August 18, 2017

Lawmaker wants to shrink Castle Mountains monument to make more room for a gold mine

Castle Mountains National Monument surrounds the Castle Mountain gold mine which a Canadian company is looking to reopen. (Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

Ian James
The Desert Sun


In May, when the Trump administration announced its list of national monuments that would fall under an unprecedented nationwide review, California’s Castle Mountains National Monument wasn’t among them.

But if Rep. Paul Cook has his way, President Donald Trump will reexamine this newly created monument in the Mojave Desert and carve out more space for a gold mine.

Castle Mountains was the smallest of three monuments that President Barack Obama established last year across the California desert. The 21,000-acre monument includes jagged peaks, Joshua trees and grasslands in the desert between Mojave National Preserve and the Nevada state line.

The monument also surrounds the Castle Mountain gold mine, which the Canadian company NewCastle Gold is looking to reopen more than a decade after it was shut down due to low gold prices.

The company has recently urged the Trump administration to reduce the size of the monument to free up more land around the mine – and Cook seconded that request in a June 8 letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

“Although this is the smallest of the four monuments in my district, it is also the most problematic,” Cook said in the letter. “This monument was created without any local outreach or input. It was designated for one purpose: to prevent the reopening of the Castle Mountain Mine.”

Obama’s decision to designate new monuments using his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act has drawn criticism from Cook and other Republicans. By the time he left office, Obama had created or expanded 34 monuments, more than any other president.

Trump launched the review of national monuments in April, accusing Obama of an "egregious abuse use of power."

In his executive order, Trump instructed Zinke to review any national monument of at least 100,000 acres created since 1996. The order included a loophole allowing for smaller monuments in cases where Zinke determines that a designation “was made without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders.”

But when the Trump administration came out with its list of 27 land and marine monuments that would be reexamined, Castle Mountains appeared to be off the hook. The only monument on the list below the 100,000-acre threshold was Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine.

Zinke is due to announce his recommendations by Aug. 24 for six national monuments in California, including Mojave Trails, Giant Sequoia, Carrizo Plain, San Gabriel Mountains and Berryessa Snow Mountain. He announced this week that the administration won’t shrink or eliminate Sand to Snow National Monument.

It’s not clear whether or how Zinke might take up Cook’s suggestion to include Castle Mountains in the review.

In his letter, Cook pointed out that when Mojave National Preserve was created in 1994 under legislation introduced by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Castle Mountains area was excluded to allow mining to continue.

He said there were later proposals in Congress to add parts of the area that weren’t needed for mining to the Mojave National Preserve, but never to establish Castle Mountains as its own monument. Cook said the first time the proposal was announced came just months before Obama designated the monument.

Cook said “there was no real public outreach or coordination” in that process. A single public meeting was held on the proposal in October 2015, he said, and it occurred outside San Bernardino County, more than 200 miles away from the Castle Mountains.

Cook told Zinke that even though the national monument is smaller than 100,000 acres, it’s “worthy of the utmost scrutiny by your department.”

Cook’s suggestions came to light this month after The Wilderness Society, a nonprofit conservation group, obtained his letter through a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

With his letter, Cook included a map showing his proposed changes to the monument, which would open up more areas around the mine. He also included letters to Zinke from NewCastle Gold and San Bernardino County.

Robert Lovingood, chair of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, said in his letter to Zinke that if he decides to review Castle Mountains, the county wants to see the government address “issues of access through the monument to the mine and access to water needed to service the mine” and accommodate future expansion.

Kerry Shapiro, a lawyer representing NewCastle Gold, requested in a June 1 letter to Zinke that the national monument be reduced by roughly 50 percent and that the government amend a proclamation to allow the company “the flexibility it needs to explore for and develop new mining claims, water resources” and other facilities.

The company said in the letter that Castle Mountains is much larger than it needs to be to protect wildlife, habitats and natural springs, and that the national monument “could be cut in half and still protect those resources most deserving of long-term conservation.”

If the monument remains unchanged, the company said that would “constrain or end” the mining project.

The company's concerns contrast with the stance it took publicly when the monument was created in February 2016. At the time, NewCastle Gold said in a press release that the company was pleased its claim and private lands weren’t affected, that some adjacent federal lands weren’t included and that Obama’s proclamation said its existing rights would be maintained.

David Adamson, who was then NewCastle’s CEO, said in the statement that the federal land not included in the monument “extends well beyond our resource limits and claim boundaries and includes ample land for potential project development.”

Adamson also said NewCastle appreciated “that it has been consulted throughout this process and that the new land designation reflects a compromise position that meets our needs as well as respecting the interests of other stakeholders and the public in the area.”

Adamson left the company last year. The current president and CEO is Gerald Panneton, who has said that the company is looking to get the mine operating again soon and that he sees great potential for the operation to get bigger.

NewCastle said in a statement this month that it drilled a second well as part of a study to identify additional water sources. The company said the well was drilled to a depth of nearly 1,600 feet and reached the water table 570 feet underground. NewCastle said it also has three other wells at the site.

In addition to suggesting that Trump shrink Castle Mountains, Cook has also called for redrawing the boundaries of Mojave Trails National Monument to remove a vast southern portion that connects the monument to Joshua Tree National Park.

Conservation groups criticized Cook’s efforts to eliminate parts of the monuments.

Danielle Segura, executive director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust, said the proposed changes to Castle Mountains and Mojave Trails are “a direct affront to the will of our community.” She said in a statement that Cook’s recommendations “are not in the best interest of the diverse desert communities who have fought for, and benefit from, these public lands.”

David Lamfrom, director of the National Parks Conservation Association’s California desert program, said he was taken aback by Cook’s requests.

“To ask for Castle Mountains to be put under review is really surprising because an agreement was hammered out,” Lamfrom said. “The public has weighed in and said they want these places to be protected.”

Segura and Lamfrom wrote to Zinke last month arguing there’s no need to put Castle Mountains under review. They said the national monument doesn’t inhibit current or future mining, and doesn’t put jobs or government revenues in jeopardy.

Segura and Lamfrom signed the letter together with representatives of two other groups – the California Wilderness Coalition and the Center for Biological Diversity. They said the monument’s creation wasn’t a last-minute deal but rather a “diligent effort spanning several years” and involving the company.

“Throughout this process, especially leading up to the monument designation, NewCastle Gold was engaged, consulted and apprised,” they said in the letter.

Obama established the national monuments in the California desert after separate monument bills introduced by Feinstein and Cook failed in Congress.

Lamfrom said he knows Cook is someone who cares about public lands, but “that letter really seems to be taking actions that side with furthering the interests of industrial projects and threats to the California desert.”

Cook was unavailable for an interview and responded to questions from The Desert Sun by email. He said NewCastle Gold has made clear its opposition to the monument’s current boundaries.

“The primary concern of the mine operators is that the Castle Mountains National Monument eliminates the buffer zone that was purposely created between the project area and the Mojave National Preserve in Sen. Feinstein’s 1994 Desert Protection Act,” Cook said. “Any inability to access the buffer zone for ancillary facilities and future operational expansion would render the project unviable.”

Cook said when the mine is fully operating, it’s expected to generate more than 200 jobs and over $7 million in revenue for the county and state – which the county sorely needs to pay for the work of restoring lands that have been mined across the desert.

His complaints about the monument go beyond his concerns about the mine needing more space.

When the monument was created, land that previously fell under the Bureau of Land Management’s jurisdiction was handed over to the National Park Service to manage.

The new national monument immediately banned hunting, Cook said in his letter, despite the fact that hunting – for animals such as bobcats and mule deer – is allowed nearby in the Mojave National Preserve and had been permitted in the Castle Mountain area before the monument was created.

He asked Zinke to assign the monument’s lands back to the Bureau of Land Management and to allow hunting again.

Cook opposed Obama’s designation of the monument from the beginning. He said the monument never appeared in any legislation and “directly violates the legislative intent” of the 1994 law, which established the zone around the mine.

“We can discuss whether portions of the buffer zone should be incorporated into the Mojave National Preserve, but that discussion must be facilitated through legislation and public outreach, not behind closed doors, such as it did during the Obama administration,” Cook said.

