March 31, 2010

Celebrating the art of the desert

The Southern Pacific locomotive is by desert artist Carl Bray.

Kevin Roderick
LA Observed

Ann Japenga's new website wallows in the art, history and landscape of the California desert, "an online magazine and gathering place for desert rats, collectors, historians, artists and anyone who loves the early painters of the desert...where landscape, history and art come together under the brow of Mount San Jacinto." Japenga is a longtime SoCal journalist who was a staff writer for the late Los Angeles Times View section. She now lives in Palm Springs, and in the site's lead piece sits down at Gramma’s restaurant in Banning with the 92-year-old Carl Bray, who she calls the Grandma Moses of the desertlands.

I first learned of Carl–like so many others—from the palette-shaped sign outside his roadside home and gallery on Highway 111: “Painter of the Smoketree”. While Indian Wells once revolved around a date shop, a snake barker, a House of Purple Glass and other humble attractions, Carl’s home and gallery is today the last remaining scrap of the original village that would morph into one of America’s glitziest resorts.

One day years ago I stopped in at Carl’s gallery and agonized over whether to drop $100 for a painting. I’ve never regretted the purchase.

March 30, 2010

Safety measures OK'd for abandoned mines at Mojave preserve

Desert Dispatch

BARSTOW • Officials at the Mojave National Preserve expect to award contracts for companies to install safety measures at the preserve’s most visited abandoned mines.

Potential safety measures for abandoned mines at the preserve include grates, fencing, culvert gates and foam closures.

This project and other abandoned mine safety projects at National Parks across the west will be paid for by $13 million in federal stimulus dollars. But more than 50 percent of the work will be done at Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve, said Robert Bryson, Abandoned Mine Lands program manager for the Pacific West Region.

As soon as the contracts are awarded, work at the preserve can begin. Bryson said it will take about four or five months to finish. About 1,800 abandoned mine shafts and other features exist at the preserve.

The National Park Service decided to move forward with the safety measures at the abandoned mines after a three-week public comment period on an environmental assessment report ended in February. There were only two comments addressing impacts the project will have on wildlife particularly bats, said Dannette Woo, the preserve’s environmental compliance specialist. Bryson said officials have already conducted bat surveys at the mine sites to determine what kind of closure to install.

In addition to the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park, safety measures will be installed at abandoned mines at Joshua Tree National Park and Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Desert tortoise emerges, proclaiming spring in the desert

By Erin Dostal
Las Vegas Sun

Mojave Max emerges Tuesday morning from his burrow, an indication of springtime in the desert. A contest with Clark County students is tied to the desert tortoise’s emergence. (Courtesy of Clark County)

Mojave Max – the desert tortoise whose emergence means it’s springtime in the desert – came out of his burrow at 9:23 a.m. today.

That is one week later than when Mojave Max emerged last year, but is about the same as most years during the past decade, according to Clark County officials.

Like many reptiles, Max brumates – hibernation for reptiles – to survive chilly winters. Reptiles are cold-blooded, so they use external surroundings to regulate their body temperature.

Longer daylight hours, warmer temperatures and the tortoise’s internal clock are all factors in when Mojave Max emerges.

The earliest he has emerged was Feb. 14 and the latest was April 14.

This year, students in Clark County participated in the Mojave Max emergence contest. The student who guessed the date and time closest to Max’s emergence wins prizes, including T-shirts for his or her class and a laptop.

Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, indicating another six weeks of winter on the East Coast and in the Midwest.

Now that six weeks have passed and Mojave Max has emerged, county officials say it’s springtime across the country.

March 29, 2010

Governor approves use of eminent domain to take federal land

Brock Vergakis
The Associated Press
Salt Lake Tribune

Fed up with federal ownership of more than half the land in Utah, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert on Saturday authorized the use of eminent domain to take some of the U.S. government's most valuable parcels.

Herbert signed a pair of bills into law that supporters hope will trigger a flood of similar legislation throughout the West, where lawmakers contend that federal ownership restricts economic development in an energy-rich part of the country.

Governments use eminent domain to take private property for public use.

The goal is to spark a U.S. Supreme Court battle that legislators' own attorneys acknowledge has little chance of success.

But Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and other Republicans say the case is still worth fighting, since the state could reap millions of dollars for state schools each year if it wins.

More than 60 percent of Utah is owned by the U.S. government, and policy makers here have long complained that federal ownership hinders their ability to generate tax revenue and adequately fund public schools.

Utah spends less per student than any other state and has the nation's largest class sizes. Under the measure Herbert has approved, the state will set aside $3 million to defend the law.

Lawmakers recently slashed education funding by $10 million and raised taxes on cigarettes by $1 a pack. Democrats have decried the eminent domain measure as a waste of money, and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful

Peter Corroon is making it an issue in this year's special election.

But if the law is as bad as Democrats say it is, a court will quickly overturn it and the state won't have to spend much money defending it, Herbert said.

Initially, the state would target three areas for the use of eminent domain, including the Kaiparowits plateau in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is home to large coal reserves.

Many people in Utah are still angry that then-President Bill Clinton's designated the area as a national monument in 1996, a move that stopped development on the land and greatly pleased environmentalists as he ran for re-election.

Utah lawmakers contend the federal government should have long ago sold the land it owns in the state. Because it hasn't, the federal government has violated a contract made with Utah when statehood was granted, they say.

