December 13, 2015

Old West lives on at Pioneertown

What started as an Old West movie set built in the 1940s, Pioneertown still lives on as a getaway that recalls those days. (Photo by Trevor Summons)

By Trevor Summons
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin


One of the few places that never seems to change is the small Western town of Pioneertown, or Pi’ Town as many of the locals call it.

A walk down Mane Street — only hoof and foot traffic allowed — is always interesting. If the original builders of the town were to come back they would feel right at home.

Some of these builders were the stars of the old Western movies, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. They decided to convert the sets of their films into overnight dwellings and then they put in a small 18-room motel where they could stay after a day’s shooting out in the hot sun.

The six-lane bowling barn is still there, but it’s not functioning at the moment. It’s been up for sale a few times but it’s hard to find many takers; it’s difficult to make money from occasional bowlers.

It’s a shame as the bowling alley is an original — Roy Rogers bowled the first ball back in 1947 and it was a strike (of course!) A decade later school boys and girls were replaced with automatic pin setters, but then gradually business fell off.

At the end of Mane Street, sits Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, which is a thriving bar and restaurant business with regular concerts on the weekends. Its outside walls were some of the original sets used in those early films.

Today, during the daytime, you will find lots of horse trailers unloaded as today’s modern cowboys trail their mounts over the impressive terrain. It was this scenery that attracted Rogers and Autry to film so many movies and early TV series here.

Often at night they would gather in the motel, at the rear of Pappy and Harriet’s, play cards and carouse around. Room No. 9 became known as Club Nine for the fun they had there.

Last time I was there, I met up with John Jeffries who with his partner, Gary Suppes, makes saddles and other leather goods. As I walked along in the center of town he was there again. It was good to see him.

He is one of about 400 who make up the permanent population of the town. Of course that is not just Mane Street, but several blocks on either side.

“We’ve had a very good summer,” he said. “Lots of buses with foreign tourists from all over the world.”

It was a Thursday in late October when I was there, and it was pretty quiet at that time.

“At the weekend, things begin to build up,” Jeffries continued.

They do a lot of weddings, he told me.

“We offer a particular service,” he said. “For a $50 fee, we’ll try and talk ’em out of it!” he laughed into his grizzled beard. “We haven’t had any takers yet. But it might save them a lot of money later on.”

I can never quite work out exactly how many people live on the main street there, as there are a number of places with obvious signs of habitation. Perhaps there is a resident of the shop that sells Soap and Goats, but I never saw anyone about, not even a goat.

Pioneertown is a fun place to visit, and if you want to stay over like the old movie stars, then go online to the motel and see if they’ve got room. Prices vary from $110 to $210 per night. And if you’re thinking of getting hitched, then maybe a visit to the saddle maker might be an idea first.

December 1, 2015

Holes in the Desert: A Mojave Crime Compendium

The McStay family memorial site located northwest of Victorville, CA. Traffic on the I-15 can be seen in the distance. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Kim Stringfellow
KCET.org


The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary by Kim Stringfellow exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for its audience.

It is a moonless night and the distant sound of rattling train cars is punctuated by the high pitched grinding of metal as multiple engines begin their push up past the Kelso Depot. Centered in the vast, federally designated region known as Mojave National Preserve (MNP) bordered by the I-40, the I-15 and the Nevada state line, it was here that the familiar lore of the Wild West played out 21st century style. Nighttime train robberies occurred on a regular basis. Notably, far bleaker criminal acts have transpired along the MNP's transient periphery or within other publicly administered lands of the Mojave Desert.

I first read about the Union Pacific train robberies in the MNP through a 1998 article by Phil Garlington of Rancho Costa Nada fame. Garlington had laid out the vivid details of criminal exploits and those who attempted to thwart them, relating how mile-long, double-stacked freight cars burdened with consumer goods and merchandise would fall prey to looters within the remote center of the preserve.

The thieves -- mostly homeless, down-and-out types hired by gangs who had stowed away earlier in the day at the Yermo yards would lie in wait for hours inside car "tubs" until the train began the steep ascent up the 18-mile-long Cima Grade just east of the depot. Those able to escape detection by Union Pacific officials and the assisting MNP rangers infiltrated and "liberated" the contents of the boxcars using hacksaws, bolt cutters and other tools of the trade. The slow-moving trains with their potentially lucrative hauls provided easy pickings for the interlopers who were lucky if they did not get seriously injured in the process.

At pre-arranged geographical points, the bandits tossed out the goods where their accomplices waited in rented moving trucks ready to load up the booty -- expensive electronics, Nikes, cigarettes, booze, or, if they were particularly unlucky, a boxcar filled with teddy bears. Scattered clothing, empty packaging and other discarded debris were regularly found strewn along the rail lines. By the late 1990s the railroad had estimated that it was losing over a million dollars a month from MNP lootings.

A rather amusing related incident shared in a 2008 Los Angeles Times article noted that "75 flat-screen TVs worth more than $225,000" had been spotted during a 2005 aerial search of the area after MNP law enforcement rangers had run into two men sitting in an empty rental moving truck near a rail crossing on a desolate stretch of road. Fumbling under the influence of alcohol, the duo couldn't explain why they were there or how a bag of suspicious white powder happened to be lying within a few feet of their vehicle. The two were consequently arrested. The powder was determined to be cocaine -- possibly a down payment for the botched flat screen heist? With heightened security over the past years since this incident was reported, Union Pacific has managed to crack down and curtail these types of robberies.

Although the majority of visitors passing through the MNP do so without incident, others have sought this "nowhere between two somewheres"1 as an isolated, out-of-the-way destination to conduct a variety of illicit activities including methamphetamine production, wildlife poaching, theft, vandalism, illegal dumping, OHV trespass or the unlawful collection of animals, plants and cultural artifacts.

In years past, MNP rangers have discovered detritus and the lingering residues of a methamphetamine "cook" at abandoned ranch and mine structures within the preserve. Empty pseudoephedrine containers (over-the-counter sales of which are now controlled), lye, red phosphorus -- all highly toxic chemicals and materials associated with clandestine meth production -- have been found among contaminated meth production equipment.

Makeshift meth labs were discovered in 1998 at Rainbow Wells and in 2001 at the New Trail Mine after two rangers found new locks on formally abandoned outbuildings during a routine patrol. When the rangers returned to the mine on the following day they encountered four suspicious men driving away in a pickup. Following a search of their vehicle by the rangers, the men produced keys for the padlocks of park holdings that they had legal access to. The ensuing investigation yielded "ten gallons of pure methamphetamine oil, valued at more than $50,000," that had been waiting to be crystallized. The site cost taxpayers $20,000 to clean up.2

Compounding the ecological ramifications of introducing these toxic chemicals into a wilderness environment is the fact that illicit drug manufacturers and their associates are known to be heavily armed and more than often high on their product, making an encounter by a ranger or unsuspecting recreationist extremely dangerous. The limited number of National Park Service (NPS) law enforcement rangers known to patrol the 1.6 million acres of the preserve has made regular monitoring of these types of remote sites difficult. Fortunately, evidence of this type of methamphetamine production within the preserve has not been observed in recent years, a status largely attributed to the ability of meth cooks to make smaller, cheaper "shake and bake" batches using a two-liter plastic soda bottle rather than the complicated chemistry lab setup of the past.

Over 500,000 vehicles travel through the MNP annually. Many come here specifically to recreate, but others simply use its paved thoroughfares -- the Kelbaker and Kelso-Cima roads -- as a convenient, uncongested shortcut route to Vegas from points further north or south. Speeding over the 55 mph speed limit, which is still higher than most national parks, results in one of the more commonly cited infractions by law enforcement. Close proximity of the two major interstates and an expanse of perceived "nothingness" seems to encourage other kinds of criminal activity, including toxic waste dumping along the preserve's more accessible borders.

Over a four-month period in 1995, the LeFaves -- a father and son duo with a Las Vegas-based epoxy manufacturing business -- dumped 97 drums of hazardous waste across a variety of public and private sites near Nipton Road to avoid paying the $1,000 per barrel cost to legally dispose the toxic chemicals and adhesives. Barrels split open in washes, mortally trapping animals in a sticky residue. After 17-year-old Louis LeFave and his accomplice were caught red-handed on one of their toxic waste runs, the LeFaves were arrested and eventually sentenced, with the father, Gene, receiving four years in prison plus $40,000 in fines. This fiasco cost taxpayers $170,000 to clean up the dumpsites.3

Other criminal activities occurring here involve the unlawful collection of plants and animals -- cited in as far as cash value as the second most lucrative illegal activity occurring within public lands after illicit drug production and smuggling activities. A federal investigation called "Operation Sweet Success" led by the U.S. Department of the Interior was launched in the late 1990s in an effort to combat the illegal collection of biznaga or barrel cactus by "an organized group of Hispanic workers" who sold them to competing production facilities in Los Angeles which, in turn, produced acitrón from its pulp, a jellied confectionery popular in Mexico.4 Officials estimated that collectors removed over 15,000 mature barrel cacti during the 1990s from federally managed lands for this purpose. Other cacti, including rare species belonging to the genera Mammillaria, Echinomastus or Sclerocactus -- commonly known as the delicate Fishhook cactus -- have been so extensively pilfered as ornamental specimens in some parts of the Mojave that they have nearly disappeared from their native regions entirely.