Cook said he’s convinced that Castle Mountains, even though it’s smaller than the 100,000-acre threshold, fits with Trump’s order to reevaluate monuments that were created “without adequate public outreach and coordination” with stakeholders.

“It clearly qualifies for review,” Cook said.

Zinke and Trump could say any day now whether they agree with him.

August 16, 2017

One California desert national monument is safe — but another is still in jeopardy

Sand to Snow National Monument includes the Devil's Playground area just west of Highway 62, which is populated by many species of cacti. (Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

Sammy Roth
The Desert Sun


The Trump administration won't shrink or eliminate Sand to Snow National Monument near Palm Springs, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Wednesday — but elsewhere in the California desert, Mojave Trails National Monument may still be on the chopping block.

Zinke has been reviewing 22 national monuments created or expanded by presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, with plans to submit final recommendations to President Donald Trump by next week. Sand to Snow is the sixth monument for which Zinke has said he'll recommend no changes, following Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado, Craters of the Moon in Idaho, Grand Canyon-Parashant in Arizona, Hanford Reach in Washington and Upper Missouri River Banks in Zinke's home state of Montana.

"The land of Sand to Snow National Monument is some of the most diverse terrain in the West, and the monument is home to incredible geographic, biologic and archaeological history of our nation," Zinke said in a statement.

President Obama created Sand to Snow National Monument using his authority under the Antiquities Act in early 2016, protecting 154,000 acres that stretch from the desert floor near Palm Springs to the peak of Mount San Gorgonio. The monument helps link San Bernardino National Forest, the San Jacinto Mountains and Joshua Tree National Park, connecting a diverse array of ecosystems and protecting a wildlife corridor traversed by mountain lions, bighorn sheep and desert tortoises, among other species.

Obama designated two other monuments in the California desert at the same time as Sand to Snow: the 1.6-million-acre Mojave Trails monument, which surrounds historic Route 66 between Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park, and Castle Mountains National Monument, which fills in a 21,000-acre gap in the preserve.

Obama established the three monuments to protect those places from mining, solar and wind farms and others forms of development, after legislative efforts in Congress failed.

Monument bills introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, never reached a vote. Neither did legislation written by GOP Rep. Paul Cook, which would have created the Sand to Snow monument and offered a lesser level of protection to Mojave Trails.

Both monuments were swept up by Trump's April 2017 executive order, which called for Zinke to make recommendations to Trump on 22 land-based monuments by August 24. But Sand to Snow has been relatively non-controversial, even among opponents of Obama's designation. In a letter to Zinke last month, 17 House Republicans — including Cook, who represents the High Desert — recommended no changes to Sand to Snow.

High Desert residents cheered Zinke's decision not to alter the national monument.

Real estate agent Karen Lowe, who serves as secretary of the Morongo Valley Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses and residents spent nearly a decade lobbying for Sand to Snow, which encircles Morongo Valley. Local leaders expect the monument to boost tourism as the National Park Service adds infrastructure and promotes the site.

"When we finally got the monument, we were so excited. And now to find out that it's going to remain unchanged — it's just great news for Morongo Valley," Lowe said.

April Sall lives in the tiny High Desert community of Pioneertown and is a member of the board of directors of the Wildlands Conservancy, a conservation group. She called Zinke's decision not to reduce Sand to Snow National Monument a "good start," but said Sand to Snow and Mojave Trails didn't need to be reviewed in the first place.

"Both the desert monuments were very strongly vetted, and we had a real groundswell of support. And it was a grassroots campaign that really started with the community members wanting to protect that landscape from industrial energy development," Sall said. "People were stoked that their voice mattered and they got to protect this place, so the fact that it went under review, with no justified reason...was a bit of a dark shadow."

Mojave Trails National Monument may have a different fate.

The 17 House Republicans who wrote to Zinke, including Cook and two other Californians, urged him to shrink Mojave Trails. In their letter, they said Obama's Mojave Trails designation could prevent future expansion of some mining operations, although they acknowledged it doesn't affect existing mining rights within the monument.

Mojave Trails supporters are worried changes to the monument's boundaries could clear the way for Cadiz Inc.'s controversial plan to pump groundwater from a Mojave Desert aquifer and sell it to Southern California cities. Cadiz's land is surrounded by the monument. Conservation groups say the project would remove more groundwater from the underground aquifer than nature puts back in, harming plants and animals in the monument and in nearby Mojave National Preserve — a claim the company disputes.

It's not clear Trump has the legal authority to eliminate monuments established by previous presidents, but several presidents have reduced the size of monuments. In their letter to Zinke, the 17 congressional Republicans called for Trump to eliminate nine monuments and shrink 14 others, arguing that previous presidents have overstepped their authority by using the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect huge swaths of federal land.

"No one person should be able to unilaterally lock up millions of acres of public land from multiple-use with the stroke of a pen. Local stakeholders deserve to have a voice on public land-use decisions that impact their livelihoods," they wrote to Zinke.

Critics, though, say Trump's monument review is designed to benefit oil and gas, mining, timber and other industries that hope to extract more resources from public lands. If Trump tries to revoke any monument protections, conservation groups are likely to sue.

Responding to Zinke's announcement Wednesday that he won't recommend changes to Sand to Snow, Aaron Weiss — a spokesperson for the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based conservation advocacy group — said Zinke's latest decision "makes it clear he is not using any legitimate criteria to evaluate our national monuments."

"This charade has gone on long enough," Weiss said in a statement. "The secretary himself admits Sand to Snow is 'home to [the] incredible geographic, biologic, and archaeological history of our nation,' which is true of every single monument he's threatening. Ryan Zinke needs to stop playing reality show games with our public lands."

July 31, 2017

Zinke caps review of Nevada monuments with Bunkerville visit

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke talks to the media on July 30, 2017 while visiting Southern Nevada.

By Keith Rogers
Las Vegas Review-Journal


BUNKERVILLE — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spoke to reporters early Sunday evening in this rural Clark County community as he wrapped up a much-anticipated visit to Southern Nevada that included a hike at Gold Butte National Monument and stops in Basin and Range National Monument to see American Indian rock art.

“As a steward of our greatest treasures, it’s good to get out,” Zinke said as he stood in the sun against a backdrop of the Gold Butte range. “As a former Navy SEAL, I think it’s important to go out on the front line and actually meet people because the view from the Potomac is a lot different than the Virgin River.”

The interior secretary visited the monuments as part of President Donald Trump’s executive order mandating a review of 22 national monuments and five marine national monuments created by presidential decree since Jan. 1, 1996, to determine whether the designations should be scaled back or eliminated.

“What I’ve learned in the monument review is every monument is unique,” said Zinke, who wore a cowboy hat as he answered reporters’ questions.

“In a lot of cases people are afraid public land is going to be sold so they feel like a monument is a tool to make sure that public land stays in public hands,” he said, adding, “Out front, I am an advocate to never sell or transfer public land. So is the president.”

Zinke is expected to present Trump with his final recommendations by the end of August.

Speaking outside Brian Haviland’s residence near Gold Butte, Zinke offered insight into criteria for downsizing.

“Again, the definition (of a national monument) is fairly loose so we’re going through and evaluating,” he said. “What’s the object? Is the protection in the smallest area compatible with protection of that object?”

And, he said, “If we’re going to protect those objects that the monument is intended to do, then you have to have things like a bathroom there so people hiking up a trail can use the restroom before they look at the petroglyphs or dwellings.”

Based on his tours Sunday, he said Nevada’s monuments need better road maintenance so public access is not interrupted.

“The good thing is, I haven’t met anybody on either side that doesn’t love the land,” and they agree it’s worth protecting, he said. “So there’s more in common on the monuments than there are opposites.”

Before Zinke’s arrival, Russ Graves voiced concern about the size of the Gold Butte monument.

“I’d just like to see the size reduced,” said Graves. 73, who owns an orchard that is part of a 220-acre ranch.

Whitney Pocket, the Devil’s Throat sinkhole and a few other locations on Gold Butte should be part of the monument, but other parts don’t have antiquities value, he said.