Eminent domain would also be used on parcels of land where Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last year scrapped 77 oil and gas leases around national parks and wild areas.

Arizona towns pitch in to save state parks

Donations keep Lost Dutchman, Tonto Natural Bridge and other parks open a bit longer amid a state budget crunch. One resident donates $8,000.

By Nicole Santa Cruz
Los Angeles Times

Payson, Ariz., has mobilized to raise funds to keep Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open until Sept. 27. (Arizona State Parks)

Reporting from Apache Junction, Ariz. - Taylor Sanford Jr., a 76-year-old Texan who fell in love with the Arizona desert, couldn't imagine being unable to visit Lost Dutchman State Park to see its scattered fields of golden wildflowers.

So Sanford strode into a community meeting here recently and wrote a check for $8,000, the estimated cost of keeping the park open for a month.

The retired airline captain is just one of many who are donating money or time in hopes of saving Arizona's suffering state parks.

Since 2007, the Legislature has reduced park funding by almost 80%.

Facing one of the steepest budget shortfalls in state history, Arizona lawmakers cut an additional $3.9 million from the system this month. In November 2009, the Pew Center on the States ranked Arizona as having the second-worst budget crisis in the nation, right behind California.

Five of 30 state parks have already closed. Six, not including Lost Dutchman, are set to shut down by June.

"It will be difficult to conceive of a comprehensive state park system in Arizona if the trend continues," said Richard Dolesh, chief of public policy for the National Recreation and Park Assn.

In the last year, about 400 state parks have been slated for closure in several states, said Phil McKnelly, executive director for the National Assn. of State Parks Directors.

Arizona is the only state that has already closed some sites, a devastating blow for some rural areas.

Apache Junction is a city of 40,000 that has retained its rural character -- one councilman rides a horse to council meetings. And Lost Dutchman is vital to its economy.

The Superstition Mountains are the main attraction of the park, which is named after a gold mine. In the spring, visitors can see blooms of blue lupine, yellow fiddleneck and white desert chicory.

From October to April, snowbirds with RVs and trailers invade the surrounding areas of Apache Junction and almost double the population, said Stephen Filipowicz, the city's economic development director.

The community, which Filipowicz described as "hiking, horses and Harleys," is trying to prevent or delay the closure. A motorcycle business is organizing a charity ride, and the city started lending out maintenance equipment to the park.

Even so, Lost Dutchman may close in September, unless $25,000 can be raised to keep it open during the quiet summer months. Sanford's $8,000 goes toward that amount, and an unidentified donor gave $5,000.

"The silver lining in the budget crisis is we are getting to know our neighbors," Filipowicz said.

Other Arizona towns have donated money to the parks -- if only to buy time until a better solution is found.

Payson, in central Arizona, has entered into an agreement to keep Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open until Sept. 27.

Mayor Kenny Evans has raised more than $50,000 for the park over the last two years by working with individuals, corporations and the Tonto Apache tribe.

Partnerships like Payson's will become more common as states continue to wrestle with budget shortfalls, Evans said.

"I think it spells a real sea change in terms of how certain public functions will have to be funded," he said.

Volunteers have also taken to the streets of Payson, knocking on doors to ask for donations or to urge people to volunteer, such as performing maintenance, to keep the park afloat.

"We'll do whatever it takes," said Bill Ensign, president of Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge.

The bridge is a soaring 183-foot-high arc of travertine. Ensign said its beauty could not be put into words.

"It's like being closer to God when you're down there," he said.

Camp Verde, a community of 11,000 north of Phoenix, contributed about $75,000 from its $6-million budget to Fort Verde State Historic Park. Yavapai County donated an additional $30,000 to keep the park open for one year.

Mayor Bob Burnside said the community took pride in the site, which was a military base in the 1870s and 1880s, during the end of the American Indian Wars.

"This started our settlement," he said, sitting on a bench at Fort Verde, which is lined with a white picket fence. "This is our culture."

Historic sites aren't moneymakers, but they are an essential part of the town's fabric, Burnside said.

"Can you imagine being in New York and telling your kids you're going to take them out West to see the cowboys and Indians, and they're not there?" he asked.

March 28, 2010

'Tea party' protesters in Nevada target health law, Reid

Palin and other speakers at the protest defend the conservative movement and try to stir up opposition to the Senate majority leader's reelection.

Protesters numbering at least 9,000 voice opposition to the healthcare law at a "tea party" rally in Searchlight, Nev., a few miles from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's home. (Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images / March 27, 2010)

By Kathleen Hennessey and Ashley Powers
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Searchlight, Nev. - Gathered amid the dust and sagebrush of the Nevada desert, thousands of conservative "tea party" protesters responded Saturday to their critics with what might be called the young protest movement's unofficial motto.

Don't tread on me.

Dozens of yellow flags bearing that defiant message, along with the image of a coiled snake poised to strike, whipped in the wind above the crowds rallying in the tiny highway hometown of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Along with repeating familiar tea party themes -- government is too big, the healthcare overhaul is socialist -- the protesters pointedly answered critics who say the group's rhetoric has fueled violence and threats against Democratic lawmakers in an increasingly poisonous political climate after the passage of healthcare legislation.

"Don't ever let anybody tell you to sit down and shut up, Americans!" said former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. A hearty crowd huddled in a dirt lot for the "Showdown in Searchlight" cheered.

The rally was originally intended to stir up opposition to Reid's bid for reelection this fall.

