May 30, 2014

How the Mojave ranchers were wiped out for the sake of desert tortoise

  • The Mojave desert tortoise was declared an endangered species in 1989, and cattle were deemed a danger to them
  • Most ranchers left, unable to afford the court battles to stay
  • Cliven Bundy is the last rancher left out of about 50

Last man standing: Rancher Cliven Bundy stands near a metal gate on his 160 acre ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada May 3, 2014 (Reuters)


When the U.S. government declared the Mojave desert tortoise an endangered species in 1989, it effectively marked the cattle ranchers of Nevada's Clark County for extinction.

Rancher Cliven Bundy once had neighbors on the range: when the tortoise was listed, there were about 50 cattle-ranching families in the county. Some of them fought court battles to stay, rejecting the idea their cattle posed a danger to the tortoises. But, one by one, they slowly gave up and disappeared.

Bundy has proven himself one of the most tenacious of this vanishing breed. Backed by armed militiamen, the rancher forced federal agents to stop rounding up his cattle in April, which were grazing illegally on public lands shared by the tortoises.

Bundy initially joined his neighbors in their legal fight to stay but then took a more hardline stance, refusing to recognize federal authority over the land. In 1993, he stopped paying grazing fees and his permit was canceled. In 1998, when authorities banned grazing on much of the federal range, he ignored a court order to move.

In its years-long dispute with Bundy, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has portrayed the rancher as a scofflaw, free-riding on the backs of roughly 16,000 ranchers on BLM allotments across the United States who pay their grazing fees. They say he now owes $1 million, most of it fines.

But interviews with some of Bundy's former rancher neighbors and ex-BLM officials suggest the reality is more complex: in Clark County, at least, the BLM no longer wanted the ranchers’ fees. It wanted them off the range to fulfill its legal obligation to protect the tortoises living on its land. To achieve this, it joined forces with the county government.

Clark County is not an isolated case. Disputes over land rights are playing out in many Western states, especially in rural areas, where some residents and lawmakers question the legitimacy of the federal government's claim to swathes of land.

In New Mexico, a county government is arguing with federal land managers over whether a rancher can take his cattle to a fenced-off watering hole. In Utah, protesters have been defiantly driving all-terrain vehicles down a canyon trail closed by the U.S. government.

In Clark County, it was rancher versus tortoise.

'When they got the turtles listed as endangered ... they pushed to get the cattle off,' said Melvin Hughes, who once ranched alongside Bundy on the Bunkerville allotment, one of a dozen or so large federal grazing areas in Clark County.

The rationale for ending grazing cited by federal government agencies was plausible but, the agencies conceded, unproven: that livestock grazing harms desert tortoise populations, in part because they compete for the same foods, such as grasses and the new spring growth of cacti.

'They said the cattle was eating the feed from the turtles,' said Hughes. 'Hogwash!'

When the tortoise was listed in 1989, Las Vegas, the county seat, was one of the fastest-growing U.S. cities. For Vegas to spread even an inch farther into the tortoise-filled desert risked a federal offense under the Endangered Species Act.

The county successfully sought a permit that would allow development that inadvertently killed tortoises in some parts of the county if they funded conservation efforts in other parts.

To get the permit, the county made numerous commitments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help the desert tortoise thrive. One of those promises was to pay willing ranchers to give up their grazing rights.

'Clark County made a choice: urban development is far more important to us than ranchers on the periphery of the county,' said James Skillen, author of a book about the BLM called The Nation’s Largest Landlord.

'The BLM is part of that larger tension between a kind of urban and environmentally conscious West and a traditional resource West,' he said. 'Those conflicts are just going to keep going and the Endangered Species Act is going to continue to be a mechanism of that conflict.'

Clark County officials did not respond to interview requests.

Bundy's refusal to recognize federal authority over the range has made him a folk hero in some conservative quarters. His two-bedroom home, in which he raised 14 children, sits south of a spill of lush grasses and reeds along the Virgin River.

Wise-cracking militia men with holstered handguns check the identities of visitors to guard against intrusion by federal agents. Although Bundy's popularity was badly dented by his widely reported remarks in which he wondered whether black people were worse off now than under slavery, dozens of supporters remain in camps on his property.

Bundy maintains the BLM’s aim from almost the moment the tortoise was listed was to drive the ranchers out of Clark County on a pretext he dismissed as 'wacko environmental stuff.'

'I could tell that the BLM was trying to manage us out of business,' Bundy told Reuters, explaining his decision to stop paying grazing fees.

His critics say he is ignoring laws that do not suit him and treating public land as if it is his own private range. The BLM said it could not answer specific questions about the Clark County disputes.

One of Bundy’s former neighbors is his cousin Kelly Jensen, a fourth-generation cattleman who owned a 40-acre ranch and grazed his cattle on the public lands around it.

Life as a rancher was not a lucrative business, Jensen recalled. Most of the Bunkerville allotment’s 160,000 acres is arid brown-dusted desert.

He estimated the profit on a cow sold for slaughter was about $50. Still, he said, ranching was 'in the blood,' and he liked its self-sufficiency: if you needed a new fridge, you just sold a couple of cows.

Desert tortoises, which can live more than 60 years, have always been part of the landscape. They face myriad threats: development, disease and a huge explosion in the population of ravens, which prey on young tortoises. People sometimes shoot tortoises or crush them in their cars.

In its 1989 listing of the tortoise, the Fish and Wildlife Service named all those threats and more, including livestock grazing. But in 1994, it acknowledged in its Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan that the 'extremely controversial' question of whether cattle harmed tortoise populations was not settled.

In 2002, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a report that the evidence for the harm done by cattle was 'not overwhelming.' William Boarman, the biologist who wrote the report, said he was not aware of subsequent studies showing a strong link.

Still, the Fish and Wildlife Service said in its recovery plan, until it could be proved beyond doubt that the two species could get along, grazing should be banned in critical tortoise habitat.

Soon after the tortoise was listed, the BLM issued an emergency rule requiring the ranchers to remove their cattle from the range, according to the ranchers. A group of them hired a lawyer and asked for a hearing before an administrative law judge to overrule the order.

'Our argument was that livestock grazing on these allotments in these circumstances is not harming the desert tortoise,' said Karen Budd-Falen, the lawyer the ranchers hired. 'The court ruled from the bench: the cows can stay, the BLM is wrong.'

About a year later, the BLM again issued a clearance order, and the ranchers won a second victory in court. It didn't matter in the long term: the BLM began tightening grazing rules and working with Clark County to convince the ranchers to leave.

'We won the case, but we still have to get off the range,' rancher Jensen said.

Bob Abbey, who was the BLM's Nevada director for much of this period, acknowledged that the steps taken by the BLM to protect the tortoise had made life difficult for some ranchers.

'When you limit grazing in such a prescriptive nature many ranchers feel they cannot make a living,' he said.

Abbey said the BLM worked with Clark County to offer payments to the ranchers because it was the 'fairest way of resolving' the issue.

Some ranchers seemed happy with the money they were offered, said Budd-Falen, the lawyer.

But ranchers interviewed by Reuters said that given the choice they were presented with, their sales were hardly willing.

'We had no say in what we were going to get,' said Calvin Adams, who also ranched on the Bunkerville allotment.

About seven years after first fighting the BLM before a judge, he accepted $75,000 to give up his grazing rights. 'I couldn't afford to pay the lawyers when they just keep taking you to court,' he said.

It is not clear how many ranchers accepted a buyout and how many left for other reasons. Either way, the efforts of Clark County and the BLM were effective: it took many years, but eventually more than 1 million acres of federal rangeland was emptied of cattle apart from those belonging to Bundy.

Clark County has spent millions of dollars of developers' money on conservation efforts, from signage to studies, and relocated thousands of tortoises that were in the way of development projects into conservation areas.

But the development allowed by the county's permit has killed hundreds of tortoises, too. A 2001 report by the county estimated that upwards of 400 tortoises were killed each year in building projects after it dropped a mandatory requirement to relocate tortoises before construction began.

It is still too soon to tell whether the tortoise population is recovering, or at least holding stable, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service and biologists.

Meanwhile public land in Clark County's Dry Lake Valley has been zoned for solar energy development. For any projects to proceed, developers would have to balance the damage by conserving tortoise habitat elsewhere.

The BLM says it has found a perfect swathe of land for these conservation efforts, pending final approval. There is one problem: it is home to hundreds of Bundy's trespassing cattle.

