April 27, 2011

Owls, Mules and Lizards: the makeup of federal land management

Today we have federal employees who are paid to stop productivity

by Marita Noon

Marita Noon
Farming, ranching, mining, and extraction are the foundation for everything else. They are what make food, energy and manufacturing possible by proving the raw materials for our personal and economic growth. Yet these bedrock American industries have, little-by-little, been chiseled away—so subtly that most of us did not notice until now; now, when the economy continues to teeter with a slight uptick one month, back down the next. The public, America’s citizens, people who’ve never paid attention to politics or the economy, want to know what happened; they want to know, “Why?”

The answer is really quite simple and reversing the trend—growing the economy—is equally simple. But America’s citizens must push for policy-induced prosperity.

Today we have federal employees who are paid to stop productivity. Their job is to enforce regulations, not encourage expansion. The federal government used to help people establish a farm or ranch, or stake a claim. Remember the whole idea of “homesteading?” People took a barren parcel of federal land, treated it as their own and made something from nothing. Their efforts were rewarded with the deed.

While homesteading is a thing of the history books, policy that stopped development didn’t begin until the seventies. Initial results of a new study indicate that major industries once prevalent in the west, such as logging, cattle ranching, and mining, have moved out—in fact, been chased out. Instead of exporting, we now import.

What happened in the seventies to change federal lands management? The birth of the environmental movement in the late 1960s.

This shift in policy is most evident through the story of the spotted owl—a declining species said to favor “old growth forest.” The effort to protect the owl began in 1968. It was ultimately listed as “endangered” in 1990. Observing history, we see the owls’ numbers have not increased with the protection and they’ve been found in locations they supposedly do not like. While the listing had little impact on the owl, it did have a killing effect on the logging industry. Logging on federal lands once accounted for more than half of Oregon’s harvest. By 2008, less than ten percent.

In New Mexico’s Gila Forest access to federal lands has been continually cut back. Today, based on numbers from the 1970’s, there are thirty percent fewer cattle. Because of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and wilderness designations, the Forest Service required Terrell Shelley, whose family has continuously raised cattle on the same land for 125 years, to use mules to make repairs to concrete dams on his allotment. 250 mule loads of concrete were hand mixed. Not many people today are willing to continue ranching under such restrictive conditions.

Mining faces similar obstacles. In Montana, exploration for tungsten was completed in the seventies by Union Carbide. To extract the resource from what is now an “inventoried roadless area,” the Forest Service requires that the drilling equipment be hauled by pack mules—who are feed “certified weed free hay,” and that the land be cleared and then reclaimed using hand tools. Once again, productive activity is discouraged.

Due to punitive federal policy, we now have less logging, less ranching, and less mining; less jobs, less productivity, and less wealth creation.

The oil and gas industry of West Texas and Southeastern New Mexico is next. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has proposed that the Sand Dune Lizard (AKA Dunes Sagebrush Lizard) be listed as an endangered species under the ESA. This lizard frequents sites where oil and gas development provides good paying jobs and economic stability. If the FWS proceeds with the “endangered” listing, the entire region could well go the way of logging in the Pacific Northwest or Cattle Ranching in the Gila Forest.

Now, we see how industries have been shuttered and jobs lost. We watched while entire communities became ghost towns. “Protection” and “wilderness” sound like nice ideas until you see the economic destruction they have wrought. With the benefit of history, America’s citizens can take a stand and reverse the trend. Federal agencies hold hearings where we can comment. We can make phone calls and send e-mails.

The employees at the various federal agencies don’t make the policies. They are simply enforcing the regulations. But if we speak up, we can change the game.

The public comment period for the proposed lizard listing ends May 9. Make the effort, pick up the phone. Talk to the federal employees (Debra M. Hill: 505-761-4719, Tom Buckley: 505-248-6455).

Wouldn’t it be great if the federal government once again helped, instead of hindered?

Marita Noon is the Executive Director at Energy Makes America Great Inc. the advocacy arm of the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy. Find out more at http://www.energymakesamericagreat.org/.

