January 22, 2010

Camels enlisted to battle an invasive species

They may be known for their surly dispositions, but camels are more than happy to eat tamarisk, one the West's most destructive and invasive plants.

CAMELSCAPING: It's estimated that 10 camels could destroy half an acre of tamarisk in two days. (Photo: Victoria Reay/Flickr)

By Bryan Nelson
Mother Nature Network

Tamarisk is one hard-to-kill invasive plant. Since it was first introduced from Eurasia to the United States in the 1800s, it has spread through the West like wildfire — actually, faster than wildfire. Efforts to eradicate it by burning it, cutting it, or dowsing it in herbicides have all failed. But tamarisk does have one formidable foe: hungry camels.

Known for their stubborn personalities, humpy postures and ability to survive for weeks without water, camels and dromedaries also have a keen appetite for salty fare — and tamarisk is as salty as they come. That's why ranchers in Colorado have enlisted the inglorious beasts to eat their way through this invasive species, eradicating it once and for all, according to High Country News.

"They will eat all day if given the opportunity," says Maggie Repp, a camel rancher in Loma, Colo. "My camels have killed every tamarisk on our place, so why not give it a whirl?"

A drooling dromedary may not strike you as a potential landscaper, but they do a good job. Repp says 10 camels can destroy half an acre of tamarisk in two days. That's not necessarily a solution for clearing the pesky shrub from the whole expanse of the Great Plains, but it's the perfect remedy for removing the odd tamarisk patch from your pasture.

One of the reasons tamarisk is so dangerous is its high salt content. Wherever tamarisk grows, the surrounding soil gets laced with a salty layer, making it tougher for native flora to grow. And that's not all. Discover Moab (via BigGreenBoulder) points out a litany of negative effects the invasive species has on local environments:

  • narrowing and channelizing streams and rivers;
  • displacing native vegetation such as cottonwoods, willows and adjacent dryland plant communities;
  • providing poor habitat for livestock, wild animals and birds: the foliage and flowers of tamarisk provide little food value for native wildlife species that depend on nutrient-rich native plant resources;
  • increasing wildfire hazards;
  • limiting human and animal use of the waterways
But tamarisk is basically comfort food for salt-loving camelids. Currently the only other solution to tamarisk is another hungry species: leaf-eating beetles. Swarms of the creepy-crawlies have been released to battle the invasive species across the West.

For the bug-a-phobic smallscale farmer, though, renting a few camels may be more practical solution.

January 19, 2010

Rain too late for wildflowers

Yuma Sun

You may have been hoping that this week's forecasted rains would produce a bounty of colorful wildflowers in the Yuma area this spring.

But, alas, you'll have to wait until at least a year from now.

The rain will no doubt benefit the area's native trees and cactuses, say U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials. But it comes too late for the wildflowers that, in wetter years, blanket the desert and even pockets of Yuma in hues of purple, pink, yellow and white.

"We have to have rain in the fall and early winter to germinate the (wildflower) seeds, and it's been drought conditions," said Lori Cook, spokeswoman for the BLM's Yuma Field Office.

Rain is forecast in the area Wednesday and Thursday as a Pacific storm moves from California into Arizona.

Wildflower seeds stored in the soil begin germinating in the fall and need periodic rain from then through winter to blossom early in the new year, said Karen Reichhardt, a BLM botanist in Yuma.

"It's just like if you plant a garden. You have to water pretty regularly for the plants to grow."

In wet years, commonly seen wildflowers in the desert and in Yuma include the desert sand verbena, a low-growing plant with small lavender flowers; the desert sunflower, sporting large white flowers; and dune primrose, a tall purplish grass that grows in bunches at roadside and in disturbed soil.

In early 2009, the Yuma area had a good season for wildflowers on the heels of a wet winter that included heavy rains over the previous Thanksgiving holiday.

But this week's rain is not all wasted. Cook said it will benefit the area's native mesquite, cottonwood, willow and ironwood trees as well cactuses.

"They'll take it anytime they can get it."

And in the short term, she added, the rain will forestall dry conditions that can lead to wildland fires, which are not uncommon in Yuma County even in January and February.

Reichhardt said hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts who venture into the desert in the weeks and months ahead will still be able to see color. In bloom will be the area's hummingbird bushes, also know as chuparorsas; brittle bushes, palo verde and ironwood trees and cactuses.

"We just won't have the carpets of wildflowers."

