April 29, 2012

Friendship takes High Desert couple to Supreme Court over controversial cross

Yucca Heights resident Henry Sandoz holds a painting of J. Riley Bembry's encampment, which was several miles away from his World War I memorial cross. His wife, Wanda, holds a painting of the cross. (Jim Steinberg/Staff)

Jim Steinberg, Staff Writer
Redlands Daily Facts

YUCCA HEIGHTS - It was 1974 when two dune buggies with frames made of pipes and powered by Corvair engines roared into a remote encampment in the Mojave Desert where the travelers heard an elderly man lived.

When the recluse in the cabin came out, he was invited to join the group for hamburgers.

"I haven't had a hamburger in six months," said the man, J. Riley Bembry.

And thus began a friendship that would span a decade for Henry and Wanda Sandoz.

Little did the young couple from the tiny community of Mountain Pass southwest of the Nevada state line know that because of this relationship, they would later be enveloped in a legal dispute that would take them into the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nor did they have an inkling that Henry would be awarded the highest honor from the U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars, something that happened last summer at the VFW's annual meeting in San Antonio.

Bembry wanted to be known by his middle name, Riley, not his first name, John, "because he said it was more distinguished," Henry said at the couple's home in Yucca Heights, an unincorporated area near the city of Yucca Valley.

Bembry was an Army medic during World War I, and by some accounts, he also taught soldiers how to use explosives, a skill he would later use to develop mines in the Mojave Desert.

After the war he initially was a butcher in Los Angeles and several neighboring cities. He frequently traveled into the Mojave Desert and over time became hooked on prospecting.

Around the time of the Great Depression, he was living full time in the desert, and an encampment of other World War I veterans grew around his cabin.

Many of them had come to the desert to heal from the various forms of physical and emotional damage caused by the war, the Sandozes said. And in the Great Depression, gold fever wasn't hard to catch.

In 1934, Bembry and some of his neighbors, mostly veterans,put a seven-foot tall wooden cross on a rock outcropping a few miles from his cabin. The site was a granite rock outcropping near Cima Road, about 15 miles south of today's 15 Freeway and 80 miles east of Barstow.

A sign below the cross said, "To honor the dead of all wars erected 1934 by members of Veterans of Foreign Wars, Death Valley Post 2884," according to a history compiled by the office of Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands.

Death Valley Post 2884 no longer exists.

Last week, an 11-year battle with the American Civil Liberties Union over that cross monument came to an end.

U.S. District Judge Robert J. Timlin in Los Angeles signed an order ending the ACLU lawsuit and paving the way for the original memorial site to be transferred from the federal government to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The ACLU had alleged that a cross on federal land violated the separation of church and state.

To make the legal settlement happen, Henry is giving up five acres of Mojave Desert land he has owned for decades in exchange for the one-acre site of the cross on Sunrise Rock, which will ultimately be transferred to the VFW.

"We have been at this a long, long time," said Lewis, who in 2003 championed legislation authorizing the land swap. "People from World War I started this. And people like Wanda and Henry Sandoz and many other marvelous people have stepped up to support this memorial."

Lewis also said, "Few people these days have any idea what the World War I veterans went through in those horrendous times."

Henry recalls the first time he saw the cross in the 1960s. At the time, a railroad boxcar that served as a clubhouse was at the base of the hill. The remains of a concrete patio, once used for dances, were alongside it.

A few miles away, Bembry's compound included an assay office, to determine the quality of his gold and silver samples, and a powder magazine, for dynamite.

He had a propane-powered refrigerator but few other conveniences in his cabin.

Wanda recalled that on that first picnic, she forgot to bring mayonnaise.

Bembry volunteered his opened mayonnaise jar, which had been kept unrefrigerated and was seven or eight years out of date.
"Obviously, we didn't have any," Wanda said.

A "pet" badger lived beneath his cabin for a time, the Sandozes said.

