February 22, 2016

Death Valley Is Experiencing a Colorful ‘Superbloom’

The primary threads in the floral carpet are yellow — the most common flower is called Desert Gold, which looks like a yellow daisy. (National Park Service)

New York Times

Death Valley, one of the hottest places on Earth, is currently a riot of color: More than 20 different kinds of desert wildflowers are in bloom there after record-breaking rains last October.

It’s the best bloom there since 2005, according to Abby Wines, a spokeswoman for Death Valley National Park, and “it just keeps getting better and better.”

The flowers started poking up in November, but the particularly colorful display emerged late last month in the park, which is mainly in California but stretches across the Nevada border. On Twitter and Instagram, park visitors have taken to calling it a “superbloom.”

The park gets about two inches of rain annually, so it always sees some wildflowers, though not as many or as varied. But it doesn’t take much more rain than that to completely dye the desert, Ms. Wines said, making last fall’s unusually heavy rains particularly effective.

Over the past couple years, as much of California has been in a state of exceptional drought, in Death Valley, where dry is the norm, rainfall has hovered around the average, Ms. Wines said.

The primary threads in the floral carpet are yellow — the most common flower is called Desert Gold, which looks like a yellow daisy. But there are also strands of purple, pink and white. One of Ms. Wines’s favorites is the “Gravel Ghost,” a white flower that appears to float above the ground.

The flowers are expected to stick around until mid-March, unless it gets too hot or windy.

February 12, 2016

President designates 1.8 million acres of desert as national monuments

By Matthew Cabe
Desert Dispatch

Local reactions were mixed — if not negative — Friday in the wake of President Obama’s early-morning granting of national monument status to nearly 1.8 million acres of Southern California desert, including 1.6 million acres in the Mojave Desert.

Obama signed proclamations establishing the Mojave Trails, Castle Mountains — both in the Mojave Desert — and Sand to Snow in the Sonoran Desert as national monuments. The designations will nearly double the amount of public land that Obama has designated as national monument status since taking office, according to the White House.

Obama utilized the federal Antiquities Act — adopted in 1906 — which grants the president the authority to protect landmarks, structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest by designating them as National Monuments, according to the Associated Press.

Amid the action, numerous conservation, Christian and veteran groups’ positive responses were in line with the Joshua-Tree-based Mojave Desert Land Trust, and Executive Director Danielle Segura called the support truly inspiring.

“Our community has a deep appreciation and connection to our public lands that knows no boundaries,” Segura said in a statement. “We value that our nation’s newest national monuments preserve uninterrupted landscapes, ecosystems and opportunities for future enjoyment, discovery and adaptation to a changing biosphere.”

Accolades for Obama were in short supply elsewhere, however, as Rep. Paul Cook — who introduced his “California Minerals, Off-Road Recreation, and Conservation Act” last October — said Obama’s “unilateral designation” ignored the legislative process.

“I’m not opposed to national monuments,” Cook, R-Apple Valley, said in a statement. “I’m opposed to the president creating national monuments through unilateral executive action … I’ve never found people in Washington to know better than residents of San Bernardino County when it comes to local land issues. This time, special interest groups hijacked these monument designations and ignored the wishes of those who live closest and use the land most often.”

Cook’s comments were mirrored by 33rd District Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, who emphasized the importance of the legislative process Friday.

“This process exists to allow all of the affected stakeholders to have their voices heard and considered before impactful actions like the creation of these monuments become law,” Obernolte told the Daily Press. “Unfortunately they were not given that opportunity.”

Cook introduced his bill as an alternative to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s desert protections bill, and despite several similarities, Cook’s bill would have designated Mojave Trails as a special management area rather than a national monument.

That lower-rung designation was crucial to Cook because, unlike a national monument, special management areas allow for new mining operations.

Field representatives for Feinstein, D-CA, however, maintained at various council and legislative review meetings throughout the High Desert that national monument designations bolster tourism in areas with proximity to the monuments.

Addressing a crowd at Wildlands Conservancy's Whitewater Preserve last October, Feinstein said she would continue to push her California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015, according to a previous Daily Press report.

But amid that push for her bill, Feinstein also expressed a hope to have her proposed national monuments within the bill established by Obama through executive action.

That Feinstein’s hope became a reality Friday didn’t sit well with Hesperia Mayor Bill Holland.

“Once again the president has overstepped his authority and done something as a political favor,” Holland told the Daily Press. “It is ridiculous. It is despicable. Now all the work done by Cook — and Feinstein — is null and void. Now everybody loses because (Feinstein) didn’t get her way and took this route.”

