February 28, 2013

Off-roaders, military wage a dirty battle

Some are up in arms after the Marine Corps says it wants to take a stretch of wilderness for training.

Marines train with an Abrams tank at the Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms in February. The Marines are seeking to claim 103,600 acres of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle recreation area in Lucerne Valley. (CPL. SARAH DIETZ, U.S. MARINE CORPS)


Wayne Raimey sped over a sandy wash, leaving plumes of dust in his wake, as his family and friends idled on their ATVs. For the better part of a Saturday, the six had roamed the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle area north of Big Bear, enjoying unencumbered landscape that stretched to the horizon as they rode machines that climb rocks and skid through the sand with ease.

Raimey, who lives in Santa Ana, used to quad closer to home, but he started visiting Johnson Valley because "It's just so much easier going," he said. "You can ride for a while without seeing anybody. It's more open. It's more free."

But that is likely to change.

Spanning 188,000 acres, Johnson Valley is the country's largest off-highway vehicle area. Under a plan the Secretary of the Navy announced in February, however, 103,600 of its acres would be absorbed by the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms for live-ammunition training; 43,000 acres would be shared by the Marines and the off-road community; and the remaining 41,400 acres would be designated as a Johnson Valley National Recreation Area.

The plan, which needs Congressional approval to take effect, has inspired a rare coalition among ordinarily disparate off-road groups, who have hired a Washington, D.C., lobbyist to fight on their behalf.

"We're not opposed to the Marines being able to meet their training objectives," said Jeff Knoll, co-founder of the annual King of the Hammers off-road race in Johnson Valley and member of the California Motorized Recreational Council.

The coalition of eight off-road groups collected 28,303 signatures in 30 days and sent them to the White House to protest the base expansion one day before the Secretary of the Navy published its Record of Decision to take over the majority of Johnson Valley.

"We're asking them to use this area under a permit like any other event would. Just don't absorb it into the base," said Knoll, who estimates the Johnson Valley OHV area draws between 300,000 and 1 million visitors each year.

The Marines' plan would reduce the amount of such land in California by about half, Knoll said.

The proposed land division, known as Alternative Six, was one of a half dozen proposals the Marines considered to expand the 935-square-mile Combat Center at Twentynine Palms. Despite being the largest Marine Corps base in the country, just 40 percent of the property is available for training due to terrain and wildlife issues, said Twentynine Palms spokesman Capt. Nicholas Mannweiler.

He said the Johnson Valley land is needed to conduct training operations involving tens of thousands of Marines using aircraft, tanks and heavy weapons, such as laser-guided bombs, missiles and artillery that can travel as far 14 miles.

Some have questioned the need for such training when the Iraq War ended in 2009 and combat operations in Afghanistan will be terminated next year. According to Mannweiler, the training that will take place in Johnson Valley has nothing to do with either war. The training is preparation for future conflicts that are likely to include assaults on land and water and may involve the global supply of oil, half of which is shipped "through strategic choke points that a hostile country could block off," he said.

"This land expansion is needed to support the men and women asked to go into harm's way to handle situations that could have very severe effects on our nation, our well being and our way of life if not handled appropriately," Mannweiler said. "The best way to support those Marines is to provide them with tough, realistic training."

The battle for Johnson Valley began in August 2008, when the Marines first filed an application with the Bureau of Land Management to add the OHV area to the Twentynine Palms base. That application has its roots in a 2004 U.S. Navy study that reported none of the country's military bases was spacious enough to support large-scale live ammunition training.

The Marines are legally obligated by the National Environmental Protection Act to look at adjacent lands when expanding.

"If you go to the west toward Johnson Valley, you've got open terrain, no major infrastructure obstacles," Mannweiler said.

The largest military base in the country, Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert, was suggested as an option by the off-road community, but it wasn't available for expansion for multiple reasons. Logistically, it would have required shutting down a portion of I-10 and I-40 for two months annually so the Marines could move 15,000 troops and 8,000 vehicles.

Under the plan now pending Congressional approval, the northern and western areas of the Johnson Valley OHV area would be permanently closed to the public due to the weaponry involved in the training, much of which contain fuses that could potentially malfunction and injure or kill civilians if accidentally run over with off-road vehicles, Mannweiler said.

The smaller Shared Use Area would be open to off-roaders 10 months out of the year and closed during the two months the Marines use the land to shoot machine guns and rifles that don't have fuses and can be cleaned up when the exercises are complete, Mannweiler added.

The Shared Use Area was created in response to 20,000 comments the Marines received from the public.

It is now up to Congress to pass legislation authorizing the land transfer, which could take place as early as next year, with live-ammunition training in the former off-road area taking place in 2015.

February 26, 2013

Utah national parks say they can absorb cuts

Shadows encroach on Chesler Park in Canyonlands National Park. (Courtesy, Shane Farver)

By Thomas Burr
The Salt Lake Tribune

Washington • Despite warnings by the heads of the Interior Department and the National Park Service of dangerous impacts of automatic budget cuts set to go into effect Friday, officials on the ground at Utah’s five national parks say visitors may not see many changes.

"We’re hoping we can absorb all the cuts by the things we’ve already done," says Zion National Park spokeswoman Alyssa Baltrus, noting that there may not be the same number of rangers patrolling or medical personnel on site if the cuts continue.

Baltrus says the park is on the "wait, see and hope" approach right now that Congress can halt the automatic cuts.

But Zion has been cutting back already in anticipation of the sequester and doesn’t expect an immediate change to operating hours.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar warned that Americans could encounter closed campsites and hiking trails, a loss of programs and the potential for a fewer emergency responders and firefighters if the cuts aren’t halted.

"Should Congress fail to act, the public should be prepared for reduced hours and services, not only in national parks but across all of the facilities that are managed by the Department of Interior," Salazar told reporters this week.

"These impacts are real," added National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis. "We’re not making them up. We have to figure out how to handle a five-percent cut."

Unless Congress acts, the sequester kicks in on Friday and will force the government to slash $85 billion in the next six months.

The Obama administration has used its bully pulpit this week to warn of the dire consequences of the cuts. But on-site park officials say they’re ready to take the brunt of the hit without apparent impacts — at least in the short term.

"We’re in a somewhat positive situation if there is such a thing," says Paul Henderson, assistant superintendent of the Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

Woman Speaks Out on Ranching Empire

SNWA owns seven rustic ranches in Spring Valley

By George Knapp and Matt Adams
8 News NOW

SPRING VALLEY, Nev. -- The Southern Nevada Water Authority has spent huge sums of public money to gobble up a string of rural ranches because of the water underneath them. SNWA claims the ranches are operating in the black, but a whistleblower has come forward to tell a much different story.