Bembry also fed rabbits, chipmunks and other critters that frequented his cabin, which included a "picture window" made from the windshield of a 1920s Studebaker.

The couple reminisced that once their oldest daughter drove Bembry into Barstow to renew his license for high explosives and to buy more dynamite. And that Bembry's skills as a butcher were appreciated by many during deer season.

Bembry didn't speak much about World War I, Henry said. About the only thing he can recall is that Bembry said he saved soldiers' lives when the 1918 flu pandemic hit camp by giving them whiskey and Bromo Quinine.

Not one soldier taking his "medicine" died in the epidemic, which claimed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide, Henry recalls Bembry telling him.

Bembry, who took his own "medicine," did not contract this highly contagious flu, even though he cared for many soldiers infected with it, Henry said.

As two roadrunners and numerous quail raced across their backyard, the Sandozes recalled how in the spring of 1983, Bembry showed up at a previous residence near the Molycorp mine where Henry worked, saying he wanted to stay with them for a while because he wasn't feeling well.

"He ended up staying a week," Wanda said.

They didn't realize until much later that Bembry had probably suffered a small heart attack.

In the fall of 1984, Bembry became ill and asked a neighbor to drive him to his daughter's home in Norwalk. The Sandozes kept thinking he would recover, but he never did.

His daughter brought the cremated remains to the Mojave Desert cabin, where more than 100 attended the funeral.

Many at the funeral believed it was time to bring back the sunrise services on Easter, which had been a tradition for decades but had lapsed.

That tradition has continued most years since Bembry's death.

"As a little girl, my wife remembers going to Easter services there," said Pastor Larry Craig, 58, a missionary based in Newberry Springs who for some 27 years has traveled 110 miles to conduct sunrise Easter services at Sunrise Rock.

Although Bembry may not have attended Easter services at the cross he helped install, ranch hands, miners and others from a wide area across the Mojave Desert had a long tradition of attending Easter services at the World War I memorial site, Craig said.

Reflecting on the journey in the long battle to retain the memorial site veterans created in 1934, Henry, 72, said giving up the land wasn't an option.

"I owed it to Riley and to the veterans for all their sacrifices," he said.

April 19, 2012

Plan to tap groundwater for profit shows need for better state policy

By John Bredehoeft and Newsha Ajami
Sacramento Bee

Imagine a lake half as large as Lake Tahoe, containing 17 million to 34 million acre-feet of water. That is what lies under the Cadiz and Bristol valleys in the Eastern Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County. Cadiz Inc., a privately held company, owns 34,000 acres that overlie this vast groundwater basin. The company plans to extract 2.5 million acre-feet of the water, a public good, over the next 50 years and sell it back to the public at a profit.

This project raises several concerns, some of which are directly related to the project while others point to the need for a public debate and discussion about California's groundwater laws.

Here are some facts about the project: Cadiz is proposing to extract on average 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater from the basin each year for 50 years. The intended rate of extraction of groundwater is significantly greater than the estimated natural recharge rate (the speed that groundwater is refilled naturally by rain and snow) of 5,000-32,000 acre-feet a year, which will lead to unsustainable mining of groundwater during the life of the project. The groundwater will go into a 43-mile-long pipeline to transport it to the Colorado River Aqueduct, where it will be distributed to several water utilities in Southern California.

Cadiz claims that the project will facilitate the beneficial use of groundwater that would otherwise naturally drain toward Bristol and Cadiz dry lakes (ephemeral lakes) and be "lost" to evaporation at the lakes and to transpiration by plants in the adjoining valleys. But the project proponents' characterization of the water lost to evaporation and transpiration as non-beneficial is inaccurate. Some of the water that flows to the dry lakes and evaporates from the basin supports survival of local desert ecosystems, which depend upon the ability of groundwater reaching the surface; therefore, removal of this water would adversely affect these ecosystems.