By contrast, the White House focused its aim on preservation as local officials took issue with the bypassing of political processes.

"In addition to permanently protecting incredible natural resources, wildlife habitat and unique historic and cultural sites, and providing recreational opportunities for a burgeoning region, the monuments will support climate resiliency in the region," the White House said in a statement.

The designations also will connect those regions to other protected government land, including Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave National Preserve and 15 other federal wilderness areas, according to the Associated Press.

The Mojave Trails National Monument, at 1.6 million acres, is by far the largest of the three designated by Obama Friday. It contains ancient lava flows, sand dunes, ancient Native American trading routes and World War II-era training camps.

The monument also contains the largest remaining undeveloped stretch of Route 66, which led many local Mother Road advocates to champion Feinstein’s bill prior to Obama’s designation.

Obama to designate new national monuments in the California desert

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post

President Obama has set aside more of America’s lands and waters for conservation protection than any of his predecessors, and he is preparing to do even more before he leaves office next year. The result may be one of the most expansive environmental and historic-preservation legacies in presidential history.

On Friday, Obama will designate more than 1.8 million acres of California desert for protection with the creation of three national monuments: Castle Mountains, Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow. The new monuments will connect three existing sites — Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and the Mojave National Preserve — to create the second-largest desert preserve in the world.

Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia is the largest.

Obama has unilaterally protected more than 260 million acres of America’s lands and waters under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives the president wide latitude to safeguard at-risk federal lands that have cultural, historic or scientific value.

The act is among the most powerful tools at any president’s disposal. Franklin D. Roosevelt invoked the law more than any president in history; Harold L. Ickes, his interior secretary, kept a pile of potential national-monument declarations in a desk and pulled them out whenever Roosevelt was in a good mood.

Obama’s aides do not have a similar system, but they share those earlier aspirations.

“We have big, big ambitions this year, so let’s see what happens,” said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, adding that the administration is focused on “local requests for action. It’s really been driven by activities on the ground.”

The big question: What next?

Other possible future designations include Bears Ears, a sacred site for several Native American tribes in southeastern Utah; Stonewall, the site of a 1969 inn riot by members of New York City’s gay community; the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts; the historic headquarters of the National Woman’s Party, Sewall-Belmont House in Washington, D.C.; and Nevada’s Gold Butte, an area where rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters have defied federal authorities.

Officials are weighing these proposals amid protests out West, such as the armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which aimed to wrest control of federal lands from officials in Washington. The standoff may have hurt the prospects for increased protections around the state’s Owyhee Canyonlands, though the idea is not off the table entirely.

But Jim Messina, a close Obama adviser who worked on conservation issues when he served as White House deputy chief of staff in his first term, said the president is personally committed to the issue and is convinced that most Americans back the idea.

“Protecting public access is a huge political winner across the West. A bunch of extremists in Oregon can’t change it,” he said. “There’s no thought, or no reason, to back off on our agenda.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who convinced Obama to declare a sizeable monument in Nevada’s Basin and Range Province last year, is still pressing for getting another one at Gold Butte, which is an hour’s drive from Las Vegas but has been degraded and largely unpoliced since Bundy and his armed followers confronted Bureau of Land Management officials there in 2014.

Republicans have been trying to curtail Obama’s powers to act, but in a year when several senators are up for reelection in swing states, they have fallen short. Last week, the Senate considered an amendment by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that would have reversed national-monument designations if Congress and lawmakers in the affected states did not explicitly approve them within three years of designation. Four Republicans — including Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) — broke ranks and voted against it, and it was tabled by a one-vote margin.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said in an interview Wednesday that he was not surprised at the vote’s outcome. “

Most people do not understand what Antiquities does, or can do,” he said. “At some point, we have to realize this is a process that is out of control. Whether that actually occurs before Obama leaves is irrelevant.”

The Obama administration and Bishop have starkly different readings of the law, which runs just four paragraphs. It dictates that any monument designation “shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected,” but presidents have interpreted that broadly over the past century.

The White House has identified two main criteria for naming monuments this year, Goldfuss said: areas that help foster resilience to climate change or are “connected to people and communities that have not been historically represented” in national parks and other federal sites.

That explains new California desert designations, for which Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has been seeking protection for seven years. David Lamfrom, who directs the National Parks Conservation Association’s California desert and national wildlife programs, said connecting the ecosystem across nearly 10 million acres will help species with large ranges, such as bighorn sheep and mountain lions, as well as imperiled desert tortoises and ones that are taking refuge at higher altitudes where there is more moisture.

