March 31, 2016

Tortoise a road block for Marines

Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center expansion area in Lucerne Valley.


An adult desert tortoise weighs about 12 pounds and can take days to travel a mile, yet the reptiles have managed to get one of most formidable forces on earth – the United States Marine Corps – to reconsider a large training mission.

The Marines plan to conduct live ammunition training in August, using tanks and other heavy weaponry at their Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.

To prevent harming about 1,400 tortoises living in this stretch of the Mojave Desert, the military now plans to limit operations in its combat center expansion area in the Johnson Valley northwest of Landers.

The Marines had hoped to airlift the reptiles this spring to federally managed habitat land near Barstow to get them safely out of the way.

But military officials and federal land mangers recently announced that the relocation can’t proceed until they analyze how the move would affect tortoises and other wildlife already living in the recipient areas.

The spring move was canceled shortly after an environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, filed a legal challenge to it. Desert Tortoises are protected by the Endangered Species Act because they are listed as threatened with extinction.

Marine Capt. Justin E. Smith, a spokesman for Twentynine Palms, said by email that the extend of the use of 88,000-acre Johnson Valley expansion has not been determined, but training “will not negatively impact the desert tortoise species.”

The Marines “will comply with all environmental management requirements.”

Brian Croft, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, said he expects to talk with the Marines about how to avoid harming tortoises. The Marines, for example, may keep tanks and other motorized vehicles on designated roadways when traveling through tortoise areas.

The August training will be a large-scale, live-ammunition operation involving three battalions operating in extreme desert heat in real world warfare conditions, said Smith’s email. Last year’s exercises included troops from Canada and the United Kingdom.

The Johnson Valley has traditionally been an off-road-vehicle recreation area managed by the federal Bureau of Land Manage. But in late 2013, Congress added the valley to the Air Ground Combat Center.

Marine and BLM officials will hold a public meeting to discuss the Johnson Valley situation from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, April 2, at the Lucerne Valley Community Center in Lucerne.

March 29, 2016

House Republicans open probe of new California national monuments

By Carolyn Lochhead
SF Gate

WASHINGTON — House Republicans opened an investigation Tuesday into President Obama’s designation of three new national monuments in the California desert that protect more than 1.8 million acres of public land, along with six other monuments Obama has designated since January 2015.

The California desert monuments almost doubled the amount of land that Obama has set aside under the 1906 Antiquities Act, setting a new record for presidential land designations, three committee chairmen wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“The broad and frequent application of the Antiquities Act raises questions about the lack of transparency and consultation with local stakeholders,” wrote Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee; Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee; and Hal Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Request for documents

The letters request “all documents and communications referring to or relating to the selection or designation of national monuments under the Antiquities Act” from January 2009 to the present, the letter said, setting a deadline of 5 p.m. April 12. Neither the Oversight Committee nor the White House responded to a request for comment.

The Antiquities Act gives the president power to create national monuments on public lands. Republican President Herbert Hoover used the law to establish Death Valley as a monument in 1933 just before he left office, and his successor, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, designated Joshua Tree as a monument under the act in 1936.

Obama invoked the Antiquities Act on Feb. 7 to declare the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains national monuments in the California desert, acting at the direct behest of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a longtime champion of the Mojave Desert.

The monuments link wildlife corridors and preserve the last open stretch of historic Route 66, which was under threat of solar and wind development in 2008 until Feinstein stepped in with proposed legislation to protect the areas. The Bureau of Land Management allows mining, grazing, energy and other development on the federal lands under its jurisdiction; the monument designations prohibit such uses.

Feinstein made the request after more than six years of work on a desert conservation bill that Republicans refused to entertain.

The Democrat defended the monuments, saying she and her staff “held hundreds of hours of meetings with the full range of desert stakeholders,” including “environmental groups, local and state government officials, off-highway recreation enthusiasts, cattle ranchers, mining interests, the Defense Department, wind- and solar-energy companies, public utilities, Native American tribes, local residents and many others.”