Zinke had planned to stay in Mesquite through Monday to meet with U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., and stakeholders there and in Overton on the last leg of a swing through the West. But he canceled those plans to return to Washington, D.C., for the first Cabinet meeting with new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

While the Monday meeting was scuttled, Zinke did meet with some stakeholders Sunday and has scheduled phone meetings with others, including the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians, according to his staff.

The Riverside Road location where Zinke spoke is within three miles of the April 2014 armed standoff on the Virgin River between federal agents from his department and militia supporters of defiant rancher Cliven Bundy — the subject of a high-visibility trial in federal court in Las Vegas.

Asked by the Las Vegas Review-Journal if the Interior Department plans to round up Bundy’s stray cattle from the Gold Butte monument, Zinke said: “I’m not going to address that issue.”

Regarding ranching on public land, he said, “As we look at the rancher, that’s as much a part of the culture of a lot of these monuments as some of the objects.”

Feeling forgotten

Bundy’s wife, Carol, said she was disappointed Zinke didn’t meet with her on his way to Gold Butte despite her efforts to reach him through emails, certified letters and phone calls to staff.

“We have not received one phone call back,” she said, sitting in the living room of the Bundy ranch house Sunday. “We feel like we’re forgotten. Yet my husband and four of our sons, a total of 19 men, sit in prison under the guise of charges of the Department of Interior, which Mr. Zinke is in control over, and they have committed no crime.

“Why would you come to my front yard and not reach out to my family and hear our pleas so that I could hear his as well?” she said.

Zinke said he’s trying to change the image of Interior Department agencies with heavy-handed law enforcement officers.
“We should be the happy department,” he said.

“When you see a BLM truck you should think land manager and not law enforcement, which we work with through our local sheriffs.”

Zinke’s visit to Nevada started early. After his flight landed in Las Vegas at about 7:30 a.m., Zinke flew by helicopter to Gold Butte’s Whitney Pocket, where he hiked with several local officials.

Other stops included White River Narrows, a Basin and Range petroglyph site; artist Michael Heiser’s “City” project where he met with Los Angeles County Museum of Art staff members; and the Mount Irish petroglyph site in Basin and Range, where he met with Friends of Gold Butte.

Earlier Sunday, U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., released a video of her support for the national monuments.

“Our outdoor recreation in Nevada is a boon to our economy, 148,000 jobs, billions of dollars in revenue to the economy,” she said in the video. “And that’s worth fighting for.”

About the monuments

In his proclamation designating Gold Butte National Monument, President Barack Obama called the region “a landscape of contrast and transition, where dramatically chiseled red sandstone, twisting canyons, and tree-clad mountains punctuate flat stretches of the Mojave Desert.”

Gold Butte encompasses nearly 300,000 and was created Dec. 28, 2016.

Basin and Range National Monument was designated in July 2015 and covers 704,000 acres in Lincoln and Nye counties.

Obama’s proclamation said, “The vast, rugged landscape redefines our notions of distance and space and brings into sharp focus the will and resolve of the people who have lived here. The unbroken expanse is an invaluable treasure for our Nation and will continue to serve as an irreplaceable resource for archaeologists, historians, and ecologists for generations to come.”

July 29, 2017

High court calls road claim 'completely nonsensical'

RS2477 • Utah Supreme Court finds state road claims have not run out of time, allowing litigation to proceed.

By Brian Maffly
The Salt Lake Tribune


In a pivotal ruling for Utah's legal battle to control thousands of routes crossing federal land, a divided Utah Supreme Court has held that these road claims have not run out of time under an obscure state law.

Joined by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, federal lawyers had argued the statute in question barred "quiet-title" claims after seven years, meaning that Utah's claim to more than 12,000 routes covering 35,000 miles would have been extinguished as long ago as 1983.

Chief Justice Matthew Durrant wrote that such a result would be "absurd" and deviate from whatever lawmakers intended when they passed the relevant law, known as a statute of repose.

The United States' arguments "would effectively deprive the State of its" claims to thousands of routes — including some that may have existed and been used for decades, Durrant wrote in the ruling handed down Thursday.

The high court called such a result "completely nonsensical" and "so overwhelmingly absurd that no rational legislator could ever be deemed to have supported" it.

Durrant was joined by Justices Christine Durham and Deno Himonas.

A ruling the other way, in favor of the federal government's stance, could potentially have put an end to the litigation involving 22 separate lawsuits, one for each Utah county seeking title to these routes within their borders.

Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes applauded the ruling, calling it a "common-sense decision" that re-invigorates the road claims asserted under RS2477, a now-repealed frontier-era statute that gave counties rights of way to roads they cut across the public domain in an effort to encourage development in remote areas of the West.

Some of these disputed roads are important thoroughfares, but environmentalists say many are obscure tracks that serve no purpose other than to justify counties' efforts to push roads and motorize access into lands proposed for wilderness.

"The Court correctly recognized the absurdity of the federal government's arguments, which have now added two years of delay and taxpayer expense to the State's efforts to obtain the title to roads that federal law has long promised," Reyes said. "I hope the Court's decision convinces the United States now to work collaboratively and quickly with Utah and its Counties to resolve these title claims."

But the court's dissenters rejected the idea that the federal government's interpretation would have produced an absurd result, or even an uncommon one.

Appellate judges Frederic Voros and Kate Toomey sat in for Justices John Pearce and Thomas Lee, who had recused themselves from the case. While concurring with much of the majority opinion, Voros's dissent called it "the most expansive application of the absurdity doctrine in American law."

Voros noted that the allegedly absurd result actually reflects prevailing law nationwide from the passage of the Mining Act in 1866 until the passage of the Quiet Title Act in 1972.

"If that rule of law in fact mandated absurd results, surely in 106 years some court somewhere would have noticed," Voros wrote. "Yet no party cites, nor am I able to discover, any court questioning the rationality of the rule of law that we today declare absurd."

Thursday's ruling allows lawyers to get back to the arduous task of litigating the validity of the state's road claims that have been stewing in U.S. District Court since 2011. The state must demonstrate each road was open to public travel for 10 continuous years prior to 1976 — when the Federal Land Management and Policy Act was passed, repealing RS2477.

July 14, 2017

Rescind new monuments


Letters to the Editor

By Jim Bagley, Twentynine Palms
Hi-Desert Star


If I had told you 40 years ago that Joshua Tree National Monument would start charging fees to let you in, it would cost you $25 just to visit, and if you had an annual pass the Park Service would demand you show a valid photo ID to use it like some totalitarian country demanding “papers” from you to enter, you would’ve said that’s an outrageous concept. But in 2017 that is exactly the reality of where we are.

Most of the monument has been converted into wilderness, numerous roads open during my lifetime have all been closed, every road now has a lockable gate and any new lands that have added to the now “park” don’t include any new campgrounds or facilities, it just added more closed areas made inaccessible to historic, sensible public access.

Now we have the Mojave Trails National Monument and all the other political monuments across America that President Obama rushed to create before his administration was out of office. How is implementing a one-sided mandate without open participation and bipartisan consensus reflecting the fairness of the American character Mr. Obama so copiously lectured us about? The zealous environmentalist who called upon Obama to use his power to cut to the public out of any longterm management policies cheered him on and boisterously celebrated having their own way.

President Trump is now taking the initiative to include everybody in the discussion about our public lands by asking for a review and direct public input on all recent large-scale Antiquities Act orders. What a revolutionary concept, actually asking for public input instead dictating one party vision with executive action.

The same people who fought to cut the public out of the discussion and off the public lands are crying foul and organizing protests against the review. Wow, how shocking the elitists are self-righteously offended that other people (undoubtedly the deplorables) with another point of view should be heard.

The Secretary of the Interior should recommend these politically created monuments be rescinded in the interest of the highest and best use of our American public lands. We should have an inclusive honest, open discussion about the best long-range management for the Mojave Desert. Let’s include a re-examination of the political wilderness areas that were closed under the fervent parochial effort in 1994 of the California Desert Protection Act. If recreation as an economic goal is a part of the monument strategy, we should restore reasonable access to closed historic roads and campsites for tourism and let the locals enjoy these special places again.