Wildlife poachers snatch, trap or hunt a variety of mammals and reptiles throughout desert public lands, including the region's more uncommon snakes, lizards, and even the federally protected desert tortoise. The perpetrators range from over-zealous solitary hobbyists to organized commercial wholesalers that traffic specimens locally for profit or internationally to smuggler rings that trade live and dead animals parts at black markets worldwide. "Collectors can make $2,000 a night driving the desert highways, picking up reptiles lying on the pavement, then selling the animals to the illicit pet trade."5 A 1986 report from California Fish and Game stated that bighorn sheep guides leading illegal hunts were, at the time, pocketing between $15,000 to $60,000 per hunt for their services.6

These illicit enterprises are not unique to the MNP. Over a five-year period during the mid-1980s, Joshua Tree National Park officials located 21 meth labs along the park's remote eastern border, some housed in abandoned 1950s era "jackrabbit homesteads."7 In the 1990s, a lone ranger on foot discovered a large-scale outdoor meth "cook" run by camping outlaw bikers in a secluded box canyon of southern Death Valley National Park (DVNP). Although the ranger somehow escaped unharmed from his close encounter, in the aftermath, several of the rangers closely involved with the bust were transferred out of the area for protection -- one under an assumed name due to retributive threats posed by the biker gang.

Death Valley will be forever linked to the Manson Family who occupied both Barker and Myers ranches located in the Panamint Range, now part of DVNP, over a two-year period during the late 1960s. The Family first moved out to these isolated ranch properties in 1968, initially Myers and then Barker Ranch, after Catherine Gillies, one of the Manson "girls" and also a granddaughter of Myers, suggested it as a secluded and fairly inaccessible place for the group to hide out. It has been proposed by various authors that Arlene Barker agreed to let them stay at Barker Ranch after Manson gave her a Beach Boys gold record supposedly stolen from Dennis Wilson's home.

During 1968 and 1969, The Family intermittently occupied the properties -- fleeing here after the Tate-LaBianca murders took place in August 1969 -- until their tenure was ended during a routine two-day police raid in October 1969 for suspected auto theft and arson after a NPS bulldozer was found torched in nearby Racetrack Valley. Consequently, local law enforcement targeted the ragtag group as possible suspects. At the very end of the raid, the 5 feet 2 inches Manson was found stuffed and cowering in a bathroom cabinet. Although arrested that same day, Manson's captors were unaware that they had an infamous psychopathic cult leader in their custody -- who had recently persuaded his followers to commit multiple murders on his behalf. Thirty years later detectives would return to Barker Ranch in 2008 to investigate a tip implying that several undiscovered bodies had been buried there. The consequent investigation yielded no human remains. Barker Ranch fell victim to arson in May 2009 and only the structure's stonewalls and one outbuilding remain standing.

In March of 2000, Death Valley was the scene of a two-day hunt for a heavily armed threesome including a middle-aged man, his girlfriend and the man's son who had robbed a Nevada bank and had holed up in a ravine not too far from the Furnace Creek airport. Eventually the suspects surrendered but not after having shot and forced a CHP helicopter to crash land during the first day of the ordeal.

Illegal marijuana growing operations sited on publicly managed desert lands comprise much of the most recent illegal drug production related offenses. Pot growers prefer to use government land not only for its perceived isolation, but "because... asset-forfeiture laws which allow the seizure of private property associated with the growing operations"8 are avoided by siting them within public land or park boundaries and living elsewhere.

Recent multi-agency busts such as "Operation Mountain Sweep" targeted and successfully destroyed a number of illegal grows in public lands across seven western states in 2012, including one located in DVNP. The toll on the environment resulting from these operations is costly -- both financially and impactfully -- to flora and fauna, especially in lieu of the current drought since marijuana cultivation requires profuse amounts of water, pesticides and fertilizers to thrive and produce. Growers additionally "contaminate and alter watersheds, clear-cut native vegetation, discard garbage and non-biodegradable materials at deserted sites, create wildfire hazards, and divert natural water courses."9 The cost to police, clean up and remediate these sites end up costing taxpayers of millions of dollars annually.

Of course, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) law enforcement deal with their share of crime in areas they oversee including but not limited to "mineral resource theft; wilderness area violations; hazardous materials dumping; archaeological and paleontological resource theft and vandalism; cultivation, manufacture, smuggling, and use of illegal drugs; timber, forest product, and native plant theft; off-highway vehicle use; alcohol related crimes; and wildland arson." Like their NPS counterparts, BLM's Barstow officials agree that the more elaborate meth lab setups utilizing abandoned structures are less of a threat due to the more portable production techniques used today. BLM rangers patrolling the higher elevations of the Mojave Desert are more likely to stumble upon an illegal marijuana cultivation operation, like one recently discovered in a mountainous desert canyon off California State Routes 14 and 178 east of Ridgecrest where 1,000 pot plants were confiscated and destroyed.10

One of the more mundane but increasingly costly issues facing the BLM is the identification and clean-up of those who illegally dump hazardous or nonhazardous wastes including spent motor oil, paint, unidentified toxic chemicals, tires, dead animals, abandoned vehicles, household trash and other refuse into the open desert. So far in 2015, the BLM's California Desert District's Hazardous Materials Program has removed over 55 tons of trash throughout the Mojave Desert costing around $100,000 annually. Defunct mining operations and other abandoned industrial enterprises continue to litter and pollute the surrounding desert with toxic tailings that can potentially seep and contaminate groundwater resources. Discarded heavy equipment that is "scrapped" illegally often releases fuel, toxic chemicals and leaves the site in a dangerous condition after the pilferers take what they are after and leave unwanted refuse exposed. But dumping in the desert truly takes on a far more sinister twist when it comes to getting rid of human remains.

Countless cinematic and literary depictions echo Joe Pesci's infamous "Casino" voiceover to suggest that casual acts of violence are taking place at any given time in the fictionalized backdrop of the Mojave Desert. Reflecting on this sentiment, I decided to see whether or not this imagined culture of violence actually exists here in the desert. I began by contacting Sergeant Don Lupear, a homicide detective for San Bernardino County whose jurisdiction covers the largest part of the Mojave Desert policed by any law enforcement agency within its boundaries.

During a phone conversation, I asked Lupear how many homicide victims are actually found in the Mojave. Somewhat surprisingly, he replied, "On average we only find one or two per year," commenting further that recreationists are most likely to find a murder victim in the open desert. He additionally mentioned that victims and their perpetrators are, in most cases, tied somehow to the location were the body is found. Hikers stumble upon the deceased occasionally, but more often than not bodies are discovered by off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts near a road of some kind. Consider that much of the Mojave Desert is within three miles of some type of thoroughfare, it is easy to imagine how one could go about such a repugnant task if deemed necessary.11 The reason is obvious -- the deceased are dead weight so the quickest to dispose of a "package" is to transport the body to a somewhat secluded spot via a vehicle. On occasion, evidence suggests that the deceased are "dispatched" where originally found. In most cases, however, investigators determine that the unfortunate victim was slain elsewhere and transported to the spot with the body dumped, bagged, buried, burned or disposed of in some combination thereof.

On November 13, 2013, partially unearthed human remains were discovered by a recreating dirtbike rider just off Quarry Road in an OHV recreation area just northeast of Victorville, CA. This grim discovery, a mere stone's throw from the heavily traveled Interstate-15, was later confirmed to be the missing McStay family of four. The couple along with their two young sons had mysteriously vanished without of a trace on February 4, 2010 from their home in Fallbrook, California some 100 miles south of where the slain family had been hastily buried. It seems that Chase Merritt, the former business partner of Joseph McStay who is accused and currently awaiting trial for this heinous and callous murder, has ties with the town of Apple Valley, the next town over from the crime scene. This case, along with others confirm that the Mojave Desert's high-speed vehicular corridors bordering the MNP and other publicly managed areas have indeed served as a convenient, out-of-the-way place to get rid of an unwanted body.

Over the past 15 years, several grisly discoveries have been found along or near the I-15 or the I-40 between Barstow and the Nevada state line including 19-year-old Jodi Brewer, a sex worker who had disappeared from Las Vegas in August 2003. Brewer's torso -- found along the preserve's Cima Road off-ramp entry point a few weeks after she first disappeared -- was identified by her tattoos, a hummingbird above her left breast and an "M" with a star on her lower back. No other body parts were recovered. Her murder has since been connected to suspected serial killer Neal Falls who was shot and killed in July 2015 by another potential victim in West Virginia.

A wayward beagle from Newberry Springs rummaging along the I-40 returned to its owner with a severed human foot with a stub of a leg in September 2012. The sheriff's search of the highway revealed additional human remains, triggering a murder investigation. The burnt skeletal remains of an unidentified female victim were found in 2010 off Zzyzx Road, west of the I-15 near Baker, CA. That same year the severed head of an unknown Hispanic teenage girl thought to be between 14 and 19 years old was found concealed in a backpack left on Lenwood Road, west of the I-15 in Barstow, CA.

Another unidentified female referred to as the "Nipton Jane Doe" was found on May 30, 1976 in an abandoned mine on Clark Mountain near Nipton, CA, located at the northeastern edge of the preserve near the Nevada border. The cause of death was a shotgun blast to the back of the victim's head. Her body had been discarded like a worn ragdoll in a dank mineshaft and the time of her death was estimated to have been four to six days earlier. The National Unidentified Persons Data System (NamUs) case file number 47426 noted that she had "reddish-brown hair [and] was found clad only in a blue and white bathing suit."

