December 30, 2011

Mojave Tortoise Doesn't Need Hunting Limits

By Travis Sanford
Courthouse News Service

WASHINGTON (CN) - The National Park Service does not have to protect desert tortoises with special hunting rules in the Mojave National Preserve, a federal judge ruled.

Finding that the agency took the requisite "hard look" at the how a lack of special hunting regulations would impact the species, U.S. District Judge Hellen Huvelle said its decision was not arbitrary or capricious and dismissed the suit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

The Mojave population of desert tortoises has been protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since 1995. Hunting or intentional interference with the species is prohibited in its designated critical habitat and on federal lands.

PEER said that the restrictions were necessary to protect the tortoises from the impact of hunting other species in the preserve, which allegedly increased the chances that tortoises would be crushed by cars, startled by gun fire or accidentally shot. The group further argued that the small-game hunting reduced the aesthetic experience of observing tortoises in their natural habitat.

When the Park Service developed its original management plant to protect tortoises in the 1.6 million acre preserve, it included a moratorium during the tortoises' most active period between March and September on any hunting besides big game.

Though the federal law that created the Mojave Preserve requires buy in from the California Department of Fish and Game, the department declined to adopt the moratorium and the Park Service implemented the management plan without it.

PEER petitioned the service in June of 2002 to reinstate the originally proposed hunting restrictions. The Park Service finally denied the petition in October 2010, leading PEER filed suit for an unreasonable eight-year delay.

The service recognized that it had changed its position on the hunting regulations but argued that no evidence had emerged to show that the tortoises had been harmed by small-game hunting in the preserve in the years since the threatened listing.

It also said that the original recommendations were based on inferences made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the potential impact of hunting rather than on any scientific studies specific to the tortoises in the preserve.

Appealing the denial of its petition, PEERS moved for summary judgment to implement the restrictions. It claimed that the service's decision constituted an arbitrary and capricious decision in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act and the National Environmental Protection Act.

Huvelle dismissed both claims, however, saying that the PEER suit rested on the assumption that the Park Service's previous inclusion of hunting restrictions in the original management plan showed that it believed the environmental impact of hunting was indeed significant.

"However, the portions cited do not demonstrate that NPS [the National Park Service] in fact found significant environmental impacts, as plaintiff contends, but rather reflect defendants' policy judgment in response to inconclusive data," Huvelle wrote, referring to PEER's citation of the original management plan.

"The problem is that, in 1994, there was little evidence that small game hunting was in fact a significant threat to tortoise mortality and, today, despite efforts to improve monitoring and survey techniques, there is still a paucity of data showing that small game hunting impacts desert tortoises," she added.

Park Service made a "reasoned" response to PEER's petition, consulting extensive records consulted on the maiming or injury of every tortoise in the preserve, the court found.

"Ultimately, the record shows that defendants have satisfied their burden; they have taken a 'hard look' at the impact of not enacting the special hunting regulations and have made a determination, which is supported by the record, that this decision will not have a significant environmental impact," Huvelle wrote.

December 7, 2011

Zombie Water Projects (Just when you thought they were really dead...)

The Cadiz groundwater mining project

Peter Gleick, Contributor
CEO Pacific Institute

Zombies are big business, in more ways than one. Zombie books, movies, costumes, make-up, computer games, and more are probably worth billions to our economy, not to mention the value of extra sales of axes, chainsaws, and shotguns to people who never hunt or cut down trees.

But not all zombies are fictional, and some are potentially really dangerous – at least to our pocketbooks and environment. These include zombie water projects: large, costly water projects that are proposed, killed for one reason or another, and are brought back to life, even if the project itself is socially, politically, economically, and environmentally unjustified.

The Cadiz groundwater mining project is one zombie water project that has been beaten down for a variety of reasons but keeps rearing its ugly head.

An effort to turn a public water resource into a private good is the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project (or the Cadiz groundwater mining project). This project is the brainchild of another private investment group and hopes to mine groundwater from an aquifer located in the eastern Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County.

This project is unsustainable: it takes more groundwater out than nature recharges. Over time, this will result in disappearance of surface springs and ephemeral water in desert lake beds, and a declining groundwater level. In other words, the project exchanges public goods for private gain.

An earlier version of the project, not much different from the current one, was killed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California because of environmental and economic concerns, but like a water zombie, Cadiz has come back to life.

