March 28, 2014

Rancher stands up; feds should back off

Cliven Bundy
Las Vegas Review-Journal

A rancher needs big brass ones to stand up to Washington. Not only is the federal government the country’s largest and least competent landowner, it’s also the country’s largest police force and largest law firm, wrapped with red tape into one unflinching leviathan.

Cliven Bundy has big brass ones, all right. And the belt buckle and hat to go with them. But Clark County’s last cattle rancher knew his defiance would one day come to this. After more than 20 years of being dared to use their heavy hands, Bureau of Land Management officials and federal authorities say they’re finally going to seize and auction Mr. Bundy’s livestock.

Starting Thursday, Washington restricted access to almost 600,000 acres of land — nearly 1,000 square miles, or roughly the area of Rhode Island — with pockets of closures so agents and contract cowboys can round up several hundred “trespass cattle” owned by Mr. Bundy. The restrictions will be in place through May 12. Public land, indeed.

Although Mr. Bundy stopped paying grazing fees to the BLM in 1993, the desert tortoise is driving this confiscation. The BLM closed large areas of land northeast of Las Vegas to grazing in 1999 in another misguided attempt to protect the reptile and its habitat. Never mind that grazing has long benefited tortoise populations by churning seeds into soils, keeping predators at a distance and limiting the vegetation overgrowth that feeds wildfires. Never mind the long record of federal busybodies killing off tortoises by trying to save them.

The environmentalist toadies at the Center for Biological Diversity don’t like ranching and grazing. They believe a few hundred cattle will destroy hundreds of thousands of acres of desert. They want the BLM use force to remove Mr. Bundy’s cattle. The roundup will disturb plenty of tortoise habitat, at great public expense, but no matter. BLM officials have spent years in the courts making sure Mr. Bundy has no legal recourse to stop them this time.

Mr. Bundy, 67, doesn’t care what judges say about the unforgiving land his family has lived on for nearly 140 years. “Tell them Bundy’s ready,” he told the Review-Journal’s Henry Brean this week. “Whenever they’ve got the guts to try it, tell them to come.”

This action could reignite the Sagebrush Rebellion — Mr. Bundy has allies across the West. There is great potential for violence. It shouldn’t come to that. We hope it doesn’t.

The most obvious solution, releasing federal land to local control, won’t happen overnight. So we offer a final chance at compromise: Have Washington stand down and send the zealots of the Center for Biological Diversity to collect the cattle, instead.

March 27, 2014

Range war heats up again between defiant Nevada rancher and BLM

A federal court has ordered rancher Cliven Bundy to remove his cattle from land managed by the Bureau of Land Management in central Nevada. He refuses to do so. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times / August 20, 2013)

By John M. Glionna
Los Angeles Times

LAS VEGAS -- From the cab of his old pickup, Cliven Bundy watched the trucks congregate on the horizon near his ranch some 80 miles north of here. His ongoing range war with the federal government, Bundy said, has heated up yet again.

Officials say Bundy is illegally running cattle in the 600,000-acre Gold Butte area, a habitat of the protected desert tortoise. Last year, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that if the 68-year-old veteran rancher did not remove his cattle, they could be seized by the Bureau of Land Management.

On Thursday, federal authorities began closing off Gold Butte area and rounding up what they call “trespass cattle” there. Many of them belong to Bundy.

“I see where they’re set up,” Bundy told the Los Angeles Times by telephone Thursday. “There’s trailers and communications vans. I haven't seen them take any of my cattle yet, but they're getting ready to.”

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 BLM. Since 1993, he's refused to pay BLM grazing fees, arguing in court filings that his Mormon ancestors worked the land long before the BLM was formed, giving him rights that predate federal involvement.

Bundy also likes to say he "fired the BLM," vowing not to give one dime to an agency that he says is plotting his demise. The back fees exceed $300,000, he said.

The father of 14 insists that generations of his family have ranched and worked this unforgiving landscape along the Virgin River since the 1880s. He says government overregulation has already driven scores of fellow ranchers out of business in sprawling Clark County, leaving him as the last man standing.

For years the rancher has insisted that 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," he told The Times last year. "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."

In 1998, a federal judge issued a permanent injunction against the white-haired rancher, ordering his cattle off the land and setting off a long series of legal filings.

Kirsten Cannon, spokeswoman for the Nevada BLM office in Reno, said the federal government means business this time.

“His cattle have been illegally trespassing on federal land for two decades and it’s just unfair for those who ranch in compliance,” she said. “We made repeated attempts to resolve this. The courts have ordered him to move his cattle. Now we’ve reached the last resort, which is impoundment.”

Environmentalists say it’s time for Bundy to get his cattle off federal land because they are endangering the habitat of creatures who have been there forever.

"Despite having no legal right to do so, cattle from Bundy’s ranch have continued to graze throughout the Gold Butte area, competing with tortoises for food, hindering the ability of plants to recover from extensive wildfires, trampling rare plants, damaging ancient American Indian cultural sites and threatening the safety of recreationists,” the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement earlier this week.

The group added, “Surveys by the BLM have found well over 1,000 cattle — many in easily damaged freshwater springs and riparian areas on public lands managed by the National Park Service and state of Nevada as well as the BLM.”

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

In a telephone interview Thursday, Bundy's wife, Carol, said the family remains as resolved as ever. “It just shows that we’re not a sovereign state,” she said of the government's action Thursday. “It just shows that the federal government thinks they have power over us. My county and my state is allowing this to happen. But you know what? They haven’t taken our cattle yet. We’re still hanging on.”

Carol Bundy told The Times that Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie has not responded to their requests to intervene. “We want him to step in and tell these federal characters that ‘This is Clark County, Nev., land and you have go through me to get these cattle.’ But we have not heard a word.”

Gillsepie told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that neither Bundy nor the BLM should resort to violence. “No drop of human blood is worth spilling over any cow,” he told the newspaper.

So the Bundy family waits. The rancher said he’ll be patrolling the land near his ranch, waiting for any sign the federal government is taking his cattle.

