February 28, 2010

California deserts will soon burst with wildflowers

A recipe of rain and warmth will turn austere fields in the Borrego Valley, Joshua Tree, Lancaster, Mojave and Death Valley into wildflower paradises with brilliant colors.

Map of rain for the first 14 days of February 2010.

Benoit LeBourgeois
Los Angeles Times

The valleys and hillsides of the Southern California deserts have been preparing all winter for their close-up. Silent and forlorn, often harsh and austere, they're ready to shed their mantle of earth tones and dress themselves in wildflowers, thanks to the rain storms and subsequent warm days. Here's a look at what's unfolding in some of Southern California's best natural settings.

If you go, these five parks regularly update wildflower reports on their websites during viewing season. They also post activity calendars with details on ranger and docent programs. Desert USA keeps track of conditions throughout the Southwest deserts.


Its lower desert elevation gives Anza-Borrego Desert State Park an early start on the wildflower viewing season. A decent winter rainfall nourished the ground sufficiently to help the seeds to germinate.

"It should be crazy great," says Michael Rodriques, the park's interpretive specialist. He predicts annuals will be at their peak until mid-March, with "hundreds of thousands of acres" of desert sunflower, sand verbena and dune evening primrose around the Borrego Valley.

Brittlebush and other perennial shrubs will add a colorful note in rocky areas. The flattened pads of the beavertail cactus and the spindly stems of the ocotillo also are ready to burst.

"It will be absolutely gorgeous," Rodriques says. "The aroma, you'll never forget."

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park hedges its botanical bets with two ecological zones, making a staggered wildflower bloom possible. "Portions of the park have received up to 10 inches of rain since December," says Joe Zarki, chief of interpretation. The bounty has stimulated early blooms in the lower eastern half of the park, where the whitish-yellow flowers of the small forget-me-nots compete for attention with chuparosa, a shrub covered with red tubular-shaped blossoms, and carpets of chia, a mint-family relative that Zarki describes as "weird-looking with spiky dark purple flower heads."

In the higher Mojave desert, the park's namesake tree (actually not a tree but a member of the yucca genus) has just started to bud. "Joshua trees don't necessarily track with other wildflowers," Zarki says. He expects wooly daisies, primroses and mariposa lilies as well as cacti to bloom in mid- to late March, with or without the Joshua trees.

Poppy Reserve

Milt Stark, vice president of the Poppy Reserve Mojave Desert Interpretive Assn., hesitates to quantify this year's seasonal display at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve in Lancaster. "Predicting wild flowers is very difficult," he says, recalling that "last year looked great (in late winter), but it wasn't."

It may not be until mid-April that gargantuan fields of orange poppies will blanket the park's rolling hills, with patches of blue lupine and purple owl's clover making an appearance in riparian areas. The delay works out well for the preserve, which will be closed to vehicles (visitors may hike in) until March 1 because of state budget cuts. (The visitor center will not be open until the middle of the month.) The nearby Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park is open. Expect to find California buckwheat, blue sage and other annuals among Joshua and some rare juniper trees.


More optimism at the Mojave National Preserve. "We have a biologist who lives in the Granite Mountains. He believes there will be very good blooms at lower elevations," says Linda Slater, the park's chief of interpretation. In March, she expects evening primrose and sand verbena in the vicinity of the Kelso Dunes, desert marigold and Canterbury bell along Kelbaker Road and patches of beavertail cactus and Mojave Mound elsewhere in the vast park.

"If we get another rain," Slater says, "the flower bloom will continue at higher elevations like the Mid Hills," where globe mallow will paint the hillsides orange. The Joshua tree woodland on Cima Dome might sport creamy white blossoms, but Slater notes they do not bloom every year.

Death Valley

Ranger Alan Van Valkenburg expects that by mid-March the tiny white sprouts he sees on the floor of Death Valley National Park will become the season's first buds, ushering in a peak bloom later in the month. He says that near Furnace Creek the abundant yellow desert gold will turn the desert into, well, gold.

The purple notch-leaf phacelia will add a colorful counterpoint, one best enjoyed from a distance. "It's a plant that's very beautiful, but don't touch it," Van Valkenburg says. "It can produce a rash much like poison oak."

By the end of April, Van Valkenburg says temperatures will be too hot for most plants.

When the valley floor sizzles and wildflowers withdraw for the year, others come to life elsewhere. "If things work out just right, the bloom might be getting to peak in higher elevations like Emigrant Canyon, Scotty's Castle and Greenwater Valley," Van Valkenburg says.

February 24, 2010

County, Victor Valley museum merger details to be unveiled

Victor Valley Museum display.

Victorville Daily Press

APPLE VALLEY • The public is invited to a free presentation Thursday night on future changes at the Victor Valley Museum and Art Gallery, which was recently acquired by San Bernardino County after nearly closing its doors.

Struggling to stay afloat amid declining revenue, the Victor Valley Museum Association donated the Victor Valley Museum, just south of Bear Valley Road in the Jess Ranch Marketplace, to the county in November with support from 1st District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt.

County officials have since closed escrow on the property and approved about $330,000 toward museum improvements and other expenses.

Mitzelfelt’s office has said the merger will require a temporary closure of the museum to catalogue memorabilia and artifacts, renovate the building and develop new displays to bring the museum up to accreditation standards.

Thursday night San Bernardino County Museum Director Robert M. Kernan is set to deliver a presentation on the merger and field any questions, comments and concerns.

Victor Valley Museum Director Carol Carr will also be at the meeting, which is hosted by the Mohahve Historical Society.

February 23, 2010

Land for Amboy Fire Station Received

From the Office of Brad Mitzelfelt
Supervisor, First District
San Bernardino County

SAN BERNARDINO – The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors today accepted the donation of 2.05 acres in Amboy to be used as a site for a new fire station.

“Getting fire stations built in remote desert areas where response times can exceed an hour has been a priority of mine since taking office,” said First District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt. “I want to thank the owner, Albert Okura, for his generous donation. This is a major step toward improving fire response times in a high-traffic, but underserved area.”

A fire station in Amboy would provide coverage on the heavily traveled Interstate 40 corridor, where there are no fire stations along the 150-mile stretch between Barstow and Needles. Response times in the Amboy area are a minimum of 1 hour 15 minutes. Fire crews that serve Amboy and I-40 must come from as far away as Wonder Valley, outside of Twentynine Palms, Needles, Harvard, just east of Barstow, and even Baker, approximately two hours away on Interstate 15.

A fire station in the Amboy area could provide emergency services to Amboy and along the I-40 corridor, which would shorten emergency response times by 30 to 45 minutes to such unincorporated communities as Ludlow, Cadiz, Bagdad and Essex. It would also allow Station 53 in Baker to serve as a back-up to the I-40 corridor so that the Baker emergency response crew would be free to cover the more heavily traveled Interstate 15 corridor.

Supervisor Mitzelfelt previously won a commitment from the Board of Supervisors that additional federal funding promised for the next few years from the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program would be set aside to build remote fire stations.

Wildflower show begins, should peak in March

The wildflowers are coming. From yellow to purple, some species are in bloom now, but March will be the peak, said Jim Cornett, author of “Coachella Valley Wildflowers.”

Nicole C. Brambila
The Desert Sun

Grab a camera, take a hike and soak in the color.

The wildflowers are coming.

From yellow to purple, some species are in bloom now, but March will be the peak, said Jim Cornett, author of “Coachella Valley Wildflowers.”

It won't be a spectacular season, but it'll still be good enough to impress relatives, he said.

“This is a mother-in-law year,” Cornett said. “You can take people out and show off.”