A new draft Environmental Impact Statement has just been released, but beware: it is 305 megabytes in size, which makes it pretty much impossible for normal citizens to download it and read it to find out if it needs to be tackled with an axe or a chainsaw.

There are many smart water investments to be made, in industrial and agricultural water-efficiency technologies, better wastewater treatment plants capable of producing the highest quality waters, improved piping and distribution systems, lower energy desalination systems, improved monitoring tools, low-water-using crop types, and much more. But wasting precious time and scarce money on a water zombie will not lead to a sustainable water future.

Keep those chainsaws lubed and fueled.

December 5, 2011

Desert preservationist Hughes dies

Pioneering Inland-area environmentalist Elden Hughes outstretches his arms while saying, "What a beautiful day" in 2009. (FILE PHOTO)

David Danelski

Elden Hughes, dubbed by many the “John Muir of the desert” for his work to preserve wild lands, has died after a battle with cancer. He was 80.

Mr. Hughes spent years exploring and documenting the wonders of the Mojave Desert and other pristine areas, convincing policy makers that such places should be preserved forever.

His work spurred passage of the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, which created the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County. It was a key part of his work that earned the comparison with Muir, the naturalist whose work helped establish the Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.

“Elden Hughes dedicated his life to the protection and revival of our great Mojave Desert and its tortoises,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, in a prepared statement.

“I'll never forget when he brought a couple of tortoises to a large constituent breakfast and the amazed and glowing faces of youngsters when he told them they live for decades, “ added Feinstein, who sponsored the legislation.

“He was just a lover of life, smart and witty, and a great singer and guitar player,” said David Myer, a friend of Mr. Hughes and executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy, based in Oak Glen. “He just had a zest for life that was even endearing for his opponents, and that zest was a great asset for his promoting the environment.”

Mr. Hughes’ wife Patty said Monday that Mr. Hughes had been battling prostate cancer and recently suffered from severe back pain. He died early Sunday at their home in Joshua Tree.

“I take joy in knowing that he is no longer suffering,” she said.

In a 2009 interview, Mr. Hughes took insisted on taking a reporter to the remote Sheephole Pass in the hills east of Twentynine Palms. He gestured in the gusting wind toward his legacy that stretched as far as the eye could see.

Beyond a vast valley and bright-white Bristol Dry Lake, the jagged horizon was defined by the successive peaks of the Marble, Clipper and Providence mountains — ranges now preserved in the federal legislation he fought for.

“It's just glorious,” said the large man with a white beard wearing a red polo shirt. “You can see the bare bones of the earth sticking through, and it is huge.”

Appreciating the desert takes a certain mindset, Mr. Hughes said later that day.

“You must get past the color green,” said Mr. Hughes, quoting the late writer Wallace Stegner. “And you must get used to an inhuman scale.”

Mr. Hughes was first moved by the desert in the late 1930s, when his mother, Ruby, took him camping in Palm Canyon near Palm Springs and to Death Valley, he said in 2009.

He grew up on a cattle ranch in Whittier and took horseback rides between his home and Huntington Beach and he saw urban sprawl slowly consume the hills and fields.

In the late 1940s, he drove on dirt roads to visit what is now Joshua Tree National Park. In his younger days, he was an avid river rafter, caver and camper.

By the 1980s, as he pursued a career as a computer systems designer and salesman, he was chairman of Sierra Club’s California/Nevada Desert Committee and working hard to preserve pristine public lands.

In 1987, he and his wife embarked on one their most influential projects: a two-year campaign to have documented in photographs 116 desert areas they and their cohorts believed should be protected. The effort produced a series of photo albums presented to decision-makers in Congress.

After years of hearings and debate, the California Desert Protection Act, protecting more than 6 million areas of California desert, squeaked through Congress in the fall of 1994. He and his wife took five baby desert tortoises to the Oval Office when President Bill Clinton signed the bill.

In recent years, Mr. Hughes spoke up against placing a large-scale solar energy project on Mojave Desert lands providing habitat for the desert tortoise, an iconic species listed as threatened with extinction. There is just as much sunshine for such a project on played-out farms and other less pristine properties throughout the region, he argued.

Mr. Hughes is also survived by his sons, Mark, Paul, and Charles, and three grandchildren. A memorial service is pending.

Myer said Mr. Hughes had asked him to scatter his ashes on top of Navajo Mountain in Utah, a task that will involve traveling 50 miles via boat and 10 more miles on foot.