But the parade of speakers seemed equally focused on defending the young protest movement from its detractors, an acknowledgment that any association with the vandalism, threats and slurs reported by Democrats could harm tea party aims and drive away allies.

No tea party group has been found to be involved in any of the incidents.

Several websites, including Palin's, have been cited as examples of the incendiary tone. In announcing her efforts to try to unseat key Democratic members of the House, Palin’s site used the image of a rifle scope. She told her supporters via Twitter, "Don't retreat, instead - RELOAD."

On Saturday, Palin dismissed as a "bunch of bunk" suggestions that she was promoting violence.

"Our vote is our arms," she said to cheers. "We're not inciting violence. Don't get sucked into the lame-stream media lies."

Palin's outlook matched that of many who inflated the population of Searchlight, home to fewer than 1,000 people.

The pit-stop town was overrun by visitors in RVs, motorcycles and, in the case of Nevada political candidates, buses wrapped in campaign slogans. A few vendors hawked T-shirts, flags and a book-and-DVD series called "The Constitution Made Easy."

Adherence to what supporters deem to be a strict interpretation of constitutional principles is a key tenet of the tea party movement, a loose confederation of local groups that arose in opposition to bank bailouts. It found its momentum as the loudest voice against President Obama's healthcare overhaul, which Reid championed.

Saturday's group, largely older and predominantly white, quickly packed a dirt lot the size of a football field and spilled onto a nearby hill topped with an abandoned mine shaft.

Interspersed were Revolutionary War re-enactors, plastic pitchforks, cut-out torches and skull-and-cross-bones flags with Obama's face superimposed over the skull.

"The real pirates are in Washington," said Judy Hoelscher, who sold the flags for $10 each.

Fred Kubitz of San Diego carried a sign branding Obama, Stalin and Hitler "three socialists."

"I believe that we're heading down the same road" as Stalin and Hitler, he said, adding that he did not see his sign as exaggerated and that, although a small number of people may resort to violence, "this is a movement of beautiful people, of laid-back and easygoing people."

No problems were reported to police, despite the logistical challenge of accommodating the crowds on a plot just off the highway 60 miles south of Las Vegas.

Many people arrived about dawn, staking out seats in collapsible chairs. A traffic jam clogged five miles of the highway much of the morning. Las Vegas police, who patrol Searchlight, reported no arrests and one call "regarding a individual with a gun in an open holster," a police statement said.

Police put the crowd estimate at about 9,000, while organizers claimed more than twice as many.

The rally is meant to kick off a national tour of smaller events organized by Tea Party Express, a Sacramento-based political action committee. The group is run by GOP political consultant Sal Russo. Another rally was held later in the day in a Las Vegas suburb, headlined by conservative author Ann Coulter.

Just down the road in Searchlight, about 50 Reid allies greeted cars heading to the rally with chants of "Harry! Harry!" Drivers responded with honks, thumbs down and a few middle fingers.

The Democrats' signs -- "Welcome to Reid Country" -- were somewhat misleading. A recent poll showed that roughly one-third of Nevada voters had a positive opinion of Reid. Democrats struggle most in the state's rural outposts, known for the sort of libertarian leanings and anti-tax views that match the tea party message.

"I like what they're saying. It's common sense," Robert Shawn said of the tea party activists. The 51-year-old assistant kitchen manager at the Searchlight Nugget Casino, where some tea party backers asked him for directions, said he didn't want to see the movement taken over by fringe views.

"If it becomes radical, it won't work. They've got to focus on issues like keeping jobs here and lowering the cost of prescription drugs," he said, adding that many protesters had asked him where the senator lives. "I'm not going to tell no one where he lives."

Several tea party leaders have denounced violence and vandalism as a protest tactic.

At the same time, some of those leaders also cast doubt over whether reports of intimidation and window-smashing were exaggerated or made up by opponents to damage the tea party movement's image. Conservative activists point to the incidents as another reason not to trust mainstream media and to blame the left.

"Thuggery is a tactic of the left wing," Mark Williams, a Tea Party Express organizer, said from the stage. "We will not stand for it!"

Many activists were skeptical of reports that a racial slur was directed at Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) during a healthcare protest in Washington last weekend. In video of the noisy protest that has emerged on the Web, the purported obscenity is inaudible.

"They don't have no true evidence of that," said Joyce Bough, 64, a retired accountant from Bullhead City, Ariz. "I think that's all made up."

Her husband, Mel, nodded in agreement while holding a sign asking, "Is our freedom lost forever????"

Reid stayed clear of his hometown Saturday, instead campaigning at a Las Vegas shooting range. His campaign issued a statement: "Ultimately, though, this election will be decided by Nevadans, not people from other states who parachute in for one day to have a tea party." The statement also thanked the tea party supporters for the economic boost they gave his hometown.

March 27, 2010

Tea Party protest goes to Reid's hometown in Nevada

By the CNN Wire Staff

Tea Party activists plan to protest against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Saturday in his hometown in Nevada.

(CNN) -- Caravans of Tea Party activists will roll into Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's hometown in rural Nevada on Saturday to rally for his defeat in November.

Sarah Palin, who derided big government spending and "the Obama Pelosi Reid agenda" on Friday, will headline the event dubbed "Showdown in Searchlight."

The stop is part of the latest cross-country protest against big government and health care reform. Activists hope the protest will carry a strong symbolic message.