Studying the full-color digital reconstruction of her and other unfortunate victims like her, I was struck by how the images borrow the compositional conventions of a Renaissance portrait -- in that the murder victim is pictured with a symbolic landscape behind them like so many portraits of noblemen and woman of this period. In the Nipton representation, an endless expanse of creosote reaching into the far distance is the imagined place where this "Jane Doe" purportedly met her fate. What resounds most is that loved ones or even acquaintances have not bothered to identify this Jane Doe, or others like her, a sad fact that left me in a state of despondency and emptiness.

Not all unidentified victims have met violent ends. Human remains in various stages of decomposition have been found over the years in other out-of-the-way locations and are not necessarily the result of foul play. Ancient sun-bleached bones of long-deceased Native Americans turn up quite often, as do those of unwary recreationists or a down-on-their-luck undocumented transnational that has succumbed to either daytime's relentless heat or the near-freezing chill of the nighttime desert. It should be noted that of the four unidentified human remains discovered in San Bernardino County in 2010 all were found in outlying areas of the Mojave Desert.

Still, without a doubt the Mojave has witnessed some truly bizarre and senseless acts over the years. Consider the 2012 kidnapping, torture and attempted extortion of a successful Orange County marijuana dispensary owner and his female housemate, left tied up together at a secluded desert location off California State Route 14. A Kern County deputy found the woman wandering the desert after she managed to escape. The four suspects charged and currently awaiting trial for the crime allegedly beat, burned and doused the man with bleach in an effort to cover DNA evidence before severing his penis. Somehow, the poor fellow managed to survive his ordeal. Officials stated that the group's motive revolved around their obsessed notion that the targeted gentleman had been "burying piles of cash in the desert," which they had planned to retrieve -- a tired cinematic cliché reworked in many B-rated films, television shows, video games and other paltry fictions.

"Senseless violence, the world calls it, but the Mojave knows otherwise. The Mojave knows, has always known, that the violence is not senseless, the disturbing acts that unfold on its sandy stage in fact make perfect sense. For that is the very nature of the place, to convey meaning, to show events in living color on a giant screen in bas-relief, to make it seem as if everything is happening for the first time, even if for some, it is the last, or simply the latest in an endless spiral of repetitive, nowhere acts."
-- Deanne Stillman, "Twentynine Palms" (2008)

Los Angeles-based author Deanne Stillman has received numerous accolades and awards for her meticulous location-based nonfiction exposés detailing true crime in the Mojave and the Great Basin deserts. The extreme arid geographies of the American Southwest take on starring roles with each prominently featured in her three most recent books including "Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History" (2012), "Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West" (2009) and "Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave" (2001).

Stillman explores and exposes her characters' vexing and troubled relationships against the High Desert as a backdrop. More often than not it is revealed through her careful research that these individuals have been thrust into bleak existential situations through despair, life circumstance, economic downturn or just plain bad luck. Her protagonists are as vivid as those of a Tom Waits' song in her precise crafting of their persona and personal histories. In one of her books she enumerates, "It's a terrain of savage dignity, a vast amphitheater of startling wonders that put on a show as the megalopolis burrows northward into the region's last frontier. Ranchers, cowboys, dreamers, dropouts, bikers, hikers, and felons have settled here -- those who have chosen solitude over the trappings of contemporary life or simply have nowhere else to go."

Donald Kueck, the ticking-time-bomb but resourceful hermit documented in Stillman's third book "Desert Reckoning" is one such character. Kueck, known by local law enforcement as a solitary meth addict who squatted in a ramshackle trailer on the edge of Llano, CA, was depicted by Stillman as someone both sensitive of the desert animals that visited him daily, who enjoyed building and launching rockets but was equally highly capable of murder -- confirmed when he shot down well-liked and respected Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Steve Sorensen multiple times with a .223 caliber assault rifle on August 2, 2003. Reports stated that Sorensen drew his weapon only after Kueck had shot him. Ominously, the two had a run-in nine years earlier after Sorensen had pulled Kueck over during a routine traffic stop.

Authorities located Kueck nearly a week later hiding out in nearby Lake Los Angeles. Remarkably he had managed to elude and remain under their radar due to his formidable survivalist skills plus multiple secret caches of food, water and ammunition hidden across the desert. Although he had admitted to the murder via cell phone, Kueck adamantly refused to surrender, subsequently dying during a violent standoff after the shed he was holed up in burst into flames. The explosion resulted when a road flare ignited a tear gas canister that had been tossed into Kueck's holdout by law enforcement -- a controversial extraction tactic later criticized in the media. Sorenson's widow who was staying with family and friends nearby was said to have commented afterwards, "I wanted to see [Kueck] burn in hell, but I guess Lake Los Angeles will have to do."12 A statement I could somehow imagine mumbled in one of Waits' song verses.

Stillman's second book, "Twentynine Palms," which took her 10 years to research and write outlines in painstaking detail the vicious rape and murder of Rosalie Ortega, a 20-year-old single mother, along with her friend and 15-year-old baby sitter, Mandi Scott plus the ensuing aftermath of this grisly event. Coincidentally, the crime took place on the same day that Sorenson was shot down by Kueck -- August 2, but in 1991 in Twentynine Palms, California home to the largest Marine base in the world. The convicted murderer, 29-year-old Valentine Underwood, a Marine lance corporal who had recently returned from the Gulf War, had brutally raped the both women and stabbed them each 33 times "because it was the killer's favorite number."13

Stillman's impassioned on-site research aided by her close relationship with the victim's families -- especially Mandy's mother, Debie McMaster, who worked as a bartender in a popular Twentynine Palms bar frequented by local marines -- ultimately resulted in a portrait of those who dwell in America's margins. Following their inevitable arrival in the Mojave Desert, Stillman recounts the girls' collision with Valentine Underwood, a Marine with a history of sexual assaults on women before he joined the Corps and while in it, including the rape of a sergeant major's daughter six weeks before the rape and murder of Mandi and Rosie. The prior assaults were overlooked because he was a star on the Marine basketball team. But, as Stillman notes, it was a Marine investigator who helped break the case, along with San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies and other witnesses. After a prolonged six-year trial, Underwood was finally convicted with "DNA evidence, bloody handprints, and a serious and fresh cut on his hand" that a trial witness had observed the day after the murders occurred.

Stillman's notorious characterization of Twentynine Palms divided the town in half, with some locals concerned that the portrayal would have a negative impact, driving business away from a region, which depends on the Marine Corps and tourism for its primary sources of income. While Stillman was working on her book, she was the subject of public attacks via Amazon book reviews, newspaper editorials and articles. 14 Among other locals however, Stillman's book was celebrated and widely circulated. Many felt that someone was finally bearing witness to their stories, and understood that Stillman was writing about a side of the desert that generally goes unnoticed.

Today, the town continues its holding pattern, appearing much as it did before the murders transpired -- neither better nor worse. To the extent that Stillman's "Twentynine Palms" had an impact on the town's economic growth has yet to be proven. And more importantly, crimes committed against women by former or active duty Marines stationed here have not ended with the Scott/Ortega murders.

Former Marine Christopher Brandon Lee, 24, was arrested on August 18, 2014 for allegedly murdering Erin Corwin, 19, his next door neighbor and wife of a fellow Marine. Lee and Corwin began an affair while the two were living at an apartment building on base at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center north of downtown Twentynine Palms. Two days prior to Lee's arrest and nearly eight weeks after she had initially disappeared, Corwin's badly decomposed body was found at the bottom of the 140-foot "Rose of Peru" mine at the eastern edge of Joshua Tree National Park. Several weeks before her body was discovered law enforcement began a search of over 100 abandoned mineshafts in the area. News reports stated that Corwin might have been several months pregnant at the time of her death.

Corwin's text messages to a friend on the last day she was known to be alive suggested that she expected a marriage proposal from Lee (who was himself married) during a planned "hunting trip" with him that same day. Her portentous text read: "He said he's honestly not sure how I'm going to react... Seriously, I don't know why he would drag me to a very special place... for a big dumb surprise." Various news outlets commented that Lee had previously bragged to his neighbors on several occasions "he knew where to hide a body." It appears that he did just that.

Notes:

1 Nystrom, Eric Charles. "Chapter 7: Visitor Services." "Administrative History of Mojave National Preserve," United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Mojave National Preserve, Mar. 2003. Web.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 It is now illegal to harvest biznaga in Mexico because the several of the species of cacti used for this purpose are now threatened.

5 Hansen, Kevin. "Crimes Against the Wild: Poaching in California." Mountain Lion Foundation, Jul. 1994. 8.

6 Ibid. 8.

7 Darlington, David. "The Mojave." 121.

8 Patrovsky, Edward. "Tales From a Ranger: Death Valley Manhunt." The Desert Report, 18 Sept. 2014.

9 U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, "Exploring the Problem of Domestic Marijuana Cultivation," Statement for the Record of Kim Thorsen Deputy Assistant Secretary, Law Enforcement, Security and Emergency Management Department of the Interior. Web.