January 17, 2010

Solar project's foes plagued by ignorance

Tortoise preservation bungled; habitat isn't pristine

Vernon Bostick
Las Vegas Review-Journal

To the editor:

I have spent a lifetime in the Southwest studying plants and animals in relation to their environment and each other. I would like to comment on your Jan. 2 Associated Press story: "Tortoises slow sun power plan."

The story says, "Government scientists have concluded that more than 6 square miles of habitat for the federally threatened desert tortoise would be permanently lost" if the solar power plant goes forward. I would like to know why they think that this solar power plant would render the site uninhabitable for desert tortoises. I would also like to see any data that supports their conclusion and how it was obtained.

The story goes on to say, "The Sierra Club and other environmentalists want the complex relocated to preserve what they call a near pristine home for rare plants and wildlife." Public land in Southern California was subjected to uncontrolled grazing by livestock for more than four centuries. When Spain ruled Southern California, cowhides were the chief export. Senate document 199, The Western Range, describes the severe over-grazing of public land between World War I and the Taylor Grazing Act. The only pristine land is land that is inaccessible to livestock.

I visited this site many times between 1969 and 1972 while I was studying the vegetation of the McCullough Mountains for my master's thesis. At that time the variety and abundance of wildflowers made this site a riot of color in a good flower year. The last time I visited this site in a good flower year, weedy grasses from the Mediterranean or invasive mustard had replaced the desert flowers. When I worked for the U.S. Forest Service, I spent two years developing criteria for measuring the departure of rangeland from the pristine condition. Dominance of a site by invasive weeds is about as far from pristine as you can get.

The story notes that, "In November, federal and state biologists reviewing the plan proposed that the company catch and move the tortoises and preserve 12,000 acres elsewhere." Transplanting tortoises is not a solution, and it is a disaster for the tortoises being transplanted. Tortoises are fiercely territorial. If a tortoise invades another's territory, they will fight until one tortoise succeeds in flipping the other tortoise on its back. It can't turn over and will lie on its back kicking until it dies from dehydration or starvation, and for a tortoise that is a long time. If a coyote or a fox comes by, it will eat the legs. If a biologist comes by and sees the carcass, he will record it as a predator kill.

A scientist once told me he was hired to remove tortoises form the construction site for a new reservoir. He said he put radios on some of the tortoises so he could track them. As soon as these tortoises were released, they started walking in the direction of the reservoir site. No tortoise remained where it was released. No tortoises survived to return to their original habitat.

The story continues, "The Sierra Club wants regulators to move the site closer to Interstate 15 ... to avoid what it says will be a virtual death sentence for the tortoises." I can't understand why moving this site a short distance could make the difference between life and death for the tortoises.

And this: "Roy Averill-Murray, the Fish and Wildlife Service's desert tortoise recovery coordinator, said there are insufficient data to make judgments about the population of the Bright Source sit." After spending 20 years and many millions of dollars, the recovery team doesn't know how many tortoises they have out there? Tortoises can be counted easily and accurately. Tortoises live in burrows. It is easy to distinguish between occupied and unoccupied burrows. All they have to do is count the occupied burrows. If they do not know how many tortoises they have, how do they know whether their recovery efforts are succeeding or doing more harm than good?

The story says, "A 2006 Fish and Wildlife Service report found the tortoise population dropping in parts of a four-state region that included California." This is a confession of failure. The site has 4,000 acres and only 25 tortoises. This is one tortoise per 160 acres. Before tortoises were listed as a threatened species, there was a well-studied population on the east side of the McCullough Mountains, a short distance from the BrightSource Energy site.

The population at this site was 10 acres per tortoise, which was about average for tortoise populations at that time. In the early '30s, during a prolonged drought and at a time when the range was notoriously overstocked with cattle, Kristine Berry estimated that some tortoise populations in California had a density of three tortoises per acre. This indicates to me that the recovery team doesn't have a clue about restoring tortoise populations.

This tiny population is probably doomed to extinction regardless of any action taken. With a population density of only four tortoises per square mile, tortoises may have a difficult time finding a mate. They spend 85 percent of their time in their burrows. With a short work week, a slow gait and an awful lot of ground to cover, the chance of a tortoise finding a mate is not good. The age of the youngest tortoise in this population would tell us how many years it has been since there has been any recruitment to this population.

It is absurd that a miniscule population that has no real significance and no future can hold up a multimillion-dollar project that benefits both the economy and the environment.

