June 30, 2013

Utah vs. feds: Preparing with road trips, cameras, interviews with old-timers

This road in Dry Canyon in Box Elder County is one of the 12,400 roads the state is seeking title to in its fight with the federal government over preserving access. (Public Lands Policy Coordination Office)

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A legal team from Utah is traveling to remote areas throughout the state, recording testimony from aging witnesses and filming panoramic views of roads that snake through canyons or cross sagebrush-peppered lands.

The information is being compiled for the state's legal fight against the federal government in which it filed 22 lawsuits in 2012 that have since been consolidated into one case.

In a briefing recently given to a committee of lawmakers, Kathleen Clarke said there is some urgency in getting depositions from witnesses because they are aging.

"Some of these folks are our best witnesses," said Clarke, who is director of the Governor's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office. "Not knowing how long it will take or if any of these cases will ever be heard in court, we have an awfully long line of witnesses to get through."

Clarke said that as part of the requirement that the state prove that the roads existed and had 10 years of use prior to 1976, the legal team is also filming the roads.

"We are filming so the judge won't have to get into a Jeep and drive down these roads."

The roads in question are what's called RS2477 roads — named after a statute enacted in 1866 to promote settlement of the western United States by granting rights-of-way to states and counties for transportation.

The statute was repealed by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, but that action was subject to "valid existing rights," giving rise to an interpretation by Utah and other Western states that the federal government can't forbid access.

Negotiations with the Department of Interior over title to the roads have lingered for years, finally propelling contentious legal battles in which Utah has alternately been victorious and suffered defeat.

One such loss was access to Salt Creek Road in Canyonlands National Park, which the state and San Juan County contend was illegally closed by the National Park Service.

Harry Souvall, public lands section chief for the Utah Attorney General's Office, said the case has been heard on appeal by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, with a decision to be released later this year.

The Salt Creek Road, he told lawmakers, is a good example of why many of the disputed roads are critical for economies of rural counties in Utah.

"Park service attendance and tourism in San Juan County were dropping and it's because people can no longer drive to see Angel Arch. It is now a nine-mile hike to get in there to see it. A lot of people can't do a nine-mile hike in sand to see anything, let alone this gem," he said.

The National Park Service has maintained the road was closed to motorized traffic because it was a streambed that was suffering from environmental degradation.

Souvall said the state has another RS2477 case stemming from a Kane County road dispute that is likely to be heard before the 10th Circuit as well. Together, the two cases have the potential to bring clarity and certainty to the issue.

"There's still that question on what we can or cannot obtain," he said.

The state's efforts have been resoundingly criticized by multiple environmental groups that argue its quest for title to the roads is a costly, irresponsible battle that will only lay waste to pristine landscapes.

"I am sort of shocked when I hear it is 12,500 roads and the largest litigation effort in the state," said Heather Bennett, with For Kids and Lands, an education coalition. "It comes back to the question of what is the best use of resources in this state."

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in particular asserts the state wants "roads to nowhere" that are often narrow deer trails or traverse slick rock vistas.

But Souvall said nearly all the 12,400 roads that are part of the consolidated lawsuit have been vetted through a process that includes historical aerial imagery.

"A road that is closed is going to look like a deer trail," he said.

To support its documentation that the roads were used for a decade or more, Souvall said a legal team has been taking testimony from aging witnesses to preserve the historical record.

"In another case, we had taken a bunch of witness statements from 2000 to 2002. In 2009, when we were going through those statements, we found that approximately 40 percent of our witnesses were either dead or incapable of testifying. We lost almost half our witnesses."

The state struck an agreement with the Department of Justice to take 225 "preservation" depositions from witnesses who are 70 years or older who have health conditions and from witnesses age 80 and older.

"They may not be here to testify in live court," he said, adding that two of the witnesses are more than 100 years old.

To prepare the witnesses, Souvall's legal team takes them out on the road in question to see how much they remember. A Google Earth-style camera also captures a 360-degree view of the road as part of the state's documentation.

"Some of them know over 200 roads and some of them are over age 80," he said. "It is impossible to expect them to remember the details if we don't do this."

The process of gathering the preservation depositions is expected to take the full two years that make up the agreement, he added.

"It is a large effort," he said. "The process is designed to be as efficient as possible while still preserving the testimony of witnesses due to poor health or age."

One lawmaker questioned Souvall about that effort and why the state is pursuing claims to the roads in the wake of such criticism.

He mentioned a road in Uintah County that offered a breathtaking view of surrounding scenery.