10 BLM law enforcement official. Personal interview. 21 Sept. 2015.

11 Darlington. 35.

12 Burdick, Dan. "SCANNER AUDIO -- LASD -- Barricaded Suspect Shootout (8:05)." Online video clip. "YouTube." YouTube, 8 Aug. 2003. Web.

13 Gorman, Tom. "Ruffled Palms." Los Angeles Times, 21 Dec. 1997.

14Timberg, Scott, "Seeing the Light, Remembering the Dark," Los Angeles Times, 4 Feb 4 2007.

November 27, 2015

Dianne Feinstein’s Million-Acre Land Grab Falters

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) (J. Scott Applewhite, AP)
by Chriss W. Street
Breitbart News Network


Three months after Breitbart News and others outed Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-CA) backdoor effort to freeze development on over one million acres of California dessert by having President Obama declare the area subject to the Antiquities Act of 1906, her efforts are going down in flames as Congressional Republicans are moving to ban the Antiquities designation.

Feinstein’s seven-year quest to convince Congress to sequester over 1,560 square miles of the Mojave Desert into three new national monuments under her proposed "Desert Conservation and Recreation Act” has gone nowhere. Feinstein has argued that the area she wants designated as ‘Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains’ is home to mountain lions, the California desert tortoise and bighorn sheep. But the real effort is to ban off-roaders, hunters and miners.

The Senator had faced opposition from an unusual coalition of sustainable energy developers, wilderness advocates, off-road vehicle users, military bases, energy companies and American Indian tribes. By trying to circumvent Congress through artificially tying up the property with a phony search for non-existent artifacts, she has incensed Republicans and upset many Democrats, who worry about future Presidential actions.

U.S. Rep. Paul Cook (R-CA), whose district covers the area Feinstein wants restricted, complained at a Congressional hearing in September that the Antiquities Act “sets in motion a Washington-based management plan that can sharply curtail recreational and economic activities. I’m deeply concerned that outreach efforts to the public have been hasty and inadequate.”

Cook, a retired U.S. Marine Colonel who won a Bronze Star and has two Purple Hearts from combat duty in the Vietnam War, has said that when he heard about Feinstein’s backdoor efforts, his number one goal was to stop Presidential action.

Cook is a staunch military supporter and sits on the powerful Armed Services, Veterans,’ and Foreign Services Committees. The military is a substantial user of the terrain that Feinstein wants walled off. Because the area contains the remnants of General George Patton’s World War II training camps, national security interests have been lobbying Cook to lead the opposition against Feinstein’s Congressional end run.

The California Chamber of Commerce and the California Taxpayers Association both oppose the Antiquities designation and have given Cook perfect 100 percent ratings for each year since he was first elected in 2007. They have lobbied the congressman to oppose any executive order by President Barack Obama regarding the area.

On October 1, 2015, Congressman Cook introduced HR 3668, the California Minerals, Off-Road Recreation, and Conservation Act (CMORCA). He described the bill as “a balanced approach to protecting, managing, and using our desert and forest areas in San Bernardino and Inyo Counties.” But the bill also bans designating the area under the Antiquities Act.

Cook’s bill creates would create a National Monument, but also opens 100,000 acres to mining, and designates Johnson Valley and five more off-highway vehicle areas as “National OHV recreation areas.”

The new designation would ban commercial development in those areas if the Secretary of the Interior determines the development is incompatible with the purpose of the bill. But the bill sets up the opportunity for development to be approved in a future Republican administration.

Although Senator Feinstein has continually claimed that desert residents are “overwhelmingly in favor” of the three monument designations she is pushing for, the City of Twentynine Palms, the City of Banning, and the San Gorgonio Pass Regional Water Alliance quickly signed on as supporters of Rep. Cook’s CMORCA.

Environmentalists have been shocked by the rising support for the CMORCA bill, which they call part of a a “radical anti-public-lands agenda” by House Natural Resources Committee Republicans, representing a “neo-sagebrush rebellion that appears to be emerging in certain Western states.”

The Rep. Cook’s California Minerals, Off-Road Recreation, and Conservation Act is expected to have its first House Natural Resources Committee hearing as early as December 9.

November 21, 2015

Water Agency's Land Purchase Rattles California Farmers

Bart Fisher, farmer and president of the Palo Verde Irrigation District, looks at the Colorado River. The third-generation farmer who was born in Blythe, left 29 percent of his farmland fallow this year. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the nation’s largest distributor of treated drinking water, became the largest landowner in the region including Blythe for good reason: The alfalfa-growing area sits at the top of the legal pecking order to Colorado River water, a lifeline for seven Western states and northern Mexico.(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

By Elliot Spagat and Jae Hong
Associated Press


BLYTHE, Calif. (AP) -- The nation's largest distributor of treated drinking water became the largest landowner in a remote California farming region for good reason: The alfalfa-growing area is first in line to get Colorado River water.

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California's play in Palo Verde Valley, along the Arizona line, tapped a deep distrust between farm and city that pervades the West over a river that's a lifeline for seven states and northern Mexico.

Farmers recall how Los Angeles' modern founders built an aqueduct a century ago to bring water hundreds of miles from rural Owens Valley, a story that was fictionally portrayed in Roman Polanski's 1974 film, "Chinatown."

"Are we going to dry up our rural, agricultural communities just to keep Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego growing? I think it would be a sad state of affairs," said Bart Fisher, a melon and broccoli farmer who is board president of the Palo Verde Irrigation District.

Metropolitan tried to calm nerves by sending its chairman in September to a public forum in Blythe, 225 miles east of its Los Angeles headquarters. It pledged to honor a 2004 agreement that caps the amount of land it pays farmers to idle at 28 percent of the valley.

That agreement, which expires in 2040, is hailed as a model for farms and cities to cooperate. Metropolitan pays farmers about as much as they would profit to harvest - $771 an acre this year - to bring foregone Colorado River water on its 242-mile aqueduct to 19 million people in the coastal megalopolis it serves.

Palo Verde enjoys California's highest rights to the river, making their immune to drought.

The dynamic changed when Metropolitan paid $256 million in July to nearly double its Palo Verde holdings to 29,000 acres, or about 30 percent of the valley. The agency denied its purchase from Verbena LLC, a company that bought the land several years earlier from the Mormon church, was part of an orchestrated plan.

"It's made the farmers out there nervous that we are the largest owner but there was a strategic opportunity that came up," Metropolitan's general manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said.

Metropolitan stirred similar angst this month in Northern California when its board expressed interest in buying farms on several islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Its staff said the land could provide water storage and wildlife habitat.

Blythe, a riverside town of about 13,000 people in the Mojave Desert with two state prisons, is an oasis of gas stations, motels and fast-food restaurants on Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and Phoenix. Thomas Blythe staked claim to the river in 1877, beating Southern California cities under a Gold Rush-era doctrine called 'first in time, first in right.'

Los Angeles and its suburbs founded Metropolitan in 1928 to build the remarkably durable Colorado River Aqueduct. Parker Dam and the reservoir it created in Lake Havasu empties into a gray Art Deco-style building with nine pumps that quietly pipe water 300 feet up a steep slope. Teal metal cases that cover the pumps vibrate so little that a nickel placed on top stands on its side.

The water goes uphill through four more pump stations and through tunnels, canals and pipelines before reaching Southern California's coastal plain two days later.

The Colorado's huge man-made reservoirs have made the river an unheralded savior in California's four-year drought. Last year, the river supplied two-thirds of the 1.7 billion gallons of drinking water that Metropolitan delivers daily, up from a third three years earlier.

The river sustains 40 million people and farms 5½ million acres, but white "bathtub rings" lining walls of the nation's largest reservoir in Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, are evidence of shrinking supplies. California took more than it was entitled to until Sunbelt cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas clamored for their share and forced the nation's most populous state to go on a diet in 2003.

"It's really the only supply of water to this otherwise bone-dry region," said Bill Hasencamp, Metropolitan's manager of Colorado River resources.

Metropolitan has diverted up to 118,000 acre feet of water a year from Palo Verde since 2005, enough for about 250,000 households. It paid $3,170 an acre to farmers who committed for 35 years, plus an annual fee for fallowed land. It idles 7 percent to 28 percent of the valley each year, depending on its needs.

Jack Seiler, a grower who volunteered 900 acres, calls the agreement a "poster child" for farms and cities to cooperate but Metropolitan's July purchase of nearly 13,000 acres unsettled him. It gave Metropolitan the largest voting bloc on Palo Verde's water board.

Metropolitan says it won't have to pay someone else to idle the land it now owns and will lease it to farmers, cutting its net cost to about $50 million. It voted for incumbents in a September election to Palo Verde's seven-member board, which includes Seiler.

"I obviously don't know why they bought all this land," Seiler said. "It puts us a little bit at odds."

November 20, 2015

Arkansas phone booth is first of its kind to make National Register of Historic Places

Phone booth historic, hello? Prairie Grove 1959 site put on national list

Prairie Grove teenagers Mason McCourt (left) and Blake Williams use the telephone booth on U.S. 62 in Prairie Grove in April, when the booth was first nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

By Bill Bowden
Arkansas Online


A telephone booth in Prairie Grove has become the first structure of its kind to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The 56-year-old Airlight outdoor booth was selected for nomination in April by the state review board of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.

But there was a hang-up.