Feinstein said the Antiquities Act “allows the president to protect ‘historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.’ Anyone who has been to the California desert knows that it has all these things and is certainly qualified for protection under the law.”

Activists frustrated

The GOP charges of lack of transparency and local consultation flabbergasted desert activists who helped Feinstein draw the boundaries of her legislation, which Obama then borrowed.

“I put probably 20,000 miles on my car — just my car — going around the desert for the last 10 years” talking with people about protecting the lands, said Jim Conkle, a retired Marine who championed the inclusion of Route 66. Conkle said the letters from Chaffetz and Bishop, who represent districts in Utah, and Rogers, from Kentucky, suggest that “we were land grabbers, but we didn’t take any more land than was already under the stewardship of BLM anyway.”

David Lamfrom, California desert program director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said he “worked on the ground building support (for the monuments) for at least the last seven years.”

“I really think it was a nonpartisan effort, and there was general agreement throughout the desert that this was the appropriate response,” he said.

David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, the California nonprofit that was instrumental in protecting the monument lands from real estate speculators, said he thinks the investigation is mainly intended as a warning shot from Utah Republicans to the White House over a potential designation of a 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears national monument in southern Utah.

“There isn’t a monument in U.S. history that has had more participation from the private sector,” Myers said.

March 28, 2016

Human bones found near Fenner


Bones found by a surveyor near Essex Road near Fenner on Friday afternoon were identified as human on Saturday, March 26, according to a San Bernardino County Coroner news release.

Homicide detectives then took over the investigation and found more bones in the same area on Saturday.
Fenner is about 40 miles west of Needles on I-40.

Anyone with information is asked to call detectives at 909-387-3589 or the anonymous We-Tip Hotline at 800-782-7463, or to visit the We-Tip website at

March 16, 2016

Military's tortoise relocation plan in jeopardy

The Marines were gearing up to move the reptiles to Bureau of Land Management habitat areas near Barstow to protect them from live-fire exercises

Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center expansion area in Lucerne Valley.


The military has scrapped plans to move more than 1,400 protected desert tortoises from an expansion area at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms to BLM-managed habitat land this spring.

The Marines were gearing up to move the reptiles to Bureau of Land Management habitat territory near Barstow, so that the 88,000-acre Johnson Valley expansion area could be used this summer for live ammunition training.

A base spokesman said in an email Wednesday, March 16, that he is still trying to determine how the decision will affect the training plans.

The plan called for the tortoises to be moved as early as this month. To reduce stress on the animals, they were to be flown by helicopter to the Ord-Rodman Critical Habitat Unit, an area managed by the BLM southeast of Barstow. But the manager of the BLM’s Barstow Field Office, and Marines both sent emails Wednesday confirming that the move won’t be this spring.

The emails did not explain why the move was canceled.

But the postponement comes a week after environmentalists with the Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal challenge to the planned move. And it comes a day after a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official said the agency had not yet approved a required relocation plan.

Meanwhile, time was running out to get the tortoises moved before the military exercises – if they do end up being held. The animals are threatened with extinction.

Marine Corps officials had said they wanted to relocate the desert tortoises while the weather was cooler.
Hotter temperature puts more stress on them, making them less likely to survive the move, officials have previously said.

Last week, the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue the BLM, contending that the agency had failed to fully examine how the move might harm desert tortoises and other wildlife.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the center, said in an email that she’s pleased the tortoises will stay put, at least for now, allowing more time for analysis.

“BLM is wise to do a full analysis of the impacts of having desert tortoises from the Marine base moved onto the public lands that they manage,” her email said.

She said she was concerned that the moves could spread a respiratory disease that afflicts tortoises.

On Tuesday, March 15, Brian Croft, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency was still working on a relocation plan and a revised biological opinion about the move. The service must approve both documents before the move can occur.

“There are still some big hurdles to go over,” Croft said.

Also on Tuesday, Marine Corps Capt. Justin E. Smith said a date for the move will be announced once the relocation plan is finalized. The military also plans to study how the animals adapt to their new environment.