Bundy may soon find he is in the way all over again.

May 20, 2014

Monument Preserve in New Mexico Could be Next Land Rights Battleground

Organ Mountain Desert Peaks National Monument landscape, near Las Cruces, N.M.

By Elliot Jager

President Barack Obama's decision on Wednesday to declare 500,000 acres in southern New Mexico as the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument has set the stage for another controversy that pits conservationists against ranchers, The Washington Times reported.

Environmentalists, conservationists, and state tourism officials lauded the decision as bringing more visitors to the state while protecting the area's unique landscape. The monument is home to five mountain ranges, ancient rock art, and is also where the Apollo astronauts trained for their missions.

Ranchers are angry at losing grazing land. Local law enforcement authorities say the new environmental restrictions that come with the monument designation, will make it harder to patrol the area, which is fast becoming a haven for drug smugglers and illegal immigrants.

Sheriff Todd Garrison of Dona Ana County said the designation would leave thousands of acres as pathways "for criminals to get into this country," the Times reported.

The state's two Democratic U.S. senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich back the administration's decision. Heinrich said that the monument will preserve cultural sites and boost tourism, the Times reported.

Republican Rep. Steve Pearce argued that only 50,000 acres should have been declared a monument – not half-a-million, the Times reported. He said the president's action amounted to a "land grab."

Garrison said law enforcement vehicles will face environmental restrictions in patrolling the area, while smugglers will simply disregard the new monument designation.

The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management will administer the national monument. The U.S. Border Patrol will have limited access to the land when agents are in hot pursuit of smugglers, the Times reported.

Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee's public lands subcommittee, confirmed that environmental restrictions have hampered the Border Patrol. He called on the president to delay the designation until "solutions to existing criminal activities plaguing the border" could be implemented.

While only Congress is authorized to designate a national park, the president may declare national monuments, the Times reported.

May 17, 2014

Find array of wildflowers in Palm Canyon Wash

Look out for Prickly Poppy. (James Cornett)
James Cornett
The Desert Sun

Spring is not over; at least not yet. There are places where wildflowers are still in bloom.

In fact, one of the most impressive wildflower displays in years is happening right now in Palm Canyon Wash north of the Bogert Trail Bridge in Palm Springs.

When I say impressive I am speaking about diversity, not dense concentrations. We are, after all, in the third year of a drought. Surface water has been present, however, in Palm Canyon Wash for a record eight months as a result of last summer’s mountain wildfires. Seeds of dozens of species, including some usually found at much higher elevations, can be found in bloom, most in small pockets along the high-water mark of the September floodwaters that followed the fires. Three mountain chaparral plants growing in the wash are Golden Eardrops (Dicentra chrysantha), Yellow-Throated Phacelia (Phacelia brachyloba) and Bush Lupine (Lupinus longifolius). Never before have I found these three species growing on the floor of the Coachella Valley.

You must go soon if you wish to see dozens of wildflower species still in bloom. Parking is limited so make sure you locate your vehicle well away from the bridge and where parking is not prohibited. To see all the wildflower species walk from the bridge south for nearly a mile then turn around and head back when you reach the concrete water drop structure. Walk south up the left or east side of the wash. Then, when returning, walk down the left or west side of the wash. I recommend arriving as early in the morning as possible, wear a hat, bring a quart of water and wear high-top shoes to keep sand out. Remember, it is wildflower diversity, not density, that I am touting at this location. The flowers are tucked away in small pockets along the wash.

If you go, make sure and check out the Cliff Swallows nesting under the bridge. Their spectacular aerobatics alone are worth the trip.

Plant species found in Palm Canyon Wash

Annual Mitra, Apricot Mallow, Brittlebush, Brown-eyed Primrose, Bush Lupine, Canchalagua, Cardinal Monkeyflower, Castorbean, Cat’s Claw Acacia, Chuckwalla’s Delight, Common Sunflower, Creosote Bush, Desert Canterbury Bells, Desert Lavender, Desert Rock-Pea, Desert Tobacco, Desert Willow, Fiddleneck, Forget-me-Not, Fringed Amaranth, Golden Eardrops, Ground Cherry, Jimson Weed, Pale Primrose, Prickly Poppy, Puncture Vine, Rabbitbrush, Rattlesnake Weed, Rose Mallow, Rose Mint, Rush, Sandpaper Plant, Shrub Tamarisk, Smoke Tree, Sonchus, Spanish Needle, Stiff-haired Lotus, Sweetclover, Tiquilia, Viguiera, Whispering Bells, Yellow Milkvetch, Yellow-throated Phacelia, Yerba Santa, White Nightshade.

James Cornett lives in Palm Springs and is the author of “Coachella Valley Wildflowers.” Contact him at

May 16, 2014

Mojave Desert not ideal for massive solar project

Soda Mountain is a proposed solar project seen from the air on Wednesday, February 5, 2014. Several big solar and wind energy projects are moving forward on environmentally sensitive public land despite government land use planning efforts designed to focus such projects on less important habitat. (Kurt Miller)


The Press-Enterprise

The father of American conservation, Aldo Leopold, said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” If so, the proposed construction of the Soda Mountain Solar project one quarter mile from the boundary of the Mojave National Preserve, our third largest national park site in the contiguous 48 states and a biologically diverse gem, is dead wrong.

The potential damage the proposed Soda Mountain Solar Project stands to inflict on Mojave National Preserve’s fragile desert ecosystem has been well-chronicled. The 4,000-acre development would block bighorn sheep from moving between nearby desert mountain ranges and preclude reestablishing a critical wildlife corridor between the South and North Soda Mountains. Migrating and resident birds, attracted by the area’s numerous seeps and springs, would likely be injured or killed if they collide with photovoltaic panels.

Unobstructed views from the Mojave National Preserve, which surveys demonstrate are one of tourists’ key reasons for visiting the California desert national parks, would be marred. Desert tortoise habitat would be bulldozed. The project’s groundwater pumping could dry up springs along Zzyzx Road that are used by bighorn sheep, as well as harm the water quantity and quality of Soda Spring, threatening the survival of the federally endangered Mohave tui chub.

As planned, the project would include a 350-megawatt solar power facility, with a solar array spanning approximately 2,000 acres of the Mojave Desert, straddling northern and southern points of Interstate 15, west of Baker. According to the project’s website, the facility would produce enough electricity to power the equivalent of 170,000 homes. However, the project proposal has not identified a buyer for the electricity and some of the transmission lines running through the area are already at maximum capacity.

However, there has been little focus on the project’s adverse impacts to the Zzyzx Desert Studies Center and the Mojave National Preserve’s environmental education programs. The Desert Studies Center is managed by California State University and is nestled in a refuge of natural desert ponds, dry lakes and foothills just to the east of the proposed project. It draws students and experts from around the world to conduct research, teach about the wonders of the Mojave Desert and experience the pristine desert environment. As former superintendents of Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks, we are well aware of the benefits of such hands-on educational programs in building stewardship and teaching people about the value of the desert.

The Mojave National Preserve also uses this facility for environmental education programs that reach underserved schoolchildren from the Barstow area. Elementary and middle school children search for scorpions with ultraviolet lights, learn about the special adaptations of desert plants and animals, acquire knowledge about Native American cultures and gaze up in wonder at the dark, starry night skies.

Consider for a moment that if the Soda Mountain Solar Project is built, these young students will escape the urban environment of Barstow only to encounter an industrial zone next to a national park. Is this really the message we want to send to our youth, especially when better options exist?

The project harms the very resources that are the foundation and instructional basis for these programs. Soda Mountain Solar would create light, glare and thousands of acres of photovoltaic panels, marring scenic vistas and night skies. Air quality stands to be diminished by fugitive dust from construction. Drawdown of critical seeps and springs would impair the fragile desert ecosystem. The Soda Mountain Solar Project’s impact to the human dimensions of the desert ecosystem has not yet been thoroughly examined.

Aldo Leopold thought that one of our outstanding scientific discoveries was not technological, but our understanding of the complexity of the land. Leopold aptly observed, “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” Far from being harmonious, the Soda Mountain Solar Project strikes a dissonant chord with those of us who have worked hard to preserve and protect special places like the Mojave National Preserve because it threatens this country’s considerable investment in our desert public lands and national parks.

We ask U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze and state BLM Director Jim Kenna to relocate the project to an area that will not adversely impact our desert communities, educational programs, or ecosystems.