The National Park Service had reservations about putting a phone booth on the list, said Ralph Wilcox, the National Register/survey coordinator for the state's Historic Preservation Program. It had never been done before.

The "listing blurs the line between a 'place' and an artifact, and it begs the questions about where the line between significance and nostalgia is drawn," according to the response that the National Register sent to Wilcox in July.

Wilcox had to convince the decision-makers that the phone booth is "truly significant."

He resubmitted the nomination, emphasizing that the Airlight "represented a new and advanced design for the telephone booth."

For one thing, it was intended to be outdoors.

Before the Airlight was developed in 1954, telephone booths were made of wood and were inside buildings, Wilcox wrote.

The Airlight's metal-and-glass construction could hold up to the elements, he said. And this booth was strategically placed to serve the motoring public -- on U.S. 62 in front of the Colonial Motel and across from the entrance of Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park.

With that ringing recommendation, the phone booth was officially listed on the National Register on Nov. 9.

"It is my understanding that this is the first and only telephone booth listed on the National Register," Wilcox said Thursday.

Airlight phone booths were once common along highways across America.

According to the nomination form, there were 2.6 million pay phones in the United States by 1996.

But, while pay phones still exist, phone booths have become harder to find since cellular phones took over the market.

The Prairie Grove phone booth is rare in Arkansas because it has a working telephone, Wilcox said. The only other one in the state that he knows of is in Bluffton in Yell County, where there's no cellphone service.

David Parks, president of Prairie Grove Telephone Co., said he's not sure when the company put the phone booth in, but he believes it was around 1959.

Parks said Wilcox notified him Thursday about the National Register listing.

"I'm happy," Parks said. "It's just a little hard to believe. I mean, who would have thought? I'm tickled. I really am."

Parks said there are no plans for a plaque outside the phone booth.

Parks said he thought about removing the phone booth years ago but decided to leave it up for nostalgia's sake. He said it yields $3 to $4 in change per year.

Patrick Andrus, a historian who has been with the National Register for 35 years, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in April that the Prairie Grove submission was the first nomination that he knew of for a telephone booth.

Andrus said the National Register lists five types of properties: buildings, districts, sites, structures and large objects, such as outdoor fountains.

Generally, properties must be at least 50 years old to be listed on the National Register, which is administered by the National Park Service.

Telephone booths were part of American culture throughout the 20th century. Countless villains and heroes ducked into phone booths as movie plots unfolded.

A mild-mannered reporter could enter a phone booth and emerge as Superman. A telephone booth even saved Tippi Hedren from avian attackers in Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 movie The Birds.

Whether the Prairie Grove phone booth has ever served such a purpose isn't known, but it is an "excellent example" of the aluminum-and-glass phone booths that were developed for Bell Telephone System in 1954, according to the National Register nomination form.

It was also nominated for its "importance in the communications history of Prairie Grove."

Airlight phone booths were used for decades. Each booth had a red panel at the top of all four sides, with the word "TELEPHONE" in white letters.

The telephone is in one corner, and the booth has a "bifold door."

"Its aluminum and glass construction was durable enough to stand up to the elements and the amount of glass along with the louvers on the sides allowed its namesake elements -- air and light -- to flood the booth," according to the nomination form. The Airlight booths also had fluorescent overhead lights.

The phone booth is a tourist attraction on U.S. 62 across from Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park.

People often stop at the booth to take pictures.

In June 2014, a motorist driving a 2003 Chevrolet Tahoe dozed off and ran into the Prairie Grove booth, knocking it from its concrete foundation in front of the Colonial Motel.

A public outcry on the city's Facebook page led Parks to fix it. The phone booth was repaired and reinstalled that August.

November 15, 2015

Researchers determine origin of mysterious stone columns along Crowley Lake

A mystery in stone

Robin Wham photographs the columns, which for decades were regarded as little more than curiosities along the eastern shore of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's Crowley Lake reservoir. They had been buried and hidden for eons until the reservoir's pounding waves began carving out the softer material at the base of cliffs of pumice and ash. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

by Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times


Mammoth Lakes, CA -- The strange pillar-like formation emerged after Crowley Lake reservoir was completed in 1941: stone columns up to 20 feet tall connected by high arches, as if part of an ancient Moorish temple.

They had been buried and hidden for eons until the reservoir's pounding waves began carving out the softer material at the base of cliffs of pumice and ash.

In the ensuing decades, the columns were regarded as little more than curiosities along the eastern shore of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power reservoir, which is best known as a trout fishing hot spot about 10 miles south of Mammoth Lakes.

But now answers are emerging from a study at UC Berkeley. Researchers have determined that the columns were created by cold water percolating down into — and steam rising up out of — hot volcanic ash spewed by a cataclysmic explosion 760,000 years ago

"These columns are spectacular products of a natural experiment in the physics of hydrothermal convection," Noah Randolph-Flagg, 25, a PhD candidate and lead author of the study, said in an interview.

The blast, 2,000 times larger than the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, created the Long Valley Caldera, a massive 10-by-2-mile sink that includes the Mammoth Lakes area. It also covered much of the eastern Sierra Nevada range with a coarse volcanic tuff, or ash fall.

Randolph-Flagg said researchers not only discovered the origin of the columns but also learned a great deal about the surrounding landscape. "They have lot to tell us about what the region was like before and after the caldera exploded, and about how volcanoes can change local climate," he said.

The columns began forming as snowmelt seeped into the still hot tuff. The water boiled, creating "evenly spaced convection cells similar to heat pipes," according to the study to be presented next month in San Francisco at an American Geophysical Union meeting, the world's largest conference in geophysical sciences.

From the very first moment I laid eyes on this weird and wondrous place a year ago, I was smitten. It made me go back to school to get a master's degree in geology.
- Robin Wham, 62, a graduate student at Cal State Sacramento
Analyses by X-rays and electronic microscopes of samples of the columns found that tiny spaces in these convection pipes were cemented into place by erosion-resistant minerals.

Randolph-Flagg estimates that as many as 5,000 columns exist within a 2- to 3-square-mile area east of the lake. They appear in clusters, and are diverse in size and shape.

Many are gray, straight as telephone poles and encircled with horizontal cracks about 12 inches apart. Some are reddish-orange in color. Some are bent, or all tilting at the same angle. Still others are half-buried and resemble the fossilized backbones of dinosaurs.

Next year, the Department of Water and Power will begin ferrying students to the site as part of an "effort to further educate the public about these invaluable natural resources," said Amanda Parsons, a spokeswoman for the utility.

Edward W. Hildreth, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and expert on the history of the Long Valley Caldera and the chemistry of its tuff, welcomes the sudden interest in the columns, which can be reached by boat, on foot or by four-wheel-drive vehicles.

More analysis could help scientists better understand how quickly the columns solidified, and the chemistry and temperatures that produced their spacing, width, height and composition.

Among other researchers investigating the columns is Robin Wham, 62, a graduate student in geology at Cal State Sacramento whose proposed thesis involves mapping their precise locations and comparing their characteristics to those of similar formations in New Mexico and Mexico.

On a recent Sunday, Wham, a retired physical therapist, clambered down a steep trail with a clipboard and GPS device to double-check the coordinates of a grotto filled with columns that she likes to call "my office."

"From the very first moment I laid eyes on this weird and wondrous place a year ago, I was smitten," she said. "It made me go back to school to get a master's degree in geology."

November 9, 2015

Riders on the Storm

Democrats also use appropriations riders, despite recent protest.

Cadiz agricultural well head and pond in the Mojave Desert.

By Jim Swift
The Weekly Standard


A chorus of Democrats and activists are raising hackles about the potential of Republican policy riders being added to a year-end omnibus spending bill. Policy riders (or “limitation riders”) are the opposite of earmarks. Where the now-extinct earmark required money to be used on a certain project, a rider is a paragraph or two in an appropriations bill dictating what the money cannot be used for.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told Roll Call:
"The president, Pelosi, Reid, my entire caucus has agreed to hold hands. We are not going to approve anything that has all these ideological, short-sighted, crazy ideas; to do away with women’s health, to do away with clean air, to attack Dodd-Frank and all these.”
David Goldston, director of government affairs at the environmental group National Resources Defense Council told E & E News in an interview: “on riders there’s going to be a very private, intense tussle between Democrats and Republican leaders on whether spending bills will be used to block environmental progress.”

This, Majority Leader McConnell has said, is the likely outcome: “Both sides will get into a negotiation here at the Appropriations Committee level, and at the end of the day, there will be some riders.” Reid, however, has claimed “We don’t have any riders.”

The sudden about-face on riders from Democrats may seem strange, since in recent years Democrats have repeatedly sought and successfully secured policy riders. But, this is the first appropriations season during the Obama presidency where Republicans control both chambers, so now policy riders are a bad thing, of course.

It remains to be seen how far Democrats will go in their newfound opposition to riders. Just last week, 25 Democratic senators, a majority of that caucus, wrote to the president, urging him to “reject all spending bill riders that would undermine Endangered Species Act protections…” If Reid, Pelosi, and the President insist they’re quitting policy riders cold turkey, there are likely to be some Democratic casualties.

One of the biggest winners (and perhaps hypocrites) has been California senator Dianne Feinstein, who has used her position on the Appropriations Committee to stop a planned water project in her state. Feinstein has fought the project for 15 years.