Reid, the four-term Democratic incumbent, is from the small town, which has one gas station and a McDonald's restaurant. Earlier in the week, activists in RVs started arriving at the rally site, an undeveloped piece of land down a mile-long dirt road.

The town is not equipped to handle the crowd if it's anywhere close to the 10,000 people organizers predict will show up, County Commissioner Steve Sisolak said.

Sisolak said he also has other concerns."There are abandoned mines people could fall into, it's a habitat for the desert tortoise and people need to know it's a $25,000 fine if they pick one up," he said.

Reid is arguably the Tea Party's top target. He is one of the key Democratic leaders responsible for pushing President Obama's priorities through Congress and carries a lot of political baggage in a year that finds much anger directed at incumbents.

In January, a Mason-Dixon poll showed 33 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Reid while 52 percent had an unfavorable opinion -- some of the worst numbers he has faced in years.

"I don't think many voters in Nevada dislike me. I think we have an economic situation in Nevada that is very difficult," Reid told CNN in a recent interview in Las Vegas.

The state's economy is in dire straits. It leads the nation in foreclosures, and its 13 percent unemployment rate is second only behind Michigan's.

Those vying to challenge Reid on the Republican side are pouncing.

"He has lost touch with what is going on here in Nevada," said businesswoman and former state GOP Chairwoman Sue Lowden, who is leading the pack among the Republican hopefuls.

"It is all about jobs. His solution is to put the country more in debt, to tax the country more, to put our children and grandchildren at risk for years and years of being in debt," Lowden said.

Earlier in March, Lowden told CNN she's a proud member of the Tea Party Movement.

Another Republican challenger, businessman Danny Tarkanian, said Reid has "alienated himself from the people of Nevada, and the economy is getting worse and worse and worse."

Also not helping Reid were two recent quips by President Obama about not wasting money in Las Vegas.

Reid, who is not facing a serious primary challenge, aired ads last year aimed at promoting what he has done to help improve the economy as well as introducing himself to thousands of new voters who have moved to Nevada since his last election.

"To say Harry Reid is going to run a scorched-earth campaign against whomever this nominee is ... he has a reputation for doing whatever it takes to win -- no more so than this year. And he is going to have all the money to do it," said Nevada political newsletter editor Jon Ralston.

For his part, Reid, known as a tenacious fighter and who has come out ahead in previous close elections, will push the message against his opponents of how much he has done for the state.

But he said he will not campaign differently than he has in the past.

"People in the state of Nevada know me," Reid said. "I'm not going to be changing who I am for an election. I'm just who I was when I started this a long time ago, and I continue to be the same person I used to be, as I am today and will work very hard to meet the additional requirements that come with a changing economy that we have."

The Tea Party Express is scheduled to end up in Washington on April 15, which is Tax Day. The group's travel plans are part of its "Just Vote Them Out Tour" Some local organizers prefer to call the Searchlight gathering a "conservative Woodstock."

March 12, 2010

Community celebrates Green Path North's demise

By Jutta Biggerstaff
Hi-Desert Star

Ruth Rieman and April Sall, leaders of the California Desert Coalition, embrace after the announcement that the L.A. Department of Water and Power has scrapped Green Path North.

YUCCA VALLEY — To a standing ovation of applause and cheers Wednesday at the Yucca Valley Community Center, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced the department’s decision to scrap Green Path North.

The proposed power project would have slashed a 118-mile swath through the desert to provide renewable electricity from geothermal, wind and solar sources from the Imperial Valley to L.A.

Locally, the 200-foot transmission towers would have cut through Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, Pipes Canyon Preserve and the hills along Old Woman Springs Road that wind through Yucca Mesa, Flamingo Heights, Landers and Johnson Valley.

“As of today, we have submitted two letters to the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to withdraw the right-of-way grant applications,” said Mark Sedlacek, LADWP director of environmental affairs.

The capitulation by the energy giant capped a strenuous and passionate resistance from Hi-Desert residents.

April Sall, conservation director of the Wildlands Conservancy and founder of the California Desert Coalition, wiped away tears as she thanked the audience of dedicated volunteers and supporters for their efforts.

She called the three-year attempt to stop Green Path North an “emotional battle” and a lot of hard work, but said the outcome made the work worthwhile.

“If this project were to go forward, this landscape and these communities would be forever changed,” she said. “This really is an incredible victory that speaks not only to community activism and grass-roots organizing, but to our local officials who really did come to bat for us.”

Sall said she found out about the decision to scuttle Green Path North from LADWP General Manager David Freeman, who acknowledged the department had made some mistakes.

“He admitted that we managed to get about half the state ticked off at LADWP,” she laughed.

Sall called Freeman a forward-thinking leader, and the California Desert Coalition is encouraged to hear some of his ideas.

“They are looking at Owens Dry Lake where they can re-purpose already disturbed lands and use existing transmission,” she said. “Our position from the beginning has been there’s a responsible way to do this.”

Meg Foley, Morongo Valley community services director, said she was thrilled by the announcement.

“Its been a long, concerted effort, and we couldn’t be happier with the outcome,” she said. “We always believed we’d find a way to keep the route from going through here, but it’s surprising to finally hear it and know it’s official.”

Seth Shteir, program coordinator for air and climate with the National Parks Conservation Association, said the decision to halt Green Path North is great because it will leave intact critical habitat in Big Morongo Canyon Preserve.

