May 18, 2016

Lake Mead hits new record low

The levels of Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, have declined in recent years and are approaching critical shortage levels. (Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)


For the next two months, the news from Lake Mead could sound like a broken record.

The nation’s largest man-made reservoir slipped to a new record low sometime after 7 p.m. Wednesday, and forecasters from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation expect see its surface drop another 2 feet through the end of June.

The latest dip into record-low territory comes as officials in Nevada, Arizona and California consider a new deal to prop up the declining lake by giving up some of their Colorado River water.

But some river advocates argue that those voluntary cuts could be rendered meaningless by proposed water developments that will further sap the overdrawn and drought-stricken river before it ever reaches Lake Mead.

Gary Wockner is executive director of Save the Colorado, a nonprofit conservation group based in Fort Collins, Colorado. He said the first round of cuts proposed by Nevada and Arizona would leave an extra 200,000 acre-feet of water in the lake, while the river system as a whole stands to lose approximately 250,000 acre-feet under new diversion projects being planned in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

“At the same time the agencies in the lower basin are discussing cuts, the agencies in the upper basin are working to suck more water out of the river,” Wockner said. “It’s a zero-sum game.”

Others see reason for hope.

Colby Pellegrino, Colorado River programs manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the “silver lining of this cloud” is the cooperative work among water managers, regulators and policymakers across the river basin. She said some of those collaborations have already made a tangible difference at Lake Mead, where the water would be even lower than it is now without some of the banking agreements and conservation efforts agreed upon by the states.

The voluntary reductions being discussed are designed to stave off deeper, mandatory cuts for Arizona and Nevada if the lake sinks below levels outlined in a 2007 agreement.

Nevada would leave 8,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead each year under the first round of voluntary cuts, while Arizona would give up 192,000 of its 2.8 million acre-foot Colorado River allocation to benefit the reservoir.

One acre-foot of water is enough to supply two average Las Vegas Valley homes for just over a year.

The annual reductions would increase to 10,000 acre-feet for Nevada and 240,000 acre-feet for Arizona should Lake Mead drop another 30 feet to 1,045 feet above sea level.

Elevation 1,045 is also where California would see its first voluntary cuts, which start at 200,000 acre-feet a year and increase by 50,000 with every additional 5-foot drop in Lake Mead. Under existing law, California is not required to give up any of its 4.4 million acre-foot river allocation, which is the largest among the seven states that share the Colorado.

Lake Mead’s new record low will erase the old mark of 1,074.71 feet above sea level set just over a year ago on June 26.

Federal forecasters expect the lake to finish this June at elevation 1,070.98. The last time Lake Mead had so little water in it was May 1937, the month of the Hindenburg disaster, when the reservoir was filling for the first time behind a newly completely Hoover Dam.

Record-low water levels present more of an access problem than a supply problem for the Las Vegas Valley, which depends on the lake for 90 percent of its water.

Southern Nevada Water Authority officials insist Nevada’s comparatively small 300,000 acre-foot share of the Colorado River can be stretched enough through reuse and conservation to serve the growing community for decades to come. But to keep that water flowing from the shrinking lake, the agency is spending almost $1.5 billion on a new deep-water intake and pumping station.

Wherever this year’s low-water mark eventually lands, the record is not expected to stand for long. The current forecast calls for Lake Mead to start 2017 about 4 feet higher than it is now, then dip downward again into record territory in April. The reservoir should bottom out near elevation 1,063 sometime in June 2017.

May 10, 2016

The Little Pool Hidden In The Desert Has Apparently Been Destroyed

Social Pool, in the beginning (Photo via Alfredo Barsuglia)


Social Pool, the little pool hidden in the middle of the desert, has completed its extended experiment, meeting its end at the hands of some jerks.

In the summer of 2014, artist Alfredo Barsuglia announced that he had hidden a small pool—eleven by five feet wide—in the middle of the desert. If you wanted to get there by his suggested means, you had to first stop by the MAK Center for Art in West Hollywood and pick up a key. You were then provided with coordinates that led you east of Los Angeles, to San Bernardino County. It required a small amount of hiking to get to the pool, unless you had a car that didn't easily get stuck in sand.

