September 29, 2013

Heavy rains bring false spring to Anza-Borrego desert

Desert Hibiscus found near Glorietta Canyon on September 29, 2013 (Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association)

By Ernie Cowan
San Diego Union-Tribune

Mother Nature might know what is going on, but I’m confused.

Wildflowers and butterflies are something you find in the desert in the spring. Recent heavy rains have turned the desert into a green carpet of grass and produced a rare fall bloom of scattered wildflowers along with an invasion of colorful caterpillars and butterflies.

In July and August there was more than 4 inches of rain recorded in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Summer monsoons swept up from the Gulf of California bringing more than three quarters of the normal rainfall for a full year.

Initially there was some significant flash flooding, but in this arid land, plants that see little water anytime are opportunists that quickly respond when rain does fall.

When driving into Borrego Springs along S-22, visitors frequently stop at the Crawford Overlook to enjoy the expansive view across the Borrego Valley into the Badlands and to the Salton Sea in the hazy distance.

The visitor now notices a green tinge to the desert floor because of the carpet of grass that has sprung up.

You first notice the large white Jimson Weed blossoms as you enter the park and the road breaks off, dropping into the desert and leaving Ranchita behind. Soon you spot prickly poppies dotting a landscape that was burned in a wildfire a year or so ago.

The careful observer will notice clouds of California Patch butterflies darting about and flocking around the bright yellow blossoms of blooming brittlebush. Brightly colored and striped green worms march across the landscape feeding on the abundant new growth.

The desert is happy.

By late summer many native plants have normally shriveled from blistering heat and the lack of water. This year the drenching rains have revived them and they stand fresh and strong from the unseasonal nourishment. It brings a smile to this leathered desert rat that revels in the anomaly.

As the highway makes the wide, sweeping turn through Culp Valley, there are more butterflies and green hornworms thriving in the new growth. Soon the big caterpillars will mature and bury themselves in the sand as they begin a transformation into a Sphinx moth.

Once on the desert floor you notice a forest of ocotillo covered with thick green leaves. Normally this time of year they look like dead tentacles covered in angry spines. The heavy foliage adds to the green hue, now the prime desert color.

A few cholla cacti are budding and some are in bloom. A hike up a desert wash will reveal beautiful red California fuchsia in bloom and clumps of yellow chinch weed like small buttons on a carpet of green.

Swallowtail butterflies flitter in the abundant fields and the mild temperatures of late summer are kind and embracing to the wilderness hiker.

Canyons that were once familiar to the frequent visitor are now strange places. Flash floods a month ago sculptured the land into different forms. Roads were eliminated, boulders moved, and a new landscape was created to explore.

There is another joy to this wonder of nature.

Some jeep trails are still impassable because of huge gouges cut in the sand or boulders that were moved and now block old routes. Hikes exploring canyons on the western edge of the desert may put the first footprints into the new sand deposited by the flash floods. The landscape has changed.

Spring wildflowers bring the most visitors to California’s largest state park, but the beauty of this false spring has yet to be discovered by most nature lovers. It won’t last long as the monsoon rains sink deeper into thirsty desert sands and the brown hues of fall once again return.

Until then, there is silent beauty awaiting the desert explorer.

September 25, 2013

Mojave Desert solar unit connected to electrical grid

Ivanpah Solar, Solar Fields One, Two and Three: A view to the north of Ivanpah Solar under construction. Just out of view to the right is Interstate 15, the Primm Valley Golf Club and the community of Primm, Nevada, June 2013. (Jamey Stillings)

NIPTON, Calif., Sept. 25 (UPI) -- Connecting part of a solar thermal power plant in the California desert to the grid shows how steam impacts renewable energy development, NRG Energy Inc. said.

NRG Energy Inc., a subsidiary of NRG Solar, announced Unit 1 at the Ivanpah solar power facility in the Mojave Desert was connected to the electric power grid for the first time.

NRG said Tuesday the connection was a "major milestone" for a project situated on 3,500 acres of public land in the California desert.

Solar power generated from the Ivanpah solar facility is enough to meet the energy needs of more than 140,000 households. Nearly 400,000 tons of carbon emissions will be removed from the atmosphere each year with the project, the company added.

The project uses solar arrays that track the sun's movement and focuses its energy on steam generation.

NRG started construction of the project in 2010. The company said all three units could double the amount of commercial solar thermal energy operating currently in the United States.

Electricity from Unit 1 is sold to California utility company Pacific Gas & Electric under a 20-year purchase agreement.

September 23, 2013

Landowner says desert tortoise, federal government left him bankrupt

A Washington County landowner and developer had a vision for a residential development and upscale golf course on the benches above St. George and Washington. He's now bankrupt — a destiny he said was chartered by the desert land tortoise. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Deseret News

ST. GEORGE — James Doyle had a dream in 1980 to create a beautiful residential development and golf course on the picturesque benches overlooking St George and the community of Washington.

Then along came the desert tortoise and a federal listing of the animal under the Endangered Species Act.

It's been more than 30 years, countless negotiations, a few successful land trades — but Doyle was left bankrupt and an old man, his vision unrealized.

"His dreams have been pretty well doused by being in these tragic set of circumstances," said Doyle's attorney, Timothy Anderson. "He went from a competent real estate developer to a guy who is just barely getting by. It is a very sad thing to have watched."

Doyle has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior and Washington County, demanding compensation for financial and emotional losses brought on by a series of failed promises and bungled agreements by the government to adequately compensate him.

"Mr. Doyle anticipated that his land would get bought," Anderson said. "The Bureau of Land Management was tasked with facilitating these exchanges with the input and involvement of Washington County. But when you start dealing with the government, they say one thing and do another."

Back in 1980, Doyle began acquiring land to develop in Washington County, purchasing 2,440 acres and obtaining the leases and other rights to another 11,000 acres. By 1989, working with Washington County and St. George, he had obtained all the necessary permits, development plans, water rights and zoning changes for his development, according to the lawsuit.

"He was approaching shovel ready," Anderson said.

That same year, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Mohave desert tortoise as endangered, adding it to the list of species meriting federal protection.

Anderson's suit asserts the designation brought development to a standstill in Washington County, with political leaders under mounting pressure to come up with a habitat conservation plan that would meet with federal approval.

Ultimately, by 1996, the county submitted plan in which Doyle agreed to place virtually all of his land inside a tortoise reserve on the condition he receive compensation at fair market value, either in cash or land exchanges.

Over the years, there were four land exchanges, but Doyle still owns property within the reserve for which he hasn't been compensated.

"He only has 248 acres, and still the government holds the key to his land," Anderson said. "The magic of how you are going to ultimately get paid is under the control of the federal government and or the county. And about all you can do is go to them with hat in hand."

Because Doyle and others who owned land inside what would become the desert tortoise conservation area agreed to give up their land in exchange for compensation, Anderson said the county was once again free to pursue development because it could prove the tortoise was being protected.

Doyle, in the meantime, has kept vainly hoping that the government will work out a just deal for him, or that federal legislation to help him will pass in Congress.

Anderson said the much-celebrated Washington County Lands Bill that ultimately passed in 2009 was supposed to help Doyle, but at the last minute he was left out of it entirely.

"It is a travesty," Anderson said. "As far as I know, this is not Russia or China, but for Mr. Doyle, it largely is."

The U.S. Department of the Interior does not comment on pending litigation, and efforts to reach Washington County were successful.

