October 31, 2014

Suspect identified in 8 graffiti vandalism cases in National Parks

Casey Nocket identified as prime suspect In 'Creepytings' national parks vandalism (Modern Hiker)

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES — Federal officials have publicly identified a woman suspected of graffiti vandalism in at least eight national parks across the West, including Yosemite and Death Valley in California, and credit social media for helping pinpoint the alleged culprit.

Casey Nocket of New York state has not been arrested or charged but was confirmed Thursday as “the major suspect” in an investigation of one of the most widespread acts of serial vandalism documented in the National Park System.

The case was brought to light in a series of photos obtained and posted by the Internet blog Modern Hiker and furnished to the National Park Service picturing numerous graffiti drawings, all signed “Creepytings” and dated 2014.

One shows a woman the blog identified as Nocket putting the finishing touches on an acrylic drawing of a cigarette-smoking figure scrawled on a canyon wall at Utah’s Canyonlands National Park in June.

Others show drawings of a woman with blue hair on a ledge overlooking Oregon’s Crater Lake and a bald man with a snake protruding from his mouth on a trailside rock in California’s Yosemite National Park.

The Park Service said initially it was investigating such vandalism in at least 10 Western national parks.

But agency spokeswoman Alexandra Picavet said Thursday that Nocket had been tied as a suspect to graffiti in eight parks: Yosemite, Death Valley and Joshua Tree in California; Crater Lake in Oregon; Zion and Canyonlands in Utah; and Rocky Mountain National Park and Colorado National Monument in Colorado.

Although instant gratification afforded by social media exposure was cited in a New York Times report last year for a rise in graffiti defacings on public lands, Picavet said social media in this case played a key role in the investigation.

The Modern Hiker said its photos were gathered earlier this month by screen shots taken of the suspect’s Instagram and Tumblr accounts, which have since been set to “Private.”

Park Service investigators also received numerous photos and other information from members of the public outraged over the defacings, Picavet said.

Vandalism is a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine, although prosecutors could decide to bring more serious charges.

“This is an open investigation,” Picavet said.

Yosemite spokeswoman Kari Cobb said vandalism occurred there occasionally but was “not common.” She added: “As far as a widespread case like this, it’s the first one I’m aware of.”

October 30, 2014

Desert act turns 20, what it saved

Hikers climbing up to Keane Wonder mine in Death Valley National Park. (Rita Beamish)

By Deborah Sullivan Brennan
San Diego Union-Tribune

Twenty years ago today, the California Desert Protection Act designated 7.6 million acres of the state’s backcountry as wilderness.

Portions of that land had been mined, grazed and used illegally for off-roading.

For desert lovers such as Nick Ervin of San Diego, California’s deserts represented a wide-open expanse of solitude and stillness, just hours from the state’s biggest cities. After surveying what he saw as damage to them from human activities, he found a chance for restoration.

Nick Ervin, activist.
Ervin joined fellow Sierra Club activists to spearhead San Diego County support for the Desert Protection Act, first introduced by Sen. Alan Cranston and then shepherded through Congress by Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

The legislation established the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve and designated Death Valley and Joshua Tree as national parks. It also set aside as wilderness smaller tracts in San Diego and Imperial counties, including the Fish Creek, Coyote and Sawtooth mountains near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

The bill faced opposition from people who feared it would engulf private land, ban visitors from wilderness areas and forbid popular activities such as hunting and off-roading. The debate escalated into scuffles at times, Ervin remembered.

In the end, the law didn’t secure the pure, unaltered wilderness that some proponents sought. Certain mining and grazing operations were grandfathered in, and hunting continues in the Mojave National Preserve.

Motor vehicles aren’t allowed in wilderness zones. But adjoining land and some roads that traverse the protected acreage are still open to traffic that includes off-road vehicles, said Paul Turcke, an attorney who has represented off-road enthusiasts nationwide. Litigation over the desert access remains to this day, he said.