March 19, 2014

Bunkerville Rancher Prepares To Battle Feds Again For Land

Cliven Bundy at his Bunkerville Ranch. (Mike Donahue / Desert Valley Times)

Moapa Valley Progress

The arid desert range southwest of Mesquite is heating up in anticipation of an Old West-style showdown. In recent weeks, Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy has been preparing for what may be a last stand in his decades-old struggle with the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over what he believes are his ancestral rights to graze cattle on the land.

In an interview last week with the Progess, Bundy said that he had spoken recently to Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie. In that conversation, Gillespie reportedly informed Bundy that the BLM is getting close to enforcing a federal court order, issued last fall, to seize his cattle if he doesn’t remove them from the vast range south and west of Bunkerville.

“He sounded pretty certain that it was going to happen,” Bundy said. “The only uncertainty was just the matter of when.”

Earlier this week, BLM officials were still unwilling to give a date on when the roundup might occur. BLM spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon said that federal court rulings handed down in July and October gave Bundy 45 days to comply. That period is now long past, Cannon said.

“The BLM is continuing in its ongoing efforts to work with state, local and federal agencies to comply with the court order,” Cannon said. “There are a lot of details that are being worked out so we are still working on a timeline.”

Whenever it happens, Bundy says he has no intention of just giving in and moving his cattle off the land.

“I have pre-emptive rights on that land, adjudicated back in the 1930s under the Taylor Grazing Act,” Bundy said. “I’ll do whatever it takes to protect my life, liberty and property; and along with them, the rights of the other citizens of Clark County to have access to the land.”

This is not the first time that Bundy’s cattle have been in the crosshairs of the BLM. The legal actions have been flying back and forth since the early 1990s. That’s when environmentalist worries about the effects of ranching on the endangered desert tortoise habitat began to take hold. By the end of the 1990s, the government had bought out all of the existing grazing permits from Clark County ranchers; all, that is except for Cliven Bundy’s. Bundy refused to sell his rights. But the entire allotment of rights, including Bundy’s, was retired anyway at that time by the BLM.
For his part, Bundy disputes the very claim that the tortoise is truly an endangered species. Even if it is, he disputes that the existence of his cattle on the range are a danger to tortoise habitat.

But Bundy also insists that the current dispute is not really about the tortoise nor his cattle. Rather it is a dispute over ownership of the land and over the right of the public to access it.
Bundy has insisted all along that this issue is not under the jurisdiction of the federal government because he claims the land, by rights, actually belongs to the state of Nevada.

“According to the 10th Amendment, the state of Nevada is a sovereign authority within the United States to make rules and regulate itself and its lands,” Bundy said. “I believe that it is the people of Nevada and of Clark County who own this land that I graze my cattle on. I have no contract with the federal government so this whole thing shouldn’t be controlled by a federal court. It is the state courts that should assert authority in this matter.”

But the federal courts have disagreed with this assertion over the years. In 2008, the federal government took Bundy to court for trespass on federal land and prevailed. The decision found Bundy in trespass and levied a heavy fine of $200 per day per cow.

Bundy expected an appeal to the Supreme Court by the state of Nevada who, he said, should have proclaimed its sovereignty in the matter. But nothing was ever done about it. He was never assessed the fines, and Bundy just kept on ranching the land as he always had done.

That went on for 14 years. Then in the spring of 2012, the BLM made some specific plans for hiring contract cowboys to round up and impound hundreds of Bundy’s cattle.

In response, Bundy, along with his family and supporters quickly sprang into action. They sent notices to the contract cowboys, the Clark County Sheriff, the Clark County Commissioners and other state elected officials; promising to hold each of them liable for any loss of cattle or equipment in the raid.

The BLM officials backed down at that time stating that they would return back to the courts to strengthen their position.

Then last fall, the U.S. District Court released two orders that did just that. The orders permanently enjoined Bundy from trespassing on land that he has always considered his pre-emptive ranching allotment. The court orders also found that Bundy’s cattle had been allowed to wander far beyond his traditional allotment onto what the document calls “New Trespass lands”. So the orders also permanently enjoined Bundy from trespassing on that land and ordered him to remove all cattle from those lands as well.

The order also quickly dismissed Bundy’s claim that the land is, or should be, under state jurisdiction.

“The court finds that Bundy’s objections to the United States’ Motion are without merit,” the Order reads. “The court has stated unequivocally on numerous occasions that it has jurisdiction to hear this case and that the (former Bundy) allotment is owned by the United States. Bundy’s repeated suggestions to the contrary are entirely unavailing.”

Finally, the documents specifically entitled the federal government to “seize and remove to impound any of Bundy’s cattle that remain in trespass after 45 days of the date hereof”.

These documents claimed to have lined up all the legal technicalities needed for the BLM to move forward with the roundup. So now the BLM’s plan was to again hire a contractor to round up the animals and confiscate them.

This process requires that each animal be checked over by a state brand inspector. Even this technicality is claimed to be covered in the legal paperwork from the federal court being presented by the BLM.

“The Sheriff told me that they were going to come out and that the Nevada brand inspectors would be there to inspect the cattle,” Bundy said. “So it seems like both of their legs are wobbling a little bit on this thing.”

Nevertheless, Bundy says that he will continue on in the fight, following all of the legal avenues that he can. This includes pushing for a legal recognition that an order would be needed from a Nevada court in order to proceed with the brand inspections.

“Without a Nevada court order, the brand inspector is not required to come out,” Bundy said. “They work for me as a citizen of Nevada not for the feds. But they seem to be just going along with this. All the State Brand Inspector has to do is say ‘no’ and this whole thing would be shut down.”

Bundy said that he also plans to make a continued appeal to the Sheriff to uphold his grazing rights.

“All the Sheriff has to do is say ‘no’ to this,” Bundy said. “Is he going to step in and protect my rights or is he going to stand on the fence and allow this to go on?”

If the federal roundup of his cattle takes place, Bundy also promises to bring legal action against the contract cowboys hired to carry it out; as well as state and local officials who, he feels, ought to be standing up for him.