September 22, 2013

Burning Man has gone corporate

Burning Man visionary Larry Harvey and
event organizer Marian Goodell in 2007.
(Photo-Illustration: Marc Simon)
by Guy W. Farmer
Nevada Appeal

Regular readers of this column will note that I didn’t write my traditional “trash Burning Man” column prior to this year’s edition of the naked drug festival, which took place in the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach over the Labor Day holiday.

This year, Bay Area organizers of the desert bacchanal, who publicly look down their hypocritical noses at money and commerce, raked in more than $20 million from 61,000 Burners who participated in the festivities. In other words, Burning Man has gone corporate, and that worries some veteran Burners.

“Because Burning Man is commerce-free, meaning no one bought or sold anything except ice and coffee, community services were created by the participants,” one newspaper reported. That’s all well and good, but what about the millions of dollars that poured into the coffers of Black Rock City LLC, the affluent San Francisco-based entity that organizes the festival? Of course they have organizational expenses and their landlord, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), collected about $2 million to pay for law enforcement and other services on the desert playa; however, simple math tells us that organizers wound up with several million dollars in their collective bank accounts.

As usual, the Burners complained about an “oppressive” law enforcement presence on the playa. That’s a ritual in which the “free spirits” complain about the cops, who reply that they’re just enforcing applicable laws. At the heart of this issue is the widespread abuse of illegal drugs at Burning Man. Burner websites recommend which drugs are popular each year, and tell their followers how to avoid detection. You can look it up.

This year the Burners’ rather sophisticated medical services operation saw up to 400 patients per day, many of them allegedly suffering from “heat prostration.” That adds up to almost 3,000 patients over the course of the event. My guess is that many of those heat-prostration cases were drug overdoses. However, my main complaint about Burning Man isn’t as much about illegal drugs as it is about the presence of young children at an X-rated event on federally administered lands. I doubt that’s what environmentalists had in mind when they persuaded former President Bill Clinton to create the Black Rock National Conservation Area. Did they envision more than 60,000 people invading a pristine desert playa?

During a visit to Burning Man with my friend Sam Bauman a few years ago, I saw a naked middle-aged man cavorting on the playa adjacent to Kidsville, which is supposed to be a supervised day-care area for young children. But when Pershing County District Attorney Jim Shirley attempted to assert local authority over the issue of underage children at the event, the organizers and an army of attorneys sued Shirley and the county; to his credit, the DA promptly filed a counter-suit and the dueling lawsuits are pending in Reno Federal Court.

According to the Pershing County sheriff, there were 12 sexual assaults at Burning Man this year. Other crimes included open and gross lewdness, drug charges and public drunkenness — a little something for the kids. So I could hardly believe a Reno Gazette-Journal article encouraging families to bring their young children to an adults-only event. The article quoted a clueless mother who brought her 9-year-old daughter to the festival to “introduce her to a world where people are generous and kind ...” Unfortunately, some of those generous and kind people were stoned out of their minds.

Although Burning Man generates millions of dollars’ worth of economic activity for Northern Nevada, going corporate doesn't mean that you’re above the law.

Guy W. Farmer of Carson City is a longtime critic of Burning Man.

September 20, 2013

Plans unveiled for Mojave Desert tourist train, museum

As part of its plan to mine underground water supplies, Los Angeles-based Cadiz Inc. is proposing a tourist steam engine, museum and cultural center in the Mojave Desert.

Press Enterprise

Cadiz Inc., the Los Angeles-based company proposing a water mining operation in the Mojave Desert, released plans Friday, Sept. 20, for steam train excursions and a museum, but environmentalists called it a ploy to avoid federal review of its groundwater pumping project.

The Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project would extract groundwater from beneath 45,000 acres that Cadiz owns south of the Marble Mountains, 40 miles east of Twentynine Palms. The area lies between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park in eastern San Bernardino County.

Environmental groups have filed lawsuits to block the $225 million development, which would provide water for about 400,000 people served by six water districts throughout California, including Jurupa Community Services District in Riverside County.

The pipeline would run along 43 miles of track owned by the Arizona & California Railroad Co. Because part of the railroad right-of-way crosses federal lands, environmentalists say the project is subject to federal review under the National Environmental Policy Act, which would evaluate environmental impacts.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Rep. Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, have called for a federal review of the project and questioned its impacts on the Mojave National Preserve.

To avoid a government evaluation, the Department of the Interior requires that the pipeline along the right-of-way must have a direct impact on the rail system.

On Friday, Cadiz announced its agreement with the railroad to use its tracks. As part of the agreement, Cadiz will provide water from the project to power the trains, wash dirty freight cars run by Arizona & California, and supply fire hydrants along 35 wooden railroad trestles, Cadiz President Scott Slater said.

Seth Shteir California desert senior representative for the National Parks Conservation Association, accused Cadiz of concocting the tourist train idea to avoid scrutiny by the U.S. Geological Survey of its inflated recharge rates in the ancient aquifer.

Cadiz plans to pump an average of 50,000 acre-feet per year – more than 16 billion gallons – from beneath the remote valley.

In environmental documents, Cadiz says the recharge rate is 32,500 acre-feet per year, but independent estimates have placed recharge at 2,000 to 10,000 acre-feet per year.

The National Park Service has said the project would likely drain surrounding springs that supply water for wildlife.

Slater said an earlier version of the pumping project, which was larger and more impactful, already cleared federal study. The previous version crossed open public lands, but this one was intentionally placed on an active railroad right-of-way to avoid environmental impacts.

“What they’re looking for is duplicative. They’re interested in shopping until they can get somebody who agrees with them,” Slater said.

The company said the Cadiz Southeastern Railway would also draw in tourist dollars with a depot-style museum and cultural center on the Cadiz property that would include information on the local desert and railroad history. Slater wants to make it a destination.

One of the steam engines would be locomotive 3751, built in 1927 and housed at California Steel Industries in Fontana. The restored engine is owned by the San Bernardino Railroad Historical Society. Cadiz is also negotiating to buy two engines and rail cars that can be opened up to provide star gazing, Slater said.

“The steam train is an original fixture of the Cadiz area - an important historical asset intimately connected to the local culture – and offers a rewarding way to invest locally and promote the unique desert environment,” Slater said in a statement. “As a 30-year member of the Mojave Desert community, we have long appreciated the area’s majesty and appeal and are proud to diversify our business with this exciting new venture.”

The Cadiz railroad would operate on existing tracks on a portion of the Arizona & California Railroad Co. between Parker, Ariz. and Cadiz, with water stops in the California desert communities of Milligan, Chubbuck, Rice and Vidal.

The Mojave Desert Route, off historic Route 66, “provides sweeping views of the vast desert wilderness, mountainous terrain and the Colorado River,” the company said.

Brad Ovitt, a senior vice president for Genesee & Wyoming Inc. in Darien, Conn., which owns the Arizona & California railroad, said the track-sharing deal is a first in this region for his company. Terms of the agreement are confidential.

September 16, 2013

Learning to bend: Settling Utah's road wars


By Ed Marston
High Country News

Roads in the Wilderness: Conflict in Canyon Country
Jedediah S. Rogers
242 pages, hardcover: $39.95.
University of Utah Press, 2013.

Some fear that we will saddle our children with trillions of dollars in federal debt. That would be too bad, but it would be a minor inconvenience compared to what our forefathers cursed us with: the 1866 federal law known as R.S. 2477. Like other such gifts -- including the 1872 Mining Law -- R.S. 2477 lays a heavy, destructive, expensive hand on the present.

The statute's 19 words said that anyone who wished to could build a public "highway" across the West's public land. That highway could not be extinguished by the later creation of a homestead, a national park or even a wilderness.