The legislation became law on Oct. 31, 1994, when then-President Bill Clinton gave it his signature. For the 20th anniversary milestone, Ervin, a retired psychotherapist who now teaches at National University, talked with U-T San Diego about his efforts to preserve the state’s open spaces. Here is an edited version of that discussion:

Question: How did you get involved in the campaign to pass the California Desert Protection Act?

Answer: I was active in the local chapter of the Sierra Club in the late ’70s early ’80s. ... Some big conservation activists in Los Angeles gathered information and then approached Sen. Alan Cranston about sponsoring a bill in Congress to rectify the big problems with how the desert was being run over by off-road vehicles, reckless mining, reckless grazing and uncontrolled urban development around desert cities. They said we need organizers in San Diego and Imperial counties.

Question: What was your particular role?

Answer: I and two other organizers ... followed the bill from 1988 to 1994. We wrote articles, we did letter-writing campaigns. I did old-fashioned slide shows — it wasn’t PowerPoint in those days. I did garden clubs, classroom presentations. We wrote op-eds.

Question: What were the challenges to securing support for desert protection?

Answer: There was a belief that it’s an empty waste, where there’s not much life. Or it’s a fearful place with rattlesnakes and scorpions. It’s a harder sell to the general public than forests or lakes.

Question: Why did you believe the cause was important?

Answer: I had been hiking in the desert for years and years, and had seen how outside of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, there were lots and lots of off-road activities. ... Desert foliage is very slow to heal and very fragile. You can do hundreds of years’ worth of damage in an afternoon with an off-road vehicle that is poorly used.

Question: What does the act mean for San Diegans?

Answer: It means that a lot of the desert lands around Anza-Borrego park have the highest official protection status that you can give any land in perpetuity. It would require an act of Congress to reverse the Desert Protection Act.

Question: What were your responses to critics who said the law imposes restrictions on too much land?

Answer: There were meetings in the late ’80s that were big-time contentions. There was actually some pushing and shoving going on. ... I personally got hate mail. They were typically centered around one accusation that we were locking up desert land against the average citizen. ... The old stereotype was we were watermelons — green on the outside and red on the inside. People said it was a communist plot, socialism in action in the California desert.

Question: What were the eventual accommodations for existing uses such as wildlife management, hunting and grazing?

Answer: One of the big concessions was the Mojave National Preserve (instead of it becoming a national park). There were several concessions that hunting would permanently allowed. ... Back then, there were people doing grazing on federal lands under a lease, who were really afraid of losing their grazing rights. Dianne Feinstein said we will never force you to sell (grazing rights). That was a pretty big concession. There’s always been a big debate about guzzlers (artificial water sources built to aid wildlife). The Desert Protection Act doesn’t really address what guzzlers should be allowed and where. And that debate goes on.

Question: What do you think about the status of the California desert today and the role of energy developments such as solar and wind farms?

Answer: As preservationists we’ve been torn, because as preservationists we support renewable energy. But some of us on the desert land (issue) object to some of these developments because the government is sometimes allowing them on lands that are not already burned out agricultural lands, or toxic waste sites and brownfields. They’ve allowed some of these developments on pristine, high-quality desert habitat and not next to existing power lines. ... We’re also arguing for more rooftop development in cities, where the energy is used. Renewable energy and where it’s to be sited is the argument for decades ahead.

October 22, 2014

Southern California Desert Management Plan Worries Activists

A sweeping renewable energy management plan for Southern California's desert regions is stirring fears about potential new solar farms and transmission lines in San Diego and Imperial counties.

California power lines, Feb. 21, 2011 (Robert Couse-Baker)
By Erik Anderson

A sweeping renewable energy management plan for Southern California's desert regions is stirring fears about potential new solar farms and transmission lines in San Diego and Imperial counties.

Federal and state officials have been crafting a desert management plan for five years.

The recently unveiled proposal would help manage development and habitat protection on 22 million acres of federal, state and privately owned land in the eastern part of the state.