The idea is “to link together these large landscapes in perpetuity,” Lamfrom said, so species can migrate and have the best chance of survival in the face of human pressures.

Five members — the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Pueblo of Zuni — have created the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to press for a monument on roughly 1.9 million acres in of Utah that were once inhabited by the Anasazi and, later, the Navajo.

Eric Descheenie, who co-chairs the coalition and serves as executive staff assistant to the Navajo Nation president, said: “We’ve had the looting and grave robbing and destruction of sacred sites,” even as several tribes have continued to gather medicinal herbs and berries, haul wood, hunt and conduct religious ceremonies there.

In some instances, Republican lawmakers have offered their own vision of how to protect these areas, but bipartisan agreements have proven elusive. Rep. Paul Cook (R-Calif.) has introduced a California desert bill that would put more than 1.2 million acres in the region off limits to development, but it would bar the use of the Antiquities Act, open up 100,000 acres of new mining in Mojave Trails and sanction off-road vehicle use in some areas.

It is less clear what Obama will do in federal waters, where nearly of the strict protections are in the central Pacific. There are a group of Hawaiians lobbying the president to expand Papahanaumokuakea — a monument George W. Bush created a decade ago, whose islands and atolls are home to 1,750 marine species found nowhere else on Earth — to the full extent under the law. That would make it 520,000 square miles, or nine times its current size.

“Some people here are working here to provide the president with a legacy opportunity,” said William Aila Jr., looking down from a rocky outcropping in Oahu as two endangered Hawaiian monk seals nestled below. “It would be the largest marine protected area for a long, long time. It would be almost impossible to top it.”

February 5, 2016

Obama eyes remote corner of Mojave for desert monument

The Castle Peaks got their name because they resemble the ramparts of a castle. (Jay Calderon / The Desert Sun)

Sammy Roth
The Desert Sun

If you've never explored the Mojave Desert, the Castle Mountains wouldn't be a bad place to start.

Getting there isn't easy. From the Coachella Valley, the shortest route winds through the High Desert, east on Highway 62 and north through the Mojave National Preserve (the so-called "Las Vegas shortcut"), then east again past Nipton, a tiny railroad boomtown that's currently being sold for $5 million. The last leg of the trip runs through Nevada, crossing the state line near Searchlight before cutting back into California, via a series of rugged dirt roads that culminate in the Castle Mountains.

It's not a journey for the casual day-tripper. But once you get there...

The most stunning feature is the Castle Peaks, a series of jutting mountains that look like the ramparts of a castle. They loom large over the area's cholla cacti, creosote bushes and bighorn sheep. Baby Joshua trees shoot up from nurturing brush, even as their cousins in Joshua Tree National Park struggle to reproduce amid a changing climate. Abundant grasses and other verdant plants rise from the desert floor, providing so much ground cover that parts of the Castle Mountains look as much like a prairie as a desert.

​There's a ghost town, too, left over from a gold-mining boom in the early 1900s. But we'll get to that.

David Lamfrom, who works to protect California's deserts with the National Parks Conservation Association, guesses he's been to the Castle Mountains 50 or 60 times. Just a few hundred people visit each year, by his estimate.

“It’s just so freaking beautiful. It’s just a really unique place," Lamfrom said on a recent visit. "I’ve spent a tremendous amount of my time and energy and effort on the conservation of the Castle Mountains, even though there are a lot of places that really need and deserve protection.”

For the Castle Mountains, protection might come soon: Conservationists have urged President Barack Obama to declare the area a national monument, along with two larger sections of the desert. They expect Obama to grant their request within the next few weeks, creating the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains monuments through his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act.

Republican politicians, mining interests and off-road vehicle enthusiasts will cry foul if Obama invokes the Antiquities Act, even though most of them support legislative efforts to protect those areas from rampant development. And even if Obama does take action, the Castle Mountains wouldn't completely avoid industrial activity: A Canadian company calledNewCastle Gold hopes to reopen a mine that shuttered in 2001 due to low gold prices, and it has every legal right to do so.

Whatever happens next, there's little disagreement the Castle Mountains deserve some kind of protection. Just ask off-roader Randy Banis, who opposes a presidential designation but has worked with Sen. Dianne Feinstein to establish desert monuments through legislation. Asked about the Castle Mountains, Banis could barely contain himself: "Isn’t it incredible? Isn’t it absolutely incredible?"

"The vegetative diversity, and the health of the vegetation — I love stopping the vehicle and just stepping out and walking through," he said. "People are like, 'Really, this is a desert?' It’s just so beautiful.”