"It's a stunning vista. You see people camped there. I don't know how you put a price on Scouting trips, family reunions and everyone being able to go there, from grandpa to infants," he said. "Once it is our right, our road, it is much more difficult to close that road. The fact that it is ours does not mean it will be abused."

June 24, 2013

Calico solar plans withdrawn

A survey marker in 2010 delineated property where a a solar energy development was planned north of Interstate 40, about 35 miles east of Barstow. The developer has dropped the project, citing market conditions. (2010/FILE PHOTO)


The developer of a controversial plan to cover as much of six square miles of public land with solar panels east of Barstow has abandoned the endeavor, citing changed market conditions.

It is the second massive solar project dropped in the past six months in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. In January, BrightSource Energy Co. announced that is was backing off from its plan to install mirrors on 12 square miles near Blythe because of cost issues.

The K Road Calico Solar Project had been proposed in an ecologically sensitive area north of Interstate 40, between Ludlow and Newberry Springs.

Environmentalists who sued to block the development said it would have fragmented an important corridor linking habitats of the desert tortoise, bighorn sheep and other threatened species, which range between land south of I-40 and the Cady Mountains; the solar site is in between.

“This is a really important area to keep intact, especially when you think what’s going to happen with these populations with climate change,” said Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife in Sacramento, one of the groups that sued.

The land, about 37 miles east of Barstow, would have been covered with photovoltaic panels, generating — at full capacity — electricity for 250,000 homes

“It’s a victory in terms of stopping projects that are unfortunately sited, but it’s too bad we have to fight renewable energy projects. If we put them in the right places we’ll cheerlead for them. If they’re in the wrong place, we’ll fight them,” Delfino said Monday, June 24.

She and other critics said solar projects should be placed on abandoned agricultural fields and other degraded lands, which they say are readily available in the western Mojave.

They are working to identify appropriate locations through the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, she said. The DRECP, as it is known, is a multi-agency effort to identify which parts of the desert should be developed with renewable energy and which should be set aside for wildlife and other natural resources.

On June 21, K Road sent a letter from its San Francisco office to the California Energy Commission surrendering its license for the development.

The letter said: “Due to changed market conditions, we will not be able to move this project forward, either as licensed or as proposed to be amended.”

Reached Monday, June 24, K Road managing director Sean Gallagher declined to elaborate.

In 2010, the firm bought the project from Tessera Solar. K Road immediately announced a change from mirrored dishes to photovoltaic panels.

A spokesman at the time said when fully built, it would be the largest photovoltaic plant in the world.

An agreement to transmit the energy to the electrical grid had yet to be secured.

Calico is not the first large-scale solar farm to suffer setbacks.

Developer BrightSource Energy of Oakland has put two projects on hold this year.

In January, company officials said they were suspending plans for the Rio Mesa project near Blythe, above the Colorado River Valley. Rio Mesa, which already had been down-sized, would have consisted of three solar-concentrating towers and 85,000 mirrors. Critics raised concerns about the project’s effect on wildlife and other natural resources.

BrightSource officials said the suspension was because of anticipated delays from additional analysis needed at the site, which would have made it impossible to meet the terms of the company’s power purchase agreement with Southern California Edison.

In April, the company announced that it was suspending the permit application for the Hidden Hills Solar Energy Generating System in Pahrump Valley, 45 miles west of Las Vegas, because of delays in transmission upgrades.

June 19, 2013

Diseased bighorn sheep might have to be killed in Mojave National Preserve

Desert bighorn sheep gather at night on June 6 at a guzzler set up to provide water for the herd. A virus that is killing sheep in the largest herd at the Mojave National Preserve is described as "a grim situation" by spokeswoman Linda Slater.


Wildlife officials in California might resort to killing desert bighorn sheep in an effort to contain an outbreak of a deadly disease now spreading through the largest herd in Mojave National Preserve, 100 miles southwest of Las Vegas.

At least 20 dead sheep have been found in the past month on Old Dad Mountain, about 15 miles southeast of Baker, Calif. Tests have confirmed that at least some of the animals died from a strain of pneumonia generally transmitted by domestic sheep and goats and usually fatal to bighorn.

“It’s really kind of a grim situation to be perfectly honest with you,” said Linda Slater, spokeswoman for the 1.6 million-acre preserve.

Officials from the National Park Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife are now considering whether to hunt down sheep showing signs of sickness. But even that might not be enough to halt the spread.

“To really get rid of the disease, you have to kill every animal, but that’s not practical or likely to happen,” Slater said. “There are no good management options.”