The bottom line is that the project relies on unsustainable mining of groundwater, designed to extract groundwater at a rate exceeding natural recharge. In other words, it uses water in excess of the estimates of the water lost to evaporation, which is both a nonrenewable use of water and unsustainable in the long term.

According to the draft environmental impact report, the project will deplete groundwater storage in the valleys by 1 million to 2 million acre-feet. It will take from 50 to several hundred years for the basin to recover and refill after the project is terminated. If in that period the recharge rate decreases considerably or the evaporation rate increases under a long-term drought or more permanent climatic changes, then the long-term deleterious effects of the project might be even more significant and the recovery period much longer, if ever. Cadiz will make its profit for 50 years, and the public will be left to handle possible negative environmental and ecological consequences of this project for years to come.

Beyond the unsustainable nature of the Cadiz proposition, this project highlights serious shortcomings with California's groundwater law. Imagine if one of the landowners adjacent to Lake Tahoe decided to take water from the lake and sell it for personal, short-term economic gain. That may sound crazy, and yet the state's groundwater is the same resource.

The Cadiz project, if approved by San Bernardino County, would set a precedent for future privatization of groundwater in other desert basins. This calls for a broader public policy debate and discussion of state groundwater policy – or lack thereof.

We question that mining groundwater for short-term private gain is what an informed public would like to do with precious groundwater stored in the desert. The fact that the decision is left to San Bernardino County indicates the broader need for clear state policy to manage groundwater resources and a revision of groundwater laws.

April 8, 2012

Water drives area's politics


Water has always been the driving political issue in Imperial Valley, fueled by fears that 19 million people living on Southern California's coast will suck it dry. Los Angeles dealt that fate to Owens Valley farmers almost a century ago, as portrayed in Roman Polanski's film “Chinatown.”

Imperial Valley, with only 175,000 people — but a half-million acres of productive farms — gets nearly 20 percent of the Colorado River's flow, which would be enough for more than 6 million homes. It gets more than any of the seven Western U.S. states and northern Mexico, which also rely on the 1,450-mile waterway. Early settlers were first to claim the water, and under Western water law, farmers can keep it as long as they can demonstrate it is put to good use.

Imperial Valley got a jolt in 1984 when a state panel ruled farmers were wasting water, forcing the sale of a slice of its share to cities. The Bass family, Texas oil billionaires, soon became the largest landowners in an ill-fated attempt to sell even more water to cities.

Farmer Jack Vessey joined other big farmers to campaign against a 2003 agreement under which Imperial Valley sold water to San Diego in the nation's largest farm-to-city transfer.

Mike Morgan is their leader. Morgan has refused to cut his hair until his concerns are addressed. Now, eight years later, the 64-year-old's gray and strawberry blond ponytail stretches down his back.

The farmers' main target is the Imperial Irrigation District, which bought the canal system from the region's bankrupted pioneers in 1911 and manages its water rights. The government agency employs 1,300 people, ranging from “zanjeros” who open and close 6,000 metal canal gates to meter readers at its electric utility. To critics, the agency is a misguided bureaucracy.

Non-farmers now control the agency's five-member elected board, a shift welcomed by some who fear large landowners might squander the region's most precious resource.

Vessey disagrees: “It makes me nervous when a jeweler in El Centro has control over that water.”

Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument Proposed by Conservation Groups

by Morgan Skinner

St. George, UT - A proposed Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument submitted to the US Bureau of Land Management by the Center for Biological Diversity based in Tucson, Arizona, Grand Canyon Wildlands Council and The Wilderness Society, both headquartered in Flagstaff, Arizona, has prompted strong local reaction by public officials. Washington County Commissioner Allan Gardner told KCSG News "the proposal is another effort to permanently shutdown all uranium mining on the Arizona Strip that will cost millions in lost tax revenue to the counties involved."

Rachel Tueller, Public Affairs Officer for the BLM Arizona Strip District told KCSG News, "BLM did not solicit nor does it advocate the proposed national monument designation." When asked about the status of this proposal, she said, "It had been referred for review as are all citizen proposals."