Vernon Bostick graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in Range Management and has a Masters in Biology, specializing in plant and Animal Ecology. He has taught Forestry and Range Management at Washington State College, worked for the Forest Service in New Mexico and Arizona and served as a Private Range Consultant. Mr. Bostick has conducted grazing surveys, engineering surveys, and extensive historical research on the desert tortoise.

January 16, 2010

Arizona decides to close most state parks

Facing a multibillion-dollar shortfall, the state will shut 13 parks by June, including the Tombstone Courthouse and Yuma Territorial Prison. Several had already been closed.

Picacho Peak State Park is one of 13 Arizona parks slated for closure by June. (Ross Franklin / Associated Press)

By Nicole Santa Cruz
Los Angeles Times

Wrestling with a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, Arizona decided Friday to close nearly all of its state parks, including the famed Tombstone Courthouse and Yuma Territorial Prison.

The State Parks Board unanimously voted to close 13 parks by June 3. Eight others had already been closed, and the decision would leave nine open -- but only if the board can raise $3 million this year.

The action represents the largest closure of state parks in the nation, although several other states are considering similar moves.

"It's a dark day for the Arizona state parks system," said Renee Bahl, the system's executive director.

"We have 65,000 acres around the state and the majority of them are closing."

The Arizona parks receive about 2.3 million visitors per year who bring about $266 million into the state, Bahl said.

"It's unfortunate that a short-term recession is having an impact on our future," Bahl said.

Arizona isn't the only state struggling to support its parks.

In May, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed closing 220 of California's 278 state parks to help close a multibillion-dollar deficit but backed off after protests.

This month, Schwarzenegger proposed to expand oil drilling off the Santa Barbara coast to provide up to $140 million for state parks in place of state funding, said Jerry Emory, the director of communications for the California State Parks Foundation.

Louisiana and Iowa may close parks due to budget problems. Other states have transferred their parks to local control to save money.

In Idaho, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter has proposed disbanding the state parks department, saving $10 million by selling the headquarters and shifting management of 30 state parks and recreation programs to another agency, said Jennifer Wernex, spokeswoman for the Idaho Parks and Recreation Department.

Phil McKnelly, the executive director of the National Assn. of State Park Directors, lamented the decision to close parks amid a recession.

"This is the time when people need to be getting out and releasing stress," he said.

The Arizona State Parks budget has gone from $26 million in the 2009 fiscal year to $7.5 million as the legislature has struggled to close its budget gap.

Some local jurisdictions that depend on the flow of tourist dollars have mobilized to protect their parks.

The town of Camp Verde came up with $18,000 of its own money to keep Ft. Verde State Historic Park operating.

For Mike Scannell, the Camp Verde town manager, closing the fort -- one of the best-preserved Army forts from the period of the Indian Wars -- simply wasn't an option for the community of 12,000.

"We clearly had to do something," he said.

Closing the park would have dealt a "catastrophic" blow to Camp Verde's economy, Scannell said. "It's a real important part of the history of the town."

But even with the extra funds, the town was able to only delay the closing of the park by a month, from Feb. 22 to March 29.

The town plans to use the time to come up with a funding plan to keep the fort open permanently.

January 15, 2010

Desert monuments legislation faces a busy Congress and political obstacles in Washington

The Press-Enterprise

Sen. Dianne Feinstein worked for years to reconcile the competing interests of environmentalists, renewable energy developers and others before crafting her recent legislation to create two national monuments in the Mojave Desert.

But political obstacles and unresolved concerns about power-line routes remain.

The proposed monuments -- Mojave Trails in eastern San Bernardino County and Sand to Snow between Joshua Tree National Park and the San Bernardino National Forest -- would preserve about 1 million acres. Wind and solar energy projects would be prohibited.

At the same time, the bill allows for construction of transmission lines within the Mojave Trails monument to carry electricity from renewable sources once existing corridors reach capacity.

Environmentalists support the bill but said they will push to limit power lines to existing transmission corridors and developed rights of way.

Power providers say new routes are needed to ensure secure, reliable transmission and meet the state's goal of supplying 33 percent of California's power with solar, wind and other alternative sources by 2020.

"Unfortunately, we do have what can be viewed as competing societal objectives. We want to use more renewables because it has lower impact on the environment, yet more renewables are located far from people. You have to build transmission lines to them somewhere. There are tradeoffs that are going to have to be made," said Pedro Pizarro, executive vice president for power operations for Southern California Edison.

Beyond those arguments, and despite buy-in by most of the interest groups that would be affected by the monument designations, the legislation faces significant hurdles in Congress.

