March 29, 2012

Western States Tell Washington To Get Off Their Lawns

Editorial
Investors Business Daily


Energy: Lawmakers in resource-rich Western states have had enough of Washington's meddling and are moving to take the federal grip off their lands. Their actions could positively impact gasoline prices.

It seems a new Sagebrush Rebellion is brewing. Last week, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed legislation that demands the federal government return 30 million acres to the state by 2014. National parks, military installations and Indian lands would not be part of the return.

Utah is out in front, but it is not alone. Lawmakers in the Arizona Senate have passed a bill similar to Utah's while the legislatures in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico are reportedly following Salt Lake City's lead.

The movement is particularly relevant because in President Obama's feeble attempt to deflect blame for rising gasoline prices, he has repeatedly claimed that oil production has increased during his term. But what he has failed to mention is that the expansion has been on private lands. Production on federal land has fallen since he took office, due to his restrictive policies.

With Washington out of the way, the oil-rich states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Montana can unlock their resources that have been trapped by Washington, which itself is captive to radical environmental interests.

The most recent Sagebrush Rebellion began in the 1970s when Western states tried to break Washington's tight control over public lands within their borders. While running for the White House in 1980, Ronald Reagan told supporters at a stop in Salt Lake City to "count me in as a rebel."

The rebels had a legitimate grievance. But the movement didn't net much. Washington still owns wide swaths of the West. (See map.) Among the Western states, only in Montana (29.9%) does the federal government own less than 30% of the land.

Today's rebellion through legislation might not fare much better, as Washington will likely ignore the Utah law as well as any others that might be passed and signed. At least until the courts order it to comply.

As unlikely as it seems, the Western states might have a case. Washington owns only small pieces of states east of the Rockies, while it owns big chunks of those to the west, and it has broken its promise to return land to the Western states as it has the others. The federal government has clearly discriminated against the Western states.

Even if the federal government only partially lost its land-baron status in the West, the states would ramp up their energy production on the tracts that would be back under their stewardship. That would mean economic growth, a spike in jobs and increased government revenue in those states.

It would mean relief at the pump, as well, as the markets would respond by lowering prices in anticipation of a growing supply.

Of course the bulk of the relief would be a few years away. But there are steps the administration could take now that would lower gasoline prices before summer.

The White House is handcuffed, however, just like most of the political class, by the always irrational environmentalist lobby.

March 23, 2012

State allows pumping of groundwater from rural Nevada

By Henry Brean
Las Vegas Review-Journal

The Southern Nevada Water Authority has something to put in its pipeline once again.

Nevada's top water regulator on Thursday granted the authority permission to pump up to 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from four rural valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties.

That is about two-thirds as much water as authority officials were seeking, but it's 5,200 acre-feet more than they got the last time around.

The decision from State Engineer Jason King comes roughly two years after the state Supreme Court struck down two previous rulings that granted the authority almost 79,000 acre-feet a year from Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar valleys.

Las Vegas water officials originally applied for almost 126,000 acre-feet of unappropriated water in the four valleys as part of a larger plan to siphon groundwater from across eastern Nevada.

They hope to deliver the water to the Las Vegas Valley someday through a multibillion-dollar network of pumps and pipelines stretching more than 300 miles.

One acre-foot of water can supply two average Las Vegas homes for one year. When stretched through reuse, the 83,988 acre-feet awarded Thursday is enough for roughly 286,000 households annually.

Only some of the water will be available right away. King wants the water rights in Spring Valley to be developed in stages so potential environmental impacts can be measured and curbed.

SCIENCE AND THE LAW

Water authority officials were still reviewing the ruling Thursday afternoon, but deputy general manager John Entsminger offered praise for what he had read so far.

"We think the state engineer has grounded his decision in science and the law," he said.

The fact that the authority was granted more this time around "verifies that the water is there for appropriation and can be withdrawn in an environmentally sustainable manner," Entsminger said.

But opponents insist there is nothing sustainable about the project.

In a statement, the Center for Biological Diversity called King's ruling a disaster for rural communities, native plants and animals and all people who care about them.

"The winner in today's ruling is mindless Las Vegas growth, while biodiversity, rural residents and future generations are the clear losers," said Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based ecologist with the Arizona-based environmental group.

White Pine County Commissioner Gary Perea said King granted far too much water to the authority, and he vowed to appeal the decision.