The I-Team has reported previously about how much was spent to acquire the ranches, and it's quite a pile of money, but until now, no one on the inside was willing to talk about the operations of the ranches.

Debra Rivero worked for the water district for many years and was a valued employee but when she started working as office assistant at the ranches, she realized she had entered a world unto itself, one that we co-owners never get to see.

The SNWA owns seven rustic ranches in Spring Valley. The public may not know it, but they are in the ranching business because of a SNWA spending spree. The authority has spent nearly $80 million to buy a string of ranches, tens of thousands of acres, plus cows, sheep and farm equipment.

As the I-Team first reported, SNWA paid many times the market value for the ranches. El Tejon ranch, valued at $1.1 million went for $32 million. The Harbecke ranch, now headquarters for SNWA's empire, with a market value of a $250,000 fetched close to $5 million from the water agency.

"I did everything, from paying the bills to weighing the trucks, every penny that came in, and every penny that came out, I was responsible for," said Debra Rivero, a former SNWA employee.

She worked for the water district in Las Vegas for 17 years before moving north to run the office for the ranches. From the beginning, she said, she was struck by how little oversight there was by SNWA.

"The whole operation is very secretive. They don't encourage anybody to come up and take a look and tour the place. It's just all very secretive."

How secretive? Rivero says the first ranch manager, who took the job after his ranch was purchased for six times its market value, was given a year's salary when he left, with the condition that he keep quiet.

Outspoken critic Hank Vogler who owns one of the few area ranches still in private hands, was offered a consulting contract if he would button his lip. Former White Pine District Attorney Richard Sears landed the best deal of all. He agreed to drop his planned opposition to the water grab in exchange for a brand new well on his ranch, plus irrigation equipment, plus nearly 400 acre feet of water per year, with a value of more than $1.5 million dollars.

"It's all in the contract," Rivero said. "Just so he'd be quiet and withdraw the protest. I think the worst thing was the payoffs for people to be quiet, to stop protesting. It was the most horrendous thing I've seen."

The ranch operations bled money for a few years but now, according to SNWA's accounting, they are in the black, earning $260,000 last year from sales of hay and beef. Neighboring ranchers scoff at the math, saying SNWA's deep pockets mean this ranching operation doesn't face the same challenges as an actual ranch, standing on its own.

What other rancher has nine committee meetings to pick a design for a brand, for instance or has a government sugar daddy to repair equipment or buy new trucks? Although the ranches supposedly made a profit, the costs to the public keep going up.

The operating budget was $500,000 a year in 2007, it went to $750,000 in 2008 and was bumped to $850,000 last year. Expenses that would count against a real rancher's bottom line are not included, Rivero said. For example, SNWA reported it sold $1 million worth of hay.

"That doesn't include the fertilizer, the irrigation equipment, the employees time, everything else," Rivero said.

She adds, she was told by the current manager and others about suspected widespread theft by employees. Cows, sheep, equipment, even saddles disappeared but didn't show up on any ledger.

"I kept bringing it up. 'Hey there is unethical stuff going on up here' and the Vegas office didn't seem to want to hear it. They didn't want to talk to me about it. They didn't want to say anything."

Veteran rancher Dean Baker, an opponent of the water grab, says all of the public money being plowed into the ranches will be wasted once the pumping begins because Spring Valley will be sucked dry.

"It will kill the ranches when they pump it. If they don't know that, they are way stupider than I think they are," Baker said.

Scott Huntley, the chief public information officer for SNWA issued the following statement:

"The Southern Nevada Water Authority is committed to operating and maintaining its Spring Valley holdings in a responsible manner to protect both employees and equipment. As a not-for-profit public agency, the SNWA adheres to strict policies and procedures focused on preventing harassment, workplace violence and drug use. Senior officials from the agency are actively involved in managing the properties. Our Environmental Health and Safety and Corporate Security Department makes regular site visits along with our Fleet division, Finance and Facilities to conduct inspections and verify appropriate business practices. We maintain strict business practice and inventory controls and have had no verifiable reports of theft on the ranch properties."

Rivero told the I-Team a lot more about the operation of the ranches, and I-Team reporter George Knapp will report that information in the days ahead.

Rivero left the ranch operation because of what she said was a hostile work environment and has filed a complaint with federal authorities. Future I-Team reports will have explosive details about what happened to her, and what she saw.

February 25, 2013

Bills keep pushing federal land transfer

BLM Geologist Doug Powell makes his way through a rock garden of "Hoodoo's in the Escalante Grandstaircase National Monument east of Kanab. (Hartmann/photo)

By Brian Maffly
The Salt Lake Tribune

A Senate panel on Monday advanced a joint resolution that presses the Utah governor and congressional delegation "to exert their utmost abilities" to convince the federal government to hand over 30 million acres of public lands to the state.

SJR13 seeks to speed the implementation of last year’s Transfer of Public Lands Act, which envisions the state acquiring most of the federal land within its borders by the end of next year. But even its backers concede this might take a legal battle, but one they say is worth fighting, especially if other Western states join the struggle to "take back" public lands.

"This action, if taken by the federal government, will allow Utah to provide for the education of its children, grow its economy and job opportunities, and provide for responsible management of the state’s abundant natural resources while preserving the important historic and cultural contributions that Utah’s public lands provide the citizens of Utah, the nation, and the world," the resolution claims.

The federal act that enabled Utah’s statehood in 1896 "promised" public lands would be disposed of but the feds have reneged on the deal, according to sponsor Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, who addressed the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee Monday. The panel passed the bill onto the full Senate on a 3-0 vote.

The panel’s lone Democrat, Sen. Jim Dabakis, of Salt Lake City, volunteered to work with Osmond to reword his resolution to make it less confrontational and critical of the federal government.

"The approach we tried [with the Public Lands Transfer Act] and you are trying to reinforce isn’t working. I wonder it it’s time to put some of the arrows aside and go back to Washington with a new attitude," Dabakis said. "Let’s see if we can roll up our sleeves and create some peace here."

For months, conservationists have been panning the proposed transfer as an unconstitutional land grab that would cost Utah taxpayers dearly, both in terms of litigation and administering the land itself. Their biggest concern is the land would be sold off, but backers say the intention is to keep the land public and do a better job managing it than the feds have done.

"This is something Utah has been asking for nicely for decades. It’s time to demand. Other states are standing with us," said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan,addressing another land-transfer bill on Friday.

