message.

But inside the box is a 6 1/2 -foot white cross, built to honor the war dead of World War I. And because its perch on a prominent outcropping of rock is on federal land, it has been judged to be an unconstitutional display of government favoritism of one religion over another.

Whether the Mojave cross is ever unveiled again -- or taken down for good -- is up to the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Next week, it will get its first major chance to divine the meaning of the First Amendment command that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

If the court reaches the constitutional issues at hand, all sides agree it could provide clarity to the court's blurry rules on church-and-state separations. It could also carry important implications for the fate of war memorials around the country that feature religious imagery -- the Argonne Cross in Arlington National Cemetery, for instance, or the Memorial Peace Cross in Bladensburg.

The Mojave cross's protectors, which include veterans groups and the federal government, say the symbol is a historic, secular tribute; its original plaque from the 1930s said it was erected to honor "the dead of all wars." They argue that Congress has taken the steps to distance itself from any appearance of endorsing a religious display.

But the American Civil Liberties Union, Jewish and Muslim veterans, and others say government actions have only deepened the problem. In an effort to avoid the lower courts' rulings that it must come down, Congress has designated the site the country's only official national memorial to the dead of World War I, elevating it to an exclusive group of national treasures that includes the Washington Monument and Mount Rushmore.

Congress's actions ensures that "the cross necessarily will reflect continued government association with the preeminent symbol of Christianity," the ACLU said.

It seems an improbable importance for this piece of desert land, where temperatures regularly hit three digits, an hour can go by without a passing car and somewhere nearby is likely to be a Mojave Green, the desert's own highly lethal variety of rattlesnake.

"It's just a little cross in the middle of nowhere," said Wanda Sandoz, who with her husband Henry is the cross's unofficial caretaker. Henry built the cross that currently occupies the spot -- there have been three -- and the Sandozes say they are fulfilling a WWI veteran's dying request to look after things.

Hiram Sasser, a lawyer with the Liberty Legal Institute, which represents the Veterans of Foreign Wars and assists the Sandozes, agreed.

"I always say you have to risk life and limb to be offended by this cross," he said.

It is unlikely the veterans who erected the cross knew or cared that Sunrise Rock was on federal land. World War I vets had flocked to the desert, either for mining opportunities or because doctors had suggested the climate for those with "shell shock" or respiratory problems from the war.

The men started VFW chapters throughout the region, and apparently were drawn to this particular granite outcropping because some looked at the rock's shadings and conjured up the silhouette of a WWI doughboy. The original cross had a plaque, complete with a misspelling:

"The Cross, Erected in Memory of the Dead of All Wars, erected in 1934 by Members Veterans of Foregin [sic] Wars, Death of Valley Post 2884."

That cross is gone, replaced first by a wooden one, and then by one Henry Sandoz erected in 1998, which he copied from studying old photographs.

Despite what supporters say was its secular birth, the cross for years has been the scene of Easter sunrise services, and the challenges began in 1999, when the U.S. Park Service denied an application from a Buddhist to build a shrine nearby. Frank Buono, an assistant superintendent, informed his boss that the presence of the cross violated the Constitution's establishment clause.

Buono is Catholic, but he said he was offended by the religious display on federal land. "The cross is important to me because it is the indispensable symbol of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ," Buono said in an interview. "But it isn't right that the symbol of my religion, or any religion, be permanently affixed to federal land."

Park officials agreed to take down the cross, but before they could act, Congress and the courts got involved. Congress forbade the Park Service from using any funds to remove the display. A district judge agreed with Buono that he had standing to bring his complaint and that the cross violated constitutional standards. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed the decision.

Then Congress declared the site a national memorial, and proposed to cure any constitutional problems by transferring one acre on which the cross stands to the VFW in exchange for five acres owned elsewhere in the preserve by the Sandozes.

But Buono and the ACLU went to court again, and the courts agreed that such a plan would not resolve the constitutionality question. The deal "would leave a little donut hole of land with a cross in the midst of a vast federal preserve," the appeals court said.

While the fighting has gone on, the cross has remained in place. But to comply with the court's ruling, it was covered first by a tarpaulin bag and now by the plywood box.

The Supreme Court has had trouble coming up with an easily followed guideline on religious displays on government land. Instead, it has opted to issue opinions based on the specifics of a case. Thus, the court in 2005 ruled 5 to 4 that a large, granite Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas capitol, in place for decades and surrounded by other historical markers, could remain. The same day, the court ruled by the same margin that recently installed framed copies of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses were unconstitutional.

But changes on the court could make it more difficult for those challenging religious monuments. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor voted to find both displays of the Ten Commandments unconstitutional, but she has been replaced by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who seems more sympathetic to the other view.

"I can't see many votes for removing the cross," said Charles Haynes, an expert on the establishment clause at the First Amendment Center. Justices could short-circuit the constitutional issues by deciding the lower courts were wrong in granting Buono standing to challenge the cross.

President Obama's new solicitor general, Elena Kagan, inherited the case from the Bush administration and intends to argue it herself. She told the court in her brief that Buono no longer lives near the preserve and his objection to the cross -- that it was on federal land -- is remedied by the land swap.

Buono's lawyer, Peter Eliasberg of the Southern California chapter of the ACLU, said Congress's efforts to avoid taking down the cross make it even clearer that it the cross is endorsed by the government. He rejected arguments that the image of the cross was a historical, rather than religious, symbol of sacrifice.

"When the government chooses a cross to recognize the veterans of World War I, which included 250,000 Jews, which included my grandfather, that is an important message and an inappropriate message for the government to send," Eliasberg said.

Wanda Sandoz, meanwhile, is surprised by the legal battle over the monument. "I suppose I can see the point, if I was Jewish or Buddhist," she said recently, as she walked around Sunrise Rock. "But the thing is, we didn't choose the cross -- the veterans did. I guess if they had picked a Star of David, that's what we'd be taking care of today."

The court will hear arguments in Buono v. Salazar on Oct. 7.

Sleeping Beauty Valley: Heart of the Mojave Desert

Sleeping Beauty Valley (David Myers)

By James M. André and Ileene Anderson
Route 66 Pulse

In the heart of California’s Mojave Desert, at a place where the western Mojave transitions into the eastern Mojave, lies the Sleeping Beauty Valley. Encircled by the Kelso Dunes Wilderness and the Bristol Mountains Wilderness on the east, and the Cady Mountains Wilderness Study Area on the west, the Sleeping Beauty Valley is one of the last remaining examples of pristine central Mojave Desert ecosystem. A place where one can still experience the scenic vista of an undeveloped valley surrounded by waves of rugged desert mountain ranges. Granted, the old Tonopah to Tidewater railroad grade is still visible as a reminder of the historic importance of this area in Mojave history – but very little else has changed in this valley for the last ten thousand years.

At the center of Sleeping Beauty Valley lies Broadwell Lake, a dry playa that is a remnant of the former extensive lake system that covered the Mojave during the Pleistocene. During the post-Pleistocene warming and drying, the valley became home to such iconic desert species as the desert tortoise which still calls the valley home. Due to recent rapid declines in desert tortoise population, these animals are considered threatened by both the state of California and the federal government. The Sleeping Beauty valley is a key linkage between the northern and southern populations of this increasingly rare animal and keeps both populations from becoming inbred.

Desert bighorn sheep traverse the valley from the rugged reaches of the Cady Mountains to the northern Bristol Mountains and beyond. Bighorn sheep depend on unimpeded access across the valley in order maintain viable herds in the adjacent mountain ranges.

The Sleeping Beauty Valley is home to more than 350 plant species, including several rare plants. Recently a post-Pleistocene relict plant species was “discovered” within the Sleeping Beauty Valley – the crucifixion thorn. This large and impressively spiny shrub is primarily leafless, as the leaves have been reduced to mere scales. It was much more common in the area that we now call the Mojave Desert during the wetter Pleistocene epoch, where its nutty berries provided food for such species and giant ground sloths and native camels. While those animal species died out or moved on with the warming and drying of the landscape, the crucifixion thorn persists along dry washes and edges of dry lake beds. The actual age of these plants is unknown because they have no “true wood” that can be cored and the rings counted. And though scientists have not studied this plant extensively, some believe it may well live up to 10,000 years.

In Spring of 2009, botanists discovered what is potentially a new species of lupine – those showy purple spring wildflowers that put up flowering stalks covered w/pea-like flowers. Specimens collected from the Sleeping Beauty Valley are different from the surrounding species, so additional scientific studies are being done to determine if it is a new species to science.