“I know about the importance of the habitat by reading about it, but I also know about it by bird-watching there on Saturday mornings,” he said. “You just see incredible diversity of species, and it’s wonderful that they’ve been able to protect it.”

Sall summed up the Green Path North experience by giving credit to the people of the Morongo Basin who faced down a powerful adversary by the force of their conviction.

“We organized, and we had people who are very passionate about the land and their communities, and they rose to the occasion,” she said. “It’s been an inspiring experience.”

March 11, 2010

DWP drops plan to build 85-mile power transmission line across the desert

Environmental groups opposed the $800-million Green Path North Transmission Line because it would have crossed wilderness preserves and scenic ridgelines.

By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

Facing enormous costs and fierce opposition from environmental groups, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power on Wednesday announced that it has dropped plans to build an 85-mile-long "green" power transmission line across desert wilderness preserves and scenic ridgelines.

Controversy surrounding the proposed Green Path North Transmission Line had tarnished Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's bid to portray himself as the leader of the "cleanest, greenest big city in America."

Villaraigosa was unavailable for comment. But interim DWP Chief S. David Freeman said the decision to pull the plug on the $800-million project "was the practical thing to do. Essentially, the utility came up with the idea, and the mayor ended it."

"Why get into a fight with a Joshua tree when you don't really need to?" Freeman added with a laugh.

David Myers, Wildlands Conservancy executive director, lauded the decision.

"This was an ill-conceived project, and it was corrected," Myers said. "Los Angeles realized it didn't make sense to spend nearly $1 billion on Green Path when the DWP already owns transmission lines throughout Southern California."

The DWP submitted a right-of-way grant application to the U.S. Forest Service in 2007 for the project, designed to bring electricity generated by solar, geothermal, wind and nuclear power to Los Angeles from the southeastern California deserts and Arizona.

Environmental and community groups were outraged by the DWP's plans to route high-voltage lines and 16-story towers through the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve north of Palm Springs, Pioneertown near Yucca Valley, Pipes Canyon Wilderness Preserve and a corner of the San Bernardino National Forest before linking with existing DWP power lines in Hesperia.

Home to bighorn sheep and chuckwallas, the preserves are internationally recognized birding hot spots embroidered with trails and streams that run under canopies of willow and cottonwood trees.

Opponents in the community of Oak Glen have inundated Los Angeles City Hall over the last three years with more than 50,000 e-mails, letters and postcards. The Wildlands Conservancy bought billboards on Interstate 10 that displayed scenic landscapes and a blunt message: "L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, it's not yours to destroy!"

Environmentalists celebrated the announcement Wednesday at events held in Oak Glen and Yucca Valley, where Joshua Tree resident and desert activist Elden Hughes said, "It's a huge victory, and the intelligent thing to do."

Freeman agreed and joked, "This decision should help in terms of billboard control because we hear the opponents are going to take down all those nasty signs along Interstate 10."

The announcement reflected a shift in policy toward developing renewable resources closer to the DWP's existing power corridors.

Freeman recently proposed construction of a gigantic array of photovoltaic cells over 80 square miles of the Owens Lake's dry lake bed and nearby flatlands that would generate up to 10% of all the power produced in California while simultaneously calming the region's fierce dust storms.

Harry Reid, the New Public Lands Enemy No. 1

Remember Tom Daschle, Democrat Senate Majority Leader of the recent past, voted out in of office in his home state of South Dakota? Perhaps voters should do it again, this time in Nevada, and defeat the second Democrat Senate Majority Leader in a row. If we do, we might have some chance of saving our public lands from the mining industry.

By Bill Schneider
New West

Senator Harry Reid

I used this headline once before when writing about Mark Rey, former Bush Administration Undersecretary of Agriculture and boss of the Forest Service. Prior to Rey’s Reign of Terror, California Republican Congressmen Richard Pombo held the honor of being the biggest enemy of public lands. Voters booted him in 2006, but he’s back, running for Congress again this year.

Now, we have a new Public Lands Enemy No. 1, none other than current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

As I write this, the second most powerful Democrat in the country is locked in a bitter battle to keep his power and his membership in America’s most exclusive club. It’s a long time to November 2, but early polls show Senator Reid losing to any of the four Republican challengers.

Normally, those of us who value our public lands would be rooting for the Dems, but in this case, we’d be better off with a freshman Republican who might regularly vote on the wrong side of environmental issues, but wouldn’t have the unbridled power to the Senate Majority Leader wields.

Although Senator Reid has taken some flack from his conservative constituency for voting to protect roadless lands and desert tortoise habitat, he is, to put it mildly, the darling of the state’s vast mining industry. And to say mining is big in Reid’s home state of Nevada would be quite the understatement. The Silver State is 87 percent federal land, and in one year, 2007, miners in Nevada extracted nearly 190 tons of gold--three times the total yield in all other states combined--not counting all those tons of silver, copper, urainium and other minerals.

Reid is hopelessly intertwined in his state’s mining culture. He is the son of a miner and owns 14 abandoned mines himself. His two brothers are lawyers representing mining companies, and his son-in-law lobbies for the mining industry. And miners shovel money into his campaign war chest, almost $300,000 so far, and that figure is sure to grow in this critical election year.

And year after year, Reid comes through for his mining buddies and sponsors by single-handedly stopping mining reform legislation.