The Castle Mountains occupy an unusual perch in the vast Mojave Desert.

About an hour's drive from Las Vegas, the area is surrounded on three sides by the Mojave National Preserve; the fourth side is the Nevada border. If not for the gold mine, it would have been included in the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, which created the national preserve, along with Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks. Feinstein, who wrote that bill, cut 29,000 acres out of the proposed preserve, giving then-mine owner Viceroy Gold Corporation plenty of room to maneuver on its 7,500 acres.

By the late 2000s, the mine was closed, and energy companies were eager to build solar and wind farms across the desert. Against that backdrop — which alarmed conservationists — Feinstein wrote a bill to protect 1.6 million additional acres, mostly by establishing the Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow monuments. The Castle Mountains would have been added to the Mojave National Preserve.

But the bill failed to get traction in a gridlocked Congress, as did similar proposals in 2011 and 2015. So last summer, Feinstein and conservation groups started urging Obama to protect those areas via the Antiquities Act, which he'd already used to create or expand 19 national monuments, including the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in Southern California.

“The current political climate is making it difficult to move any lands legislation through either body of the Congress,” Feinstein said in October, at a public meeting that drew more than 1,000 people to the Whitewater Preserve to discuss the monument proposals. “My intention is to continue to push the bill, while simultaneously pushing a presidential designation. But let me be clear: My preference is very much to push the legislation.”

Monument status would preclude industrial development, from wind and solar farms to new mining. The designations would also bring new funding from the federal government, Lamfrom said, which in the Castle Mountains' case could be used to study unique plants and animals, survey Native American petroglyphs, develop a trails system and craft an interpretive plan to teach visitors about the area's history. The National Park Service would begin promoting the monuments, too, almost certainly boosting tourism.

The battle to preserve Castle Mountains

Desert gold

The proposed Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow monuments have commanded the most attention, since they're larger and closer to population centers. The Castle Mountains monument would be relatively small, and far from any California cities.

But conservationists say the Castle Mountains are just as deserving of protection — and not just because they offer stunning views.

Because of the area's unique geography — it's further east, and higher in elevation, than most of the Mojave Desert — the Castle Mountains foster a diversity of plant and animal life unmatched almost anywhere else in the desert. Monsoonal summer rains tied to the nearby Colorado River are particularly important, supporting dozens of species of grass that blanket the desert floor.

"It’s an extension of southwestern grasslands which extend from Texas all the way into California. This is typical of summer rainfall deserts," said Jim André, a botanist who runs UC Riverside's Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, located in the heart of the Mojave National Preserve. “Most Californians don’t think of California as receiving the monsoon, but in far eastern San Bernardino County it’s quite prominent."

The area is also part of the world's largest Joshua tree forest, which stretches from Mojave National Preserve into Nevada's Lake Mead National Recreation Area. And unlike in Joshua Tree National Park — where the namesake species is struggling to adapt to global warming — Joshua trees are thriving in the Castle Mountains. It's not hard to find healthy Joshua trees sprouting up from black brush, which serves as a spiky nursery to the young plants, warding off herbivores until they can fend for themselves.

The area's relatively high elevations make that possible, providing lower nighttime temperatures than the low-lying national park can.

"Oftentimes when people think of deserts, they think of sand dune systems, or they think of lonely, flat places," Lamfrom said. "But this is a rugged, beautiful mountain-scape filled with Joshua tree forests, with piñon, with juniper, with native grasslands...this is really, I think, one of the truly unique and remarkable places in our desert."

Unbroken wilderness

The same factors that give rise to the Castle Mountains' diverse plant life also support abundant wildlife. It would be difficult to list all of the creatures that spend time there: desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, Mojave ground squirrels, mule deer, mountain lions, Cooper's hawks, great horned owls and more. Several of those species are protected under the state or federal Endangered Species Acts.

Keeping the Castle Mountains pristine, conservationists say, is bigger than just giving those species another place to live. They see the Castle Mountains as a critical link in a chain of largely undisturbed desert that stretches from the Mojave National Preserve into Nevada, eventually connecting the 1.6-million-acre preserve with the 1.5-million-acre Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Keeping that chain intact is especially important for species like bighorn sheep, which roam the open desert. As cities, freeways and fences have increasingly crisscrossed what once was wilderness, bighorn sheep populations have fallen dramatically.

"You can’t keep them in isolation. You have to allow those connections to other (bighorn sheep) populations, so they can have genetic exchange," said Dennis Schramm, who served five years as superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve. "If you don’t protect it, and you put in more fences and windmills and solar fields and all those kinds of things, you’re chopping up the habitat."