Why are all of these unique species found in the Sleeping Beauty Valley? In part, the lupine discovery underscores the fact that this region remains a biological frontier that is poorly documented. Botanists expect that additional inventory here will unearth considerable new discoveries to science. In addition, the valley lies within a fairly sharp transition zone between the western Mojave Desert, which enjoys more winter rains, but very few summer thundershowers and the eastern Mojave Desert, which counts on bimodal rainfall that includes some winter rains but consistent summer thunderstorms. Because of the differences in the rain regimes, the eastern and western Mojave deserts have some differences in the species that inhabit them. Because the Sleeping Beauty Valley lies at the crossroads of these two Mojave Desert regions, it supports plants and animals unique to the set of conditions found only at this transition zone..

In addition to its tremendous biological diversity, Sleeping Beauty Valley remains relatively unmarred by contemporary or historic human use. The T&T railroad grade is present, as is an existing powerline at the north end of the valley. The Old Dominion Mine is located on the western edge of the valley. Crucero Road, a washboard dirt road, originates in Ludlow and bisects the valley. Because the Sleeping Beauty Valley is relatively undisturbed by human activities, it is one of the few valleys in the Mojave Desert not yet colonized by invasive non-native plants that are so problematic ecologically in other areas of the Mojave Desert. Non-native plants are typically introduced with disturbance to the land caused by humans. From there, they often invade the landscape where they displace native plant species, decrease food and shelter available to animals, and have catastrophic effects on long-term natural ecological processes. For instance, weed invasions make the desert much more susceptible to large-scale fires that decimate those plant species unable to re-sprout after fire. Fortunately, the Sleeping Beauty Valley has very few non-native plants and has not been burned in recent decades. Indeed, it remains a rare example of a healthy and viable ecosystem.

The Sleeping Beauty Valley has immediate threats to its integrity. Applications for industrial scale solar and wind energy installations are rapidly moving forward, and will destroy tens of thousands of acres of rich desert habitat there. While the switch to renewable energy needs to happen to minimize global climate change, better places for industrial solar installations exist on disturbed lands close to the source of consumption, on roof-tops and over parking lots. Pristine desert lands at the heart of the Mojave Desert, like the Sleeping Beauty Valley need to be recognized for all their unique values and preserved.

James M. André is the Director of the Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, UC Riverside

Ileene Anderson is a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity

September 26, 2009

ACLU runs amok in crusade against cross

Sacramento Bee

On Oct. 7, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case – the culmination of a 10-year battle by the American Civil Liberties Union – to determine whether a 5-foot cross erected as a war memorial by veterans on a rock in California's Mojave Desert 75 years ago must be torn down.

Unless the Supreme Court overturns the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the cross – now shamefully covered with a plywood box – be toppled, say goodbye to religious symbols or symbols of sacrifice in the form of a cross at veterans' memorials throughout the country, including the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon.

Where is the outrage? How much longer does California have to put up with the costly years of litigation and flagrantly erroneous interpretations of the Constitution by the typically most overturned court in the nation – the 9th Circuit?

No one can possibly believe that a cross on a war memorial in the desert that happens to be on federal land means that the government has decreed Christianity the official religion of the United States – the ludicrous claim of the ACLU.

Behind the scenes of this blatant contempt for our constitutional rights to freedom of religion and speech is a sham of a case, Salazar v. Buono. The plaintiff, Frank Buono, a retired National Park Service employee at the Mojave National Preserve, between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, who moved from California to Oregon years ago, sued because he claimed that when he drove south to visit the preserve "two to four times a year," he was "deeply offended" by the cross on federal land. Never mind that there is another access point to the preserve where he could avoid seeing the memorial altogether. Laughably, U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Timlin, ruled that inconvenience "sufficient to constitute injury."

In 2004, Congress voted to transfer the Mojave memorial to a private veterans' group, but the ACLU sued again – proving that the ACLU is not interested in a solution, only in tearing down the cross – and won in district court, a decision upheld by the 9th Circuit on a specious "separation of church and state" claim.

Two key legal issues are at stake.

First, does the hypersensitive Buono have "standing" to bring this suit? Can anyone who is "offended" at anything bring a lawsuit?

As the amicus brief from the American Legion states, previous Supreme Court decisions have made it clear that "standing requires some concrete actual or threatened personal injury." Standing cannot come from "perceived harm to mere psyche, feelings, or ideology." It cited a previous court decision that concluded that the "psychological damage" from viewing a religious portrait does not create a legal injury, and holding otherwise creates "a class of 'eggshell' plaintiffs of a delicacy never before known to the law." As the brief states, an adult "choosing to drive past a passive memorial containing a cross is not required, coerced, or even encouraged" to view the display.

The second question the court will review is, if the plaintiff does have standing to sue, did the 9th Circuit err in stopping Congress from transferring the land into private hands?

On this point, Justice Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain, joined by four other 9th Circuit justices who dissented from that court's decision, wrote that the court's ruling that Congress "cannot cure a government agency's Establishment Clause violation by ordering sale of the land upon which a religious symbol previously was situated" is a "novel rule" that "contravenes governing Supreme Court precedent," creates a "split" with other circuit court decisions, and "invites courts to encroach upon private citizens' rights under both the speech and religion clauses of the First Amendment."

Citing other cases in which imagery on veteran's memorials is being attacked, including the 19-year battle by the ACLU to tear down the Mount Soledad cross in San Diego, an amicus brief filed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, other veterans groups and American Ex-Prisoners of War, states that few if any symbols in Western military heritage are "more appropriate to honor exemplary service and the giving of one's life to save another than a cross, a universal symbol of beneficent sacrifice."

Without appropriate action by the Supreme Court, it concludes, "the destruction of this and an untold numbers of like veterans memorials is sealed, and the rest fall deeper under the threatening shadow of a judiciary already proven hostile toward them."

September 25, 2009

Mojave National Preserve HQ opens new visitor center

The new visitor information center at the park's headquarters boasts full color exhibits that highlight activities in the preserve, according to Linda Slater, educational program manager.

Desert Dispatch

BARSTOW • Tourists and local residents alike will now have access to a new visitor information center that highlights attractions in the Mojave National Preserve.

The new center now offers colorful exhibits featuring maps and photographs of the park, and the public can check it all out at an open house event Saturday afternoon.

The preserve’s headquarters office on Barstow Road opened in 2005, but didn’t have the funds to build an attractive visitor information center at first, said Linda Slater, manager of educational programs. Visitors have always been able to pick up free maps or talk to park rangers, but now they will have more visuals of the 1.6 million acre park located about two hours from Barstow.

“Now we can actually show people some pictures...and get them excited about visiting,” Slater said.

Contrary to what some people may think, said Slater, a preserve is very similar to a national park. It is not an off-limits or reserved space, she said. Hunting is permitted in preserves, she noted. For more information on the Mojave National Preserve, check their Web site at

Mojave National Preserve’s new visitor center
Where: 2701 Barstow Road.
Regular center hours: Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Contact: (760) 252-6101

September 23, 2009

Greens Vs. Solar

Investor's Business Daily

Environmentalism: The ditching of a desert renewable-energy project shows just how difficult it is to maintain our standard of living while pleasing the purists. Maybe we shouldn't even try.

Anyone who has set foot on a dry lake bed in California's Mojave Desert knows the meaning of barren. There's not much growing or moving there — just hot sun beating down on parched earth. So why not use it for a solar farm, since nothing else can be done with it?

That train of thought has led a number of solar power companies, backed by utilities and encouraged by the federal government, to propose big energy facilities in the wide-open spaces between Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Huge swaths of that land are under federal ownership, and a law passed in 2005 opened up most of those federal holdings for solar and wind energy projects.

A land rush has ensued, with firms such as Oakland Calif.-based BrightSource Energy staking out sites to develop solar power plants.

The technology to be used is called "solar thermal." Rather than convert sunlight directly into electricity (photovoltaics), solar thermal plants use mirrors to heat water with sunlight and create steam to power electric generators.

Of all the solar technologies in use or on the drawing board, solar thermal is the cheapest per watt. With the right economies of scale, it also seems to stand the best chance of getting the price of its power down to that of coal-fired plants.