“I’m going to hold these people liable and legally accountable for their actions with any lawsuits that I need to do,” he said.

And what if all that fails? If so, Bundy said he will circle the wagons and continue to “make as much noise” as he can.

“I’ll bring my friends, relatives and supporters together to protest against this whole thing,” he said. “And then we will do whatever we have to do after that.”

Bundy emphasized that this was not just his own battle; but it was a battle for the people as well.

“This is not just about trying to eliminate Cliven Bundy in the ranching business,” Bundy said. “Because once I am off the land, they’ll want you off the land too. Then the federal government will have full policing power and rule as though we were just a territory and not a sovereign state. So I’m not just fighting for my rights. I’m fighting for freedom, liberty, agency and access to their lands for all citizens in Clark County. Yes it is my rights on the line; but it is yours also.”

Park service says project would harm Mojave preserve

Soda Lake in the Mojave National Preserve is the point where the Mojave River, which flows from the San Bernardino Mountains, reaches its end. A commercial solar project planned within a mile of the lake bed has triggered worries about water depletion in spring-fed ponds and the fate of an endangered fish, among other concerns. (DAVID DANELSKI)

By David Danelski
Riverside Press-Enterprise

The National Park Service has lodged strongly worded objections to a proposed 6.5-square-mile solar development about a half-mile from the Mojave National Preserve, saying the project would harm wildlife and suggesting that it be built elsewhere.

Preserve Superintendent Stephanie Dubois submitted an eight-page letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the public land where the Soda Mountain solar project is planned and which is handling the environmental analysis of the development.

A subsidiary of the Bechtel Corp., one of the world’s largest construction companies, wants to put solar panels on both sides of Interstate 15 about six miles south of Baker and just outside the northwest corner of the national preserve, where the bright white Soda Lake is a striking landmark. The lake, mostly dry, is bordered by springs, seeps and ponds, providing a small oasis for wildlife.

Dubois' letter says the BLM failed to adequately examine the project's potential to harm groundwater, threatened and endangered species, and scenic views, among other issues. The project would be detrimental to the desert tortoise, bighorn sheep and protected birds in the area and could reduce water supplies that support one of the few populations of an endangered fish, she wrote.

“We urge the BLM to reconsider the potential for this project to be sited on other BLM lands, private lands, or other degraded lands where renewable energy projects would present fewer adverse impacts to natural and cultural resources,” Dubois wrote in her March 3 letter to the BLM.

BLM spokeswoman Martha Maciel said Dubois’ letter is just one of many written comments the agency received as part of the process to evaluate Bechtel’s requests for a right-of-way permit the company needs in order to build on public land.

"We will consider all the comments and adjust our analysis where appropriate," said Maciel, reached by phone at her office in Sacramento.

March 18, 2014

Airplane pilots hit by ‘nearly blinding’ glare from massive California solar facility

Heliostats reflect sunlight onto boilers in towers during the grand opening of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert near the California-Nevada border. (REUTERS/Steve Marcus)
Michael Bastasch
Daily Caller

Airplane pilots cruising over southern California have been complaining about a “nearly blinding” glare emanating from a massive government-funded solar thermal facility.

The Ivanpah solar energy plant in San Bernardino County is the world’s largest solar thermal plant and has 173,500 large mirrors that reflect sunlight onto boilers in three 459-foot towers. A feat of modern engineering — to green energy advocates, but a flying hazard to pilots.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) got two anonymous complaints in August that mentioned a “blinding glare” coming from the Ivanpah solar facility. One complaint came from a Los Angeles air traffic controller and the other from a small transport plane pilot that took off from an airport in Boulder City, Nevada.

“The FAA is aware of potential glare from solar plants and is exploring how to best alert pilots to the issue,” an FAA spokesman told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Dozens of flights per day fly over or near the Ivanpah solar facility on routes between the Las Vegas area and Southern California. On its initial climb leaving Boulder City airport, the pilot of the small transport plane “experienced a very bright, intense light from three solar complexes which interfered with their ability to scan for traffic,” according to the ASRS filing.

“[T]he Co-pilot and I were distracted and momentarily blinded by the sun reflecting off of mirrors at the solar power plant facility located near the CA-NV border near the town of Primm,” the pilot wrote to ASRS. “This solar power plant which I believe is still under construction consists of three massive circular arrays of thousands of mirrors oriented inward toward a central tower.”

“From the pilot’s seat of my aircraft the brightness was like looking into the sun and it filled about 1/3 of the co-pilots front windshield,” the pilot added. “In my opinion the reflection from these mirrors was a hazard to flight because for a brief time I could not scan the sky in that direction to look for other aircraft.”

“Daily, during the late morning and early afternoon hours we get complaints from pilots of aircraft flying from the northeast to the southwest about the brightness of this solar farm,” wrote the Los Angeles air traffic controller in August.

“On this particular morning, an air carrier complained about the brightness and reiterated that it was ‘nearly blinding,’” the controller continued. “I have no idea what can be done about this situation, but being a passenger on an aircraft that flew through this airspace and saw it for myself, I would say that something needs to be done. It is extremely bright and distracting.”

In August, the Ivanpah solar facility was still being built. During the time of the complaints, the facility’s developer BrightSource Energy “was testing and calibrating the mirror assemblies, called heliostats, but it is unknown if that had anything to do with the reflection,” reports the Press-Enterprise. The Ivanpah facility was brought online last December.

Ivanpah’s co-owner and operator, NRG Energy, was notified of the “blinding” complaints this week and said it would respond within 10 days. The FAA received the complaints last November and the Clark County Department of Aviation was notified of them at the end of January.

BrightSource’s environmental impact study for Ivanpah included mitigation measures for glare issues related to the site’s reflective mirrors. The aviation community actually raised such worries during the environmental review process.

Ivanpah’s environmental impact study found that the solar thermal plant could cause temporary blindness to pilots flying within 3,300 feet of the heliostats, which compromises safety. BrightSource had to develop a heliosat position plan to mitigate the potential harm from Ivanpah’s glare.