We were, as far as I could tell, the second group of people to find it. I went with two friends on a Sunday in June of that year, and the pool was in pristine condition. We didn't see any other humans—only a few hares, a couple lizards and a trio of broken down RVs that reminded everyone of Breaking Bad. The pool had a solar-powered filter, and guests were asked to bring a gallon of water to pour into the small pool to replace any water that evaporated or splashed out while they used it. You were also asked to return the key within 24 hours. We followed Barsuglia's rules, and so did many others that came after us. The pool officially closed on September 30, 2014.

Barsuglia's artist statement discussed what lengths people would go to for a luxury. That could mean picking up the key and driving all the way out to the desert, enjoying the pool and then caring for it so that it could remain clean for others.

On the other hand, there was nothing stopping you from copying the key before you returned it, tossing in a bucket of sand and leaving it open and unlocked. There was also nothing preventing you from accessing the pool via other means.

"I don't think that someone takes the effort to visit the pool to destroy it. Yes, I trust the participants, but as I mentioned before, if someone comes to destroy the work, it's sad but part of the project—of letting the project develop by itself, without my or anybody's influence. To sit in the pool and watch the scenery is outstanding. I think it's so nice that nobody would conceive the idea to damage it, but to prevent it for the next visitor. But you never know… we will see," Barsuglia told us the day after we visited the pool.

While we never shared the coordinates and I removed geotags from our photos, we did post a photo of the key. Numerous commenters tried to assert that someone would actually take the time to copy the key using a photo, and then use the key to somehow find and destroy the pool. Why this hypothetical vandal wouldn't just break the lid for their nefarious purposes was unclear, but at any rate, I did not take the photo of the key down. Several other people ended up making it to the pool via the set rules without incident—until this past month.

Tony Bruno, who owns property out by the pool, sent me a Facebook message over the weekend to let me know that someone, sometime in the last month, stole the solar panel and the pump. He sent the following photo as well, taken prior to the theft.

(Photo by Tony Bruno)

"The pool is in poor shape and the lid is not working well," he wrote. "Just thought I would tell you. It's a shame that people do this to things."

Though the pool had at some point been left unlocked, Bruno said the pool was still usable up until the last month or so.
I decided to get in touch with Barsuglia again, as we'd just been talking about his upcoming book Rosa. I sent him one of Bruno's photos.

He wrote back, telling me that Wikipedia had posted the coordinates to the pool on a page about the piece, which enabled anyone who so desired to find it for themselves—with or without a key. Many were inspired to visit, he said, simply out of curiosity.

You won't believe, but I still receive frequent emails and phone calls concerning the Social Pool. People send me photos of the pool's current condition and ask for its reopening. Others ask to use the site for a music video or a (horror) movie, or for a dinner party or whatever.

There was at least one short film shot at the pool. BUTTERFLY depicts "two futuristic motorcycle-riding nymphs [who] find an aquatic portal and pass through it to another universe," according to the video's Vimeo page.

In order for the pool to be a permanent installation, Barsuglia said an individual or institution would need to be able to care for the visitors and the maintenance of the pool. Barsuglia lives in Austria and cannot care for it himself. The MAK Center has a small, three-person team, and Barsuglia said they would likely need a fourth person who could maintain the pool.
"The project was meant to be permanent, but its huge success and the many people who wanted to see the site brought it to an end after the first season," he said.

Barsuglia, in the meantime, has other projects in the works, which we'll be excited to see come to fruition.

It's interesting to see how the experiment played out for different personalities. For instance, after us, another group visited the pool via conventional means, and poured in the requisite gallon.

Another woman who found the pool with two friends wrote about her time there for Huffington Post. When they arrived, a group of people was standing around the pool, but left when she and her friends walked up. She and her pals decided to camp there, and were interrupted by two men after the sun set who said a friend had "leaked" the key. The HuffPo writer and her friends were creeped out by them, though the men eventually left them alone. The group stayed overnight and in the morning, got their car's wheels stuck in the sand. They ended up having to pay $375 to get towed back to the main road.

Those two guys from the night before were probably not weird at all. It turned out to be blogger/adventurer Rich Mayfield and his friend, according to Mayfield's own blog post. They were the only people, to our knowledge, who were successfully able to cut their own key using our photo. Mayfield also found geotags from other visitors' photos and used tax records to verify that Barsuglia bought a 10-acre parcel in the desert (it cost $2,500, apparently). As for the other group, Mayfield wrote that he was prepared to share his snacks and beer with them, and would have even helped them out of the sand, but feeling his presence was unwanted, the two men camped out elsewhere until the trio left the pool. Mayfield did not destroy the pool, but rather cared for it and cleaned up trash from the area around the pool.