But those economies of scale are part of the problem for the dominant left wing of the environmental movement. One activist, Santa Monica attorney Sheila Bowers, told the Los Angeles Times that the new solar power firms "are trying to perpetuate the old Big Energy paradigm into the renewable-energy era ... They have a monopoly agenda."

Then there are the preservationists of the BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) school.

You can always find someone with a passionate argument about building something large and visible on empty land. Often those arguments prevail, not because they make sense but because those who make them have a law or a powerful politician on their side. This is a bicoastal problem, as the aspiring wind farmers of Nantucket Sound will tell you.

BrightSource, despite its green-energy credentials, ran afoul of environmentalists because it wanted to build a 500-megawatt plant at the Broadwell Dry Lake, a basin in the Mojave just north of Interstate 40 and the old Mother Road, Route 66.

That spot was good for many reasons, from the abundant sunshine to the strategic location between two big energy-consuming metropolitan areas, L.A. and Vegas. But it turned out to be politically sensitive.

An environmental group, the Wildlands Conservancy, had bought the land, formerly a railroad right-of-way, and had donated it between 2000 and 2004 to the federal government to be preserved as a wildlife corridor. The conservancy raised a fuss and got into a very public squabble with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who advises a venture capital firm backing BrightSource.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has crusaded for most of her Senate career to preserve much of the Mojave Desert from development, stepped in on the conservancy's side and said she would push for a law to turn the Broadwell Dry Lake area into a national monument, thereby barring all energy development.

BrightSource saw the writing on the wall and announced last week that it had scrapped the project. This editorial page tends to be skeptical about solar energy as a viable replacement for conventional power, so it's not the loss of one desert solar-thermal plant that worries us.

But this story stands as a reminder of how easy it is for groups fighting energy development — be it solar, wind, coal, nuclear, hydro or anything else — to stop progress if they have their hands on the right levers.

America needs more energy from all feasible sources. Without it, we face a very different, far more limited standard of living in our future. The argument that "they can always build it somewhere else" is running thin, because that "somewhere else" is likely to be someone else's pet cause.

September 22, 2009

Desert monument idea is starting to shine

The Press-Enterprise

Land around the Old Woman Mountains is part of the area supporters want considered for a monument. (Rodrigo Peña / The Press-Enterprise)

Efforts to establish a national monument in southeastern San Bernardino County appear to be gaining momentum as some solar-energy developers drop plans to build on land targeted for protection.

Oakland-based BrightSource Energy announced late last week that it has stopped pursuing development of a solar plant on about 5,100 acres near Broadwell Dry Lake, east of Barstow, because the land there is being sought for a national monument.

"BrightSource Energy has ceased development activity at the Broadwell site in light of the proposed monument and is looking at other sites within California and out of state," John Woolard, the company's president and CEO, said in a statement.

And an official with Stirling Energy Systems, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company that also has an application to build a solar plant near the dry lake, said Tuesday that the company will put its primary focus on projects outside the monument area.

"We want to a find a solution that will be agreeable to everyone concerned," said Sean Gallagher, Stirling's vice president of marketing strategy and regulatory affairs.

The companies' apparent willingness to avoid some areas in the eastern Mojave Desert has bolstered the hopes of monument backers

"It is very good news," said David Myers, executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy in Oak Glen. Myers' organization is dedicated to protecting natural places in the desert and elsewhere.

As the energy companies reconsider their plans, the monument idea has been gaining support among some of the nation's leading environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Both groups said they support renewable energy development to combat global warming, but they have agreed with monument supporters that wild areas should be protected.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said last spring that she plans to introduce a bill to create a national monument in the Mojave Desert. She noted her intention to protect thousands of acres of formerly private land that was purchased in the 1990s, largely through the fundraising efforts of The Wildlands Conservancy, and given to the government.

Myers has said he believed the land was to be protected, but the federal government accepted applications from companies that wanted to build solar plants on some of the acreage.

Feinstein has not yet introduced the legislation, but monument advocates said it could cover much of the public land between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve and include a 70-mile stretch of Historic Route 66. The name "Mother Road National Monument" has been suggested in honor of the highway.

Efforts to protect public land in the area are running up against state and federal efforts to encourage alternative-energy development to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Last month, the Schwarzenegger administration wrote Feinstein, saying a monument "must not" interfere with renewable energy projects.

But monument supporters, including Feinstein, say the desert has room for energy projects that don't destroy what they see as the pristine public lands.

The BrightSource project at Broadwell Dry Lake would have ruined one of the more striking valleys sought for the monument, said Elden Hughes, an environmental activist in Joshua Tree.

"It is really one of the most beautiful vistas in the desert," Hughes said. "I have seen yellow flowers there that went all the way to the horizon."

Hughes said he is encouraged. "This monument is getting much closer," he said.

But 30-year Yucca Valley resident Mike Hawkins opposes the monument idea. It would force energy developers and military base expansions to use land needed for off-road recreation, he said. The monument also would take land that has mining potential.

"We don't need more land locked away," Hawkins said.

L.A. may drop plans for controversial transmission line

The DWP's proposed 85-mile-long Green Path North line through unspoiled desert and wildlife preserves was opposed by community and environmental groups. The agency may focus on other routes.

By Phil Willon
Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles officials said the city may abandon plans to build a highly controversial "green" power transmission line through unspoiled desert and wildlife preserves on a route east of the San Bernardino Mountains, focusing instead on alternative pathways mostly along an interstate highway where high-voltage lines already exist.

The Department of Water and Power's proposed 85-mile-long Green Path North transmission line has faced fierce opposition from more than a dozen community and environmental groups, creating a political chink in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's efforts to cast himself as the leader of the "cleanest, greenest big city in America."

The proposed transmission line, which is about to undergo federal and state environmental review, is designed to bring electricity generated by solar, geothermal, wind and nuclear power to Los Angeles from the southeastern California deserts and Arizona. Villaraigosa in July promised to end the city's reliance on high-polluting, coal-fired power plants and secure 40% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

At the very least, the city utility may shelve the agency's most controversial proposed route for the power corridor, which would cut through Big Morongo Wildlife Preserve north of Palm Springs, Pioneertown near Yucca Valley, Pipes Canyon Wilderness Preserve and a corner of the San Bernardino National Forest before connecting with existing DWP power lines in Hesperia.

"We've heard the concerns of the community and so we're seriously contemplating taking that off the table," DWP General Manager H. David Nahai said recently.

The Green Path North transmission line could be halted altogether -- or postponed -- because of opposition from environmental groups, concerns raised by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and the enormous costs, according to City Hall sources familiar with the project. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the proposal.

The Villaraigosa administration appears to have shifted to a policy focused more on developing renewable energy sources closer to the DWP's existing power transmission lines, primarily those that stretch to Owens Valley and east toward Utah.

"We're constantly reviewing and evaluating all of our options," Nahai said.

Environmental groups and community activists were encouraged by Nahai's comments, but remain wary until the proposed transmission line through Yucca Valley is officially scuttled.

"I think that would be really good news if that were the case," said April Sall, conservation director with the Wildlands Conservancy in Oak Glen. "The Yucca Valley route would have really high environmental damage.

"If the DWP wants to validate its claims that they want a more environmental friendly face for L.A. and the DWP, this would be a step in the right direction."

Controversy over the transmission line erupted in December 2006 when the DWP identified the Yucca Valley route as its "preferred alternative," but the agency has since backed away from that statement, saying that there are seven viable routes.

The cost of building Green Path North could exceed a half-billion dollars, according to DWP estimates in 2006.

Nahai said he still firmly believes that the DWP will need new transmission capability to carry power from the Salton Sea and Imperial County, home to vast geothermal power reserves and prime terrain for solar power generation.

The DWP, the nation's largest municipal utility, already has plans for a 55-megawatt "solar farm" on 970 acres it owns near Niland, and the utility also has purchased more than 5,800 acres near the Salton Sea as possible sites for geothermal power plants.

The agency hopes to share a transmission pathway with Southern California Edison Co., which has existing transmission lines along Interstate 10, for most of the route to Los Angeles, Nahai said.

"Our preference would be, to the extent that we have transmission coming out of the Salton Sea, that that be done on a shared basis," he said.

For Green Path North, the first step in the environmental review process is expected to begin within a matter of months, during which a series of public hearings will be held throughout Southern California.

The process is being coordinated by the DWP, federal Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, since the proposed routes traverse federally protected lands.

The DWP hopes to finish construction of Green Path North by 2014.