R.S. 2477 was repealed in 1976, but its highways -- sometimes nothing more than rough trails made by cowboys herding cattle -- are still being fought over in the West. That is especially true in Utah, where the state has launched 30 federal lawsuits to establish 36,000 miles of mechanized rights of way through existing wilderness, national parks and monuments, and wilderness study areas.

Into this expensive, litigious mess bravely comes the young historian Jedediah S. Rogers. With Roads in the Wilderness: Conflict in Canyon Country, Rogers attempts to connect two warring ways of life. He asks us to look at roads not only as physical structures but as symbols of culture and history. In Rogers' telling, the Mormons of southern Utah regard the primitive roads their ancestors pioneered as comparable to the naves of medieval cathedrals. To interfere with the public's ability to travel them amounts to sacrilege. But to those who favor wilderness, the sacrilege is motorized travel through red-rock canyons and riparian areas.

Rogers humanizes the conflict over wilderness by portraying some of the people most involved. He is sympathetic both toward Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, and toward Abbey's nemesis, uranium miner and Lake Powell resort developer Calvin Black, immortalized by Abbey as the character "Bishop Love."

Abbey hated roads -- the better the road, the more he hated it -- and the reservoir he called Lake Foul. Black appreciated Lake Powell because it also served as a highway, and so loved roads, writes Rogers, that he assumed the 1960s slogan "Black is Beautiful" referred to pavement.

Given the area's bitter history -- which includes the Grand County commissioners repeatedly, and feloniously, sending bulldozers into Moab's Negro Bill Canyon to "refresh" the disappearing road -- what could bring the two sides to the table now?

Partly it is the passing of generations; both Black and Abbey are gone, for example. And partly it is exhaustion from decades of expensive struggle.

But it may also be fear of the future: Utah could win its R.S. 2477 cases, or President Barack Obama might unleash the 1906 Antiquities Act, as President Clinton did at Grand Staircase-Escalante, and create de facto wilderness. Or both events might happen, further complicating what is already a mess.

Rogers' book is both perfectly timed and a sign of the times, appearing as Utah Congressman Rob Bishop seems to be progressing toward a two-state solution in Utah, with some public land being protected and some now-protected land being opened to development.

Although the book is well-timed, it isn't always well-written, and it lacks clear maps to illustrate chapters about the road wars in places like Arch Canyon and the Book Cliffs.

While Rogers lacks the partisan passion of an Abbey or Black, he has passions appropriate to this time: for compromise and the merging of interests. He believes that if the two sides were to bend a little, each would win more than they could by defeating the other in Congress or the White House or the courts.

He urges environmentalists to see desert homesteads, mine shafts, abandoned orchards and even roads as part of a landscape shaped by humans but still dominated by nature. He quotes environmental historian Bill Cronon, who has written that the exclusion of man's works from nature is dehumanizing.

And he asks southern Utah's Mormon residents to acknowledge that the heroic pioneer days, when wagon trains were lowered to the Colorado River by rope down the Hole in the Rock notch, are over. We have blasted an interstate highway through the San Rafael Swell and turned parts of the Colorado, San Juan and Escalante rivers into ponds. Progress now, Rogers argues, is not demonstrated by how much more nature we can bulldoze, but by how much we can refrain from conquering:

"In a country -- a world -- that is increasingly developed one acre at a time, we need these places to keep us rooted. The (Colorado Plateau) region is one of the few places where large tracts of wildlands exist."

September 14, 2013

In Nevada, a rancher wages a lonesome fight over land

Cliven Bundy's family has been running cattle on unforgiving land since the 1880s, and he vows to do 'whatever it takes' to fend off federal government claims.

Cliven D. Bundy's cattle make their way across the Virgin River on some of Bundy's 150 square miles of property in Bunkerville, Nev.

By John M. Glionna
Los Angeles Times

BUNKERVILLE, Nev. — Squinting into the morning light, Cliven Bundy lifted the brim of his western hat and watched his youngest son, who sat silently in the saddle of a mixed-breed horse he named Turbo.

At 15, Arden Bundy is cowboy sturdy, a trusted ranch hand on the family spread 100 miles north of Las Vegas. He wears dusty boots with bloodstains on his chaps from calf-roping escapades. He also has the cowpoke pose down cold: the knowing slouch, right thumb hooked into his oversized belt buckle.

The 67-year-old Bundy, a father of 14, said the boy reminds him of himself, his own father and grandfather — generations of Bundys who have ranched and muscled this unforgiving landscape along the Virgin River since the 1880s.

"He's a real cowboy," he said of Arden, his only child still living at the ranch. "Those bloodstains could be from the cattle, his horse or even him. I want him to run this ranch one day. He's the one I'm fighting for."

Bundy believes big government is trying to sabotage his plans to one day hand over the ranch's reins to his son, by stripping Bundy of land-use rights his family spent a century earning. He says overregulation has already driven scores of fellow ranchers out of business in sprawling Clark County, leaving him as the last man standing.

For two decades, Bundy has waged a one-man range war with federal officials over his cattle's grazing on 150 square miles of scrub desert overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Since 1993, he's refused to pay BLM grazing fees. He claims he "fired the BLM," vowing not to give one dime to an agency that's plotting his demise. The back fees exceed $300,000, he said.

Now a showdown looms, one with a hint of possible violence.

Video: Last man standing

Officials say Bundy and his son are illegally running cattle in the 500,000-acre Gold Butte area, a habitat of the protected desert tortoise. In July, U.S. District Judge Lloyd D. George ruled that if Bundy did not remove his cattle by Aug. 23, they could be seized by the BLM.

That hasn't happened — yet — and the rancher insists his cattle aren't going anywhere. He acknowledges that he keeps firearms at his ranch and has vowed to do "whatever it takes" to defend his animals from seizure.

"I've got to protect my property," Bundy said as Arden steered several cattle inside an elongated pen. "If people come to monkey with what's mine, I'll call the county sheriff. If that don't work, I'll gather my friends and kids and we'll try to stop it. I abide by all state laws. But I abide by almost zero federal laws."

The face-off is the second time Bundy has challenged federal officials. In 1998, a federal judge issued a permanent injunction against the white-haired rancher, ordering his cattle off the land.

Representing himself, Bundy lost his appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. A simple man in a plaid shirt and denims, he's handled his legal battle from his Nevada ranch house, arguing in mailed-off court filings that his Mormon ancestors worked the land long before the BLM was even formed, giving him rights that predate federal involvement.

Despite the court order, he refused to pull one head of cattle off BLM land. "At first I said, 'No,'" he said, "then I said, 'Hell, no.'"

His defiance led to visits by Department of Homeland Security officials and local sheriff's deputies, who interviewed Bundy's neighbors to determine any possible threat. But the BLM took little public action — until this summer.

The case is the latest flourish of the civil disobedience popularized during the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement that sought greater local control in 12 Western states where the federal government administers 60% of the land. In Nevada, the BLM manages 87% of the state's land.

Experts say antigovernment clashes at Idaho's Ruby Ridge and Waco, Texas, are the modern chapters of an old Western story.

"It's the 18th century mind-set that the sweat off your brow determines your ability to survive, not the government," said Jeffrey Richardson, a historian at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. "But the notion of the great pioneer has been slowly chipped away by barbed wire and government regulation."

Bending to federal will is hard for independents like Bundy, Richardson added: "If a family has worked for generations to shape the land to their needs, it's difficult. These people have long thrived in difficult territory."