Let’s start with absolute transparency. The folks who created the maps for the Obama monuments excluding the public should clearly identify themselves. Take ownership of your agenda and disclose to the public exactly who had influence in Obama administration. I want to have a say in what happens too! Obama did not ask for public participation.

If making “monuments for everyone” is truly the goal, then everyone should be included cooperatively in the formation of public lands policy. President Obama’s misuse of the Antiquities Act to exclude the public from an open, transparent process to make decisions on the American landscape is offensive. If there is legitimate widespread support for the monuments, why not the let the public democratic process work and send any new land use designations to Congress and get bipartisan consensus?

I have been locked out of too many wonderful places once open to everyone by intolerant, discriminatory, partisan land use policies. In the future I do not want to be forced to pay a government fee to visit Amboy, just because it is in one of Obama’s monuments.

July 13, 2017

L.A. took their water and land a century ago. Now the Owens Valley is fighting back

The Los Angeles Aqueduct, which transports water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles, was built in the early 1900s. (Los Angeles Times)

By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times


BISHOP, CALIF. -- A century ago, agents from Los Angeles converged on the Owens Valley on a secret mission.

They figured out who owned water rights in the lush valley and began quietly purchasing land, posing as ranchers and farmers.

Soon, residents of the Eastern Sierra realized much of the water rights were now owned by Los Angeles interests. L.A. proceeded to drain the valley, taking the water via a great aqueduct to fuel the metropolis’ explosive growth.

This scheme became an essential piece of California history and the subject of the classic 1974 film “Chinatown.” In the Owens Valley, it is still known as the original sin that sparked decades of hatred for Los Angeles as the valley dried up and ranchers and farmers struggled to make a living.

But now, the Owens Valley is trying to rectify this dark moment in its history.

Officials have launched eminent domain proceedings in an effort to take property acquired by Los Angeles in the early 1900s.

Owens Valley wants to reclaim its history

It is the first time Inyo County has used eminent domain rules against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which owns 25% of the Owens Valley floor, officials said Wednesday.

Unlike previous battles with the DWP that focused on the environmental and economic damage caused by L.A.'s pumping of local water supplies, the county seeks to pay fair market value for property and water rights needed for landfills, parks, commerce and ranchlands along a 112-mile stretch of Highway 395 east of the Sierra Nevada.

“We’re using a hammer the DWP has never seen before in Owens Valley,” Inyo County Supervisor Rick Pucci said. “Our goal is the future health and safety of our communities.”

The move comes after years of efforts by Los Angeles to make amends for taking the region’s land and water. In 2013, for instance, the city agreed to fast-track measures to control toxic dust storms that have blown across the eastern Sierra Nevada since L.A. opened the aqueduct a century ago that drained Owens Lake.

As a gesture of conciliation, the city a year ago erected a $4.6-million monument of granite and sculpted earth that now rises from a dry bed of Owens Lake. It features a public plaza with curved granite walls inspired by the wing shapes of shorebirds. Sculptures of earth and rock have been made to resemble whitecaps like those that graced the lake’s surface before it was transformed into a noxious dust bowl.

L.A. concerns about giving back land


But in Owens Valley, Angelenos bearing gifts have always elicited skepticism, and occasionally sparked eruptions of violence. The aqueduct was dynamited repeatedly after increased pumping exacerbated a drought during the 1920s that laid waste to local farms and businesses.

Inyo County officials see their effort to take back DWP land as an important step in taking back local control.

That worries DWP officials, who acknowledged they were caught off guard by the action.

“This is brand new. It could be a slippery slope and where it would lead us I don’t know,” Marty Adams, chief operating officer at the agency, said. “The county also wants the water rights on certain properties, which could have a cascading effect. We’re very concerned about that.”

The Inyo County Board of Supervisors directed its staff to study the use of eminent domain after the DWP a year ago proposed a fourfold rent increase of more than $20,000 annually at a landfill in Bishop operated by the county on land it has leased from the DWP for decades, Rick Benson, assistant county administrator, said.

The proposed lease included a clause allowing the DWP to terminate the agreement for any reason with a 180-day notice, he said.

After months of heated negotiations, the county approved the new three-year lease agreement in January because, Benson said: “We had no choice.”

“We’re mandated by the state to provide environmentally sound means of disposal,” he said. “But the cost of abandoning that landfill and building and certifying a new one elsewhere would be astronomical.”

Beyond that, he said, the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery refused to renew an operating permit for the landfill until a new lease was in place on the property.

Valley towns struggling to survive

In March, Inyo County Administrator Kevin Carunchio notified the DWP of the county’s decision to condemn that landfill site and two others in the towns of Independence and Lone Pine. That would set in motion legal proceedings that could lead to its taking ownership from the DWP.

A county appraisal concluded a fair market value for the total 200 acres of $522,000, county officials said. On Monday, the DWP declined that offer, saying it had yet to complete its own appraisals.

Some officials are already raising the possibility of mounting crowd-sourcing campaigns to fund additional acquisitions of DWP land for public benefit.

“The county would obviously like more economic opportunities,” the DWP’s Adams said, “and we support that.”

In the meantime, Owens Valley towns — including Big Pine, Independence, Lone Pine and Olancha — struggle to survive, with most of their developable land and water rights controlled by the DWP.

In 1997, the DWP agreed to relinquish 75 acres in the Owens Valley for residential and commercial uses, and the county amended its General Plan to ensure that land exchanges did not result in a net loss of tax base or revenues. Since then, county officials say, lots on only a fraction of that acreage have changed hands because the DWP has tended to set minimum bids far above market value.

In 2009, a group of Owens Valley residents sent a petition to then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles City Council urging them to force the DWP to compensate for the loss of private land it planned to buy in the region by releasing an equal amount of its own holdings elsewhere. The city never responded, according to activists who helped write the petition.

The DWP has spent more than $1 billion to comply with a 1997 agreement with the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District to combat the powder-fine dust from the dry 110-square-mile Owens Lake bed.

Separately, after decades of political bickering and a bruising court fight, the DWP directed water back into a 62-mile-long stretch of the Lower Owens River that had been left essentially dry after its flows of Sierra snowmelt were diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct. But it later balked at removing thick stands of reeds that swiftly choked the renewed river.

The DWP caused an uproar during the drought in 2015 when it gave ranchers 48 hours’ notice of its intention to reduce their irrigation water from the usual 49,000 acre-feet a year to 20,500 acre-feet a year. The agency abandoned the deadline after Inyo County threatened to seek an injunction to stop what it claimed was a violation of long-term water agreements that would devastate the local economy.

Some itching for a fight with L.A.


Farming and ranching generate $20 million a year in rural Inyo County, second only to tourism, officials said.

Jenifer Castaneda, a Lone Pine real estate broker and community activist, had one word to say about the county’s use of eminent domain: “Awesome.”

Castaneda said she only hopes local leaders are ready for a long fight and that they don’t “cave when Los Angeles dangles some kind of big fat carrot in front of their noses."

July 12, 2017

Rep. Cook signs support of national monument reduction


By Charity Lindsey
Victorville Daily Press


Republican Congressman Paul Cook recently signed a letter to the Department of the Interior recommending the reduction of some national monuments, despite nonprofit efforts to preserve their boundaries and designations.

In a June 30 letter to DOI Secretary Zinke signed by Cook and 16 other members of congress from western states, lawmakers claim that the “misuse of this outdated 1906 Act has jeopardized the daily activities, livelihoods and traditions of local communities,” including energy development, wildfire prevention efforts and recreational activities like hunting and fishing.

The letter provides an analysis of the 27 monuments currently under the DOI’s review, recommending a reduction of the Mojave Trails National Monument and the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, much to the discontent of the Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT), whose representatives claim Cook “has not communicated with his constituents” about the Executive Order.

“It is outrageous that Rep. Cook would go behind the backs of his constituents to argue that one of our Mojave Monuments be diminished,” MDLT Executive Director Danielle Segura said. “The Mojave Desert Land Trust has invested in this landscape for over a decade, and worked alongside many diverse local groups, to create this monument. Rep. Cook couldn’t even wait until the public had commented before trying to strip protections on land important to the local community.”