Curt Sauer was superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park from 2002-10 and J.T. Reynolds was superintendent of Death Valley National Park from 2001-09.

Colorado River reaches gulf

Associated Press

PHOENIX -- She wasn't necessarily popping champagne Thursday, but conservationist Jennifer Pitt was certainly celebrating the arrival of water from the Colorado River into the Sea of Cortez.

It was a monumental moment for conservationists, who said that water hasn't flowed regularly from the Colorado River to the sea in more than 50 years. It temporarily reached the sea twice in the 1980s and last in 1993.

"The pulse flow meeting the sea marks completion of a journey that the Colorado River has not made in a long time, and I take it as a sign of hope not only for our efforts to restore the Colorado River Delta, but also rivers and watersheds everywhere in the world where climate change promises an uncertain future," said Pitt, director of the Environmental Defense Fund's Colorado River Project.

"I think, once again, it is sort of overwhelming, and I think it sheds light on a sort of global interest in the Colorado River completing that journey again," Pitt said.

The water reached the sea on Thursday afternoon. It traveled nearly 100 miles from a previously barren delta at the Morelos Dam just south of where California, Arizona and Mexico meet. It was a result of a bi-national agreement that came together after years of negotiations.

Enough water to supply over 200,000 homes for a year was released on March 23 in an effort to revive trees, wildlife and aquatic life that have perished since the delta dried up decades ago.

Conservationists say it'll be years before they see the environmental effects of the water streaming through, but residents in the town of San Luis Rio Colorado in the Mexican state of Sonora have been frolicking in the water and gathering at the river ever since the flow started.

It's a feat that the water released in March has continued to flow, said Sally Spener, a spokeswoman for the International Boundary and Water Commission.

Spener has said that the success of the project will inform future collaborations between the U.S. and Mexico.

"It's been very exciting for all of us to track the pulse flow as it has moved downstream to parts of the Colorado River channel that have been dry for years. To say that we reconnected the river with the sea is especially gratifying," said Edward Drusina, U.S. Commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission.

May 15, 2014

Lake Powell could ‘call’ on regional reservoirs

Low water levels threaten hydroelectric plant

Lake Powell water level in January 2013.
By Jim Mimiaga
Cortez Journal

Water shortages from a persistent drought in the Southwest have left Lake Powell dangerously low, threatening operation of the Glen Canyon Dam hydroelectric power plant relied on by 5.8 million customers.

The problem is a looming concern for reservoirs in the Colorado River basin upstream from Lake Powell. Those reservoir managers face the possibility of having to deliver water downstream to boost levels and avert a shutdown of the plant.

Local reservoirs, including McPhee, Lake Nighthorse, Navajo, and Blue Mesa, could potentially be tapped for additional water under the “call” system if conditions don’t improve in the next one to two years, water officials report.

Now is the time to have the discussion of how to deal with the situation unfolding at Lake Powell, said Mike Preston, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which operates McPhee Reservoir at Dolores.

“If Powell becomes too low to operate, it would trigger a crisis, so we need to decide early on how we would deal with that,” Preston said during a meeting about reservoir operations in Dolores last week.

According to a February memorandum from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Lake Powell (of the Upper Colorado Basin) and Lake Mead (of the Lower Colorado Basin) could soon become too low to operate their hydropower plants if conditions don’t improve.

A water-level graph for Lake Powell, created by the Bureau of Reclamation, shows what would happen if 2014-2020 is a repeat of drought-impaired hydrology from 2001-2007.

According to the simulation, as early as 2015, Lake Powell could drop to, or below, the minimum power-pool level required to operate the hydroelectric generators. If the pattern materializes, the level would stay below the power pool for years and by 2020 still not have recovered to power-producing levels.

Allowing Lake Powell to fall below the minimum power pool has numerous dire consequences, according to the CWCB memo:

It would result in dramatically higher electric costs for cities, towns and farms throughout much of Colorado, increasing rates two to four times. The Dolores Project relies on power generated from Glen Canyon sold at a discounted rate.

Funding for irrigation projects derived from power-plant revenues would dry up.

Reduced capacity to make releases from Glen Canyon Dam threatens compliance with Colorado River Compact obligations. The result could be litigation and curtailment of water use within the Upper Basin states, which includes Colorado.

“In light of these real and immediate threats, the governor’s Colorado River representative directed a group of Colorado water advisers to engage six Colorado River Basin states in confidential brainstorming and system modeling for the purpose of developing an emergency response plan,” the memo states.

Solutions to prevent a shutdown of power plants at Lake Mead and Lake Powell may involve delivering more water downstream, the memo states. That could impact storage yields from upstream reservoirs on the Green, Gunnison, San Juan, Animas and Dolores Rivers, among others.

Implementing demand-management programs to bolster Lake Powell could also involve voluntary lease-fallowing or deficit irrigation.

“The water-management world cannot be in denial about drought, and we have to be mindful and adaptable,” Preston said. “There is already talk about making contributions to bring Powell up. It could be sooner rather than later where we are forced to confront demands larger than our basin.”

DWCD is planning to conduct an optimization study of local water supplies as a result of the problem at Lake Powell.

May 13, 2014

Federal probe could leave Utah ATV protest riders facing charges

As a Kane County sheriff's deputy watches from a horse, ATV riders make their way into Recapture Canyon, north of Blanding, Utah, on Saturday, May 10, 2014, in a protest against what demonstrators call the federal government's overreaching control of public lands. (Trent Wilson/Salt Lake Tribune)

By Jennifer Dobner

SALT LAKE CITY – Federal agents have launched a damage inspection of protected archeological sites in southern Utah where public-lands activists on all-terrain vehicles staged a weekend protest ride challenging the prolonged government closure of a canyon trail.

Undercover agents from the Bureau of Land Management monitored the Recapture Canyon rally and documented cases in which ATV riders broke the law by venturing into an area off-limits to motorized use, BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall said on Tuesday.

"At the end of the BLM's investigation, all evidence will be referred to the U.S. Attorney's Office for potential civil or criminal action," she said.

About 300 protesters gathered on Saturday at a park adjacent to Recapture Canyon near Blanding, in the southeast corner of the state, calling for federal land managers to reopen the trail to recreational vehicles after seven years of government study and indecision.

The rally, coinciding with heightened political tensions over government control of public lands across the West, climaxed as dozens of protesters, some armed with guns, ventured on ATVs down a closed-off trail through Utah's red-rock desert.

Local sheriff's deputies on horseback kept watch over the protest, along with the undercover BLM agents.

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, who organized the protest ride, said on Tuesday he was aware that BLM personnel were present Saturday and is concerned about possible penalties for himself and others.

"I would have anticipated that they would take this course of action," said Lyman, who insisted he stopped his own ATV short of the closed area. He said a return visit to the area on Sunday revealed no visible signs of disturbance or damage.

The BLM closed the canyon trail to motorized use in 2007 after its agents said they found an illegally blazed trail and damage to Native American artifact sites.

San Juan County officials sought to establish a public right of way and proposed giving up another local land claim in hopes of gaining BLM approval, but the agency has yet to decide the issue.

Lyman said he now expects the event to be used to justify a continuation of the trail closure, which the agency initially said would be temporary.

"This was never an ATV agenda," Lyman said of the protest. "It had to do with the BLM not following its own process and ignoring the people most effected by its decisions."

The protest followed last month's armed standoff between supporters of renegade Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and BLM agents who unsuccessfully sought to seize his cattle by force over his longstanding refusal to pay federal grazing fees.

New Mexico county defies U.S. government over cattle grazing


ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico - A rural New Mexico county has voted to defy the federal government and give a rancher's cattle access to a watering hole fenced off by the Forest Service in the latest dispute over federal control of public land in the U.S. West.

Commissioners in Otero County voted 2-0 on Monday night to authorize Sheriff Benny House to open a gate allowing nearly 200 head of cattle into the 23-acre area despite Forest Service restrictions. A third commissioner was out of town for the vote.

"We are reacting to the infringement of the U.S. Forest Service on the water rights of our land-allotment owners," Otero County Commissioner Tommie Herrell told Reuters. "People have been grazing there since 1956."

But a U.S. Forest Service spokesman said the fence has also been there for decades, protecting a delicate ecosystem surrounding a natural spring as well as an endangered species of mouse from being trampled by cattle.

The dispute is the latest squabble between federal authorities and conservative states' rights advocates in the West, who want to take back millions of acres of public land from central government agencies.