Wildlife officials in Nevada are watching the situation anxiously, hoping the sick animals can be contained somehow before they come into contact with sheep in the Silver State.

The diseased herd is “only a 45-mile trip as the crow flies” from mountains that harbor desert bighorn at the southern edge of Clark County, said Doug Nielsen, spokesman for the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

“We do have some right down there close to the state line. So it’s a concern, and it’s something that needs to be monitored.”

Slater said the afflicted animals are part of what she called “the biggest and healthiest herd” in Southern California. Transplants from the group have been used in the past to bolster struggling herds elsewhere in California, she said.

Bighorn have no natural resistance to pneumonia and tend to die at a high rate. Those that survive become carriers, infecting newborn lambs in a cycle that can ravage the herd for up to a decade.

Biologists may never know for certain how the isolated herd of 200 to 300 sheep was exposed to the disease, but they have their suspicions.

Slater said a domestic goat turned up in the area about six months ago — a rare and unexplained find — but the animal showed no signs of pneumonia. However, tests for the disease are not always reliable, she said.

Biologists and veterinarians “seem really pessimistic that anything can be done” to keep the entire herd from being exposed, Slater said. The worry now is that the disease will spread to one of four other herds in the preserve, possibly by a ram sent wandering when rutting season gets underway in the coming weeks.

Volunteers from the Sierra Club and the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep assisted with the initial search for sick and dead animals. A lack of resources and the remote, rugged location of the herd have hampered efforts so far to address the outbreak, Slater said.

Back in Nevada, wildlife officials are hoping that hot, dry weather this summer will keep the affected herd close to the water sources in its home range and away from other herds. Beyond that, Nielsen said, there isn’t much that can be done from the Nevada side of the state line but to wait and watch what happens.

Bighorn sheep once roamed nearly every mountain range in Nevada, but their numbers began to decline in the mid-1800s, as settlers and prospectors swept into the region, mostly in the north.

By 1960, disease, unregulated hunting and habitat loss had reduced Nevada’s bighorn population to about 1,200 animals in a handful of ranges, none of them north of Ely or west of Hawthorne.

Wildlife officials launched the Bighorn Sheep Release Program in 1967 to return the official state animal to its former glory.

Today, Nevada is home to more bighorn sheep than any other state — better than 10,000 adult animals in at least 60 different mountain ranges.

But disease always looms as a threat to those gains.

In 2010, pneumonia nearly wiped out a herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in the Ruby Mountains near Elko.

The most recent outbreak in Southern Nevada struck in 2002 in the Specter Range, along U.S. Highway 95 about 75 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

After several years of what Nielsen called “very low lamb survival,” the herd’s numbers finally began to rebound in 2009.

June 18, 2013

San Bernardino County increases legal tab by $500,000 for Cadiz litigation

Joe Nelson, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

The tab to defend San Bernardino County against nine lawsuits opposing a pipeline project environmentalists say will drain a swath of the Mojave Desert of precious groundwater grew to $1.5 million Tuesday after county supervisors approved an increase in legal costs.

The board authorized increasing its contract with the Sacramento law firm Downey Brand LLP by $500,000 - from $949,332 to $1.5 million.

The lawsuits allege, among other things, that the county violated state and federal environmental laws and San Bernardino County's own Desert Groundwater Management Plan by approving the Cadiz pipeline project.

The litigation is not costing taxpayers, as Cadiz Inc., the Santa Margarita Water District and the Fenner Valley Mutual Water Company are reimbursing the county for its costs.

Nearly a dozen lawsuits have been filed since the project was approved last October. Two lawsuits have been dismissed since then by judges in state and federal courts.

Los Angeles-based Cadiz, Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District in Rancho Santa Margarita have teamed to pump groundwater from aquifers near the Mojave National Preserve over a 50-year period. The water would be diverted via a 43-mile pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct and stored, then sold to residents and businesses in south Orange County, and Rancho Santa Margarita.

The pipeline has yet to be built and would be constructed along an old railroad right of way.
"There's a lot of concern on the local level about this project, and I hope the county is going to be reimbursed for these costs because it's sad to think the county is actually spending a half a million dollars more of taxpayer money to give our water away," said David Lamfrom, California Desert Senior Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, one of the agencies that has sued the county over the project.

Cadiz owns 45,000 acres in eastern San Bernardino County, most of which overlies the Cadiz and Bristol dry lake beds comprising the Fenner Valley aquifer system south of the Mojave National Preserve and northeast of Twentynine Palms. Cadiz and the Santa Margarita Water District plan to pump 50,000 acre feet of groundwater from the aquifers annually.

