December 16, 2013

Johnson Valley: Deal will have Marines, public sharing access

There were many twists and turns leading up to the compromise between off-roaders and the U.S. Marine Corps over access to Johnson Valley. (Pirate 4X4)

Written by K Kaufmann
The Desert Sun

A nudge from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., may have helped seal a compromise between off-roaders and the U.S. Marine Corps, ensuring that more than half of Johnson Valley’s 188,000 acres of prime off-roading trails and desert vistas will remain open to the public most of the year.

Rep. Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, recently announced the deal that would limit an expansion of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms into the valley to 88,130 acres and create a federally designated off-roading area on the remaining 99,690 acres.

Located in the high desert about 20 miles north of Yucca Valley, Johnson Valley is an off-roading mecca known worldwide for its mix of dry lake beds, open desert and rock-crawling trails — called the Hammers — where custom-built vehicles with massive tires fight their way up hills littered with rocks and large boulders.

But the same terrain that draws off-roaders and its location due west of the combat center also made it prime real estate for the Marines. The Corps has been working for years to expand the base at Twentynine Palms to allow for live-fire combat training exercises it has said are critical for its post-Mideast role as a streamlined expeditionary force.

Its plan for the valley, which the U.S. Navy approved earlier this year, would have appropriated more than 103,000 acres of the off-roading area for training at the base, plus another 43,000 acres that off-roaders would be allowed to use 10 months a year.

The deal, part of the National Defense Authorization Act the House passed late Thursday, would also allow the Marines to use 56,439 acres of the off-roading area for combat training up to 60 days a year but limits the kind of live ammunition that can be fired during combat exercises.

A Senate vote on the bill could occur sometime this week, said Matthew Groves, Cook’s legislative counsel.

While labeling the deal a victory, off-roaders also said the land the Marines will take includes some of the region’s most popular trails and isolated, back-valley areas.

“The trail systems we fought so hard for are still there,” said Larry McRae, an avid off-roader and president of Poison Spyder of Banning, a company that builds custom “armor” for the Jeeps and other off-road vehicles that batter themselves against the rocks in the Hammers.

“There’s a lot of open desert that’s been taken. What it takes away is some of the exploration opportunities. A lot of people enjoy the trail-making process.”

“Saying we lose 70-80,000 acres and calling that a win is tough,” said Dave Cole, co-founder of King of the Hammers, a week-long off-road racing event that yearly draws tens of thousands of visitors and significant tourist dollars to surrounding high desert communities.

The area going to the Marines also contains about 85 percent of the 112-mile course that was used for the King of the Hammers in 2013, he said. While the 2014 event, set for Jan. 31-Feb. 8, should not be affected by the Marines’ move into the valley, Cole said a new course on the remaining land will have to be developed for future races.

Residents of the small community of Johnson Valley, located across the highway from the off-roading area, also have mixed feelings about the deal. Many already experience noise and rattling windows during training exercises at the base, including recent combat exercises that ended Monday.

“I’m glad the Hammers were saved,” said Jim Hanley, 74, a Marine vet who served in Lebanon in the 1970s. “The shared use — it will bring the noise closer to us. The other night I thought something had hit the house, the noise was so bad.”

Keeping residents and off-roaders safe, while ensuring the Marines could train, were the issues allowing Cook, a retired Marine colonel, and Feinstein to find common ground during a recent meeting.

Feinstein had previously pushed the Corps to find a way to share the valley with off-roaders, representatives from her Washington office said.

The Corps also cited safety in their reasons for accepting the compromise.

“We feel this course of action is the best balance for military and recreational use of the land,” Capt. Maureen Krebs, a Marine spokeswoman, wrote in an email response to questions from The Desert Sun.

“Safety is a high priority for the Marine Corps and we want to ensure that both Marines and recreational users stay safe throughout the year.”

Many details of how the shared-use arrangement will play out are still to be determined, but Johnson Valley will not be the first time the Marines have shared land for recreational use, Krebs said.

The Marines share 45,000 acres of Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada, where they conduct mountain warfare training, and hunting and fishing are allowed on a number of bases across the country, she said.

December 12, 2013

Court rejects Las Vegas' groundwater rights to rural valleys

Nevada decision fails to protect water users, including those in Utah’s Snake Valley, judge says.

View of Spring Valley from June, 2013. (Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune)

By Brian Maffly
The Salt Lake Tribune

Las Vegas’ 25-year effort to import groundwater was dealt a major legal blow this week after a Nevada state judge invalidated the desert metropolis’ rights to the water under four eastern Nevada valleys.

In his long-awaited decision Tuesday, Senior District Judge Robert Estes ruled that state engineer Jason King did not adequately investigate whether the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s proposed groundwater scheme would pump these basins dry or conflict with existing water rights.

Nor did his award of 61,000 acre feet from Spring Valley establish measures to protect ranchers and other water users, including those in Utah’s Snake Valley.

"It was a huge victory for the opponents of SNWA’s pipeline project," said attorney Simeon Herskowits, who represents a diverse group of ranchers and environmentalists fighting Las Vegas’ water ambitions. "The judge ruled in our favor on all the fundamental issues we have been asserting for years."

He argued SNWA’s latest legal setback could be "the death knell" for the groundwater scheme, which includes a $15 billion, 285-mile pipeline to move billions of gallons from the Dry Cave, Delamar, Cave and Spring valleys. Water authority spokesman J.C. Davis could not be immediately reached Wednesday.

Groundwater from the aptly named Spring Valley supports not only rich vegetation such as its famous swamp cedars, but also feeds Utah’s Snake Valley, situated just to the east and 1,000 feet lower.

Because several agricultural communities there rely on aquifers and springs, Millard and Juab counties and other Utah interests are among numerous parties challenging King’s water-rights decision.

Also fighting it are The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which operates a big cattle operation in Spring Valley, several Indian tribes, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Great Basin Water Network.

"By setting the clock back to 1989, the court has provided an opportunity for the Water Authority and its board to explore previously ignored alternatives to this destructive project," said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Rob Mrowka. "Rather than robbing the desert of its precious little water, we should be looking at sustainable ways for Las Vegas to live within its means without destroying the environment and rural communities."

Estes heard arguments over two days in June in White Pine County’s courthouse in Ely.

He ruled that the water under Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar appears to be already appropriated. For Spring Valley, where there is far more water, Estes found little assurance that the proposed water withdrawals would be safe.

"Granting water to SNWA is premature without knowing the impacts, conflicts or unreasonable environmental effects so that mitigation may proceed in a timely manner," he wrote.

The judge remanded the decision back to King to recalculate how much water is available. He is also to include Juab and Millard counties in any mitigation plans for Spring Valley.

Estes was concerned that state engineers could not determine when Spring Valley’s groundwater would achieve its new equilibrium between discharge and recharge once pumping began. He instructed King to structure appropriations so that such equilibrium would be achieved in "a reasonable time."

December 11, 2013

Marines, offroaders reach compromise on Johnson Valley

Detailed final Johnson Valley OHVRA map available here.

by K Kaufmann
The Desert Sun

It’s not often a bunch of off-roaders can wrestle the U.S. Marine Corps to a compromise, but that seems to be exactly what’s happened as U.S. Rep. Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, on Wednesday announced a deal on Johnson Valley that allows both the Marines to conduct live ammo training in the region, but still preserves more than half of its 188,000 acres for off-roading and other recreation for 10 months a year.

Located in the high desert about 20 miles north of Yucca Valley, the disputed land has been an almost sacred site for the off-roading community, known worldwide for its unique mix of wide open desert and rock-crawling trails – dubbed the Hammers – where drivers in custom-built four-wheelers bump and grind their way up hills strewn with massive boulders.

A yearly week of racing called the King of the Hammers draws tens of thousands of visitors to the area, turning the valley floor into an encampment called Hammertown, which is half Coachella and half “Road Warrior.” The 2014 Hammers is scheduled for Jan. 31-Feb. 8, and event organizers have said the deal will keep the race rolling for years to come.

The off-roaders and the Marines have been in a standoff for a couple of years over whether the Corps would take over more than half of valley, 103,618 acres, for expanded training exercises involving three tank battalions, helicopters and a whole lot of live ammunition. The Marines argued such training exercises would be critical to their post-Mideast evolution into a streamlined expeditionary force, and nowhere else offered the land they needed.

Off-roaders are generally a patriotic bunch, lots of former military, but the threat to Johnson Valley sparked a determined opposition, backed up by the multimillion-dollar offroading industry. The Marines attempted a compromise, offering with a 43,049-acre shared use area, including the Hammers, open to off-roaders 10 months a year.