In terms of a social experiment, the pool was a success. People found it, by conventional means and via detective work. People cared for it for many months, and ultimately people chose to ruin it.

This California desert town is experiencing a marijuana boom

by Paloma Esquivel
Los Angeles Times

Carlos Bravo, the owner of a tow company here, was at work late last year when a real estate agent came to him offering half a million dollars for 5 acres of undeveloped, brush-pocked desert — five times what he'd paid for the land six months earlier.

"I thought he was joking," Bravo said.

The man came back the next day, making it clear he was not.

A few days after he had signed the paperwork, Bravo said, another man offered him $1 million.

As the first city in Southern California to legalize large-scale medical marijuana cultivation, Desert Hot Springs has been inundated by marijuana growers and developers. They are buying up dusty desert land — some with no utilities or roads — in hopes of cashing in as California's marijuana growers come into the open under new state regulations.

"It's pretty chaotic," said Coachella Valley real estate broker Marc Robinson. "I'm getting tons of calls from all over the world, all over the United States. My newest clients flew over from Germany."

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Despite a sizable need for new infrastructure to support the indoor growing projects, the rush has officials in this downtrodden town dreaming of new income.

"I can only imagine what we can do with the tax revenue," Mayor Scott Matas said. "We're in need of parks, our roads are dilapidated. All around — our sidewalks, curbs, gutters."

The city is pushing hard to help developers get their projects up and running as it increasingly faces competition from a number of desert cities also eager to bring growers to town.


Desert Hot Springs' foray into marijuana stemmed from financial need, officials said.

The city has long tried to position itself as a Coachella Valley tourist destination alongside its resort-town neighbors south of Interstate 10, but it's never managed to attract the same level of development. Median household income here is $33,500 — far below the state median.

The town's destinations simply aren't enough "for it to become a vibrant and viable city instead of just a dusty little town north of the I-10," said Heather Coladonato, president of the Desert Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, which is working closely with growers.

In 2014, after the city declared a fiscal emergency, the council voted to legalize dispensaries and cultivation. Zones where growing was permitted were established, including on a stretch of barren desert dotted with a couple of churches and auto repair shops.

Since the ordinance passed, officials have approved applications for at least 11 businesses with plans for more than 1.7 million square feet of cultivation operations.

Each year, the city will tax growers $25 per square foot of cultivation space for the first 3,000 square feet and $10 per square foot after that. At least eight other projects are in the approval process.

Police Chief Dale Mondary said he had strong reservations about the city's move toward cultivation.

"Just from a law enforcement standpoint, obviously we're philosophically opposed," he said. "I took the stance: 'I can either pout about it or get on board and at least have my voice heard.'"

The businesses have agreed to hire 24-hour armed security guards and install cameras that police can access remotely, Mondary said. They're also planting what he called "hostile landscaping" — cactus and other plants that could be difficult for intruders to pass.

No cultivators are up and running yet, though a small number could be growing by this summer, officials said.

Growers, many of whom have been quietly practicing their trade in garages and other underground spaces for years, are eager to "come out of the shadows," said Jason Elsasser, who is planning a 2-acre project in town.

The rush to set up shop in cities that permit cultivation was pushed forward by state legislation signed into law late last year. Growers will be able to apply for state licenses by 2018, but they will have to show they have local licensing before they can get a state permit, said Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The crush of developers in Desert Hot Springs led to a tripling of land prices in the area, real estate brokers said.

But there are signs that the projects — which require intensive lighting and air conditioning — could face long infrastructure delays. In recent weeks, owners learned it could take years just to get sufficient electricity to some of the businesses.

Southern California Edison spokesman Robert Laffoon-Villegas said the utility expects that some growers' power needs could be so large that "it would be like adding a small city to the system."

"In order to do that safely it does require significant study … and it may require significant infrastructure," he said.

Meda Thompson, a real estate broker who advertises on fliers decorated with marijuana leaves, said the issue has caused some properties to fall out of escrow.

To help address the concerns, the city manager is now preparing to hire a project manager who would oversee infrastructure issues for growers.

In the meantime, the city is facing increasing competition.

In nearby Cathedral City, officials recently began accepting applications from growers and dispensaries. So far, they have received about 20, said Community Development Director Pat Milos.