“At the right angle, you will get the intensity, which is similar to looking at a car headlight at night. If you were to look away you’d still have that shape in your vision,” Chad Davies, president of Riverside Air Service, told the Press-Enterprise.

“If you see a reflection, you turn your head, you don’t look at it,” said Phil Shallenberger, who regularly flies over the project to refuel his plane. “It’s not going to stay there long. When you move, it goes away.”

March 17, 2014

National Park Service Slams Solar Project Near Mojave Preserve

Part of the Soda Mountain Solar Project site (Courtesy © Michael Gordon)

by Chris Clarke

The National Park Service isn't happy about a proposal to build a large solar facility on almost 4,200 acres next door to the Mojave National Preserve. The agency is citing the project's threats to wildlife, rare plants, groundwater, air quality, and wilderness characteristics of the 1.6 million acre unit.

The Soda Mountain Solar Project, which would be built by Bechtel on either side of Interstate 15 along the northwest edge of the Preserve, would pose serious threats to bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, migratory birds, and one of the rarest fish in the world, according to a comment letter on the project's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) filed by Preserve Superintendent Stephanie Dubois.

The project would generate a maximum of 350 megawatts of power by putting solar panels on more than half the project's total footprint: about 2,200 acres. But environmental advocates are saying that the project's damage to the Preserve isn't worth the energy the plant would generate -- especially considering no one seems to be interested in buying the power.

Due in part to the project's remoteness and lack of transmission capacity despite two lines running near the site, Bechtel has been unable to secure an agreement with any utility to buy power from the Soda Mountain project. "We believe this is the poster child for ill-sited projects in the California desert," said National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) representative Seth Shteir in an interview with Greenwire's Scott Streater. "We think this project has so many negative impacts to the natural resources in the Mojave National Preserve and adjacent wilderness study areas that it sort of defies common sense to site the project there."

Among the issues identified in the National Park Service comment letter are blocking a future migration corridor for the Preserve's bighorn sheep into the North Soda Mountains. Pointing out that bighorn sheep tend to avoid any kind of human-built infrastructure even in the absence of humans themselves, NPS states that "[i]f the project moves forward, bighorn sheep migration between the north and south areas of the project will likely be permanently impeded."

That's a problem, as the bighorn herd south of the project site, in the hills near the Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx, are one of a handful not yet exposed to the pneumonia currently ravaging sheep populations elsewhere in the Preserve. Sealing off the sheep's possible northern migration corridor could seal their fate if the pneumonia epidemic approaches from the south.

NPS also expressed concern about the project's effect on the endangered Mohave tui chub, whose sole native, non-transplanted population can be found in MC Spring a few miles downhill from the project. There are more of the chub in the artificial pond Lake Tuendae at Zzyzx. Bechtel intends to pump up to 60 acre-feet of groundwater from the project site each year to use for washing solar panels: if that affects the flow of groundwater that supplies MC Spring and Lake Tuendae, that's a problem for the fish.

The BLM argues in the project's DEIS that since it's not known what effect pumping would have on local groundwater, that there won't be a problem. NPS disagrees. "Without conclusive knowledge about the hydrology of the Soda Mountain Valley aquifer," says Dubois in the Park Service's comments, "the Project risks the consequence of irreversible damage to the habitat and the viability of this highly endangered species."

NPS also criticizes the project's likely impact on air quality from fugitive dust emissions, dark night skies, and risk of all those solar panels to the flocks of migrating birds regularly drawn to the area's permanent and ephemeral wetlands.

The Park Service ends its comments by asking for a meeting with BLM staff to discuss the project further. The group Basin and Range Watch reports partway down this page that the BLM's maps of the Soda Mountains project used in public meetings last month didn't show the boundaries of the Mojave National Preserve, so it's probably a good thing that NPS reminded BLM that they, and the Preserve, exist.

March 16, 2014

Cadiz Water Project: Reader Rebuttal


By Robert S. Bower
Contributing Writer

A Register editorial opines the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project should go forward because Southern California needs water [“Drier than we have to be,” March 10]. Unfortunately, that view is based on misinformation and an “ends justify the means” mentality.

First, the misinformation. The project will not “store” imported water. Nor will it “conserve” groundwater – it will pump groundwater at a rate well in excess of the rate at which the aquifer is recharged, without any replenishment requirement. At the assumed recharge rate, Cadiz will overdraft the aquifer by 18,000-to-43,000 acre-feet, every year for 50 years. Once pumping starts, the aquifer will not recover for 117 years; if recharge is lower than assumed, recovery could take 440 years.

As for justification, the editorial claims Cadiz did its due diligence, and the only impediments to the project are those pesky lawsuits challenging the environmental impact report under “oppressive CEQA rules.” As a California Environmental Quality Act practitioner who usually defends EIRs, I am aware CEQA is sometimes used for political purposes. Here, however, it was Cadiz who gamed the system.

CEQA requires that the public agency with principal responsibility for approving the project act as lead agency, because the lead agency determines the EIR's scope and whether the project will proceed. The only agency with regulatory authority over the project was the county of San Bernardino, which had to approve a groundwater plan before Cadiz could pump groundwater.

Cadiz, however, orchestrated events so that Santa Margarita Water District was lead agency rather than San Bernardino County. SMWD's only approval was of its agreement with Cadiz concerning its purchase of project water.

A primary purpose of CEQA is to make elected officials accountable to their constituents. SMWD is located 225 miles away from the project, and virtually all project impacts will occur in San Bernardino County. Cadiz's maneuvering stripped away all accountability because SMWD's elected decision-makers are not accountable to voters in San Bernardino County.

The project should proceed only if the EIR complied with CEQA, not simply because we need water. It is a slippery slope when decisions are justified on the Machiavellian notion that the ends justify the means.

Robert S. Bower is counsel for Delaware Tetra Technologies Inc., which opposes the Cadiz Project.