Others say Bundy's rugged individualism is misguided. "The reality is this is public land, and that means something," said Paul Starrs, a geography professor at the University of Nevada at Reno. "He's part of a long chain and he's entitled to feel oppressed. But that doesn't mean he's right."

Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie visited the rancher last year but has resisted enforcing federal deadlines, declining to put his deputies in danger over a herd of cattle. Gillespie called Bundy recently with the names of a few lawyers to contact. "I don't know if he's looking out for me or trying to protect his own skin," Bundy said. "But I told him he needs to defend my life, liberty and property."

Bundy's supporters include Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins, who doesn't buy the BLM's argument that it's trying to protect the desert tortoise. "The U.S. government has perpetrated a bigger fraud on people over those tortoises than Al Capone did selling swampland in Miami," he said.

Collins added that Nevada officials were studying whether to petition the federal government for local control over a wide swath of land that includes the area Bundy is fighting over.

"Cliven doesn't want to be a martyr — the guy who shot it out with the feds, Waco-style," he said. "I just hope the government isn't stupid enough to go pick a fight with him."

Bundy and Arden recently sat at the kitchen table, eating bacon and sourdough pancakes coated with heavy cream and peaches, before heading out to repair their irrigation equipment on public land. Bundy admitted his own spread runs to just 160 acres, far less than he needs to keep 500 head of cattle alive.

But he said his improvements, including 100 wells his family dug from beneath the desert scrub, have bettered the land. He says the federal plan to close off the area for the sake of the tortoises will ban not just his cattle but the general public from land with natural beauty that should be enjoyed.

He shook his head: And all over a tortoise.

Carol Bundy said her husband is not a violent man, just a person who will protect what he owns. For that matter, so is she. "I've got a shotgun," she said. "It's loaded. And I know how to use it. We're ready to do what we have to do, but we'd rather win this in the court of public opinion."

Grabbing another fistful of bacon, Arden said he wants to be part of any upcoming battle. His mother smiled. "Arden doesn't know life any other way," she said. "We've been fighting this war before he was born."

The 10th-grader said most students respect his buckaroo persona. "Others think I'm a joke," he said. "But I don't care what anyone says. This is the life I want to lead. I'm a cowboy and always will be."

He has plans for the Bundy ranch and wants to attend technical school so he can fix his own equipment. For now, he gets up at 5 a.m. to finish his chores before school, although he'd rather stay all day right there at the ranch, by his father's side.

While Bundy may be ready to hand over the ranch, Arden still knows who's boss.

Before heading out in the old pickup that Bundy has run 200,000 miles across the Nevada desert, Arden asked his dad a question.

"When we gettin' back?"

The old man sat silent.

"When we get back."

September 11, 2013

County gives up Mojave Preserve roads

San Bernardino County no longer will handle their upkeep, which will now be the domain of the National Parks Service

The National Park Service will take over a dozen San Bernardino County roads in the Mojave National Preserve.


San Bernardino County turned over about a dozen roads in the Mojave Preserve to the National Parks [sic] Service this week, fulfilling one of the requirements in a legal settlement it agreed to last year.

The county sued the federal government in 2006 over its rights to the roads because county crews had been maintaining them for decades before the preserve was created as part of the 1994 Desert Protection Act.

In the settlement last year with the Department of Interior and three conservation groups, the county agreed to give up its claims to the roads. In turn, the federal government agreed to maintain them and keep them open.

The Board of Supervisors formally approved the agreement at its Tuesday, Sept. 10, meeting.
Environmental groups had backed the settlement, saying it would keep the roads open while also protecting desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and other sensitive species along the routes in the eastern Mojave Desert.

County officials were concerned about the federal agency maintaining the roads, some of which cross private lands, and on which many residents rely.

Don Holland, special assistant to Supervisor Robert Lovingood, whose 1st District includes the preserve, said a separate agreement with the federal agency fully protects county residents. The road must be kept to a “commercially viable” standard, he said.

Lovingood was out of town this week but Board Chairwoman Janice Rutherford read a statement from him at Tuesday’s meeting saying that his office plans to work with the county Public Works Department in monitoring the terms of the agreement.

“It is important to ensure that the identified roads that will be transferred to the National Park Service remain open and accessible to all residents and visitors,” Lovingood said in the statement.

September 8, 2013

Conservationists say Glen Canyon coming to life again

Hite Marina, Lake Powell, Utah (Photo courtesy of the Glen Canyon Institute, St. George News)

Written by Dan Mabbutt

SOUTHERN UTAH – If you haven’t noticed, due to the driest years since Glen Canyon Dam was built, Glen Canyon is coming back to life, according to the Glen Canyon Institute, a nonprofit organization that has been working on restoring Glen Canyon and a free flowing Colorado River since 1996.

“This is the worst 14-year drought period in the last hundred years,” said Larry Wolkoviak, director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Region. According to Bureau of Reclamation’s figures, Lake Powell is less than 45 percent full. The once thriving Hite Marina sits dry with the free flowing Colorado River in the distance.

Eric Balken, programs coordinator for the Institute, gave a presentation at a recent Zion Canyon Natural History Association event in Springdale and said that if the weather patterns of the last few years hold, Glen Canyon will be restored to its former glory no matter what the policy of the government is.

Using pictures of slot canyons that had been under water for decades, Balken showed that a lot of the restoration has already happened. Balken said that the Institute had sponsored explorations of the newly exposed side canyons in Glen Canyon and, much to their surprise and delight, Glen Canyon is coming back much faster than they thought it would.

Balken’s main message was that we can do much better than that. In formal filings to the Bureau of Reclamation, the Institute has proposed a plan they call, “Fill Mead First.”

Earlier this year, the Bureau announced it was cutting water flow from Lake Powell to Lake Mead. Only 7.48 million acre-feet of water will be released from Lake Powell, which is projected to cause an 8-foot decline in water levels at Mead this year. Federal managers will also only allow so much water to be released so that hydro-electric power generation at Glen Canyon Dam can continue unhindered.

According to the Institute, trying to maintain two large reservoirs on the Colorado at partial capacity wastes water and creates problems.

One of the biggest problems is that, every year, Lake Powell loses water worth $225 million through leakage into the porous sandstone and evaporation. Concentrating the limited Colorado River water in just one reservoir would solve much of the problem and would restore much of Glen Canyon.

Christy Wedig, Glen Canyon Institute director, said: “Fill Mead First would recover up to 300,000 acre feet of Colorado River water to the system …. Any water releases from Glen Canyon Dam in excess of the 8.23 or 7.48 million acre-feet could be credited to the upper basin through administrative action. This credit could be drawn upon in lower flow years.”

If nothing is done and nature does essentially the same thing, no credit could be claimed by upper basin states, which includes Utah.

Wedig said that Utah and the other upper basin states could be required to deliver water to lower basin states under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, called a “compact call.” According to Wedig, “The upper basin has a fleeting moment of negotiating power with the lower basin. If water levels continue to decline, there is an increasing possibility of a compact call. Under this scenario, no upper basin diversions would be allowed until lower basin rights are met. The upper basin can use their current leverage to negotiate safeguards against a compact call.”

The claims the lower basin states have over the upper basin states regarding the Colorado River is one of the many items opponents of the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline point to as why that project may not be feasible in the long term. The Glen Canyon Institute stands with other groups that oppose the pipeline.

As for the Colorado River, Eric Millis, Deputy Director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said the Bureau of Reclamation has mapped the river’s annual flow between 1490 and 1997 through a tree ring study. According to the data, he said the annual flow has been fairly consistent, even in lean years.

