December 16, 2013

Johnson Valley: Deal will have Marines, public sharing access

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

Written by K Kaufmann
The Desert Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 12, 2013

Court rejects Las Vegas' groundwater rights to rural valleys

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

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

By Brian Maffly
The Salt Lake Tribune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 11, 2013

Marines, offroaders reach compromise on Johnson Valley

Detailed final Johnson Valley OHVRA map available here.

by K Kaufmann
The Desert Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 7, 2013

Next stop on our journey: Barstow

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

Written by Kathy Strong
Special to The Desert Sun

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

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

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

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

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

Folk art forest

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

Victorville's tribute

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

Iconic motel

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

December 6, 2013

Mojave preserve offers views and plenty of Joshua trees

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 4, 2013

Clark County commissioners challenge desert tortoise impact fee

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrowka disagrees.

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

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

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

December 3, 2013

Solar project planned next to Mojave National Preserve

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Childers can be reached at 951-697-5308.