Delaware Tetra Technologies, a company that operates a brine mine in the Fenner Valley and depends on groundwater from the Bristol and Cadiz dry lake beds for its operations, argued in its lawsuit that the pipeline project would force the closure of its mine. Other organizations suing the county include the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Audubon Society and Sierra Club, and the International Union of North America Local Union No. 783.

Plaintiffs allege the county has relinquished most of the project's oversight to Cadiz, Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District.

"San Bernardino County decided not to be the lead agency, and we believe they were derelict in their responsibilities to protect their own groundwater," Lamfrom said. "Santa Margarita became the lead agency, and they stand to benefit from this water. That's the fox guarding the henhouse."

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Janice Rutherford said there are different schools of thought on the potential impacts the project will have on the environment and on county residents and businesses. She said the county will be closely monitoring the project.

"We have scientists on all sides of the issue that have different views about how Cadiz's plans are going to affect the groundwater," Rutherford said. "The county's plan is to monitor what happens as it moves forward and then adjust responses based on what turns out to be fact. We try to put in safety valves so that if something starts to go wrong, then we act to correct it but still allow for the drawing of that water for human use."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has opposed the project since it was first introduced more than a decade ago. In a letter to the Board of Supervisors in October, Feinstein urged the supervisors to oppose the project. She said that even if the amount of groundwater extracted annually were reduced from 2.5 million acre feet over the project's 50-year life span to 1 million acre feet, it would still be too much.

"I remain concerned because even with a 1 million acre foot cap, which translates to 20,000 acre feet annually, this amount still far exceeds the USGS recharge estimate and those of other independent groups," Feinstein said in her letter.

Project opponents say Cadiz overestimated the amount of annual precipitation that would recharge the groundwater basins in the Bristol and Fenner valleys, and that natural springs within the Mojave National Preserve were threatened because they are linked to the aquifers.

Officials at the Santa Margarita Water District could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Courtney Degener, vice president of investor relations for Cadiz, Inc., said in an e-mail that the company does not comment on pending litigation, but did say the company stands by the project, which is based on "the best science and a commitment to protecting the desert environment."

She also touched on the significance of the project.

"California water providers are currently engaged in serious efforts to identify new water supply options as a result of ongoing challenges to California's traditional water supplies and the Cadiz project offers a safe and sustainable supply that water providers throughout Southern California can rely on to meet their changing needs," Degener said.

Passenger listed in critical condition after plane crash

CRASHED: A heavily damaged Cessna 125 rests against the side of an hill after it crashed Saturday night in the Dead Mountain Wilderness area on the outskirts of Needles.

Mohave Valley Daily News

NEEDLES — An official with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office on Monday released the names of the occupants injured following a plane crash Saturday night in the desert just north of Needles.

The victims have been identified as pilot Greg Snyder, 61, of Las Vegas; and passengers Robert Israel, 44; Jennifer Israel, 43, and 10-year-old Jacob Israel, all of Prescott, Ariz.

According to Cynthia Bauchman, spokeswoman with SBCSO, around 5:30 p.m. a plane crash was reported in the Dead Mountain Wilderness area, between Needles and Laughlin.

“The pilot of the 1958 Cessna 125 advised his plane was experiencing mechanical problems before they lost all power,” said Bauchman.

The first report of the crash was received just after 6 p.m., when Snyder radioed that his plane had gone down and he didn’t know his exact location but could see the Avi Resort Casino from his location.

Crews from the Fort Mojave Mesa Fire Department, Mohave Valley Fire Department, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office and the San Bernardino County Fire Department established a command post at the intersection of Aha Macav Parkway and Needles Highway, while a CareFlight helicopter was called in to assist with the search and rescue operation.

Due to rugged terrain surrounding Dead Mountain Wilderness, the initial ground-based search and rescue attempt to reach the injured crash victims was unsuccessful. While the crews were regrouping to approach the terrain from a different direction, CareFlight notified ground operations they had been able to locate and successfully evacuate two of the crash victims and would return for the remaining passengers.

All victims were transported to Western Arizona Regional Medical Center for treatment to their injuries that included broken bones, cuts and scrapes.

Sarah Morga-Mangum, spokeswoman for the hospital, said Monday that Snyder, Jennifer Israel and Jacob Israel were treated and released, but Robert Israel was airlifted to Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas with critical injuries.

As of Monday, Israel was still listed as critical inside the Trauma Intentsive Care Unit, according to hospital official.

The exact cause of the crash is still under investigation with the National Safety Transportation Board and the Sheriff’s Aviation Investigation Unit.