It comes in the wake of an armed standoff last month between supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and federal land managers who sought unsuccessfully to seize his cattle over his longstanding refusal to pay grazing fees.

Bundy and his allies do not recognize federal authority over the land, which has been cleared of other ranchers' livestock to protect the habitat of the desert tortoise.

In the New Mexico case, Forest Service spokesman Mark Chavez said an old barbed-wire fence had recently been upgraded in cooperation with the rancher, and allowed room for a watering canal for the cattle without disturbing protected land.

He said the fence allows calves in and out of the area and there were other watering holes on the rancher's 28,850-acre grazing allotment some 45 miles southeast of Alamogordo.

Herrell said the rancher involved had complained repeatedly to the commission about the fence. The rancher was unavailable for comment on Tuesday afternoon

Chavez said the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse was expected to be listed as an endangered species in June, which would mean those 23 acres would be considered a critical habitat.

"I've never seen one of these mice, and the Forest Service claims they caught one last year," Herrell said.

While Otero County commissioners had given the sheriff approval to obtain a court order lifting the restrictions, Herrell said that House would not act until after local officials meet with the U.S. attorney for New Mexico on Friday.

May 11, 2014

Arizona town near Grand Canyon runs low on water

In this April 11, 2014 photo, low reservoir levels reveal tree stumps and a cracked lake bed in Williams, Ariz. Officials in Williams have declared a water crisis amid a drought that is quickly drying up nearby reservoirs and forcing the community to pump its only two wells to capacity.(AP Photo)

By Associated Press

WILLIAMS, Ariz. (AP) -- In the northern Arizona city of Williams, restaurant patrons don't automatically get a glass of water anymore. Residents caught watering lawns or washing cars with potable water can be fined. Businesses are hauling water from outside town to fill swimming pools, and building permits have been put on hold because there isn't enough water to accommodate development.

Officials in the community about 60 miles from the Grand Canyon's South Rim have clamped down on water use and declared a crisis amid a drought that is quickly drying up nearby reservoirs and forcing the city to pump its only two wells to capacity.

The situation offers a glimpse at how cities across the West are coping with a drought that has left them thirsting for water. More than a dozen rural towns in California recently emerged from emergency water restrictions that had a sheriff's office on the lookout for water bandits at a local lake. One New Mexico town relied on bottled water for days last year. In southern Nevada, water customers are paid to remove lawns and cannot install any new grass in their front yards.

Officials in Williams jumped straight to the most severe restrictions after receiving only about 6 inches of precipitation from October to April - about half of normal levels - and a bleak forecast that doesn't include much rain. City leaders acknowledge the move is extreme but say it's the only way to make the city has enough water to survive.

"We knew we had to take some action to preserve the water," Mayor John Moore said.

Reservoirs that supply residents' taps are so low that they reveal tree stumps, plants and cracked earth once submerged by water.

Businesses are feeling the effects, too. The Grand Canyon Railway, which shuttles tourists from Williams to the national park, is using water recycled from rainfall, drained from a hotel pool and wastewater purchased in nearby Flagstaff to irrigate its landscaping and run steam engines.

Residents are praying they get some relief soon.

"I still have hope God will send us the rain," said resident Jan Bardwell.

Communities across New Mexico also have seen their drinking water supplies dwindle in recent years due to severe drought and aging infrastructure. The town of Magdalena last summer was forced last summer to turn to bottled water after its well failed.

In the far western Texas city of El Paso, residents can't water outdoors on Mondays. And officials have been reusing treated wastewater and investing in a major desalination plant that turns salty, unusable groundwater into a drinking source for the border city.

As Williams waits for moisture, Moore said city officials are exploring whether new wells will help secure a more sustainable water source. He said water conservation should take residents through the next couple of months until the rainy season arrives and winter returns.

In his home, Moore is taking shorter showers, flushing the toilet less often and thinking twice about dumping out water he doesn't drink.

Other residents are using buckets to collect cold water that normally would go to waste while they wait for a hot shower, he said. Automatic shut-off devices are planned for showers at the city pool, and signs at water filling stations declare them off-limits to commercial water haulers.

Excessive water consumption could be costly under the restrictions. Residents using more than 15,000 gallons of water per month will see their bills rise by 150 percent to 200 percent. The penalty for using potable water outdoors for anything but public health or emergencies comes with a $100 surcharge that doubles for subsequent violations.

The Grand Canyon Railway poured tens of thousands of dollars into a landscape remodel last year that was watered with city taps. This year, the company had to gather that water from other sources, bringing in three rails cars to store it onsite.

It was a scenario that general manager Bob Baker didn't see coming. "It's drastic," he said.

Other northern Arizona towns have less-stringent water restrictions. In Payson, residents are on a schedule for outdoor watering or washing cars. They are prohibited from putting in new grass and must choose from drought-tolerant plants for landscaping.

The goal for each person is to use no more than 89 gallons of water per day, but residents have averaged better than that at 70 to 75 gallons daily over the past decade, Mayor Kenny Evans said.

Water rates that increased decades ago allow the town to offer rebates for low-flow toilets and other water-saving devices. Payson has positioned itself well enough to extend water services to nearby communities while preaching conservation.

"We don't have enough water to waste it," said Evans, president of the Northern Arizona Municipal Water Users Association.

In Williams, Moore recently looked out at the reservoirs surrounding town in anticipation of a monsoon season that could help replenish them.

"We know in due time, the lakes will fill back up, the snow will come," he said.

May 10, 2014

Utah residents become next to confront Bureau of Land Management, in growing debate

May 10, 2014: ATV riders cross into a restricted area of Recapture Canyon, north of Blanding, Utah, in a protest against what demonstrators call the federal government's overreaching control of public lands. (REUTERS)

A band of Utah residents rode all-terrain vehicles onto federally managed public land Saturday to protest the Bureau of Land Management closing off the area.

The protest comes weeks after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s successful standoff against the agency over grazing rights and appears to be the latest episode in the battle across the West over states’ rights on federally managed public lands.

In Blanding, Utah, in the state’s scenic southeastern, the protesters and their supporters say the agency has unfairly closed off a prized area, cheating them of outdoor recreation, according to The Los Angeles Times.

However, federal officials say the region, known for its archaeological ruins, has been jeopardized from overuse.

Bureau of Land Management Utah State Director Juan Palma, in a statement, said the riders may have damaged artifacts and dwellings that "tell the story of the first farmers in the Four Corners region" of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.

"The BLM was in Recapture Canyon today collecting evidence and will continue to investigate," Palma said. "The BLM will pursue all available redress through the legal system to hold the lawbreakers accountable."

Bureau of Land Management officers recorded and documented protesters who traveled into the closure area, he added.

San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge said from 40 to 50 people, many of them waving American flags, drove about a mile down Recapture Canyon near Blanding and then turned around. Hundreds attended a rally at a nearby park before the protest

"It was peaceful, and there were no problems whatsoever," the sheriff told The Associated Press.

About 30 deputies and a handful of U.S. Bureau of Land Management law enforcement personnel watched as protesters drove past a closure sign and down the canyon located about 300 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.

The ride was organized by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman to assert local control of the region, known as Recapture Canyon.

Recapture Canyon is home to dwellings, artifacts and burials left behind by Ancestral Puebloans as many as 2,000 years ago before they mysteriously vanished.

The canyon was closed to motor vehicles in 2007 after two men forged an illegal seven-mile trail. But hikers and those on horseback are still allowed there, according to the agency.

Governments in Western states are trying to get more control over vast tracts of federally owned land in large part because they say the land could be strategically developed to help boost local economies.

Supporters of the decades-old movement also say local governments are better suited to manage the land, considering in part the federal government is understaffed to manage the acreage.

Lyman and his supporters want the BLM to act more quickly on a years-old request for a public right-of-way through the area.

The Blanding protest being spearheaded by a local public official, not a resident, also appears to be a sign of the growing frustrations in a rural county composed of nearly 90 percent public lands managed by the BLM.

Environmental groups have spoken out in support of the BLM, saying that fragile Recapture Canyon must be protected.

Earlier this week, BLM officials notified Lyman that any illegal foray in the area would bring consequences such as citations and arrest.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert also urged people to uphold the law.

Earlier this week, two men wearing hooded sweatshirts brandished a handgun at a BLM worker driving an agency vehicle, holding up a sign that read, “You need to die.”