If there is anything more logical and reasonable Congress should do than modernize the General Mining Law of 1872, I’d like to know what it is. For 138 years, the law has made mining “the highest and best use” of federal lands, trumping all other uses. Miners can still stake a claim to our property and take ownership of it for pennies per acre, regardless of how many billions in gold and other minerals they extract from it.

Nationally, miners have gouged more than $400 billion in gold out of our public land, but they haven’t paid one single penny of royalties back to the U.S. Treasury--even though every other industry taking natural resources from public lands does. In Nevada, for example, one company, Toronto-based Barrick Gold, paid just $9,765 for 1,950 acres of federal land and extracted $10 billion in gold from it.

And the government or we, the public landowners, can’t say no to miners. We must sell our land for pennies. The 1872 law requires it. Remember back in the mid-1990s when President Clinton tried to stop the New World Mine near Yellowstone National Park. The only way he could do it was pay the mining claim holders $65 million, all taxpayer dollars, for federal land they paid almost nothing for and didn’t develop.

With gold selling north of $1,100/ounce and other metal prices also in the stratosphere, the public land giveaway to hard rock miners has doubled since 2003. We now have around 400,000 active mining claims on our public lands.

When the gold is gone, mining companies leave taxpayers with tab for reclaiming broken communities, poisoned waterways, and almost unimaginable wastelands. Instead, miners should be paying reasonable royalties to not only cover the cost of mined land reclamation, but also fund other federal programs--such as a good slice of the budget for the Agriculture and Interior Departments.

But this one-sided economics isn’t the biggest problem with the archaic 1872 mining law. No other industry does more permanent damage to our public lands than miners, large and small.

Some people fret over logged or overgrazed landscapes, but Mother Nature can take care of those problems in few years. But mining is forever. Even Mother Nature with all her power can’t reclaim the spoils and purify the acid water. And most mines involve permanent roads and residential developments that endure long after the miners have moved onto to the next mountain.

Even mines that never open leave a permanent impact. The vast majority of the many thousands of “wilderness cabins” dotting on the choicest tracts of formerly public land are patented mining claims given to mining companies and now private residences.

And we can plan on Senator Harry Reid making sure none of above, regardless how embarrassing this antiquated law is to a civilized society, ever changes.

In 2007, the House passed a bill with reasonable mining law reforms. It stopped the 19th Century public land giveaways and required new and existing mines to pay a small royalty to be used mostly for mined land reclamation. Even though it had plenty of support in the Senate, Reid was able to keep it from coming up for a vote.

Now, essentially the same bill, the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act (S.796, H.R. 699), has been introduced into both the House and Senate, and if Congress doesn’t take some action on it by April, it will be dead until next year. Sadly, conservationists working hard on it suspect it faces the same fate as the 2007 bill because Harry Reid is still there making sure it won’t happen--even though, incidentally, several of the Senate Majority Leader’s distinguished colleagues in the West, such as both senators from Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon, all Democrats, have co-sponsored the bill.

With significant democratic majorities in both houses, the time is finally right to re-write the 1872 mining law, something traditionally opposed by Republicans. But Houston, we have a little problem--the big DINO (Democrat in Name Only) standing in the way or any common sense mining law reform.

Trouble is, of course, assuming Nevada voters dump Reid this November, the floundering and increasingly unpopular Democratic party might also lose control of the House or Senate or both, which puts us right back where we’ve been for a long time, allowing miners to run roughshod over our public land with no limits or consequences, economically or environmentally.

When Congress passed our current mining law, Ulysses S. Grant lived in the White House and George Armstrong Custer was out fighting Indians. Almost unbelievable, eh? We did repeal the Homestead Act, right? Why not do the same with the biggest boondoggle of all time, the General Mining Law of 1872?

I suppose it might not seem so unbelievable if you understand how the U.S. Senate doesn’t work, where one man, owned by the mining industry, can consistently stop something as overdue as mining law reform regardless of how many members of Congress or owners of public land support it. I say, throw the bum out. I’m tired of miners getting the gold and public landowners getting the shaft.

March 6, 2010

Park battles desert invader

By Kurt Schauppner
Hi-Desert Star

JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK — With the annual wildflower season just beginning to blossom, officials from Joshua Tree National Park and the Morongo Basin Conservation Association are taking up arms against a desert invader, the Sahara mustard.

Volunteers are being sought to remove the plant from the Pinto Basin inside the national park.

Work teams will gather at 8 a.m. today and the next two Saturdays in March at the Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center at 74485 National Park Drive in Twentynine Palms.

Participants are asked to bring water, gloves, snacks, hats, sunscreen, pruners and clippers.

According to the National Park Service, invasive plants like the fast-growing Sahara mustard suppress native wildflowers by taking all the soil moisture needed for spring germination.

They create a continuous fuel source by connecting desert habitats, worsening the size and intensity of wildland fires.

Invasive plants are are considered a poor source of nutrition for native wildlife, including the desert tortoise.

“It’s become a pretty big problem for the last five years,” park science coordinator Victoria Chang said Monday of the Sahara mustard. “We’d like to contain it as much as possible.”

Chang said Sahara mustard tends to germinate before native species.

“They tend to get a head start, which is why we try to battle against it,” Chang said.

Sahara mustard is not the only invasive plant causing worry in the national park.

Chang said park officials also are worried about the tamarisk, a large desert tree that is an opportunistic non-native plant that establishes itself in riparian habitats and sucks up all the water.