DEPENDENT ON RIVER

Water authority officials insist they have not committed to building the pipeline. They simply want to be ready should the need arise.

The project dates back almost 25 years to when Southern Nevada water officials filed for water rights across rural Nevada.

Back then, the pipeline was meant to supply growth in the Las Vegas Valley. Now it is being touted as a backup supply for a community that gets 90 percent of its water from an overtaxed Colorado River and a shrinking Lake Mead.

King acknowledged the need in his ruling, stating that it would "not be advisable" for the state's largest community to continue to depend on a river that is "over-appropriated, highly susceptible to drought and shortage, and almost certain to provide significantly less water to Southern Nevada in the future."

But the state engineer stopped short of giving the authority everything it asked for.

The 61,127 acre-feet of water rights he granted in Spring Valley can only be developed gradually to ensure the pumping doesn't affect existing water rights.

The authority will be allowed to pump up to 38,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year for the first eight years of the project.

After that, the annual withdrawal increases to as much as 50,000 acre-feet for the next eight years and then to the full 61,127 acre-feet a year after that.

PUMP AND SEE

King also called for at least two years of scientific data collection before any water is exported from Spring Valley or the other basins.

Also, he ordered the authority to develop state-approved groundwater flow models and a monitoring and mitigation plan to protect against harmful effects on other water users and the environment.

But rancher Hank Vogler said no amount of safeguards can protect rural Nevada once the pipeline is built and the water starts flowing south.

"I don't think there's anyone with a big enough checkbook to stop it then," said the 63-year-old Vogler, who has lived and worked in Spring Valley for almost half his life.

"No one is going to have the appetite to say, 'Oh, shucks, we made a $15 billion mistake. Let's shut it down.' "

If anything, Vogler said, the authority's pipeline network will only spread to other parts of the state as more water is needed to feed the growth that many expect to return to Las Vegas.

"I'm what I've been calling myself all along: nothing more than collateral damage," Vogler said.

According to Entsminger, drought protection remains the key reason for the pipeline, but even if Lake Mead completely refills, he said the project will still be needed for the day when Southern Nevada inevitably outgrows its current water supply.

The authority already has spent tens of millions of dollars on studies, preliminary designs and legal work. The project itself carries an uncertain and much-debated price tag ranging from $2 billion to as much as $15 billion, depending on whom you ask.

Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources spokesman Bob Conrad said King would not comment on his decision because rulings from the state engineer speak for themselves.

King spent the past four months reviewing everything he read and heard during a marathon state hearing last fall that involved six weeks of testimony, 82 witnesses and tens of thousands of pages of documents.

He also waded through more than 20,000 public comments, most of them in opposition to the pipeline project, and several voluminous draft rulings penned by the authority and other major players in last year's hearing.

CRITICISM KEEPS FLOWING

The project has drawn opposition from a broad coalition of rural residents, ranchers, farmers, environmentalists, hunters and fishing enthusiasts.

They warn that large-scale groundwater pumping in an already arid landscape will destroy wildlife and the livelihoods of residents as far north as Great Basin National Park, more than 300 miles from Las Vegas.

And their fight is far from over.

Opponents have 30 days to challenge King's decision in state court. Members of the Great Basin Water Network, the chief voice of opposition during last year's hearing, already have promised to appeal.

"Holding on to these water rights for 25 to 50 years without putting them to beneficial use not only flouts the prohibition against speculation in Nevada water law, but it unfairly inhibits opportunities for future growth and development in the affected basins in Lincoln and White Pine counties," said Baker businesswoman and water network member Denys Koyle in a written statement.

Federal environmental litigation may not be far behind, either.

A federal review is under way of the entire pipeline project, which could include more than 300 miles of buried pipeline, 325 miles of overhead power lines, seven electrical substations, five pumping stations, a water treatment plant and an underground storage reservoir.

Most of those facilities would be built on public land.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is conducting the review, now in its seventh year. A final draft is expected later this year, with a decision on whether to grant the authority a federal right of way for the project.

In June 2010, the Nevada Supreme Court found that the state engineer's office broke the law by failing to act within one year on dozens of water rights applications filed in 1989 by the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

The justices tossed out the water rights awarded to the authority in 2007 and 2008 and ordered the state engineer to hear the matter again.

Sadly for pipeline opponents, very little changed the second time around.