Awaiting action on the House floor is HB142, which would authorize the Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office to further study how best to accomplish the transfer. This effort will cost up to $450,000, according to a fiscal note.

February 22, 2013

Aging gracefully: Desert plants live long past century mark

Joshua tree.
By Jimmy Biggerstaff
Hi-Desert Star

A saber-toothed tiger might have stepped on it. A mastodon shaking its behemoth body might have splashed water onto its leaves. And it still grows today.

The creosote clonal ring in Johnson Valley known as King Clone was one of the stars of the show when natural-history writer Chris Clark showed a slideshow of trees and plants that range from very old to ancient.

A full hall of desert aficionados assembled at the Black Rock Visitor Center Feb. 16 to hear Clark’s lecture on old growth.

Clark described the creosote’s clonal ring as “A single, living thing that has fallen into pieces.” Estimating the plant grows outward from the original plant’s germination point at one foot per 300 years, experts say King Clone sprouted 11,400 years ago.

This creosote may be the monarch of ancient life, but the desert is bursting with aged marvels, Clark told the audience.

He showed slides of buckwheat clumps that can live for 700 years. Iodine brush — more than 1,000 years. Clarke projected a photo of a particularly large and robust pencil cholla estimated to have sprouted up to 1,500 years ago.

Clark discussed some of the ways scientists determine a plant’s age and how slowly it grows. During a study in the Mojave Preserve’s Clark Mountain, botanists meticulously cataloged every plant in a plot of land, then returned 15 years later to observe changes.

By this method, they estimated life spans, but in some cases they could set no outward parameter because none of the plants of a specific species died, including buckhorn cholla and ephedra, or Mormon tea.

Not all ancients are plants. Clarke explained the centuries-long process that produces the varnish on desert pavement.

“In some aquifers,” Clarke said, “when you turn on the tap, that water hasn’t seen light since ground sloths roamed.”

Clarke’s first slide was from a favorite camping spot of his east of Cima Dome, a panorama of nearby granite, distant mountains and a Joshua tree forest. Clarke said Joshua trees generally have twice the lifespan of humans.

His next two slides showed the same tree photographed about 60 years apart. In the black and white version, Twentynine Palms pioneer photographer Burton Frasher had captured a particularly distinct-looking Joshua tree (aren’t they all?) growing in the desert northeast of Los Angeles.

The modern-day image of the same plant was the album cover for the band U2’s 1987 album “The Joshua Tree.” As Clarke flipped back and forth between the two images, it was apparent the plant hadn’t grown much in six decades.

Alas, that tree has since fallen over after a long and well-photographed life. Clarke said 300-year-old Joshua trees exist but are a rarity. They are relatively short-lived compared to other plants he mentioned in the lecture.

As the slide show continued, a Google Earth image showed a small, blurry blob Clarke identified as a 13-foot-wide clump of yucca northeast of the Mojave National Preserve. That ancient is no longer there, replaced by an array of solar panels.

Banning, Beaumont Assemblyman Wants Salton Sea Restored

"There was a time when the Salton Sea attracted more visitors per year than Yosemite," Nestande said. "I want to empower the Salton Sea Authority so they can return the area to the recreation and destination site it once was."

North Shore Yacht Club, Salton Sea. (Photo: Renee Schiavone)
By Renee Schiavone
Banning-Beaumont Patch

Palm Desert's assemblyman has proposed legislation this week to spur action on restoring the shrinking Salton Sea by allocating $50 million for projects overseen by the Salton Sea Authority.

Assemblyman Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert, introduced Assembly Bill 709 ahead of a hearing Friday in Mecca, during which representatives from government and private organizations will address the sea's needs.

"The issues surrounding the restoration of the Salton Sea have been going on for far too long," Nestande said. "State and federal inaction has stymied restoration progress. We need to return control to the Salton Sea Authority as the lead agency so they can move forward."

AB 709 would require that $50 million in Proposition 84 bond revenue be earmarked for sea improvements and would direct the California Wildlife Conservation Board to apply for matching federal funds in support of restoration.

The Salton Sea Authority would take charge of all projects under Nestande's bill. Currently, the SSA -- composed of officials from Riverside and Imperial counties -- acts primarily in an advisory capacity.

"There was a time when the Salton Sea attracted more visitors per year than Yosemite," Nestande said. "I want to empower the Salton Sea Authority so they can return the area to the recreation and destination site it once was."

According to the assemblyman, the SSA would have to develop a concrete restoration plan that passes muster with the state Legislative Analyst's Office, after which funds would be made available.

Nestande's bill follows several proposals introduced last month by Assemblyman Manuel Perez, D-Coachella, that address funding for a restoration feasibility study and mitigation measures necessary to prevent environmental damage that might result from changes to the sea.

The 365-square-mile body of water -- the largest part of which lies in Imperial County, with the north portion stretching to within a few miles of Thermal -- has been plagued with increasing salinity over the last 40 years, to the point that some of the sea's deeper places are saltier than the ocean.

According to studies, nutrient compounds from agricultural runoff have created a "eutrophic" condition where high levels of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia kill fish and produce gagging odors.

Water reclamation plans by local agencies and Mexico, as well as a reduction of Colorado River supplies, will shrink the sea in the coming years, according to the Salton Sea Authority.

Assemblyman Nestande serves the communities of Banning, Beaumont, Cabazon, Calimesa, Cherry Valley, Hemet, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Palm Desert, Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, San Jacinto, White Water, 29 Palms, Joshua Tree, Landers, Morongo Valley, Pioneer Town, Yucaipa, and Yucca Valley.

February 21, 2013

Opposition Grows To Wind Development Near Mojave Preserve

Avikwame seen from Wee Thump, January 2010. This view would be filled with wind turbines in the distance | Photo: Chris Clarke
by Chris Clarke

To those tracking proposed wind turbine developments in the Mojave Desert, it's become clear that developers are increasingly eyeing the area just north and east of the Mojave National Preserve. There are active wind proposals in the Silurian Valley north of Baker. Element Power has a permit to test for wind resources in Mountain Pass, on a site almost completely surrounded by the Preserve. Oak Creek Energy Systems has a similar testing permit at the northern end of the New York Mountains, just inside the Nevada line, in land that would certainly be part of the Preserve were it not for that state line.

But the application that's farthest along is Duke Energy's Searchlight Wind Energy Project, which would place from 87 to 96 turbines, each 427 feet tall, on almost 19,000 acres surrounding three sides of the little Nevada town from which it takes its name. The turbines would be just east of the Mojave National Preserve, as close as a mile and a half to the boundary of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and in an area of supreme cultural significance to Native people across the desert.