If not for the cooler weather this year, the valley might have had the blossoms earlier, he said. Still, this year's crop got a boost from the 4.98 inches of rain the valley has received so far. That's about an inch more than what's typical annually.

The valley usually has a spectacular wildflower season once a decade, Cornett said. If the desert had gotten more showers in the fall, 2010 could have been such a year.

“The very best year? 1998. Spectacular,” Cornett said.

Desert blooms include:

Brittlebush and desert sunflower.

Canterbury bells — a bluish purple flower that droops like a bell.

Desert dandelions, gold poppies and white pincushions.

Sand verbena — a purplish, pink bud.

Before Sahara mustard gradually invaded the valley from North Africa after coming over on grain ships in the late '70s, sand verbena was the most common wildflower in the desert.

“It was so dense, in our valley prior to 1998, that (the valley) would appear pink from outer space,” Cornett said. “It never again appeared pink.”

Sahara mustard is an edible weed.

“If everybody ate that instead of iceberg lettuce, we'd all be healthier and there'd be more sand verbena,” he said.

Wildflower hot spots are just a quick drive away:

Edom Hill, near the transfer station at Date Palm Drive and Varner Road.

Indian Canyons, at the end of southbound Palm Canyon Drive.

Indian Avenue from Palm Springs to north Desert Hot Springs

Flower enthusiasts also can take a bus tour with the Bureau of Land Management on March 2 or attend the Wildflower Festival at the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument Visitor Center on March 6.

“Only during wildflower season do we have these splashes of color,” said Tracy Albrecht, a specialist with the Bureau of Land Management in Palm Springs.

“We're known for having more bloomers. There's a lot of biodiversity.”

Fed guarantee helps BrightSource Energy plan

David R. Baker
San Francisco Chronicle

BrightSource Energy Inc. of Oakland won $1.37 billion in federal loan guarantees Monday to build solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, becoming the latest Bay Area green-tech company to receive major financial backing from the U.S. government.

The money will help BrightSource build the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, a collection of three solar-thermal power plants that will use mirrors to focus sunlight and generate electricity. Together, the three plants near the Nevada border will produce enough power for 140,000 homes.

The loan guarantees represent two of the Obama administration's key goals: encouraging the growth of renewable energy and creating jobs. Ivanpah's construction will employ an estimated 1,000 union workers. An additional 86 people will run the plants when they become operational.

"This is an investment in American jobs and the clean, renewable energy our economy needs," said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, whose department awarded BrightSource its funding. "We are not going to sit on the sidelines while other countries capture the jobs of the future."

The Department of Energy's loan program for clean energy projects was created in 2005 but received additional funding through last year's economic stimulus bill. To date, six companies have won loan guarantees, three of them from the Bay Area. Solyndra Inc. received $535 million last year to build its second factory for solar cells, near the company's Fremont headquarters. And Berkeley's Nordic Windpower USA won $16 million to expand its assembly plant in Idaho.

For each company, the funding provides a much-needed boost at a time when conventional financing is hard to find.

"The credit markets, the lending side of all this, is a very challenging environment right now," said BrightSource Chief Executive Officer John Woolard. "Even traditional projects, like a combined-cycle gas plant or a wind project, are really looking hard for financing."

The loans will be provided by the U.S. Treasury's Federal Financing Bank and guaranteed by the Department of Energy. BrightSource won't get them unless the Ivanpah project receives permits from the California Energy Commission and the federal Bureau of Land Management, both of which are reviewing the project.

The bureau already placed Ivanpah and five other large-scale solar projects on a fast-track approval process. But winning approval is not guaranteed.

The Sierra Club and another environmental group, Defenders of Wildlife, have questioned the Ivanpah project's potential impact on the desert tortoise, which inhabits the dry lakebed where the power plants would be built. BrightSource redesigned the project in response, cutting the amount of landed needed. But the Sierra Club still wants one of the three plants relocated to spare more tortoise habitat.

"We're glad the Obama administration is supporting renewable energy," said Barbara Boyle, senior representative for the Sierra Club. "We're just going to continue to work to site these projects in the most environmentally responsible way possible."

BrightSource's plants will use fields of flat, pivoting mirrors to focus sunlight on central towers filled with water. The intense heat generated by the light will boil the water, creating steam that will be used to turn turbines and generate electricity. Power plants using an earlier version of this technology have been producing electricity in the Southern California desert for decades.

In full sunlight, Ivanpah will generate about 400 megawatts of electricity, roughly the same as a mid-size fossil fuel power plant. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Southern California Edison have agreed to buy the power. California's utilities face a state mandate to get 20 percent of the electricity they sell from renewable sources by the end of this year, a deadline they are likely to miss.

If Ivanpah wins its state and federal permits, BrightSource may apply for additional federal financing. Last year's stimulus package allows renewable power projects that break ground by the end of 2010 to receive a grant worth 30 percent of the project's cost, in lieu of taking a tax credit of equal value.

February 22, 2010

Federal government loans $1.37 billion for BrightSource project

Artist rendering of BrightSource's Ivanpah solar project near Primm.

Desert Dispatch

BrightSource energy will receive a federal loan that will cover 70 percent of the construction costs for the Ivanpah Solar project near the Nevada stateline, according to company officials.

BrightSource announced Monday that the U.S. Department of Energy has committed to provide a $1.37 billion loan for BrightSource’s 440 megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California about five miles from Primm, Nev. BrightSource will also be eligible for a federal stimulus grant when construction begins later this year, said Kristen Hunter, a spokesperson for BrightSource Energy. The grant could cover about 30 percent of the project, she said.

“Once permitting is complete, this is a huge influx to help with construction costs,” Hunter said. “So it’s definitely a major step forward on that.”

Once construction for the project is complete, Hunter said BrightSource will have to pay their loan back, but she couldn’t comment as to when the loan would have to be paid by. The contractual agreements between BrightSource and the DOE are confidential, she said.

Andy Silva, spokesman for First District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, who opposes the location of the Ivanpah project, said the supervisor’s office will have to get more details from the DOE before commenting on the loan. The Board of Supervisors announced its intention to intervene in the project Feb. 9.

BrightSource’s Ivanpah project was singled out in November by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar as being one of six renewable energy projects most likely to begin construction in 2010. The project is expected to create 1,000 temporary construction jobs.

“As home to one of the world’s best solar fields and the nation’s largest green economy, it is no surprise the world’s largest solar energy project would choose California, said California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in a statement. “Our ambitious environmental policies are promoting the growth of clean, reliable energy in our communities and growing green jobs up and down the state.”

Blacks in valley share history of struggle

Nicole C. Brambila
The Desert Sun

John Carlos (Marilyn Chung The Desert Sun)

Black Americans began moving to the Coachella Valley in the 1940s, wooed by the promise of better jobs and wages. Many of the first were cotton farmers — Texas transplants who first lived on John Nobles' ranch, where they built more than just a home. They created community. For most, their stories aren't retold in textbooks, but their contributions are celebrated during Black History Month in February. Here are their stories.

John Carlos sprinted for a medal and into history.

In 1968, during the Olympic medal ceremony for the 200-meter dash in Mexico City, gold medalist Tommie Smith and Carlos, the bronze medalist, bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists — a sign of solidarity — to protest racial inequality at home.

“I don't think anybody took into account that we were very nonviolent in our action,” said Carlos, 64, who will retire from Palm Springs Unified School District in 2011 after 23 years with the agency. “It resurrected people's conscience.”

That act ushered in a political firestorm and death threats.

The International Olympic Committee subsequently suspended Smith and Carlos from the U.S. team and banned them from the Olympic Village.

After his track career — and a couple years playing professional football — Carlos became an in-school suspension supervisor at Palm Springs High School and track and field coach at Palm Desert High School, he said.