This research “will aid in gaining more information in the efforts to recover the population of the desert tortoise,” Smith said in an email.

“We remain steadfast in keeping with our obligation to serve as good stewards of the environment,” he said.

March 10, 2016

Gold finally being produced at Mojave's Golden Queen Mine

Precious metal extracted from the Golden Queen Mine formed into an ingot contains both gold and silver, called dore [daw-rey]. (TBC Media)

By Jill Barnes Nelson
Tehachapi News

MOJAVE — It's taken more than three-quarters of a century, but gold is finally being produced at Golden Queen Mine.

For the first time since the 1930s, the Golden Queen Mine had its “first pour” of gold about two weeks ago. Gold mined from the facility in an elaborate process — with all types of environmental stipulations — was processed into the first gold ingot. Because of security issues, the exact amount of the mold was not disclosed, according a statement from mine officials.

"The first gold pour is a remarkable milestone signifying the company's transition to a gold producer," Thomas M. Clay, Golden Queen Mining Co. chairman and interim chief executive officer, said in an announcement from the firm's headquarters in British Columbia, Canada. "We are proud of what we have accomplished and are excited to move closer to entering full production as a gold company in California."

Golden Queen Mine, located along Soledad Mountain in Mojave, first produced both gold and silver from the mine before World War II. Mining ceased after the war because of low prices for the precious metals.

When prices began to rise, Golden Queen Mine began a renewed effort to extract the gold. It began applying for permits and began the long process of mining the gold in 2012.

Some 100 employees are employed full-time at the mine, where excavation began last spring and the chemical process to remove gold and silver started in early February. Company officials did not disclose potential production rates but said initial flow rates in what is called the "leach pile" have been very good.

Mining is done a lot differently at Golden Queen than what viewers might see on the show “Gold Rush,” where gold is done with a sluicing method.

Construction on the mine's infrastructure started more than a year ago. Rock ore material that holds gold is crushed and a century-old chemical separation technique called the Merrill-Crowe process is used by which gold and silver is removed from a cyanide solution that trickles through piles of ore. Drilling and blasting is used to free the rock, which is then carried away with front-end loaders and mechanized shovels and loaded into trucks that can carry 100 tons each.

Rocks go through a three-stage crushing process to create progressively smaller pieces of ore, ending up with pieces measuring less than a half-inch. The crushed ore is then stacked on top of the leach pad in piles about 20 to 300 feet high.

In order to provide impermeable barriers between the pad and the ground beneath, a clay liner was built using old tailings from the mine, as well as a layer of plastic. Crushed rock is layered on top of that.

Gold and silver are filtered out of the solution using a process that introduces zinc powder to take the place of the precious metals in the solution. The gold extracted from the solution is then melted and poured into molds to form ingots.

March 8, 2016

Tortoise relocations challenged

Desert tortoises, such as this adult photographed near the Ivanpah Valley, are listed as threatened with extinction. The Marine Corps plans to move more than 1,100 of them from 88,000 acres in the Johnson Valley, northwest of Landers, to protect them from live fire exercises planned for this summer. (STAN LIM)


An environmental group filed a legal challenge Tuesday, March 8, to the military’s plans to move more than 1,400 protected desert tortoises out of an expansion area at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue, contending that federal agencies have failed to fully examine how the move might harm the Mojave Desert tortoises as required under the Endangered Species Act. Such a notice is required before a lawsuit may be filed in federal court.

Tortoises are listed as threatened with extinction, but the Marines say they have to move them from 88,000 acres in the Johnson Valley to protect the reptiles from live ammunition training exercises planned for this summer.

The center argues that studies have shown that half of the tortoises will perish within three years of being moved in part because they haven’t found or dug underground burrows that give them shelter and protection from coyotes and other predators.

Military officials could not be reached Tuesday, but last week Walter J. Christensen, head of the training center’s conservation branch, and Marine Corps Lt. Col. Timothy B. Pochop, director of natural resources and environmental affairs at the training center, said the Marines are taking great care and expect most of the animals to survive.