“Continued mismanagement of this crucial resource will lead to the ultimate collapse of the river’s ecological, recreational, and economic outputs,” Wedig said.

As an example, Wedig said Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, recently called for Federal Disaster Relief funds due to the impending drought. “Implementing Fill Mead First would eliminate the need for this assistance and save taxpayers money,” Wedig said.

The Glen Canyon Institute plan does not call for Lake Powell to be completely drained. Their current proposal claims to stabilize the lake at the minimum power pool level.

Wedig said this would “recover many of the landmarks throughout Glen Canyon, stabilize Lake Mead water supply and allow for power generation at Glen Canyon Dam.”

She also said the advantage of the proposal is that it could be done without renegotiating the Colorado River Compact.

September 6, 2013

Desert tortoises should run from government

Sherman Frederick

Apparently, desert tortoises don’t read the newspapers. They are in trouble. They receive federal protection.

Here’s my advice to desert tortoises in Nevada: Run for your lives! You don’t need protection by the federal government. You need protection from the federal government.

Ask wild horses how federal protection is working out for them. Can you spell “dog food”?

Let me tell you a story. It’s one I share with many Nevada families.

My family once lived at The Lakes in Las Vegas. In the 1980s, it was a spot-zoned community in the middle of nowhere. No other development in any direction. Summerlin was a pipe dream. Civilization ended at Rainbow Boulevard. In some places, you could even see wagon ruts.

From our house to the mountains was pure desert, filled with jackrabbits, lizards of all kinds, coyotes, a few kit foxes and, of course, desert tortoises.

Most days after school, the kids in the neighborhood, accompanied by our yellow lab, Chief, set out on excursions from which they’d bring back all kinds of creatures. We’d have to stand our sons at attention on the front porch and search their backpacks, along with every pocket in their jeans, to separate them from their prized chuckwalla or whiptail or whatever turned out to be the catch the day.

We missed a few. Nothing like sitting down to dinner and watching a desert creature scurry across the floor.

This band of suburban children group-hunting with a yellow lab produced desert tortoises almost weekly. When the smiling kids would bring the tortoises home, I’d try to tell them the reptiles were a protected species, and that the creatures needed to be returned to the desert before the FBI found out.

They’d cock a puzzled glance like only kids can, and say: “But dad, they are everywhere.”

“Obviously.” I’d say, “But they are still protected. Take them back.”

The irony could not be missed. The federal government may not be able to find enough desert tortoises, but our neighborhood kids sure could.

Anyway, after some 20 years of central government “management” of the desert tortoise in Nevada (and not to mention extra, unnecessary expense incurred by the homebuilding industry), we’re starting to get the picture that it’s all been a weirdly dumb exercise. My kids and the yellow lab could have testified to that.

The federal government is now planning to close the Las Vegas Valley’s desert tortoise refugee camp and release hundreds of them into the wild. I am not making this up.

I hope there’s enough room for them out there.

September 4, 2013

Trucked sheep may have caused bighorn deaths

Domestic sheep trucked through the Mojave may have caused a devastating bighorn pneumonia wave

More than 100 bighorn sheep in and around the Mojave National Preserve have died from pneumonia since May. Wildlife officials say the epidemic wiped out half the herd, once considered one of the state's healthiest. (FILE PHOTO/THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE)


A pneumonia epidemic that has killed more than 100 bighorn sheep in the Mojave National Preserve this summer and is decimating another herd may have come from sick animals illegally dumped off a truck en route to alfalfa fields in the Imperial Valley, federal land managers said Tuesday, Sept. 3.

Scientists are investigating two areas plagued by disease. The first, at Old Dad Mountain, is 15 miles southeast of Baker. Wildlife experts estimate that half of the 200- to 300-sheep herd has died there and at nearby Kelso Peak since mid-May.

Last month, several sick bighorn sheep were found 35 miles to the south in the Marble Mountains, which are just south of Interstate 40 and east of Kelbaker Road. Tests showed they suffered the same strain of pneumonia found in bighorn at Old Dad Mountain and Kelso Peak.

“They’re seeing a lot of sick sheep, so they’re expecting a lot of sheep to die in the next couple weeks in the Marble Mountains. It happened pretty quick at Old Dad, within a month,” said Linda Slater, spokeswoman for the 1.6 million-acre preserve.

The majestic bighorn, icons of the American West, are highly susceptible to pneumonia carried by domestic sheep and goats. Bighorn have no immunity to the disease, which is almost always fatal.

At first, wildlife experts feared the pneumonia was transmitted between the herds and would quickly spread. But a recent discovery may be a clue to the source of the outbreak and its transmission, she said.

Click to view larger map
On Aug. 13, four domestic sheep carcasses and domestic sheep pellets were found at Halloran Summit, about 15 miles northeast of Baker on Interstate 15, she said. That is 20 miles away from the center of the outbreak at Old Dad Mountain, home to what had been considered one of the state’s healthiest herds.

On Aug. 24, scientists also found pellets at Foshay Pass, 15 miles northeast of Interstate 40 and Kelbaker Road. They are waiting for test results to determine whether the droppings came from domestic sheep, Slater said.

Trucks regularly transport domestic sheep through the Mojave on their way from Montana to Imperial Valley and around the Salton Sea for grazing, Slater said.

“The scientists are speculating that perhaps a truckload had some sick sheep on it. Maybe (the driver) had to unload some sheep to get some dead animals off the truck” and that’s how pellets got on the ground, she said.

The case is still under investigation and law enforcement is not involved, she said.

Early on, biologists thought that a feral angora goat shot by a hunter last fall at Marl Spring, 12 miles east of Old Dad Mountain, may have been the source of the outbreak. Though the animal tested negative for pneumonia, it still could have been a carrier, Slater said.

Later this month, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is expected to conduct a count by helicopter. The numbers of bighorn will be compared to population figures from the last survey, in 2008.

In October, state and federal officials plan to capture healthy animals in the surrounding mountains and outfit them with GPS collars so they will know immediately if they go down. At the same time, they will be able to collect blood samples and nasal swabs to see if the infection has spread.

There is no vaccine or cure for pneumonia in bighorn sheep. The disease does not spread to humans.

Some of the dead animals were taken for testing to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory in San Bernardino, which is operated by the UC Davis veterinary school. Some carcasses were too decomposed for testing and were left in the field, state officials said.

Before the outbreak, there were an estimated 425 to 750 bighorn in the five groups in the Mojave: Old Dad Mountain, Clark Mountain, Piute Mountain, Woods-Hackberry Mountains and Providence-Granite Mountains.

State officials have yet to decide whether to proceed with this year’s bighorn hunting within the preserve, which starts Dec. 1. The Mojave is one of the few places in California where bighorn sheep hunting is permitted.

In October, the Fish and Game Commission will consider what to do about the upcoming hunting season. The state issues tags by lottery, based on the number of rams in a herd; three were issued this year for the Old Dad Mountain and Kelso Peak area.

September 3, 2013

Utah counties want to take the roads less traveled -- and keep them

The Island Park Road, which descends 17 miles through sagebrush and pinyon and juniper trees before ending on the banks of the Green River, is one of more than 12,000 roads Utah has claimed under R.S. 2477. (Photo by Phil Taylor.)

Phil Taylor

DINOSAUR NATIONAL MONUMENT, Utah -- A bullet-riddled sign in Utah's pinyon-juniper desert warns of a winding highway ahead.

It's a harbinger of the tortuous political and legal fight among Utah's counties, environmental groups and the Bureau of Land Management that could dramatically change management of the area's stark deserts, red rock canyons and backcountry lands.