"It is especially heartbreaking that we learned of this decision on World Water Day, a day that is supposed to be about human needs and the environment," said Ann Brauer of Indian Springs, a Great Basin Water Network member.

"Instead, this decision, if it stands, gives a green light to SNWA to defoliate the Great Basin, destroy Native American communities, dismantle conservation programs, plant water-hungry turf, encourage unneeded development and stick the ratepayers of Clark County with a $15 billion bill."

March 16, 2012

Needles Officials Refuse To Endorse Cadiz Water Project

San Bernardino County Sentinel

NEEDLES—The Needles City Council has unanimously rejected making an endorsement of the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project.

Cadiz Inc., also known as the Cadiz Land Company, is proposing to pump an average of 50,000 acre feet of water out of the aquifer in the east Mojave Desert per year and sell it to five water purveyors serving consumers in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties.

Cadiz Inc., which operates a 500 acre citrus, table grape, tomato and melon growing agricultural operation in the Cadiz Valley, pursued and abandoned a plan a decade ago to extract water from the water table underlying the Cadiz Valley and pipe it to the Los Angeles metropolitan area for use there. That original plan was forsaken after questions about the ecological impact of the strategy were raised by environmentalists and the entity Cadiz intended to partner with to carry out the undertaking, the Metropolitan Water Agency. That plan called for taking water from the desert aquifer in what weredeemed “wet” years and pumping water from the Colorado River into the desert aquifer during “dry” years.

Four years ago, Cadiz Inc., revived the water plan, renaming it the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project. Cadiz is working with Orange County-based Santa Margarita Water District, which services an area that is more than 200 miles from the Cadiz Valley, to obtain approval for the project. The Santa Margarita Water District is currently serving as the lead agency for the project and is charged with overseeing the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review process for the undertaking.

Through an arrangement with the Cadiz Land Company, the Santa Margarita Water District will, if the project is approved, receive the lion’s share of the water. In addition, Cadiz, Inc. has entered into agreements with Three Valleys Water District, which provides water to the Pomona Valley, Walnut Valley, and Eastern San Gabriel Valley; the Golden State Water Company, which serves several communities in Southern California, including Claremont; Suburban Water Systems, which serves Covina, West Covina and La Mirada; and the Jurupa Community Services District, which serves Mira Loma in Riverside County.

Both Cadiz Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District maintain the project is an environmentally responsible one that should not alarm environmentalists or local landowners. It will rely on a wellfield of 34 wells to “capture and conserve” the water resources in the East Mojave Desert using “safe, established groundwater management techniques to ensure the project is operated without causing harm to the local environment,” according to the Santa Margarita Water District.

In recent months, however, numerous critics of the plan have come forward, asserting that pumping from the aquifer 35,000 acre-feet to 65,000 acre-feet of water yearly as Cadiz Inc. proposes to do would cause a continuous drop in the desert water table that would dry up springs, deplete the local area of a water source crucial to life and future development of the area, create dust storms on nearby dry lake beds, adversely impact air quality, alter the flow of groundwater beneath the Mojave Desert by drawing water away from neighboring aquifers and have a devastating effect on bighorn sheep and other indigenous wildlife.

Cadiz Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District have stepped up their lobbying efforts on behalf of the project, seeking to gain endorsements of the project from local governmental entities and other influential bodies in the desert to counter the efforts by local landowners and environmentalists to have the Santa Margarita Water District displaced as the lead agency overseeing the environmental certification and approval of the project. In seeking those endorsements, the project advocates maintain that the project is one that is aimed at “conservation” of water otherwise lost to evaporation. A major selling point is that the $536.25 million project will represent a $138 million boon to the East Mojave’s economy that will directly or indirectly create 2,090 jobs for four years, involving $53 million in wages or salaries to workers or proprietorships involved in building the pipeline and other elements of the project.

One such group that Cadiz Inc. made headway with was the Needles Chamber of Commerce, which last month went on record with a letter of support saying it was in favor of the project. Chamber board president Jeff Williams said the project will not only provide employment for many Needles residents but will also result in greater patronage of existing businesses in Needles.
The Needles City Council, however, expressed opposition to the project with a greater intensity than which the chamber supported it.

Based on statements by city manager David Brownlee and municipal water department director Jerry Porter, both of whom evaluated the project, the city council on February 28 unanimously refused a request by Cadiz, Inc. to support the project. Cadiz Inc. founder and vice president Ted Dutton was in attendance at the February 28 meeting.