In San Bernardino County, Adelanto began accepting applications from growers late last year.

That city, which has been on the brink of insolvency in recent years, has asked applicants to sign a statement acknowledging its financial hardship and agreeing to "support, and not oppose, any initiative that the city or the voters of the city initiate to raise business taxes and business license fees."

So far, it has approved at least 30 applicants who have proposed operating more than 1.2 million square feet of cultivation space. Some, like in Desert Hot Springs, would be in now-vacant desert plots.

The city of Coachella, meanwhile, has opened an area to growers previously zoned for auto wreckage yards.

Mayor Steven Hernandez said he expected the businesses to bring better-paying jobs to the city's low-income residents, particularly migrant farmworkers.

"I've got a lot of people working in the fields every day," he said. "If I can get those guys into the middle income … they can buy themselves a nice house in Coachella and maybe not have to work so much."


Calabasas attorney Bob Selan is leading an effort by several dispensaries to build a 380,000-square-foot cultivation business park in Desert Hot Springs.

The challenges of building from the ground up in the desert have been great, he said.

"The way you have to design these things for climate control and conserving water and conserving energy, it's very hard to do it, and it's very expensive," he said. "We have consultants, engineers, architects, lawyers, accountants, you name it … on top of that we have all the cannabis experts."

Though the scramble to establish large-scale facilities has been influenced by the possibility that Californians may legalize recreational use of marijuana this year, Selan said his facility would do fine even without such a law.

"The demand for medical products was so high, this was just to fill the need for that," he said.

Elsasser, who is planning the 2-acre project, had a successful real estate company in Yucca Valley until the housing crash. The downturn left him with several vacant homes, in which he used to grow marijuana.

"Cannabis cultivation kind of saved me," he said.

On a recent weekday, he walked through an empty steel-shell building on Little Morongo Road that he plans to soon begin converting into a cultivation facility.

"This is going to be all built out into a high-tech, 40-light grow right here," Elsasser said, using the number of overhead lights the facility will contain to indicate its size.

Pointing to a chain-link fence surrounded by brush, he added, "Back there is going to be all greenhouses."

Then Elsasser gestured toward a handful of buildings down the road that were owned by other growers and developers.

"Those are all going to be cultivation," he said.

Little Morongo Road will eventually be the backbone of a bustling warehouse zone, packed to the brim with growers, Elsasser said.

"This property is right on Park Avenue," he said, waving toward the desert brush and dusty road and imagining the swanky New York thoroughfare. "It may not look like it. But it is."

The Drought Goes On: As Lake Mead Sinks, States Agree to More Drastic Water Cuts

Lake Mead, the West's largest reservoir, is dropping at a rapid rate.

Written by Sarah Tory
Coachella Valley Independent

Three years ago, state hydrologists in the Colorado River Basin began to do some modeling to see what the future of Lake Mead—the West’s largest reservoir—might look like. If the dry conditions continued, hydrologists believed, elevations in Lake Mead—which is fed by the Colorado River—could drop much faster than previous models predicted.

For decades, the West’s big reservoirs were like a security blanket, says Anne Castle, the former assistant secretary for water and science at the Interior Department. But the blanket is wearing thin. Under normal conditions, Lake Mead loses 1.2 million acre-feet of water every year to evaporation and deliveries to the Lower Basin states plus Mexico; that all amounts to a 12-foot drop. Previously, extra deliveries of water from Lake Powell offset that deficit, but after 16 years of drought and increased water use in the Upper Basin, those extra deliveries are no longer a safe bet.

“There’s a growing recognition that even these huge reservoirs aren’t sufficient to keep the water supply sustainable anymore,” says Castle.

For the three Lower Basin states—California, Arizona and Nevada—that rely heavily on Lake Mead, the situation is particularly urgent. For the last several years, Mead has hovered around 1,075 feet above sea level, the point at which harsh water-rationing measures kicks in. And if conditions in the reservoir continue to worsen, the Interior Department could even take control of water allocation from Lake Mead.

So with the threat of a federal takeover looming, water policy leaders in the Lower Basin states, along with the Bureau of Reclamation, the reservoir’s operator, began meeting last summer to discuss ways they can jointly boost water levels in Lake Mead. Some of the details are now available and indicate that all three states are now willing to accept additional water cuts from the reservoir on top of the cuts that they previously agreed to make in 2007.