Key witnesses say they remember Island Park Road being used by jeeps and trucks at least as far back as the 1950s for livestock operations, farming, fishing and other recreation.

That, according to an 1866 mining law, means management of the road rightfully belongs to Utah, not BLM or the National Park Service, over whose land the road crosses.

The 17-mile road, which winds past ranchlands and American Indian petroglyphs to a historical ranch along the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument, is one of more than 12,000 roads that Utah and its counties last year claimed as their own in federal district court.

Spanning about 36,000 miles, the road claims represent one of Utah's boldest bids yet to assert control over federal lands and, according to conservationists, the most serious threat to Utah's remaining wildlands.

Utah claims the roads at stake have been used for decades by hunters, cattle ranchers, mineral speculators and motorized vehicle enthusiasts, and have either been shut down or restricted, or are in danger of closure by the federal government.

"There will be economic benefits derived from these roads if they're kept open," said Anthony Rampton, Utah's assistant attorney general and lead litigation counsel for the roads lawsuits. "That benefit will come from ranching enterprises, oil and gas development, wind development, solar development, tourist income, hunting and fishing income."

But unlike similar campaigns by Utah to "take back" federal lands through eminent domain or by hamstringing federal law enforcement agents, the law appears to be on Utah's side in its road battle.

In March, Utah's Kane County claimed a major victory when a federal district judge awarded it rights of way over 12 of 15 roads it had claimed, four of which run through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (Greenwire, March 25). Some of those 89 miles also run through the Paria-Hackberry wilderness study area, which BLM recognized for its roadless characteristics and which environmentalists have eyed for future wilderness designation.

"Given the facts that we have and the law, we're going to be able to prove the vast majority of these roads," Rampton said of the state's Revised Statute 2477 claims, which are located in 22 of its 29 counties. "It shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone."

The ruling was a shot across the bow for conservationists who fear the road claims, if successful, would fragment Utah's best remaining backcountry, including scenic national parks and monuments. Solitude would be lost, invasive weeds would spread and archaeological sites would be exposed to looters, they say.

Conservationists have assembled a legal team of more than 25 attorneys from national and local law firms to work alongside federal attorneys against the state's claims.

Steve Bloch, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said a majority of Utah's road claims are primitive dirt tracks, not the "highways" that the 1866 law aimed to protect.

"The overwhelming majority of these routes simply noodle out into the desert," Bloch said.

The claims run through every national park except Bryce Canyon and Arches and through at least two designated wilderness areas and would fragment habitat for vehicle-skittish elk and sage grouse, according to SUWA.

The road claims also travel more than 500 miles of wilderness study areas, 2,000 miles of national monuments and 3,600 miles of proposed wilderness, SUWA said. Few of them lead to grocery stores or schools or promote commerce, Bloch said.

"They're really out to thwart congressional wilderness designation," he said. "That's why the stakes are so high in Utah."

Barring a settlement, the legal battle promises to be a costly one -- one rural county in southeast Utah has already spent $1 million litigating a single road in Canyonlands National Park -- and could easily last decades.

"If we can't resolve them ourselves amidst negotiation, we have no choice but to go to court," Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) said in an interview. "I'm not willing to continue to kick the can down the road and put off getting that answer."

If Utah prevails, experts say other Western states could follow suit, kicking off an even larger battle.

'Short, sweet and enigmatic'

Utah's road claims -- filed in several massive complaints in spring 2012 -- fall under an obscure 1866 mining law designed to promote settlement in the Western frontier.

"And be it further enacted," R.S. 2477 read, "that the right of way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted."

The law was "short, sweet and enigmatic," according to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2005 ruling.

The law was an opportunity for miners and homesteaders to build trails or roads over any public lands not yet reserved or claimed for private use. Most of the roads in the West were established under its authority.

As Utah's Supreme Court noted more than 80 years ago, "It was a standing offer of a free right of way over the public domain," which required no formal acceptance or approval by the federal authorities.

That all changed in 1976 when Congress repealed R.S. 2477 as part of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, a watershed law that directed BLM to retain and preserve its lands rather than dispose them for private development.

But Congress grandfathered any valid R.S. 2477 right that existed at the time.

As a result, counties seeking legal recognition of their R.S. 2477 claims must prove -- through historical records, photos or witness testimony -- that the roads were used as far back as the 1960s.

But witnesses who can testify to using the roads are getting old and dying, creating a sense of urgency for Utah counties.

"We've probably lost between half and three-quarters of our witnesses to death," Rampton said. "We're losing more every day."

The state is currently deposing hundreds of "at-risk" witnesses in courthouses, schools, county commission chambers, BLM offices and people's homes.

"'I killed my first buck here. We corralled cattle here,'" Rampton said. "That's the kind of detail we're able to get from these witnesses."

Last month alone, attorneys from the Justice Department, Utah and its counties, and SUWA visited Tooele, Garfield, Beaver, Grand and San Juan counties to take testimony from 10 witnesses.

Pete Steele, a 76-year-old witness from San Juan, testified for three days on roughly 100 roads. Steele, a former cattle rancher, tour guide, BLM employee and San Juan employee, said he used R.S. 2477 roads south of Canyonlands for livestock operations, hunting, predator control, hiking, and other recreation and traveling, according to his affidavit.

"When you spend time with the people who live and work on these roads and have lived there all their lives, you realize they are important, and they're important for intangible reasons," Rampton said. "For instance, there are a lot of hunters who use these roads. They have places they've gone all their lives. They've gone with their fathers and grandfathers and families. Traditions have built up around the use of these roads."

'The whole thing is a travesty'

But critics of Utah's claims say the vast majority of the roads are so-called Class D routes that have never been maintained and aren't critical to the state's transportation needs.

Many were created by off-roaders, oil and gas prospectors or wanderers who left the trodden path decades ago. In the arid desert, where plants and shrubs take hundreds of years to regrow, an improvised two-track can take centuries to fully restore itself.

"People argue about the meaning of the word 'highway,' but it's hard to imagine it means a random oil and gas seismic line from the '60s that hasn't been driven except once every five years," said Kevin Walker, a SUWA volunteer who lives in Moab and works for Microsoft. "To me that seems like abusing the law."

On a searing hot July day, Walker hunted for R.S. 2477 claims along Browns Hole Road, a dirt route that heads east from U.S. 191 toward the La Sal Mountains.

"See that faint line over there?" he asked, pointing to a strip of younger, lighter sagebrush that vanished into a hillside.

It was an oil and gas seismic line, one of thousands that were carved in the 1950s and '60s by prospectors who used dynamite to locate mineral deposits. San Juan County is claiming it under R.S. 2477.

"They were never planning on coming back," Walker said of the prospectors, who are said to have been paid by the mile. "Someone else comes along and sees the tire tracks and tries the road, even though there's nothing there."

Wearing a blue bucket hat, running shorts and sandals, Walker said he takes pride in finding the faintest R.S. 2477 claims. He mapped many of these routes decades ago while taking an inventory of roadless lands for the Utah Wilderness Coalition, of which SUWA is a member.

He said many of the counties' R.S. 2477 routes were even fainter when he first walked them 15 years ago. Since the lawsuits were filed, counties have systematically driven all the routes, he said.

"When the counties claim they need these roads, it's disingenuous and demonstrably false," he said. "What they really want is to control the land."

Once an R.S. 2477 claim is granted, BLM has almost no way to close them down, even if it needs to preserve them for wildlife or quiet recreation. It effectively precludes future wilderness.