In a letter dated March 1, 2012 to Environmental Science Associates, the Los Angeles-based consulting company hired by Cadiz Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District to do the environmental evaluation of the project, Needles Mayor Ed Paget wrote, “The city of Needles cannot endorse a project that will take 50,000 acre-feet of ground water annually from an extremely fragile ecosystem with no concrete plan for the replenishment of the aquifer. Natural recharge is estimated to be 14,000 acre-feet per annum. Taking the other 36,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River, the most over-subscribed waterway in America is unacceptable.”

Brownlee told the council that he was highly skeptical of the claim the aquifer could be recharged in the aftermath of the extraction of 50,000 acre-feet of water per year over a 20-year period.

Brownlee said the water the project will capture is a critical part of the desert ecosystem. “What is the definition of lost?” Brownlee asked. “Evaporation comes back as precipitation. It is a critical part of the natural cycle. It also sustains the desert vegetation and critters. I find it hard to believe that as much as 50,000 acre-feet (1.6 billion gallons) are ‘lost.’”
An acre-foot is equal to the amount of water that would cover an acre to the depth of one foot, i.e., 43,560 cubic feet, or 325,851.43 gallons, approximately the amount of water used by a typical household comprised of four people in a metropolitan area over the course of a year.

Brownlee said he did not think it proper to be drawing water from the desert for use near the coast. “There isn’t even a pretense of a water conservation ethos,” Brownlee said.

Brownlee said he thought it “highly unlikely” that the second phase of the project, involving drawing water from the Colorado River to recharge the desert aquifer near Cadiz, will actually come to fruition, “given that the Colorado River is the most over drafted and litigated upon river in the world. It serves 17 million people in Southern California. There isn’t a drop to spare and the Bureau of Reclamation endeavors to measure every one of those drops.”

Brownlee said he felt it to be highly inappropriate for the Santa Margarita Water District, given its distance from the Cadiz Valley and its direct interest in the project, to be serving as the lead agency in the environmental certification process for the undertaking.

“The jurisdiction in which the potential environmental impacts are anticipated to occur should be and usually is the lead agency,” Brownlee said. “How can an entity that stands to benefit from a favorable environmental impact report finding be the responsible jurisdiction? Is that not a prima facie conflict?”

March 9, 2012

Desert Water Plan Gains Pipe Options And Foes

East Mojave property owners charter local water district formation

Seedless grapes along with other produce are grown on the Cadiz property located in the East Mojave. The Santa Margarita Water District in Orange County wants to buy ground water from Cadiz Inc., a company that holds the rights to much of the aquifer and farms 1,600 acres of vineyards and citrus orchards in the valley.

San Bernardino County
Sentinel


Cadiz Inc. is looking toward using idle natural gas pipelines to transport water it is proposing to pump out of the aquifer in the east Mojave Desert to consumers in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties.

Cadiz Inc., which is also known as the Cadiz Land Company, pursued and abandoned a plan a decade ago to extract water from the water table underlying the Cadiz Valley and transport it to the Los Angeles metropolitan area for use there. That original plan was forsaken after questions about the ecological impact of the strategy were raised by environmentalists and the entity Cadiz intended to partner with to carry out the undertaking, the Metropolitan Water Agency. That plan called for taking water from the desert aquifer in what were deemed “wet” years and pumping water from the Colorado River into the desert aquifer during “dry” years.

Four years ago, Cadiz Inc., which operates a 500-acre organic citrus, grape, tomato and melon farm in the Cadiz Valley, revived the water plan, renaming it the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project. Cadiz is working with Orange County-based
Santa Margarita Water District, which services an area that is more than 200 miles from the Cadiz Valley, to obtain approval for the project. The Santa Margarita Water District, is currently serving as the lead agency for the project, and is charged with overseeing the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review process for the undertaking.

Through an arrangement with the Cadiz Land Company, the Santa Margarita Water District will receive the lion’s share of the water. In addition, Cadiz, Inc. has entered into agreements with Three Valleys Water District, which provides water to the Pomona Valley, Walnut Valley, and Eastern San Gabriel Valley; the Golden State Water Company, which serves several communities in Southern California, including Claremont; Suburban Water Systems, which serves Covina, West Covina and La Mirada; and the Jurupa Community Services District, which serves Mira Loma in Riverside County.