Utah ranchers and county leaders recently threatened to break federal law and round up wild horses this summer if the agency doesn't do it first.

Motorized access to Recapture Canyon and other areas in Utah's wilderness has been a source of tension for decades. ATV riders rode another off-limits trail in 2009 in a protest. The Bureau of Land Management gave information about the riders to federal prosecutors, but no charges were filed.

Utah protesters prepare for new face-off with feds

In this 2010 photo, Bureau of Land Management staffer Tom Heinlein puts a "No vehicles" placard at the trail head of Recapture Canyon near Blanding, Utah. (Leah Hogsten / Salt Lake Tribune)

by John M. Glionna
Los Angeles Times

This eye-blink of a town in the state’s scenic southeastern corner bills itself as the “Gateway to Adventure.” But this weekend it promises to be more like a launchpad for civil unrest.

A band of angry citizens plans to ride all-terrain vehicles onto closed-off, federally managed public land Saturday in protest against the federal Bureau of Land Management, which many say has unfairly closed off a prized area, cheating residents of outdoor recreation.

The ride, organized by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, is a gambit to assert county sovereignty over Recapture Canyon, known for its archaeological ruins, that BLM officials say has been jeopardized from overuse. The canyon was closed to motor vehicles in 2007, the agency said, after two men forged an illegal seven-mile trail. Hikers and those on horseback are still allowed there.

Lyman and his supporters want the BLM to act more quickly on a years-old request for a public right-of-way through the area. “You can’t just arbitrarily shut down a road in San Juan County,” he said. “If you can do that and get away with it, what else can you do?”

The revolt has received national attention, coming at the heels of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s successful standoff last month against the BLM that suggests a rising battle across the West over states’ rights on federally managed public lands. Tensions rose in Utah this week after two men pointed a gun at a BLM employee on a highway.

The Blanding protest is being spearheaded not by any citizen rancher like Bundy, but rather by an outspoken local public official — a sign of the growing frustrations in a rural county composed of nearly 90% public lands managed by the BLM. As a result, locals say, they have long been shut out of land-use decisions that that intimately affect their lives and economy.

Many say the Nevada incident and the Blanding protest are both reminiscent of the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion, in which communities across the West decried what they called the overreaching power of the federal government.

In recent years, conservative lawmakers in several Western states have renewed the call for greater state and local control of federal lands — many describing the federal government as an occupying force.

Lyman says he has a right to represent his local constituency against outside agitators, including the federal government. And he enjoys widespread support here.

“I think more than 80% of the people in this town stand behind his cause,” said 33-year resident Jill Bayles, a retired nurse who said she misses driving her ATV in Recapture Canyon.

“I won’t be at the protest because my back hurts, but if it didn’t, I’d be out there on my ATV, leading the charge,” she said. “People here are just tired of the Park Service and BLM telling us what to do.”

Environmental groups have spoken out in support of the BLM, saying that fragile Recapture Canyon must be protected. In a statement issued Friday, the Wilderness Society called for the area “to remain closed to motorized use so its valuable natural, cultural and historic resources can be protected.”

This week, BLM officials notified Lyman that any illegal foray in the area would bring consequences such as citations and arrest. “I strongly urge you to cancel the proposed ride in the closed portion of the canyon,” Lance Porter, the agency’s local district manager in Moab, wrote in a hand-delivered letter. “BLM will seek all appropriate civil and criminal penalties against anyone who participates in the proposed ride.”

Lyman quickly responded with a letter saying that the ride was still on and that local resentment of federal officials here had not cooled: “I do not consider my protest, or the protest of those who choose to participate on May 10, to be in violation of the law.”

Many across the West are watching to see what happens in Recapture Canyon.

Earlier this week, two men wearing hooded sweatshirts brandished a handgun at a BLM worker driving an agency vehicle, holding up a sign that read, “You need to die.” BLM workers have since been advised to take precautions such as not wearing their uniforms, and the agency issued a statement saying threats against its employees “will not be tolerated.”

The protest comes just a month after Bundy successfully took on the BLM over his claims to graze hundreds of cattle on public land without paying fees. In that incident, the federal government backed down after raiding the rancher’s land — pushed back by the arrival of hundreds of so-called citizen soldiers, many armed with semiautomatic weapons.

Officials said the retreat came after they feared bloodshed.

Lyman’s protest was planned long before the Bundy incident, but now militia who rallied to help Bundy are expected to converge in this town of 3,500 residents settled a century ago by Mormon missionaries.

In recent days, many militia members have left camps near the Bundy ranch 80 miles north of Las Vegas to make the nearly 500-mile drive to Blanding.

“There aren’t as many men here as there were a few days ago,” Bundy’s wife, Carol, told The Times. “Many of them have gone up to Utah.’

Asked whether they would be armed, she said, “They’re militia! Of course they’re carrying their weapons.”

On Friday, Stephen Dean, a 46-year-old Salt Lake City artist and self-proclaimed militiaman, sat in his van at a park where a protest rally was scheduled for the evening. “I drove up from the Bundy ranch today to show my support for local people here for access to public lands,” he said, an American flag flying from his radio antenna.

He said he was a member of a Utah militia group known as the People’s United Mobile Armed Services. “Cliven told me there was another cause up here,” he said. “I’m from Utah, so this is important to me.”

On the militia group’s Facebook page, Dean posted a message that said, “This could be the next big story as the ATV loving locals team with Militia groups to recapture Recapture Canyon.”

He added: “The pro-ATV dude at the grocery store said ‘it could get ugly really fast.’” He closed the post with, “Arm yourselves!”

Later that night, he set up a microphone and tried to solicit funds from 75 people who had arrived to hear Lyman speak.

When Lyman arrived, he was perturbed that his rally had been commandeered by a militia he didn’t invite. “This is my crowd,” he told a reporter. “But I don’t just want to get up and push them out of the way.”

Later, he walked up to the microphone and asked Dean: “Who are you, anyway?”

He then told the crowd that he and other protesters planned to ride their ATVs onto federal land in the morning. “This isn’t political; this isn’t economic. This is just who we are,” he said to applause.

“If you make a rule that I have to lick your boots, I’m just not going to do that,” he added. “I’ve tried to work with these federal people and have spent a lot of time on my knees. But sometimes you just have to stand up for yourselves.”

Meanwhile, officials have urged calm.

“I hope we can continue to use civil dialogue in matter because nobody wants to see people get hurt,” Kathleen Clarke, who was a BLM director from 2001 to 2006, told The Times. “A big show of force and a showdown at the OK Corral is just not helpful. We don’t want that kind of standoff.”

She added: “it’s never a good thing when you have one group of armed Americans lined up against another.”

May 9, 2014

Judge rejects environmental challenges to Mojave groundwater project

An aerial view of Cadiz Inc. property in the Mojave Desert in 2012. (Al Seib / LA Times)

by Bettina Boxal
Los Angeles Times

In a one-page ruling, an Orange County Superior Court judge last week swept aside environmental challenges to Cadiz Inc.’s plans to pump groundwater from beneath the Mojave Desert and sell it to Southern California suburbs.

The May 1 decision by Judge Gail Andler cleared one set of obstacles to the controversial project. “We’re grateful for that result,” Cadiz Chief Executive Scott Slater said. “We’re going to keep our head down and keep going about things the right way.”

But opponents vowed to appeal the ruling, and Cadiz still has several other hoops to jump through.

Lawsuits filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, and Tetra Technologies Inc., a corporation that extracts an industrial salt from the desert aquifer, challenged the project’s environmental review, calling it inadequate.

They also contended that San Bernardino County should have led the review, rather than the Santa Margarita Water District, which has signed an agreement to buy water from Cadiz.

Andler expressed concern over the district’s lead role but concluded that it “did not rise to the level” of a violation of state environmental law.

Adam Keats, senior counsel with the biological center, said his organization will appeal the decision. “This is a long-haul game for us, and we’re not giving up that easily. This is one opinion.”

Conservation groups, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and federal scientists have expressed concern that the pumping operation could dry up springs used by wildlife in the nearby Mojave National Preserve.

Groundwater in Cadiz’s proposed well field also contains naturally occurring hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, at levels of 14 parts per billion to 16 parts per billion, exceeding the state’s new drinking water standard of 10 parts per billion.

That is likely to complicate Cadiz’s plans to use the Colorado River Aqueduct to deliver its supplies to customers more than 100 miles to the west.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which owns the aqueduct and uses it to send river water to millions of Southland residents, has said in formal comments that the Cadiz supplies would have to be treated before they could be pumped into the aqueduct.