March 12, 2014

Man charged with stealing fossilized dinosaur footprint

Jared Ehlers faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of prying three-toed print from Hell's Revenge Trail in Utah

The dinosaur footprint stolen from a Utah national park. Photograph: Bureau of Land Management Utah

Associated Press

A man has been indicted on federal charges of stealing a fossilized dinosaur footprint from the Jurassic period.

The US attorney's office in Utah announced on Wednesday that a grand jury returned the indictment against 35-year-old Jared Ehlers of Moab. He is facing up to 20 years in prison on the most serious of four counts.

Authorities in south-east Utah say the three-toed ancient track was pried last month from the sandstone on the Hell's Revenge Trail in the Sand Flats Recreation Area.

Messages at Ehlers' house were not immediately returned. It's unknown if he has an attorney yet.

Utah Bureau of Land Management district paleontologist Rebecca Hunt-Foster says the dinosaur tracks are 190 million years old. She says they are one-of-a-kind tracks that don't have a price.

March 11, 2014

Wildflowers season subtle this year

Sand verbena populate the west side of Donnell Hill in Twentynine Palms. (Darrell Shade photo)

By Kurt Schauppner
The Desert Trail

In spite of a recent rainstorm, local wildflower expert Darrell Shade did not have good news for this year’s wildflower season in the Morongo Basin.

“This is going to be a very poor wildflower season,” he said.

“The February rain saved what little bit of wildflowers we are seeing now,” Shade said. “As you drive west on Highway 62, you see the yellow splashes of color provided by desert dandelions. They are mostly on the north side where drainage from the pavement was heaviest.”

The large white flowers of the datura or jimson weed are beginning to appear as well, he said, adding that the 3-foot-high shrubs with the yellow flowers and bladder-shaped fruits are bladder-pod.

“Driving around town, you can see the dandelions on many street corners and roadsides. Here and there are a small number of notch-leaf phacelia with their purple flowers,” Shade said.

Small patches of brown-eyed evening primroses can be seen as well. The creosote bushes are blooming everywhere.

“They are a pretty sight with their shiny, waxy coated leaves covered with yellow flowers and little white fuzzy fruit. Draped over shrubs in some places are the star vine, with fragrant flowers,” Shade said.

Joshua trees have been blooming in Joshua Tree National Park for a couple of weeks now. They are mostly seen from Queen Valley to the Hidden Valley campground area.

“There are a few beavertail cacti in full bloom with their large pink flowers along the drive into 49 Palms Oasis parking lot,” he added.

Shade also noted a nice sandy area on the northeast corner of Park Boulevard and Geology Tour Road where sand verbena and woolly marigolds are providing splashes of pink and yellow.

“The nicest show of wildflowers will be at the west entrance in the next few weeks, where it is greenest,” he added.

March 10, 2014

State drier than we have to be

Water recovery project could ease drought.

Orange County Register

Despite the recent heavy rain, California’s water situation remains dire. Data from the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows that 100 percent of California is “abnormally dry.”

It is the worst drought the state has seen in decades and is tapping our water resources to their limits, and, for many, beyond. Water agencies in some of the hardest-hit regions of the state are expecting to be without water by the summer.

It’s why Gov. Jerry Brown promised to do, “everything that is humanly possible to allow for a flexible use of California’s water sources.”

But the state still seems bent on pushing ahead with water policies that appear to make the drought artificially worse, from the New Deal-style public-works Bay Delta Conservation Plan boondoggle that seeks to upend the Sacramento Delta for dubious water supplies and the benefit of a bait fish, the Delta smelt, to projects closer to home.

Projects like the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project, meant to capture groundwater from a basin within a 1,300-square-mile watershed in San Bernardino County’s Mojave Desert.

The company argues that pumping out 50,000 acre-feet of water per year from under the desert, which would otherwise largely evaporate, would save Southern California $6.1 billion over a 50-year period and could provide 100,000 Southern California families, in six counties, another supply of water every year.

But, environmental groups, and a Texas-based oil company with a nearby strip-mining facility, continue to fight the Cadiz project through the courts using the state’s oppressive CEQA rules.

Nearby ranchers worry the pumping stations could deplete their wells and environmental groups say the water would be pumped out faster than it could be replenished. While these issues should be taken seriously, as it would be preferable to not deplete a new water supply as fast as it’s tapped, they have largely been mitigated by the process.

Because San Bernardino County is requiring even more stringent rules than came out of the two-year CEQA process. Requiring the company to track its operations, and if the water level is reduced 80 feet below the current water table, within a 2-mile radius of the project center, the project would be halted. Independent and final authority to enforce that rule rests with the county.

In all, four municipal agencies and two private utilities have signed on to the project, including some agencies that reside in southern Orange County. The project developers seem to have done their due diligence and efforts to expand and diversify water sources for residents of the Southland, which this project appears to do, is something these editorial pages have long supported. The government-created barriers to tapping water sources like this must change and this project be allowed to go forward undeterred.

March 6, 2014

Enviro Group Sues to Block New Desert Solar Projects Over Threat to Tortoises

Adult desert tortoise with four juveniles. (Lake Mead NRA/Flickr/Creative Commons License)

by Chris Clarke

The environmental activist group Defenders of Wildlife filed suit today to overturn the Interior Department's approval of two large solar projects planned for the Ivanpah Valley in the Mojave Desert south of Las Vegas, saying that the projects were approved without enough consideration of the damage they'd cause the federally Threatened desert tortoise.

The Stateline and Silver State South solar projects, which would straddle the California-Nevada line not far from the Mojave National Preserve, were approved by the Interior Department on February 19. Defenders of Wildlife had previously said it would sue Interior if the projects were approved.

According to the language in Defenders' complaint, the two projects "collectively threaten the survival of the tortoise in the Ivanpah Valley, which, in turn, poses grave risks to the survival and recovery of the entire Mojave population of the Tortoise."