September 20, 2009

BLM tackles plethora of solar, wind project applications

Staff sequestered in Desert Discovery Center

By JESSICA CEJNAR, staff writer
Barstow Desert Dispatch

BARSTOW • Biologists, realty specialists and air and water experts with the Bureau of Land Management shut themselves in the Desert Discovery Center for 10 full working days wading through a plethora of solar and wind energy applications.

Out of more than 25 solar and 20 wind project applications proposed for the Barstow area, staff at the local field office were able review 17, said Mickey Quillman, chief of resources at the BLM’s Barstow office. Some of these projects were submitted almost a year ago, Quillman said, and have languished while staff have focused on other BLM business. He sent his staff to the Desert Discovery Center two weeks ago, he said, to get away from the telephones and focus solely on the project applications.

“There are so many other things that are going on in the office, we don’t have the staff to work on these things full time,” he said.

According to Quillman, BLM staff review a project’s design as well as the number of acres needed to build the project. If an application doesn’t include all the necessary documents, the BLM sends the company a letter stating what it needs to do to move its project forward, Quillman said.

Companies are given between 30 and 60 days to respond to those letters depending on how much information is needed, said Greg Miller, renewable energy program manager for the BLM’s California Desert District. If it receives no response another letter is sent, he said. After 15 to 20 days of no response from a company, the BLM may reject or deny its application, Miller said.

Solar and wind projects are scattered throughout the 3.1 million acres of land the Barstow Field Office oversees, Quillman said. Even though he didn’t want to say which companies are further along in the application process than others, Quillman said Granite Wind, a wind project between Apple Valley and Lucerne Valley has progressed into the notice of intent to do an environmental impact study phase.

“There’s another solar plant we’re looking at that’s getting close to there,” he said.

Even though his staff was shut up for 10 days, focusing only on renewable energy projects, Quillman says he gets more applications on a regular basis. He may even order his staff to be sequestered again, he said.

“When the alternative energy projects came in it was added work load and we couldn’t focus on those as we needed to,” he said. “We had 25 solar and almost as many wind and as those (applications) come in we’ll review those as well. It’s an ongoing process.”

September 18, 2009

Golf Ball Mystery Solved at Joshua Tree

Man pays tribute to fallen duffers

Joshua tree. (Getty Images)


When we first heard that park rangers were finding thousands of golf balls in Joshua Tree National Park, our instincts told us someone was too cheap to pay driving range fees.

Turns out, that's not the case.

Meet Douglas Jones of La Quinta. He has a soft spot in his heart for the golfers of yore.

Jones has spent years throwing golf balls into the park out of his car window. It's his way of honoring fallen golfers, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"Sometime around 2007, our rangers began discovering large quantities of golf balls in some turnout areas of the park," park spokesman Joe Zarki told the Times. "We were wondering what was going on here. There were also some tennis balls involved."

On Aug. 17, park officials finally found Jones. He confessed immediately.

"He said he did it because he wanted to honor all the golfers who had died," Zarki told the Los Angeles Times.

Golf balls weren't the only things Jones was leaving behind. Park rangers said they also found cans of fruit and vegetables and some park literature, the Times reported.

The food, Zarki said, was for stranded hikers. The park literature was his way of leaving his mark, Zarki said.

Zarki told the Times the park has spent about $9,000 on cleanup.

Jones was cited for littering, feeding wildlife and abandoning property, the newspaper reported. He faces jail time and a possible ban from the park.

Golf balls in the national park: a subpar tribute?

A Joshua Tree spokesman says a man confessed to throwing up to 3,000 balls into the desert park to honor dead golfers. Rangers, who first noticed quantities of the objects in '07, see it as littering.

By David Kelly
Los Angeles Times

A man claiming he was paying tribute to dead golfers tossed up to 3,000 golf balls into the biggest sand trap he could find: Joshua Tree National Park.

But where 57-year-old Douglas Jones saw commemoration, park rangers saw wholesale littering, and he faces possible jail time and other sanctions.

"Sometime around 2007 our rangers began discovering large quantities of golf balls in some turnout areas of the park," said park spokesman Joe Zarki. "We were wondering what was going on here. There were also some tennis balls involved."

Rangers also found cans of fruit and vegetables left in the desert along with park literature tossed around.

"He would collect permits from backcountry permit boxes and throw them all over," Zarki said. "There was no rhyme or reason to it."

Rangers finally caught up with the La Quinta man Aug. 17, and he immediately confessed.

"He said he did it because he wanted to honor all the golfers who had died," Zarki said. "He left the cans of fruit and vegetables supposedly for the assistance of stranded hikers."

And the park permits and literature? "He wanted to leave his mark," Zarki said.

Contrary to what rangers originally thought, Jones wasn't chipping golf balls into the desert with a club. He was hurling them from his car.

The balls, numbering between 2,000 and 3,000, were unlikely to pose a threat unless an animal mistook one for an egg and tried to swallow it, Zarki said. But the cleanup was a different story.

"We estimate we spent about 373 staff hours, or about $9,000, on this case," he said.

Jones was cited for littering, feeding wildlife and abandoning property. He will appear before a federal judge later this month. If found guilty, he could be fined, sent to jail or banished from the park.

Jones was unavailable for comment Thursday. He lives with his 84-year-old father, Douglas, who didn't know about the incident until a reporter called him.

"It certainly sounds strange," said his father. "He hikes out in Joshua Tree every three months or so, and he golfs maybe once a week. But I don't know where he would get that many golf balls."

He did, however, say that his son works at a local golf course.

Solar energy firm drops plan for project in Mojave Desert

BrightSource Energy's decision ends a battle with environmentalists over a 5,130-acre site in a proposed national monument.

By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

Ending a bitter feud in the rush to develop solar farms, BrightSource Energy Inc. on Thursday said it had scrapped a controversial plan to build a renewable energy facility in the eastern Mojave Desert wilderness that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wants to transform into a national monument.

The proposal pitted companies queuing up to replace imported oil and facilitate a national clean-energy economy against environmentalists strongly opposed to the idea of creating an industrial zone within 600,000 acres of former railroad lands that had been donated to the Department of Interior for conservation.

The acrimony even triggered a nasty public squabble between Robert Kennedy Jr., a senior advisor at VantagePoint Venture Partners, which raised $160 million for Oakland-based BrightSource, and David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, which raised $40 million to buy the old railroad lands to protect them from development.

"I commend BrightSource Energy for this action," Feinstein said in a statement. "It's clear that conservation and renewable energy development are not mutually exclusive goals -- there is room enough in the California desert for both."

Of particular concern was BrightSource's proposal to develop a 5,130-acre solar power plant on a portion of the donated lands known as Broadwell Dry Lake, which lies within Sleeping Beauty Valley.

The scenic, near-pristine region near Ludlow is home to a significant herd of bighorn sheep and framed by the Kelso Dunes Wilderness and Bristol Mountains Wilderness on the east and the Cady Mountains Wilderness Study Area on the west.

Scientists continue to catalog plants and reptiles uniquely adapted to the scorched terrain in what remains a biological frontier.

For example, botanists recently discovered a species of lupine that features showy purple blossoms in the spring.

Biologists are also studying unusually dark lizards that appeared to have genetically adapted to the volcanic terrain.

On Thursday, BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs said, "We have ceased all activity at the Broadwell site. . . . We will not build inside of a national monument."

The company's announcement came as a welcome surprise to environmentalists.

"This creates an open playing field for the monument to be built," Myers said. "It also could herald a sea change in the solar energy industry in that people will better understand that that there are good and bad places to build."

Elden Hughes, former chairman of the Sierra Club's California-Nevada Desert Committee, described the company's announcement as "fantastic news."

"Broadwell is one of the most beautiful vistas in the desert," he said. "I've seen it covered with yellow flowers to the horizon in all directions."

BrightSource's proposal was one of 19 filed with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

BrightSource's project would have relied on hundreds of mirrors known as heliostats to focus the sun's rays on the tops of 200-foot towers, where water boilers would produce high-pressure steam and run electric turbines.

Wachs said BrightSource ceased activity at the Broadwell site "a few months ago." Around the same time, the company began seeking alternative sites for that project "in and outside of the state," he said.

"That's the best thing I've heard in months," said Gary Thomas, project coordinator for the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep.

"Of all the solar projects being proposed, this is the one that would have driven a stake through the heart of a herd of at least 200 bighorn sheep," he said. "We would have died on the mountains out there to stop it."