April 20, 2011

Tortoise finds curtail solar-site construction

Brightsource doesn't see stoppage impacting construction schedule
The Brightsource Energy solar power site in the Ivanpah Valley. The firm still expects energy to come on line in 2013. (Stan Lim / The Press-Enterprise )

The Press-Enterprise

Ivanpah Valley, CA -- Federal officials have told a solar developer to stop work on two-thirds of a construction site in northeast San Bernardino County because no more tortoises can be disturbed.

Until wildlife authorities reassess the tortoise population, work on the $2.1 billion project -- hailed by the Obama administration -- is limited to a 2-square-mile area cleared of the protected reptiles last fall. BrightSource Solar's entire work site, on public land near Primm, Nev., is 5.6 square miles.

The suspension order, made official Friday, was triggered when biologists hired to remove tortoises from the property handled their 39th animal earlier this month, said Amy Fesnock of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

A federal permit allowed for the displacement of no more than 38 desert tortoises found within the project's borders, said Fesnock, a wildlife biologist in the BLM's California office. The species is listed as threatened with extinction.

The suspension forced crews from Bechtel, BrightSource's contractor, to stop building fences and to fill in postholes and trenches so tortoises won't fall in and get injured or trapped.

Work cannot resume in the affected areas, known as Phase 2 and 3, until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grants permission. The agency is expected by the end of May to complete a new analysis of the BrightSource project's effect on desert tortoises, Fesnock said.

To allow more tortoises to be displaced, the service must find that doing so does not jeopardize the survival of the species, she said.

A BrightSource official said the setback isn't expected to be a major obstacle.

"We don't see this as having an impact on the construction schedule and anticipate that power will come online in 2013," company spokesman Keely Wachs said in an email.

BrightSource's plans call for three arrays of thousands of mirrors that focus sunlight on three "power towers," where steam is made to generate electricity. At peak capacity, the arrays are expected to generate enough electricity to power 140,000 homes. The project is next to Interstate 15 in the Ivanpah Valley.

BrightSource, based in Oakland, announced last week that it had completed financing for the project, including $1.6 billion in loan guarantees from the U.S. Department of Energy and a $168 million investment from Google.

The project has been praised by President Barack Obama as a step toward reducing the nation's reliance on fossil fuels and cutting greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

It was one of several proposals approved last year by U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar under an expedited or "fast tracked" environmental review process.

Some environmentalists now fault that process.

"The BLM's fast-tracked environmental review seriously underestimated the impacts of the Ivanpah power plant on the desert tortoise," said Michael Connor, the California director of Western Watersheds Project, which is suing the government to halt the solar development.

The work stoppage, he said, "is a direct result of that rushed and deeply flawed analysis."

BrightSource commissioned surveys in 2007 and 2008 that found only 16 tortoises in the entire 5.6 square miles. The Fish and Wildlife Service used the survey results to estimate a population of 32 tortoises on the site and to set a "take" limit of 38 animals that could be displaced.

Since work began in October, many more tortoises were found than expected. The BLM now estimates the population at about 140.

Healthy tortoises displaced by construction will be held in pens until they can be relocated to a nearby area in the Ivanpah Valley. Based on past relocations, at least some of those tortoises will die after being moved.

April 11, 2011

Dubois tapped for superintendent of Mojave National Preserve

Superintendent Stephanie Dubois,
Mojave National Preserve
Needles Desert Star

OAKLAND, Calif. - Stephanie Dubois has been selected to be the next superintendent of Mojave National Preserve, located in the Mojave Desert of San Bernardino County between Interstate 15 and Interstate 40. She replaces Dennis Schramm who retired in the fall of 2010.

“Steph is an approachable, team-oriented person. She has worked on internal park issues and across park boundaries with park staffs, neighboring communities and other agencies to create shared visions and solve problems across landscapes,” said Pacific West Regional Director Chris Lehnertz. “A proven cornerstone of her leadership style is a desire to invite and respect the powerful ‘sense of place' that people have with the lands the National Park Service oversees.”