The remaining section of the valley, open to off-roaders year round would have been all but separate from the shared use area, connected by only a narrow corridor of land.

High desert communities, led by Yucca Valley, also got behind the off-roaders, noting that the King of the Hammers and other off-roading events in Johnson Valley meant full hotels and a boost for small businesses in the region. Residents of the small community of Johnson Valley, located across the highway from the off-roading area, have also opposed the expansion, mostly because current training exercises on the base already set their windows and furniture shaking.

A map of the deal announced Wednesday cuts the Marines back to 88,000 acres covering the north central and east sections of the valley. The off-roaders get a total of about 100,000 acres starting in the southeast corner of the region and curving up to the northwest, including a 56,000-acre shared-use area the Marines will be able to use for training for two months a year, again with limited types of ammunition.

Cook, a Vietnam veteran and retired Marine colonel, emerged as the mediator between the two camps earlier this year, after a visit to the 2013 King of the Hammers.

He authored a bill in the House, passed with bipartisan support and inserted in the Defense Authorization Act, that would have kept the whole valley under the jurisdiction of the Burea of Land Management, with the Marines allowed to train twice a year, but not allowed to use what is called dud-producing ammunition, that is bullets larger than a certain caliber.

Meanwhile, the Marines got their plan through a first hearing in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Nov. 14.

What happened between then and Wednesday is unclear. Cook’s release announcing the deal contains congratulatory quotes from all the stakeholders but no details of how the deal was struck.

December 7, 2013

Next stop on our journey: Barstow

The Bottle Tree Ranch along Route 66 reveals some recycled treasures. / Courtesy photo

Written by Kathy Strong
Special to The Desert Sun

Traveling Route 66 through San Bernardino County is a journey through California’s early love affair with car travel and discovery. The official route from Chicago to Santa Monica traverses eight states and three time zones, but California’s portion through San Bernardino County is an off-the-beaten path worth taking.

Last week, we traveled from Needles, the gateway to California, through the nearly forgotten towns of Amboy and Newberry Springs. Now, heading on to Barstow, the road reveals early railroad history as well as a few surprises.

William Barstow Strong was the president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. The Southern Pacific built a line from Mojave through Barstow to Needles in 1883, and, even today much of its economy depends on transportation. Before the advent of the interstate highway system, Barstow was an important stop on both Route 66 and Interstate 91.

Probably the most recognizable symbol of Barstow’s train heritage is the Harvey House, built in 1910. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the once elegant rail depot, restaurant and hotel complex was designed by renowned Fred Harvey Company with a blend of Spanish Renaissance and Classical Revival architecture styles. Today, the structure functions as an Amtrak stop, visitor center and locale of the Barstow Route 66 Mother Road Museum.

Barstow is also known for its historic murals that line the old town area along Route 66’s Main Street.

Folk art forest

As a child, Elmer Long used to travel through the desert with his dad, who would collect discarded objects they found. When his father passed away, he left behind a sizable collection of colorful bottles, and Long struggled to decide what to do with the unusual collection. One day, the artist decided to build his first bottle tree on his desert ranch. Today, Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch on Route 66 west of Barstow has hundreds of imaginative scrap metal bottle trees made from recyclable discoveries, from typewriters to saxophones. There is no charge to wander the outdoor glass and iron “gallery,” and Long is often there to greet guests who stop by.

Victorville's tribute

About 15 miles further on the Mother Road is Victorville, home to the California Route 66 Museum. Sharon Foster, a museum docent and board member, said that 60 percent of visitors are international travelers who have seen the “Grapes of Wrath,” and, most recently, Disney’s “Cars.” The museum has three rooms dedicated to the history of the Mother Road and several hands-on exhibits that make unique photo-ops, from an old VW hippie van to a classic ’40s aluminum trailer set for a picnic.

Iconic motel

A journey along California’s Route 66 is not complete without a stop at the Wigwam Motel, which opened in 1949. The Patel family took over the motel about 10 years ago, restored the 19 “wigwams” and added a pool and other upgrades.

December 6, 2013

Mojave preserve offers views and plenty of Joshua trees

The world’s largest concentration of Joshua trees grows in the Mojave National Preserve. (DEBORAH WALL/SPECIAL TO VIEW)


Beckoning seductively to city dwellers who long for elbow room, the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve lies in Southern California, barely an hour’s drive south of Las Vegas. While it has fewer than a dozen developed hiking trails, some of those are great ones. Among the best is the Teutonia Peak Trail, which boasts spectacular views of the east Mojave and beyond.

The moderate 4-mile round-trip trail takes you up to a steep outcropping on Cima Dome, at an elevation of 5,755 feet. The first section of the trail passes through the largest concentrations of Joshua trees in the world. While you will be hiking on the geologically interesting dome itself, the dome is best viewed from afar to see its almost-perfect symmetry, rising 1,500 feet above the desert.

From the signed trailhead, which is at an elevation of about 5,030 feet, follow the abandoned gravel road toward the obvious granite outcropping to the southwest. The first part of the hike is fairly flat and easy, so children will enjoy it. But once you’re hiking up the outcropping, it becomes more strenuous and extremely rocky with uneven footing, unsuitable for small children.

In the first mile or so, you will be surrounded by Joshua trees, remarkably odd but beautiful members of the lily family, with twisted, scaly limbs bearing long leaves only at their tips. They look like the fanciful trees in some children’s book by Dr. Seuss. Joshuas usually grow at an elevation between 2,000 and 7,000 feet, in sandy soil on flat or rolling terrain, so the foot of Cima Dome is one of their favorite places. Some along this hike are more than 20 feet tall. Other vegetation here includes yucca, cholla, blackbrush and Mormon tea.

After about a mile, you will come across timbers and mine tailings, evidence of an old silver claim. Take a glance, but stay away, as many old mines in the Mojave Desert are notoriously dangerous. Leave it alone and continue toward the outcropping.

Once up on the outcropping, follow the faint path along the ridgeline as far as you feel comfortable. The actual summit is difficult to access without a lot of rock scrambling. Indeed, you won’t need to reach it to take in the best of the far-reaching views. To the west, you will see the cinder cones and lava beds, which are part of the Cinder Cone National Natural Landmark, designated in 1973, and within the confines of the park. A bit past that, if you look carefully, you can even make out the world’s largest thermometer in Baker, Calif. Beyond, you can see the outline of the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains.

To the south, you can see the Kelso Sand Dunes, and to the north, you can see Clark Mountain, the highest peak in the park, at an elevation of 7,929 feet. Clark sits just north of Interstate 15 near Mountain Pass.

While you are in the park, take time to head over to the Kelso Depot Visitor Center. The Mission-Revival style former train station was built in 1924 by the Union Pacific. The restored depot building is now the park’s main visitor center and has wonderful displays on the early mining and ranching history of this area, as well as Chemehuevi and Mojave Indian tribes. While trains no longer stop here, they roll through about once an hour. It’s a thrill to watch them from the station platform, thundering past at what appears to be full speed. And it’s safe to do so because a sturdy fence protects onlookers without obstructing their view.

The depot is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays through Tuesdays but closed Wednesdays and Thursdays. Its Beanery Lunch Counter is closed, so bring your own picnic supplies. There are picnic tables at the depot, but just about any location along one of the hundreds of side roads in the uncrowded preserve offers an inviting spot to spread a tablecloth. Gas is not available in the park, so before entering it, fill up in Primm or nearby Baker.

Deborah Wall is the author of “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide” and “Base Camp Las Vegas: Hiking the Southwestern States,” published by Stephens Press. She can be reached at

December 4, 2013

Clark County commissioners challenge desert tortoise impact fee

Clark County commissioners plan to check with other jurisdictions and see whether they have concerns about the desert tortoise’s threatened status. (Jessica Ebelhar/Las Vegas Review-Journal)


Clark County commissioners made it clear Tuesday that they think there are better ways to spend the nearly $16 million that has gone toward conservation efforts to aid the desert tortoise since 2001.

In stark contrast to their view is that of the county’s former environmental manager, who attributed the concerns over the tortoise to a lack of both institutional knowledge and understanding about the county’s habitat species conservation plan.

The tortoise is a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act, and has been listed since 1989. The nearly $16 million is part of $95 million that has gone to projects aiding 78 species of animals and plants under the county’s multi-species habitat conservation plan.

That plan, started in 2000, requires developers to pay $550 for every acre that is developed. That money goes toward mitigation efforts to help animals and plants affected by development, whether it’s a modest apartment complex or a sprawling hotel-casino.