The project is called the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery, and Storage Project. Cadiz owns 34,000 acres of land in the Fenner Valley in San Bernadino County, and below it are millions of acre-feet of water. With an acre-foot clocking in at 326,000 gallons, that’s hundreds of billions of gallons of water. Currently, the project is a combined effort by Cadiz, the Arizona & California Railroad, and a handful of water districts, like the Santa Margarita Water District.

California, as most know, is experiencing severe drought, and the project’s backers say 400,000 Californians could benefit from this water, some of which would otherwise evaporate into the thin desert air. An Environmental Impact Report, required by California’s stringent Environmental Quality Act of 1970 observes the following about the Cadiz project:

"California’s Constitution mandates maximizing the reasonable and beneficial use of water and avoidance of waste. The fundamental purpose of the Project is to save substantial quantities of groundwater that are present wasted and lost to evaporation by natural processes. In the absence of this Project, approximately 3 million acre-feet of groundwater presently held in storage between the proposed wellfield and the Dry Lakes would become saline and evaporate over the next 100 years. By strategically managing groundwater levels, the Project would conserve up to 2 million acre-feet of this water, retrieving it from storage before it is lost to evaporation.”

But even given the water emergency, Feinstein and other opponents of the project aren’t relenting.

The project was tried once before, in the early 2000s, but with a different partner: the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Feinstein and two House colleagues wrote to the Bush-era Interior Department to express their concerns about such use of the aquifer and its potential impact on the desert, which Feinstein, as author of the California Desert Protection Act, has taken a special interest in.

The Bush Interior Department signed off on the project, which needed government approval to “wheel” the water across a Bureau of Land Management “right of way” via a 35-mile pipeline. Feinstein and environmental allies convinced the board of the Metropolitan Water District to reject the proposal, which it narrowly did, as the LA Times reported: “with 50.25% of the board’s weighted votes in favor.”

The environmental and anti-development activists at Public Citizen crowed: "Cadiz Water Privatization Project Permanently Stopped!"

Feinstein knew the truth, though: The Cadiz project and its backers weren't going to go quietly, which is why she inserted a policy rider into the FY07 continuing resolution that blocked any funding for the project.

Only when Cadiz revised and revived the project and began to make progress with its new partners, the Santa Margarita Water District and the Arizona & California Railroad, did Feinstein expand the rider— inserted into the FY10 Interior Appropriations Bill, which became law in 2009 — to tighten the noose with this clause:

“Sec. 110. (a) Any proposed new use of the Arizona & California Railroad Company's Right of Way for conveyance of water shall not proceed unless the Secretary of the Interior certifies that the proposed new use is within the scope of the Right of Way.”

The Feinstein rider, due to her clout in Congress, has remained in effect ever since. But now, with the clarion call of the Democratic leaders for Republicans to eschew policy riders in the year-end omnibus bill, the rider is at risk.

At an Appropriations Committee hearing in July, Feinstein complained at length about policy riders. E & E News reported it this way:

"Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in turn lectured Republicans for using the spending bill to block environmental policies they oppose, arguing that doing so would result in a continuing resolution or omnibus package to fund the federal government come September.”

Feinstein argued that riders were just “a member really trying to impose their will to change a law on this bill, which is essentially a numbers bill of appropriations.” She further denounced the practice writ large:

“You shouldn’t do these on appropriations bills, if you want the appropriation bills to pass in regular order. Instead, there is no change for six years. It’s either a CR or an Omnibus, maybe a few things get stuck into an Omnibus, but what kind of progress is that for the people we serve in this nation? I don’t think it’s any real progress, and so, you’ve got this enormous conflict now between both sides. And I don’t know where this takes us, because we’re not going to let an appropriations bill succeed. What kind of long term sense does it make to continue in this way? So, I want to make a call for some sanity.”

Yet, despite this impassioned plea, her rider to block the Cadiz project had been included in the Interior Appropriations bill.

When asked whether Feinstein’s Cadiz rider would make it into yet another omnibus bill, a GOP aide on the Appropriations Committee responded: “We cannot offer any insight as to the ultimate fate of this provision, but it certainly illustrates that Democrats are plenty capable of using appropriations riders to pursue policy outcomes.”

When Feinstein complained about using policy riders as leverage for Senators to “impose their will to change a law,” she spoke from experience. That’s because her rider preventing the Cadiz project helped do just that.

To get the water to its new partners, Cadiz signed an agreement with the Arizona & California Railroad (ARZC), which has a right-of-way granted pursuant to the General Right-of-Way Act of 1875. This would enable Cadiz to deposit the water into the Colorado River Aqueduct, which services numerous water districts, including that of its new main partner, the Santa Margarita Water District.

In the case of railroads on public land, many rights-of-way are governed by the 1875 act, as is the case here. The 1875 Act is also subject to the interpretation by the courts, and by the legal opinions of the solicitor of the Department of the Interior, which oversees BLM. The solicitor issues “M opinions” that are intended to provide guidance to enforcement of public laws, and one, issued in 1989 (M-36964) effectively gave the green light to the Cadiz.

Back in the 1980s, MCI (a telecom that would later become Verizon), wanted to install fiber optic communications lines on a railroad right-of-way controlled by Southern Pacific Transportation Company. The decision clarified that Southern Pacific did not need to seek BLM’s approval to allow MCI to install the cable because it, even though a commercial venture, was “not inconsistent with railroad operations" because it benefited the railroad's operations.

The prospect of this M-Opinion, which Cadiz and the railroad believe they are in compliance with, horrified Feinstein. After securing the rider in the FY10 Interior Appropriations bill, she trumpeted the achievement in a letter to former Senate colleague and then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

“I write to bring to your attention language included in the FY10 Interior Appropriations bill regarding Cadiz LLC’s proposed use of the Arizona & California Railroad Right-of-Way (ROW) for a water conveyance pipeline in the Mojave Desert. I request that the Department start now to reexamine the previous administration’s position that the proposed pipeline does not require federal authorization.”

Feinstein wrote about a 2005 federal court opinion, Home on the Range v. AT&T Corp., which she claims the court “found that easements under the 1875 General Railroad Right-of-Way Act are limited to uses for railroad purposes, excluding non-rail activities analogous to the water pipeline here.”

The letter’s conclusion reinforced the ask: “I would like to request that the Department now initiate a review of its right-of-way policy regarding this project, as well as the Solicitor’s Opinion it is premised on, rather than waiting until the legislation is ultimately signed into law. It is my hope that by acting now, the Department can resolve the scope of the right-of-way promptly, rather than allowing legal questions and uncertainty to linger.”

Put another way, Feinstein went on record to say she’d hold up the project until BLM changed how it interpreted the law to her liking.

Two years after the letter was sent, the Interior Department did just what she asked, and issued M-37025, an M-Opinion from the Solicitor that withdrew the guidance provided by the 1989 M-Opinion that BLM approval was not required for activity not inconsistent with railroad operations.

The new M-Opinion provided that, in order to be within the scope of the Right-of-Way, “a railroad’s authority to undertake or authorize activities is limited to those activities that derives from or further a railroad purpose…” Only now, each activity “requires a fact specific case-by-case inquiry.”

The new M-Opinion was a setback, but still found that, in the case of MCI, its activity “furthered, at least in part, a railroad purpose…” and even that “…MCI’s line was primarily a commercial trunk line, a portion of its capacity was dedicated to the railroad.” Under the new guidance, Cadiz and the Arizona & California Railroad made their case to BLM as to why the water pipeline not only would further a railroad purpose, but would do so in a way that satisfies the underlying 1875 act itself.

In a 2013 staff memorandum to the Interior secretary, Jim Kenna, the director of the BLM in California, highlighted the design features in the water project that Cadiz and the railroad argued would further railroad purposes:

  • Fire hydrants placed along railroad tracks for fire suppression.
  • Access road to be constructed on leased area for railroad company for maintenance purposes or in case of emergencies such as rail car derailment;
  • Access to 10,000 gallons of water per day for vegetation control, washing rail cars, offices, and other contemplated improvements;
  • Access to power at meters located along the railroad tracks and emergency access to power at any location;
  • Water service for steam powered locomotives, to be used as excursion trains.
  • Right to connect and deliver water to any future water production facilities within the ROW to the pipeline and facilities.

The original 1875 act provides that the right of way is also granted for “ground adjacent to such right of way for station buildings, depots, machine shops, side tracks, turnouts, and water stations…”

The water stations Cadiz would supply are right there in the actual law. However, in a formal letter, BLM disagreed that the pipeline furthers railroad purposes. The letter is sadly comical, a Rube Goldberg exercise in futile bureaucratese.

The planned water suppression system, designed to remotely stop a disastrous trestle fire that could cripple the railroad for weeks?

“Use of water for fire suppression on creosote-treated timber is an uncommon industry practice, with dry sand being the preferred method, and thus the water-based hydrants and sprinklers, and fiber optic telemetry used to operate them do not derive from or further a railroad purpose. A BLM authorization is needed for use of fire suppression facilities along the 43 mile stretch of the ROWs that runs across BLM administered public land.”

The water stations for a steam-based tourism train? “may derive from or further a railroad purpose (emphasis added)…” but “…the excursion train’s prospective use of a small portion of the pipeline’s water does not convert the excursion train, the pipeline, or the water that runs through the pipeline into a legitimate railroad purpose.”