But in a statement to the Daily Press Tuesday, Cook said that as a government official, “I don’t submit public comments, as this is the domain of the public.”

″Once the letter was submitted, it was published on the Western Caucus website and made available for anyone to view,” Cook said. “To assert that this was done in secret is laughable at best. In fact, my staff sent a link to this letter directly to the staff of the Mojave Desert Land Trust the same day it was sent to Secretary Zinke.”

MDLT has collected more than 1,250 comments focused specifically on the importance of the monuments in the Mojave. The Desert Defenders campaign comment period began May 10, two weeks after the executive order, which impacts four sites affecting San Bernardino County: The San Gabriel Mountains, Mojave Trails, Castle Mountains and Sand to Snow national monuments.

Mojave Trails is located between interstates 15 and 40 and partially surrounds the Mojave National Preserve. While San Gabriel was designated in October 2014, the others were all established in February of last year.

Cook noted that the letter recognized the local support for the Sand to Snow National Monument, which the congress members requested no changes to.

“On the other hand, the former President nearly doubled the total size of the Mojave Trails National Monument from any of the previous proposals,” Cook said. “This was accomplished without any public comment. This letter simply recognizes the illegitimacy of this action and asks that President Trump follow the publicly debated boundaries while rolling back the former President’s overreach.”

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors also sent a letter to the Department of the Interior on May 31, stating its position “that any national monument designations should go through the legislative process, rather than by Presidential Proclamation under The Antiquities Act.”

July 6, 2017

Bill would curb massive Cadiz desert water project

Cadiz Inc. plans to pump the Mojave Desert aquifer and transport that water to Southern California communities. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

By DAVID DANELSKI
The Press-Enterprise


The battle over plans by a Los Angeles company to sell water pumped from aquifers underneath Mojave Desert conservation areas heated up again this week when state legislation was amended to require a new round of state reviews.

The legislation’s new language, by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, would stop major pumping until state land and wildlife officials determined that groundwater extractions would not harm wildlife or cultural resources.

The legislation is in response to the Cadiz desert water project that has been prioritized by the Trump administration.

Cadiz officials called the legislation a flawed attempt to further delay the project.

Cadiz wants to pump groundwater from wells on land its owns in the Cadiz Valley that is surrounded by the Mojave Trails National Monument. These wells would draw water from connected aquifers below the Cadiz, Bristol and Fenner valleys that supply springs within the monuments as well as the Mojave National Preserve.

The water would be piped more than 40 miles across federal lands along a railroad right of way to the Colorado River Aqueduct. It would then be ferried to water customers in suburban Southern California.

The project has been staunchly opposed by environmental groups and other desert advocates, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who sponsored the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 that created the Mojave National Preserve and protected 69 wilderness areas between the Mexican border and the town of Bishop.

If it passes the Legislature and is signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the new state law also would be called the California Desert Protection Act.

Contacted by cell phone, Friedman, a first-year legislator, said her aim is to conserve the water below the desert conservation areas that wildlife depends upon.

“This is the water that supports the desert’s ecosystem, and it is vitally important,” she said.

The law would prohibit taking groundwater from a large swath of the Mojave unless the State Lands Commission, working with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, finds that pumping “will not adversely affect the natural or cultural resources of those federal and state lands,” the bill says.

Friedman said the Cadiz project could go forward under the law if the new state reviews find it does no harm.

The Cadiz company issued a statement Thursday, July 6, that contends the legislation is designed “to further delay the Cadiz Water Project” by using a “gut and amend” legislative process, which is “universally condemned.” (The original bill, AB 1000, pertained to water meter standards.)

The company’s statement said the project was previously reviewed under state environmental disclosure laws and “found to have no adverse impacts on the environment.” Those reviews were done about 17 years ago.

The Cadiz project would “create a safe, sustainable water supply for 400,000 people,” as well as about “$1 billion economic activity and close to 6,000 jobs,” the company statement added.

The Santa Margarita Water District in southern Orange County plans to buy between 5,000 to 10,000 acre-feet a year, said district spokesman Jim Leach. In all, the project would pump as much as 50,000 acre-feet a year, depending on how the water tables are affected by the extraction, he said.

“We are really disappointed,” Leach said. “We see this legislation as a roadblock to delay the project.”

But Feinstein and other critics maintain the Cadiz project is unsustainable.

In May, the senator released a letter from the U.S. Geological Survey that said a 2000 analysis by the agency found that the Cadiz, Bristol and Fenner basins naturally recharged water at rates of 2,000 to 10,000 acre-feet a year — just a fraction the rate water would be pumped out of these basins.

The Trump administration has made moves favorable to the project. In April, it rescinded a 2014 policy directive that was used to find in 2015 that Cadiz needed to obtain a federal right of way permit and thus had to complete comprehensive environmental studies before it could build a water pipeline in the railroad right of way.

The Trump transition team also put Cadiz on a list of priority projects.

“If the federal government is not going to do these environmental reviews, the state has a responsibility to do them,” Friedman said.

It's magical legal thinking to say Trump can't reverse Obama's national monuments

The northernmost boundary of the proposed Bears Ears region in Utah on May 23, 2016. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on April 26 directing his interior secretary to review the designation of dozens of national monuments on federal lands. (Francisco Kjolseth / Associated Press)

Opinion-Editorial

By Todd Gaziano and John Yoo
Los Angeles Times


Suppose President Trump declared much of California, Nevada and Oregon — states that just happened to vote against him — off-limits to economic development and recreational use. Suppose he barred all mining, grazing, agriculture and even camping from these states’ federal lands (roughly 46% of California, 85% of Nevada and 53% of Oregon) under a law to preserve national monuments of scientific and historical interest.

According to some environmentalists and legal scholars, we would have to live with this result. They believe a president can permanently designate federal land as a monument and restrict its uses — even if we’re talking about millions of acres (138 million acres in the example above), far removed from any real historical or scientific significance, and over the objections of the states involved.

But a presidential power to create permanent national monuments flies in the face of the plain text of federal law, the conventional relationship between presidents and Congress and historical understandings of executive power. Trump has the right to reverse the national monuments created by previous presidents without an act of Congress, but by the same token, the Constitution creates a check by allowing future presidents to reverse Trump too.

In late April, Trump announced a plan to reconsider the size of recently designated national monuments, principally those that withdrew vast amounts of land in the West and in the oceans near Hawaii and New England from some forms of economic development. His orders sparked a firestorm of criticism from environmentalists and sympathetic public officials, who have argued in these pages that Trump cannot undo a national monument once declared by a past president.

The power to create national monuments derives from the Antiquities Act of 1906. It’s a broad presidential power, although monuments must be limited to the smallest area necessary to preserve landmarks and other objects of interest. Like many federal laws, the Antiquities Act delegates authority to the executive branch but does not address how to undo the use of the power. Those who defend permanent, unchangeable national monuments argue that the act’s silence on reversal means reversal is impossible. But there is no reason to believe that the Antiquities Act can uniquely evade the fundamental principles that apply throughout our government and laws.

Almost every grant of power, by Constitution or statute, implicitly also includes the power of reversal. Congress has no express authority in the Constitution to repeal a law, but it does so by passing new laws. The Supreme Court doesn’t have express authority to overrule a past precedent, but it does so in a later decision. As the federal courts have recognized, the president can fire Cabinet officers or abrogate treaties (both of which require Senate advice and consent), even though the Constitution doesn’t mention it. No Congress, Supreme Court or president can bind their successors from using their branch’s constitutional powers.

The courts have applied the same legal principle of reversal when Congress delegates lawmaking power to the executive branch, as in the Antiquities Act. For example, agencies granted authority to issue regulations also can revoke or modify them, and presidents often repeal executive orders, many of which are based on statutory powers. The courts have never held that the underlying statutory authority once used cannot be revoked.

Indeed, those who claim that the Antiquities Act does not grant a reversal power cannot find a single case in another area of federal law that supports that contention. To override the norm, legislators have to clearly limit reversal powers in the original law; the plain text of the Antiquities Act includes no such limits.