The county can’t just take the tortoise off the list. For now, county officials plan to check with other jurisdictions affected by the desert tortoise’s threatened status and see if they have similar concerns. They also plan to contact members of the congressional delegation and voice their concerns.

“This just boggles my mind,” commission Chairman Steve Sisolak said.

Other commissioners, including Chris Giunchigliani and Susan Brager, noted that the money would do a lot for efforts such as helping youth and improving mental health. At the same time, commissioners also say they care about animals and believe in protecting the environment.

The tortoise money, on the other hand, pays for such things as fencing, population studies and habitat restoration.

The issue, like the tortoise, will be slow to disappear into the horizon.

Under the county’s permit, it likely won’t be delisted until at least 2031.

Rob Mrowka, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, doesn’t share the same sense of outrage about how the system works. Mrowka worked as the environmental manager for the county from 2003 to 2008.

The money from the fees is a dedicated source of revenue for tortoise mitigation work under state law, Mrowka said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. He wasn’t at the meeting.

Noting that the commissioners in office now weren’t around when the plan began, he said the concerns are misguided.

“That institutional memory has faded and now they’re coming up with things that are absolutely ridiculous,” he said.

The county’s plan was needed to aid development, he said, noting that without the $550-an-acre fee, developers would have to get federal permits and do their own mitigation projects to make up for the impact to the tortoise.

The federal government needs to monitor it and have a generation of data — 25 years’ worth of tortoise information. That work will take until 2026.

Nearly 295,000 adult tortoises are estimated to live in the 25,900-square-mile range of habitat across Nevada, Utah, Arizona and California. Up to 91,000 of those are estimated to live in Nevada.

That’s another source of angst for county commissioners, who wonder exactly how threatened the species really is.

Mrowka disagrees.

“First of all it’s got a very vast territory, and you have to look at the trend,” he said.

Marci Henson, assistant director of comprehensive planning for the county, told officials that applying for delisting would be expensive and require gathering data with hired biologists in other jurisdictions.

Tortoises live in blackbrush and Mojave desert shrub. They have brown shells that can grow longer than 14 inches. They spend much time in burrows, venturing out to eat wildflowers and other plants.

December 3, 2013

Solar project planned next to Mojave National Preserve

Soda Lake in the Mojave National Preserve reflects the sky. A commercial solar development is proposed within a mile of the lake bed, prompting worries about water depletion and the fate of an endangered fish, among other concerns. (David Danelski/staff photo)


Federal officials are taking public comments on a draft environmental study on plans for a commercial-scale photovoltaic solar development on public land next to the Soda Lake area of the Mojave National Preserve.

The Bureau of Land Management likely will hear plenty of environmental concerns before the comment period closes on Feb. 26.

The Soda Mountain Solar Project is proposed by Bechtel, the nation’s largest construction and engineering firm. According to the company, the solar operation at peak production would generate 358 megawatts, enough electricity to power 116,300 homes.

The development has drawn opposition from the National Park Service and environmental groups because its footprint would be within a mile of the national preserve. Among their worries: loss of quality wildlife habitat, negative effects on bighorn sheep that range in the surrounding mountains, and potential harm to water sources needed by a nearly extinct fish.

Bechtel officials have said the site has plentiful sunshine, nearby power lines and fewer environmental issues than other sites. Some of the project area already has been disturbed by a freeway, mines and pipelines, they have said.

The development would create 200 jobs during construction, which could start next summer if Bechtel obtains the necessary approvals.

To learn more, click here for a report I did last year on project and the controversy.

The BLM’s information and documents on the project can be found here. Yet- to-be-scheduled public meetings are planned in Barstow.

Written comments may be sent to Jeff Childers, Soda Mountain Solar Project Manager, 22835 Calle San Juan De Los Lagos, Moreno Valley, CA 92553, or to

Childers can be reached at 951-697-5308.

November 30, 2013

Follow Route 66 for novel kicks

Needles is considered the gateway city to California on Route 66. Old Trails Arch Bridge across the Colorado River connects California with Arizona at Topock. (Pirate Cove Resort)

Written by Kathy Strong
Special to The Desert Sun

The famous 1946 song that invites you to “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” praised the trip along the historic “Mother Road” that led drivers to more than just road-side discovery. Route 66 chronicles a time when heading west stood for finding new opportunities while enjoying the diverse scenery that unfolded along the way.

The 2,400-mile Route 66, also coined America’s Highway, runs from the Midwest to Los Angeles, but desert residents can get a fascinating look at an important portion of the highway (with just a few detours) beginning in Needles and ending in Ontario and Upland. Not unlike travelers 60 years ago, the easy road trip is filled with new discoveries each day, from geological wonders to funky roadside cafes and landmarks with a bounty of California history dedicated to the traveling freedom revolutionized by the car.

Gateway city

A three-hour trip through the upper desert leads to Needles on the Colorado River. Needles, referred to as the gateway to California on Route 66, is one of the oldest cities in California and was named after the spiky rock outcroppings directly across the river in Arizona. A railroad town since 1883, the city continues to play an important role in the railroad trade.

Pirate Cove Resort & Marina is a surprising 1,000-acre oasis that straddles the river and the Mother Road and makes a great jumping off point for exploring the historic roadway. An RV park is popular here, but new two-story condos with kitchens make for an ideal weekday stay if you want to avoid a livelier weekend crowd. The resort hosts a popular restaurant and bar, hiking/nature trails, a zip line over the water and river recreation. Plan to take the resort’s two-and-a-half hour river cruise to the Topock Gorge, a mini-Grand Canyon, petroglyphs and the Old Trails Arch Bridge that was featured in the famous Great Depression-era movie, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Along the way, you may be lucky enough to spot Bighorns, wild donkeys and Bald Eagles.

Craters and chicken

Although once a major stop for weary travelers along Route 66, 1858-founded Amboy met its inevitable decline with the construction of Interstate 40. The town has a handful of surviving buildings today. Among those the much photographed, retro-designed Roy’s Motel and Cafe — once a service station, then café and motel owned by the town’s original owner and family until its eventual foreclosure. In 2005, the property and town was purchased by Albert Okura of Juan Pollo restaurant fame who has promised to preserve the town and re-open Roy’s.

Just west of Amboy are two extinct volcanoes, the Pisgah Crater and the Amboy Crater, a 6,000-year-old cinder cone. Standing on the Amboy Crater observation deck, take in the 27 square feet of lava flow, a geological wonder in the middle of the desert, and try to imagine the spectacular fiery eruptions that occurred some 80,000 years ago.

Milkshakes at the Bagdad

Continuing west on Route 66 toward Barstow, you’ll pass by the 1940’s mining town of Ludlow. Once a welcoming stop for passing motorists with a motor court, café and gas station, the original Ludlow is a ghost town today, thanks to the advent of Interstate 40 in the late 1960s. A newer Ludlow just north of the off-ramp of Interstate 40 reemerged in the 1970s to serve the traveler once again with gas stations, a small motel and restaurant.

In Newberry Springs, at the foot of the mountains on the south side of Route 66, you will find another landmark of the roadway — the Bagdad Café. Mention the name to French tourists, who come by the busload, and they will tell you about its cinematic cult allure. Formally known as the Sidewinder Café, the tiny café gained international fame when the movie “The Bagdad Café” was filmed there. Its flamboyant owner, Andrea Pruett, holds court and is a celebrity in her own right. Stop for the souvenirs, a chat with Andrea and a tempting handmade milk shake.

Next week, read part two of the Route 66 journey that promises museums dedicated to the roadway, historic murals, a bottle ranch and one of the country’s most unique motels along the famous motorway.

November 24, 2013

Clark County officials lament spending $15.7 million on desert tortoises

A desert tortoise tries to escape from a container at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas in this 2012 file photo. Under a state regulation set to take effect next week, pet tortoise owners will be allowed to keep one of the animals at a time.


The desert tortoise isn’t slow in going through money.

Clark County has spent at least $15.7 million since 2001 on efforts to protect the tortoise, which is listed as a threatened species by the federal government. Those efforts run the gamut from fencing to habitat restoration to sampling efforts to gauge the population.

County officials don’t have anything personal against the tortoise. But they also point to estimates that show some 50,000 desert tortoises are kept as pets in Clark County alone and openly question if the creature is as threatened as the federal government maintains.

“We’ve got people that are starving and such massive needs that we can’t keep pouring money into this,” commission Chairman Steve Sisolak said.