In 2003, Carlos was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.

“I think young and old school know about it. I think what they need to know about more than anything is activism,” Carlos said. “Somebody has to be an activist to have progression.”

The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II fought two wars. One against the Axis powers overseas, and the other against racism at home.

From 1941-46, more than 940 pilots were trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Ala., and commissioned, having received their pilot wings, according to tuskegeeairmen.org.

Dr. Robert Higginbotham was among them. He followed in his older brother's footsteps and enlisted in 1944.

“I felt I had an obligation, a duty to serve my country,” said Higginbotham, 84, a Rancho Mirage resident. “I felt I would do my part and no one would have to say I was drafted.

“Regardless of what anybody says, it's my country.”

Enlisting before President Harry S. Truman integrated the military in 1948 meant facing discrimination and racism.

His first taste of it came on the train ride to Mississippi when he and other black soldiers in uniform were threatened with arrest if they did not give up their seats for white soldiers. They stood the remaining eight hours of the trip.

“I didn't have too much exposure to hateful discrimination and segregation,” he said. “We never left the farm except to go to church.

“It's irritating to have to deal with a situation where time and time again, you have to prove yourself because of the color of you skin.”

After the war, Higginbotham became an orthopedic surgeon with a private practice in Los Angeles.

John Nobles' ranch

Roberta Smith isn't shy about sharing her age. — she'll turn 104 in March.

The centenarian wasn't the first to move to the valley — blacks first started coming en masse in the 1940s — but she's among the oldest living.

Smith, the granddaughter of a slave and the daughter of a sharecropper, moved to Indio in 1951, wooed by better wages where she earned $3 a day.

“I came up on the farm. I knew nothing but cotton-picking when I came out here,” she said. “I picked beans. They grow a lot of beans here.”

Four generations of Smiths followed.

She, like many of the blacks who moved to the valley before Civil Rights, first lived on John Nobles' ranch. Nobles was an Oklahoma sharecropper who moved to Indio in 1922.

“John Nobles' ranch was the only place where colored could stay,” she said. “Everybody got along real nice. There was a sense of community.”

Although the valley schools were integrated, Smith said blacks still faced racism and discrimination, a history that should not be lost on the young.

“Lord thank you somebody woke up,” she said. “God is good. God says, if he's with you, who can be against you?

“We climbing.”

‘Preserve the dream'

When Joseph Beaver moved to the Coachella Valley, no one would rent a room to a black man.

“Segregation invited so much degradation,” said Beaver, 87, a local historian and president of the Black Historical and Cultural Society.

“It's based on skin color. It's sinister.”

During Black History month, Beaver is an in-demand speaker as a longtime civil rights supporter.

He attended the march on Washington, D.C. when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, and considers himself a follower of nonviolent civil protest, which culminated in the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Despite the country's advances in equality, though, Beaver called the fight today an ongoing struggle.

“The history of black people has been too often simply ignored,” he said.

He rattles off some of the contributions like a young boy counts change.

Dr. Charles Drew, who developed the technique for long-term preservation of blood plasma.

Garrett Morgan, the son of former slaves, who invented the gas mask and a traffic signal.

Lawrence Crossley, who designed the Coachella Valley's first golf course.

A longtime civil rights supporter, Beaver was instrumental in helping rename Coachella Valley roads for black figures such as Crossley and Rosa Parks, whom he helped bring to the valley in 1993.

In 1980, he also helped organize a protest against David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan.

“We must preserve the dream and keep marching forward so the dream comes to fruition,” he said during a Black History Month event at the Tolerance Education Center in Rancho Mirage this month.

“We must not allow the dream to derail or be forgotten.”

February 21, 2010

A New Exit to Space Readies for Business

THE FINAL FRONTIER A lunar landing pad used in model competitions near the New Mexico construction site for Spaceport America.

New York Times

UPHAM, N.M. -- Take Highway 51 east out of Truth or Consequences, a small city that years ago assumed the name of a game show on a dare. Drive through miles and miles of desert, then turn right at an old train depot whose bustle has long since pulled out. Keep going.

After eight miles, turn left on a dirt road that leads deeper into the sage and yucca vastness of New Mexico, past a ranch that used to be a stage stop on an ancient trade route called El Camino Real. Soon after, you will come to your destination: the future.

Here, where rattlesnakes hibernate and rabbits scurry, there unfolds a two-mile runway designed to accommodate spaceships. And right beside it, past those giant rumbling tractors of sci-fi design, the groundwork is being laid for a hangar large enough to store spaceships between launchings.

This is not a secret government project, or some NASA reception hall for alien dignitaries. This is Spaceport America, a $198 million endeavor by the State of New Mexico to plumb the commercial potential of the suborbital heavens — a place once known only to astronauts, dreamers and the occasional chimp.

Space tourism. Scientific research. Satellite deliveries. All possible up there, where the stars glitter like spilled coins. Who knows? One day you might decide to skip another two-week vacation in the Wisconsin Dells for a two-hour trip into space. Fly Virgin Galactic. See the sights from as high as 80 miles up. Five minutes of weightlessness guaranteed. Just $200,000.

President Obama’s call last month for fundamental changes in the mission of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration seemed to open the door, or roof, ever wider to private industry. Some people here interpreted his words to mean that your seat back and tray table should be in their full upright positions, because commercial space travel is about to blast off.

And this flat, deserted, mostly rain-free stretch of New Mexico is the perfect location, says Will Whitehorn, the president of Virgin Galactic, the spaceport’s anchor tenant. “It is about the closest you get on planet Earth to a Martian landscape,” he says .

Southern New Mexico has long held claim to the skies, thanks in part to pioneers with local ties, like Robert Goddard, a father of modern rocketry; J. P. Stapp, a leader in aerospace safety; and Ham, the space chimp.

You might also include Gary Whitehead, 43, affable car salesman from Truth or Consequences, though not because his family’s dealership was once owned by the former astronaut Frank Borman. Mr. Whitehead, a longtime public servant, has been championing a spaceport in New Mexico since 1994.

Back then he was a freshly elected member of the Sierra County Commission, captivated by an entity that had been created by various visionaries and politicians. Its understated name: the Southwest Regional Space Task Force. Its over-the-top goal: to have a spaceport built in southwestern New Mexico one day.

Mr. Whitehead wanted in, so he created a space task force for Sierra County. Word soon spread that if you wanted a deal on a car, or information about the economic possibilities of the great beyond, Gary Whitehead was the man to see.

Few people in Truth or Consequences dismissed the spaceport plan as “crazy Buck Rogers stuff,” Mr. Whitehead recalls. Then again, this is the sleepy spa city that, in 1950, changed its name from Hot Springs because Ralph Edwards, the host of “Truth or Consequences,” promised to broadcast from the first town to adopt his radio show’s name.

(Over the years the city has voted to keep the name, perhaps as a way of giving thanks that the offer had not come from, say, “Bowling for Dollars.” It has also named a park after Mr. Edwards, who for a half-century returned every year to celebrate the city that called his bluff.)

The concept of a spaceport remained just that for many years, even though it seemed to make perfect sense. An 18,000-acre stretch of the Cain family ranch was an ideal location for a spaceport. The restricted airspace of the White Sands Missile Range meant uncluttered skies for launchings. And with the high elevation, you could argue that a space launching’s first mile was free.

Finally, about five years ago, things began to click. Since then, New Mexico has added the spaceport to its economic development plan; Virgin Galactic, the commercial space travel business of the British billionaire Richard Branson, has signed a 20-year lease; construction has begun; and 326 people have placed reservations for their trip to suborbital space. Virgin Galactic says it has received $44 million in deposits so far.