The sheer magnitude of the plan -- setting aside 1 million acres of public land, among other provisions -- may slow its progress, and it would have to compete for floor time with proposed overhauls of the nation's health care system and other heavyweight legislation.

Though in the earliest stages, the bill is finding resistance from Republicans.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has been a staunch critic of wildland conservancy bills in recent years.

"He'll oppose it," Coburn spokesman John Hart said, pointing to an existing maintenance backlog in areas overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. "We can't take care of the federal land we already have."

Additionally, Coburn is against making land off-limits to development, especially if it supports alternative energy projects, Hart said.

If not there, where?

"If you can't develop solar energy in the Mojave Desert, where can you develop it?" he asked.

The bill also would need to pass the House, and no member has come forward with plans to introduce it in the lower chamber.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, who represents portions of the High Desert that would be impacted by the bill, has commended Feinstein for working closely with those affected by the bill, but he has not taken a position on it.

"I am extremely concerned that it locks up tens of thousands of acres that are not suitable for protection, and prevents other uses such as mining, energy development or military maneuvers that might better serve our national interests," Lewis, R-Redlands, said in a statement released upon introduction of the bill.

Feinstein said the bill is necessary to preserve natural habitats that need protection while encouraging energy development in more appropriate places.

"We worked hard to build a consensus between local governments, state agencies, the Defense Department and the Interior Department, environmental groups, renewable energy companies, public utility companies, off-road vehicle enthusiasts, hunters and many others," she said.

New technologies

The bill would provide loan guarantees and grants to develop and test new technologies such as higher-capacity wires and cost-effective underground transmission that could reduce impacts to sensitive species and eliminate the visual blight of towers in pristine areas of the desert.

Some environmentalists questioned the need for new transmission, but Pizarro, of Edison, said a study by the state Public Utilities Commission identified the need for seven to 11 new transmission lines across the state to carry the power necessary to meet renewable energy goals.

Even if solar and wind farms are located on land that is not environmentally sensitive, power would still have to be moved to people who need it, and the monuments are in that path, he said.

It's not realistic for all transmission lines to be built along existing corridors or highways because a single quake or fire could take down the whole grid, he said.

Environmental groups say they will work to bar new transmission corridors from the monuments.

Chase Huntley is energy policy adviser for The Wilderness Society, a national organization founded in 1935 to protect wilderness.

"Our focus is on ensuring that in the bill language, that any needed new transmission lines are focused in appropriate places -- existing corridors and already developed rights of way," he said.

Earlier versions of the bill excluded expansions of existing transmission lines, a point the state worked hard to change, said Tony Brunello, a deputy secretary with the California Natural Resources Agency. It now allows power poles to be replaced with high-voltage towers, even though those create a larger footprint.

The state also wants Feinstein's bill to take into account a long-term plan it is developing for conservation and renewable energy development zones.

"It uses science to determine the most biologically sensitive areas and lay out the future of the desert rather than political boundaries," Brunello said.

January 4, 2010

Two ways of life collide in Wonder Valley


Solitude reigns in the desert community until the off-road vehicles roar in. Then the tension escalates and tempers flare.

Al Gartner of the 29 Palms Historical Society inspects the remains of an adobe house at the Poste Homestead Natural and Historic Area. Preservationists say the area was damaged by off-road vehicle enthusiasts over the Thanksgiving weekend. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

By David Kelly
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Wonder Valley - Eric Hamburg bought a house in this valley of wrinkled mountains and sugar-soft sand to escape life in Los Angeles and drink in the empty solitude only the desert can provide.

"I loved the peace and quiet. I loved the tremendous sky. I loved the heat in the summer," he enthused about his remote getaway outside Twentynine Palms. "It was like a safety valve for me."

But he quickly became aware of another way of life, one far less conducive to quiet meditation.

"You see them buzzing around all the time and they just come closer and closer," he said of the men, women and children who blast joyously through the desert on rattling dirt bikes and quad runners.

Some own homes in Wonder Valley, just as Hamburg does. But John McEntire's idea of a good time is charging about in a dune buggy exploring old mines.

"It's been a lifestyle for us," said the 73-year-old outdoorsman. "I bought the place in 1979 so my family could ride on established trails. We go out, pick a lunch spot and make sure we leave no trash behind. I enjoy the camaraderie."

As desert communities go, Wonder Valley is the real thing, an eclectic array of artists, retirees, certified desert rats and second homeowners. There are no strip malls, fast-food joints or other signs of homogenized America.