The idea is to streamline the development process for renewable energy projects on about two million acres.

East County resident Donna Tisdale has fought against backcountry development for years. She's trying to get the word out that this plan could have major negative impacts.

"I had to contact a lot of farmers in the Imperial Valley to try and get them up to speed on what was going on," Tisdale said. "People in East County were kind of shocked to hear that there's at least one more 500 KV line, like Sunrise Powerlink, proposed."

Sunrise Powerlink is a 117-mile transmission line that connects San Diego with the Imperial Valley. It was put into service June 17, 2012.

The plan's architects consist of what they call "an unprecedented collaborative effort between the California Energy Commission, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also known as the Renewable Energy Action Team."

The state and federal coalition is currently seeking public comment.

The desert energy and conservation protection plan is scheduled to be finalized next year.

October 16, 2014

ROUTE 66: After the rains, a humbled highway

Travelers are being turned away from fabled Route 66 and large sections of the historic highway have been closed since mid-September after heavy desert thunderstorms washed out bridges and undermined sections of pavement.

Route 66 heading west out of Ludlow is closed to traffic, one of several sections of the historic highway that are shut off to travelers. (Mark Muckenfuss)

By Mark Muckenfuss
The Press-Enterprise

Just try getting your kicks on Route 66 these days. It’s not easy.

Large sections of the historic highway have been closed since mid-September after heavy desert thunderstorms washed out bridges and undermined sections of pavement. In some spots there are holes large enough to swallow one of the motorcycles belonging to tourist groups that regularly retrace the Western route.

Those travelers and others now have to detour off of Route 66 between Newberry Springs and Needles, taking I-40 instead. San Bernardino County officials estimate it will take $1.4 million to fix the damage. They hope to reopen the road by late November.

For Route 66 enthusiasts, the detour is a disappointment. For those who live on the highway that brought generations of migrants west to California, the closure is more painful.

“We’re basically closed,” said Jim Wilson, 62, owner of Bolo Station Bar & Grill & RV Park, in Cadiz.
Barriers at the Kelbaker Road/Route 66 intersection 6 miles west of Wilson’s place tell eastbound motorists the road is closed to through traffic. Not many venture through to his place. The handful that do have had to turn around.

“You can get down to my place here,” Wilson said, “but right after you go over the bridge past my property (the road) is closed.”

Beyond that, there are bridges that have washed out.

“They’re bad,” he said.

Brendon Biggs is deputy director of operations for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Works. He’s overseeing a workforce of 20 to 30 people making repairs to Route 66.

“Right now it’s high on the priority list,” Biggs said. “We want to get the road open.”

The flooding that hit the region was almost unprecedented, he said.

“We had multiple locations of severe damage,” he said. “We had approximately 40 bridges damaged in some way along with the road surface itself.”

Residents in such tiny towns as Essex and Chambliss can get in and out, but everyone else has to go around.

“It definitely affects tourism,” Biggs said. “National Trails Highway (the original name for Route 66) is a big road. The most scenic areas, they’re not able to enjoy that right now. There are big holes in the road.”

Where the route is closed:

• Along I-40, from the Hector Road exit to Ludlow

• East of Ludlow to Amboy

• From Kelbaker Road east to I-40

Where it's open:

• Between Amboy and Kelbaker Road

Opened: Nov. 11, 1926, though the famed "Rte 66" signs didn't go up until 1927.

Nicknames: The Mother Road, America's Main Street

Household name: Popularizing the road in the 1960s were a hit TV show starring Martin Milner and George Maharis, which ran 1960-1964 on CBS, and a top-selling pop song, "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66," later recorded by scores of artists.

No longer super: Route 66 was removed from the U.S. highway system in 1985 because it had been replaced nationwide by a network of bigger, newer Interstate highways.

But always beloved: The road is still popular among pop-culture enthusiasts, historians, classic car collectors and tourists, particularly visitors from Europe.