The Castle Mountains could also provide habitat for a new species.

A century ago, pronghorns — the world's second-fast land animal, after cheetahs — thrived in the deserts of Southern California. But humans hunted the antelope-like species, and eventually it disappeared from the region.

For years, the National Park Service and state wildlife officials have wanted to reintroduce pronghorns in the Castle Mountains. But they've been waiting to take that step until the area receives stronger protection, which would help ensure their efforts won't be in vain.

Gold in the hills

More than 100 years ago, the Castle Mountains were better known for gold than they were for flora and fauna.

Three Nevada prospectors — Jim Hart, and the brothers Bert and Clark Hitt — struck gold there in December 1907, and by the next year a mining town known as Hart was thriving. The town had about 400 residents, along with five hotels and eight saloons, according to a plaque that greets visitors today. Lamfrom said he's heard the town had two brothels, although that isn't mentioned on the plaque.

Miners quickly realized there wasn't much gold that could be economically extracted, and within a decade the town was deserted. The buildings are gone, but remnants of Hart are still visible: Rusted metal cans litter the base of the gold-laden hills that give the Castle Mountains their name. Viceroy opened a new mine in 1992, although that one, too, lasted less than 10 years.

"The Western American history of this landscape has been intimately tied to mining, and the ability for the (National) Park Service to tell the story of mining here is really important," Lamfrom said.

Mining could also play a role in the Castle Mountains' future.

NewCastle, which bought the mining rights in 2012, estimates there are at least 4.2 million ounces of gold in the hills, which would yield nearly $5 billion at today's prices. A new mine could employ a few hundred people, said Marty Tunney, NewCastle's vice president for business development. The company is still conducting preliminary studies, and could be several years from opening a mine.

NewCastle's permit will expire in 2025, although it could ask San Bernardino County for an extension if there's enough gold to justify further mining. In the long term, the company hopes to give the land to the National Park Service, Tunney said.

"If we were able to mine it the way we would like to go and mine it, and extract the value of it, we’d like to go through full reclamation and hand the project over to the (Mojave National) Preserve," he said. "We currently don’t see any reason why that shouldn’t happen."

Tricky politics

The proposed Mojave Trails monument has generated more controversy than Sand to Snow or the Castle Mountains. Feinstein's bill would ban new mining claims across the monument's 942,000 acres, which surround historic Route 66, between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. Big mining companies support the bill, but a cadre of smaller firms fiercely oppose it.

Rep. Paul Cook, a Yucca Valley Republican who represents the High Desert, has put forward a different proposal. His legislation, like Feinstein's, would create the 140,000-acre Sand to Snow national monument, stretching from the desert floor near Joshua Tree National Park to the peak of Mount San Gorgonio in the San Bernardino National Forest. But it would offer a lesser level of protection to the Mojave Trails, establishing a "special management area." Ten percent of that area would be open to new mining operations.

At the public meeting in October, John Sobel, Cook’s chief of staff, expressed hope that his boss and Feinstein could compromise. He criticized calls for Obama to use the Antiquities Act, saying a presidential designation would create “second-rate monuments because they lack the adequate support of locals and of Congress.”

Banis, who represents the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, supports Feinstein's bill, since it would keep the Mojave Trails monument open to off-roaders. He's worried a presidential designation would ultimately lead to the closure of the area's dirt roads.

“Boy, it’s going to get me mad if they name this thing the Mojave Trails, and then they go and close the roads. I’ll be so ticked off," Banis said. "That would be such a slap in the face to the recreation community.”

The Castle Mountains are less contentious. While Feinstein and Cook's bills would add the area to the Mojave National Preserve — an option that isn't available through the Antiquities Act — conservationists say a monument designation would have the same effect.

Cook disagrees. He said in an email that a presidential designation could "seriously jeopardize the existing mine by including land needed for mining operations, as well as limiting the ability to drill for wells to supply water needed for operation." He also said adding the area to the preserve would make more sense, from a management perspective, than creating a standalone monument.

"I view a Castle Mountain monument designation as a stealth attempt to shut down one of the most important mineral projects in the country," Cook said in an email.

NewCastle isn't so concerned. Company officials prefer Feinstein and Cook's bills to a presidential designation, since they know the bills would protect their ability to mine. But the company doesn't oppose the Antiquities Act route, so long as Obama includes similar protections for mining. Tunney, NewCastle's vice president for business development, said the company has been "given some assurances by Sen. Feinstein's group" that Obama's Castle Mountains designation would look similar to the provisions in her bill.

"If that’s the case, that works for us," Tunney said.