Both Cadiz Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District maintain the project is an environmentally responsible one that should not alarm environmentalists or local landowners. It is one that will consist of a wellfield of 34 wells to “capture and conserve” the water resources in the East Mojave Desert using “safe, established groundwater management techniques to ensure the project is operated without causing harm to the local environment,” according to the Santa Margarita Water District.

In recent months, however, numerous critics of the plan have come forward, asserting that pumping from the aquifer 65,000 acre-feet of water yearly as Cadiz Inc. proposes to do would cause a continuous drop in the desert water table that would dry up springs, deplete the local area of a water source crucial to life and future development of the area, create dust storms on nearby dry lake beds, adversely impact air quality, alter the flow of groundwater beneath the Mojave Desert by drawing water away from neighboring aquifers and have a devastating effect on bighorn sheep and other indigenous wildlife.

In recent days there have been indications that Cadiz Inc. is seeking to reduce its costs in pursuing the project by eliminating its earlier declared intention of constructing a 43-mile pipeline to carry water to the Colorado River Aqueduct maintained by the Metropolitan Water District for distribution to the population centers of Riverside, Orange and Los Angeles counties. Instead, the company has secured options toward the purchase of unused natural gas pipelines which would instead function to move the water westward.

Under consideration is Cadiz Inc.’s purchase of a portion of a 220-mile span of 30-inch pipeline owned by El Paso Natural Gas which runs from the Bakersfield area to the Cadiz Valley. Last week, Cadiz Inc. paid El Paso Natural Gas $1 million to extend until March 2012 a previously unannounced option the company had obtained to purchase the gas line for $40 million.

Hydrologists retained by Cadiz Inc. believe El Paso’s gas line can be converted to carry as much as 30,000 acre-feet of water per year. Last week, the company paid the line owner $1 million to continue an option agreement until March 2013. Cadiz also has also secured an option to acquire for $10 million a smaller gas line owned by Questar Corporation which runs from near Palm Springs to Long Beach.

Cadiz maintains the water can be transported in the natural gas lines without damage to the integrity of the pipes and without serious impact upon the quality, purity, safety or drinkability of the water.

Rancho Santa Margarita Mayor Anthony Beall has gone on record as being in favor of the project. Nevertheless, there are residents of Rancho Santa Margarita who are opposed to the project. One of those is Craig Innis, who objected to the Santa Margarita Water District serving as the lead agency on the project and what he said was “the lack of opportunity for the citizenry to be most affected by this project to make oral statements and comments. The Santa Margarita Water District held its meetings here, imposing an undue hardship for the citizenry of the Eastern Mojave Desert to have equal access and the ability to comment, having to travel 200 to 300 miles or more roundtrip to do so.”

Innis suggested that Cadiz Inc. is in “dire financial straits” after losing millions of dollars consistently for the last dozen years on its Cadiz Valley operations and he suggested that the company was actually seeking to commandeer water rights under the guise of water conservation.
“There is no surplus Colorado River water to recharge the aquifer as Cadiz asserts it wants to do in Phase II of its plan,” Innis said. “The lower basin Colorado River water, according to the evidence, simply does not have the capacity or the capability of recharging the Cadiz aquifer. Cadiz’s Phase I would drain the aquifer and surrounding wells. This is comparable to what happened to Owens Valley. The Metropolitan Water District pulled out because they knew that fact too, and could not deliver on recharging the aquifer.”

Dr. Karen Tracy, a retired dentist who has lived and worked in Joshua Tree for 26 years, told the Sentinel, “I dissent in the strongest terms to the Cadiz water project and in particular to our county supervisors’ implicit participation in this vaguely disguised water theft.”
Tracy decried the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors’ acquiescence in allowing an Orange County water district with a vested interest in utilizing the water to be derived from the project to oversee the evaluation of its environmental impacts. “Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt’s bought-and-paid-for involvement has been amply documented,” Tracy said, referencing Cadiz Inc.’s political contributions to Mitzelfelt.

Since 2007, the Cadiz Land Company has been one of Mitzlefelt’s major political backers, having contributed a total of $48,100 to his campaign fund. All of the Cadiz Valley and much of the Eastern Mojave lies within the county’s First District, which Mitzelfelt represents at the county seat.