What’s more, most residents here seem open to the idea. Two of three local counties have voted to support a sales tax to help pay for the space project, including Sierra County, where Mr. Whitehead was a co-chairman of a lobbying campaign called People for Aerospace.

By now, Spaceport America has been part of the local conversation for so long that it stirs about as much excitement as a new Applebee’s. Last year, for example, The Las Cruces Sun-News published a headline that read: “Spaceport, Animal Shelter Board Members Chosen.”

Mr. Whitehead, though, has gone from ho-hum to wow. At first he saw the project merely as a way to lift the local economy, he says. But as the project took shape, he felt awe. “It became, ‘Gee whiz,’ ” he says.

Mr. Whitehead, who was recently appointed to the state’s Spaceport Authority, which is overseeing the project, checks in at the village of construction trailers that have cropped up amid the desert brush. Accompanied by Dave Wilson, a marketing consultant, he leads a quick hardhat tour, past signs that say “Caution: Equipment Crossing” and “Authorized Launch Personnel Only.”

Right here, where the ground is being cleared, or “grubbed,” will be the 110,000-square-foot Terminal Hangar Facility, which will also include administrative offices. And here, close to the unfolding ribbon of runway, is where a groundbreaking ceremony in June featured actors dressed as Old World explorers and dignitaries discussing the New World discovery of the heavens.

And here, not far from the home of a ranch hand, is the Vertical Launch Facility, where several space vessels have been shot into the sky. One, in 2007, contained some of the cremated remains of dozens of people, including the astronaut Gordon Cooper and James Doohan, who played Scotty in “Star Trek.”

Of course, the hope is to send people, not ashes, into space. This could — could — happen as early as 2011, although Virgin Galactic says that it is concentrating first on matters of licensing and, especially, safety.

Still. Imagine. A mothership named Eve zooms off the runway and 50,000 feet into the sky, where it releases a smaller spaceship, the Enterprise, that rockets higher still. High enough for the two pilots and six paying customers to see the curvature of the Earth, and hear the silence of space.

Imagining this is not difficult for Mr. Whitehead. His problem, he says, is convincing people that “there’s more to this than rich people flying to space.” These customers, he says, will effectively be underwriting the possibility for space research, space education and all sorts of “space-related businesses.”


The tour ends, and is followed by a long trip back to Truth or Consequences, where the lot at Whitehead Chevrolet is filled with earthbound vessels, new and used. But the artwork on display inside — Van Gogh’s mysterious night skies — reflects the starry, starry dreams of a car dealer in a place known to accept dares.

This Land
Dan Barry takes readers behind news articles and into obscure and well-known corners of the United States.

February 19, 2010

Government: Loaded guns allowed in national parks, wildlife refuges as of Monday

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Loaded guns will be allowed in Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and other national parks under a new law that takes effect Monday.

The law lets licensed gun owners bring firearms into national parks and wildlife refuges as long as they are allowed by state law. It comes over the objections of gun-control advocates who fear it will lead to increased violence in national parks.

The national parks law takes effect in a climate that favors advocates of gun rights. The debate shifted dramatically in 2008, when the Supreme Court struck down a handgun ban in Washington, D.C., and declared that individuals have a constitutional right to possess firearms for self-defense and other purposes.

Gun owners have rushed in record numbers to get concealed weapons permits, saying they worry President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress may impose stricter gun laws. The National Rifle Association lobbied hard to allow guns in parks and has spent millions to challenge its opponents.

Now gun-control advocates are on the defensive, seeking to preserve some gun restrictions in the face of aggressive assertions of gun rights.

As of Monday, guns will be allowed in all but about 20 of the park service's 392 locations, including some of its most iconic parks: Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite and Rocky Mountain National Park. Guns will not be allowed in visitor centers or rangers' offices, because firearms are banned in federal buildings, but they could be carried into private lodges or concession stands, depending on state laws.

Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said national parks are now among the safest places in America, but that could change under the new law. Current rules severely restrict guns in the national parks, generally requiring them to be locked or stored.

"It really is sad that we've become such a paranoid society that people want to take guns pretty much everywhere — including national parks," he said Friday.

"When you are at a campfire and people are getting loud and boisterous next to you, you used to have to worry about them quieting down. Now you have to worry about when they will start shooting," Helmke said.

Bill Wade, president of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, called the new law a sad chapter in the history of the park system.

"People go to national parks to get away from things that they face in their everyday living, where they live and work. Now I think that social dynamic is really going to change," he said.

Bryan Faehner, associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association, said the law would place an unfair burden on park service employees, who will have to wade though a variety of state and local laws to determine whether visitors are breaking the law.

Officials said visitors who want to bring a gun to a national park need to understand and comply with state gun laws. More than 30 national parks span more than one state, so visitors need to know where they are in those parks and which state law applies, the park service said.

A spokesman for the National Rifle Association scoffed at the idea that parks would become more dangerous, saying people have been assaulted and even murdered in national parks.

"This common-sense measure will enhance the self-defense rights of law-abiding Americans and also ensure uniformity of firearm laws within a state," said Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist.

The National Park Service said there were 3,760 reported major crimes, including five homicides and 37 rapes, in 2008, the most recent year for which data was available. The agency does not note which crimes involve firearms. Crime is down across the system's parks, according to park service spokesman David Barna.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who led congressional efforts to change the law, said concerns about increased violence were overblown.

"I don't expect anything major to come from this other than to restore the Second Amendment rights taken away by bureaucrats," Coburn said

The park service has prepared for months for the new law. "We will administer this law as we do all others — fairly and consistently," National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said in a statement.

National parks hosted about 275 million visitors in 2008, the agency said.

In the West, Opposition to New National Monuments

Representative Rob Bishop said he had uncovered this "secret" list of possible monuments.

New York Times

DENVER — In much of the nation, “monument” is an innocuous word, conjuring up images of historical figures cast in bronze or road-side plaques few stop to read.

In the West, though, it’s a fighting word, bound up for years with simmering resentments against the federal government and presidential powers. The feeling dates to the days when, with the stroke of a pen, Theodore Roosevelt declared lands he wished to protect as national monuments under the American Antiquities Act.

A new monument fight erupted this week when Representative Rob Bishop, Republican of Utah, said he had uncovered a “secret” Interior Department memorandum suggesting that the federal government was considering national monument designation for 14 huge blocks of land in nine states from Montana to New Mexico.

A spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior, Kendra Barkoff, said the list was not secret at all, but simply a “very, very, very preliminary,” internal working document resulting from a brainstorming session that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a Democrat and former senator from Colorado, had requested about the lands in the West.

“No decisions have been made about which areas, if any, might merit more serious review and consideration,” Ms. Barkoff said in a statement.

But the word “secret,” especially when applied to the possible doings of far-away federal bureaucrats, is right up there with “monument” in its ability to unleash vitriol among Western conservatives. In 1996, President Bill Clinton created the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah with a surprise announcement that still resonates across the region as a symbol of government powers, or what critics call the abuse of those powers.

The new Interior Department memorandum, people in both parties said, has reopened a wound from those days that never quite healed.

“Given the lingering frustration felt by many Utahns, following the 1996 ‘stroke of the pen’ monument designation, it is totally inappropriate for this federal agency to even have preliminary discussions without involving the stakeholders on the ground,” said Representative Jim Matheson, Democrat of Utah, a state that had two of the possible new monuments on the list, the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa.

In Montana, an area of unplowed grassland called the Northern Prairie was listed on the Interior Department memorandum, discussed as a possible home for a new national bison range. But the state’s representative at large, Denny Rehberg, a Republican, said in a statement, “The Antiquities Act was never intended as an end-run around the will of the people nor as a land-grab device for East Coast politicians.”