The BLM issued the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Searchlight Wind Energy Project in December, and as the project has the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- a local, at least on paper -- a Record Of Decision (ROD) from the Interior Department in favor of Searchlight Wind is almost certainly a done deal.

That's angered a number of locals, as well as frequent visitors who appreciate the views across the Southern Nevada desert. Those views are more than just scenery to some. From much of the area of the Preserve, including the Wee Thump Wilderness Area northwest of Searchlight, the turbines would intrude on the view of Spirit Mountain. Also known as Avikwame, that mountain -- a striking white massif rising above the desert -- is the center of the origin myth for a number of desert Native people from the local Mohave to the Quechan farther south, as well as the Yavapai, Hualapai, and Havasupai of Northern Arizona.

What Federal land planners somewhat prosaically call "visual resources" are of supreme importance to the tribes along the Colorado River: being able to see and describe the surrounding mountain peaks is an important part of Native ritual, as for example in the Chemehuevi's Salt Songs. As Avikwame is traditionally considered the home of Mastamho, the son of the Creator, Spirit Mountain plays about the role in local religion that the Vatican or Mecca play in certain other faiths.

Judy Bundorf of the grassroots group Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains related to me two weeks ago how the BLM had answered her queries about the impact of the Searchlight Wind project on native practices. "They told us that the sightlines between Spirit Mountain and the Native people wouldn't be affected, because the turbines would all be north of the mountain, and the reservation is in the other direction."

I ran into Bundorf at an event in Ward Valley commemorating the 15th anniversary of the defeat of the nuclear waste dump once proposed for that site. Also in attendance was my friend Rev. Ronald Van Fleet, an elder in the Fort Mohave Indian Tribe. I asked Ron whether the view of Avikwame from the reservation to the south was the only one that mattered to the Mohave. He just laughed.

Added to the cultural impacts of the project are the likely effects on large birds, especially eagles. The Searchlight Wind project would place turbines on either side of the pass leading down to the Colorado River along Cottonwood Cove Road, a potentially important migration corridor for birds and bats heading between the Eldorado and Newberry Mountains to travel between the river and the vicinity of the Mojave Preserve. Both Duke Energy and the BLM state that raptor populations in the area are relatively low, with only three golden eagle sightings recorded in the vicinity of the project site since 2007. (I lived in the area for much of 2008 and saw that many golden eagles in a week, although admittedly not directly on the project site.) The project area, largely composed of Joshua tree forest, is also habitat for desert tortoise, with 122 torts found in the project area during a 2011 survey. Eleven species of cactus grow in the area, and I've had personal communications from locals citing individual Gila monsters seen along roadsides in the area.

Though a green-light from Interior is near-certain given Reid's backing, Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains hasn't given up on its opposition: it's organizing a demonstration in Searchlight on Saturday, February 23 to urge the BLM to go back to the drawing board with the EIS. The group wants a wider range of alternatives considered in the document, including distributed generation, siting on private lands moving the project away from private property and valuable habitat.

It would also be sensible for the BLM to pay closer attention to potential cumulative impacts of the Searchlight site combined with those proposed for the Castle-New York Mountains, Mountain Pass, and the Silurian Valley. Fringing the northern edge of the Mojave Preserve with 200-foot turbine blades just seems on the face of it to be something we could think through a bit more carefully.

Water for Desert Wildlife comes at an expense

Jim Niemiec
Western Outdoor News

Mother Nature has blessed the high desert with more than a normal amount of rain thus far this year, in addition to laying down some snow at higher elevations and freezing pockets of water in the crags of lava and granite rock. After last year's rather dismal inches of rain in the desert regions across California, Arizona and even up into northeastern Nevada, upland game bird hunters had to work hard at even finding small coveys of native chukar at higher elevations. Bird hunters that headed out after quail did a little better finding coveys of birds but they were small coveys and not near the number that a scatter gunner would hope for.

GUZZLER IN NEED OF REPAIR — This high desert guzzler is need of attention to provide desert wildlife with fresh water.

Down in Baja California and over to Baja Norte there was better rain that produced a good crop of California Valley quail for the San Telmo Valley and other arroyos south of Ensenada. Mexicali enjoyed good gunning for native pheasant and all three species of dove, but quail numbers were down. Clear down in Los Mochis there was excellent dove hunting for mourning and white-winged dove, blue pigeons and lots of ducks. One reason that Mexico seems to offer up good numbers of birds is all the farming that takes place, which brings along fresh water to irrigate and vast marshes flushed with seeds carried on to the wetlands by way of canals.

One outstanding organization that is working countless hours to bring life back to the high desert in general, the Mohave National Preserve and Bureau of Land Management holdings is the Water for Wildlife Project.

There were a total of 6 projects in 2012 starting with one in Goffs. During the course of the year Water for Wildlife volunteers completely restored 10 wildlife drinkers/guzzlers, rehabbed 3 others, Blue Maxed and patched 5 underground tanks, changed the oil in 3 windmills, buried 100 ft. of plastic pipe to prevent the public from removing a water source, installed a 100 gallon plastic tank inside an old windmill, dug out three springs and got the water flowing, built and installed two ramps for the wildlife to access the water, plus hauling over 4,000 gallons of water to the drinkers!

Cliff McDonald heads up Water for Wildlife and gathers many volunteers and supporters together and also coordinates the collection and transportation of products, material, and food that is used to bring a sustainable water supply in the desert for wildlife.

VOLUNTEERS WORKING ON A GUZZLER — These volunteers are active in Water for Wildlife and donate many man-hours to bring fresh water to the normally dry and vast desert.

Water for Wildlife has scheduled 5 more projects for 2013 and they are: Feb. Mojave National Preserve, Mar. BLM near Essex, April BLM near Essex or Mojave National Preserve, May Mojave National Preserve and June the Mojave National Preserve.

To give a person a perspective on how much material is required to repair guzzlers for the use of wildlife in the desert McDonald totaled up products and costs for 2012 projects: Concrete surfacing material cost $4,000, Merlex cost $400, Concrete ran $400, Tank cost $100,
Hydro-seal was $200, Misc. supplies and tools totaled $200 and there was another $1,000 spent on food to feed the many volunteers bringing the total expenditures for Water for Wildlife projects to $6,350, and this does not include the donated man hours, vehicle use, gas and the many other support items donated by members of this conservation group.

There were over 2000 man hours donated to Water for Wildlife projects last year, some behind the scene work and including financial donations which helped bring it all together.