"These are federal lands, and the federal government should be able to manage them in a rational way and not encumbered by this loophole in a very ancient law," Walker said. "To me, the whole thing is a travesty."

A handful of other R.S. 2477 road claims spur haphazardly from the Browns Hole Road. One of them narrows into a rocky trough before petering out into the juniper and pinyon flats.

In the late 1990s, Grand County decided to increase the miles of Class B roads in its system to prevent a reduction in state subsidies for road maintenance, Walker said. It unilaterally bladed minor roads and unmaintained jeep trails, he said, but "BLM didn't have the guts to stand up to them."

Several miles south of here, the R.S. 2477 battle is playing out at Hatch Point, a sagebrush plateau coveted by oil and gas and potash developers as well as SUWA and the Sierra Club, which have proposed including the land in a 1.4-million-acre Greater Canyonlands National Monument.

A 22-mile paved road takes visitors to the Needles Overlook, which offers miles of stunning views over labyrinth red rock canyons underneath Canyonlands park.

Hatch Point has plenty of dirt roads, though the area's dense brush, rock buttes and spires make them hard to see. San Juan has staked dozens of R.S. 2477 claims here.

One of them leads to a dried-up stock pond and a field of invasive cheatgrass and Russian thistle. It fades a couple of hundred yards into the desert before disappearing.

"It just goes out here and dies," said Liz Thomas, an attorney for SUWA. "It doesn't circle back. It wasn't intended to go anywhere."

Court-awarded road claims would make the area an easier target for mineral development and potentially a weaker candidate for a national monument.

'A wasting kind of witness'

Roads support San Juan's mineral economy -- oil, gas and mining account for 60 percent of its tax base -- but they also preserve recreation, said John Fellmeth, who helps run the county's roads preservation project.

San Juan claimed roughly 1,800 roads in its R.S. 2477 lawsuit, even though some have never been driven by county officials.

"It looks like there might be a nice overlook," Fellmeth said, pointing to a narrow rust-colored dirt path at Hatch Point.

He was joined by Nick Sandberg, the county's public lands coordinator who previously worked more than 30 years at BLM's Monticello field office, which oversees Hatch Point.

Neither was sure where the road went or what it was used for.

It likely provided access for livestock growers, Sandberg said, pointing to a salt block on the side of the road that may have nourished cows or sheep.

The road ended at the plateau's edge, where a dirt clearing offered sweeping views of Heart Canyon nearly a thousand feet below and the "six shooter" pinnacle -- a sandstone spire named by early cowboys for its resemblance to pistols. The jagged rocks of Canyonlands could be seen in the distance.

The road certainly led somewhere, though whether it is a "highway" is a matter of dispute that will be decided by a federal judge.

Fellmeth said there are about 80 "at-risk" witnesses in San Juan. Some testify on as many as 60 roads in a day, he said.

"Most of them are fairly old, and even those who are still with us, their mental faculties are deteriorating quite dramatically," he said. "It's a wasting kind of witness."

Critics have questioned whether witnesses in their 70s or 80s could accurately identify the roads they used when Lyndon Johnson was president.

Before they testify, witnesses are driven on the roads by the state's attorneys to "refresh their recollection," said Bloch, the attorney from SUWA.

Courts will have to wrestle with issues of credibility, as they do with all trials.

From the Needles Overlook at Hatch Point, Fellmeth pointed to an airstrip about a thousand feet below that may have been used to transport oil and gas equipment to the Lockhart Basin.

Visual clues like that can help orient R.S. 2477 witnesses, Fellmeth said.

However, they can also be deceiving. Less than a mile away is a similar airstrip with similar red rock surroundings.

'We have a high card'

County officials in Utah see R.S. 2477 as a potent defense against the president's use of the Antiquities Act to designate national monuments.

The 1906 law is controversial in Utah, where President Clinton designated the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996 over the objections of local officials. Monuments bar future mineral claims.

R.S. 2477 adds another twist to Utah's political mine field.

"It just gives the counties an extra card to play that they haven't had in the past," said Lynn Jackson, a councilman for Grand County, whose economy depends heavily on mountain bikers, off-highway vehicle riders and national park visitors.

"We know we have a high card," Jackson said. "For now, we're just going to tuck it up our sleeve, and if we need it, we'll play it."

Utah counties were politically emboldened by Kane County's R.S. 2477 victory, Jackson said. Grand and five other counties are currently negotiating with conservationists and other stakeholders on a major public lands bill.

"SUWA is concerned," Jackson said. "If we take all these 12,000 segments, they're saying 'Holy crap, we're likely to lose all that ... maybe we should negotiate.'"

Jackson, who formerly worked for BLM for 32 years, opposes the proposed Canyonlands National Monument, which he argued would hamper oil and gas and potash development in Grand, stifling economic diversification.

On a recent drive through the butte-marked desert lands northwest of Moab, Jackson pointed to a sandy, riparian wash passable only by motorcycles that descends to an overlook above the Green River.

The path, an R.S. 2477 claim, was kept open in BLM's travel management plan, even though conservationists wanted it closed, Jackson said. The county believes it should have the final say over who uses the road.

"That's a huge draw to the motorized recreation economy," he said. "They're the ones who spend the most money around here."

A spreading fight?

Litigating all of Utah's R.S. 2477 roads to the 10th Circuit could take well over a decade and cost billions of dollars.

"Obviously it's kind of insane to try to litigate 12,000 roads," said one top Interior official who asked not to be named. The first Kane County case, which involved 15 roads, took nine days of trial and field trips, the official said.

The hope is that as cases are decided at the appellate court level, parties will have a better foundation for settlement talks.

Since March, a handful of cases in Garfield, Kane, Emery and San Juan counties have been active. Meanwhile, the state is continuing to depose its old and infirm witnesses in case the rest of the roughly 20 cases become active.

While conservationists have criticized the state's lawsuits as a waste of taxpayer money, the R.S. 2477 campaign is widely supported in the Utah Legislature, where lawmakers earlier this year passed a special appropriation to compensate counties for legal services from outside firms including Holland & Hart. The firm is estimated to have provided at least $1.8 million in services to Kane County alone, The Salt Lake Tribune reported in March, citing former BLM Director and Utah public lands official Kathleen Clarke.

Under the plan, the state would pay for half of the first $700,000 in legal bills a county incurs and would pay the majority of bills beyond that.

Conservationists are skeptical whether the federal government will adequately represent their interests.

According to SUWA's Bloch, conservation groups have twice as many attorneys working on R.S. 2477 cases than the Justice Department. Pro bono work is being provided by law firms Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Cooley LLP and Jenner & Block LLP, he said. There are also two local Salt Lake City firms, former Earthjustice attorney Robert Wiygul, and SUWA and Wilderness Society attorneys working on the cases.

The federal government's appeal of the Kane County case to the 10th Circuit was heartening, Bloch said.

Utah counties have lost some notable R.S. 2477 cases too.

For example, a federal district judge in 2011 rejected San Juan County's claim that several miles of Salt Creek Canyon in Canyonlands National Park was an R.S. 2477 route. "A jeep trail on a creek bed, with its shifting sand and intermittent floods is a by-way, but not a highway," wrote U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins (Land Letter, June 2, 2011).

San Juan and Utah appealed the case to the 10th Circuit, which could issue a decision any day.

Utah's R.S. 2477 claims are being closely watched by environmental attorneys as well as other Western states looking to loosen Washington, D.C.'s reins over public lands.