In other words, no, no, and… no: You have to get BLM approval now.

Except, BLM can’t even process an application from Cadiz and the ARZC even if it wanted to, as noted in a BLM memo:

“If a decision is made that the proposed use is not within the scope of the 1875 railroad ROW, such a pipeline would require a FLPMA ROW authorization from the BLM as it crosses BLM-managed lands. However, the processing of such a ROW would be prohibited this year, given the language in the 2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act H.R. 2055 118(b).”

The Cadiz project has bipartisan support in the House, as numerous Democrats and Republicans have written letters of support, and perhaps explains why the House Interior Appropriations bill does not contain the Feinstein rider.

While the BLM has shut the door to Cadiz and the ARZC’s quest to build the pipeline without their approval via an er, novel, interpretation of the law, if Feinstein’s anti-Cadiz rider isn’t included in the year-end omnibus, the project’s backers could apply for formal BLM approval. Other legal recourse, such as a lawsuit challenging BLM’s determination, is still on the table.

The question for Feinstein and Democrats is: How willing are they to part with policy riders on appropriations bills? In the coming weeks, we’ll find out, I guess, because Senator Feinstein’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

October 31, 2015

Why the BLM’s decision on the Cadiz project was the right one

In this undated file photo provided by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, water flows through the Southern California desert in the Metropolitan Water District's Colorado River Aqueduct from the Colorado River to the Los Angeles area. A different water conveyance project by Cadiz continues to meet resistance. (AP Photo)

Guest commentary

By Adell L. Amos and Sam Kalen
San Bernardino County Sun


Officials at the Bureau of Land Management have to make a lot of sensitive decisions. But their recent decision that a 43-mile, 7-foot diameter groundwater pipeline does not further the purpose of an 1875 railroad right-of-way should not be controversial. It is as simple as this — a water pipeline project is something different than a railroad.

Despite tremendous pressure to shoehorn a massive groundwater pipeline into a century-old railroad right-of-way, the BLM made a rational decision that the proposal was not in furtherance of the railroad’s purpose. Scott Slater, president and General Counsel of Cadiz Inc., asserts that BLM should rescind that decision.

Cadiz Inc., a Los-Angeles based company, wants to build a pipeline to carry groundwater from a fragile Mojave Desert aquifer to southern California. It’s the kind of project that calls out for careful and considered decision-making by public officials. The project could have a significant impact on sensitive desert habitat and the interests of tribes, local communities and national parks nearby. In fact, such careful review was completed under state law, though it is now undergoing appeal by project opponents.

If BLM had sided with Cadiz and determined that this new water project furthered a railroad purpose, then the project could proceed without federal environmental reviews, tribal consultations and interagency coordination that would otherwise be required.

Not surprisingly, Cadiz had a profound interest in trying to convince the BLM that its proposal — which is about transporting valuable water to thirsty urban areas in southern California — was actually about advancing the railroad’s purpose.

Ultimately, the BLM made a straightforward and common-sense determination that the water pipeline does not further a railroad purpose. This decision ensures, if the project goes forward, it will be subject to appropriate public review. Instead of criticism, the BLM ought to be commended for its responsible management of public resources in the face of tremendous pressure from private interests.

To move forward now, Cadiz will be asked to do what any private developer on federal public land is asked to do — participate in an open, public process under federal law that evaluates the various impacts of the project. That is not a controversial notion in the least. Developers on public lands, though they might prefer to avoid it, engage in this kind of review all the time.

Many opponents of the Cadiz Project worry that this attempt to locate the project in an existing railroad right-of-way was a clever sleight of hand designed to circumvent an open and public evaluation of the impacts and consequences of this project under federal law. To the extent that these concerns about the impacts are unfounded, the federal review process will bear that out.

Perhaps Cadiz worries that the federal review will shed light on what some believe to be faulty scientific assumptions about the recharge rate of the aquifer, or the irreversible environmental harm that could come from pumping 1-2 million acre feet of precious desert groundwater for 50 years, or the impact to historic, natural and cultural resources including the Mojave National Preserve, the lower 48’s third-largest national park unit. More than a decade ago Cadiz proposed a very similar project and the federal environmental review process revealed many of these concerns. Many of these concerns are also at issue in the appeal challenging the state review process.

In the end, BLM exercised sound professional judgment in a climate where water is becoming increasingly scarce and highly valuable. Some estimates put the price of the water associated with the Cadiz project at $1-2 billion. BLM is not required to advance private interests to achieve maximum profit for their investors. Rather, BLM exists to manage, for multiple and often competing purposes, the public lands consistent with all applicable laws. In choosing this course, the BLM carried out its mandate with integrity toward the process and acted as a responsible steward of the public resources it is entrusted to manage.

Adell L. Amos is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Oregon School of Law. She is a former Deputy Solicitor for Land and Water Resources at the Department of Interior.

Sam Kalen is co-director of the Center for Law and Energy Resources in the Rockies at the University of Wyoming School of Law. He is a former Special Assistant for the Solicitor’s Office at the Department of the Interior.

October 20, 2015

Helicopter crash marks troublesome cattle roundup near Searchlight

Wild, feral, and menacing cattle of the McCullough Range near Searchlight, NV.
By Henry Brean and David Becker
Las Vegas Review-Journal


The wild remnants of one of southern Clark County's last cattle herds are now being cleared from the mountains between Henderson and Searchlight, but the work so far has not gone smoothly.

A crew of cowboys from Utah is gathering stray and feral cows from the McCullough Mountains under a contract with the Nevada Department of Agriculture.

Flint Wright, animal industry administrator for the department, said the operation started Friday and has no scheduled completion date. As of Monday, just 17 cows had been collected.

"They're essentially wild cattle, and it's going to take some time," Wright said.

The roundup hit a major snag Sunday, when a helicopter being used to find and chase cows crashed just off state Route 164 west of Searchlight.

On Tuesday, the wrecked helicopter and its pilot could still be found at a motel in the town 60 miles south of Las Vegas.

Richard Dick of Hutchinson, Kan., said he was hovering about 12 feet off the ground, trying to move a pair of stubborn bulls, when a gust of wind pushed his helicopter into a Joshua tree. The 1962-vintage Bell model 47G ended up on its side in pieces, but he walked away with bumps and bruises.

The pilot said it was his first domestic accident in 17,000 hours of flying, though he crashed three times in Vietnam.

When he climbed out the wreckage Sunday, Dick said, the bulls were just staring at him.

The cattle now being rounded up have roamed the range untended since 2006, when rancher Cal Baird relinquished his federal grazing permit and sold his water rights to the county to preserve habitat for the desert tortoise and other federally protected species.

According to the Bureau of Land Management, Baird moved most of his livestock from the 111,000-acre federal grazing allotment to Arizona, but a few stragglers were left behind.

For the past several years, officials say, those survivors and their unbranded descendants have been damaging springs and menacing people in the mountains and desert between Interstate 15 and U.S. Highway 95 south of the Las Vegas Valley.

BLM spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon said the animals are aggressive and "present a danger to the public recreating in the area."

Wright said: "We've had some complaints from people who were hunting deer and were run off by the cattle."

Baird could not be reached for comment.

Under Nevada law, unbranded stray or feral livestock are considered state property. The BLM has been asking the state to remove the unclaimed cattle from the McCullough Range for several years.

In 2013, the state rounded up and sold off approximately 30 animals, but an unknown number remain. Last year, the BLM counted about 40 unbranded cows spread across two wilderness areas west of Searchlight. Wright guessed there could 100 to 200 feral cows still out there.

He figures it would cost the state as much as $200,000 to try to collect that many animals. The Department of Agriculture has been "trying to get this deal cleaned up for a number of years," but it never seems to have the money or the resources, he said.

The animals are now being rounded up by Sun J Livestock, a ranching operation from Vernal, Utah. Wright said the ranchers aren't being paid directly, but they have plenty of incentive to do a thorough job.

"They get to keep the livestock," he said. "They'll get every cow they can."

Weekend warriors fear Washington land grab could take off-roading off the board

A group of off-roaders and others are attempting to fight a proposed designation of three national monuments in the California desert under the Antiquities Act. (Corva.org)

By Perry Chiaramonte
FoxNews.com


California outdoors enthusiasts fear Washington is poised to put up roadblocks on some of the Golden State's most treasured trails by designating three desert destinations totaling more than 1 million acres national landmarks.

The Obama administration is considering using the federal Antiquities Act to bypass the legislative process at the request of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose efforts to have the Mojave Trails and Castle Mountain, both in the Mojave Desert, and a section of the Sonoran Desert named federal sites were repeatedly blocked by Republicans. A White House move could put the land under federal control, which critics say could cut funding for upkeep or even restrict access.

“Bypassing the legislative process using the Antiquities Act would be as disastrous as it is undemocratic, creating winners and losers with the stroke of a pen,” said Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif., who has sponsored a bill that bears some similarities to Feinstein's, but would ensure off-roading and mining could continue on the land. Cook’s bill would also allow the state to create water projects for wildlife conservation.