June 15, 2013

Court: Bureau of Land Management does not have to protect monuments

Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- A federal appeals court has rejected a bid by environmental groups to force the Bureau of Land Management to do more to protect two national monuments in Arizona.

In an unsigned opinion, the three-judge panel of the sad there was nothing inherently wrong or illegal with BLM permitting "moderate to minor damage" to some objects in the Grand Canyon-Parashant and Vermilion Cliffs national monuments.

The judges acknowledged that the proclamations in 2000 by President Clinton creating both monuments say they were established "for the purpose of protecting the objects" within the monuments. But they said the proclamations also allow other uses in the 1.3 million acres in northern Arizona, including grazing and public visitation.

"BLM interpreted the proclamations to permit balancing the protection of monument objects with other uses, rather than require absolute protection of each individual object," the court wrote. "Giving the deference we owe to BLM's interpretation, we conclude that is a reasonable one."

According to court records, the resource management plans for the two monuments close 89,598 acres in Vermilion Cliffs to motorized and mechanized vehicle use and 285,647 acres in Grand Canyon-Parashant.

The plans also close 360 miles of routes that were in use prior to the management plans, a figure put at about 18 percent of existing routes. It also says that the proclamations specifically allow continued grazing -- and that the management plans do not designate any new grazing allotments.

Instead, they keep in grazing use about 34,000 acres in Parashant.

It also says that prior to grazing, ranchers must obtain permits from BLM which are subject to additional regulatory review.

In their appellate ruling, the judges said the National Historic Preservation Act requires BLM to "make a reasonable and good faith effort" to identify historic properties that would be affected by routes through the monuments. And they said BLM relied on existing information that covered less than 5 percent of the area in the monuments.

But they said the agency is committed to doing ongoing inventories. And the judge said BLM is permitted to use a phased process when dealing with particularly large parcels of land.

And the court said that using a restrictive definition advocated by The Wilderness Society would require closing off more than 94 percent of the routes previously open to the public in Vermilion Cliffs.

Finally, the judges rejected the contention of challengers that BLM is not exercising its full discretion to protect wilderness characteristics of the areas because it refused to designate Wilderness Study Areas.

They noted that BLM used to designate such areas as part of its discretion under federal law to manage lands to protect their wilderness values. But following a settlement with the state of Utah in a different case, BLM no longer creates those study areas.

"But the record shows that BLM views the change in policy as semantic," the appellate court wrote, pointing out that, even under the revised policy, the agency still has authority to protect wilderness characteristics over other uses.

June 14, 2013

Johnson Valley plan passes House

Johnson Valley OHV area is popular with off-road vehicle enthusiasts and hosts large off-road racing events throughout the year. (FILE PHOTO: DAILY PRESS)

Kris Reilly, City Editor
Victorville Daily Press

WASHINGTON • Paul Cook scored another victory Friday in his quest to save a popular off-roading area from a military takeover.

Cook, R-Yucca Valley, announced in a news release that his plan to create the Johnson Valley National Off-Highway Vehicle Area passed the U.S. House of Representatives as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

The NDAA passed the House by a vote of 315-107 and will now move to the Senate. If passed by the Senate, the bill will reach the President’s desk for approval.

“... Johnson Valley is essential to the off-highway recreational vehicle community,” Cook said in the release. “The end goal is to ensure that the NDAA still has this Johnson Valley language in it when it reaches the President’s desk later this year. A lot can happen as the NDAA moves through the Senate, so it’s essential for supporters of my proposal to let Senators know how important it is to protect Johnson Valley for recreational use.”

The Johnson Valley OHV area is a vast expanse of desert east of Lucerne Valley. The site is popular with off-road vehicle enthusiasts and hosts large off-road racing events throughout the year.

The U.S. Marine Corps has its sights set on a westward expansion of its base in Twentynine Palms to establish a vast training area. The plan would permanently close a large portion of the OHV area and leave a small section for joint use by the Marines and the public.

Cook’s proposal would designate the Johnson Valley OHV area as a national recreation area, thereby severely limiting the Marines’ proposed expansion. Marine Corps activities would be permitted twice annually and could not include any explosives that could be left behind without detonating.

Cook is a former Marine who was awarded a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.

Summer Evenings In the Desert

Commentary | The Hidden Desert

The hour of sunset in the Mojave Desert | Chris Clarke photo

by Chris Clarke

It's hot in the desert right now. Triple digits last week in the Mojave a little earlier than usual, August weather arriving in June, and I spend most of my days indoors at the writing desk. That writing desk has a built-in alarm, though: it's next to a west-facing window with an overhang. When the sun shines in my eyes, sunset's an hour off, and it's time to walk out into the desert.