October 10, 2014

Las Vegas ‘tortoise gulag’ paroles last inmates

A desert tortoise crawls free after being released into the desert near Primm on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. The Desert Tortoises Conservation Center which housed the tortoise, relocated its final 53 tortoises before the center is scheduled closing in Dec. (David Becker/Las Vegas Review-Journal)


JEAN — After years — perhaps a lifetime — in cushy captivity, desert tortoise No. 6349 spent his first five minutes of freedom hunched motionless under a bush in a rocky dry wash 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas.

Finally, as his human handlers backed away, 6349 poked his head out of his shell and started to explore his new home — slowly, of course.

He had no way of knowing it, but he marks the end of an era. He was part of the final batch to be set free in the wild before the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center shuts down for good in December, after more than 20 years at the southwestern edge of Las Vegas.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to close the 220-acre center last year, after its federal funding was eliminated. Since then, the center’s contract operator, the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, has been working with its partners to empty the facility, mostly by releasing healthy tortoises into the wild.

The center was caring for roughly 1,400 of the animals as recently as 18 months ago. Today, all that remain are about 50 adults awaiting shipment to a new exhibit at the Springs Preserve, a research facility in Battle Mountain and the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah.

Another 40 hatchlings born at the center will sleep through the winter in covered outdoor pens at the site and be released into the wild next year, said Mike Senn, assistant field supervisor with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Southern Nevada.

Senn said no tortoises have been euthanized — or will be — because of the closure of the center, though some animals have been humanely killed over the past two years because they were too sick to save.

He estimates that about 30 percent of tortoises that came into the center had to be put down for medical reasons.

Since 1989, the desert tortoise has been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The conservation center was established in the 1990s as a place for developers to put tortoises removed from job sites in booming Clark County, but it soon became the valley’s de facto shelter for unwanted pet reptiles.

Last year, the center announced it no longer would accept former pets and strays, which were pouring into the facility at a rate of about 1,000 a year, overwhelming its budget and research mission.

The center’s closure in two months will end what has, at times, been a troubled and patchwork effort to save the tortoise, even as researchers were trying to better understand the species and the reasons for its decline.

That led to mistakes.

During the center’s first decade or so, thousands of tortoises were euthanized under a policy that called for the destruction of any animal showing signs of a deadly upper respiratory tract disease considered a threat to the species. It was later learned that tortoises could test positive for the disease but never develop it, either because they had been exposed and recovered or because they could carry it without ever showing symptoms or passing it on. That led to a change in the disease protocol that dramatically reduced the number killed.

Senn said the center’s procedures for determining which tortoises to release have also improved greatly over time and so have survival rates. Early in the program, he said, “They were releasing whatever — anything that wasn’t dead.”

Longtime local conservationist John Hiatt said the center’s legacy will be decidedly mixed. He said “it seemed like a good idea” to have a holding area for tortoises that otherwise would be literally bulldozed in the name of development.

“But in the final analysis, it just wasn’t a long-term or permanent solution,” he said, especially after it became a shelter for a pet tortoise population far larger than expected.

The center has a nickname in the environmental community: “The tortoise gulag.”

“That’s what a lot of people referred to it as because tortoises went there and were put into little pens and that was it,” Hiatt said.

Friday’s release took place in an area west of Interstate 15 south of Jean known as the Large Scale Translocation Site. Of the more than 10,000 tortoises released from the conservation center since 1997, most of them have come to this 27,000-acre swath of federal land where the species’ population density is much higher than it would be under natural conditions, Senn said.

Federal officials and their state and local partners also have established other tortoise release areas at the base of the Spring Mountains south of Pahrump and in the canyons and desert south of Boulder City. A few years ago, a group of test subjects equipped with tracking devices was set loose at the Nevada National Security Site.

Studies conducted in recent years suggest former pet tortoises, even those born in captivity, survive in the wild at about the same rate as the natural population.