Separately, BrightSource is pressing ahead with plans to build a massive solar energy facility in the Mojave Desert's Ivanpah Valley, near Primm, Nev., just south of Las Vegas.

State and federal regulatory and land-use authorities say construction of the Ivanpah Valley project could begin as early as March.

September 17, 2009

Small white cross in Mojave National preserve is at center of major legal dispute

By James Rufus Koren
Redlands Daily Facts

Easter morning service at the Mojave Cross in 2003. (Eric Reed Photographer)

A small memorial in a remote part of San Bernardino County is at the center of a nearly decade-long legal battle that will culminate next month when the Supreme Court will hear arguments for and against removing a white cross from federal land in the Mojave National preserve.

In advance of the Supreme Court taking up the case, a group of six soldiers drove from Fort Polk, La., to the memorial, gathering signatures on a support petition along the way. They arrived at the memorial Thursday, where they were met by more than 100 supporters.

The memorial is a white cross, about 8 feet tall, along Cima Road in the Mojave National Preserve, closer to the Nevada border than to Barstow. For the past few years, the cross has been covered with a wooden box.

The Liberty Legal Institute, a Texas-based group that represents several veterans groups and supports keeping the cross in place, describes it as a veterans memorial "in the shape of a cross."

In a legal brief submitted to the Supreme Court, Liberty Legal says it will argue "the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial does not violate the Establishment Clause, and never did."

The brief notes that many public military memorials and cemeteries are home to crosses or religious imagery and that a ruling against the Mojave monument could endanger other monuments.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which has been fighting to have the cross removed for nearly 10 years, says this is a clear-cut case of the federal government endorsing a religious display.
The Southern California ACLU announced in October 2000 that the National Park Service planned to take the cross down "within the next few months."

The cross was never removed because Congress voted to prevent federal funding to be used for removing it. That decision drew a lawsuit from the ACLU.

In 2002, a federal district court ruled in the ACLU's favor, saying the cross being displayed on public lands violated the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. Two years later, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with that ruling.

In 2002, a clause in the Department of Defense budget called for transferring the land beneath the cross to a local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. But the district court again sided with the ACLU.

"It is evident to the court that the government has engaged in herculean efforts to preserve the Latin cross on federal land and that the proposed transfer of the subject property can only be viewed as an attempt to keep the Latin cross atop Sunrise Rock without actually curing the continuing Establishment Clause violation by Defendants," Judge Robert Timlin wrote in the court's ruling.

The Ninth Circuit agreed once again.

The Supreme Court will take up the case in October.

Alliance to promote Mother Road

Needles Desert Star

NEEDLES - In the novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck wrote, “(Route) 66 is the mother road, the road of flight,” when referring to the 1930s migration of Dust Bowl refugees who headed west hoping to find jobs in the fields of California. After describing the long journey from the central plains, Steinbeck continued,“There's California just over the river, and a pretty town to start it. Needles, on the river.”

A proposed Mother Road National Monument project may soon regain positive recognition for Needles.

The “driveable monument” concept is all about preserving a 70-mile section of historic Route 66 between Needles and Barstow in the Mojave Desert. It would pass through Goffs, Essex, Amboy, Ludlow and a few other small towns which became neglected after Interstate 40 was built. Needles is expected to be the eastern anchor for the monument road.

Collaboration by several entities including Sierra Club, Nevada Desert Committee, Wildlands Conservancy and Route 66 preservationists has produced an initial plan which is being presented to government officials. Several concerns are expected to be worked out through negotiations among all parties involved.

Designation of a national monument would attract tourism and provide historical preservation, but the purpose is also to protect open desert lands surrounding a number of wilderness areas. Construction of wind and solar plants in the area and expansion of the U.S. Marine base at Twentynine Palms is expected to be carefully considered.

Conservationists are asking that all existing uses be preserved, military expansion be well planned, renewable energy plant placement be prudent and the 189,000-acre Johnson Valley off-highway vehicle area be kept intact. The intent is to promote responsible development to avoid disturbing the area's natural beauty and wildlife.

Senator Dianne Feinstein has been approached about the proposed project. She is introducing legislation to protect former Catellus lands, some 600,000 donated and purchased acres which are sprinkled throughout public trust lands in the Mojave Desert; however, she has not actually endorsed the mother road concept or related plans as detailed.

The Needles Downtown Business Alliance has been energized by the national monument proposal and intends to elevate publicity for the portion of Route 66 which runs through town. The alliance meets on the first Thursday of each month until October, when twice-a-month meetings, on the first and third Thursday, resume.

Meetings begin at 11:30 a.m. in the Wagon Wheel restaurant along Needles Highway. The public is invited. The alliance is dedicated to the preservation and beautification of historic downtown Needles. Send e-mails to

September 16, 2009

Monument plan creates rift

MOJAVE DESERT: The Schwarzenegger administration fears the preserve may interfere with energy projects.

The Press-Enterprise

A plan to create a national monument across a large corner of the Mojave Desert threatens to "halt all current planned renewable energy projects" there, the Schwarzenegger administration said in a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

The senator has not yet introduced the legislation, but advocates of a bill to create the monument have said it could cover much of the public land in southeast San Bernardino County, between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve.

One supporter said Tuesday that the senator now is working on a more modest plan than initially discussed.

The Aug. 28 letter, signed by state Natural Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman and released Tuesday, said Feinstein's California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act "must not" interfere with renewable energy projects. Schwarzenegger has made renewable energy a priority, and the state has aggressive standards requiring utilities to rely increasingly on solar, wind and other alternative sources.

Feinstein and a spokesman for Chrisman's office both said Tuesday that the legislation is still being shaped. And both said they want to conserve pristine lands while allowing development of solar and other renewable energy.

"We have mutual goals," Chrisman spokesman Sandy Cooney said in a telephone interview.

Feinstein released a prepared statement Tuesday.

"The vast majority of proposed large wind and solar projects on both public and private lands fall outside the boundaries under consideration for the monument," she said.

Earlier this year, preservationists said they sought Feinstein's support to create a 2.4 million-acre preserve to protect public land from military use and energy development. The area would be called the "Mother Road National Monument" because it would include 70 miles of historic Route 66.


Included in the monument would be about 600,000 acres of former railroad land purchased with $40 million in donations raised by The Wildlands Conservancy, based in Oak Glen, along with $18 million appropriated by Congress. Although the land was turned over to the federal government for conservation, about 15 energy projects have been proposed on some of the acreage, according to a Wildlands Conservancy official.

Protecting that land was part of the impetus for Feinstein's move to create a monument.

David Myers, executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy, said Tuesday that when he and his group donated the land, the Clinton administration assured them that the property would be conserved. The Bush administration later allowed energy applications targeting the acreage.

Myers said representatives of several energy companies have told him they are willing to build their projects outside the monument area. But not all are willing, he said.

One company, BrightSource Energy, wants to develop a solar project that involves some of the donated land, near Broadwell Dry Lake, east of Barstow.

Keely Wachs, a spokesman for BrightSource, said the company plans to build there and has been working with Feinstein's office on legislation that would balance conservation needs and energy development.


Elden Hughes, a member of the Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee and a Joshua Tree resident, said Feinstein is crafting legislation for a smaller monument than envisioned earlier by conservationists.

He said he hopes the Schwarzenegger administration doesn't stop Feinstein's effort, because a monument designation would protect corridors for wildlife to move between Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve. Such swaths of undisturbed land will be especially important as global warming changes habitat, he said.

"Severing the desert would be a huge mistake," Hughes said. "We need the wildlife and plant corridors to remain open."

Chrisman's letter said Feinstein intended to introduce the monument legislation this month along with another bill support renewable energy projects.

Staff writer Jim Miller contributed to this report.

Reach David Danelski at 951-368-9471 or


After this story was posted, a BrightSource Energy spokesman clarified that while the company has filed an application with the federal Bureau and Land Management for a solar development on public land near Broadwell Dry Lake, it will not move forward until questions are resolved about whether land would be included in a national monument. The company spokesman, Keely Wachs, also said Wednesday that BrightSource is considering alternative sites.

September 14, 2009

Water from the desert?