Even when the day is hot, at 3,500 feet sundown brings pretty rapid cooling. The day's stored heat radiates up into the sky. The breeze raises the hairs on my neck. 95° seems sweet after a triple-digit day, and the mid-80s sweeter still, and the slanting, coloring light draws me deeper into the desert.

Outside my house is a mature palo verde. It's flowering this month, sweet-scented yellow bean flowers that tempt passersby to lean in, breathe deeply, and come away with a face full of scratches from palo verde thorns. That's the voice of experience speaking.

In that long hour before the sun drops down behind San Gorgonio Mountain a million little flies and wasps come out to drink palo verde blossom nectar, all but invisible against the darkening sky. Invisible but not unseen: not long after the bugs come out, so do the bats. In my yard, three or four pallid bats tend to come out each night to keep the pollinators' population down a bit. They get bolder as the sky grows darker, and those in my yard have grown accustomed enough to me that they inspect me at remarkably close range, hovering three feet from my face for fifteen or twenty seconds.

When I lived in Nipton five years ago, my back yard faced out onto almost 200,000 acres of open Mojave, and I would go there in the evenings and watch the shadow of Clark Mountain sweep across twenty miles of desert. From a distance it looked as sharp as a knife's edge. As it drew closer, as the sun's disk began to hide in increments behind the mountain's summit ridge, that edge dulled. It became a long, shallow gradient from light to dark. The bats came out at the edge's mid-point, when the sky had turned from blue-white to salmon. The lesser nighthawks came out then as well, swooping more aggressively than the bats at their insect prey.

Nighthawks haven't discovered my yard in Joshua Tree, at least not that I know of. The bats don't have that company in the airspace around the palo verde.

In the square mile of desert behind my house, the cactus wrens start slowing their pace. They're one of the few birds here that's most active in mid-day, even in the hottest afternoons. They flit between the Joshua trees' limbs, their breasts' whitish speckles glowing pinker as they reflect the lowering sun's light. Crissal thrashers and Gambel's quail try to catch a few last beaksful of food, running around in the desert underbrush.

With the sun low in the sky, a remarkable thing happens for those animals that live close to the ground: the desert is suddenly both well-lit and full of shade. The shadows of the low shrubs start to fill all the open ground between them, offering a chance for animals to forage without getting broiled.

Lizards have a complicated relationship with shade in summer. In the mornings the larger lizards seek direct sun to boost their body temperature. In mid-day they've had enough and stay beneath the shrubs. Side-blotched lizards and Great Basin whiptails, common around here, take advantage of late afternoon's spreading shade to forage for ambling insects. On my last walk I watched as a whiptail launched itself at an Eleodes beetle. The beetle stood on its head at the lizard, which reconsidered its decision. Eleodes squirts a noxious chemical weapon out of its hind end at potential predators. The headstand is a warning. Most animals that have eaten a previous Eleodes don't have to think twice about backing off.

One can walk off into the sunset only so far. Eventually the sun sets all the way and you have to turn around and walk back. The shadow of San Gorgonio fills the Morongo Basin the way Clark Mountain's filled the Ivanpah Valley, and the far slopes of the Sheepholes stay brightly lit enough to silhouette the Joshua trees for the next half hour.

Of course, the whole notion of the "end of the day" is a subjective one. One person's dusk is another person's alarm clock. Across the desert, as the bands of red fade along the western horizon, a family business opens its doors for the new workday. Their yipping song carries on the wind, announcing the beginning of the evening's hunt. I'll hear them again at 4:00 am, if I'm lucky enough to be awake.

June 6, 2013

Wildlife biologists investigate bighorn sheep deaths

Bighorn sheep near a wildlife guzzler in the Old Dad Mountain range in the Mojave National Preserve. (FILE PHOTO)

by Janet Zimmerman

Wildlife officials are investigating the recent deaths of four bighorn sheep in the desert near Baker to see if the animals died of pneumonia.

The animals were found late last month by a National Park Service employee who was inspecting man-made watering holes, known as guzzlers, on Old Dad Mountain, 15 miles southeast of Baker, according to a news release issued today, June 6.

The employee observed other animals that appeared to be weak and unsteady, with labored breathing. Laboratory analysis of blood and tissue samples taken from one of the animals indicated that it had pneumonia, which is usually fatal to the species.

The bighorn can contract the disease from domestic sheep and goats. Biologists from the Park Service and state Department of Fish and Wildlife are conducting a field survey to determine the scope of the outbreak, the news release said.