Those measures follow a set of federal guidelines adopted nine years ago to manage water deliveries from Lake Mead, given the likelihood of future shortages. The guidelines established a series of thresholds for the reservoir’s water levels that would trigger increasingly severe cutbacks for the Lower Basin states. At the time they were negotiated, few people anticipated that the drought would last as long as it has, but as Lake Mead inched closer to the critical 1,075 mark, water managers in the Lower Basin realized the existing guidelines were not enough to prevent an eventual shortage.

While the terms of the new agreement between California, Arizona and Nevada are still being negotiated, a few details have emerged. For starters, the Bureau of Reclamation has pledged to cut 100,000 acre-feet annually through efficiency measures such as lining irrigation canals to prevent seepage, or possibly by re-opening the long-shuttered Yuma Desalting Plant.

The three states’ willingness to collectively ration their water use would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago, when states fought each other in court to win as much water from the Colorado River. The cooperation is a nod to how new climate realities are re-shaping old water politics in the West. Take California, for instance. Legally, the state could hold on to every drop until Lake Mead is nearly down to mud, since the 1968 law that authorized the Central Arizona Project’s construction gave California the highest priority water rights to the Colorado River. But at that point, says Castle, they’re just as impacted as everyone else.

Other collaborative agreements to reduce the strain on the Colorado River include a 2014 Memorandum of Understanding between the big water providers in the Lower Basin states, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Central Arizona Project, pledging “best efforts” to conserve 40,000 acre feet in Lake Mead. In 2014, major municipal water providers in Arizona, California, Nevada and Colorado also agreed to fund new water conservation projects through a pilot initiative called the Colorado River System Conservation program.

For the Lower Basin especially, the negotiations are necessary to avoid the potential federal takeover, says Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Although the secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell, has not voiced any immediate plans to that effect, in the past, she has made public statements on the matter.

For Buschatzke, the threat is clear: “She’ll take action if we don’t collaborate,” he says.

Here are the cuts states could face:

Arizona would lose 512,000 acre-feet of its total 2.8 million acre-feet per year allotment if Lake Mead dips below the 1,075 feet threshold. That’s 192,000 acre-feet more than the 320,000 acre-feet it had previously agreed to cut under the 2007 guidelines. Further cuts occur if the reservoir continues to drop. In another unprecedented move, Arizona water officials are talking about trying to spread cuts across all sectors of the state’s economy that rely on CAP water for drinking and irrigation—cities, farms, industries, Indian tribes and others—instead of letting only farmers take the brunt of the cuts, as dictated by their junior water rights.

California: Thanks to the 1968 law that authorized CAP’s construction, California’s 4.4 million acre feet allotment is shielded from most of the cuts should a shortage on Lake Mead be declared. But as part of the new negotiations, the state has volunteered to cut its water use from Lake Mead by 200,000 acre feet if the reservoir’s levels fall below 1,045 feet, and up to 350,000 acre-feet if levels sink to 1,030 feet.

Nevada: The state with the smallest allotment of Colorado River water, Nevada would take a much smaller share of the cuts—8,000 acre-feet if Mead drops below 1,045 feet, and 10,000 acre-feet after that—because it has the rights to only 300,000 acre-feet.

According to Buschatzke, the three states anticipate finalizing the agreement by early this fall, at which point negotiators will begin working the new measures into law. Those changes in law will likely not happen before 2017.

For Castle, the discussions are part of a new era in water politics—one that looks increasingly collaborative.

“We haven’t seen states versus state or state versus feds for a long time,” she says. “There’s a recognition that litigation is failure—that we need to come together and make things work.”

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News, where this story originally appeared.

May 7, 2016

A lost gem? New Mojave Trails monument rules appear to bar rock hunting

Norbert Bernhardt, 61, of Santa Ana, holds a specimen of agate he collected at what is now Mojave Trails National Monument. (Louis Sahagun / Los Angeles TImes)

Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

President Obama's proclamation of a new national monument he designated in California's Mojave Desert has rockhounds worried they are no longer welcome on public lands with a reputation for prime gem and mineral specimens.

The proclamation ensures public access for utilities, cattle ranching, hiking, camping, backpacking, hunting, fishing, rock climbing, bicycling, bird watching and other outdoor recreational activities in Mojave Trails National Monument, which encompasses 1.6 million acres of federal land along a 105-mile stretch of old Route 66 between Ludlow and Needles.