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

The Tempe-based firm First Solar would build each of the projects with its proprietary cadmium telluride photovoltaic panels. First Solar would operate Stateline, but it sold Silver State South to the Florida firm NextEra Energy Resources in October 2013. In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that the two projects would displace or kill as many as 2,115 desert tortoises, many of them hatchlings and juveniles.

Defenders' suit charges that the Interior Department failed to address the cumulative impacts to the tortoise of building both of the plants, with each project's Environmental Impact Statement omitting consideration of the other plant's impact. The group further points out that USFWS issued a Biological Opinion (BiOp) approving Silver State South despite the agency's earlier urging that the plant not be built because it would effectively seal off a critical genetic connectivity corridor for the tortoise.

The group is asking the court to vacate the projects' approval by the Interior Department and send agencies back to square one in the Environmental Impact Statement process.

The Stateline project would convert 1,651 acres of tortoise habitat in California, near the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS). Silver State South would occupy 2,388 acres on the Nevada side of the valley. Together with the nearly 4,000-acre ISEGS and the already existing Silver State North project, Stateline and Silver State South would create a band of industrial development across one of the most important migration and connectivity corridors for the desert tortoise, potentially affecting the species' survival into a warming 22nd Century.

"The combined Silver State South and Stateline Solar projects are examples of the kind of renewable energy development that does not take wildlife into account, or properly plan to have the least impact possible on imperiled wildlife," wrote Defenders' Courtney Sexton in a Thursday blog post. "They are a body blow to the threatened tortoises and habitat in the region. The result will essentially be an impenetrable wall of development cutting across the heart of the Ivanpah Valley."

"We don't have to choose between protecting imperiled wildlife and encouraging clean, renewable energy," added Defenders' California director Kim Delfino. "All we have to do is plan smart from the start and move proposed projects to low-conflict areas, something the BLM and the Service failed to do when they approved the Silver State South and Stateline Solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley."

California Looks to the Desert as Cadiz Proposes Tapping Aquifer

Irrigation sprinklers at Cadiz Ranch in the Mojave Desert for a planned lemon grove. They will use water from an underground aquifer (John Francis Peters)

By Peter Waldman

California is parched. The state’s worst drought in decades has left its reservoirs half-naked, if not skeletal. Officials say 17 communities could run out of drinking water this summer; some are considering mandatory rationing; and 500,000 acres in the state may be left fallow.

For the first time in its 54-year history, the California State Water Project -- the world’s biggest plumbing network and the way millions of state residents get hundreds of billions of gallons of water -- is essentially shutting down. In 2012 the project moved 815 billion gallons of fresh water from Northern California’s rivers to 25 million people and a million acres of farmland in the arid central and southern parts of the state. Last year, the driest on record, the system delivered 490 billion gallons, down 40 percent. This year, the planned water distribution is zero.

Two-thirds of California’s 38 million people and most of its $45 billion farm products depend on snow-melt from the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain watersheds, imported via thousands of miles of pipelines, canals, and the Colorado River. Although snowfall is up this winter in the Rockies, precipitation in both mountain watersheds has been going down over the last 14 years, raising scary questions for the nation’s most populous state: What if drought is the new normal? Where will California find the water it needs?

Scott Slater is convinced the solution lies underneath the Mojave Desert, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its March 10 issue. His company, Cadiz Inc. (CDZI), wants to tap an aquifer beneath 34,000 acres of the eastern Mojave and sell the water to suburbs and subdivisions in the Los Angeles Basin.

Sole Mission

Cadiz, whose only mission is to sell the desert water, has teamed up with a public water agency in southern Orange County in an audacious proposal to pump 16.3 billion gallons a year toward the coast. Some of it will flow 200 miles from the aquifer. The water will travel through a 43-mile pipeline that Cadiz wants to build along a railroad spur, then merge into the Colorado River Aqueduct into Los Angeles.

Several politicians, ranchers, and environmentalists call Cadiz’s proposal ludicrous. “How can a private company come out here and drain an entire basin of its groundwater for L.A.?” asks Ruth Musser-Lopez, an archaeologist in the Mojave town of Needles, Calif., 60 miles east of Cadiz’s land. “That took thousands of years to seep down from the mountains. Water is just way too precious in the desert to let them take it away.”

Some potential beneficiaries of the plan are skeptical, too. “To take that water from the desert and use it to fill Mission Viejo’s lakes? It’s absurd,” says Debbie Cook, the former mayor of Huntington Beach, Calif.

Shares Jump

Yet things have gotten dire enough that some Californians are ready to listen. During the week Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency on Jan. 17, Cadiz’s stock price jumped 23 percent, closing at $8.61 a share on Jan. 21, a 15-month high. Slater, a water lawyer who was named Cadiz’s chief executive officer last April, already has the necessary permit to pump from San Bernardino County, where the aquifer is located. He also has six utilities in the Los Angeles area eager to buy the desert water.

“The state needs projects like this,” says Slater, 56. Tall and lanky with gray-specked blonde hair, he sits in the company’s 28th-floor headquarters overlooking downtown L.A. Prior to coming to Cadiz, Slater spent almost a decade representing the San Diego County Water Authority in the biggest farm-to-urban water transfer in U.S. history. He’s written a two-volume textbook on California water law and has litigated some of the state’s biggest water fights in recent years. In addition to running Cadiz, he remains a partner at Denver-based firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP.

Wanted Molecules

Slater’s confident his plan can work. “I want those molecules,” he says. “We’ve harmonized uses in a way that’s balanced and makes sense. This is an environmentally benign project that will help California overcome systemic water shortages.” Cadiz hasn’t earned a profit in 24 years and has yet to sell water. But it’s been even longer since California had a drought like this.

Cadiz was founded in 1983 by British impresario Keith Brackpool and Mark Liggett, a mining geologist. They were looking for water sources that could be developed for farming and sale to California’s burgeoning cities, says Timothy Shaheen, Cadiz’s chief financial officer. After studying NASA images from space, Liggett persuaded Brackpool that the Fenner Gap, in the eastern Mojave, was the right spot.