The broader issue of spending on the desert tortoise arose last week at the commission meeting during a routine approval of a $125,250 contract amendment with NewFields Companies for work in sampling the tortoise population at Boulder City Conservation Easement, an 86,423-acre area south of Boulder City.

Commissioners made it clear that they want to take a closer look in the near future at its multi-species habitat conservation plan, which was put in place in 2000. Under that plan, some $95 million has been spent on 78 species of protected plants and animals, including the tortoise. That figure includes the money spent on the tortoise.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys of 11,200 square miles of tortoise habitat across the four-state range provide an estimate of 95,000 adult tortoises.

By using that figure as a basis for estimating the desert tortoise population of all the range’s habitat, the result is fewer than 295,000 adult tortoises across 25,900 square miles.

In Nevada, as many as 91,000 adult tortoises are estimated to be living in some 8,100 square miles of habitat, according to federal figures.

The desert tortoise was listed as threatened in 1989, forcing the county to come up with a way to allow future develpment while complying with federal requirements to protect the species.

In 2000, the county adopted a multi-species habitat conservation plan, which it administers for all local municipalities. That plan carries out measures to compensate for the loss of habitat, such as restoration and monitoring of species, including the tortoise.

Under the plan, developers pay a $550 per acre fee, which goes to the county’s Desert Conservation Program, said Marci Henson, assistant director of comprehensive planning for the county.

Henson said the plan has helped streamline the environmental permitting process for private property owners, saving an estimated $300 million since the program began.

Tortoises live in blackbrush and Mojave desert shrub. They have brown shells that can grow longer than 14 inches long. They spend much of their time in burrows, venturing out to eat wildflowers and other plants.

They also live a long time — more than 50 years in some cases.

So the federal government will be spending years watching the current generation of tortoises across southeastern California, Southern Nevada and parts of Utah and Arizona.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began its monitoring efforts in 2001. It will take 25 years, until 2026, to gain enough data from a generation of tortoises to see the full scope of changes brought about by efforts to aid the animal’s population.

As a result, officials will have to wait years to see the results.

“They have to survive 20 years before they even start producing babies,” said Roy Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “They’re not like rabbits.”

That effort includes looking at the overall long-term patterns and changes in the tortoise population, not just the current raw numbers.

Federal officials also say that pet tortoises aren’t part of the equation for classifying wild tortoises as threatened, as the pets can introduce diseases and genetic impurities if set loose.

The work on the deal approved last week involves sending teams out to look for tortoises and accompanying signs of the creatures and where they live. That entails looking for scat, bone fragments and burrows, said Ken MacDonald, a partner and senior environmental manager at Newfields.

Commissioner Susan Brager said at the meeting that there are more important things to spend much-needed funding on, such as helping young people succeed.

“We spend millions on certain animals and our youth do not get all the help they need,” Brager said.

In the end, it would be nice to spend the money on other things, Sisolak said.

As for the tortoises, they’ll still be counted in Clark County.

“They've survived on their own for centuries,” Sisolak said.

November 20, 2013

Off-roaders would lose land to Marines in Senate bill

Johnson Valley
By Courtney Vaughn
Hi-Desert Star

JOHNSON VALLEY — A bill in the U.S. Senate is helping to push along the Navy’s request to expand military training grounds into Johnson Valley and Wonder Valley.

Last week, the Military Land Withdrawals Act cleared the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The legislation now heads to the Senate before it goes to the House of Representatives.

The bill would allow the military to use public lands in Johnson Valley and Wonder Valley, as well as land in Imperial and Riverside counties and Montana for military training exercises.

Military: Land is needed for training

As proposed, the bill would set aside 154,663 acres of land in San Bernardino County for training. That includes a 36,755-acre shared-use area between the military and public in Johnson Valley.

It would also give the Secretary of the Interior the authority to close public lands when deemed necessary for military or public safety or national security.

The Department of the Navy and local Marine Corps representatives have repeatedly said the extra land is necessary to conduct training exercises that can’t be done at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center as it exists today.

“The training conducted would be tailored to suit a Marine Expeditionary Brigade-level unit, comprised of about 15,000 Marines,” Capt. Justin Smith, public affairs officer at the combat center, said via email. “Essentially, the training would be customized to ensure components of the unit would begin at different locations, spread apart by distance and terrain, with the purpose being to merge upon a single objective. The benefits of having a base that will allow for this type of training are unprecedented.”

Smith said having the extra land would allow Marines to train as they fight, rather than relying on classroom instruction and simulations.

Smith said the land chosen wasn’t the Navy’s preferred alternative, but it was carved out in response to public feedback.

Locally, the base expansion would bar public access to more than half of the area currently designated for off-road-vehicle use in Johnson Valley. As a compromise, the Navy designated a shared-use area, which allows for training exercises two months out of the year and gives the Secretary of the Navy management authority over the area during that those times. The Secretary of Interior would manage the shared lands for the rest of the year.

Earlier this year, Congressman Paul Cook suggested an alternative strategy for the base expansion. His recommended alternatives weren’t included in the Senate bill, which could become part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

“If that should happen, the House version of the NDAA contains Congressman Cook’s wording to protect Johnson Valley, and it will contradict the Senate’s version, which will contain the Marines’ request for Johnson Valley,” Dawn Rowe, a representative with Cook’s office, stated via email.

“If these two bills contain language that conflicts with each other, both houses of Congress must convene a conference committee to resolve the conflict.”

Under the Senate bill, an Exclusive Military Use Area would be created within the Morongo Basin, divided into four areas: about 103,000 acres to the west of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center; another 21,000 acres south of MCAGCC; and two other areas, each about 300 square meters, inside the boundaries of the shared-use area.

The Department of the Navy would have access to the public lands for combined-arms live fire and maneuver training.

‘How much worse is it going to be?’

The military proposal has been met by heavy resistance within the Basin. Off-road-vehicle enthusiasts say the move infringes on public lands in Johnson Valley that are vital to recreation.

Johnson Valley is the nation’s largest ORV recreation area.

Residents in Johnson Valley fear noise during training periods and loss of revenue from the ORV community.

“I can sit here in my living room and I’m literally looking at where they’re gonna be training,” Betty Munson, a longtime Johnson Valley resident and vice president of the Homestead Valley Community Council, said Tuesday.

Munson characterized the land swap as “another disaster” for her community and the ORV recreation areas.

She said she and her distant neighbors already hear and feel the vibrations of ordnance training in Twentynine Palms, which rattle the house and scare her animals.

“How much worse is it going to be?” she said Tuesday, sighing at the thought of her future in the homestead cabin her family owns.

“It never occurred to us that something would happen to the Johnson Valley recreation area because as far as we were concerned, it had been set aside for ORV use,” Munson said. “We’ve been shut out of every other part of California.”

She said what’s most disturbing to her is that the Senate bill has been called “non-controversial” by legislators, yet more than 40,000 public comments were logged in the plan’s Environmental Impact Report.

November 17, 2013

Developing a Fax Machine to Copy Life on Mars

In a dry run for a mission to Mars, Synthetic Genomics was looking to find microbial life in the Mojave Desert, sequence its DNA and transmit it to the company’s headquarters in San Diego.

New York Times

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Calif. — J. Craig Venter, the maverick scientist, is looking for a new world to conquer — Mars. He wants to detect life on Mars and bring it to Earth using a device called a digital biological converter, or biological teleporter.

Although the idea conjures up “Star Trek,” the analogy is not exact. The transporter on that program actually moves Captain Kirk from one location to another. Dr. Venter’s machine would merely create a copy of an organism from a distant location — more like a biological fax machine.

Still, Dr. Venter, known for his early sequencing of the human genome and for his bold proclamations, predicts the biological converter will be his next innovation and will be useful on Earth well before it could ever be deployed on the red planet.

The idea behind it, not original to him, is that the genetic code that governs life can be stored in a computer and transmitted just like any other information.

Dr. Venter’s system would determine the sequence of the DNA units in an organism’s genome and transmit that information electronically. At the distant location, the genome would be synthesized — or chemically recreated — inserted into what amounts to a blank cell, and “booted up,” as Mr. Venter puts it. In other words, the inserted DNA would take command of the cell and recreate a copy of the original organism.

To test some ideas, he and a small team of scientists from his company and from NASA spent the weekend here in the Mojave Desert, the closest stand-in they could find for the dry surface of Mars.

The biological fax is not as far-fetched as it seems. DNA sequencing and DNA synthesis are rapidly becoming faster and cheaper. For now, however, synthesizing an organism’s entire genome is still generally too difficult. So the system will first be used to remotely clone individual genes, or perhaps viruses. Single-celled organisms like bacteria might come later. More complex creatures, earthly or Martian, will probably never be possible.