“The Mojave Desert is a well-known and highly trafficked holiday destination,” Tracy said. “The county is standing mute while others are going forward on a pumping/monitoring plan that shuts out the best available experts and trusts the pumpers as environmental custodians. United States Geologic Survey (USGS) analysis is needed to review the pumping models and groundwater drawdown; the hydrology model in use by the pumpers is mysterious at best and suspect while the work of John Izbicki and Peter Martin, USGS hydrology experts, is above reproach. I am personally familiar with them and their modeling procedures. This desert is their territory. Why has their evaluation not been solicited? Are the assurances about salt chemistry and immunity from dust storms contained in the draft environmental impact report true? What about the assurances that this aquifer is a “closed system” and delicate ecologic niches will not be affected? I’ve read the draft environmental report posted to the Santa Margarita Water District website and the pumpers just do not have the science to say that. To give perspective to the pumpers’ enterprise, they propose pumping 50,000 to 75,000 acre-feet of water per year out of the desert to the coast. I have long been a volunteer for the Joshua Basin Water District, which is not the smallest water district in the Morongo Basin in square miles, nor number of connections, nor gallons pumped. We deliver 1,500 acre-feet per year.”

According to Tracy, “The immense scope of this project demands a much larger big-picture view. The National Park Service must become part of this process because of the potential impact to natural resources on adjacent federal lands packed with the natural wonders that bring those tourists out here. Inclusion of federal lands requires a far more comprehensive environmental impact statement, precisely what the pumpers dread most. The folly of this project cannot stand up to the scrutiny of macrocosmic and verifiable science in an environmental impact statement.”

A collection of desert residents and environmentalists in February successfully pushed to have the public input deadline with regard to the environmental impact report Cadiz Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District had drafted for the project as part of the environmental certification process extended from February 13 to March 14. That group is currently seeking to have the Santa Margarita Water District removed as the lead agency overseeing the environmental certification and approval of the project in favor of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.

Meanwhile, East Mojave property owners have chartered a local water district formation committee and installed Chris Brown as chairman. The group is next scheduled to meet at the Goffs School House and Museum, located at 37198 Lanfair Road in Goffs on March 18 at 2 p.m.
Goffs is located off old Route 66 between Barstow and Needles and can be most safely accessed by way of Exit 107 for Goffs Road from the west, or the US 95 exit from the east.

March 7, 2012

Vandalism at Providence Mountains Could Have Been Avoided

by Chris Clarke
KCET.org


The author at the Providence Mountains SRA visitor center, November 2008 (Annette Rojas photo)

Lovers of California's desert State Parks were dismayed last month when the LA Times' Louis Sahagun reported a spate of serious vandalism at the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area (SRA). At least four times in recent months, vandals broke into the isolated park -- one of six desert State Parks slated for indefinite closure by Governor Jerry Brown -- and stole equipment, smashed windows and display cases left in the SRA's Visitor's Center, and stripped copper wiring from conduits running from service buildings to the lighting system in the celebrated Mitchell Caverns.

The SRA, shuttered for some months before the release of the parks closure list due to deferred maintenance and the retirement of two rangers, is one of the most remote holdings in the State Parks inventory. Surrounded by the Mojave National Preserve, fifteen and a half miles off Interstate 40 at the end of Essex Road, the 5,900-acre SRA is the kind of place you don't go unless you mean to.

The SRA and the Providence Mountains that contain it are a classic desert "sky island," an oasis of diverse plant life made possible by the relatively cooler temperatures and greater moisture atop many desert mountain ranges. The range's summit, Edgar Peak, tops out at 7,162 feet above sea level -- high enough above the searing desert floor to support live oaks and manzanitas. Below the summit, a veritable botanic garden of Mojave upland plants thrives, from barrel cactus and Mojave yucca to pinyon and juniper.

But most of the visitors the SRA hosted before its closure came for the caves. The MItchell Caverns, so-named for erstwhile owner-promoter Jack Mitchell, are a set of three solution caves in the Providence Mountains' abundant limestone. One cave, Winding Stair Cavern, is challenging even for advanced spelunkers, but the El Pakiva and Tecopa caves have been open to the general run of tourists since around 1934, when Jack Mitchell first started leading tours. The Mitchells sold the land to the State Parks in the mid-1950s, and park rangers have led tours since then. Before the SRA closed in 2011, a few groups of tourists a day would follow guides up and down metal staircases through the caverns on tours lasting about an hour and a half. It was a popular tour, and a respite from the summer desert heat.