Railroad Hamlet

Fenner Gap, where the aquifer lies, sits on the confluence of three watersheds spanning four desert mountain ranges. Cadiz bought a patchwork of plots from the railroads, amassing 34,000 acres in the Cadiz and Fenner valleys, plus 11,000 elsewhere in the Mojave. Cadiz took its name from the old railroad hamlet and valley just south of Fenner Gap, where an old Santa Fe railroad spur breaks southeast toward Parker, Arizona, and on to Phoenix. Santa Fe tankers used to supply fresh water from Cadiz Valley wells to silver, talc, and limestone mines in the area.

The company planted about 600 acres of grapes and citrus but had trouble making money, largely because of the expense of diesel to power the irrigation pumps, Shaheen says. The sole purpose became selling water. What Cadiz lacked in lemons, it made up for in juice. Spending personal money and cash raised from investors and lenders, Brackpool and Cadiz became big campaign contributors in California, giving to candidates in both parties, particularly former Governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Politicians Employed

At various times, Brackpool hired Antonio Villaraigosa, a former state assembly speaker and L.A. mayor; Bruce Babbitt, a former U.S. secretary of the Interior; and Susan Kennedy, ex-chief of staff for Schwarzenegger. Former Democratic U.S. Representative Tony Coelho served on Cadiz’s board.

Cadiz declined to make Brackpool, also 56, available for an interview. He remains chairman after ceding the CEO post to Slater and taking a 31 percent cut in base pay, to $275,000 a year. He keeps racehorses in the U.S. and England and owns the Manhattan Country Club in Manhattan Beach. Brackpool was named chairman of the California Horse Racing Board by Schwarzenegger in 2010 and last year became CEO of the Santa Anita racetrack. Liggett is retired from Cadiz.

The company’s last major water transport plan, conceived in the mid-1990s, called for storing excess Colorado River water under Cadiz lands, then selling it to coastal communities during droughts.

Met’s Decision

Cadiz stood to make as much as $20 million a year in revenue from the deal, which it pitched to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Known simply as the Met, the public agency based in Los Angeles distributed about 554 billion gallons of water to 19 million residents in Southern California last year, most of it imported from the State Water Project in Northern California and the Colorado River. After six years of development and controversy, the Met killed Cadiz’s Colorado storage plan in 2002.

In the aftermath of the decision, Cadiz’s stock tanked, but the company still paid Brackpool a $233,000 bonus in 2002, on top of his $500,000 salary. Lenders and investors covered the company’s losses from 2003 through 2012 with multiple cash infusions, lured by the prospect of pumping water someday to L.A. Meanwhile, Brackpool received $14.4 million from Cadiz in salary and stock over the 10-year period, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

“I always wondered if this wasn’t some sort of Ponzi scheme,” says Cook, the former Huntington Beach mayor. She says she couldn’t understand why Brackpool was paid so well for an incomplete project at an unprofitable company.

‘Regulated, Audited’

Cadiz Vice President Courtney Degener strongly objects to Cook’s musings, writing in an e-mail that Cadiz is “a regulated, audited, publicly traded company” and “information that unequivocally demonstrates that Cadiz is not a Ponzi scheme is readily available.” Degener defended Brackpool’s compensation as shareholder-approved and consistent with the long-term nature of the development.

In 2008, Slater, who had just joined Cadiz as general counsel, began repitching the company as a fresh water supplier. Because there’s no excess flow in the Colorado any longer, he put off the storage component and rebranded, without irony, Cadiz’s plan to pump the desert aquifer as a “conservation, recovery and storage project.” Wells on the property will suck water from the underground rock formations and pump it through the 43-mile pipeline before it merges into the Met’s aqueduct carrying Colorado River water from Arizona to the Los Angeles Basin.

Conservation Pumping

Slater says he wants to “conserve” the desert aquifer by pumping water out at a rate that’s more than 50 percent faster than the aquifer naturally replenishes. As a result, the water table, or the level below the ground where the water lies, would drop as much as 80 feet.

That may not sound like conservation, but Cadiz consultants say pumping out the “temporary surplus” will reverse the aquifer’s natural underground flow, keeping the water from migrating into a pair of nearby dry lakes, where it would evaporate. “Under state law, evaporation is waste. It’s called ‘unreasonable use,’” says Slater. “You don’t let water leave the system if you can harvest it.”

The Santa Margarita Water District in southern Orange County, Cadiz’s partner in the project, wants to use some of that harvested water. Right now the area’s water comes entirely from the Met, says Dan Ferons, the agency’s general manager. Santa Margarita plans to co-develop the desert aquifer to reduce its dependence on the Met by “diversifying our portfolio,” Ferons says. Cadiz has agreed to pay almost all development costs. The desert water isn’t meant to facilitate new real estate projects; all planned expansion in the district has already been accounted for, he says.

‘Paper Water’

Slater says the desert water bonanza won’t feed unsustainable growth around L.A., but history suggests otherwise. In a 2009 report called “Paper Water,” Orange County’s civil grand jury lambasted Santa Margarita’s water planning. California law requires real estate projects with 500 or more units to get a “water supply assessment” from a water provider assuring it can service the new development. Santa Margarita’s 2003 assessment for a 14,000-unit development called Rancho Mission Viejo was “based on a series of assumptions” about water availability “that have long since been superseded” by drought and other changes, wrote the citizens’ watchdog group empaneled by the county. Rancho Mission Viejo is moving forward, while other proposals to build a toll road and housing on the county’s southern coast remain held up by regulators.

Growth Questioned

“The desert aquifer is tied to growth on the southern coast. Why else would a small Orange County water agency do a project in the middle of the desert?” says Conner Everts of the Southern California Watershed Alliance. “We call these ‘zombie water projects’ -- projects that come back to life when people worry about drought. At some point California is going to have to make water a much more serious part of land-use decisions.”