The one thing visitors apparently can't do in mineral hot spots, including Afton Canyon, the Cady Mountains and Lavic, is take a rock a home.

That's because the proclamation does not include "rock hunting" as a desired use, and ends with an admonition: "Warning is hereby given to all unauthorized persons not to appropriate, injure, destroy, or remove any feature of the monument and not to locate or settle upon any of the lands thereof."

Now, members of California's relatively small and aging gem and mineral community fret that the loss of access to hunting grounds within a few hours' drive of Los Angeles could hasten the demise of hobbyists who for generations have ventured out into the desert with shovels, picks and hammers to collect agate, jasper, opal, chalcedony and quartz crystals for noncommercial purposes.

"It's an outrage and unfair that the only activity forbidden in this new national monument is our hobby," said Kim Erbe, a member of the board of directors of the California Federation of Mineralogical Societies Inc. "People have been collecting rocks and minerals in that area for over a century."

"It's a mess," said John Martin, webmaster at the American Lands Access Association, Inc., a nonprofit representing the rockhounding interests of 325 gem & mineral clubs and societies across the nation. "We're seeking clarification on this matter, and we want it in writing."

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which operates the new monument, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who spent two decades campaigning for the creation of Mojave Trails and two adjacent monuments, have sent out conflicting signals about the proclamation's intent.

Maria Thi Mai, a spokeswoman for the land management bureau in Sacramento, said her agency "appreciates the rock hunters' passion and concern, but we wouldn't be in the public service business if we said it was OK to ignore the president's proclamation."

"So, we're asking for their patience," she added, "as we develop a formal management plan that will finalize what is allowed and what the limitations will be in the new national monument."

Mike Ahrens, a field manager for the bureau's office in Needles, Calif., agreed, up to a point. "We recognize that there is a problem for rock hunters with regard to the language in the proclamation," he said. "I'm pushing for some kind of an interim action that would allow rock hunting to continue until a management plan is worked out."

Developing a management plan will require the bureau to mediate compromises among all those who want access to the land while also planning a balanced and sustainable future for it — a contentious process expected to take at least 18 months to complete.

Feinstein's office has added to the confusion by insisting that the proclamation's warning against removal of "any feature of this monument" refers to cultural and historic items, not rocks.

Steve Duncan, a longtime member of the Searchers Gem & Mineral Society, is among those trying to make sense of it all.

"Before President Obama designated the new monument, Sen. Feinstein told me personally that she would ensure that rock collecting would be allowed in them," he said. "After the designation, when I asked her office why we'd been left out of the proclamation, they responded with a form letter."

Designation of Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains National Monuments was requested by Feinstein. Unable to gain momentum on her California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act last year, Feinstein asked Obama to act unilaterally to create the monuments overlapping biological zones between roughly Palm Springs and the Nevada border.

The designations, which did not come with funding, were supported by groups including the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Assn., the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Mojave Desert Land Trust.

On Thursday, hundreds of people from those groups and others gathered in a scenic desert canyon, about 15 miles northwest of Palm Springs, to celebrate the monuments and their access to public activities such as hunting, camping and hiking.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the keynote speaker, said in an interview that she was unaware of the controversy over whether rocks can be removed from Mojave Trails. However, "we are thinking more these days about the long-term preservation of the assets in public lands," she said.

That kind of talk worries people who find joy in lugging a few bucketfuls of rocks home to be cut and polished with lapidary equipment. Some are turned into pendants, bolo ties, rings, bookends and colorful spheres. Others wind up in glass display cases, or in schoolrooms.

Take Jim Peterson, 82, and Norbert Bernhardt, 61, both of Santa Ana, whose fascination with rock specimens is reflected in their homes. Boxes of rocks are piled high, and drawers and shelves overflow with collections drawn on decades of journeys to remote corners of the Mojave.

Immediately after Obama's designation, Peterson and Bernhardt headed out to the Cady Mountains in a pickup truck loaded with hammers, aluminum ladders and plastic buckets.

Their destination was a cliff face lined with a feature Bernhardt described as "a nice vein of gorgeous agate."

"We figured we had little to lose before that place would be closed to rock collecting," Bernhardt recalled with a sheepish smile. "So, we went out there and filled a few buckets with red, green, pink, blue, white and clear specimens."

Bernhardt triumphantly held up a silver-dollar sized rock encrusted with tiny blue crystals and said, "This is what I'm talking about."