The Vermont Law School included Utah's road claims in its "Top 10 Environmental Watch List 2013," warning that if federal courts affirm even a fraction of the state's claims, it could set off a cascade of threats to national parks, wilderness study areas, monuments and other protected lands across the West.

"Other western states are likely watching Utah's land grab, waiting to see what the federal courts will do with these 26 claims," wrote Hillary Hoffmann, a professor at the law school, and student Sara Imperiale.

Alaska has already earmarked money to study potential R.S. 2477 claims, and Nevada, the birthplace of the Sagebrush Rebellion, would jump on the R.S. 2477 "bandwagon" if Utah prevails in its lawsuits, Hoffmann and Imperiale said.

Attempts to settle

The ongoing litigation has created a great deal of uncertainty on all sides, including BLM, said Robert Keiter, a professor of public lands for the University of Utah who serves on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, which has criticized the state's road claims.

"That impacts the BLM's ability to make long-term land and resource management decisions wherever these claims are being pressed," he said.

The road claims also complicate a broader effort by Utah GOP Rep. Rob Bishop to pass a comprehensive public lands bill for six eastern Utah counties -- Uintah, Emery, Carbon, Grand, Wayne and San Juan -- that would consolidate lands for oil and gas, potash and mining development while designating others for off-highway vehicles, mountain bikes and wilderness.

Bishop said conservation groups he is working with -- which include SUWA, the Wilderness Society, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy -- have "legitimate concerns" that future road claims could tarnish wilderness designations, which, by definition, aim to keep the lands "untrammeled by man."

Scott Groene, executive director of SUWA, said Washington County in 2009 agreed to have wilderness designations under legislation passed by former Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) but has since filed R.S. 2477 claims in those areas.

"Utah's 20-plus lawsuits against the United States over R.S. 2477 may be the biggest hurdle to overcome in trying to reach agreement here," Groene said. "Fortunately, Congressman Bishop has said he believes the R.S. 2477 issue should be resolved as part of this legislation. We are in agreement with him on this point."

Last month, the various sides reached a rare accord to amicably resolve a handful of the disputed road claims in remote mountains west of Salt Lake City.

BLM, Utah, Juab County and environmental groups announced a settlement designed to balance the protection of primitive lands in the Deep Creek Mountains wilderness study area with access for motorized vehicle users (Greenwire, Aug. 20).

It marked the first negotiated settlement in Utah's larger bid over the R.S. 2477 claims.

Congress has tried unsuccessfully a handful of times to address the conflict.

Bills by then-Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) nearly a decade ago sought to narrow the definition of R.S. 2477 rights of ways. Bills by Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) in 2006 and 2007 would have given states and counties more influence in the process. But lawmakers have done little since then.

Some observers are hopeful Bishop can resolve some claims in eastern Utah.

"There's an opportunity for some, if not all, of those roads to be addressed as a result of this legislative process," said Cody Stewart, an energy adviser for Herbert and former Bishop aide. "It may be one of the negotiated pieces that helps bring this across the finish line."

September 2, 2013

Needles City Council reiterates objection to water project

Needles Desert Star

NEEDLES — In a split vote, city council members approved sending a copy of an earlier letter stating their opposition to the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project to several more recipients.

There was some confusion during the Aug. 27 meeting as to who received that first letter, which was sent about a year ago. The letter, which stated the council’s disapproval of the project, was sent to Cadiz and was included in the environmental impact report being completed at the time.

Council member Tom Darcy wanted to have that same letter disbursed to additional people. His motion included sending the letter to state senators, San Bernardino County Supervisor Robert Lovingood and to government officials in Sacramento.

Lesley Thornburg, operations manager for Cadiz, Inc., gave a presentation regarding the Cadiz water project to council in the Aug. 27 meeting. She spoke on various elements of the project Cadiz has planned and the benefits it will have for the area.

Thornburg gave background regarding Cadiz. The company was founded in 1983 and owns 45,000 acres of land. They also have water rights in three San Bernardino County locations.

They’ve been farming on their land for 20 years and farm organic grapes, citrus and other types of crops, she said. The focus of the presentation was the water project.

She said the phase I portion of the project is completely approved, having completed the California Environmental Quality Act. The next steps include complete construction of a well field, natural gas power resource and solar facilities.

Cadiz plans to construct a 43-mile buried pipeline to the Colorado River aqueduct within an Arizona-California Railroad right of way. They would deliver, on average, 50,000 acre-feet of water annually to providers over a 50-year period that’s subject to a management plan, she said.

Thornburg said it will be a new reliable source for more than 100,000 families every year. Water users in six counties, including San Bernardino, Riverside, Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura and Imperial, would all receive water. The largest portion would stay in San Bernardino County, she continued.

Thornburg also discussed various projected benefits of the project. She claimed there will be many benefits to the community, including stimulation of the local economy, reduction of demands on Colorado River water, creation of just under 6,000 jobs and will mean about $6 million in tax revenue. Of that, about $600,000 will go to the school district, she continued.

Tom Henderson, project lead for the hydrology portion, also spoke. He reviewed elements of the project. He explained how all the rigorous measuring and testing corroborated the recharge that’s estimated.

He said Cadiz knew there would be questions about the recharge, they also did a variety of “what if” situations and modeled them. There was no significance impact found in any of those scenarios, he added.

Henderson also pointed out the project did get CEQA certified and CEQA is the most stringent environmental law in the U.S. No problems were found with the project, he added.

He said there are several early warning features set up to evaluate the response of the project to actual pumping and if not acting as predicted, the project would be adjusted.

It’s not optional, he said. San Bernardino County will regulate and provide oversight.

Darcy expressed several concerns about the project, including concerns about water being sent to Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Other council members echoed his comments, making statements of how those counties need to find other ways to serve their residents.

Additional concerns centered on how much water is proposed to be pumped and the potential negative impacts if there isn’t recharge. Council members generally agreed that sending another letter to show their continued disapproval of the project is needed.

Terry Campbell, council member, said he doesn’t approve of the project, but he also didn’t agree with sending another letter. “Have you really thought what you’re asking for?” he asked.

Campbell said the problem with a letter is that it may encourage federal government to step in and would possibly mean taking away private citizens’ property rights, which isn’t right. He felt it best to not take any action, he added.

There were additional comments made regarding previous situations where property rights were taken away and the possible negative impacts of the project. Sending a copy of the original letter to more representatives won out for the night.

Cadiz company spokeswoman claims water project safe, sustainable

Needles Desert Star

NEEDLES — While the city council decided to reiterate their stance on the Cadiz water project during their meeting Aug. 27, Cadiz also had a response.

“The Project has been reviewed and approved under the most stringent environmental law in the United States and includes unprecedented enforcement measures to ensure that operations are safe and sustainable,” Courtney Degener, Cadiz spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement.

The response comes after the council voted to resend a letter disapproving of the Cadiz water project. They approved sending the letter to government officials in Sacramento, state senators and Robert Lovingood, San Bernardino County District One Supervisor.

“We were disappointed in the action taken by the Council this week, because Needles, which is 80 miles away from the project area and in an entirely different watershed, is one of the population centers that would benefit from employment opportunities and new tax revenue offered by the project, including $1,000 per pupil for Needles’ students every year,” she said.

“Additionally, San Bernardino County and the desert will receive significant water supply benefits from the project - more than 20 percent of project supplies have already been reserved for county-based water uses - and the city of Needles could easily take delivery via an exchange along the Colorado River,” Degener said.

“We appreciate the support of the local business community and look forward to ultimately working with the Council to deliver the many real long-term local benefits promised by the project,” Degener said.