Those who consider monument proclamations sacrosanct place most of their hopes in a cursory legal opinion issued by U.S. Atty. Gen. Homer Cummings in 1938. No court has ever approved of the Cummings opinion. Our research explains the many holes in its reasoning, including Cummings’ mistaken reliance on an 1862 attorney general opinion that interpreted a different law, with utterly different facts, and, in any case, reached a conclusion contrary to Cummings’ position.

In a letter to the Interior Department, California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra asserts that Trump cannot legally revoke or reduce six national monuments in California. Besides his reliance on Cummings’ flawed opinion, Becerra’s statutory citations don’t help his case. He primarily cites ambiguous comments made in House committee deliberations related to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. But that is a separate statute, on a different subject, that did not alter the text or plain meaning of the Antiquities Act. If that’s the best that California officials have on their side in this debate, they should lose.

Californians and others who want to maintain national monuments without change should focus on the merits of the designations rather than magical legal thinking. No president is likely to significantly disturb a national monument that enjoys strong local support. The public comment period for land-based monuments, including all those in California identified for review, is open until July 10. Comments on marine monuments under review are due by July 26.

Prior presidents acted unilaterally to create or vastly expand several national monuments. It’s simply unrealistic to pretend that acts created by unilateral presidential decrees cannot be undone in the same manner.

Todd Gaziano is the executive director of the Pacific Legal Foundation’s D.C. Center and its senior fellow in constitutional law. John Yoo is a law professor at UC Berkeley and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. They are the authors of an AEI paper on national monuments.

June 21, 2017

Colorado’s runoff has peaked

Lake Powell 65 percent full, but much of it going to Mead


Lake Powell

By Gary Harmon
The Daily Sentinel


The runoff of 2017 is over and officials expect Lake Powell to rise to 65 percent full, but that relatively high level won’t last long as the inflow into the reservoir will be sent downstream to Lake Mead and Mexico.

In all, Lake Powell is to release just under 9 million acre-feet of water downstream this year, or 7.5 million acre-feet to meet the terms of the 1922 Colorado River compact, and 750,000 acre-feet for Mexico under a 1944 treaty.

Lake Powell functions as a savings account for the Upper Colorado River Basin states, which are required under the compact to release 7.5 million acre-feet per year, based on a rolling 10-year average, from Powell.

Lake Powell can contain just over 24 million acre-feet of water.

The high-runoff year ultimately won’t buy much insurance for the upper basin states, said Chris Treese, spokesman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

“It won’t make things worse,” Treese said. “We will continue to bump along about the 50 percent level” in Lake Powell.

While 9 million acre-feet amounts to a third of the capacity of Lake Powell, water continues to flow into the reservoir throughout the year, though well short of runoff levels.

The Bureau of Reclamation operates Lake Powell so as to keep enough pressure to generate electricity at Glen Canyon Dam. The dam’s eight turbines can produce up to 1,320 megawatts of electricity and the dam supplies power to 5.8 million customers.

The spring’s high runoff isn’t operationally significant, James Eklund, the former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who headed development of the Colorado water plan, said in an email.

From a strategic perspective, however, “it underscores that even in what seemed like a banner water year, we’re still a long way from recovery from the last 16-year dry spell” and highlights the need to keep enough water in Powell high enough to generate electricity, Eklund said.

Even though the runoff has peaked, people looking to enjoy the water should take care, said Andy Martsolf, emergency services director for Mesa County.

“The water in the Colorado is moving fast and it is cold,” Martsolf said. “People recreating on the river should always use a personal flotation device, multichamber inflatables, and tell someone who is not in their party where they are going and when to expect their return.”

June 13, 2017

Mitchell Caverns’ long-awaited reopening postponed

Mitchell Caverns’ reopening has been delayed until October in the eastern Mojave Desert’s Providence Mountains. State park officials had hoped to reopen the remote Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, home to the caverns, in May or June. (COURTESY OF CALIFORNIA STATE PARKS)

By Suzanne Hurt
The Press-Enterprise


Mitchell Caverns’ reopening has been delayed until October due to an ailing septic tank and trail work that’s on hold until summer’s over in the eastern Mojave Desert’s Providence Mountains.

State park officials had hoped to reopen the remote Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, home to the caverns, in May or June.

Spring and fall are high season for the park east of Barstow, which has been closed since January 2011, mainly over water issues.

Now the septic tank serving the visitor center and staff housing, which is getting plugged up due to broken ballasts, must be replaced. An environmental review must be completed and more funding won’t come until the new fiscal year starts July 1, said Russ Dingman, acting superintendent of the state parks’ Tehachapi District.

After temperatures get cooler in September, trail crews will return to reinforce the main trail to the caves and align it with natural topography for better water and erosion control. The cost of the work isn’t known yet.

The caverns are one of two public “show caves” in Southern California and the state park system’s only limestone caves.

June 6, 2017

How Pappy & Harriet's Went From Dive Bar to a Music Destination

Pappy & Harriet's (Courtesy Pappy & Harriet's)

BY GWYNEDD STUART
LA Weekly


During its heyday as a film and TV set — from the late 1940s to the late '50s, roughly — Pioneertown was the backdrop for any number of acts of generic Wild West mayhem. Set against convincing façades of a livery stable, feed store, bank and saloon, cowboys and caballeros with bronzed skin and bleached-white teeth traded choreographed blows and blasts from pistols loaded with blanks to sell a fantasy of lawlessness to little boys lying on their bellies in front of black-and-white TV sets. The good guys usually won, and bad guys suffered fates too terrible to show onscreen, but chaos and coyotes still lurked just around the corner.

On a recent spring evening — April 20, incidentally — some of the fledgling outlaws standing in line outside the now-legendary Pioneertown music venue Pappy & Harriet's are attempting to shift the balance of good and evil yet again. OK, that's an overstatement, but several concertgoers among the 900 or so who've shown up to see Baltimore synth-pop trio Future Islands have gone inside the restaurant, purchased alcoholic beverages and brought the drinks outside to sip while waiting for the gate to the outdoor stage to open. (Among other crimes committed: a preponderance of very on-the-nose Coachella fashion and waaaay too many short shorts for a chilly night.) But in the desert, order is tenuous, and a security guard makes his way down the line confiscating the beverages. It wouldn't be a Wild West town without a sheriff.

Still, Robyn Celia, who's co-owned Pappy & Harriet's since 2003, likes to think that she and business partner Linda Krantz have preserved a sort of "lawlessness" that can't be found at other music venues, a remnant not only of the town's days as a Western movie set but from the decades after that, when the bar-restaurant was a biker hangout for actual Outlaws. She thinks it's part of what draws people to the middle of nowhere to see bands they probably could've just seen in L.A. "I went to a show at a House of Blues somewhere," Celia says, lamenting the hokey, controlled, carefully crafted environment. "I understand now."

A former saloon façade and a functioning cantina since the early 1970s, Pappy & Harriet's opened in 1982 serving up Tex-Mex and live country music. After Pappy's death in 1994, the restaurant fell on hard times and changed hands at least once before Celia and Krantz came along and bought the business on credit cards. Krantz had made a film about Pioneertown in the '90s, and she spread the gospel of the slightly bizarre little village to friends in New York City. They began an annual ritual of visiting for New Year's Eve, and one year discovered the place had changed, "closing at 9, gingham tablecloths," Celia recalls. "It was definitely like they were trying to reach an older clientele." Shortly thereafter, they bought the place and headed West "before all the shit hit the fan with the world," she says, referring to the financial collapse.

You could say that Pappy & Harriet's has become a destination despite the fact that it's situated in a sort of no man's land northwest of the tiny town of Yucca Valley, with no cellphone service in the middle of the desert. Really, it's more likely that it's become a destination because of those things, for bands — Lucinda Williams, Paul McCartney, Rufus Wainwright — and fans alike.

There's also Celia's pragmatic approach to dealing with the talent: "If they want 10 bottles of Patron, just fucking give it to them. They're going to tell people how much they liked it here." Same goes for patrons — the tequila isn't free, but the drinks are big and affordable for a live music venue. And people seem to like the food. We showed up about an hour and a half before the bands went on and were basically told we wouldn't be getting a table that night.