Dr. Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics, and his namesake nonprofit research institute have already used the technology to help develop an experimental vaccine for the H7N9 bird flu with the drug maker Novartis.

Typically, when a new strain of flu virus appears, scientists must transport it to labs, which can spend weeks perfecting a strain that can be grown in eggs or animal cells to make vaccine.

But when H7N9 appeared in China in February, its genome was sequenced by scientists there and made publicly available. Within days, Dr. Venter’s team had synthesized the two main genes and used them to make a vaccine strain, without having to wait for the virus to arrive from China.

Dr. Venter said Synthetic Genomics would start selling a machine next year that would automate the synthesis of genes by stringing small pieces of DNA together to make larger ones.

Eventually, he said, “we’ll have a small box like a printer attached to your computer.” A person with a bacterial infection might be sent the code to recreate a virus intended to kill that specific bacterium.

“We can send an antibiotic as an email,” said Dr. Venter, who has outlined his ideas in a new book, “Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life.” Proteins might also be made, so that diabetics, for instance, could “download insulin from the Internet.”

Dr. Venter, 67, has many scientific achievements — though critics deride some of them as stunts — but has had less success converting his ideas into successful businesses.

A previous company, Celera Genomics, raced the federally funded Human Genome Project to determine the complete DNA sequence in human chromosomes. The race was declared a tie in 2000, but Celera could not sustain a business selling the genomic information.

A deal worth up to $600 million that Synthetic Genomics made with Exxon Mobil in 2009 to produce biofuels using algae has been scaled back to a research project.

In 2010, Dr. Venter made headlines by creating what some considered the first man-made life. His team synthesized the genome of one species of bacterium and transplanted it into a slightly different species. The transplanted DNA took command of its new host cell, which then multiplied, passing on the synthetic genome.

Critics said Dr. Venter had not really created life, just copied it. Dr. Venter said in the interview that while he did not create life from scratch, he had created a new type of life.

“DNA is the software of life, and to get new life, you just have to change the software,” he said.

Dr. Venter said his team was designing a genome that was not a copy of an existing one and trying to insert it into a host cell. “It’s not alive yet,” he said. “We’re close.”

George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, said there was nothing unique about Dr. Venter’s work so far because others had already synthesized viruses based on DNA sequence information available on the Internet.

“Most people in the past didn't call it teleportation,” he said, “but if you want to, fine.”

He also questioned the utility of doing genome engineering to make a copy of something, rather than “doing genome engineering to make something new and exotic and potentially useful.”

Space exploration is one area where the teleporter might be especially useful. It would be extremely costly and time-consuming to send a medicine physically to a colonist on another planet who becomes sick. And it would be difficult to send a sample from Mars back to Earth.

That is why Dr. Venter’s team was camped here this weekend, about 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The mission was to find microbial life in the desert, determine its sequence and transmit it to Synthetic Genomics’ headquarters in San Diego.

This dry run was far from the automated process that would be needed on Mars. Two scientists spent hours Friday in a bus filled with laboratory equipment, carefully scraping green microbes off rocks and preparing their DNA for sampling. The sequencing, done on a desktop machine in the bus, took 26 hours.

Chris McKay, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center who is working on the project, said the bus would have to be shrunk to a shoe box to make it feasible for a Mars mission, which would take many years and dollars. “By the time we get to Mars, we will have spent $500 million on that shoe box,” he said.

But sequencing machines are rapidly becoming smaller. A team at Harvard and M.I.T. is hoping to have a sequencer ready for use in a Mars mission departing in 2020.

Of course, all this assumes there is life on Mars to begin with and that it is based on DNA.

But that can be left for another day. Dr. Venter is known for combining business with pleasure, such as when he sailed his yacht around the world to collect ocean life for sequencing. He arrived here Friday in a pickup truck hauling three motorcycles and some libations.

After touring a site on Friday from which his scientists had collected rocks on which green cyanobacteria were growing, Dr. Venter declared: “We’ve had the quartz. Now, let’s get a pint.”

Beam us up, Craig!

November 16, 2013

Arizona tortoise habitat tripling in size

Sandra Lackey (left), President of the AWC Science Club, and George Arnett work on footings for the new tortoise habitat at the college during Friday's volunteer day. (Loaned Photo/AWC)

Yuma Sun

Thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the desert tortoise shelter at Arizona Western College will not only get remodeled and improved, but it is expected to almost triple in size.

Science Club students from AWC and Northern Arizona University met Friday and Saturday with staff and members of the community to begin work on the shelter, which is part of a Habitat Improvement Project for the Science, Technology, and Engineering Reptiles Shelter (HISPTERS).

Located at the gravel courtyard between the AS (Agriculture and Science) building and the SR (NAU Research and Education) building at AWC, 2020 S. Avenue 8E, the project is hoped to be completed by spring, said Kevin Young, professor of science.

The existing male and female pens on campus hold a total of five tortoises and there is also another “sick pen” that currently has one tortoise in it near the CTE (Center for Teaching Effectiveness) building. Young said that they work with Arizona Game and Fish to hold tortoises, which have a lifespan of about 70 to 80 years, who are awaiting adoption.

Young explained that the walls of the enclosure will be built using the unique “super adobe” method which is not only sustainable, but more economically feasible. They will use layers of long tubes filled with a mixture of compacted sand and clay for the walls that will be plastered over to create curvy walls. He said that he got the idea when reading about the methods of architect Nader Khalili who originally presented the concept to NASA for building habitats on the moon and Mars.

“I wanted to highlight this building technique because it’s being used as a building technique for homes and larger structures, mostly in Third World countries, but it has a very low environmental impact, low cost of materials, and it’s earthquake resistant and tornado resistant and fire resistant – you end up with a very strong structure.”

When the project is completed, Young explained that they hope to have also included a shaded space, a water feature, walkways and educational displays for visitors. There are also plans to have tortoise-friendly plants and flowers in the pens while surrounding the shelter with native plants that will attract a wide variety of birds, insects and other wildlife.

“It’s meant to be a community place,” he said. “We’re trying to build something that will be lasting and aesthetically pleasing.”

While college students from environmental and biology classes will be involved in the planning and implementation of the project and taking care of it during holidays and breaks, Young said that they plan to have involvement from other areas of the campus as well. He said that they will be allowing art students to use the 150-foot long walls of the enclosure as a canvas and also asking English students to help them with writing educational displays. In all, he said he’s hoping to have at least 50 students involved in the project along with staff and community volunteers.

Young can be contacted directly for those interested in volunteering to help with the project or donate cuttings or seeds of native plants.

“Anything native to the Sonoran Desert or really Arizona in general, we’d be happy to incorporate it,” he said.

November 15, 2013

A railroad dinosaur is coming back to life

Steam engine No. 4014, nicknamed Big Boy, was retired in 1959 but is being moved from Pomona to be restored as a traveling museum

Union Pacific crews are laying 4,500 feet of temporary track so Big Boy No. 4014 can cross the Pomona Fairplex parking lot and reach a nearby Metrolink line. (Los Angeles Times)
By Bob Pool
Los Angeles Times

See video

It's been sitting around in Pomona for nearly 53 years, but now the beast they call Big Boy is making tracks for Wyoming.

Officially known as Union Pacific steam engine No. 4014, the locomotive has been parked at the RailGiants Train Museum in Pomona since 1962, a displaced piece of the past.

Now Union Pacific has reacquired the behemoth and has begun inching Big Boy No. 4014 toward mainline rail tracks that will take it to Cheyenne, where it will be rebuilt and begin life afresh as a rolling museum on steel wheels.

"It's been sitting here in sort of a railroad Jurassic Park," said Ed Dickens, senior manager of Union Pacific's Heritage Operations. "We're bring T. rex back to life."

Big Boy was built in 1941, one of 25 huge steam engines used to pull 3,600-ton freight trains over the Wasatch Mountains between Ogden, Utah, and Green River, Wyo. After traveling more than 1 million miles, it was retired in 1959, when diesel engines replaced steam. Eventually, Big Boy was handed over to the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society's Southern California chapter, which oversees the RailGiants collection.

To get the old locomotive rolling again, Union Pacific crews are laying 4,500 feet of temporary track so it can cross the Fairplex parking lot and reach a nearby Metrolink line. Once it gets to Colton, it will be shuttled onto Union Pacific tracks and start heading east after being converted from burning coal to using fuel oil.

Moving the engine and restoring it are a huge deal in every sense, according to those involved with the project.