“It comes out very easily and will crowd out native plants,” she said, noting that park officials use a cut stump method and federally approved herbicide to attack tamarisks.

“It is an ongoing battle,” she said.

Fountain grass is another invader being battled in the park, Chang said.

The grass is sold as an ornamental plant and spreads after being planted in people’s back yards.

March 4, 2010

Visitors can bring their weapons

The Press-Enterprise

A new federal law lifts a ban on firearms in national parks, but officials at Joshua Tree National Park said visitors still will not be allowed to have loaded weapons.

The federal law that took effect last week now allows residents nationwide to carry firearms into the parks -- as long as they also follow state gun laws.

But how the new federal law will be applied in California is unclear, according to the state attorney general's office.

In Joshua Tree National Park, the Inland region's only national park, gun owners may carry the weapons, but they cannot be loaded, said park spokesman Joe Zarki.

The federal law leaves it to states to apply the new law, which has not been brought before the attorney general's office for an opinion, officials said.

Joshua Tree park officials have not had any incidents related to the change in law and do not expect any problems, Zarki said.

The park neighbors the Mojave National Preserve, which does allow hunting, so visitors will need to know what area they are in to follow gun laws.

"It's up to the individual carrying these weapons to know what the rules are," Zarki said. "It's something we have to be aware of."

Park rangers have undergone training to address the new law, and signs have been posted throughout the park, Zarki said.

The law still prohibits guns from entering U.S. facilities where federal employees and rangers work. Whether that would apply to amphitheatres, campgrounds or other outdoor sites is still being determined.

"People don't come here concerned for their safety. It's widely known as one of the safest places in the U.S.," Zarki said of Joshua Tree.

The law has drawn mixed reaction from park officials and gun-rights advocates.

Bryan Faehner, with the National Parks Conservation Association, said guns aren't needed in national parks. He said the new law raises safety concerns for visitors and increases the threat of poaching.

"It's really unfortunate. National parks are extremely safe, and there's no need to change regulations," Faehner said. "We're concerned it's going to change the general experience of many park visitors." National Rifle Association spokeswoman Rachel Parsons said crime in national parks has increased, but unloaded weapons do nothing to protect visitors. She said there needs to be consistent laws in all wildland areas.

"The NRA believes law-abiding citizens are not prohibited from protecting themselves while enjoying park facilities," Parsons said. "Visitors are not immune to attacks from criminals or wildlife."

March 3, 2010

In Utah, a move to seize federal land

The state House passes a bill allowing the use of eminent domain to take protected land from the federal government. Utah wants to develop a stretch outside Arches National Park and other areas.

By Nicholas Riccardi
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Salt Lake City - Long frustrated by Washington's control over much of their state, Utah legislators are proposing a novel way to deal with federal land -- seize it and develop it.

The Utah House of Representatives last week passed a bill allowing the state to use eminent domain to take land the federal government owns and has long protected from development.

The state wants to develop three hotly contested areas -- national forest land in the Wasatch Mountains north of Salt Lake City, land in a proposed wilderness area in the red rock southwestern corner of the state, and a stretch of desert outside of Arches National Park that the Obama administration has declared off-limits to oil and gas development.

Supporters argue that provisions in the legislation that granted Utah statehood allow it to make such a land grab. They also hope to spark a showdown in the Supreme Court that would rearrange the balance of power between states and the federal government.

Some legal experts say the effort is unlikely to succeed, but Republican state Rep. Chris Herrod, one of the authors of the bill, said the state had little choice.

"I love America, and I'm a peaceful guy," Herrod said, "but the only real option we have is rebellion, which I don't believe in, and the courts."

The eminent domain proposal is among the most audacious yet in a state accustomed to heated battles over the two-thirds of its land owned by the federal government.

This is the state, after all, where local officials bulldozed their own roads through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, tore down signs barring off-roading in Canyonlands National Park and, with funding from the statehouse, spent years unsuccessfully defending those actions in federal court.

The eminent domain proposal quickly drew scorn from environmental groups.

"This is an ideological fantasy," said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in Moab. "Everybody knows this isn't going to happen. The federal public lands are the thing that makes the American West so great."

The proposal is one of a host in statehouses nationwide that show a deep discontent with federal authority. Eight legislatures have passed resolutions asserting, to various degrees, the sovereignty of their states.

In Utah, a dozen measures have been introduced since January that defy the federal government. It has reached such a pitch that the House's Democratic leader last week complained that Republicans were spending too much time on such proposals.

The most aggressive efforts are generally by conservative groups, but Michael Boldin of the 10th Amendment Center in Los Angeles -- named for the constitutional clause that some contend limits federal power over states -- said that states' rights were also being cited by liberals in support of state proposals to legalize marijuana and gay marriage.

In the Intermountain West, particularly in rural areas, residents have long complained that federal preservation of land has prevented development that could provide reliable jobs and bolster the tax base.

Last week, a Utah congressman warned that the Obama administration was plotting to create two national monuments in the state, and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert announced that he would meet with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to urge him to reconsider.

The administration said the hullabaloo was sparked by a memo identifying areas that could be protected at some point in the future, not imminently.

A spokeswoman said Herbert supported the concept of the eminent domain proposal but was unsure whether it would survive a legal challenge. The bill's authors contend they can rely on the legislation that brought Utah into the union in 1896, which they read as requiring the federal government to sell its land in the state and give Utah a 5% cut.