Houses are cheap and often come with five-acre lots. The dirt roads -- and they're nearly all dirt -- slice through a confusing hodgepodge of private land and Bureau of Land Management property.

Because the place attracts seekers of all kinds, there's a natural tension. But lately it's escalated into intimidation, threats and accusations of vandalism.

Things came to a head on Thanksgiving weekend when critics said marauding riders deliberately overran a historic site that they'd worked hard to restore.

"We are crestfallen because of all the efforts and energy we put into this and in a matter of two days off-roaders destroyed it," said Phil Klasky, president of Community ORV Watch, a group dedicated to curbing illegal off-roading. "It's a culture clash."

Ray Pessa, president of Friends of Giant Rock, which fights for off-roader rights, said law-abiding riders shouldn't be penalized because others flout the rules.

"I have run into these guys myself. They have cussed me out and kicked up dirt in my face," he said. "But off-roaders take in all walks of life. A lot of them just want to feel the wind in their face."

He and others in the off-road community have scoffed at Klasky's version of what happened at the Poste Homestead Natural and Historic Area. They prefer to call it the Chadwick Hog Farm after its former incarnation, and have insisted that its historical value has been inflated to restrict riding.

"I don't think there was any concerted effort to do anything, and I didn't see a lot of damage," Pessa said. "I saw a lot of tire tracks and a small amount of trash."

The 1923 homestead is a humble site, essentially two low adobe walls surrounded by a grove of tamarisk trees. That's all that remains of the home of David Poste, a former miner and justice of the peace, credited with running Twentynine Palms' first telephone exchange.

A recent visit found tire tracks crisscrossing the sand dunes. Earlier in the year, volunteers had strewn twigs to trap seeds and grow plants. Most were gone.

"They did as much damage as they could. It was deliberate," said Pat Flanagan, resource advocate for the Mojave Desert Land Trust, as she examined the dunes. "That's where the kangaroo rats are, the seed banks and lizards. As soon as you get tracks on a place, it's a long time until they are gone, sometimes years."

San Bernardino County Sheriff's Deputy Scott Andrews, who showed up to make a report, said, "We get calls for service for motorcycles and ATVs out here all the time. The people I see are either plain dumb or they don't know the law."

The Bureau of Land Management office in Barstow has seven rangers to patrol the 3.2 million acres of desert it oversees in the area.

"As long as people stay on existing trails, then it's OK," said Mickey Quillman, BLM chief of resources. "It's just the fact that they drove off road into the dunes where there are fringe-toed lizards and animal burrows. It's a limited-use area. You can drive cars and motorcycles on the roads, but you can't take vehicles into the desert -- and people ignore it pretty regularly."

Johnson Valley -- with more than 180,000 acres the country's biggest sanctioned off-roading area -- is 40 minutes away, he pointed out.

Gary Daigneault, news director and owner of KCDZ-FM (107.7) in Twentynine Palms, has closely monitored the battle between the two camps. He sees blame on both sides.

"You have the 'jerk factor' of off-road vehicle owners who have hurt their own sport," he said.

"But I also think Klasky's description of what happened at the Poste Homestead was blown way out of proportion."

Klasky, a professor of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University who spends four months a year in Wonder Valley, is public enemy No. 1 to riders here.

In 2006, his group helped push through a county ordinance aimed at off-roaders that tightened regulations on noise, dirt and trespassing and required groups of 10 or more to purchase a $155 staging permits before assembling on any property, including their own.

Klasky said he was once punched by a man on a quad runner when he tried to photograph him on his property. He said he and others who dare to stand up to off-roaders are routinely threatened.

"I have been the subject of anti-Semitic hate speech and racist remarks. Last year my property was vandalized, but I will continue to organize and speak out," he said.

His biggest critic is Dan O'Brien, a hot dog vendor who runs Mustard's Last Stand in Twentynine Palms and also operates the Cactus Thorns blog, home to his sharpest barbs.

Sometimes he calls Klasky a meddling outsider and environmental extremist. He's also used epithets and referred to him as a tinfoil hat-wearing ding-a-ling.

"These guys came to an area that is rough-and-tumble and they brought their ideas of a desert utopia with them," he said.

"But people here are saying we have a desert lifestyle that has worked for over a hundred years. It's like moving next to an airport and complaining about the jet noise."

O'Brien, 58, denies his highly charged rhetoric intimidates people.

"I walk the line. I tippy-toe on that line but I would never instigate violence," he said. He sees off-roaders as an embattled minority.