“We’re pretty close to the standard,” Slater said. “We just don’t think it’s a significant issue for us.”

Also unresolved is whether the project will have to undergo a lengthy federal review. Cadiz wants to build a pipeline from the well field along an existing railroad right-of-way that crosses federal land.

The project is a precedent-setting private venture that proposes to annually withdraw enough groundwater from beneath the parched Mojave to supply 100,000 homes. Water sales could bring Cadiz $1 billion to $2 billion in revenue over 50 years.

Environmental documents show that the pumping would, over the long term, lower the groundwater table and deplete the aquifer under Cadiz’s property as well as surrounding public lands.

Cadiz experts have dismissed concerns about the operation, saying it will have minimal environmental effects.

Marines, off-roaders compromise over area near Twentynine Palms

Trails used by off-road vehicles go through Johnson Valley west of the Twentynine Palms Marine combat training base. For a decade, the Marine Corps and off-roaders have argued about who should be able to use the area. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Times

A near decade-long dispute between the Marine Corps and off-road vehicle enthusiasts over a rocky patch of desert west of the base at Twentynine Palms has ended in a compromise brokered by Congress.

Neither side got all it wanted in the tussle over the nearly 200,000 acres of forbidding Johnson Valley -- a place of rugged beauty that off-roaders say is virtually without peer for their sport. The Marines say the same about their training needs.

As included in the 2014 defense bill signed by President Obama, approximately 43,000 acres of Johnson Valley will be for recreational use only, 79,000 acres will be for the Marine Corps, and 53,000 acres will be shared between the off-roaders and the Marines.

Just how that sharing will be accomplished has yet to be decided.

"Generally we're pleased," said Steve Egbert, a Tulare pig farmer and president of the 6,000-member California Assn. of Four-Wheel Drive Clubs, one of several off-road organizations involved in the issue.

"As long as it works out the way the bill intends, we can live with that," Egbert said Friday. "We would have preferred something different. But this is probably the best we can get."

Maj. Gen. David Berger, commanding general of the base at Twentynine Palms, said that without the additional training area, Marines would not be able to train effectively to fight at the brigade-level.

With the additional area, he said, Marines will "learn to fight the way [they're] actually going to fight in a conflict, at that size level."

For the off-roaders, the annual King of the Hammers race, billed as the toughest desert race in the nation, drawing more than 20,000 spectators and participants, will continue, although its course will have to be redrawn slightly, officials said.

At a public meeting this week in Yucca Valley, Bureau of Land Management field manager Katrina Symons said the arrangement calling for the Marines and off-road community to share part of Johnson Valley is the first of its kind.

About the only thing that comes close is an agreement that allows the public to use the beach near Vandenberg Air Force Base except when the base is launching a missile or satellite, officials said.

The Johnson Valley plan allows the Marines to use the shared area for two 30-day stretches a year for combat training. Just when those 30-day stretches will be has yet to be decided, BLM officials said.

The off-roaders had posted a petition on the White House website calling for Congress to turn down the Marine Corps bid to annex the Johnson Valley land: "The Marines current expansion plan is unnecessary and fiscally irresponsible. Expanding the world's largest Marine base will cost taxpayers millions."

The petition gained 29,456 supporters.

In response, a post by a deputy under-secretary of defense said that while the military places a "high value" on community relations, lack of the Johnson Valley area for training would force the Marines to "rely on classroom instructions and simulation which cannot provide realistic and practical experience."

The Marine Corps has long insisted that it needs additional land at the 640,000-acre base at Twentynine Palms for large-scale, live-fire training exercises including infantry and air power.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Paul Cook (R-Apple Valley), a retired Marine colonel, worked to bring the two sides together.

After the bill was signed by Obama, Cook said that the agreement "ensures public safety, while also balancing the training needs of the Marine Corps with the rights of the off-road community."

While the Marine Corps had issues of national defense on their side, the off-roaders talked of their impact on the local economy: an estimated $71 million annually.

The area set aside exclusively for the public will be known as the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area and is nearly as large as the Imperial Sand Dunes at Glamis in the Imperial Valley, Cook noted.

The area includes topographic features that draw off-roaders and others: Spooners, Aftershock, Sunbonnet, the Rockpile and more.

For the shared area, training is not set for anytime soon. It will probably take at least 18 months for the Marine Corps to resolve three iron-ore mining claims and also to receive approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and complete an environmental review involving how to protect the desert tortoise.

May 7, 2014

Court OKs Dicey Cadiz Groundwater Pumping Project in the Mojave Desert

Ken Broder

An Orange County Superior Court judge lined up six lawsuits filed to stop a controversial groundwater pumping project in the Mojave Desert and shot them all done in one brief legal opinion.

Judge Gail Andler ruled last week that Cadiz Inc. can move forward on its plan to divert surplus water from the Colorado River to an aquifer beneath 35,000 acres of land it owns, augment that supply by capturing water otherwise lost to nature, pump 16 billion gallons of water a year out of the aquifer and ship it via a 43-mile pipeline that hasn’t been built yet to the Colorado River Aqueduct.

The aquifer would be maximized with state-of-the-art conservation; participating water districts would contract for a share; thirsty Southern Californians would have a new, innovative source of water; and Cadiz shareholders would make a lot money. The shareholders got a jump on their end of the deal when the stock price rose around 30% the first business day after last Friday’s court ruling.

Cadiz has been pursuing the project for more than a decade, fending off environmentalists, desert residents, nearby mining interests, political watchdogs, water district officials and one honked-off Los Angeles Times columnist.

Michael Hiltzik described the project in 2009 in rather unflattering terms, seven years after the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) had already rejected it. He dismissed the existence of “surplus” Colorado River water, questioned the amount of water said to already be in the aquifer, wondered about the environmental hurdles and detailed some of the political wheels that were greased to advance the project.

Cadiz CEO and Board Chairman Keith Brackpool was appointed to the state Horse Racing Commission in 2009 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was elected chairman in 2010 before leaving last year. Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, worked for Cadiz for awhile and in 2005 received $120,000 in consulting fees while serving on the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

Brackpool and his associates contributed $43,650 to then-Los Angeles Mayor (and former Assembly Speaker) Antonio Villaraigosa and paid him a consultant fee while he was in between political assignments. He donated $345,000 to various campaigns by former Governor Gray Davis. San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt picked up $10,000 in campaign contributions in 2007-08 and Congressman Jim Costa of Fresno received $12,000.

Conservation groups have long opposed the Cadiz project over concerns that pumping water from the aquifer would dry up springs that support bighorn sheep and other wildlife. Air quality and groundwater beneath the Mojave Preserve also could be affected. They said the environmental impact report and groundwater management plan were deficient and challenged the role of the Santa Margarita Water District in Orange County in approving them.

Delaware Tetra Technologies, Inc., a mining company, filed suit against the project at one point, arguing that a drop in the water table would adversely affect the mining of salt in nearby dry lake beds.

All of the objections hit a dead end in Judge Andler’s court, at least temporarily, although she expressed some reservations. Andler said the water district, which wants to buy some of the water, might not be the right entity to serve as lead agency. But she wasn’t going to block the project over that.

Litigants in the case, including the Center for Biological Diversity, San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society, the San Gorgonio Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association, may appeal. Even if they don’t, Cadiz still faces significant challenges. The company has to build a pipeline across public land, which may involve federal review.

May 5, 2014

Utah Wildlife Officials Backing Ranchers Threatening To Break Federal Law To Round Up Wild Horses

Wild horses chased by helicopter during a BLM roundup.

CBS Las Vegas
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — State wildlife officials are supporting Utah ranchers and county leaders who are threatening to break federal law and round up wild horses this summer if federal officials don’t do it first.

The ranchers say a swelling feral horse population is edging cattle and elk out of drought-plagued southern and central Utah pastures.

Utah Wildlife Board members, at a meeting in Salt Lake City on Thursday, voted unanimously to send a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and U.S. Bureau of Land Management state director Juan Palma urging a reduction in the number of horses on the range.

The letter is the latest form of public pressure on the BLM. Earlier this week, a group of 13 ranchers filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the BLM is not doing its job to protect wildlife and cattle. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declared last week that local entities should be allowed to manage the horse herds because the BLM has not.