Western Outdoor News thought it would be a good idea to report on one of the projects completed by Water for Wildlife in June of last year. The following is a recap of the events that took place on the Blair Ranch, which might give readers a good feeling of the valuable work being done by this organization.

June 2012 Review - Fifty-four volunteers showed up for the last project of the year. Friday morning around 8 a.m. Josh and I arrived at the camp site on the Blair Ranch. Lyle, Jim, Frank, BL and Doug had already been working on projects the previous three days. These guys finished one drinker, rehabbed another and hauled 2,500 gallons of water to the site ---they worked their butts off.

FINISHED GUZZLER READY FOR WILDLIFE — This guzzler has been rehabbed and is now ready to provide drinking water for desert wildlife. Many successful projects have been completed by volunteers and supporters of Water for Wildlife.

Myself, along with several volunteers headed out to dig and bury 100 feet of water line, the location for this dig was about 50 miles from our camp site at Marl Springs. Another crew headed south to dig out another spring, while the third crew ventured into the desert to work on another wildlife drinker. Lots of work was done this day and the crews managed to complete all projects that were scheduled for that weekend. We all returned back to camp and again the cooks and waiters were working hard making sure we were all were served a great dinner of ranch fed cattle hamburgers with all the trimmings, including BBQ beans, corn on the cob and Marie's famous per salad. We were also treated to an appetizer table that was overflowing with treats. Jim's homemade cheese-balls, homemade salsas, chips, 7 layer bean dip and pinwheel wraps. Topping off dinner after a full day of working in the desert there were 5 different kinds of homemade pies to choose from along with whipped cream topping...as told by Cliff McDonald.

Water for Wildlife receives a lot of support from many people and companies. A few that have been with this conservation project for many years include: CA Deer Association, Orange County Chapter of SCI, Predator Callers of Orange County, Quail Forever and Quail Unlimited, Society for Conservation of Bighorn Sheep and the Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation. Other companies supporting this valuable service to wildlife in the desert include; Alpen Optics, Barstow Wheel and Tire, H20asis (ice) Hargus Disposal, Daniel's Septic and the many volunteers that devote meaningful hours to Water for Wildlife.

To find out more about Water for Wildlife, future projects and how to get involved in their conservation projects call Cliff McDonald at (760) 449-4820 or contact him by way of his email at bigmc@ctaz.com.

February 14, 2013

Twentynine Palms Base closer to expanding into Johnson Valley

U.S. Marine Corps wants to acquire most of the Johnson Valley area used for popular off-road rock crawling sports to expand its Twentynine Palms training center.

By Mark Muckenfuss

The U.S. Marine Corps has finalized a decision to annex 168,000 acres — including most of the Johnson Valley off-road recreation area — to its huge desert warfare training center near Twentynine Palms.

The only remaining obstacle to the expansion is action by Congress. Officials hope the addition will be included in the Defense Authorization Act for the coming fiscal year.

On Wednesday, Feb. 13, the Department of the Navy — parent agency of the Marine Corps — announced that it had signed a record of decision after studying various expansion proposals for six years, weighing the impacts and taking more than 19,000 public comments.

Much of that comment came from off-road vehicle enthusiasts who say the plan would kick them out of one of the last and best places to ride in the desert. Marine officials have said the expansion is necessary so that it can run maneuvers with three battalions simultaneously.

Of the 168,000 acres, 147,000 are currently public land maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The remaining 21,000 acres are privately owned.

Four-wheelers and motorcyclists say the open access in Johnson Valley allows them to drive for miles over open desert without having to worry about staying on trails. The area also includes rock-crawling terrain that draws some of the world’s best drivers. Most famously it is known as the site of the King of the Hammers, an annual race — held last weekend — that draws more than 30,000 people.

“It’s a wide-open area,” said Eric Anderson, 43, an off-road driver from Apple Valley. “This is one of the only places left where we can go forever, and we have such a large area that the impact is kind of minimized.”

Environmental studies of the Marine base expansion evaluated six options. The Navy adopted option six, which would permanently close 125,000 acres. Another 43,000 acres in Johnson Valley would be closed two months of the year when for annual large-scale military maneuvers. About 20,000 acres of Johnson Valley would remain open to the public full time.

Base officials have said they need the space in order to conduct simulated battles — with air support — for a Marine expeditionary brigade, an attack force of 15,000 troops. Such maneuvers, they said, require three corridors through which troops can advance. Currently, the base has only two such corridors.

The plan would also enlarge the base’s air space, which extends far beyond the physical boundaries of the combat center.

With the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, and the changing nature of warfare, some people have questioned the need for such large operations. Opponents of the expansion said Marine officials have other options. Among the six options is one that would add land on the eastern edge of the base instead of Johnson Valley, which is on the west.

Off-roader George Biddlecomb, 45, of Rancho Cucamonga is a past president of the Inland Empire 4 Wheelers.

“I think we have a good shot at turning the Marines eastbound,” Biddlecomb said. “It would keep live fire off the public lands.”

On Thursday, the off-roading community filed a petition with the White House opposing the westward expansion. The petition reportedly had 27,000 signatures. The White House has said it will respond to any petition with more than 25,000 signatures. The Obama administration has not yet taken a position on the base expansion.

However, the president recently signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013. Included in the bill is a provision, referred to as the Bartlett Amendment, that requires the Marine Corps to present, among other information, a study of the economic impact of the base expansion at Twentynine Palms.

Capt. Nicholas Mannweiler, spokesman for the base, said the required report has been filed with Congress.

“The economic impact is kind of the center (issue) right now,” said David Cole, whose Lake Arrowhead company Ultra4 Racing, organizes the King of the Hammers. “The Marines have not really answered any questions that were proposed in the Bartlett Amendment.”

Cole said he invests $500,000 in the race each year. He estimated this year’s crowd between 35,000 and 40,000. There is no other place in the United States, he said, that offers a 105-mile course combining open terrain as well as rock crawling. If the land is lost, his event, which just completed its seventh year, will cease to exist

“We want the Marines to be trained as well as they can be trained,” he said. “But they’ve already identified (an alternate) training area that meets all their requirements. We’re fighting for the public to recreate on the desert. I don’t care about the race. I can go get a job again. We just want to make sure our grandkids can still come out her and recreate.”

February 5, 2013

They Kept Ward Valley Nuclear-Free


Ward Valley (Photo: Center for Land Use Interpretation/Creative Commons License)

by Chris Clarke

It's an embarrassing admission for a confirmed California desert rat like me, but I've never been to Ward Valley. Not really. Oh, I've crossed the valley near its north end on Interstate 40 dozens of times. I've done the same thing where Route 62 crosses the south end of Ward Valley. But I've never gotten off the highway, never walked out onto the valley floor among the low creosote and yuccas and chollas and just breathed.