Ms. Barkoff at the Interior Department said in an interview that Mr. Salazar, as Colorado’s attorney general, United States senator and secretary of the interior, had a history of seeking consensus, and that any discussion of monument designation would be open to public and Congressional involvement.

A spokesman for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a conservation group, said the appearance of secrecy in monument talks had melded with ideological opposition to the Obama administration — widespread in a deeply Republican part of the country.

“I don’t think it’s as much about the specifics of the land issues as it is pure ideological concerns,” said the group’s executive director, Scott Groene. “There’s already been a great fury going on in this state, and it’s hard to imagine that this really changes any of that.”

The fury is nothing new. In 1969, for example, the town of Boulder, Utah, passed a resolution changing its name to Johnson’s Folly, and predicted the town’s demise after President Lyndon B. Johnson added thousands of acres to Arches and Capitol Reef National Monuments, which were both later designated national parks by Congress.

The town later reverted to its original name, and on its Web site the Boulder Business Group now proudly calls the town the “gateway to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.”

Representative Bishop, who was teaching history and government in a high school in northern Utah when that monument was created in 1996, also held out the possibility that cooler heads and calmer discussions could prevail on land protection in the West. The prerequisite, he said, is transparency and genuine dialogue. If Westerners think there is a foregone conclusion, hostility to more national monuments will be unavoidable.

“If they do things in an open and transparent way and involve everyone, then there’s no need for yelling and screaming,” Mr. Bishop said. “Do it the right way, and we can work it out.”

February 18, 2010

Obama Eyes Western Land for National Monuments, Angering Some

The Otero Mesa, a large desert grassland in New Mexico. (AP)

By William La Jeunesse
FOX News

More than a dozen pristine landscapes, wildlife habitats and scenic rivers in 11 Western states, some larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, are under consideration by the Obama administration to become America's newest National Monuments -- a decision the administration can make unilaterally without local input or congressional approval.

According to internal Department of Interior documents leaked to a Utah congressman and obtained exclusively by Fox News, the mostly public lands include Arizona deserts, California mountains, Montana prairies, New Mexico forests, Washington islands and the Great Basins of Nevada and Colorado -- totaling more than 13 million acres.

Sources say President Obama is likely to choose two or three sites from the list, depending on their size, conservation value and the development threat to each one's environment.

"Many nationally significant landscapes are worthy of inclusion in the NLCS (National Landscape Conservation System)," according to the draft report stamped NOT FOR RELEASE. "The areas listed below may be good candidates for National Monument designation and the Antiquities Act."

Presidential use of the Antiquities Act is highly controversial because the White House, with the stroke of a pen, can lock up thousands of square miles of federal lands used for timber, ranching, mining and energy development without local input or congressional approval. The Act is generally interpreted to commemorate or protect a specific historical landmark, not prohibit development or deprive local communities of jobs and tax revenues.

"Any federal action that could lead to limited access should be done in an open and public manner using extraordinary caution," said Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., upon seeing the leaked report. "The fact that this administration is already circulating internal memos to bypass Congress and the public process is troubling."

In 1996, President Clinton turned 1.3 million acres of southern Utah into the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument without telling the Arizona or Utah congressional delegation. Highly controversial at the time, the designation has withstood numerous legal challenges to the president's authority, and the national monument remains one of Clinton's boldest environmental accomplishments.

While Western politicians are still digesting the report, several properties stand out.

-- Otero Mesa, New Mexico: The area stretches over 1.2 million acres and is home to 1,000 native species. Gov. Bill Richardson has sought protection for Otero Mesa for years, but the Bush administration targeted it for oil and gas development.

-- Heart of the Great Basin, Nevada: Researchers call it a "globally unique assemblage of cultural, wildlife and historic values" that includes thousands of petroglyphs and stone artifacts dating back 12,000 years.

-- Owyhee Desert, Oregon: Called one of the most remote areas of the United States, the Owyhee is home to the largest herd of California bighorn sheep.

-- Bodie Hills, California: Located in the fast growing eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, Bodie contains the Golden State's best preserved ghost town. But the area is also loaded with gold, and several mining permits are pending.

-- The Modoc Plateau, California: Spanning close to 3 million acres in the northwest corner of California, the Modoc Plateau is "laden with biological and archeological treasures." Interior officials call it the second largest unprotected landscape in the state.

The list contains a number of political land mines for the president, according to a former Bush Interior Department appointee familiar with the document who asked to remain anonymous.

"Right now a number of senior officials are going over the report," he told Fox News. "When Clinton did it, most of the West was red states and he didn't have any blowback. Obama has to ask himself, if he chooses a Nevada location, will it hurt (Senator Harry) Reid's re-election. The same is true in almost every (Western) state where Democrats have made serious inroads."

The list was leaked just days after a story appeared in the New York Times outlining the administration's plans to use executive power to advance his agenda in the face of congressional opposition. "We are reviewing a list of presidential orders and directives to get the job done, across a front of issues," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told the newspaper.

Western representatives are planning a full-fledged assault on the report when Congress returns from its break next week.

Congressman Rob Bishop, R-Ut., co-founder of the Western States Coalition and now Chair of the Congressional Western Caucus, has also seen the leaked memo.

"We are taking this seriously. The tar is warming up. The pitchforks are ready. We will do what ever we need to make sure Congress is fully informed and fully aware of this action. This process should be open and transparent and President Obama should go though Congress and do it this the right way, not by presidential fiat," said Bishop.

"Outrage. In a country as dependent on foreign oil as this one, this kind of action on public lands is simply unacceptable."

Interior Department spokesman Craig Leff told Fox News late Wednesday the leaked document "reflects some brainstorming discussions within [the Bureau of Land Management], but no decisions have been made about which areas, if any, might merit more serious review and consideration."

February 14, 2010

The West Wants Out of the Western Climate Initiative

by Lawrence Solomon
Financial Post

The Western Climate Initiative’s cap and trade market may soon need to be renamed The Canada Climate Initiative.

Until this week, the Western Climate Initiative boasted seven U.S. states and four Canadian provinces who were working toward the launch of a regional cap and trade system on Jan 1, 2012. On Thursday, Arizona formally announced it was backing out of cap and trade. As the state with the fastest rate of emission growth -- 61% between 1990 and 2007 – many feared a body blow to Arizona’s economy if it tried to meet the initiative’s carbon reduction goals.

The following morning neighbouring Utah indicated it might follow suit. By a 6 to 2 vote, its House Committee on Public Utilities and Technology passed a nonbinding resolution to urge Governor Gary Herbert to pull out of the Western Climate Initiative. Earlier in the week, the full Utah House voted resoundingly – 56 to 17 – to curb any carbon-curbing attempts by the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency. Specifically, the resolution “urges the United States Environmental Protection Agency to halt its carbon dioxide reduction policies and programs and with its ‘Endangerment Finding’ and related regulations until a full and independent investigation of the climate data conspiracy and global warming science can be substantiated.”

To date, only four of the 11 jurisdictions have adopted legislation that would allow them to participate in the cap-trade-market: California, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, with Manitoba appearing close to joining.

Oregon, Washington, Montana and New Mexico have not yet adopted cap-and-trade legislation and now California, which is tottering toward bankruptcy, has become iffy: A voter initiative in California, if it passes in November, would halt the cap-and-trade program until unemployment falls to 5.5%.

The upshot? By the end of the year, the only jurisdictions left in the Western Climate Initiative’s cap and trade program could be the Canadian provinces.

Tree deal revives Southwest desert solar plan

Developer NextEra's proposal to cut down hundreds of thirsty tamarisk trees may provide a blueprint for resolving similar environmental disputes over solar farms in the desert.