“It’s a sad situation in the southwest desert,” said board member John Bair, one of about a dozen on Thursday who said the feral animals are hogging food and spring water, trampling soil and clearing the way for invasive species.

“Horses have been a problem for several years,” said Byron Bateman of Utah Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. “This drought really brought that to the forefront.”

Utah officials working for the Bureau of Land Management are heeding the ranchers’ threat. They want to gather hundreds of horses, they say, but are awaiting approval from officials in Washington, D.C. The Utah office says it is expediting the necessary pre-roundup environmental surveys.

“We certainly recognize the need to act with some bounce in our step,” said Utah BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall. But, she said, “there’s so much that feeds into this, it’s not a simple situation.”

The office faces crunches in both budget and personnel, Crandall said, and it is simply running out of room for the extra horses after corrals in Utah and other states have filled.

According to the BLM, Utah is home to 3,245 wild horses and burros, well above the “appropriate management level” of 1,956.

Horse advocates say the situation is not as dire as it’s being painted.

Suzanne Roy, spokeswoman for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, said the ranchers and their allies are overblowing a small situation in an attempt to “scapegoat” wild horses and divert attention from cattle overrunning the ranges. Breaking the law to do the roundups would not only be illegal, but counterproductive, she said.

“This is a lot of saber-rattling by the ranchers over a very small number of wild horses in Utah on a very small amount of land,” Roy said. “They are using bullying tactics to threaten the BLM.

Commissioners in Iron and Beaver counties warn they’ll help ranchers round up the horses after foaling season ends in July, if federal officials do not begin to do so at the season’s end. The counties and the BLM in April set up water traps to corral some wild horses on private property, but recent rains thwarted the trap.

“These populations have just exploded,” said Iron County commissioner Dave Miller, who estimates there are nearly 2,000 wild horses in his county, well above the BLM-determined safe level of 300.

Federal law stipulates that only the BLM may capture a wild horse, and Congressional action bars euthanizing or slaughtering them.

But counties considering roundups cite a new state law that they say allows them to intervene when public health or safety is concerned.

Some on Thursday complained the BLM is asking ranchers, such as embattled Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, to cut back livestock grazing but has done little to scale back Utah’s swelling wild horse population. Ranchers say cutting grazing would threaten their livelihoods, draining counties of millions of dollars.

Bundy has been backed by self-described militia members in the grazing rights battle that led to a tense April 12 standoff beneath a highway overpass. The BLM says Bundy owes $1.1 million in unpaid grazing fees and penalties, while Bundy contends he has vested interest in the land.

May 3, 2014

Rancher’s family takes grazing fight to sheriff

Ammon Bundy, son of rancher Cliven Bundy files a criminal complaint against the Bureau of Land Management at Metropolitan Police Department headquarters, Friday, May 2, 2014 in Las Vegas. Last month, federal agents launched a cattle roundup on the Bundy ranch after they refused a court order to remove their cattle from public land and pay a grazing fee. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Ken Ritter
The Associated Press
Nevada Appeal

LAS VEGAS — Family members and other supporters took a Nevada rancher’s grazing rights fight against the U.S. government to the sheriff in Las Vegas on Friday, filing reports alleging crimes by federal agents against people protesting a roundup of cattle from public land.

Rancher Cliven Bundy wasn’t among those who filed handwritten complaints with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department — the agency with jurisdiction over Bundy’s ranch in the Bunkerville area and much of Clark County.

Sheriff Douglas Gillespie said through a department spokesman that the complaints would be investigated and any appropriate criminal charges would be turned over to the Clark County district attorney.

In encampments around the Bundy ranch, self-described militia members from around the country continue to camp with handguns on their hips and heavier weaponry within reach in a show of support for Bundy.

But no weapons were seen Friday among those who responded to his call for supporters and witnesses of a tense April 12 standoff beneath an Interstate 15 overpass — and lesser confrontations in preceding days — to file complaints against U.S. Bureau of Land Management police.

Ammon Bundy of Phoenix headed a delegation of three Bundy sons, two sisters and perhaps 15 other supporters who filed reports accusing Bureau of Land Management agents of wielding high-powered weapons, using attack dogs and stun guns, closing public lands, blocking roads, harassing photographers and threatening people.

“We fervently hope and pray that these heavy-handed tactics will not be used on us or any other Americans ever again,” Ammon Bundy said as he read a three-page media statement at the door of police headquarters.

“Will our sheriff keep his oath this time and use his lawful forces to stop them?” Bundy asked. “Or will the people be left to their own protection?”

Ammon Bundy said Cliven Bundy didn’t join supporters Friday in Las Vegas because he previously filed a complaint asking Gillespie to investigate.

Gillespie didn’t immediately respond to questions about Ammon Bundy’s comments.

Bureau of Land Management officials have accused Cliven Bundy of failing to pay grazing fees for 20 years, racking up more than $1.1 million in fees and penalties, and failing to abide by court orders to remove his cattle from vast open range that is habitat for the endangered desert tortoise.

The agency responded to the filing of police reports with a wry statement.

“We welcome Mr. Bundy’s new interest in the American legal system,” spokesman Craig Leff wrote.

Openly carrying a pistol or rifle is legal in Nevada, and permit holders can carry concealed weapons.

Ammon Bundy credited armed guardians with coming to the aid of his family when the sheriff in Las Vegas would not. He also worried that armed federal agents who pulled out after the standoff nearly three weeks ago will return to Bunkerville.

“Will they come back with greater force and more cunning tactics than before?” he asked.

Hundreds of people and law enforcement officers were involved in the April 12 incident. Las Vegas police officers massed nearby but remained on the sidelines while department brass negotiated a truce between Cliven Bundy and the BLM.

Well-armed bureau police and a group of roundup contractors faced off against protesters backed by a picket line of militia members on the overpass displaying handguns, AR-15 and AK-47 and other military-style arms.

“It was the most frightening thing in my life, to have federal agents of my government pointing guns at me,” said John Lauricella, 44, a Las Vegas resident who backs Bundy and said he was in the potential crossfire.

“I was walking right in the front,” he said. “They said, ‘Keep walking and we’re going to shoot you.’”

Lauricella said he filed a police report Friday accusing federal agents of violating his civil rights.

In the end, the BLM released about 350 Bundy cattle that had been rounded up during the previous week then left the area near Mesquite, 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

“We believe that the BLM men who pointed guns at over 1,000 people ... committed a criminal act and that the Clark County sheriff’s office should be required to investigate,” Cliven Bundy and his wife, Carol, said in an overnight email asking supporters to file police reports.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford, who lives in Las Vegas and represents Bunkerville and Mesquite, has also called for federal authorities and Gillespie to investigate the gun-toting force that Horsford said was frightening for residents.

After the standoff, Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada branded Bundy supporters who pointed weapons at federal agents “domestic terrorists.” Nevada Republican U.S. Senator Dean Heller called them patriots.

May 2, 2014

'Bigger than Bundy': Land agency's battles go beyond rancher dispute

April 12, 2014: The Bundy family and their supporters fly the American flag as their cattle is released by the Bureau of Land Management. (AP)

By Barnini Chakraborty

It's the most powerful agency you've never heard of -- at least, until recently.

The Bureau of Land Management, the nation's biggest landlord, found itself in the spotlight after a high-profile brawl with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and another dispute with state officials over the Texas-Oklahoma borderlands.

But the seemingly obscure agency, which is in charge of millions of acres of public land, is no stranger to controversy. History shows the power struggle over property rights and land use is one that's been fought -- fiercely -- ever since the bureau was created.

In the nearly seven decades of its existence, the BLM has struggled to find its footing and exert its power, pitted against a vocal states' rights movement.

"The federal government already owns too much land," Texas Gov. Rick Perry, one of the champions of that modern-day movement, recently told Fox News. He called for the federal government, and by extension the BLM, to "divest itself of a huge amount of this landholdings that it has across the country."

The Bureau of Land Management was formed in 1946, consolidating two now-extinct agencies into one for the purpose of overseeing public land. In the beginning, the BLM mostly focused on livestock and mines. Its mission shifted, though, in the 1970s when it took on the role of mediator between commerce and conservation, and faced a second identity crisis in the 1980s. That's when the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion gained new momentum in its push to return control of federal lands to individual states.

That "rebellion" may be underway once again, as states renew concerns about the amount of land controlled by the BLM. Congress also recently weighed in, with House lawmakers passing a bill in February that would prevent the BLM from buying new land.