“It doesn’t take them very long to go out and be a real tortoise again,” Senn said. “They have that instinct.”

On Friday, it took about 25 biologists and volunteers less than an hour to release 53 tortoises. The crew spent longer driving to the site than it did emptying the animals from their plastic tubs.

No. 6349 was set free by Daniel Essary, a research assistant from the San Diego Zoo, who could find himself out of a job in December. Essary figures he has released roughly 250 tortoises into the Nevada desert over the past five years, and he noticed something familiar about the way 6349 reacted to its release by hiding in his shell.

It’s impossible to know for sure, but Essary said he would bet that 6349 wasn’t always a guest of the government or a backyard pet.

“I’m pretty sure he’s had his time in the wild before,” he said as he watched the tortoise begin to move.

Federal Court: One Million Acres Near Grand Canyon Protected From Mining

The Grand Canyon (Shutterstock)
by Ari Phillips
Climate Progress

In early October, an Arizona federal judge upheld the Obama Administration’s 2012 withdrawal of over one million acres of federal lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park from uranium mining. Originally imposed by then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the mining industry challenged the ban arguing that the 700-page Environmental Impact Statement was inadequate, failed to address “scientific controversies”, and was unconstitutional.

With the court’s decision to uphold the Department of Interior’s (DIO) decision, the lands around the Grand Canyon will be closed to the exploration and development of uranium mining claims for 20 years, thus protecting the Colorado River watershed and several sacred Native American sites. According to the government’s study, removing the ban would mean that 26 new uranium mines and 700 uranium exploration projects could be developed.

According Roger Clark, air quality and clean energy director at the Grand Canyon Trust, the ruling affirms conclusions by five federal agencies, including scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey — that uranium mining poses unacceptable risks to Grand Canyon’s water, wildlife, and people.

“Uranium mines threaten hundreds of the Grand Canyon seeps and springs that provide precious water to thousands of desert-dwelling species,” wrote Clark. “Every new mine sacrifices cultural sites and fragments wildlife habitat, polluting the park with dirt roads, dust, heavy machinery, noise, off-road drilling rigs, power lines, and relentless truck traffic.”

Due to the sheer size and remoteness of the landscape, the EIS authors adopted a “cautious and careful approach” to assessing the potential impacts of uranium mining. They ultimately found that “the risk of groundwater contamination from uranium mining was low, but that the possible consequences of such contamination were severe.”

Arizona federal district court judge David G. Campbell found this approach warranted, writing that “the Court can find no legal principle that prevents the DIO from acting in the face of uncertainty,” and that the Secretary of the Interior had the authority to “err on the side of caution in protecting a national treasure — Grand Canyon national park.”

When President Theodore Roosevelt created the Grand Canyon Preserve in 1906 he didn’t allow mining on much of the land, but mines were opened on land surrounding the canyon. Often on Native American lands, including the Havasupai and Navajo, these mines have become dangerous radioactive sites. There are over 500 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo territory and the federal government is still working with the Navajo to determine the best way to address the issue. According to the EPA, potential health effects include lung cancer from inhalation of radioactive particles, as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function from exposure to radionuclides in drinking water.

“In sum, this decision supports a precautionary approach to mineral withdrawals,” wrote Hillary M. Hoffmann, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School. “It affirms the agency’s choice, ‘when faced with uncertainty due to a lack of definitive information, and a low risk of significant environmental harm,’ to temporarily withdraw land from mineral entry before conducting a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review.”

Hoffman writes that while this may run counter to general policy underlying NEPA, in this instance the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) actions prevented the development of thousands of uranium claims until the agency could fully study the impacts of those claims and determine whether to make a full withdrawal.

“As the district court noted, if the BLM waited to act until after the NEPA review process was complete, the claims may have become vested and at that point, it would have been too late to protect the Colorado River watershed and the Havasupai sacred sites,” she writes.