"We feel we have lost the desert and now we are being put on these little reservations," he said. "We are starting to feel like Indians."

The battle is far from over.

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors may remove the controversial staging permit from the off-road ordinance this month.

Klasky said he figures he can get at least 100 people to the board meeting.

Pessa, of Friends of Giant Rock, said he can beat that.

"I am going to flood that meeting with off-roaders," he vowed.

January 3, 2010

Endangered Tortoises Snarl Solar-Energy Plans

Michael R. Blood
Associated Press

A rare desert tortoise, pictured here, lives in a strip of California's Mojave desert and is pitting conservationists against clean power advocates. (Reed Saxon, AP)

LOS ANGELES - On a strip of California's Mojave Desert, two dozen rare tortoises could stand in the way of a sprawling solar-energy complex in a case that highlights mounting tensions between wilderness conservation and the nation's quest for cleaner power.

Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy has been pushing for more than two years for permission to erect 400,000 mirrors on the site to gather the sun's energy. It could become the first project of its kind on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property, leaving a footprint for others to follow on vast stretches of public land across the West.

The construction would come with a cost: Government scientists have concluded that more than 6 square miles of habitat for the federally threatened desert tortoise would be permanently lost.

The Sierra Club and other environmentalists want the complex relocated to preserve what they call a near-pristine home for rare plants and wildlife, including the protected tortoise, the Western burrowing owl and bighorn sheep.

"It's actually a good project. It's just located in the wrong place," said Ileene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Ariz.-based environmental group.

The dispute is likely to echo for years as more companies seek to develop solar, wind and geothermal plants on land treasured by environmentalists who also support the growth of alternative energy. In an area of stark beauty, the question will be what is worth preserving and at what cost as California pushes to generate one-third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

The Bureau of Land Management has received more than 150 applications for large-scale solar projects on 1.8 million acres of federal land in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. In California alone, such projects could claim an area the size of Rhode Island, transforming the state into the world's largest solar farm.

BrightSource Energy wants permission to construct three solar power plants on the site that together would generate enough power each year for 142,000 homes, potentially generating billions of dollars of revenue over time.

The sun's power is used to heat water and make steam, which in turn drives turbines to create electricity. Built in phases, the project would include seven, 459-foot metal towers, a natural gas pipeline, water tanks, steam turbine generators, boilers and buildings for administration and maintenance. Each plant would be surrounded by 8-foot high steel fencing.

The site has virtually unbroken sunshine most of the year, and is near transmission lines that can carry the power to consumers.

In November, federal and state biologists reviewing the plan proposed that the company catch and move the tortoises and preserve them elsewhere on 12,000 acres, a proposal that could cost BrightSource an estimated $25 million.

John Kessler, a project manager for the California Energy Commission, said there is disagreement with BrightSource over what the company would pay for long-term maintenance for the land that would be purchased, and the company also believes the cost of buying it should be less.

The company declined to comment directly on those issues.

It will likely be months before state and federal regulators considering the plan make a decision on the tortoises' fate.

BrightSource President John Woolard warned in government filings released last month that heavy-handed regulation could kill the proposal. He did not mention the tortoises directly but referred to "unbounded and extreme" requirements being placed on the company.

At a time when the White House is pushing for the rapid development of green power, Woolard predicted the outcome in the California desert would reverberate widely.

The large-scale solar industry "is in its infancy, with great promise to compete with conventional energy," Woolard wrote. "Overburdening this fledgling industry will cause it to be stillborn, ending that promise before it has truly begun."

The Sierra Club wants regulators to move the site closer to Interstate 15, the busy freeway connecting Los Angeles and Las Vegas, to avoid what it says will be a virtual death sentence for the tortoises. Estimates of the population have varied, but government scientists say at least 25 would need to be captured and moved.

The group argues that the reptiles are the "most genetically distinct" of all of California's desert tortoises and point to a 2007 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report that found the tortoise population is dropping in parts of a four-state region that includes California.

"The project must not contribute to additional loss of habitat," the Sierra Club said in government filings.

Roy Averill-Murray, the Fish and Wildlife Service's desert tortoise recovery coordinator, said there are insufficient data to make judgments about the population on the BrightSource site.

Tortoise "populations across the board have declined, but we don't have the same kind of information for this particular patch of ground," Averill-Murray said.

In a statement, BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs did not address proposals to move all or part of the complex, pledging that the company "will continue to work with the environmental community to ensure that we establish a good example for projects that follow."