There's no particular hurry: Ward Valley's hundreds of square miles of open desert will be there when I get around to visiting. 20 years ago that wasn't a sure thing.

Ward Valley is a broad, sloping basin that runs north-south for about 65 miles, an undeveloped stretch of desert that connects the eastern ends of Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve. It's essentially a big bowl of creosote, undisturbed except for a few dirt roads here and there and by World War II-era tank tracks still struggling to heal after 70 years, flanked by the Old Woman and Paiute mountains to the west and the Sacramento, Stepladder, and Turtle mountains to the east. Homer Wash, a broad, meandering and braided seasonal watercourse fringed with acacia trees and ocotillo, runs along the floor of the valley. Dropping 3,000 feet in its journey of more than 50 miles, it eventually drains into Danby Dry Lake.

Uphill from the wash is creosote and gravel, dissected by smaller tributaries that feed Homer Wash when in flood. At an altitude running from 3,000' at its north end to around 600 at its south, Ward Valley is thus excellent habitat for desert tortoises. Thirty years ago tortoise population densities ran as high as 120 adults per square mile.

It's one of those places in the California Desert where you can find yourself 20 miles off the pavement without much problem, camping out in the open without seeing another human being for days, aside from those traveling overhead on their way in and out of LAX. Or so I've been told.

This is where California almost put its final dump for low-level nuclear waste.

"Low-level nuclear waste" sounds relatively innocuous, as such things go. "Low level" can't be as bad as "high-level" waste, right? One imagines a bit of medical waste, a contaminated rubber glove or a boot here and there, set safely out in the middle of the desert for a few years to allow its radioactivity clock to run down. The truth is a lot more complex. "Low level" and "high level" are administrative terms, not scientific ones. Low-level waste does indeed include things like gloves and boots, as well as other materials that have become contaminated through exposure to radioactive material. It is generally far less radioactive than, say, spent nuclear reactor fuel. But low-level waste can actually contain spent fuel in minute amounts, irradiated tools, pieces of decommissioned reactor buildings, and so forth. The U.S. Department of Energy projected that Ward Valley's proposed nuclear waste dump would quite likely have received shipments of waste contaminated with some of the longest-lived radionuclides generally handled as waste, including radioactive isotopes of cesium as well as strontium and even plutonium.

Over the years, in fact, Ward Valley's proposed nuclear waste dump might have hosted as much as 100 pounds of plutonium.

The plan was part of California's attempt to comply with a 1980 federal directive, Public Law 96-573, which delegated responsibility for handling low-level waste to individual states, or groups of states. In 1982, the California legislature passed AB 1513, which among other things directed the state's Department of Health Services (DHS) to start looking for a place to put California's low-level waste, and to find a dump operator to manage the stuff.

One company after another was selected by DHS to run a potential California low-level waste dump, and then one after another backed away when they figured out the potential liabilities. Finally, DHS landed on U.S. Ecology, a company with a somewhat Orwellian name that ran a number of low-level waste dumps across the country, including one near Beatty, Nevada.

U.S. Ecology took some time to decide where to propose the dump. The company considered alternate sites in Silurian Valley, north of Baker, and in the Panamint Valley near Ridgecrest and Lone Pine. In March 1988, the company announced it had found its preferred site: on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management in the north end of Ward Valley.

By then California had joined a waste disposal "compact" of states including Arizona and the Dakotas, meaning that radioactive waste from those states would likely be coming to Ward Valley. What's more, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- which had power to order waste to any appropriate low-level waste dump -- could send shipments from anywhere in the country to the proposed Ward Valley dump.

When it got there, the waste would be put in unlined trenches in the valley's gravelly soil covering about five football fields' area. There it would be vulnerable to windstorms, flash floods, and other disturbances, and free to leak radioactive materials into the surrounding desert.

In the late 1980s, California's antinuclear movement had dwindled somewhat from its peak during the Diablo Canyon years, but a few organizations took up the fight. There was the Committee to Bridge the Gap, based in Los Angeles. There were Northern California's Bay Area Nuclear Waste Coalition and Greenaction. Activists from the Sierra Club and CalPIRG and the Abalone Alliance other such groups delivered testimony at public hearings, distributed petitions, and alerted their memberships. I played a peripheral role myself, putting out a special Ward Valley issue of Terrain, the Bay Area environmental monthly I edited at the time.

But the core of the movement to oppose Ward Valley didn't come from the coast. It came from people whose ancestors have lived in the desert for millennia. Though California's native desert people had been historically slow to involve themselves in "white people's politics," the notion that Ward Valley might be graced with nuclear waste dangerous for thousands of years roused members of the nearby Chemehuevi and Mojave people to action, as well as other Colorado River tribes including the Quechan and Cocopah.

The late Llewellyn Barrackman, an elder of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, put the tribes' opposition as succinctly as possible in a short piece in that issue of Terrain:

They intend to transport nuclear waste through our reservation and through the town of Needles. They have never asked our permission or held a hearing on this issue. There is no provision to train our people should there be an accident, no plans to deal with the terrible dangers of a nuclear waste transport accident.

We will be needing water to grow. There is much water beneath Ward Valley and it will eventually become contaminated. This is a terrible crime. Our poor desert tortoise never even had a chance. Both the tortoise and the land are sacred to us. We have used this land for thousands of years. We use the plants there to heal ourselves and renew ourselves. Now it will all be destroyed. It's wrong all the way around.

Over the decade of the 1990s, tribal resistance to the project grew. Elders held vigils both on the land and elsewhere; by the late 1990s, the vigils on the project site had become a full-scale occupation. Where the project's opponents had originally been a few coastal urban environmentalists, within a few years Native opposition was the face of the campaign to keep Ward Valley nuclear-free.

As I describe in Part 1 of this article, an unprecedented coalition of Native Californian desert tribes and other environmental activists fought the State of California to a standstill 15 years ago on a proposal to dump low-level nuclear waste in Ward Valley, about 20 miles east of Needles. The activists who fought the project had public sympathy on their side and expert political sensibilities. But they had something else on their side as well: science.

Though the plans for the Ward Valley dump had been in the works since Reagan was in the White House, and the project's Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) had already been released two years before he took office, most of the political maneuvering over Ward Valley took place during the Clinton administration. From the outset of his administration, Clinton and his Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt clashed with California Governor Pete Wilson over the dump site, though it seemed more out of a White House desire that the issue go away than anything else.