The legislators want to seize and open two roads through national forest land that the federal government closed. This would allow access to state land that they hope to sell to developers to build high-end cabins.

A third area would be more provocative: a swath of federal land outside Arches National Park where the George W. Bush administration, on the eve of the 2008 election, authorized oil and gas exploration. The Obama administration reversed the decision.

Legal experts contend that the federal government is under no obligation to sell its land in Utah and that no state could successfully seize federal property.

"It flies in the face of history and is also inconsistent as a point of law," said Bob Keiter, a law professor at the University of Utah.

Keiter and others argue that the move illustrates a pattern in recent Western history -- a conservative backlash to the election of a Democratic president. After Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, the movement known as the Sagebrush Rebellion helped lock up the West for the GOP and put Ronald Reagan in the White House.

President Clinton faced a similar backlash, aggravated by his creation before the 1996 presidential election of Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument.

"Utah has this history of grand conservation gains," Groene said. "Every time it happens it triggers this anger. And 20 years later we always look back and agree that conservation was a wise idea."

March 2, 2010

White House land grab

Proposal to seize land would favor animals over Americans

By Sen. Jim DeMint
Washington Times

You'd think the Obama administration is busy enough controlling the banks, insurance companies and automakers, but thanks to whistleblowers at the Department of the Interior, we now learn they're planning to increase their control over energy-rich land in the West.

A secret administration memo has surfaced revealing plans for the federal government to seize more than 10 million acres from Montana to New Mexico, halting job-creating activities like ranching, forestry, mining and energy development. Worse, this land grab would dry up tax revenue that's essential for funding schools, firehouses and community centers.

President Obama could enact the plans in this memo with just the stroke of a pen, without any input from the communities affected by it.

At a time when our national unemployment rate is 9.7 percent, it is unbelievable anyone would be looking to stop job-creating energy enterprises, yet that's exactly what's happening.

The document lists 14 properties that, according to the document, "might be good candidates" for Mr. Obama to nab through presidential proclamation. Apparently, Washington bureaucrats believe it's more important to preserve grass and rocks for birdwatchers and backpackers than to keep these local economies thriving.

Administration officials claim the document is merely the product of a brainstorming session, but anyone who reads this memo can see that it is a wish list for the environmentalist left. It discusses, in detail, what kinds of animal populations would benefit from limiting human activity in those areas.

The 21-page document, marked "Internal Draft-NOT FOR RELEASE," names 14 different lands Mr. Obama could completely close for development by unilaterally designating them as "monuments" under the 1906 Antiquities Act.

It says all kinds of animals would be better off by doing so, like the coyotes, badgers, grouse, chickens and lizards. But giving the chickens more room to roost is no reason for the government to override states' rights.

Rep. Robert Bishop, Utah Republican, made the memo public because he didn't want another unilateral land grab by the White House, like what happened under former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Using the Antiquities Act, President Carter locked up more land than any other president had before him, taking more than 50 million acres in Alaska despite strong opposition from the state.

President Clinton used the authority 22 times to prohibit hunting, recreational vehicles, mining, forestry and even grazing in 5.9 million acres scattered around the country. The law allowed him to single-handedly create 19 new national monuments and expand three others without consulting anyone.

One of the monuments President Clinton created was the Grande Staircase-Escalante in Utah, where 135,000 acres of land were leased for oil and gas and about 65,000 barrels of oil were produced each year from five active wells. But, President Clinton put an end to developing those resources.

President Obama could do the same in other energy-rich places unless Congress takes action. At least 13.5 million acres are already on his Department of Interior's real estate shopping list.

This includes a 58,000-acre area in New Mexico. The memo said this should be done so the lesser prairie chicken and the sand dune lizard will be better protected. Are these animals going extinct? No. The bureaucrats wrote that the land should be locked up to "avoid the necessity of listing either of these species as threatened or endangered."

In Nevada, the Obama administration might make another monument in the Heart of the Great Basin because it, supposedly, is a "center of climate change scientific research."

In Colorado, the government is considering designating the Vermillion Basin as a monument because it is "currently under the threat of oil and gas development."

Americans should be wary of any plans a president has to seize land from the states without their consent. Any new plans to take away states' freedom to use land as they see fit must be stopped.

That's why I sponsored an amendment to block Mr. Obama from declaring any of the 14 lands listed in the memo as "monuments." Unfortunately, the Senate, led by Democrats, rejected it on Thursday evening by a vote of 58-38.

It was particularly disappointing that the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, voted against the amendment. The government owns more than 80 percent of the land in Nevada and the unemployment rate there is 12.8 percent. Surely it would help job prospects if more land were open for business.

This is a nationwide problem. The government currently owns 650 million acres, or 29 percent of the nation's total land.

Federal bureaucrats shouldn't be wasting time thinking up ways to acquire more, especially in the middle of a recession. Taking the nation's resources offline will stifle job creation and dry up tax revenues.

If anything, the government should be selling land off, not locking more up. By voting against my amendment, the Democrats tacitly endorsed Mr. Obama's secret plan to close off millions more acres to commerce.

If enacted, the plan would mean fewer jobs for Americans.

The Democratic Congress refused to stop it, but one sure way Americans could help block it is if they decide some Democrats should lose their jobs in November.

Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, is chairman of the U.S. Senate Steering Committee, a caucus of conservative senators.