In government filings, the company depicts the site near the Nevada line as far from untouched: It has been used for livestock grazing, has been crisscrossed by off-roaders and the boundary of a golf club is a half-mile away.

Except for the tortoise, no other federal or state threatened or endangered animal or plant is on the site, the company said. In 1994 the federal government designated 6.4 million acres as "critical habitat" for the tortoise in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah, but the BrightSource site was not included "and is by no means in an area critical to the survival of this species," the company concluded.

The complicated review is being watched closely.

"At this point, there are zero solar-energy projects on public land," said Monique Hanis of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group. "We are looking for ways to expand the market and reduce barriers ... and get more of these projects moving."

Environmentalists are ultimately nothing but obstructionists

Charles Martin Cosgriff
Wayne County Conservative Examiner

There is a report on AOL this morning which demonstrates the irony involved among the various liberal movements. It is a rather delicious irony, too.

Proponents of solar power have been seeking permission to place solar panels in the California desert. Environmentalists, notably the Sierra Club, argue that the area selected is not good because it would threaten the habitats of the desert tortoise, the Western burrowing owl, and bighorn sheep.

The environmentalists like the idea, but explain that it is simply planned for a bad spot. Perhaps; yet why does it always seem as though no matter what other folks do environmentalists always find something to gripe about?

It's a sign of the schizophrenia of the left. They want solar power, until it threatens an animal habitat. They want wind power, until they discover that birds can get hurt when flying into the fan blades of a typical wind farm. They want a wide respect for human rights, until those rights clash with that old bugbear (and completely nonexistent moral axiom) animal rights.

People are more important than animals, and nature is remarkably resilient. Move the turtles and owls and sheep if you must, because if the area in question is a good place for the solar panels then setting them up for human use is more important than leaving the area alone for animal life. As animals, they don't know what they're missing or getting anyway. Yet real live human beings could miss out on real honest human needs.

If the choice is between animals and people, humanity holds the trump card. There's no sense in not playing the ace up your sleeve.

Freight trains make big comeback in nation's transportation network

Warren Buffett's recent purchase of Burlington Northern Santa Fe shows the renewed importance of railroads in the global supply chain.

A BNSF train makes its way through the freight yard in Barstow. Warren Buffett paid $34 billion for the railroad giant in November, calling his investment an “all-in wager on the economic future of the United States.” (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles Times / September 30, 2009)

By Alana Semuels
Los Angeles Times

More than 4,000 miles of train tracks stretch through California, winding up the blustery Cajon Pass and snaking through the desert surrounding Barstow.

Those tracks could be seeing a lot more traffic in the next few years as trains loaded with Chinese-made toys, electronics and clothing roll eastward, connecting West Coast ports with cities across the U.S.

Warren Buffett is a believer. In November, the world's second-richest man paid $34 billion for railroad giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., despite a deep downturn in the railroad industry. Buffett characterized his investment as an "all-in wager on the economic future of the United States." But it's also a bet on globalization and the renewed importance of rail in the nation's transportation network.

Southern California is a key hub in his new empire. About 40% of all goods that the U.S. receives in containers from overseas enter the country through the seaports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. That freight must then move overland to retailers across the country.

Fort Worth-based BNSF has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years to beef up its Southern California operations to grab a bigger share of that business.

"Within our 28-state network, California is incredibly important to us," BNSF Chief Executive Matthew K. Rose said. "A lot of trade comes through there, a lot gets consumed in California, and a lot gets handled and repackaged there."

China's rise has given a new push to U.S. railroads, which have chugged their way back into the nation's transportation future after losing ground for decades to the trucking industry.

The sheer volume of inbound cargo from Asia to North America -- more than 40 million container loads last year -- has made it cost-prohibitive to haul all those goods over congested U.S. highways.

Rail companies have strengthened their networks and upgraded their equipment to handle the ubiquitous metal shipping containers to provide a nearly seamless transition from cargo ship to freight train to truck or any combination in between. This so-called intermodal traffic has been the fastest-growing segment of the industry for about a decade.

In 2008, international and domestic intermodal cargo accounted for nearly a third of BNSF's revenue, a figure that's expected to grow when the U.S. economy gets back on track.

Although factory jobs have been lost to Asia, international trade is now a pillar of the Southern California economy, accounting for more than 300,000 jobs. Chains such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp. depend on the nation's trains running on time.

"There wouldn't be big-box retail and globalization if you had to truck in all those containers -- it wouldn't be worth the cost," said Anthony Hatch, a rail consultant in New York.