To keep the 600-ton locomotive from crushing the asphalt parking lot, workers are placing layers of plywood beneath 40-foot sections of rails and ties. The 2-ton track panels are moved by forklift and truck and leapfrog ahead of Big Boy as it is slowly towed across the lot by a tractor.

At the Metrolink tracks at the northern edge of the fairgrounds, Big Boy will be pulled by a diesel engine that also bears the old steam engine's original 4014 number. A second diesel engine will be hooked behind the steam engine to serve as a brake.

Dickens declined to speculate on what Big Boy's restoration will cost. But he's confident that Union Pacific has experts who will get it running again.

"These engines are our life," Dickens said. "I have the blueprints for this one on my smartphone."

It will take about five years to refurbish Big Boy in what Dickens calls a "frame-up restoration." After that, it will tour the country on his company's 35,000 miles of track, which connects about 7,000 cities.

Those affiliated with the rail historical society's RailGiants Museum say they are sorry to see Big Boy go. But they will still have eight other locomotives and four cars on outdoor display at the Fairplex, said Rob Shatsnider, chairman of the society's Southern California chapter.

"The whole motive of our chapter is railway preservation," Shatsnider said. "Now, the entire country will see him."

Pomona Mayor Elliott Rothman said he also will miss Big Boy. Twenty years ago, he enjoyed bringing his 6-year-old son Jason to the fairgrounds to sound the engine's horn.

Other young rail fans also come to the fairgrounds to watch the locomotive's slow move out of Pomona. High school student Shelly Hunter, 17, has been a member of the locomotive historical society for four years and has come to the Los Angeles County Fair to admire Big Boy for as long as she can remember.

As Big Boy rolls the over the makeshift rails that will take it to a new life, "I'll be keeping close track," Shelly promised.

November 14, 2013

Time to throw the Antiquities Act into the recycling bin of history

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah

The Examiner

Two words — national monument — conjure Images of the Lincoln Memorial or the Statue of Liberty, but probably not the Virgin Islands Coral Reef or the Alibates Flint Quarries near Amarillo, Texas.

Only one of those is not on the list of America’s 103 national monuments: the Lincoln Memorial, which was authorized by Congress in 1910.

Congress has rarely authorized a national monument, although it has the power to do so at any time. Overwhelmingly, a president of the United States has created our national monuments, and did it by merely writing and signing a proclamation – a form of executive order – empowered by the controversial and politicized Antiquities Act of 1906.

Originally spurred by looting of Southwest Indian ruins for artifacts - dubbed “antiquities” by anthropologists - in such places as Colorado's Mesa Verde, Congress empowered the president to protect by proclamation, "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest," on federal lands, and to “reserve” (read “take”) private property for the purpose.

At the time, nobody worried about giving the president power like a Roman emperor, to swiftly proclaim protection for government property (and coveted private property) without waiting for an unconcerned Congress to act.

Today, a lot of Americans fear and loathe that power and that law, because it has become a political weapon to devastate the fossil-fuel industry.

As an example, President Clinton unilaterally proclaimed the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, thereby depriving the energy-using public of an estimated 62 billion tons of clean-burning, low-sulfur coal, five billion barrels of oil, and four trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Clinton's decree also wiped out dozens of tax-base school land tracts of the state of Utah.

Compounding the problem, four agencies manage 101 of the monuments: the National Park Service (79), the Bureau of Land Management (19), the U.S. Forest Service (7) and the Fish and Wildlife Service (7).

Some monuments are co-managed by two agencies, so overlap complicates dealing with them. Two other agencies co-manage one monument each.

The Antiquities Act is a poster child for mission creep, that contagious federal “we-want-more” disease. We have 22 national monuments associated with Native American sites, 28 with historic sites and 57 with nature sites.

Among these sites was added with a 2009 proclamation was the 9,500 square mile, 6.8-mile deep Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, protecting the deepest place in the world’s oceans, with regional headquarters in Hawaii and no tour buses to the trench. Go figure.

National monuments have a nasty habit of developing mission creep once established, especially against public access.

The motorized recreation community is particularly burned by the hikers-only purists who relentlessly push for controls, then road and trail closures, then selective bans, and finally lockouts.

I asked Duane Taylor, director of federal affairs with the Motorcycle Industry Council, about his organization’s experience.

He told me, “Unfortunately, motorized recreation is far too often shut out of national monument areas. The blanket designation of lands as a national monument, along with the almost-certain restrictions that come along with designation, could effectively mean that much of the total economic contribution of recreation to the area will be forfeited,” he said.

That became an issue in Congress this week with a “briefing on benefits of the Antiquities Act to local economies, communities, and national treasures.”

The briefing featured panelists from the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, Pew Charitable Trusts, Wilderness Society, Outdoor Industry Association and others.

Panelists cited a study showing that outdoor recreation generated $646 billion in national sales and services in 2011 and supported 6.1 million jobs. I asked Taylor for his response.

“They’re telling only part of the story,” he said. “The same study shows that approximately $257 billion or nearly 40 percent of the total $646 billion in economic contribution comes from motorized recreation.”

The power of the Antiquities Act needs to be throttled. It’s not impossible. Congress has reduced presidential powers under the act twice, first in 1950, requiring congressional consent for any future proclamation or enlargement of national monuments in Wyoming; second, requiring congressional consent in Alaska for proclamations of greater than 5,000 acres.

We may hope that the third time is the charm.

RON ARNOLD, a Washington Examiner columnist, is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

November 13, 2013

Searchers find body believed to be missing hunter

Greg Monroe of Victorville (KABC)
by Richard Brooks
Riverside Press-Enterprise

The search has ended for a missing hunter in the Mojave Desert where a body believed to be his has been found in a natural water well, according to a family member and sheriff’s officials.

“It was covered in brush. And he fell right into it,” Norco resident Teresa Dalton said Wednesday, Nov. 13, of her father-in-law, 62-year-old Greg Monroe of Victorville.

Sheriff’s officials confirmed the discovery.

“Monroe was located on Nov. 7 deceased,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Cindy Bachman said in an email.

But efforts to confirm the tentative identification are continuing, emphasized coroner’s spokeswoman Sandy Fatland.

Monroe disappeared after driving into the New York Mountains near the Nevada border on Oct. 28 so he could start deer hunting early the next day, Dalton said. He was reported missing when he failed to return home as planned on Halloween.

His Toyota truck was found at his desert campsite and it appeared that at least most of his food was still there, suggesting that he became lost early in his trip, Dalton said.

The body was found in a 40-foot-deep well that was half filled with water from a natural spring, meaning Monroe would have been about 20 feet underground after the fall, Dalton said.

“There was no way he could get out,” she said.

Sheriff’s helicopter crews helped search teams and Monroe’s family and friends scour the region. Between the two groups, Sixty to 70 people were involved in the search, Dalton estimated.

“It was a good effort,” she said.

November 12, 2013

Bighorn sheep numbers way down

These bighorn sheep were photographed in 2009 on Old Dad Mountain, the same area of the eastern Mojave Desert where a deadly disease has spread among at least two herds. Biologists have started an effort to monitor the health of the elusive animals.

Press Enterprise

Only a fraction of the bighorn sheep typically seen in a Mojave Desert mountain range was spotted during a recent helicopter survey, a sign that a deadly pneumonia outbreak has taken a significant toll on the population, a scientist said Tuesday, Nov. 12.

Crews found no obviously sick animals in many of the other mountain ranges the sheep inhabit in the eastern Mojave. Blood test results will show whether those sheep are carrying the bacteria that causes the disease.

In the hardest-hit area, around Old Dad Mountain and Kelso Peak 15 miles southeast of Baker, the helicopter crew saw 6.4 sheep per hour. Data from the past 18 years show the previous lowest encounter rate there was 8.2 sheep per hour and the average is 14.5, said Deborah Hughson, science adviser for the Mojave National Preserve.

Two animals were accidentally killed during the four-day survey last week, Hughson said.

One ewe, after collaring, became startled and jumped a short distance off a hillside, Hughson said. Her leg broke on landing, and she had to be euthanized.

The second sheep died when a capture net was discharged from the helicopter in windy conditions. The net caught the sheep’s horn and spun her abruptly around; a veterinarian who conducted a field autopsy determined the animal died instantly. It did not have pneumonia.

During the survey, 73 bighorn were fitted with locator collars that will help experts track them — and the disease — for the next four to six years.

In addition to the herd around Old Dad Mountain, which has a population of 200 to 300, the outbreak has affected a second group in the Marble Mountains, 35 miles south.