Past droughts have produced zombie proposals such as bringing icebergs from Alaska by barge and towing acre-size plastic bags filled with water from Northern California rivers. This time around critics are sneering at Governor Brown’s $15 billion plan to bore a pair of 30-mile tunnels east of Sacramento to channel Sierra Nevada runoff to critical agricultural land. The Poseidon desalinization proposal for northern Orange County, an area with plentiful groundwater and a successful water reuse program, also draws ridicule from Everts and other environmentalists, who say desalting seawater is expensive and emits greenhouse gases. “It’s like Cadiz. These things just don’t die,” he says.

Rancher’s Springs

In the Mojave National Preserve above Fenner Gap, cowboy-poet Rob Blair, 57, has been running cattle on about 400,000 acres of federal land since childhood. Five generations of his family have lived in the same house on the 7IL Ranch, the last ranchers left in the preserve. His dad, 87, still lives there; so does his son, Cody, 22, who helps run the ranch.

Blair is worried that although Fenner Gap is about 40 miles away and 1,000 feet below the ranch, pumping the aquifer could dry up the springs in the preserve that sustain his 400 cattle. The National Park Service, in written comments on the Cadiz project in 2012, said it’s “likely” some springs in the preserve are connected to the aquifer, a claim that Slater says makes no scientific sense. The Park Service also said Cadiz’s contention that the aquifer refills at the rate of about 30,000 acre-feet of water a year is “not reasonable and should not even be considered.”

‘No Margin’

Blair has seen it take three years for storm runoff in the distant Providence Mountains to reach some of his wells. “There’s no margin for error,” he says. “If they start pumping and our water drops, I go out of business. They got no business taking our water to waste on lawns and sidewalks and swimming pools.”

Blair’s ranch and the Mojave National Preserve are protected by strict limits mandated by San Bernardino County in permitting Cadiz’s pumping plan, says Christian Marsh, the county’s special counsel. The county signed off on the Cadiz project after extensive due diligence and only when Cadiz agreed to monitor its pumping’s impact on springs and wells throughout the area, says Marsh. If the water table drops below 80 feet, all pumping must stop. “The only way you’ll know how the system reacts is to start pumping,” he says.

Blair is unconvinced. “Once they start pumping, it isn’t coming back.”

Customer-Led Review

Slater says he’s hoping Cadiz will clear another hurdle in a few weeks, when a state judge in Orange County rules on whether it was appropriate for Santa Margarita, the project’s co-developer and water customer, to lead the environmental review, rather than San Bernardino County, where the impacts will occur.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, who authored the bill that created the Mojave National Preserve in 1994 and sees the Cadiz pumps as a threat to one of her signature achievements, is keeping a close eye on the company. In January, the Democrat inserted a rider into a budget bill that bars the Department of the Interior from spending any money this fiscal year on reviewing the project for permits. “Severely drawing down the aquifer could damage that region of the Mojave Desert beyond repair,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The bottom line is that right now we need more responsibility in how we use our water, not less.”

Slater says he can be patient: “My 8-year-old son told me sometimes being cool means doing unpopular things.”

March 4, 2014

Off-roaders’ battle over Johnson Valley recreation area ends

The Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle
Recreation Area hosts the famous
“King of the Hammers” Race. (SEMA)
Staff Report
Tire Business

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — After a six-year battle over the future of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Recreation Area in the Southern California desert, the issue finally has been settled.

After a consistent grassroots effort by the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) and other partner organizations, a legislative solution was finally reached to create a dedicated OHV recreation area and provide land for military training exercises, as well.

As explained by SEMA’s Action Network (SAN), “The issue was simple—how to expand the adjoining Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms while preserving recreation access to 189,000 acres at Johnson Valley.

“The Marines needed the additional land to simulate brigade-level expeditionary force movements and the Johnson Valley topography seemed ideal for training purposes.”

SEMA said the debate “reached a crescendo in 2013,” and a decision required Congressional approval.

Under a provision included within the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) signed into law last December, 79,000 acres of Johnson Valley has been transferred to the Twentynine Palms military base. Simultaneously, the law created the “Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area,” providing federal protection to over 96,000 acres established in 1980 for OHV recreation by the state of California.

It is the first time an OHV area has been provided national recognition, according to the SAN. Twice a year, 53,000 acres of the OHV area will be provided to the Marine Corps for 30 days of military training exercises, it explained, noting no dud-producing ordnance will be used at that time in order to assure safety and continued OHV access to the area.

“The SAN commends Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif., for the instrumental role he has played in reaching a reasonable shared-use solution,” said SAN Director Colby Martin. “We joined with a number of other organizations representing the off-road community to support this provision that addresses the nation’s military training needs while providing access for responsible recreational activities.

“We consider this ground-breaking provision a positive result for both the OHV community and the United States Marine Corps.”

The recreation area will continue to be controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). SEMA said it contains a unique mix of open desert, dry lake beds and formidable rock-crawling formations that attracts four-wheeler enthusiasts from around the world.

The area hosts the famous “King of the Hammers” Race, which drew more than 50,000 people to the 2013 event. The BLM estimates that Johnson Valley generates more than $71 million annually for local economies—an amount that will continue to grow, SEMA said.

Rep. Paul Cook, in a statement, said “the agreement preserves California’s most important off-road recreation area for future generations.

“After years in which off-roaders have lived in fear of the closure of Johnson Valley, this permanently ends the threat of base expansion into off-road areas.”

Prior to being elected to Congress in 2012, he served a 26-year career in the Marine Corps before retiring as a colonel. SEMA said Rep. Cook has lived for years in the area that includes Johnson Valley and the Twentynine Palms base and represented those communities in the California state legislature before his election to Congress.

The SAN said it worked collaboratively with the Off-Road Business Association (ORBA); California Motorized Recreation Council (CMRC); Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC); and Americans for Responsible Recreational Access (ARRA).

CMRC includes ORBA; California Association of 4 Wheel Drive Clubs (Cal4Wheel); California Off-Road Vehicle Association (CORVA); American Motorcyclist Association National (AMA); AMA District 36; AMA District 37 Off-Road; San Diego Off-Road Coalition (SDORC); American Sand Association (ASA); and California-Nevada Snowmobile Association (CNSA).