Currently, the agency, which falls under the purview of the U.S. Department of Interior, oversees 247.3 million acres -- or about one-eighth of the land in the country.

It also owns 700 million acres of on-shore federal mineral estates.

The BLM is responsible for managing a large spectrum of natural resources. The federal agency regulates logging, mining and fracking practices across the country. It also administers close to 18,000 permits and leases a year held by ranchers who graze their livestock on land managed by the federal government. The permits and leases they issue usually last a decade and can be renewed.

In 2009, regulation of public lands in Western states generated $6.2 billion.

By acreage, the agency's largest stake is in Alaska where it owns 72.4 million acres. Nevada ranks second, with 48 million acres under the BLM, and then Utah, with 22.9 million acres.

In Nevada, rancher Cliven Bundy's recent refusal to hand over his family's cattle to the feds re-ignited the national debate over the BLM's power.

On the heels of that controversy, more than 50 lawmakers from nine Western states came together to protest federal land expansion. The state leaders discussed ways to combine their joint goals of taking control of oil-, timber- and mineral-rich lands away from the federal government.

"It's so much bigger than Bundy. There are issues ... all across the West where the federal government is exerting control over things it was ever supposed to control," Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory told Fox News. "The federal government was supposed to be a trustee. They do own the land. They do hold title to the land in trust ... but they have a duty to dispose of the land with all states east of Colorado."

Ivory says he wants the federal government to keep a promise it made in the 1894 Enabling Act that made Utah a state. He argues that public lands, except for congressionally designated national parks and wilderness areas, should be transferred back to the states.

So far, state lawmakers in Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington are looking for ways to transfer land management back to the states.

Utah, though, has been the most successful. Lawmakers there passed a measure demanding the federal government extinguish title to federal lands, aside from national parks. Ivory was also the primary backer of the 2012 Transfer of Public Lands Act which established a model for the transfer of certain federal lands to the state in the coming years.

The Bundy case has been largely viewed as the first leadership test for new BLM Director Neil Kornze, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and sworn into office in April. The local land-use dust-up fed into a growing apprehension over just how much authority the BLM has and how far it is willing to go to maintain control.

In Texas, Attorney General Greg Abbott sent a letter to Kornze looking into allegations the BLM was eyeing a massive land grab in northern Texas. "Decisions of this magnitude must not be made inside a bureaucratic black box," wrote Abbott, a GOP gubernatorial candidate.

The agency indicated that the land in question was determined to be public property. "The BLM is categorically not expanding Federal holdings along the Red River," a BLM spokeswoman said in a written statement.

Attention on the Bundy-BLM battle has lately turned to racially insensitive remarks that Bundy made in several media interviews and appearances.

Conservative and libertarian lawmakers like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, initially came to Bundy's defense, calling his situation the latest example of big government overreach. Both, though, have since scaled back their comments in light of Bundy's remarks.

"Senator Paul spoke out against federal over-regulation and BLM handling of a situation," Paul spokesman Doug Stafford said in a written statement. "He has never spoken to or met Mr. Bundy and is not responsible for the vile comments that come out of his mouth."

Others say Bundy was at fault, failing to pay $1.1 million in fees for letting his cattle graze on government grass for more than two decades.

"I wish Mr. Bundy would mind his law requirements and not try to play to the television cameras about confronting the evil federal government," former BLM director Patrick Shea told KSL TV. Shea has been on both sides of the land-use debate. He represented activist Tim DeChristopher who took on the BLM over the 2008 sale of controversial oil and gas leases in Utah.

The BLM has run into trouble elsewhere.

In March, BLM officials rounded up a horse herd in Wyoming after area ranchers and farmers complained that the herd grazed down pastures and damaged cattle rangeland. The horses were turned over to Wyoming officials. The state then quickly sold all 41 horses to a Canadian slaughterhouse. Animal rights groups protested the sale and slaughter.

A year earlier, BLM agents in Nevada announced they would be removing 50 wild horses from a herd that had grown too large to be sustained.

But the complaints go beyond horses. In 2011, several Utah counties filed a lawsuit against the agency over exceeding its authority by establishing wilderness protections without the consent of Congress.

Back in the nation's capital, House lawmakers passed a package in February that includes a collection of public land access and restoration provisions. They also adopted two amendments that extend the length of grazing permits on federal lands to 20 years from 10 years and also allow expired or transferred permits to remain effective until new ones can be issued.

Calls to the BLM for comment were not returned.

Off-roaders cry foul at renewable energy plan

Brightsource Solar Facility
Anneli Fogt
Desert Dispatch

VICTORVILLE • Off-roading enthusiast Jon Stewart was among dozens of people who showed up at a public hearing Friday to protest a plan that would fast-track renewable energy projects throughout California’s deserts.

“They’re not looking at hunting, photography, astronomy and stargazing, it’s all of these little things people want to go out and do and enjoy,” said Stewart, a member of the California Association of 4 Wheel Drive Clubs.

One of the main topics of Friday’s Off Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission meeting was expected to be OHV vehicles on the Pacific Crest Trail. However, after a presentation on the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, the focus quickly shifted to the preservation of the desert and the use of public land.

The plan is a collaboration between the country, state and numerous other agencies to take 22 million acres of the desert from the Mexico border to Inyo County and use the natural resources — sun and wind — for renewable energy. The plan has been under scrutiny since in its introduction in 2012.

The tipping point of Friday’s meeting was the concern over the preservation of recreational areas. Even though the plan states that recreational areas will be preserved, many OHV proponents are wary.

“It’s a bait-and-switch tactic,” said Stewart. “They’re subdividing (OHV vehicles) into a corridor and not looking at the big picture of how people enjoy the desert.”

OHMVR commissioner Kevin Murphy said it is “alarming to think about zoning the desert” and cutting it up into areas of energy production while leaving others for those who want to photograph or enjoy recreation.

“Someone trying to appease one group to use the land for some non-public benefit is upsetting as a person that lives out here and loves the desert,” said Lancaster resident Doug Parham. “Recreation has never been controlled.”

Parham suggested putting solar panels on the roofs of the urban landscape where there is plenty of open space on the tops of buildings and parking garages.

Terry Weiner from the Desert Protective Council seconded Parham’s suggestions of urban solar but had different concerns behind her reasoning.

Weiner said the problems go beyond humans’ desire for unspoiled beauty and recreation. She said solar panels cause problems for wildlife as well. She said birds can be burned by the heat coming off of solar towers or mistake a sea of solar panels for water. She also said the land can be negatively affected by the massive amounts of construction. Weiner urged the plan to be held off until all of the studies are done about how everything will be affected.

The public draft of the plan is expected to be released in the spring or summer this year, and there will be a 90-day comment period for the public to voice its opinions.

Judge rules in favor of water mining

By Janet Zimmerman
Riverside Press-Enterprise

A judge on Friday rejected legal challenges filed against a controversial plan to mine water from a desert aquifer and pipe it to cities across Southern California.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Gail Andler issued a brief decision that clears the way for the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project 40 miles east of Twentynine Palms.

“Cadiz is grateful for the thorough and deliberate review by the trial court and the court’s validation of the environmental review,” Scott Slater, the company’s chief executive officer, said in a statement.

The ambitious proposal to pump an average of 50,000 acre-feet per year — more than 16 billion gallons — from beneath the remote valley was challenged by the Center for Biological Diversity, National Parks Conservation Association, San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society, Sierra Club San Gorgonio chapter and Delaware Tetra, a brine-mining operation in the area.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Los Angeles, said the decision may be appealed.

“We are very disappointed,” she said.

The groups challenged project approvals by the Santa Margarita Water District in Orange County and San Bernardino County supervisors, as well as the environmental review, environmental impact report and groundwater management plan.

In her decision, Andler expressed concern over the designation of Santa Margarita Water District as the lead agency.

“Nonetheless, the court is not persuaded that those concerns constitute sufficient grounds” to halt the project, she wrote.

Santa Margarita is one of the potential buyers of the water, as is the Jurupa Community Services District in Riverside County and five other agencies as far north as San Jose.

Critics accuse Cadiz of overestimating the amount of natural water — such as rain — that will seep into the ground and replenish the aquifer. They also say the operation will drain the desert's precious water supply in the area between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve.

Proponents say the project will spur economic growth by bringing a new source of water to a state plagued by drought.

Still at issue is a right-of-way application for a pipeline that would cross public land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. A federal review may be required.