Hughson said she was surprised that there were no sick sheep beyond a few in the Marble Mountains. Crews also surveyed the Bristol, Clipper, Soda, Providence, Granite, Hackberry and Woods ranges.

“We now are pretty clear the disease is centered in the Old Dad Peak area. There has been a substantial population decline that could be as much as half of the population,” Hughson said.
In that area, crews saw four carcasses and no lambs, she said.

The disease, which can have an incubation period of months, is easily transmitted to bighorn that come in contact with domestic goats and sheep. Authorities do not know how the Mojave herds contracted it, she said.

Healthy looking sheep can carry the bacteria, then suddenly show symptoms and die soon after, Hughson said.

Scientists should have the results of blood and fecal samples and nasal swabs taken in the field by early December, and will know then which animals are infected, Hughson said.

The results will help determine the next step in dealing with the outbreak. Experts may cull sick animals from the herd to stop the disease from spreading or manipulate water sources next summer to keep the infected sheep from interacting with other herds, Hughson said.

The federal and state governments have spent more than $100,000 on the helicopter survey, collars and database, she said. The survey of more than 80,000 acres was a joint operation of the National Park Service, Mojave National Preserve and California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

New Desert Protection Act Coming

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

by Sen. Dianne Feinstein

As America’s environmental innovator, California demonstrates that conserving natural resources and developing clean energy sources can coexist.

That is the reason California set the goal of generating 33 percent of its electricity by 2020 from renewable resources such as wind and solar energy. It is also the reason Los Angeles committed to phasing out coal-fired electrical power over the next 12 years.

That kind of forward thinking should extend into other areas, including how we use California’s deserts for energy development.

There is strong support in California to protect pristine desert areas. There is also strong support for the responsible development of renewable energy projects.

I believe those two goals can exist side-by-side by focusing energy development on suitable sites such as military bases and disturbed private land while protecting unspoiled desert landscapes.

The Mojave Desert is home to majestic mountains and spectacular valleys, towering sand dunes and stunning oases, all of which provide habitat for diverse plants and wildlife.

These beautiful vistas are home to remarkable archaeology, beauty and wildlife. One can find some of the last remaining dinosaur tracks, Native American petroglyphs, abundant spring wildflowers and threatened species including the bighorn sheep and the desert tortoise, which can live to be 100 years old.

But the western edge of the Mojave — 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles — is also home to Edwards Air Force Base and other developed lands.

In 2009, I learned the Bureau of Land Management was accepting applications to build solar and wind projects on federal land throughout the Mojave Desert, including pristine lands donated for conservation purposes in the East Mojave. I acted quickly to prevent this type of development, introducing legislation to establish the Mojave Trails National Monument in the eastern Mojave.

But I also obtained federal funding to study the feasibility of generating renewable energy on military installations in California’s deserts in a manner consistent with both environmental protection and the military mission.

The study, conducted by the Department of Defense and released in January 2012, concluded: “Over 7,000 megawatts of solar energy development is technically feasible and financially viable at several Department of Defense installations in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts of California.”

The report found that “Edwards Air Force Base had the highest solar potential of the military installations studied.” Of the 7,164 megawatts of potential solar capacity at military installations in the California deserts, the base accounts for 3,488 megawatts (49 percent) of the total. Of 125,507 economically viable acres for solar photovoltaic ground development, the base contains 92,009 acres (73 percent of the total).

I will soon introduce a new California Desert Protection Act to address the many competing land use demands in the desert, including conservation, recreation and military training. A central piece of the legislation will protect 266,000 acres of land donated or acquired with federal conservation funds by creating the Mojave Trails National Monument.

I have worked with members of the energy industry in the past to develop this legislation in a way that addresses their concerns and look forward to receiving their support for this bill.

It is possible to preserve our natural environment while producing environmentally-friendly energy. The next generation of Californians will thank us for it.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is the author of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act.

November 11, 2013

Interior secretary says Obama may bypass Congress on monuments

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says she may advise Obama to act alone to create new national monuments if Congress doesn't act.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says she may recommend that President Obama act unilaterally to create new national monuments if Congress remains gridlocked. She recently visited some sites in California. (Dan Joling / Associated Press / September 3, 2013)

By Julie Cart
Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says she will recommend that President Obama act alone if necessary to create new national monuments and sidestep a gridlocked Congress that has failed to address dozens of public lands bills.

Jewell said the logjam on Capitol Hill has created a conservation backlog, and she warned that the Obama administration would not "hold its breath forever" waiting for lawmakers to act.

"The president will not hesitate," Jewell said in an interview in San Francisco last week. "I can tell you that there are places that are ripe for setting aside, with a tremendous groundswell of public support."

Congress has not added any acreage to the national park or wilderness systems since 2010. Jewell blamed ramped-up rhetoric in Washington for the impasse. She said the appetite for preserving American historic and cultural sites remains high but some officials seek to avoid the appearance of publicly embracing more government protection.

Jewell, who has been on the job scarcely six months, came to California to promote several initiatives and tour a site that could be added to a national monument along the Mendocino coast.

She began with a meet and greet at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. On a bright day with gulls wheeling against a backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge — the velvety green Marin headlands in the distance — Jewell stood in one of the nation's most-visited national parks and made the case for the value of public lands.

Among the public events on Jewell's schedule was a visit to the 1,255-acre Stornetta Public Lands site on the Mendocino County coast, north of Point Arena. Several members of the California congressional delegation have proposed adding the site to the California Coastal National Monument.

It's one of many pending federal bills that would conserve land in California. One bill would expand the boundary of Yosemite National Park, and another would create a national monument in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has proposed sweeping legislation that would add thousands of acres to Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks and the Mojave National Preserve, protect 74 miles of waterways as wild and scenic rivers, designate 248,000 acres as wilderness and create the Sand to Snow National Monument running from the floor of the Coachella Valley to the peak of Mt. San Gorgonio.

The conservation community has a long list of places that it believes require protection, but activists complain that with sequestration budget cuts on top of congressional reluctance to promote conservation, little is getting done.

"It's been nearly impossible to figure out how to get more funding for conservation work, whether it's just getting money to run agencies or getting full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund," said Kristen Brengel, who lobbies Congress for the National Parks Conservation Assn. "There is almost no hope for the wilderness or monuments bills — they are being held up."

Brengel said Jewell's willingness to recommend that Obama act unilaterally, using powers granted to presidents under the Antiquities Act of 1906, gives hope to conservationists who see the administration as indifferent to environmental issues.

"The take-away is she's kind of teed herself up to make those recommendations to the president," Brengel said. "They are capable of making decisions on conservation. They just haven't made many of them."

The Antiquities Act gives presidents authority to name new monuments — a power generally residing with Congress. Presidents going back to Theodore Roosevelt have used the act to set aside natural wonders, including the Grand Canyon in 1908, which was later named a national park against the wishes of local officials.

But use of the act in recent years has sparked strong protest. Most notably was President Clinton's decision to designate the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah in 1996, putting one of the nation's largest coal reserves off limits to mining.

Utah lawmakers, led by then-Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a Republican, bitterly complained that federal authorities failed to consult with local communities before elevating protections on 1.8 million acres of rugged red-rock canyons. Further antagonizing opponents, Clinton signed the act while sitting at a ceremonial desk placed on the rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

Clinton used the Antiquities Act more than any other president. Obama has used the law to designate nine new monuments, focusing mainly on historic sites such as the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland and the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Kern County, which is poised to become a National Historic Park.

November 8, 2013

Pappy & Harriet’s owners celebrate decade of success

The entrance at Pappy & Harriet’s (Pappy & Harriet’s)

By Courtney Vaughn
Hi-Desert Star

PIONEERTOWN — In some ways, Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace owners Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz have loud music to thank for their quiet success.

Over the span of a decade, Pappy & Harriet’s has progressed. It’s long been a locally treasured roadside cantina set amid a town built for Western films. The restaurant and bar now carries its weight as the Hi-Desert’s signature Southwest eatery and a renowned country and blues rock venue.

From the outside, the property still looks rustic and unassuming. That’s part of the charm. Even after spending the last 10 years bringing the restaurant and venue to a higher caliber, owners Celia and Krantz have done little to detract from the venue’s authenticity.

As they celebrate their 10-year anniversary of ownership, Krantz and Celia are modest about their accomplishments and vision for the future.

“Our plans are just to keep going. Keep Pappy’s real and down to earth,” Celia said.

When the women purchased the place 10 years ago, it had just been sold. Celia and Krantz, both New York natives, would visit Pioneertown on trips to California and soon made it a staple of their visits.