Two weeks before Clinton took office, Bush's Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan handed over 1,000 acres of Ward Valley to the California DHS, a necessary step in licensing the dump. The land transfer was halted almost immediately by U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel, after the Bay Area Nuclear Waste Coalition filed suit to stop the transfer.

That transfer would never go through, but we wouldn't find that out for another seven years.

In the interim, U.S. Ecology's proposal started taking serious hits. During the Bush administration, the Executive Branch and Wilson's office had worked hand in hand to make the dump happen, with BLM handling the environmental review process -- dogged by accusations of insufficient public comment periods -- and Wilson vetoing bills that would restrict operation of the dump. While the Clinton administration was by no means radically environmentalist, after 1993 the White House was less willing to bend rules to get the dump established.

In mid-1993 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed critical habitat for the desert tortoise, which had been listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1989. That proposed critical habitat included all of Ward Valley, adding significant complexity to the process of launching a nuke dump on federal land. By 1995, biologists studying Ward Valley tortoises noted a significant drop in numbers, and found that the newly discovered Upper Respiratory Distress disease was prevalent in torts in neighboring territories to which U.S. Ecology proposed relocating tortoises from the project site.

Likely the biggest blow to U.S. Ecology's plans came in the form of one of the smallest atoms in the universe: Tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen. Though U.S. Ecology claimed that its unlined ditches wouldn't leak radioactive material into the water table, a study in April 1994 found the radioactive element deep beneath the company's Beatty facility, in geological conditions not too dissimilar to those at Ward Valley.

Though the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a report in mid-1995 declaring the proposed dump safe, two of the report's authors dissented -- previously unheard of for NAS studies of this kind. The two dissenting authors cited unknowns involved in leaching of radioactive substances through desert soils such as those in Ward Valley. Five months later, when the 1994 study of tritium migration at Beatty was released to the public, it turned out that the NAS report's authors had not had access to that crucial study when they wrote their report.

In other words, it turned out that U.S. Ecology's dump would almost certainly leak, and the company withheld that fact from federal investigators. The Clinton-Babbitt Interior Department was incensed, and President Clinton announced the land transfer would be put on hold until more studies of tritium migration were complete.

One of opponents' biggest concerns was that leaking radioactive material might make its way to the Colorado River, the water source for millions of people in Los Angeles and elsewhere. U.S. Ecology maintained that Ward Valley was a hydrologically closed basin, meaning that groundwater in the valley didn't have an outlet by which it could leave. The U.S. Geological Survey formally backed U.S. Ecology up in this assessment, but some of its staff geologists weren't so sure.

In February 1993, a year before U.S. Ecology quietly learned that tritium had leaked more than 360 feet deep into the soil beneath its Beatty facility, USGS scientists Howard Wilshire, Keith Howard, and David Miller -- Mojave Desert geology experts all -- wrote a letter to newly appointed Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt stating that they'd not been consulted during the Ward Valley environmental assessment process leading up to the publication of the final EIS in 1991. When Babbitt's office asked the three for more details, they responded with a detailed memo describing geological problems with the EIS -- most chillingly, saying that the EIS contained no information on possible hydrological links between Ward Valley and other basins. In other words, if there was any way that nuclear material could leak out of Ward Valley and find its way into the rest of the desert, or even the Colorado River, you wouldn't find that out by reading the project's Environmental Impact Statement.

In a longer report released at the end of 1993, Wilshire, Howard, and Miller provided a list of five possible routes by which Ward Valley groundwater might leak into the Colorado River, a map of which (included at right) was included in the later National Academies of Science report. Of the five possible routes by which groundwater from the Ward Valley dump site might conceivably reach the Colorado, three did so upstream from Parker Dam, where the intake of the Metropolitan Water District's Colorado River Aqueduct might have shunted the potentially contaminated water to the taps of (nowadays) about 17 million people.

What's more, as Wilshire and his USGS colleague Jane Nielsen pointed out two years later in an article in the Ward Valley issue of Terrain I edited in December 1995, the EIS severely underestimated the potential amount of water that might be filtering through the Ward Valley site:

Another important factor at the site is the flow of surface water to Ward Valley from drainages in nearby Lanfair Valley to the northwest. A low divide separates the south-flowing Ward Valley drainage from Sacramento Wash, which discharges surface water from Lanfair Valley eastward into the Colorado River valley. Examination of aerial photographs shows sediment from Lanfair Valley extending in plumes south of the present divide. To change the course of some Lanfair Valley drainages from Sacramento Wash to Ward Valley would take nothing more than a shovel and a few hours of diligent digging. Lanfair Valley drainages now going into Sacramento Wash could flow toward Ward Valley in a period of high rainfall. This would increase the catchment area used to calculate flood risk by a factor of about 25; a wider area catches more water.

More ominously, subsurface connections may exist between Ward Valley ground water and the Colorado River. Fractured and tilted upper plate rocks and detachment faults may lie at shallow depth beneath Ward Valley. Such rocks are exposed between Ward Valley and the Colorado River, a strong indication that they lie close to the surface in the Valley itself. If they do, contaminants in Ward Valley's ground water could flow into the Colorado River. Whether a groundwater connection to the Colorado River constitutes a significant risk depends on the actual (and highly disputed) composition of the waste intended for Ward Valley.

So the dumpsite would almost assuredly leak, and there was a non-zero chance that any leaked radioactive materials would, over time, find their way to whatever Los Angeles had in the 23nd century instead of lawn sprinklers. When it comes to environmental threats, that would seem to be a slam dunk.

And yet there were any number of environmental issues during the Clinton administration's tenure in which cold hard science went up business interests and lost. Look at Clinton's scientifically indefensible Option Nine forest management plan, which sacrificed actual science in the form of wildlife biology to the demands of a few timber companies. In fact, a few times after the Wilshire data became publicly available the Clinton administration appeared ready to sign off on the dump. In May 1995, for instance, Secretary Babbitt agreed to finally release the land for transfer to the state, so long as Governor Wilson made the Department of Health Services (DHS) abide by a few restrictions in the type of waste the site took in and how that waste was handled. Wilson said no. Within a few months, John Garamendi --- who was workng as Deputy Interior Secretary at the time -- tentatively offered to transfer the land without conditions.