It may be a very long time before the public can enjoy the caves again, or the small but impossibly scenic campground nearby. On February 5, San Bernardino sheriff's deputies arrested Christopher Alvarado, 48, of Azusa and Trisha Sutton, 36, of Covina at a desert campsite near the SRA after responding to a call that trespassers were on the SRA grounds. Officers reported the pair had stolen property and burglary tools in their campsite. The two were booked on suspicion of burglary and related charges, as well as possession of illegal drugs. Whether it was Alvarado and Sutton who vandalized the SRA or someone else, at least $100,000 in repairs will be necessary to restore the park's facilities to the point where they were before the vandalism. At that point the state would still need to budget for a new water supply and continued staffing before reopening the SRA.

Most people who frequent the California State Parks have one or two parks that they hold dearest, and though it's hard to choose Providence Mountains may well be mine. I've spent many hours there hiking, staying in the small campground, and following gamely along on cave tours. There are few better places in the Mojave for watching sunsets.

I had one of the oddest experiences in my life at the Providence Mountains Visitor Center, in fact. I was visiting in 2008 with my now-fianceƩ, looking at the exhibits whose display cases have since been trashed by the vandals, and she let out a sudden gasp. Then so did I. By way of explaining what prompted our gasps a few facts will be helpful:

  • The caves were used as shelter by large, now extinct mammals such as the Shasta ground sloth, the remains of which have been found there.
  • My friend Carl Buell, a talented paleontological illustrator, once painted a scene which included a Shasta ground sloth, my late dog Zeke, and myself looking out over the Pleistocene Mojave Desert.
  • That image comes up high in most Google searches for "Shasta Ground Sloth."
So it isn't all that surprising that a State Park Ranger looking for available images of Shasta ground sloths to include in interpretive displays might find Carl's painting, and as that painting includes a human being painted to scale it makes sense that that ranger might include it to give a sense of how big the sloths were.

Still, the oddness of looking at a display of paleontological exhibits and finding yourself included there can hardly be exaggerated.

Whether inside the Visitor Center or outside, no one is going to have unusual experiences at the Providence Mountains SRA for the foreseeable future, as the State Department of Parks and Recreation struggles even just to step up security at the gate, let alone commit to repairing the damage done by vandals and by the ravages of time. Even just assessing the scale of the vandalism is a daunting task. Though State Parks staff told the LA Times' Louis Sahagun that they haven't seen damage to the caverns themselves, a thorough damage count will likely need to wait until the caves' lighting system can be rewired.

An obvious route forward might be for the National Parks Service to assume responsibility for the SRA, as the Mojave National Preserve completely surrounds the property. Supporters of other parks on the closure list have been working out similar arrangements, either with NPS or with other agencies or NGOs. The Mojave National Preserve's Chief of Interpretation Linda Slater tells me that for their part, Preserve rangers have tried to keep a closer eye on the SRA since the break-in. "We've got 1.6 million acres of our own to look after, and we don't have enough rangers to cover our own land the way we really want to. But we're doing what we can." Slater points out that taking on management of the Providence Mountains would add a significant amount to the Preserve's operating expenses, and that money would have to come from somewhere.

In the meantime, the closure has effectively cut off access to some of the most attractive hiking areas in the Preserve: the SRA was the trailhead of choice for hikers wanting to get to the high peaks in the Providence Mountains.

As it turns out, all this could have been avoided if not for political grandstanding by Representative Jerry Lewis (R-San Bernardino). In the years following the establishment of the Mojave Preserve by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 (CDPA), The NPS and California's Division of Parks and Recreation were actually in negotiation to transfer the SRA to Preserve management. Lewis, whose currently sprawling district includes the Preserve, was an opponent of the CDPA due to wilderness provisions in the bill, and due to perceived threats to the lifestyles of people living in the newly created Preserve.

In 1996 Lewis inserted language into that year's House Appropriations Bill cutting the Preserve's annual budget to $1.00, a move that briefly made him a conservative icon. The exuberantly right-wing 104th Congress was only too happy to approve his amendment. Strapped for cash, the Preserve was unable to continue pursuit of a land transfer to the NPS, and the Providence Mountains SRA stayed in State hands.