“Any time you take away the consensus of the local community they are left with something they did not ask for." - Amy Granat, California Off-Road Vehicle Association

The Mojave Trails lie in the desert of the same name in eastern California and are part of a 140-mile road that stretches from the Colorado River to Mojave River. The Sand to Snow Monument would cover 135,000 acres from the Sonoran Desert floor in Coachella Valley to the peak of Mount San Gorgonio, in the San Bernardino Mountain range. The Castle Mountains lie on the Border of Nevada and California near the famed Joshua Tree region and reach an elevation of 5,543 feet.

While the Obama administration has not said publicly if the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountain national monuments will be designated, Feinstein asked the president in August to take the action. The Antiquities Act was signed into law in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt, and gives the president authority to create national monuments from public lands to protect significant natural, cultural or scientific features. It has been used more than 100 times, including for such landmarks as the Grand Canyon, Mount St. Helen's and a stretch of the Underground Railroad in Maryland. Given that President Obama has invoked the Antiquities Act to name 19 sites national monuments since 2009 and as recently as July, Cook and other critics have reason to believe the White House could do so again, especially at the invitation of a powerful Democratic ally.

"We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Amy Granat, managing director of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, which has been fighting the legislative proposals for two years. "More and more of the desert is being taken away from the people. If you look at the entirety of the desert, there has always been a no-win when the Antiquities Act has been put in place.”

Cook supports the designation, but through legislation and on terms that allow current uses to continue. He said a White House decree based on the Antiquities Act “sets in motion a Washington-based management plan" that will ultimately leave the recreational area unfunded - and unkempt.

“ ... the roads and facilities will be left to degrade to a point where public use is unsafe or impossible,” he said. “Anyone who’s read the recent reporting on the newly-created San Gabriel National Monument’s dire situation can attest to this. Use of the Antiquities Act will create more “orphan” monuments like San Gabriel, this time in the heart of the California desert.”

One example of the Antiquities Act not helping to improve an area can be seen at the San Gabriel Mountains, range of mountains located across Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties and separates the City of Angels and the Mojave. It has been just over a year since the White House designated the mountainous region as a National monument but the area has still not received any federal funding. The 970-square-mile region badly needed the funding to combat growing blight in the area, but is still plagued by garbage and vandalism. And with no federal funding in sight, the National Park Service does not have the means for proper upkeep.

Feinstein is not without support in her home state. An Antiquities Act designation for the three landmarks could actually bolster recreational activities, according to the Campaign for the California Desert.

“The point that Rep. Cook and other opponents of the monument designation are missing is that when our shared public lands are protected, it’s for the continued use and benefit of all Americans," the group said in a statement. "It is only when our public lands are sold off or leased by a developer does the public’s access to our public lands becomes restricted.”

October 16, 2015

Government takes family's land near Area 51

Historic Groom Mine overlooking Area 51
By Glen Meek and Kyle Zuelke
Las Vegas Now

LAS VEGAS -- Private land overlooking the secret base at Area 51 has officially been taken from the owners and transferred to the United States Air Force.

Last month, the U.S. Air Force condemned the Groom Mine property when the family who owns it rejected a government buyout they felt was unjust.

The I-Team broke the story of the family's fight with the government.

The Sheahan family, which until now owned the mine, knew they faced an uphill fight. They also expected the government would probably take the land through eminent domain even though the Sheahan's owned it since Abe Lincoln was in the White House.

Now -- literally with the stroke of a pen -- a federal judge has turned the land over to the U.S. Air Force. The only part of the fight left for the Sheahan family now is compensation and what will happen to the equipment, buildings, even human remains, still at the site.

In the remote central Nevada desert, the Groom mine has been an island of private property surrounded by a vast government buffer zone. The buffer zone is patrolled by security troops to prevent people from getting a look at the secret test base at Groom Lake -- better known as Area 51.

The family who owns the mine overlooking Area 51 has been at odds with the air force, which condemned the property last month, after the family declined a $5.2 million buyout.

"I have a geologist friend who I took out there, who's just a buff, and he said it is literally almost priceless," said Barbara Sheahan, Groom Mine heir. "There is so much there, not only the ore which is in the ground that can be mined, but in all the intrinsic value of what's on the land."

What's on the land includes buildings, mining equipment and the remains of kin who worked the mine since the family acquired it in the 1870s.

There's also the question of indignities suffered by the family from nearby government testing including buildings strafed by military planes and radiation drifting downwind from above ground nuclear shots in 50s and 60s.

"This has been like I said a 60-plus year nothing short of criminal activity on the part of the federal government, the AEC, Black Ops, CIA and you can go on and on," said Joe Sheahan, Groom Mine heir.

On Sept. 16, federal Judge Miranda Du signed the order in the condemnation case giving possession of the Groom Mine property to the United States government. The Sheahan's have asked for a jury trial, but the issues will be limited to how much the air force must pay for the land and the disposition of the equipment and personal property left on the site.

"There's nothing fair, there's nothing anything remotely close to that involved in this process," said Joe Sheahan.

"But there never has been either, so it's nothing new. But we would like to change it at least to get our stuff out and be paid the value," Barbara Sheahan said.

The air force made its final, $5 million offer to the Sheahan family after concluding that the security and safety of defense testing in that area made private land ownership impossible.

It the condemnation case, the air force values the land at only $1.5 million.

The Sheahan's say it's worth much more than that considering the value of the minerals in the mine, the abuses the family has suffered over decades and the land' s historical significance.

October 11, 2015

Cadiz chief to tackle desert water transfer project roadblock

Scott Slater, president and CEO of Cadiz Inc. explains the company's position that they believe the groundwater they would harvest would be lost to evaporation if left to its natural processes. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

By Jim Steinberg
San Bernardino Sun


LOS ANGELES – The CEO for embattled Cadiz Inc. has a plan to keep alive a controversial project to transfer ancient groundwater in a remote part of San Bernardino County’s Mojave Desert to parts of Orange County and other locations, where it could serve as many as 400,000 people.

In an interview late last week, Cadiz CEO Scott Slater said he would be seeking a review of the decision by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to reject Cadiz’s proposed use of an 1875 railway right-of-way to build a critical 43-mile pipeline from the Fenner Valley — about 40 miles northeast of Twentynine Palms — to the Colorado River Aqueduct, where it could be delivered to future customers.

If that fails, he will take his battle to court, he said.

“This is pure politics,” said Slater, who is considered by many to be an expert in groundwater law and water policy.

According to a letter from the BLM, the proposed use of the railroad right-of-way for the pipeline is outside the scope of the Arizona and California Railroad’s use of right-of-way grants held under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of March 3, 1875.

The letter to Cadiz warns that “proceeding with new activities or continued activities ... without authorization from the BLM could result in the BLM instituting trespass proceedings.”

The ARZC, as the short-line railroad is called, has agreed to let Cadiz use its right-of-way. The railroad moves primarily petroleum across its 190 miles of track.

As part of its water project, Cadiz planned to build fire-suppression and power-generation capabilities for the railroad.

“BLM has determined that the project does not derive or further a railroad purpose,” said the letter signed by James Kenna, California BLM director, who has since retired.

For that reason, in order for the pipeline to proceed along the right-of-way, the BLM must approve that use. And for that to happen, a full federal environmental review must be completed.

Slater called the BLM’s decision an “outrage” that ignores key precedent set forth in a memorandum written in November 2011 by the top attorney for the Department of Interior, which liberalizes the definition of railroad purpose to mean that BLM permission is not needed if the purpose benefits the railroad in some way.

“Every American should be infuriated” at the way the BLM has deliberately ignored the evolution, determined by a top federal lawyer, of a law written more than 100 years before, said Slater, who is author of “California Water Law and Policy,” a two-volume treatise, and has taught law and graduate classes at Pepperdine University, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Western Australia, He also revised the water code for Western Australia.

On the other hand, David Lamfrom, director of the California Desert and Wildlife Program for the National Parks Conservation Service, said: “The Bureau of Land Management’s decision is supported law, policy and common sense and prevents a clear attempt by Cadiz Inc. to create a loophole to avoid federal review.

“The BLM has a responsibility to all Americans to fully understand the impacts this project proposes on public lands, including impacts on our water resources and national parks. This decision opens the door for good science and objective decision-makers to participate.”

Also agreeing with the BLM decision is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

“I remain concerned the Cadiz project could damage the Mojave Desert beyond repair,” she said in a statement, “and believe the BLM decision to deny the right-of-way is the right one.”

“We need to use water more responsibly, not less, and the Cadiz project is a bad idea,” said Feinstein, who is attempting to include the Cadiz Valley in her proposed Mojave Trails National Monument, one of three proposed for the region.

Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, said, “I have looked at the Cadiz Water Project carefully and I believe it has merit. ... I have concerns about what kind of precedent this sets for railroads across the country and the ability of an agency to deny historically protected property rights.”

Calvert is chairman of the House Interior and Environmental Appropriations Subcommittee.

The project has been approved by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.

When asked about the BLM decision, 1st District Supervisor Robert A. Lovingood said, “The BLM decision will be a roadblock for the project. But this is a matter between the BLM and the company. ...”

For the past eight years, Feinstein has attached a rider to the legislation that funds the Department of the Interior, the umbrella agency for the BLM, that effectively blocks the Cadiz Valley aquifer from being drained, her office said.

Last week, Cadiz said it found out about the BLM decision through a third party.

Before the decision, Cadiz had been saying it and its public agency partner, the Santa Margarita Water District in Orange County, were on track to begin construction of the pipeline this year or early next year.