The proposed monument has six priorities; (1) Stop old-growth ponderosa pine logging, (2) Protect cultural and archaeological sites, (3) Manage native wildlife and wildlife migration, (4) Reduce road density, (5) Provide voluntary retirement of grazing permits, and (6) Prevent new uranium mines.

Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument Executive Summary

  • Total public land - 1.7-million acres
  • Total privately held - 7,000 acres
  • Number of tribes for whom the land holds significance - 6; Kaibab Paiute, Hopi, Zuni, Hualapi, Havasupai and Navajo
  • Number of archeological sites - more than 3,000
  • Number of acres containing ancient trees and old-growth forest - approximately 300,000
  • Number of wildlife species on the federal
  • Endangered Species - 4
  • Number of wildlife species on the Arizona
  • Species of greatest conservation need list - 22
  • Number of creeks, springs and seeps - more than 125

Headwaters Economics, an independent nonprofit research group based in Bozeman, Montana, prepared a series of reports on the economic performance of western communities near national monuments. Each in-depth report shows important data and trends on demographics, jobs, income, and the performance of specific economic sectors. The research shows that the monument designations help to safeguard and highlight amenities that draw new residents, tourists and businesses to surrounding communities.

Western counties with protected public lands, like national monuments, were found to be more successful at attracting fast-growing economic sectors and as a result grew more quickly, on average, than counties without protected public lands. In addition, protected natural amenities, such as the pristine scenery found at Grand Staircase-Escalante also helped sustain property values and attract new investment.

The Reports:

  • Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
  • Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument
  • Vermilion National Monument

The conservation groups are networking to encourage a national monument designation even though they have encountered opposition in Congress among the representatives from western states where much of the federal land is located. Washington lawmakers, have introduced legislation to limit the president's use of the Antiquities Act without state and local community input. Thus far the various bills introduced are still pending in committees.

On March 23, Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert signed House Bill 148 that demands the federal government make good on the promises made in the 1894 Enabling Act to extinguish title to federal lands in Utah. The Governor was joined by US Senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, Congressman Rob Bishop, Utah Representatives Ken Ivory and Roger Barrus and other stakeholders in a show of unity for the effort to return public lands to state control even though the legislation may be ruled unconstitutional. The legislation creates a principle-driven framework for a structured public dialogue, a potential legal challenge and path forward to re-balance Utah's relationship with the federal government, the Governor said.

The Antiquities Act

Since its passage by Congress in 1906, the Antiquities Act has been used for the preservation of public lands managed by government. Sixteen presidents have declared 132 national monuments under the act; eight Republican presidents, eight Democratic presidents. National park units such as the Grand Canyon, Statue of Liberty, Joshua Tree, Olympic, Zion, and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal were all established originally by presidential monument designation.

Bill Clinton created the most monuments, nineteen, and expanded three others. Arizona has the largest number of national monuments with eighteen followed by New Mexico with twelve and California with ten.

There are five National Monuments in Utah:

  • Natural Bridges designated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908
  • Timpanogos Cave designated by President Harding in 1922
  • Hovenweep designated in 1923 by President Harding
  • Cedar Breaks designated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933
  • Grand Staircase-Escalante designated by President Clinton in 1996

Six federal agencies in four departments manage the 101 current National Monuments. A single agency, the National Park Service manages 96 monuments, while five are co-managed by two agencies. The Bureau of Land Managment manages sixteen National Monuments, two with the National Park Service and one with the US Forest Service. Only 75 of the NPS's 76 National Monuments are official units because the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument overlaps with Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

April 6, 2012

Environmentalists feeling burned by rush to build solar projects

Local activists say national groups, focused on renewable energy, ignore projects' threat to the Mojave.

By Julie Cart
Los Angeles Times

AMARGOSA VALLEY, Calif. — April Sall gazed out at the Mojave Desert flashing past the car window and unreeled a story of frustration and backroom dealings.