When Salazar first banned this block of 633,547 acres of public lands and 360,002 acres of National Forest land from mining in 2012, a number of politicians objected, including U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT), John McCain (R-AZ), John Barrasso (R-WY), and Mike Lee (R-UT). Sen. Hatch said mining the land “poses no environmental threat” and that the announcement was another sign that the Obama Administration “is one of the most anti-American energy presidencies in history.”

Fast-forward two years later and there are currently 13 candidates up for election in November who want to sell or seize public lands for drilling, mining, or logging and seven senators not up for reelection, including four Arizonans: Sen. McCain, Sen. Jeff Flake, U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, and State Rep. Andy Tobin.

The uranium mining companies have 60 days to appeal Judge Campbell’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and are likely to do so, according to the Center For Biological Diversity.

October 6, 2014

Wilderness as economic stimulus? A closer look at the evidence

By Shawn Regan
The Hill

There are many good reasons to love wilderness. The Wilderness Act, which passed 50 years ago this year, describes several of them: outstanding opportunities for solitude, primitive and unconfined recreation experiences, and the preservation of special places "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man."

As a former wilderness ranger, these values resonate with me. More than 100 million acres of land have been designated as "wilderness" since 1964, and in my view they include some of the most spectacular landscapes imaginable.

But as hard-fought wilderness bills languish in Congress, some are claiming there's another reason to love wilderness areas – they're good for local economies.

This economic argument is a central part of wilderness advocacy today. Protecting lands from development, many say, provides a much-needed boost to rural communities. These lands attract workers, entrepreneurs and investors across all sectors while boosting income and employment in surrounding areas.

But what does the research actually say about the economic effects of wilderness designations? I took a close look at the peer-reviewed academic research and found few rigorous studies and little evidence to support the claim that wilderness leads to economic stimulus. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, consider what the best available research says.

First off, there is disagreement on how natural amenities such as wilderness should affect economic outcomes in theory. On the one hand, wilderness designations limit resource development and could hinder income and employment in extractive industries. On the other hand, wilderness could improve quality of life and attract new businesses, migrants and tourists. Adding to the confusion, there is evidence that workers might accept lower wages, longer periods of unemployment and higher land prices to live in areas rich in natural amenities such as wilderness.

So there's confusion about the theory, but what do existing studies find when they look at the data? In short, not much. The first empirical study, published in 1998, found no evidence that wilderness had an effect on employment or population growth in Western counties during the 1980s. A similar study in 1999 found no effect of wilderness on income, population or employment growth in rural counties in several Western states. Two more studies in 2002 and 2003 were no different: Wilderness had no effect on employment or wage growth.

More recent studies come to similar conclusions. A study in 2006 by Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics champions the role that public lands play in stimulating income growth in the West, but a closer look reveals that he is unable to demonstrate a statistically significant effect associated with wilderness lands. Another study by Rasker and his colleagues, published in 2013, emphasizes that protected public lands (including wilderness) had a small positive relationship with three measures of income. Less obvious was the fact that seven other economic measures they examined had zero effect.

So what about the popular claim that wilderness drives economic growth? Studies that reach this conclusion are based on simple correlations. None are rigorous enough to suggest that wilderness causes growth. Two studies that are often cited — one by Paul Lorah and Rob Southwick in 2003 and another by Patrick Holmes and Walter Hecox in 2004 — report a positive correlation from wilderness and population, income and employment growth. But once additional factors are controlled for in more detailed studies, these positive relationships disappear.

More research is needed to better understand the effects of wilderness. But a critical look at the existing studies makes this much clear: There is little or no evidence that wilderness bolsters economic growth. When environmentalists invoke economic arguments to support wilderness, they are exaggerating the best-available research and undermining other more compelling wilderness values.

Wilderness advocates shouldn't hang their hats on economic arguments. There are plenty of good reasons to love wilderness areas — but there's just no evidence that economic arguments are one of them.

Regan is a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Mont., and a former backcountry ranger for the National Park Service.