Scientists believe there are 200 to 300 desert bighorn around Old Dad Mountain. It is one of the largest native populations in the Mojave Desert, according to Stephanie Dubois, superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve.

June 5, 2013

Water rates raised for county desert customers

By Courtney Vaughn
Hi-Desert Star

SAN BERNARDINO — Water-rate increases for San Bernardino County Special Districts customers were approved Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.

Rates for County Service Areas in Landers, Pioneertown and Morongo Valley will rise July 18.

The rate hikes will ensure that user fees pay for district operations, according to Jeff Rigney, director of the Special Districts Water and Sanitation Department.

The county received letters of protest from each of the local districts, but none of the areas yielded enough letters to stop the increases, county staff reported.

Notices of the proposed increases were mailed to property owners, but many tenants, who pay the water bills for a property, did not receive notice.

If one more than half a district’s property owners protest fee increases, the additional fees cannot be levied.

Property owners from around the county lamented the county’s water rate structure Tuesday during the Board of Supervisors meeting.

Judy Corl-Lorono, a director of Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency and a Landers resident, spoke to the board as a resident Tuesday.

“I’m here to speak for the seniors, unemployed, those who are on food stamps,” Corl-Lorono said. “We have to trust you to do your due diligence …. It appears that your rate increases are on auto pilot, giving rate payers a 50 percent increase over the next three years.”

Corl-Lorono said she often talks to seniors in the county’s outlying areas who say they must choose between bathing or providing water for pets.

“It’s a disadvantaged community and this is a really big rate increase for a community,” Marina West, general manager of Bighorn-Desert View and a special districts customer, said Friday.

West doesn’t believe county water ratepayers have been given sufficient explanation of why the rate increases are needed. She said many customers have had trouble getting pertinent budget information from the county’s special districts department.

“I don’t think they have much accountability. In the grand scheme of county operations, special district areas out here could be just a rounding error,” West said.

Within the Morongo Basin’s four county water districts, the monthly fee to maintain service on a 3/4-inch meter ranges from $29.36 to $58.78. Increases on monthly fees and water consumption rates range from 19 percent on monthly fees in Landers and Pioneertown, to 51 percent on consumption rates for higher water users in Morongo Valley.

Most county water districts have raised fees each year, but this year marks a bigger jump for some districts than in previous years.

The higher fees will sustain district operations and allow the department of water and sanitation to establish reserve accounts and contingency funds in each of its special districts. The fees will not be used to improve water quality, Rigney said.

He explained by phone Friday that the county’s water districts typically have large areas of infrastructure to maintain, but a very small base of rate payers to cover the costs.

“It essentially comes down to economies of scale,” Rigney said. “We’re just trying to get the districts to where they need to be to sustain the infrastructure.” Rigney anticipates that eventually, rates will be more stable once the district has sufficient funding. He said the special districts department has reduced its operational and internal costs, in addition to reviewing water rates.

June 4, 2013

Drones to spy on Southern Nevada wildlife, not people

A U.S. Geological Survey THawk drone lifts off on April 3 during an aerial survey of abandoned dump sites in the Mojave National Preserve in California, about 80 miles south of Las Vegas. (U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY)


A few months from now, government agents with drones will descend on Southern Nevada to spy on the locals.

Luckily, mule deer and bighorn sheep don’t carry ACLU cards.

The U.S. Geological Survey started using unmanned aircraft for wildlife and land management work about two years ago. Its first Nevada mission, planned for August or September, involves counting sheep and deer within the Desert National Wildlife Refuge north of Las Vegas.

What used to require a helicopter and thousands of dollars worth of fuel can now be done with some fresh batteries and what looks like an elaborate toy plane no bigger than a turkey vulture.

Mike Hutt, who heads up the Geological Survey’s National Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office in Denver, says there has been a “groundswell” of Department of Interior drone use in recent years, as cash-strapped field offices look for ways to do more work with less money.

In coming months, the USGS plans to use unmanned aircraft to track eagles and trumpeter swans in Idaho and Washington state, spot invasive plants at Utah’s Zion National Park and search the Oregon coast for debris from the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan.

Hutt says that his agency got its first military-surplus drone in 2009 and flew its first real mission in 2011. His office now has about a dozen missions under its belt, with at least nine more planned later this year.


Widening domestic use of unmanned aircraft comes as the American Civil Liberties Union and others call for clear policies and restrictions designed to prevent the creation of a “surveillance society.”