Her small California group, the Wildlands Conservancy, wanted to preserve 600,000 acres of the Mojave. The group raised $45 million, bought the land and deeded it to the federal government.

The conservancy intended that the land be protected forever. Instead, 12 years after accepting the largest land gift in American history, the federal government is on the verge of opening 50,000 acres of that bequest to solar development.

Even worse, in Sall's view, the nation's largest environmental organizations are scarcely voicing opposition. Their silence leaves the conservancy and a smattering of other small environmental organizations nearly alone in opposing energy development across 33,000 square miles of desert land.

"We got dragged into this because the big groups were standing on the sidelines and we were watching this big conservation legacy practically go under a bulldozer," said Sall, the organization's conservation director. "We said, 'We can't be silent anymore.' "

Similar stories can be heard across the desert Southwest. Small environmental groups are fighting utility-scale solar projects without the support of what they refer to as "Gang Green," the nation's big environmental players.

Local activists accuse the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, the Wilderness Society and other venerable environmental groups of acquiescing to the industrialization of the desert because they believe large-scale solar power is essential to slowing climate change.

Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Lands Project, a small public lands watchdog group, said Gang Green's members are compliant in order to make themselves more inviting to major foundations. In recent years, grants for projects focusing on climate change and energy have become the two top-funded issues in environmental philanthropy. Foundations have awarded tens of millions of dollars in grants to environmental groups that make renewable energy a top priority.

"It's not that they solely and directly make decisions based on funding, but they keep their eyes open to what foundations want," Blaeloch said.

As a result, "you've got enviros exactly where industry wanted them to be," she said.

Big environmental organizations say they have agonized over how to approach the issue. They acknowledge that development can have irreversible effects on ecosystems. But they are reluctant to stand in the way of renewable energy projects they regard as a vital response to climate change, which they consider the nation's most serious environmental challenge.

The Sierra Club, NRDC and Defenders of Wildlife filed suit last week to stop the troubled Calico solar project northeast of Los Angeles. But for the most part the big players have embraced solar development.

Instead of following the old adversarial formula of saying no to everything, they have adopted an approach they call, "Getting to yes."

'Green halo' effect

Grass-roots groups say that strategy has failed to protect the desert. What's worse, they say, is that the imprimatur of such groups as the Sierra Club has provided a '"green halo" to energy companies and the government — making it easy for them to ignore local environmental concerns.

Two major projects underway in the Mojave illustrate the divide between local and national groups.

Desert activists vigorously oppose the BrightSource Energy project in the east Mojave's Ivanpah Valley and NextEra's Genesis solar plant 20 miles west of Blythe. National groups have not mounted a strong challenge to either project.

When BrightSource was planning the Ivanpah installation, the big environmental players urged the firm to move the bulk of the project closer to Interstate 5 to avoid prime habitat for the desert tortoise, a protected species. The company responded by reducing its total footprint by 12%, which didn't solve the problem.

After construction began, large numbers of desert tortoises were discovered. According to federal biologists, BrightSource is now responsible for relocating and caring for 95% of all the tortoises expected to be found on all solar project sites in the Mojave.

Some rank-and-file Sierra Club members had wanted to sue to stop the project altogether, but the group's national board of directors vetoed that proposal in favor of a more neutral approach.

Separately, the Sierra Club has scolded some in the Southern California desert chapters for opposing solar projects. The national office issued a 42-page directive laying out the organization's policy regarding renewable energy and instructed local chapters to fall in line.

"It was pretty clear that the national club policy was to foster large-scale solar," said longtime Sierra Club member Joan Taylor. "I don't know how many times I've heard that building solar in the desert is going to save the world."

The NRDC's involvement at Ivanpah was constrained by a conflict of interest: NRDC senior attorneyRobert F. KennedyJr. is a BrightSource investor.