Southern California Public Radio

To meet urban demand for water, Cadiz Inc. is proposing to tap an aquifer in the Mojave Desert. The company could also store water from other sources in the aquifer. Governor Schwarzenegger has praised the project, but environmentalists say it would damage fragile desert ecosystems in nearby wilderness areas and Mojave National Preserve. A similar proposal from Cadiz died seven years ago. Larry talks with supporters and critics of the project.

To hear Scott Slater, General Counsel of Cadiz Inc, Emily Green of Chance of Rain, Elden Hughes of the Sierra Club and Richard Sierra of the San Bernardino Union of Carriers, Building & Construction Laborers, Local 783 discuss the Cadiz groundwater project in the Mojave Desert,

Slater claims that harvesting groundwater from the desert is now a “conservation” project. Green and Hughes don’t buy it. Sierra wants jobs.


Scott Slater, Cadiz General Counsel
Richard Sierra, Business Manager, Laborers Local 783
Emily Green, journalist. She writes the Dry Garden column for the Los Angeles Times and blogs on water at
Elden Hughes, past chair of the Sierra Club’s California/Nevada Desert Committee

September 11, 2009

Army to move forward with tortoise relocation

The Press-Enterprise

The U.S. Army has told the U.S. Bureau of Land Management it plans to move 90 imperiled tortoises from Fort Irwin next month, despite the bureau's position that it will not participate in the effort because of uncertainty over how many of the reptiles will survive.

John Wagstaffe, a Fort Irwin spokesman, said the Army will relocate the desert tortoises after it gets an OK from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Army wants the tortoises cleared from 24,000 acres to make way for expanded training with tanks and other military vehicles.

Desert tortoises are threatened with extinction, and questions remain about whether moving them makes them more vulnerable to coyote attacks.

The Army suspended a tortoise relocation effort from the same area last fall after about 90 of 556 tortoises moved in spring 2008 died, most of them killed by coyotes.

The BLM participated in the previous relocation, because many of the animals were moved to public land managed by the agency.

One environmental group vowed Friday to take legal action, if necessary, to make sure tortoises are not moved this fall.

The Army is awaiting a determination from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether the military can go ahead with is plan to move the reptiles to Army-owned land south of Fort Irwin.

Ray Bransfield, a Ventura-based biologist with the wildlife agency, said Friday that he will consult with wildlife scientists from the BLM and the U.S. Geological Survey who are familiar with tortoise relocations before making a decision by the beginning of October.

A BLM biologist who had been meeting with the Army about the relocation plan said Friday that his agency has decided not to proceed because of uncertainty about the tortoises' safety.

"They have apparently decided they can move the tortoises on their own," said Chris Otahal, who is based in Barstow. "We (the BLM) are not involved. This is strictly an Army action."

Earlier in the summer, the BLM announced plans to move tortoises this fall and next spring from Fort Irwin expansion areas to public land between the training base and Interstate 15.

At the same time, the agency issued an environmental analysis that relied on research by a USGS ecologist that found coyotes were killing and eating tortoises in greater numbers throughout the California and Nevada deserts, most likely because of a prey shortage brought on by years of drought.

The ecologist's work supported the government's conclusion that deaths among the tortoises from Fort Irwin were unrelated to the relocations.

But the ecologist, Henderson, Nev.-based Todd Esque, asked the BLM last month not to use his research until he was able to further analyze his observations, Otahal said.

The BLM decided last week to re-do its environmental analysis, Otahal said. The new work isn't expected to be ready until late October or early November. The tortoises begin hibernating underground in November.

Otahal said he met Tuesday with Army officials, who told him they still plan to move the 89 tortoises from the 24,000-acre training area starting Oct. 1. By moving the reptiles to Army-owned land, the military will not need the BLM's cooperation or approval.

Army officials told Otahal they can move forward under the authority of an earlier environmental analysis of the overall plan to relocate tortoises from areas where Fort Irwin was expanding.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said her organization will try to the stop a fall relocation, even if it means going to court.

"The Army appears willing to sacrifice another 89 tortoises, using the old translocation plan that has shown itself to be fatally flawed," said Anderson, who is bases in Los Angeles.

She said she's also concerned about moving the animals in the fall, because little food is available for them at a time when they would need energy to find or dig new burrows.

Earlier this year, Anderson disputed government claims that relocated tortoises are no more vulnerable to coyotes than any other tortoises. She said the relocated tortoises were easy targets for coyotes.

Tortoises have natural homing instincts, and many tried to head back to the military property after they were moved, Anderson said.

Roy C. Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Friday that Esque and other researchers have found that resident tortoises near Fort Irwin were just as likely to be eaten by coyotes as relocated tortoises.

Regardless of what the Army does next month, the BLM will prepare an environmental analysis on the military's next step: moving 1,100 tortoises from a 70,000-acre expansion area on the west side of the base.

September 10, 2009

Burning Man and the truest sense of home

Jarl Forsman

The Burning Man 2009 (Photo by Jarl Forsman)

I’m back from a week at Burning Man. What an amazing and fulfilling week it was! This year’s theme was Evolution. Because my interest lies in consciousness, I sought out community, events, and conversations that addressed the evolution of consciousness. It was also the first time in six years that I elected to join another camp rather than helping to create my own. I participated in a theme camp called Entheon Village. Entheon means, “a place to discover the spirit within."

For those of you who have not had the opportunity to experience Burning Man, let me attempt to describe what really needs to be experienced to be understood. I’m sure it is many different things to different people, but I think everyone would agree that Burning Man is characterized by radical self-expression and self-reliance. For the experience of radical self-expression, artists flock to display art installations and art cars, also known as mutant vehicles, on which they have worked months and sometimes all year long to prepare for this one week of appreciation. With radical self-expression as the raison d'etre, everyone is free to create from the authentic muse rather than from what will sell or fit in. The result is otherworldly, delightful, and sometimes utterly amazing. It is truly awesome to see what we are capable of when the rules are relaxed and the box is expanded just a bit. Several of the larger pieces such as “The Man” and “The Temple” are burned. The psychological benefits derived from the experience of working on ephemeral art, mirror what the Tibetan monks experience when they destroy the sand mandalas after weeks of effort making those beautiful, symbolic works of art. In this Buddhist tradition, mandalas are painstakingly made from colored sand and upon completion are ritualistically destroyed. This process symbolizes Buddhists belief in the transitory nature of material life. It demonstrates an intention to experience the sheer joy of creation along with a detachment of the end result.

Everyone is encouraged to dress completely in alignment with how they feel rather than according to protocol or appropriateness. Actually, the concept of appropriateness doesn't really exist at Burning Man. Anything goes. When anything goes, judgment of others often flies out the window. When judgment of others disappears, self-judgment fades too, and one is left with the feelings of authenticity, acceptance, freedom, and love. It’s a wonderful experience when it happens. When I say, “anything goes,” and “judgment flies out the window,” I’m not talking about discernment or laws. I’m referring to style and personal self-expression. Beauty and goodness is still beauty and goodness.

Burning Man is also about radical self-reliance. The week takes place in an ancient lakebed where nothing lives. There are no bugs, no birds, no creepy-crawlers, no animals, no plants, no nothing. That is, nothing but dust and more dust! Citizens of Black Rock City must bring everything they need, including shelter, food, water, and gear which can protect them from the harsh environment of heat and wind blowing dust so intensely that “white-outs” occur several times a day. The juxtaposition of the periodic harshness of the environment and the gentle attitudes of the citizens toward one another make for an exhilarating experience. Life seems magical and synchronicity abounds.

The only commerce at Burning Man is conducted by the organizers and it is limited to selling high-octane espresso drinks and electrolytes in addition to ice for campers’ coolers. All other forms of commerce are frowned upon and strictly prohibited. What is encouraged in its place is a gift economy. Nothing is to be bought, bartered or sold, but only gifted. To improvise on the words of John F. Kennedy, at Burning Man the theme is: “ask not what Burning Man can give to you, ask what you can give to your fellow burner.” Everyone arrives with something to offer such as art, performance, food, humor, theme camps, drinks, dance parties, some kind of service or just, plain appreciation. Regardless of what you do or do not bring, just by virtue of trekking out to this remote and harsh environment, everybody is a participant.

Most of what is found in a normal US city can be found in Black Rock City. The only difference is that Black Rock City arises out of nothing, lasts for one week, and then disappears back into absolutely nothing, leaving no trace but a memory. Cafés, nightclubs, a skating rink, a post office, films, bars, concerts, bicycle repair shops, yoga, tai chi, and hula-hoop classes, lectures, meditations, a zendo, twelve-step meetings, performances of all kinds, amazing art, a hotel, clothing designers wanting to dress you, people offering to bathe you, massage you, and heal you. You name it. It is available and all in the price of admission: $250 per person and your own participation.