A rendering shows where a solar power plant proposed by NextEra Energy would be installed near California City, a desert community east of Bakersfield. (California Energy Commission / February 11, 2010)

By Todd Woody
Los Angeles Times

A developer who proposes to cut down hundreds of trees to make way for a massive project could expect to provoke a fair amount of environmental outrage.

Not in California City. Officials in this sprawling desert community east of Bakersfield are thrilled at NextEra Energy's move to break out the chain saws.

The firm, a subsidiary of utility giant FPL Group, is seeking to build a solar power plant in the area that would consume a large amount of water. The trees are tamarisks, a water-hungry invasive species, and removing them could help recharge the aquifer in this arid region.

"The water that normally would go into the tamarisk will go down into the basin -- it's a big environmental win," said Michael Bevins, California City's public works director.

The tree deal is just one way that what threatened to become another intractable fight over the environmental effect of desert solar power plants is turning into a blueprint for the resolution of similar disputes.

Proposals to build dozens of solar farms on hundreds of thousands of acres in the desert Southwest have split the environmental movement and divided local communities. For solar developers and some green groups, the projects are desperately needed in the fight against climate change; others see them as a threat to unique and fragile ecosystems.

Water has become a particular flash point. Solar thermal power plants use mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. The steam must be condensed and the hot water cooled for reuse. The cheapest and most efficient way to do that is wet cooling, which lets the heat evaporate but requires the constant replacement of water.

By last fall, NextEra's 250-megawatt Beacon Solar Energy Project was mired in a war over water. The company wanted to tap more than half a billion gallons a year from freshwater wells to cool the solar farm to be built on former farmland.

State policy prohibits the use of drinking water for power plant cooling, and local residents lined up at public hearings to express concern that the solar farm would drain their aquifer.

"Everybody else in the state of California is trying to conserve water and here all at once, boom, you guys are using it all up on us," said Ace Miller, an area resident, at one hearing.

With energy commission staffers and NextEra at loggerheads, executives warned last year that they might have to abandon the $1-billion project -- and the hundreds of construction jobs it would create -- because they claimed that Beacon wouldn't be sufficiently profitable unless they could use well water.

Energy commission staffers weren't about to budge.

"We clearly felt that this was a significant issue, not just in the context of this isolated project but also in the context that we are going to see a large number of solar power plants in the desert," said Terry O'Brien, a deputy director at the California Energy Commission, which licenses large-scale solar thermal power plants. "If we use water more efficiently, we can generate more megawatts."

But NextEra is now talking with two local municipalities, California City and Rosamond, about buying reclaimed water to cool the power plant. That would allow the company to sidestep a fight over water use while giving the cities a market for their treated wastewater.

Energy commission staffers filed documents two weeks ago that would let the Beacon project proceed as long as it used reclaimed water for cooling.

"We debated the reclaimed water issue for the last year or so, and we've come to a conclusion that unless we want to go round and round on this matter for months, if not years more, it was time to compromise," said Michael O'Sullivan, a senior vice president at NextEra.

The compromise offers other environmental benefits as well. Treated wastewater contains salt and nitrates, and by piping it to Beacon rather than returning it to the aquifer, the cities can improve the basin's water quality.

Since the solar farm will still draw freshwater until enough reclaimed water can be provided, NextEra proposed to remove thirsty tamarisk trees to help recharge the aquifer. A native of the Mediterranean, the tamarisk was brought to the American West in the 19th century for use as a windbreak. The developer of California City planted hundreds of the trees in the area, Bevins said.

An acre of tamarisks can consume 1 million gallons of water annually, said Tim Carlson, research and policy director for the Tamarisk Coalition, a Grand Junction, Colo., nonprofit group working to eradicate the trees.

Regulators welcomed NextEra's proposal to remove tamarisks, which have taken over 1 million acres in the West.

"If we could eliminate tamarisk from large areas of the West, it would have a benefit to wildlife, native vegetation and would reduce water usage," O'Brien said.

The proposal is still in the planning stages, and it's unclear how many trees would be removed and just how much water would be saved.

Carlson, who has discussed NextEra's plan with the company's consultants, said tamarisks must be replaced with low-water-use native plants. "It's not a simple calculation," he said. "You just can't say that if I do so many acres I'll save so many acre-feet of water."

For O'Brien, ending the Beacon water war could help persuade other solar companies to adopt water-efficient technology and approaches. "It sends a signal to other developers that clearly that NextEra believes that their project is still viable," he said.

February 13, 2010

A Look Back: San Bernardino Depot once served 26 trains a day

The Santa Fe Depot in San Bernardino was once the largest train depot west of the Mississippi, employing 5000 people. (Special to The Press-Enterprise)

Special to The Press-Enterprise

Once, the Santa Fe Depot in San Bernardino was the largest train depot west of the Mississippi, employing 5,000 people and serving 26 trains per day. It was the first place train travelers to California saw before planes and cars replaced the train's popularity.

Today, the depot houses a train museum and the office of SANBAG (San Bernardino Associated Governments, the county's transportation agency). Only two trains, one at 5:30 a.m. and one at 8:30 p.m., stop to take on and let off passengers Monday through Friday. The depot stands as a monument to the building of San Bernardino, where so many of the passengers left the train and decided to make the city their new California home.

A boxcar served as the train depot until it was replaced in 1886 with a two-story wood Victorian-style building that was destroyed by fire in 1916. A new Spanish/Moorish style building with domes and towers and a tile roof was completed in 1918 at a cost of $800,000. The depot earned a reputation for its cleanliness, unlike the train stations in the east.

"The depot is such a big part of San Bernardino and the reason for the city's rapid growth," said Steve Shaw, president of the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society and a director of the San Bernardino History and Railroad Museum.

"At one point in 1886, the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe had a price war and the ticket price for both from the east coast to San Bernardino was a dollar," he said.

Shaw said by the 1920s and 1930s, San Bernardino was recognized as a major city in the U.S. mostly due to the railroad.

"Everyone knew where San Bernardino was," he said.

Shaw said that for a while, the train yards housed the largest maintenance yards for the trains west of Kansas City until the maintenance yards were moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s or 1970s. He said the depot and its yards, including a roundhouse to turn around trains, took up about five square miles and encompassed the area from 3rd to 5th Streets and from I St. west to Rancho Avenue.

Shaw said that in 1922, a large earthquake destroyed many buildings in San Bernardino, but the depot remained untouched, probably due to its hollow clay block construction.

"When you stand inside the depot and a train goes by, the building doesn't shake at all," he said.

The new 57,400-square-foot depot housed baggage rooms, offices, a mailroom and a Western Union office. The domes remained empty except for pigeons. When a $17 million restoration was done on the depot in the early 2000s, a huge amount of pigeon droppings and 300 pounds of honey were removed from the dome and walls of the station.

Most memorable to travelers was the Harvey House restaurant that served travelers 1,200 meals per day in the coffee shop and formal dining room. The Harvey House restaurants were built along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railways between the 1880s and 1930s. The Harvey Girls (waitresses) dressed in starched black uniforms with white cuffs and bibbed aprons and starched white caps to serve hot meals, sandwiches, coffee and baked goods. A movie was made about the Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland.

"The Harvey Girls lived at the train station upstairs in seven to 12 rooms, two to a room. They had to sign a contract not to date or get married while they worked for the restaurant," said Shaw.

The Harvey House at the depot opened in 1921 and closed in the 1950s.

Trains traveling through the station bore such names as Super Chief, the Navajo, El Capitan, Scout, Grand Canyon Limited and the Chief. Today, only the Southwest Chief passes through the station heading east and west.