Hutt is sensitive to privacy concerns and says virtually all his office’s work takes place on public land: “When we fly we let people in the local area know and invite them out. We try to be as trans­parent as possible.”

With rare exception, the drones operate at no more than 400 feet altitude and at least five miles from the nearest home. “We don’t fly over populated areas,” Hutt says.

In fact, they rarely fly over private property. When they do, they get written permission from the land owner in advance. They also have to get Federal Aviation Administration clearance.

The Geological Survey now has drone systems stationed in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Montana, and uses two types of aircraft: a battery-powered, fixed-wing airplane called the Raven and a gas-burning helicopter called the THawk.

Neither resembles an advanced, unmanned warplane such as the Predator or the Reaper. These look more like something you might buy in a hobby shop.

The Raven weighs less than five pounds and measures less than five feet from wing tip to wing tip. It is easily lifted with one hand and launched into the air the way you might toss a paper airplane.

It flies quietly, but landings are rarely pretty. The plane is designed to break apart on impact to avoid permanent damage, so there is often some assembly required before the next flight.

At 18 pounds, the THawk is heavier and less graceful in the air, but it provides more stable images because it can hover. The trade-off comes in the form of noise and general obnoxiousness.

“It sounds like a chain saw flying overhead,” Hutt says. “It’s been described as a flying trash can.”

Drone pilots also seem to prefer one vehicle over the other.

“The Raven is pretty fun,” says Jeff Sloan, a cartographer by trade who now gets to steer unmanned airplanes with a hand-held controller any young hobbyist would probably recognize. “I imagine teenagers are better at flying them than us older guys.”

The THawk is steered with a laptop computer.

Both drone systems are small and light enough for easy transport. Depending on how far they have to go for a mission, operators either transport the aircraft to the site by ground or ship them by overnight mail.

The Raven tends to be better for wildlife work because it is quieter, though drone operators have been surprised by the reaction — or lack of one — they have gotten so far from some of their THawk surveillance subjects.

“We flew 75 feet over sandhill cranes, and they didn’t seem to pay any attention to us as they roosted at night,” Hutt recalls. “I think critters in the field grow to accept certain things as a threat, and they don’t see us as a threat yet.”

Last month, Sloan and company traveled to Mojave National Preserve in California, about 80 miles south of Las Vegas, where they scanned several square miles from the air in search of trash piles and illegal dump sites for eventual cleanup.


After looking at the high-resolution pictures from the drone, the staff at the desert park dreamed up other uses for the images, including a Joshua tree inventory and a study of invasive weed concentrations.

Sloan says that happens a lot. Once people see what the machines are capable of, they want more. “ ‘Can you do this while you’re up there?’ That’s pretty typical,” he says. “Really the applications are limitless.”

Hutt says that drones could prove useful for finding missing hikers, spotting wildfires, monitoring crops, refining maps, surveying archeological sites and inspecting canals, power lines, pipelines, fences and dams.

Already, biologists use them to track and count protected species, including some that seem too small and well-camouflaged to be spotted from the air.

Sloan recently used drones outfitted with thermal and high-definition cameras to identify and count sage grouse in Colorado. The birds are about the size of an average chicken, but the crew was able to spot them from 150 feet above.

“I didn’t think it would work,” Hutt says.

Once the FAA approves a mission, the drone team can deploy in just a few days.

The work is done on the cheap by using off-the-shelf equipment such as the high-definition cameras now favored by skydivers, snowboarders and dirtbike riders who like to film their death-defying stunts.

The drones have “close to zero maintenance and operational costs,” so a week-long mission like the one planned in Nevada can be done for as little as $3,000 in labor expenses.

The standard way of counting bighorn sheep and mule deer — namely by putting people in a helicopter — typically costs $20,000 to $40,000, Hutt says.


After an initial count in August or September, the drone crew will likely return to the desert north of Las Vegas next spring for a follow-up count of newborn lambs and fawns.

Coincidentally, the search area is not far from Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, a hub for the military’s considerably less benign use of unmanned aircraft.

Hutt and Sloan say they have no plans to arm their drones and try to use them, for example, to tranquilize large game. But you could tell the suggestion got their wheels turning.

Ultimately Hutt doesn’t worry too much about where all this drone use might lead.

“I think people are too busy to fly a UAV over my house,” he says. “They’d be pretty bored watching me out there mowing the lawn anyway.”

Like them or not, drones are sure to become more and more prevalent as the technology improves, Hutt says. “I don’t even think that we know all the possible applications.”

Adds Sloan, the map maker turned remote pilot: “I think we’re just scratching the surface. Every time we go out, we have a hundred other ideas.”