When one is focused on giving, magic truly happens. When a desire or need arises, its fulfillment is almost immediate. With a focus on giving, “wanting” loses its grip, tension relaxes, and fulfillment easily finds its way to you. This is true for tangible, material desires as well as for emotional ones. After experiencing this magic so many times, I began to ask people if they experienced similar phenomenon at Burning Man. The answer was always a resounding yes. I suspect this is the truth about life in general: the Universe provides! But we are usually so focused on the “how” that we miss the fact that what we want is often right in front of us.

The idea of safety doesn’t even come up, at least not for me. This environment is like being on another planet where fulfillment abounds. People treat one another lovingly and with acceptance. No one is a stranger. It’s one big “functional” family. I’m sure there are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

Upon arriving from what Burners call the “default world,” the greeters at the gate greet each person with “Welcome Home!” The feeling I experience at Burning Man is that of being at home in the truest sense of the word: at home with myself, expressing my true nature without the concern of being judged. Home is wherever the heart is, comfortably expressing authentically in an atmosphere of radical self-acceptance.

September 8, 2009

Renewable energy plan creates rift

Environmentalist David Myers says eSolar does energy right at its Sierra SunTower location, which has not used pristine land. (Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY)

By Andrea Stone

AMBOY, Calif. — The morning heat hits triple digits as a whiptail lizard darts below a creosote bush near Route 66. Gazing across the desert valley, power company executives, environmentalists and federal land managers stand beneath a cloudless sky and argue over the landscape.
PG&E project manager Alice Harron says she is "comfortable" with the solar power plant her utility wants to build on government land here along 4 miles of the Mother Road that connected Chicago and Los Angeles long before the interstate system.

David Myers of the Wildlands Conservancy is not. Renewable energy projects such as this one — which could power 224,000 homes — sound good in theory, he says, but if they tear up pristine vistas, they're not "green."

President Obama wants a "clean-energy economy" that relies on renewable sources such as solar and wind power instead of coal and oil. He wants to put these new utilities on federally owned lands like this stretch of the Mojave Desert, one of the sunniest places on Earth.

The administration wants to lead the way by taking advantage of its vast holdings, which account for 20% of all land in the USA, mostly in the West.

That idea is creating a rift among environmentalists, who favor renewable energy but are at odds over where to produce it. Some are willing to compromise with utility companies to build large power plants on remote federal lands to accelerate the transition to clean energy.

Purists are dead set against disturbing pristine landscapes.

Obama's goal is to meet 25% of the nation's energy needs from renewable resources by 2025. Today, the figure is 11.1%, according to the Department of Energy.

One purist is Myers, who worries that the government will industrialize the desert with acres of solar mirrors, trampling treasured landscapes. Groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) counter that large, centralized projects are needed to speed the shift to non-polluting energy.

"It's hard, because many of us have fought to protect the very lands" that could be affected, says Johanna Wald of the NRDC.

Starting 'a new beginning'

In a wood-paneled Washington conference room, under the words "America the Beautiful," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says he runs "the real department of energy."

After decades of allowing private companies to lease public lands for coal and oil, "we have started a new beginning" to make room for solar mirrors and wind turbines, he says. As with the older leases, operators would pay to use the land.

Salazar has designated 24 tracts in six Western states as possible solar project sites. There is none on federal lands now.

The Interior Department will open offices to eliminate a five-year backlog of applications. There are 158 pending solar projects on 1.8 million acres of public land. If all went through, they could power 29 million homes.

Not all will be approved, Salazar says, because of environmental and other concerns. Still, the White House plans to streamline approval for at least 10 solar plants it hopes will create 50,000 jobs by 2011.

Nearly half the solar proposals are in the Mojave Desert, home to the threatened desert tortoise, Indian petroglyphs and an intact stretch of Route 66, the historic highway dotted with vintage diners and derelict gas stations.

Not far from the iconic Roy's Motel and Diner, PG&E consultant Scott Galati tells environmentalists that surveys reveal no rare plants or threatened species on a planned solar site. A nearby rail line and access road are proof, he says, the land is hardly pristine.

Myers of the Wildlands Conservancy says an abandoned farm farther from Route 66 would be a better choice. PG&E's Harron says it is privately owned and would be difficult to acquire.

The great advantage of government land, she says, is how much of it there is and the relative ease and cost-effectiveness of building projects on public property.

Too easy, says Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. In a letter to Salazar last month, she said she was "deeply concerned" about a "bias under which solar developers believe they are more likely to receive a permit to build their projects on pristine public lands than on previously disturbed private lands."

Myers fears taxpayers are subsidizing inappropriately large-scale projects. He'd prefer a focus on rooftop solar panels and other small-scale solutions in urban areas that would reduce the clout of big energy companies.

Wald, the NRDC lawyer, says the government is taking a balanced approach. She spent 35 years battling the oil and gas industry and now is working with them to find appropriate sites for wind and solar plants. She agrees that energy self-sufficiency is important but says Myers' approach would take too long. "Even if (some environmentalists) don't like it," she says, large-scale projects "are going to happen."

Monumental roadblock?

Feinstein wants to establish a national monument that would bar energy development on hundreds of thousands of acres of desert between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. The area includes former railroad land the Wildlands Conservancy donated to the government a decade ago.

If Congress establishes the monument, PG&E and 22 other companies would have to build someplace else.

Across the border in Nevada, Feinstein's Democratic colleague Harry Reid is taking a different approach. The Senate majority leader supports a proposed wind turbine farm on federal land near Searchlight, his hometown.

That has some of his neighbors livid. Many say they fled to the quiet desert town to get away from California's massive, densely packed wind farms.

They fear the same in Searchlight, where the tallest structure is the 150-foot flagpole at Terrible's Casino.

Duke Energy wants to put up 95 wind turbines with blades that reach 415 feet off the ground. Though few in number compared with older, less efficient wind farms — some with thousands of turbines — that's still too many for some people.

"It's going to ruin our way of life," says Verlie Doing, 85, a friend of Reid's late mother. Doing owns the Nugget Casino.

Twelve miles south in the Nevada town of Cal-Nev-Ari, retired energy company electrician Robert Carty supports the turbines. He sees "the global picture" of climate change and calls opponents "CAVE people — citizens against virtually everything."

Across the Mojave in Lucerne Valley, Calif., where neighbors are arguing over a proposed solar plant on 516 acres, county employee Andrew Silva sighs.

"Folks in the East," he says, "don't necessarily recognize how complex and beautiful and diverse the desert is."

RFK Jr., enviros clash over Mojave solar proposal


Colin Sullivan

SAN FRANCISCO -- Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is no stranger to hardball politics.

The environmental attorney has confronted polluters of the Hudson River, been arrested in Puerto Rico for trying to block U.S. Navy training operations and scrapped with oil companies looking to drill in remote parts of Alaska.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Along the way, he has worked for environmental groups large and small, lending his famous name to a burgeoning movement fighting to bring attention to macro-issues like climate change while protecting local wildlife habitat. In 1999, he was named a Time magazine "Hero of the Planet" for his work with the advocacy group Riverkeeper.

But in California's emerging battle over renewable energy development, Kennedy has gained new enemies: fellow environmentalists.

Kennedy, the son and namesake of the late Attorney General and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), is at the center of a nasty dispute among environmental groups, energy developers and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) over the future of federal lands in the sun-soaked Mojave Desert.

The Mojave's 22,000 square miles straddle California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. Given its elevation, heat, aridity and proximity to population centers on the California coast, the region is viewed by many as the ideal venue in North America for building a new generation of large solar-thermal power plants, especially in a state where utilities are required to get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2010 and likely 33 percent by 2020.

Among the leaders in a group of aggressive solar prospectors is an Oakland-based company called BrightSource Energy Inc., which has been making a splash lately for its plans to build 2.6 gigawatts of power for California's investor-owned utilities, much of it to be located -- on paper, at least -- in the Mojave Desert.

But some California-based activists are worried that solar developers like BrightSource are getting a free pass in a headlong rush to build clean energy and capitalize on federal stimulus dollars now available for such projects. These activists have enlisted Feinstein to push for the declaration of a national monument in the desert and intend to unveil legislation with the senator in September that would apparently protect 1 million acres in the eastern Mojave to limit development.