Using helicopters will reduced stress from travel, and military officials are choosing release sites that are less likely to be prowled by coyotes, they said. And individuals from the same social groups will be placed near one another.

Most of the animals will be moved to federal land southeast of Barstow known as the Ord-Rodman Critical Habitat Unit, which is overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the center, said the group has seen no evidence that the military has analyzed impacts to tortoises and other wildlife already living in the critical habitat area, which has a limited amount of food, water and other resources.

Such an analysis is required under the National Environmental Policy Act, she said.

“This massive translocation proposal is being rushed through the process this spring without fully considering how it may affect the already declining tortoise population in the western Mojave,” said Anderson. “What we should be doing is recovering this population, not pushing it closer to extinction.”

The move has not yet been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which still needs to sign off on the relocation plan and an analysis that showed that the move would not jeopardize the survival of the species, said Brian Croft, a biologist with the wildlife service.

Military officials want to start moving the tortoises as early as this month while the weather is still cool. The relocation is expected to take a team of about 100 biologists as long as two to four weeks to complete.

Croft said such a move should be done by mid-May – before it gets too hot for the reptiles to be above ground. The tortoises survive the desert’s harsh climate by spending the hottest and coldest months in their subterranean burrows.

The planned move stems from a 2013 decision by Congress to expand the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center to enhance live ammunition training operations deemed necessary for national security.

Taxpayers to shell out $50M for Marines to evacuate 1,200 Mojave tortoises

The tortoises are in the way of the Marines' planned expansion of a combat training grounds. (US Marine Corps)

Taxpayers will be forking over $50 million to have the Marines remove nearly 1,200 tortoises from future training grounds in the Mojave Desert, but similar efforts in the past have proven disastrous, say environmentalists.

The desert tortoises, already under stress from drought, disease and human interference, will be airlifted later this month from 130,000 acres surrounding the Corps' Air Ground Combat Center. The center is undergoing an expansion to facilitate live fire and maneuver training for full-scale Marine Expeditionary Brigade-sized elements.

"This spring, the Marine Corps will translocate approximately 1,180 desert tortoises in order to safeguard the animals coming from lands newly acquired through an NDAA-mandated (National Defense Authorization Act) land withdrawal that supports Marine Corps-mandated training requirements," base spokesman Capt. Justin Smith wrote in an e-mail to the Desert Sun.

The area slated for expansion is in prime tortoise habitat, and the number of breeding adults has dropped by about 50 percent over the last decade, according to a recent survey by federal biologists.

Some environmentalists are against the pricey effort to relocate the tortoises, which can stress the animals and leave them vulnerable to dehydration, predators and human interaction, they said.

"I wish the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would get some backbone and say it can't permit another tortoise translocation by the military," Glenn Stewart, a biologist and member of the board of directors of the Desert Tortoise Council conservation group, told the Los Angeles Times. "The situation makes us feel like we'll have to write off California's Mojave population."

In 2008, the Army moved 670 tortoises from its National Training Center near Barstow to new homes in the western Mojave. That $8.6 million effort proved disastrous when it was learned that a large percentage of them died within a year, many eaten by coyotes.

Brian Henen, a biologist and head of the Marine Corps' translocation effort, told the Times the project's ample budget and commitment to monitor the tortoises for 30 years "demonstrates how much we care about this species."

The plan, approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will utilize 100 biologists who will capture 900 adult tortoises and put transmitters on them before releasing them on nearby public lands. Another 235 hatchlings raised in pens at the base also will be relocated once they are strong enough to survive on their own. The project will take an estimated two to four weeks to complete, officials said.

The Combat Center raises the hatchlings in its 6-acre Tortoise Research and Captive Rearing Site, which is operated jointly with UCLA.

The desert tortoise is classified as a threatened species because its numbers have declined rapidly over the past few decades due to predators and disease. Soft shells leave young tortoises vulnerable to predators ranging from ants and ground squirrels to ravens and coyotes.