Based on the rather large crowd of bohemian millennial types who frequently descend on Pioneertown, thanks to Pappy & Harriet's, you could be justified in wondering: Is it going to get too "cool" to be cool anymore? Will this quaint town of ranches and adobe casitas soon be overrun with hipsters who've glorified rural life? Celia doesn't think that's likely. "It's still the desert," she says. "You have to handle your shit out here."

Even on a clear spring night, when the sky looks like a black sheet blasted with buckshot, it gets very dark in Pioneertown. Yes, it's in the middle of the desert, so no shit. But it's a sort of darkness that you can't really reckon with until you're attempting to navigate haphazardly laid-out dirt roads back to your Airbnb after a show at Pappy & Harriet's. A cellphone will get you only so far in Pioneertown, but at least the flashlight feature will guide you to bed before the coyotes can drag you off into the hills. It's the desert, and you have to handle your shit.

May 18, 2017

Capturing the Mojave Desert

Painters, Photographers, Poets, and More Invited to Artist-in-Residence Program

A spring scene from the Mojave National Preserve (Matt Kettmann)

by MATT KETTMANN
Santa Barbara Independent


There are plenty of acute instances of beauty and wonder to be found in the Mojave National Preserve: obscure, Seussian flowers emerging from lonely, hardscrabble succulents; chaotic rock art surrounding mysteriously deep watering holes; abandoned mines littered with forgotten tools and shiny tailings; sharp mountains jutting violently from the subtly rolling flatlands; columns of sunlight piercing through the crusted earth to illuminate the circular walls of an underground lava tube. But the overall impression that this desert expanse just west of the California-Nevada border gives is of a collective vastness: From proper vantage points, the landscape simply goes on forever, making one feel materially insignificant and yet cosmically connected at the same time.

How to convey as much in art, photography, and poetry is the charge of the Mojave National Preserve Artists Foundation, which hosts work by the latest artist every 60 days in the Desert Light Gallery inside the Kelso Depot visitor center. The selected artists stay in the adjacent town of Baker, but by later this summer, the foundation hopes to have rooms at the centrally located Ox Ranch ready for use.

“The major advantage is that it’s in the middle of the preserve, so they don’t waste a lot of windshield time driving from Baker to wherever they are going to photograph or paint,” said Foundation President Bob Killen. “If you’re staying at the Ox, you are about 20 miles from anything you’ll want to do.”

Artists typically stay in the Mojave Preserve — which is the National Park Service’s newest preserve, and the third largest Service property in the lower 48 — for two to four weeks and then have about a year to complete their project. Once ready, it hangs in the gallery, where pieces are sold (there as well as online) with a 50-50 split to the artist and foundation.

The foundation has hosted numerous photographers, painters, and poets, as well as the occasional sculptor and even basket weavers. “We primarily focus on the art that’s going to create an educational link with the public and the preserve,” said Killen. “We want people to be able to see and interpret the desert in a much higher order through the eyes of the artist.”

Himself an accomplished photographer, Killen also owns National Park Photography Expeditions, which runs five-day masterclasses to the Mojave and seven other national parks/preserves for aspiring photographers. “They stay in the field with me for five days learning advanced landscape photography,” said Killen, who usually takes six to eight students and donates some proceeds to help support the artist-in-residence program.

May 16, 2017

Nevada rancher, water authority opponent Dean Baker dead at 77

Rancher Dean Baker talks strategy with fellow Snake Valley residents at a 2009 meeting in advance of a hearing on plans to pipe groundwater to Las Vegas from across eastern Nevada. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

By Henry Brean
Las Vegas Review-Journal


Dean Baker was a rancher, a pilot and a businessman, but most people knew him as a thorn in the side of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
The dogged opponent of the authority’s plans to siphon water from across eastern Nevada died Saturday at a St. George, Utah, hospital from complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 77.

“He was driving around the ranch on dirt roads a week before he died,” said Baker’s oldest son, Dave. “It meant everything to him.”

Baker was born Dec. 19, 1939, in Delta, Utah, where he learned to farm, ranch and fly an airplane solo by the age of 16.
In 1959, he moved to Snake Valley, on the Nevada-Utah border 300 miles northeast of Las Vegas, to help run a ranch his father had acquired there a few years earlier.

The town they settled in was also called Baker, but that was just a coincidence.

Dave Baker said his dad never finished high school but still earned a business degree from the University of Utah.
“He was a good businessman, and he recognized opportunity,” Dave Baker said.

Under Dean Baker’s direction, his son said, their cattle and alfalfa operation more than doubled in size over the past 20 years, consolidating what used to be a dozen separate ranches into a single, family-owned corporation operating on more than 12,000 acres on both sides of the state line.

Fighting MX missiles

Baker’s first taste of activism came during the Carter administration, when the federal government floated plans for a system of mobile nuclear missiles mounted on railroad tracks to be laid across 35,000 square miles of Nevada and Utah.

Dave Baker said the MX missile project would have “swallowed up a bunch of our winter range,” so his dad joined the brief, successful campaign against it.

A decade later, Baker found himself in another David-and-Goliath fight when Las Vegas water officials launched a sweeping grab for unappropriated groundwater across rural Nevada, including Snake Valley.

Baker spent the better part of the next 20 years commenting at meetings, writing letters, serving on committees and joining lawsuits in hopes of blocking the water authority’s still-pending, multibillion-dollar pipeline proposal. The effort required countless trips — often in his own airplane — to Las Vegas and Carson City, where he registered as a legislative lobbyist so he could plead his case directly to lawmakers.

In the process, he became the unofficial spokesman for the opposition. Reporters from across the country and around the globe painted him as a folk hero — the humble rancher fighting to protect his spread from the insatiable thirst of Las Vegas. And Baker was happy to oblige — anything to spread the word about their struggle.

“It’s just because I’m a bullheaded, opinionated old goat,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2013.

Longtime Nevada activist Abigail Johnson fought alongside Baker against both the MX missiles and the water authority’s pipeline. She later got to know him as a neighbor after she bought a place in Baker.

“He was a very courageous man and a very principled man,” she said.

One of his strengths, Johnson said, was his ability to work with and even befriend people from very different backgrounds, including a few rabid environmentalists who liked to argue with him about livestock grazing on public land. “He started out as a conservative rancher, and he was always a conservative rancher, but he had an open mind and he wasn’t afraid to change,” she said.

Once after a water meeting in Las Vegas, Johnson caught a ride back to Snake Valley in Baker’s plane, which he landed on one of the long dirt roads at the ranch. “He showed me all kinds of things on the way,” she recalled. “He just loved flying. That was just his favorite thing.”

Baker is survived by his wife of 19 years, Barbara; his daughter, Chris Robinson; sons Dave, Craig and Tom; stepsons Gary and Dennis Perea; and 18 grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his parents, Fredrick and Betty Baker, and his brother, Carl.

Baker was buried Monday in the same cemetery as his parents, about two miles from the ranch in Snake Valley.

His family is planning a public memorial service at the ranch on June 24.

May 5, 2017

Animal Predatory Behavior Decreases Near Desert Wind Turbines, Study Finds

"These findings could be helpful in assisting managers to design future wind energy facilities with species in mind."

Wind turbines overlooking Whitewater Creek and Interstate 10 near Palm Springs, California. (PHOTO: David McNew / Getty Images News / Getty Images)

By Patch CA (Patch Staff)
Patch Banning


PALM SPRINGS, CA – A study conducted at the windmills near Palm Springs showed that predators are less likely to attack prey living near the wind turbines, including desert tortoises that burrow in the Coachella Valley.

Researchers from the University of California, Davis and the U.S. Geological Survey employed motion-activated cameras facing the entrances of 46 active desert tortoise burrows at the 5.2-square-kilometer wind energy facility.

They found that predators are far more likely to visit the tortoises' burrows near dirt roads and far less likely to visit burrows close to turbines.

The five predator species monitored included bobcats, gray foxes, coyotes, black bears and western spotted skunks, who scientists say were not actively hunting the tortoises but seeking smaller prey that frequently live in desert tortoise burrows.