During World War II, troop trains passed through the station, and in the depot, it was often standing room only. Train travelers, be it movie star or president of the United States, passed through the station to come to California. Business grew up around the station including bars, boarding houses and restaurants such as The Pirate's Den and Cave Cafe and hotels such as the St. Augustine, the Maryland and the Planet.

In the 1960s, the rail industry began downsizing and Santa Fe turned its passengers over to Amtrak in 1972. Most of its workers were transferred to Topeka and its switching operations to Barstow in the San Bernardino County high desert. Today, the depot hosts the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway's intermodal freight transport yard, where freight from trains and trucks are loaded from one to the other. A few hundred yards from the depot is an outdoor station for Metrolink.

Shaw said the 10,000-square-foot San Bernardino Historical and Railroad Museum, housed in the depot and open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., is not open during the week because of Metrolink passenger need for the parking. He said a model train club may move into the depot, and he thinks that one day the Harvey House area could serve as a restaurant once again. There is a coffee bar currently in the depot, and across from it, a new supermarket and strip mall. Nearby, a parking structure for Metrolink will be built.

Though the train station's glory days are behind it, in 2007, Angelina Jolie filmed scenes at the depot for her movie The Changeling, thus bringing some new notoriety to the depot.

February 12, 2010

Arizona Quits Climate Pact

Investor's Business Daily

Cap-And-Trade: The Grand Canyon State avoids a big economic hole by suspending its participation in a multistate initiative to fight climate change. As climate fraud is exposed, economic reality sets in. Will California follow?

Not since King Canute have government officials engaged in an exercise as futile as in 2007, when seven U.S. states and four Canadian provinces got together to form something called the Western Regional Climate Action Initiative to reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2012.

Leading the charge for the pact was California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who insisted, "We cannot wait for the United States government to get its act together on the environment." At the time he said the regional agreement "sets the stage for a regional cap-and-trade program which will provide a powerful framework for developing a national cap-and-trade program."

Since then, the nation has slid into a recession, and the only thing man-made about climate change has been the manipulated and manufactured claims that we are doomed if we don't act to fight it.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, seeing which way the snow is blowing, has issued an executive order saying her state will suspend its participation in the emission-control plan or any program that could raise costs for businesses and consumers.

Arizona joined the climate initiative under its previous governor, Janet Napolitano, now secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration.

All 50 states agreed to the cap-and-trade pact, but left implementation up to each state. Only California is ready to start its program in 2012.

Brewer also ordered Arizona's Environmental Quality Department to take another look at stricter vehicle emission rules, based on California's standards, set to take effect in 2012, fearing they would significantly raise new car costs. Slowly but surely, economic reality is trumping climate fantasy.

Rumblings of discontent are also being heard in California. Assemblyman Dan Logue is sponsoring an initiative for the November ballot that would halt implementation of the state's global-warming law, Assembly Bill 32, until the state unemployment rate drops to 5.5% from the current 12.4%.

"The state's greenhouse reduction program is not a freebie," Gino DiCaro, a spokesman for the California Manufacturers & Technology Association, said last month. "Large costs foisted on an unemployment-riddled state economy and increased electricity rates ... are not affordable at this time, if ever."

A 2009 study by economists at California State University, Sacramento, and commissioned by the California Small Business Roundtable found implementation costs for AB32 "could easily exceed $100 billion" and that by 2020 the program would raise the cost of living by $7,857 per household per year.

Even the most optimistic assessments of global pacts such as Copenhagen and Kyoto would have moderated at great cost the earth's temperature by an amount too small to measure. The impact of a regional pact by a handful of states would be futile, especially when they are downwind from the world's biggest polluter, the "developing" nation of China, which is exempt from such global pacts.

Not long ago, the New York Times reported that a new coal-fired power plant big enough to serve San Diego comes on line in China every seven to 10 days, exporting more pollution to California and the West than such draconian proposals would ever hope to curb. The pact also envisions strict emission limits on American cars at a time China has passed the U.S. as the world's largest auto market.

One of the supporters of the initiative to suspend AB32 is Ted Costa of the People's Advocate, a Sacramento-based anti-tax group. "Look at what happened in Massachusetts," said Costa, who was active in the successful 2003 effort to recall former Gov. Gray Davis. "I see that happening with AB32. Blue-collar workers think the government has gone too far. We're told we're somehow warming the planet. But they don't see the evidence."

As much of the nation lies under a blanket of snow, neither do we. But the political climate is about to change.

Utah delivers vote of no confidence for 'climate alarmists'

The US's most Republican state passes bill disputing science of climate change, claiming emissions are 'essentially harmless'

Suzanne Goldenberg

Carbon dioxide is "essentially harmless" to human beings and good for plants. So now will you stop worrying about global warming?

Utah's House of Representatives apparently has at least. Officially the most Republican state in America, its political masters have adopted a resolution condemning "climate alarmists", and disputing any scientific basis for global warming.

The measure, which passed by 56-17, has no legal force, though it was predictably claimed by climate change sceptics as a great victory in the wake of the controversy caused by a mistake over Himalayan glaciers in the UN's landmark report on global warming.

But it does offer a view of state politicians' concerns in Utah which is a major oil and coal producing state.

The original version of the bill dismissed climate science as a "well organised and ongoing effort to manipulate and incorporate "tricks" related to global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome". It accused those seeking action on climate change of riding a "gravy train" and their efforts would "ultimately lock billions of human beings into long-term poverty".

In the heat of the debate, the representative Mike Noel said environmentalists were part of a vast conspiracy to destroy the American way of life and control world population through forced sterilisation and abortion.

By the time the final version of the bill came to a vote, cooler heads apparently prevailed. The bill dropped the word "conspiracy", and described climate science as "questionable" rather than "flawed".

However, it insisted – against all evidence – that the hockey stick graph of changing temperatures was discredited. It also called on the federal government's Environmental Protection Agency to order an immediate halt in its moves to regulate greenhouse gas emissions "until a full and independent investigation of climate data and global warming science can be substantiated".

As Noel explained: "Sometimes ... we need to have the courage to do nothing."

It’s the economy: District asks Governator to suspend climate change law

By Charlie Morasch
Land Line Magazine

One California air quality management district is asking California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to suspend a state global warming law, thereby killing several corresponding diesel regulations until the state’s decimated economy rebounds.

The Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District recently sent a four-page letter to Schwarzenegger asking the governor to suspend Assembly Bill 32 – the 2006 law that gave the California Air Resources Board the power to create and enforce emissions rules aimed at curbing global warming.

Several trucking regulations – including CARB’s Port Drayage Rule, its On-Road Truck and Bus Rule, and the SmartWay (retrofit) rule – were created under the authority of A.B. 32.

“Within the (air district’s) jurisdiction – we are rapidly approaching “regulatory gridlock” which not only threatens to cripple the local and regional economy, but also hinders our agency’s ability to adequately protect the local air quality and health of our residents,” the letter states.

“While we believe the goals of many of the legislative and regulatory enactments behind A.B. 32 are laudable and necessary, we are finding that, in an area of unique economic and regulatory challenges like ours, there are serious conflicts among existing and potential proposed regulatory programs.”

In the letter, the air district board noted that nearly 50 percent of the district’s residents commute at least 40 miles each way to work, and that 200,000 cars travel to and from the high desert area every workday.

“The MDAQMD Governing Board thus urges you to support any and all efforts to suspend further implementation of A.B. 32 until some, if not all, of these conflicts have been looked at and potentially resolved,” the letter states. “The Governing Board understands that its request may involve a repeal or substantial reworking of the climate change effort in California, but we must do what is necessary.”

The letter stated that regulatory air quality requirements have made new renewable energy projects “nearly impossible to site within” the air district’s jurisdiction.