But Ward Valley had something that other Clinton-era wildland issues often lacked: a committed base of people of color who'd declared their steadfast opposition to the project.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this story, Ward Valley is of supreme cultural significance to people in the Colorado River Indian Tribes, as well as the Chemehuevi and other local Native people. After a period of gathering strength and determination, desert Native people made that importance known rather emphatically. After a public gathering on the site in October 1995, the local tribes -- with the support of antinuclear activists from throughout California -- made plans to maintain a continuous onsite vigil, to be supported by an emergency influx of supporters from around California if it looked like development was imminent. This onsite presence was managed by Native people, who assumed a leadership role in the occupation of the site, with logistical aid provided by the Morongo Basin-based Desert Environmental Response Team. Onsite presence varied from a few people holding the "fort" to gatherings of 700 or more people during scheduled protests, many of whom went home to organize support in their far-away towns. The Native protest at Ward Valley became a cause celebre.

The Native role in opposition to the Ward Valley dump site didn't just win wide support among other environmental activists. It also helped prevent the Clinton administration from assenting to the dump just to make the pesky issue go away. It was the same President Clinton, after all, who had signed Executive Order 12898 in February, 1994, which ordered federal agencies to note and correct environmental policies that disproportionately affect communities of color. Native people have long been disproportionately burdened by the effects of nuclear and hazardous waste dumping, a reality that was not lost on the feds dealing with Ward Valley. In December 1995, Tom Jensen, Associate Director for Natural Resources of the President's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), said in an internal CEQ memo:

"Interior Department officials, relying on the NAS analysis and recommendations, believe that the site can be operated and used with complete safety. Interior would like very much to move ahead with the transfer and put the Ward Valley conflict behind the Administration. That said, they believe that, as a political matter, the Administration simply cannot of its own volition agree to hand the site over in exchange for a check and an unpopular governor's promise to do the right thing."

In other words, the Native occupation -- which would continue for a few years after the memo -- had made the project politically unpalatable even for those in Interior who hadn't been swayed by the science. The political considerations also included opposition from non-Native people. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer had both gone on record opposing the dump, for instance. But it's doubtful whether even they would have had the power to stop a project that both the Governor and the nuclear industry wanted, had not the Clinton administration feared news stories featuring Native people evicted -- once again -- from land they held sacred.

A decade and a half later, the Ward Valley dump is dead. But most of the people who opposed it are not. And the Ward Valley experience emboldened those who took part. It's hard to say how much the Save Ward Valley movement influenced the successful Quechan Tribe lawsuit against the Imperial Solar Two project in 2011, for instance, and Native opposition to other destructive projects is explicitly carried on in the spirit of the Ward Valley encampment.

And perhaps most importantly: Ward Valley still lives. What's left of its tortoise population still walks the washes unimpeded, and the rain that filters through its shallow gravles is no more radioactive than usual.

In an age of seemingly consecutive losses of desert landscapes, that's something to hold on to.

February 1, 2013

Federal gift of land to schools went awry

Jill Tucker
San Francisco Chronicle

There was a time when California's schools were financially set for life - holding the rights to any profit and proceeds from 5.5 million acres, or 6 percent of the entire state.

The land was given in trust by Congress when California joined the union to support the education of children, then and forever more. Other states received similar "sacred, irrevocable" trusts for their schools.

In California, a state blessed with bountiful agricultural potential, veins of gold, power-producing rivers, a coastline full of commercial possibility and so much more, the school trust acreage should have produced riches beyond every teacher's wildest dreams.

It didn't.

As was the case in many states, most of the land was quickly sold off, mismanaged, used as chess pieces in backroom deals or neglected, according to Utah researchers who recently released the first analysis of school trust lands in more than 100 years.

"As you can imagine, there was probably a lot of good-old-boy stuff going on," said Margaret Bird, a school land trust specialist at the Utah State Office of Education. "It's money that belonged to someone else, namely schoolchildren, and it was just stolen."

There were 134 million total acres granted nationwide to support public education by 1959, with about a third currently remaining in the hands of state agencies to benefit schools.

Of the original California school trust land, less than 500,000 acres remain, generating about $6 million in royalties and revenue each year, with all proceeds deposited into the state teachers' pension fund.

Pot of cash raided

In addition, about $60 million was set aside from the trust's profit to be used for further investment. But that small pot of cash was raided to nearly nothing by Gov. Jerry Brown to help balance the budget.

The state must pay back $59 million to the trust by 2016.

Nearly two dozen states have nothing left of their school land trust.

"While we point sometimes at California - and to be honest there is, on the part of some people, snickering - California at least has some lands left," said Richard West, executive director of the Center for the School of the Future at Utah State University, author of the report.

Profits in other states

Other states, however, have a lot to show for the land.

Arizona, for example, still has all of the mineral and/or surface rights over its original 928,000 acres as well as $440 million in the bank. New Mexico has most of its initial 8.7 million acres and $10.7 billion in its fund.

As in other states, the land sold off in California was gone even before the start of the 20th century.

"In the old days, they sold off everything anybody wanted," said Jim Porter, public land management specialist in the California State Lands Commission.

A lot of what's left in California is in the desert.

Still, the Utah report questioned the ongoing management of the land and funds across the country, noting that some states, for example, don't make market rate on some leases or royalties.

In California, the school trust is overseen by the State Lands Commission, which comprises the lieutenant governor, state controller and finance director. West argues that education officials should be part of the conversation about how to use the trust.

Across the country, much of the revenue from state trust lands come from mineral, oil and gas rights; timber production; agriculture; and commercial or residential leasing.

Geothermal leases

In California, the vast majority of revenue is generated from geothermal leases at the Geysers along the border of Sonoma and Lake counties. A bit of oil, gold and other minerals also generate some revenue.

In a weird historical twist, California is still owed about 51,000 acres from the federal government for the land trust because some of the initial parcels designated for education support were already occupied. The federal program allowed for that, guaranteeing replacement land to make up for property already in use, but California has yet to receive that land.

The State Lands Commission is working with other states to pursue legislation that would push federal officials to fulfill their pledge to California and any other states owed acreage.

In the meantime, Porter said, the commission wants to expand solar and wind efforts, which could produce significantly more revenue for the school land trust.

But given current law, the money wouldn't make it into classrooms.

Teacher pensions

While other states use the land trust proceeds for libraries, technology, schools and other programs, California deposits all revenue into the teacher pension fund, as directed by the Legislature in the mid-1980s.

Why support the pension fund rather than schools directly?

"My guess is political muscle," Porter said, noting the pension fund needed financial help from the state. "You've got to get the money from somewhere."

The Utah researchers questioned California's use of the money and whether it met the intent of the Continental Congress when they established the school land trust.

"A retired teacher does not help the school at all," Bird said. "If I lived in California I'd be out right now looking for an attorney ... because somebody needs to speak up for the children."