“We were both a bit disenchanted by our lives in NYC,” Celia recalled. “Linda was in the film business and I was in a band that wasn’t going anywhere. Linda had done a film in Pioneertown in the ’90s and told all of us about this place.”

Celia remembers visiting one year and being disappointed with the place. She and Linda soon found out it had been sold, so they took a leap of faith.

“Back then it was easy to get a loan and we bought the club with credit cards,” Celia said.

Since taking the reins, the owners have elevated the venue’s appeal into a venue for indie rock and alt-country music, dinner, a night out with friends and even weddings.

“I don’t think we ever had big plans. Not failing was all we really thought about,” Celia admitted.

Perhaps it’s the owners’ approach that’s contributed to the venue’s success.

The former owner and half the venue’s namesake, Harriet, who requested her last name not be mentioned, said running the place was always a labor of love. She gave a nod to Celia and Krantz.

“They’re doing a great job; it’s a lot of work,” Harriet said by phone Thursday. “That’s all I ever hoped for Pappy & Harriet’s was to see it continue.”

Celia and Krantz have carried on Harriet and the late Pappy’s legacy, while slowly infusing their personal touches into the place.

Over the years, the desert locale has become more inviting to young adults and big-city urbanites looking for a quirky getaway with Southwest charm.

Photos of Billy Corgan, Shelby Lynne and Thurston Moore — all performers there over the last decade — now hang on the wall above original wood floors and exposed masonry walls.

They’re also expanding on the experience. This year, Krantz and Celia purchased and rehabbed a quaint property just adjacent to the venue, which they dubbed the “Little House.” The place houses tourists, musicians and people who just want a home away from home for the night.

A few years ago, Pappy & Harriet’s was put up for sale to “the right buyer,” as Celia explained back in 2010. The restaurant and bar has since been taken off the market and the owners have no plans to sell right now.

Reflecting on their tenure, the women say the most rewarding fruits of their labor are the people.

“Just seeing how happy people are when they come here,” Celia said. “Seeing all walks of life under one roof having a great time.”

Wind turbines blamed in death of estimated 600,000 bats in 2012

BOULDER, Colo., (UPI) -- Wind turbines killed at least 600,000 -- and possibly as many as 900,000 -- bats in the United States in 2012, researchers say.

Writing in the journal BioScience, the researchers said they used sophisticated statistical techniques to infer the probable number of bat deaths at wind energy facilities from the number of dead bats found at 21 locations.

Bats, which play an important role in the ecosystem as insect-eaters, are killed at wind turbines not only by collisions with moving turbine blades but also by the trauma resulting from sudden changes in air pressure that occur near a fast-moving blade, the study said.

Study author Mark Hayes of the University of Colorado notes that 600,000 is a conservative estimate -- the true number could be 50 percent higher than that -- and some areas of the country might experience much higher bat fatality rates at wind energy facilities than others.

Hayes said the Appalachian Mountains have the highest estimated fatality rates in his analysis.

With bats already under stress because of climate change and disease, in particular white-nose syndrome, the estimate of wind turbine deaths is worrisome, he said -- especially as bat populations grow only very slowly, with most species producing only one young per year.

November 6, 2013

Area 51 declassified: Documents reveal Cold War 'hide-and-seek'

Warning signs tell people to stay away from Area 51. (
Leonard David

Newly declassified documents reveal more detail about past use of the mysterious Nevada test site known as Area 51 and the concern for maintaining secrecy about the work done at the facility.

The recently released papers, which date mostly from the early 1960s into the 1970s, spotlight the U.S. government's desire for tight security at Area 51, also known as Groom Lake. The area was photographed with American reconnaissance assets to better assess what the Soviet Union's spy satellites might be able to discern.

The documents also detail the debate over the possible release of a photograph "inadvertently" taken of the secret facility by NASA astronauts aboard the Skylab space station in 1974. [Flying Saucers to Mind Control: 7 Declassified Military & CIA Secrets]

Stealthy work

More than 60 declassified documents in an Area 51 file were posted on the Internet by the National Security Archive late last month, compiled and edited by archive senior fellow Jeffrey Richelson. The archive is located at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Those of you hoping for information about captured aliens and flying saucers will be disappointed.

A number of documents focus on the quest to develop stealth capability in aircraft. Others report on another type of activity at Area 51 — the exploitation of covertly acquired Soviet MiG fighter jets.

American engineers assessed the design, performance and limitations of MiGs in an attempt to learn their vulnerabilities — knowledge that could come in handy during combat situations.

Spysat overflights

An April 1962 document sourced to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) outlines the rationale for photographing Area 51 by either a high-flying U-2 spy plane or a then-classified CORONA reconnaissance satellite. The idea was viewed as a means of seeing what the Soviet Union might learn from its own satellite images of the facility.

This would provide "a pretty fair idea of what deductions and conclusions could be made by the Soviets should Sputnik 13 have a reconnaissance capability," explains the memorandum, which was marked "secret." [Gallery: Declassified US Spy Satellite Photos & Designs]

Also part of the plan, the memo states, was having a U-2 image Area 51: "Without advising the photographic interpreters of what the target is, ask them to determine what type of activity is being conducted at the site photographed," the memo states.

Secret facility at Groom Lake taken by the Skylab 4 astronauts. (NASA)
Skylab image

Also of interest is another document, dated April 11, 1974, from the deputy director of the NRO to the chairman of the director of central intelligence's Committee on Imagery Requirements and Exploitation. This memorandum discusses what to do about a photograph taken by Skylab astronauts of Area 51, outlining the issues to be considered in deciding whether or not to release the photograph.

The two-page document, marked "Top Secret," mentions a draft decision paper that focuses on the "relative merits of retaining [deleted in document] as a high-priority secret national security installation versus the merits of the NASA belief that there would be domestic and foreign problems created by withholding the photograph."

The April 1974 memo also says that the Skylab photograph "in the public domain would almost certainly provide strong stimulus for media questioning and the potential near-term revelation of the missions of the installation."

Unclassified platform

A follow-up memorandum from April 19, 1974, marked "Confidential" for then-Director of Central Intelligence William Colby, explains that the recent Skylab mission "inadvertently photographed" Area 51, and that there were "specific instructions not to do this."

The memo also reports that the Skylab photo is the subject of an interagency review and that Department of Defense officials believed it should be withheld from public release.

At the time, NASA — and, to a large extent, the State Department — took the position that the image should be released. It would be allowed to go into a repository in Sioux Falls, S.D., that contained satellite remote sensing data of the Earth's land surface and "let nature take its course," the memo states.

Complex issues

The April 19 memo explains that there are some complicated precedents that should be reviewed before a final decision could be made about the Skylab image. For example, there was a question of whether anything photographed in the U.S. can be classified if the platform from which the image was taken, such as NASA's Skylab, is unclassified.

In addition, the April 19 memo notes that there are some complex issues in the United Nations concerning U.S. policies about imagery from space. Further, the document raises the question of whether or not the photo would be leaked anyway, even if it were withheld.

The memo also carries handwritten responses by the CIA's Colby.

Colby expressed some doubts about the need to protect the image, since the Soviet Union had it from their satellites anyway. He further asked, "If exposed, don't we just say classified USAF [U.S. Air Force] work is done there?"

Hide and seek

Dwayne Day, an American space historian, policy analyst and author, has previously written on Area 51, as well as the 1974 Skylab image flap.

It turns out that the Skylab shot of Area 51 was placed in NASA's collection of Skylab photographs, Day said, but nobody had noticed. So, in the end, NASA won its argument with the intelligence community over the image, he said.

As for playing Cold War hide-and-seek at Area 51 with the Soviet Union, Day said the Soviets had spy satellites and that they could certainly see the airfield.

"But, of course, the CIA knew the flight paths of Soviet satellites, and they would avoid having their aircraft in the open when satellites were overhead," Day told "The best form of concealment is a big hangar where you can park all your planes."

Day said that there has been at least one report of an effort at Groom Lake to create a fake heat signature for orbiting satellites to see.

"I have my doubts about that," Day said. "The timing is wrong — too early for anybody to expect the Soviet Union to be capable of that kind of infrared observation."

Day said he's also wondered about a photograph taken at Area 51 showing a line of A-12 OXCART spy planes, probably from 1964. OXCART was the label given to the CIA's A-12 program, meant to come after the U-2 to perform reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union.

"The Soviets did not always have reconnaissance satellites in orbit," Day said, "so did the CIA line these planes up for a beauty shot when they knew that they were safe from observation? Or, did they simply not care?"