In addition to A.B. 32, the district has to continue to meet obligations under Clean Air Act, National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone and faces the potential of federal law enforcement of cap-and-trade proposals already approved in the U.S. House and being considered in the Senate.

“With a 16.6 percent average unemployment range looming large over our jurisdiction, we believe any additional mandates which impose even higher fees and more stringent requirements on local industry put us at a competitive disadvantage with neighboring states which are not regulating greenhouse gases as stringently, if they are regulating it at all,” the letter states.

California is divided into 35 local air districts that enforce CARB emissions regulations. Each district has a governing board as well as employees. The districts are funded mostly by citation fees, said Eldon Heaston, executive director.

Mike Rothschild, a governing board member for the Mojave Desert air district and Mayor Pro-Tem for Victorville, CA, said A.B. 32’s many provisions are hurting California.

“This is killing the economy!” Rothschild said. “Right now, with the economy as bad as it is, people don’t understand that if you want to go into business, you’re buried in this pile of regulations.”

Rothschild, who has served on the local air board for 17 years, said he’s been contacted by many people who support the board’s request to suspend the global warming law.

“We’re not the only ones,” said Rothschild. “If the governor gets his head in the game and realizes this is a real job killer, and an expense to doing business here, maybe we’ll get it back.”

The Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District has been contacted by other air districts considering sending their own such request to the state.

Rothschild said he hopes other air districts will follow suit.

“We have the toughest state emissions standards in the whole United States,” Rothschild said. “Why? No better reason than people thinking they’re saving the planet. In the process, they’re shutting down California.”

February 7, 2010

What's best for Eagle Mountain?

Our Voice: County shouldn't pass up proposed landfill

A Desert Sun Point Counterpoint

The Desert Sun Editorial Board

The proposed Eagle Mountain landfill site is 60 miles east of Indio at the former Kaiser iron ore mine. The mining operation left a hole 4.5 miles wide and 1.5 miles long. (Courtesy photo)

The Desert Sun has long supported putting the nation's largest landfill in an abandoned iron ore mine in a remote area known as Eagle Mountain.

This issue has been debated for 20 years and some believed it was finally over when in November the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 ruling, upheld a lower court's rejection of the plan.

Proponents, however, will continue to press their case through the courts. We hope they succeed.

From 1948 to 1983, Kaiser Mining Corp. operated on 5,000 acres near Joshua Tree National Park. In 1989, six years after the mining operation ceased, Kaiser applied to the Bureau of Land Management for a land swap that would provide 2,846 acres of mostly flat desert land to become part of the California Desert Conservation Area.

The mining operation left a hole 4.5 miles wide and 1.5 miles long, a scar in the desert landscape.

Rick Daniels, now city manager of Desert Hot Springs, said Eagle Mountain would be the “most environmentally sound landfill ever.”

It was approved by Riverside County in 1992 and has the green light from the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reviewed the potential impact on endangered species and three times issued a “no jeopardy” opinion.

Eagle Mountain would generate 1,300 jobs and an economic impact of $3 billion in its first 20 years of operation.

Without Eagle Mountain, 14,000 tons of Los Angeles area trash will go to Imperial County's Mesquite Landfill. It is literally an economic opportunity rolling right past us on railroad cars.

Judge Steven S. Trott was eloquent in his dissent: “What sane person would want to attempt to acquire property for a landfill? Our well-meaning environmental laws have unintentionally made such an endeavor a fool's errand.

“This case is yet another example of how daunting — if not impossible — such an adventure can be. Ulysses thought he encountered fearsome obstacles as he headed home to Ithaca on the Argo, but nothing that compares to the ‘due process' of unchecked environmental law. Not the Cyclops, not the Sirens, and not even Scylla and Charybdis can measure up to the obstacles Kaiser has faced in this endeavor.”

Keep up the fight, proponents.

February 6, 2010

January showers bring March flowers

K Kaufmann
The Desert Sun

A bee gathers nectar from blooming flowers on a brittlebush in a vacant lot in Palm Springs on Friday. Experts say that recent and forecasted rainstorms should ensure a strong desert wildflower show in March. (Michael Snyder The Desert Sun)

It's going to be a good — and possibly even spectacular — year for wildflowers in the Coachella Valley.

Just not yet.

The yearly bloom — to be celebrated with a Wildflower Festival on March 6 in Palm Desert — is a function of temperatures and rain, and both sides of the equation have yet to reach a tipping point, experts say.

“The ground (is) covered with green sprouts waiting for the first warm spell,” desert ecologist Jim Cornett said. “The first time we get three days of 76-degree weather, then we'll start seeing some blooming.”

Buds also are out at the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument in Palm Desert, which will host the Wildflower Festival.

“We're starting to see the flower heads coming up,” said Dani Ortiz, interpretive ranger at the monument. “We'll have everything. We cover 52 species up here.”

The warm weather needed to nudge those first buds open could still be two to three weeks out, said Ken Clark, senior meteorologist for Accuweather.com.

“We don't start warming up until March,” Clark said. “We're going to get more rain.”

At this point, the more the better, say Cornett and other naturalists in the region.

The valley's January downpours have somewhat made up for a dry autumn, but another good soaking is needed.

“Depending on rain, the peak will be a little earlier, the first week of March,” said Michael Rodriques, regional interpretive specialist at Anza- Borrego Desert State Park.

“If it rains a lot more, it will extend (the season). That would give us a stellar year.”

At Joshua Tree National Park, Joe Zarki, chief of interpretation, is hedging his bets, forecasting “a decent wildflower display” on the way.

“There won't be quite the rich carpets. The flower concentrations are going to be scattered and a little spotty,” Zarki said.

The place to watch will be Edom Hill in Cathedral City, north of Interstate 10, which has a unique combination of low elevation, sun and soil seen nowhere else in the California desert, Cornett said.

“The intersection of Date Palm and Varner will be the first place you're going to see plants blooming,” he said. “It's a south-facing slope; it has a thin veneer of wind-blown sand. It's warm, and the loose soil makes an excellent germinating medium.”

At both Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree, wildflower season is expected to last into late March and beyond as blooms march up the mountains, moving to higher elevations as temperatures warm.

“We'll see a lot of flowers in late March and April, even into May in the higher elevations,” Zarki said.

Rodriques' recommendation is simple: “Look everywhere because there will be flowers everywhere.”

February 5, 2010

BLM concludes wild horse round up north of Reno, says it met its goal

By Frank X. Mullen Jr.
Reno Gazette-Journal

The Bureau of Land Management today concluded the Calico Mountains Complex roundup about 100 miles north of Reno with 1,922 wild horses removed from the range.

The mustangs are held at the Indian Lakes Road holding facility in Fallon, where they are being prepared for shipping to an adoption program or to long-term holding pastures in the Midwest.

The BLM estimates 600 wild horses remain in the complex, which is within the agency’s target of 600 to 900 established for that area. Another horse census will be taken in the spring, officials said.

“The gather went well, despite the weather-related delays we experienced throughout the operation,” said Gene Seidlitz, BLM Winnemucca District Manager. “By reducing the populations now, we can avoid the potential for an emergency gather situation later this summer.”

Wild horse advocates in December had attempted to stop the roundup, but their lawsuit was unsuccessful. The advocates say the gathering of horses with helicopters is cruel and that the BLM overestimates the number of horses on the range and manages public land for the benefit of cattle ranchers.

Members of the Cloud Foundation, an advocacy group, said they remain concerned about the safety of the horses in Fallon, where 32 of the 39 horse fatalities occurred. The BLM said most of those horses were euthanized after they got sick while trying to adjust to a domestic-feed diet.

The BLM said it will continue to offer public observation days by appointment to view the horses that have been transported to the Indian Lakes Road Facility near Fallon.