Enter Kennedy, who calls the national monument, as it is likely to be drawn, a bad idea. To Kennedy, the instinct to protect local ecosystems has collided with the goals of a progressive national energy policy.

"I respect the belief that it's all local," Kennedy said in an interview. "But they're putting the democratic process and sound scientific judgement on hold to jeopardize the energy future of our country."

But here's the rub: Kennedy has a stake in BrightSource through VantagePoint Venture Partners, a venture capital firm based in Silicon Valley that was instrumental in raising $160 million in financing for the solar startup. Other investors include Chevron Corp., and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

That Kennedy is a senior adviser at VantagePoint, and an open promoter of BrightSource in public speeches, is an irony not lost on David Myers, an activist who charges Kennedy with shilling for a company intent on using his political clout. To Myers, the lure of profit if BrightSource makes it big is why Kennedy, a cousin of California's first lady, Maria Shriver, wants to stop the national monument before it ever gets off the ground.

"I'm getting pretty tired of BrightSource using their Kennedy connection," said Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy. "BrightSource [is pursuing] the worst projects in the worst locations, but they have the best PR firm, because Robert Kennedy is involved."

Feinstein's monument

Enter Feinstein, a longtime advocate of desert conservation and lead appropriator for the Interior Department in Congress.

Her office is working on a bill to be released this month that some sources said will cut off 1 million public acres in the desert -- up from a previous estimate of 600,000 acres -- to protect a threatened species of desert tortoise and preserve its habitat.

Feinstein, according to several sources who spoke anonymously, is livid about the pace of development on public lands and has bluntly told the solar developers not to challenge her on the national monument designation. Calls to several solar companies seeking comment seemed to bear this out. None of them would take a position on the measure.

Myers has been instrumental in developing the boundaries of the monument, sparking rumors that he is cozy with Feinstein and is dictating the terms of the legislation. The boundaries would stretch from Joshua Tree National Park to Mojave National Preserve, including nearly 100,000 acres of National Park Service lands and 210,000 acres spread across 20 wilderness areas controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

That area includes lands previously owned by Catellus Development Corp., a real estate subsidiary of the former Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroad. Myers insisted that the purchase was made years ago in the name of conservation, a promise that he says Feinstein takes seriously.

And though he would not release details of the bill, Myers said none of the land would come from the federal energy zones marked by the Interior Department for development. Nor does he believe solar companies will have trouble finding land to build on elsewhere in the region.

"The land in the monument is minuscule," Myers said. "There are so many other places where solar is being proposed throughout the state."

But Kennedy disagrees. BrightSource and 19 other companies have petitioned BLM and the California Energy Commission (CEC) to build in an area called Broadwell that would be shut off under the Feinstein bill. Those applications represent about 10,000 megawatts of power, or 30 large-scale solar power plants; and though much of that would never get built, Kennedy says closing down Broadwell is a significant blow to the companies that have invested there under the guidance of federal land managers.

"This area is probably one of the best solar areas in the world," Kennedy said. "All that the solar industry has said is, 'Look, let's respect the robust process in place,' a process that is among the most transparent in the world through the CEC and BLM."

That process is still proceeding. BLM has received 66 applications for solar, totaling 577,000 acres, most of which would be located in the desert, an agency spokesman said. BLM is also processing 93 wind applications, representing 815,000 acres.

Yet the monument bill may have already produced a chilling effect. John White, a renewable-energy policy expert at the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, says the proposal has cast a "shadow" over these projects just as they are vying for financing and federal stimulus dollars only available until 2010. To White, setting aside 1 million acres in the eastern Mojave would mean "less land for solar than for off-road vehicles ... in the very best land that has the highest solar radiation."

"I'm astonished that nobody's said that," said White, who refused to comment further on the political wrangling.

Myers countered that most of those 19 companies have agreed, in private discussions with Feinstein, to build elsewhere. Florida Power & Light Co., Cogentrix Energy LLC and Stirling Energy Systems Inc., among others, have informed Feinstein that they filed "shotgun applications" in the Broadwell area and are more than willing to drop those and find other areas, he said.

"They're fine going outside the monument," Myers said. "BrightSource is the laughingstock of the industry right now."

Kennedy vs. Myers

For his part, Kennedy was unfazed by Myers' allegations or his harsh take on BrightSource, calling the political heat familiar territory, given his family's unique place in U.S. history. In the same breath, he urged Feinstein to take a step back before proceeding with the monument.

"I don't think it does anybody any good to start making personal attacks," Kennedy said. "Let's argue this on the merits. I think if we argue this on the merits, I think BrightSource and 19 other companies are going to win the debate."

Kennedy added that he has a "limited stake" in VantagePoint and denied asking for special treatment through Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) or anyone else in the state government.

"I don't care enough about BrightSource to compromise my integrity or the national interest," Kennedy said. "I've never talked to anyone about choosing BrightSource over anybody else. I've never asked for any favors from any politician or any regulator or any human being, ever."

In the next breath, Kennedy went negative himself and questioned Myers' relationship with a competitor to BrightSource, Pasadena-based eSolar Inc. Like BrightSource, eSolar is a solar-thermal outfit whose business model is built around reflecting radiation from mirrors into a large tower to convert steam into electricity. Unlike BrightSource, eSolar has no stake or planned projects in the Broadwell region.

Myers, Kennedy pointed out, has his own overlap issues with Silicon Valley money through eSolar. A major donor to the Wildlands Conservancy is the venture capitalist David Gelbaum, who has poured his own funds into eSolar and reportedly owns a fat stake in the company. eSolar would stand to benefit from the national monument, several sources said, because it is not involved in the Broadwell area.

Adding to the fire is Myers himself, who recently appeared at an eSolar press event in person to praise the company for siting projects on industrial lands near power lines in Lancaster, Calif. Yet Myers denies an inappropriate relationship and blamed Kennedy and BrightSource for stoking the rumors.

Gelbaum, Myers said, donated $45 million seven years ago to help acquire the Catellus lands. Myers said the donation and pledge to keep the lands off-limits took place well before BrightSource came into being.

Not stopping there, Myers slammed Kennedy for opposing a wind project off the coast of Nantucket, Mass., and questioned his recent environmental credentials. He said Kennedy is hiding behind the local versus national environmental debate when his real motivation is turning a profit through VantagePoint.

"Bobby Kennedy told us they did not want to see windmills in Cape Cod, that they had to put it all in the California desert," Myers said. "The real story here is, Bobby Kennedy is on the side of major industrial development, and he's against distributed generation."

Kennedy responded in kind. "He is very focused on a narrow piece of land, which I respect," he said of Myers. "All I've ever asked for is a rational process that is democratic, that is transparent, that is robust. That process is in place."

View from the bleachers

Spectators on the sidelines were hesitant to comment on the flare-up between Kennedy and Myers or the shape of the monument designation. Most said they could not take a position on the forthcoming Feinstein bill until it is publicly available, which a spokeswoman said has not been finalized.

Officials at BrightSource, who contacted Kennedy for an interview after receiving a call for this article, said the focus had been placed unfairly on their company when the future of the entire solar industry is at stake.

"The debate over renewable development and desert protection is not adversarial," said Keely Wachs, a spokesman at BrightSource. "We all have the same end goal of protecting the environment."

White, whose organization is meant to bridge industry and environmental groups, said "a little bit of land rush" followed the stimulus frenzy and perhaps led to tense feelings on both sides. He urged the players to learn from the experience, even as he cautioned that the political process has yet to play out.

"It's one thing to introduce a bill and another thing to get it through both houses," White said. "I think that this really is the beginning of a long conversation about where and how to put solar in the desert."

Elden Hughes, a former chairman of the Sierra Club's California-Nevada Desert Committee, blamed BLM for promoting lands bought from Catellus years ago and said officials there should have respected a promise that those lands be conserved. He said BLM has only recently changed its tune.

Calling BLM officials "two-faced SOBs," Hughes said, "For some months, they were telling us they were protecting the land, while at the same time they were taking developers out there."

BLM spokesman John Dearing would only say that the agency's job is to process applications. BLM has no right to block any entity from seeking a right of way on the Catellus lands, he said, adding that the agency will pursue "high-level reviews" for any proposed impacts to lands meant for conservation.

"They might want to steer away from that area," Dearing said of the developers. "But they're not prohibited from making an application."