Lewis's district has changed considerably in the last year, being redrawn in the last round of redistricting with a more heavily urban, potentially liberal electoral base. In January of this year, likely as a result of the greater likelihood of losing his seat, Lewis announced his retirement from Congress.

Many factors contributed to the closing and subsequent vandalism of the Providence Mountains SRA, from the outrageous culpability of the vandals to the sweeping anti-tax sentiment among voters on initiatives over the last 40 years, to the park's general remoteness and lack of support among Californians. But if you're looking for one person to blame for the whole mess, Jerry Lewis is as good a person as any to pick. After 33 years in Congress you might hope for a legacy more inspiring than making sure the only limestone cave in the State Parks system is closed to the public for as long as a generation.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every week. He lives in Palm Springs.

Free the American West

Get the federal government off public lands that are of no national importance

Opinion
By Robert H. Nelson
Los Angeles Times


Like much else in government, U.S. public land policy is a vestige of the past, established in 1910 when America's population was just 92.2 million and a Western state such as Nevada had only 81,000 residents.

Today our needs are much different and much greater. The United States can no longer afford to keep tens of millions of acres of "public" land locked up and out of service. Some of these lands have great commercial value; others are environmental treasures. We need policies capable of distinguishing between the two.

Few Easterners realize the immense magnitude of the public lands. The federal government's holdings include about 58 million acres in Nevada, or 83% of the state's total land mass; 45 million acres in California (45% of the state); 34 million acres in Utah (65%); 33 million acres in Idaho (63%); and more than a fourth of all the land in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Wyoming.

Most public land decisions are made by two federal agencies, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and involve matters such as the number of cows that will be allowed to graze, the areas available to off-road recreational vehicles, the prevention and fighting of forest fires, the building of local roads, the amount of timber harvesting, the leasing of land for oil and gas drilling, mineral rights and other such details. Outside the rural West, most such decisions are made by private landowners or by state and local governments. In the West, Washington acts as if it knows best.

Like other grand designs of the "progressive" era, public land policy has failed the test of time. Public lands have not been managed efficiently to maximize national benefits but instead in response to political pressures.

Past mismanagement has turned many national forests into flammable tinderboxes where intense crown fires reaching to the top of the trees — once a rarity — consume entire forests.

Rural Westerners receive significant financial benefits when the federal government pays for many of their local roads and conservation services and provides many high-paying local federal jobs. Increasingly, however, they are questioning the trade-offs involved.

Daniel Kemmis, the former Democratic speaker and minority leader of the Montana House and onetime mayor of Missoula, the state's second-largest city, has lamented that "our public lands … are burdened by a steadily more outdated regulatory and governing framework," which he describes as a "frustrating, alienating bureaucratic paternalism."

Professor Sally Fairfax of UC Berkeley observed that the creation of the national forests established "a relationship between the national government and the Western states that is usefully described as colonial." Little has changed, even as the federal system has become more and more dysfunctional.

The fact is that probably no more than 20% of the tens of millions of acres of public lands are nationally important, requiring federal oversight and protection. This includes 45 million acres of Forest Service and BLM lands in the national wilderness system and other environmentally special areas such as BLM's Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.

An additional 60%, perhaps, are ordinary lands, used principally for recreational purposes, such as hiking, hunting, fishing and off-road-vehicle use. Most of the remaining public lands are useful primarily for commercial purposes, such as the timber-rich forests in the Pacific Northwest.

A rational public lands policy more suited to current and future needs would put the nationally important lands into a newly reorganized federal environmental protection system. Ordinary recreational lands would be managed at the state and local level, perhaps by transferring them to local counties. What better steward of a local recreation area than the people who live in the area?

The commercially most valuable lands, meanwhile, would be transferred to new ownership or put under long-term federal leases. Lands that have real commercial value could produce a double benefit: revenue from leases and land sales, and additional revenue from the jobs, minerals, oil, gas, lumber and other commodities the freed-up lands would produce.

It is time to end outdated federal land policies that are draining our country's wealth, tying up valuable resources in red tape and bureaucracy, and harming the environment. The transition to a new system would take time, but it might reasonably be completed over a 10-year period, the same time frame Washington is using for deficit-reduction planning.

Robert H. Nelson, who worked on public land issues in the office of the secretary of the Interior from 1975 to 1993, is a professor of environmental policy at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow with the Independent Institute in Oakland. This essay is adapted from a longer article in the current issue of Policy Review.