Dubois has been serving as the deputy superintendent of Glacier National Park in northwest Montana since 2005, where she manages park operations on just over 1 million acres, for 2 million visitors a year. “I am very excited to be heading south and west again, to the land of the sun and the wide-open desert landscapes that are my geography. I have lived and worked in the Sonoran Desert and in the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau, and now I am looking forward to learning about and exploring the challenges, ecosystems, features, and moods of the Mojave,” said Dubois.

“I am also thrilled to take the helm of Mojave National Preserve following Dennis Schramm, who set a great tenor in working with others to protect and interpret a remarkable ecosystem.”

Dubois is a 30 year veteran of the National Park Service and has experience at all levels of the organization. Prior to her assignment at Glacier National Park, she served as the superintendent of Chaco Culture National Historical Park from 2002-5 and the superintendent at Aztec Ruins National Monument from 2001-2. She has worked in interpretation and law enforcement in parks across the country ranging from Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona and Utah to Roger Williams National Memorial in Rhode Island. Her first National Park Service job was as a high school graduate with the Youth Conservation Corps in Maryland.

Dubois holds a bachelor's degree in botany from Duke University and remains a steadfast Duke basketball fan. She enjoys all time spent outdoors, loves to garden, enjoys back-road camping with friends, and has a lively creative and artistic side that she expresses through batik. She grew up in an Air Force family, the second of seven children, and attributes her love of nature to family outings in the many places she lived during her youth, especially when her father was stationed in South Dakota and other bases in the West.

Dubois will begin her new assignment in May 2011. She will manage a staff of 60 full-time employees and a budget of approximately $5 million.

April 4, 2011

20-Mule Team named as 2011 Grand Marshal

(Photo courtesy Dave McCoy Photography)

BISHOP -- They've graced show arenas, made a number of Pasadena Rose Parade appearances and long held a special place in the hearts of Bishop Mule Days spectators. Now the 20-Mule Team will serve as the2011 Bishop Mule Days Grand Marshal.

Twenty-mule teams originated in the late 1800s, born out of a need to ferry borax, a component of glass production and many detergents, out of the Death Valley region between 1883 and 1889. The teams hauled more than 20 million pounds of borax out of Death Valley in the six years of operation. The teams were relieved of their task by the growth of railroads and new mineral deposit discoveries.

Yet, the teams were never forgotten by the public, thanks in part to the trademark team symbol that appeared on products produced by the company that would become U.S. Borax, Inc. The teams, although retired from their Death Valley trips, continued to make promotional and ceremonial appearances on behalf of U.S. Borax.

Led by Bishop's own Bobby Tanner, the 20-Mule Team's unique hitch requires many hours of preparation for an appearance such as Bishop Mule Days. This year Tanner also secured use of the famed Borax wagons, adding a distinct historical value to the team’s Bishop performances.

In the months preceding Mule Days, Tanner and his crew will tackle the dynamics of finding just the right weight-to-braking ratio, deal with the complexities of making tight turns with the roughly 170-foot long team and wagons, and spend hours fine-tuning the critical relationship between teamster and team.

What would surely be a daunting task for even the most experienced mule man is a way of life for Tanner. He drove his first 20-mule team in 1981, unknowingly launching himself into a 30-year journey of re-creating one of the West’s most beloved icons. It’s a journey that’s taken him across the country and given him the opportunity to share a piece of Americana with thousands of people.

Tanner’s father, Bob Sr., was among those who founded the Bishop Mule Days Celebration in 1969. As a result, Bobby Tanner has participated in nearly all 42 Bishop Mule Days celebrations, often winning awards for individual and packing events. He served as president of the event’s Executive Committee in 1990.

Today, Tanner owns and operates Rock Creek Lodge, a collection of cabins, a store and restaurant nestled in the trees close to Rock Creek, a favorite Eastern Sierra getaway.

The 20-Mule Team will make three appearances during Bishop Mule Days – in the Saturday morning parade, in the Saturday afternoon show and the Sunday evening show.

Bishop Mule Days will be held May 24th-29th at the Tri-County Fairgrounds in Bishop. Tickets for the event are on sale now. For more information, call the Mule Days office at (760) 872-4263.