Over the last 20 years, ton-miles of freight hauled by the nation's biggest railroads doubled, from 876,984 ton-miles in 1985 to 1,770,545 in 2007, according to the most recent government figures. Paul Bingham, managing director of world trade and transportation markets at research firm IHS Global Insight Inc., projects that number will grow 14% within a decade.

Environmental concerns are also helping to fuel rail's comeback. Railroads can move a ton of freight an average of 457 miles on a gallon of fuel, according to the Assn. of American Railroads.

Freight rail's resurgence has been stunning for even some of its most die-hard devotees. Pittsburgh rail entrepreneur Henry Posner III recalls the mid-1970s, when railroads were tumbling into bankruptcy after losing market share to big rigs and air freight. He credits deregulation in the 1980s, and the brutal downsizing and cost-cutting that followed, for the industry's survival.

Posner's company, Railroad Development Corp., owns a piece of what was once the famed Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, as well as some lines in Latin America.

"Growing up, I was told that the age of the train was just around the corner, and in fact I have lived to see it," Posner said.

He said Buffett's big bet on rail was a "reflection of the position of the rail industry as an important part of our national transportation infrastructure."

One of the linchpins of this global supply chain can be found in the industrial cities of Vernon and Commerce, home to BNSF's Hobart rail yard. The massive facility, on 245 acres near the 710 Freeway, is one of the biggest operations of its kind in the world. Workers toil 24 hours a day, seven days a week, offloading shipping containers ferried by big rigs arriving straight from the ports. They pluck the uniform boxes from the backs of the 18-wheelers and stack them neatly on lines of train cars, some stretching two miles.

Other containers are offloaded directly from cargo ships to trains inside the ports.

On a recent morning at the Port of Los Angeles, BNSF conductor Dennis Marquez and engineer Armando Nevarez prepared to leave for Clovis, N.M., hauling 282 double-stacked shipping containers filled with assorted freight. This run required four locomotives, hitched one behind the other, to haul 6,000 tons of freight up mountain passes.

Walking through the bright-orange railway vehicles, the engineers inspected fuel levels, checked the air brakes and stored food in an onboard refrigerator. Outside, the horn of another train blew nearby.

Upon arriving in New Mexico, the cars of shipping containers would be attached to other locomotives headed for destinations across the country.

Ten years ago, the journey out of Los Angeles would have taken hours, the trains forced to navigate dozens of crossings over congested city streets. No longer, thanks to the Alameda Corridor, a 20-mile freight rail expressway leading out of the ports.

Completed in 2002, the $3.4-billion public-private partnership includes a 10-mile dedicated underground tunnel that allows BNSF and its West Coast rival, Union Pacific, to avoid L.A. traffic and speed their cargo to the rest of the nation.

Activity has slowed with the global downturn. U.S. freight rail traffic in 2009 was down about 16% from 2008. Traffic in the Alameda Corridor was down 20% in the first 11 months of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008. Some of that business might not return even when imports rebound.

That's because seaports in Mexico and Canada are becoming less expensive than Los Angeles and Long Beach, analysts said. A project to deepen the Panama Canal, expected to be completed in 2014, could make it more economical for massive ships from Asia to head directly to ports on the East Coast.

Other factors could hurt too. A bill pending in Congress seeks to partially re-regulate railroads. California's tough environmental restrictions could add to operating costs. And if the U.S. weans itself off coal for electricity production, railroads would lose a big chunk of their revenue because they haul much of that fuel to the nation's power plants.

Still, West Coast railroads aren't yet ready to surrender the advantage they've gained as globalization has brought more trade through their ports. They're making big capital investments to make trains even faster and more environmentally friendly.

BNSF is double-tracking its entire transcontinental line and in November 2008 finished laying a third track over the Cajon Pass. It has also been straightening curves and polishing the steel track to lower resistance and save fuel, said Bingham, the research analyst. It worked with the government to develop a hydrogen fuel cell locomotive, which it brought to Los Angeles, and is lobbying to create a rail yard closer to the ports to handle increased container traffic.

Whether in Los Angeles or Omaha, analysts agree that the increased dependence on rail makes Buffett's bet on BNSF a smart one. Railroads may be down in this recession, but this time they won't be left for dead, as long as the U.S. economy one day recovers too.

"We're very bullish on most of the railroads," said Jeffrey Kaufman, managing director of the brokerage firm Sterne, Agee and Leach. "These are good franchises. They're going to be around for a long time."