Abandonment urged

On the Genesis project, the Sierra Club and others met with NextEra executives and urged the company to abandon its plans for the site out of concern that

it is too close to a wilderness area. In addition, local groups warned the developer that the site contained sensitive cultural resources.

The project went ahead, only to become embroiled in controversy over the discovery of Native American cultural artifacts that halted construction on one-fifth of the site.

The Interior Department's plan to open a vast swath of desert to solar energy is another instance local activists say demonstrates the ineffectiveness of Big Green's approach.

In late 2010, environmental groups worked with energy companies and the government on a policy that restricted development to 677,000 acres in designated solar zones. Environmentalists left the table believing Interior would refine the agreement to even further reduce the land open to development.

Instead, not long after that compromise, Interior said 21 million acres would be available for development through a variance process, a change that no one in the environmental community supported. If the plan is approved as expected, the nation's leading environmental groups will have been outflanked by solar developers.

"The Sierra Club and the NRDC — their mission is to work on climate change" above all else, Sall said. "We refuse to compromise on that level."

The smaller groups have formed their own alliance, Solar Done Right, that supports renewable energy in previously disturbed or low-conflict lands. "We can have renewable energy — we can have tons of it — and we can do it in all the right ways," Sall said.

The Sierra Club's Barbara Boyle, senior lead for energy issues, said she understands the frustration of smaller groups. "I can appreciate that it doesn't seem that we have gotten what we want out of the process yet," she said.

Asked if the big players had been outmaneuvered by solar developers, Boyle said, "That's always possible."

But she said her 30 years of working for environmental causes have taught her that "the way that we win is through incremental progress."

"I have faith that we are going to get this right in the end," Boyle said. "We have made some mistakes, and that's really difficult. But it's not just any kind of development that we are working on here. We feel the urgency of getting as much renewable energy in California as soon as we can."

Leading environmental organizations fiercely dispute suggestions that they are influenced by major donors. But on solar development, they are fending off perceptions.

'Big Solar' proposal

Four years ago, the director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies in Sacramento wrote a document called "Big Solar." The proposal by V. John White was a pitch for solar developers to hire his company to help roll out projects.

White is a former lobbyist for the Sierra Club and the NRDC. He also lobbies and consults for energy companies.

White wrote that developers could get cooperation from environmental groups by creating a $500,000 grant-making fund. The money ostensibly was for campaigns to tout the virtues of solar power, but the implication was unmistakable:

Give money to co-opt Big Green.

In the memo, White singled out two organizations — the Sierra Club and the NRDC — for grants. White says the fund was never created. But the strategy, coming from a former environmental lobbyist, raised the antennae of critics and invited scrutiny of funding sources.

The Energy Foundation is among the major funders of environmental groups today. It receives its money from large endowments, although not from the energy industry, and makes grants to further the goal of renewable energy. Over the last five years, the foundation has made $150 million in grants for renewable energy efforts, including $8.5 million to the NRDC and $6.2 million to the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club's zeal to eliminate coal-fired power plants led it to praise natural gas as an acceptable "bridge fuel." Club officials rewrote their gift acceptance policy when it was discovered that from 2007 to 2010 the organization accepted $26 million from individuals with or subsidiaries of Chesapeake Energy, one of the country's largest natural gas companies.

At the NRDC, public lands attorney Johanna Wald bristled at the suggestion that she or the organization has taken it easy on solar projects in return for grant money.

"It's ridiculous," Wald said. "I'm working around the clock on these issues. I couldn't be bought off, I haven't been bought off and I won't be bought off."

White has become something of a kingmaker in California on renewable energy, deciding who will represent environmental interests on various planning groups overseeing renewable energy development.

Every appointee he has chosen came from a major environmental group that supports most solar development.

As insiders in the process, Gang Green has framed the issues, Sall said, "basically saying we have to pave over huge areas of the West with solar or we are all going to burn up with climate change."

"That set a tone that we still have not overcome."

Los Angeles Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.