"These findings could be helpful in assisting managers to design future wind energy facilities with species in mind," said lead author Mickey Agha. "There may be benefits to adding space between turbines and increasing the number of dirt roads, to potentially provide habitat for sensitive terrestrial wildlife."

Scientists behind the study -- which was published in the April issue of The Journal of Wildlife Management -- say the findings show that the design of wind energy infrastructure impacts animal behavior, an area of study rarely touched on.

"There is little information on predator-prey interactions in wind energy landscapes in North America, and this study provides a foundation for learning more," said Jeffrey Lovich, USGS scientist and study co-author.

"Further investigation of causes that underlie road and wind turbine effects, such as ground vibrations, sound emission and traffic volume, could help provide a better understanding of wildlife responses to wind energy development," he said.

April 26, 2017

The Desert Oracle's Ken Layne

Protege of Country Dick Montana and Buddy Blue Seigal

Ken Layne: The desert is very good for revelations.

By Matthew Lickona
San Diego Reader


In 1983, teenaged San Diegan Ken Layne had a revelation in Death Valley. “The teenage boys in my crowd would take whoever’s car that was working that weekend” — often, it was restaurateur Sam Chammas’s VW van — “and head out to Death Valley, Joshua Tree, or Anza-Borrego to free-range wander. No phones, no parents, but we were actually doing pretty wholesome things — hiking and camping.”

The desert is very good for revelations, says Layne. “You can have utter peace and quiet if you need it. It’s a place where you can live a mythic existence if you try — if you go outside and engage. That’s something we almost don’t get anymore. A place of romantic belief.” Think of “Saul on the road to Damascus. You have this blinding light coming down from the heavens; it’s like the Close Encounters poster. He fell to the ground, and he had the typical response that many [UFO] contactees have. His eyes burned, he couldn’t see.”

Layne’s revelation was more mundane, but still personally significant. “I came home and thought, Who knows about this? I went to my high school library and found Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Afterwards, “I thought, I will live in a desert wilderness and be a writer. It took a while, and that’s good. You don’t want to do it when you’re 16, and probably not when you’re 30. But when you’re in your 50s and you’ve been a newspaper reporter and a musician and all these things that require being around a lot of people…”

The musician part was with the Outriders; Layne was mentored by local stalwarts Country Dick Montana and Buddy Blue Seigal. “They weren’t that much older, but they seemed so much wiser. They knew all the stuff. Talking to them was like taking two years of American literature courses.”

The reporter part ranged from Lakeside’s Back Country Trader to Gawker’s political blog Wonkette, which Layne ran from his home in Joshua Tree, eventually bought and later sold. “Breitbart tried to run me out of business. I thought to myself, ‘If you did something people like, think of how that might change the dynamic.’”

Today, Layne is the editor, publisher, writer, designer, and distributor for The Desert Oracle, a black-and-yellow print quarterly with a circulation, six issues in, of 5000. The current issue covers, among other things, car camping in the Castle Mountains, the jackalope, and the alien-conspiracy Krill Papers, which, Layne writes, “have a familiar feel today…because they’ve fed the paranoid mythology that has become modern American culture.”

“Joshua Tree was one of those zeitgeist places I’ve always run to,” says Layne of his belief that a print journal based on his personal interests could thrive in the desert. “I went to Prague in the early ’90s. There were so many people drawn from all over the world — bohemians, artists, the sort who show up in such places throughout time. Also, Coachella added to the interest in high-desert living. And when you do something in a location, you become part of the locale.”

Trump executive order puts Sand to Snow, Mojave Trails national monuments in crosshairs

The Mojave Trails National Monument spans 1.6 million acres that offer a stunning mosaic of rugged mountain ranges, ancient lava flows and spectacular sand dunes. (Photo: Courtesy of Jack Thompson/The Wildlands Conservancy)

Sammy Roth
The Desert Sun


President Donald Trump has called for an unprecedented review of national monuments established by Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, calling into question the future of the Sand to Snow and Mojave Trails monuments in the California desert.

Obama designated those monuments last year, thrilling conservationists and outdoors enthusiasts who had long fought for the beloved landscapes to be protected from development. The Sand to Snow National Monument stretches from the desert floor near Palm Springs to the peak of Mount San Gorgonio, comprising 154,000 acres. The Mojave Trails monument is larger, spanning 1.6 million acres and surrounding historic Route 66, between Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park.

Trump's executive order directs Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review all monuments designated by presidents since 1996. Zinke said the review would be limited to monuments larger than 100,000 acres, but the text of the executive order creates an exception for cases "where the (Interior) Secretary determines that the designation or expansion was made without adequate public outreach." That broad loophole means the California desert's 21,000-acre Castle Mountains monument — designated by Obama at the same time as Sand to Snow and Mojave Trails — may also be vulnerable.

Republican politicians railed against Obama's liberal use of the 1906 Antiquities Act to set aside public lands and waters for conservation. Obama expanded or designated new monuments 34 times, more than any other president, protecting more than 5.7 million acres of land and nearly 550 million acres of water, most of it surrounding Hawaii and other Pacific Ocean islands, according to a Desert Sun tally.

In a signing ceremony Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said no decisions have been made about specific monuments, emphasizing that Trump's executive order "does not remove any monuments... and does not weaken any environmental protections on any public lands." But Trump made clear he plans to shrink or eliminate some monuments. Speaking after Zinke, Trump slammed his predecessor for using the Antiquities Act so often, saying, "it’s time we ended this abusive practice."

"I've spoken with many state and local leaders… who are gravely concerned about this massive federal land grab, and it's gotten worse and worse and worse," Trump said. "And now we're going to free it up, which is what should have happened in the first place. This should never have happened."

It's far from clear Trump can eliminate monuments designated by a previous president. While Congress can abolish a national monument, the Antiquities Act doesn't explicitly give the president the authority to do so, and no president has ever tried.

But several presidents have reduced the size of national monuments, according to the Congressional Research Service. President John F. Kennedy, for instance, removed nearly 4,000 acres from the Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico.

Pumping groundwater near Mojave Trails

In the California desert, public-lands advocates were dismayed by Trump's order.

David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, said he thinks the Sand to Snow and Mojave Trails national monuments have enough local, bipartisan support that the Trump administration won't target them for elimination. But he's worried about possible carve-outs for mining, energy development and other industrial activities.

"Someone donates to a congressman, and all of a sudden a mining company from Canada, or Mitsubishi from Japan, trumps the American people," Myers said. "The people love these monuments, and they will show up and turn out to protect them."

Some conservationists fear Trump's executive order will be used to help Cadiz Inc., which wants to pump groundwater from a desert aquifer next to Mojave Trails and sell the water to Southern California cities. Frazier Haney, conservation director at Mojave Desert Land Trust, said federal officials could rewrite Obama's 2016 proclamation establishing the monument to make it easier for the groundwater project to go forward.

Obama’s proclamation referred to "the area’s scarce springs and riparian areas" as one of the reasons for designating the Mojave Trails monument, noting that underground aquifers "feed springs and seeps that are important for sensitive ecosystems and wildlife." If that language is scrapped, Haney said, it would remove a potential legal obstacle to Cadiz pumping groundwater just outside the national monument.

Cadiz doesn't think the monument affects its project and hasn't advocated for any changes to the monument designation, spokesperson Courtney Degener said.

"Monuments cannot and do not impact private property or valid existing rights, including Cadiz’s water rights," she said.

Jim Conkle, a Route 66 historian, led the charge to create the Mother Road National Monument, which eventually became Mojave Trails. He leads tours of the historic highway — but it's really the untouched desert surrounding the roads that inspires him.

"Whenever I go into the Mojave Desert, I feel the weight of the world is off of me, and I'm in this gorgeous place that was made and is still the same," Conkle said. "You're actually seeing what the indigenous people of 1,000 years ago saw. That landscape has not changed, and I don’t want it to change."

A Coachella Valley 'gateway' to Sand to Snow

Conservationists spent years working with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, to create the Sand to Snow and Mojave Trails national monuments, in part to protect those areas from the boom in solar and wind development that started after Obama took office in 2009. But legislation introduced by Feinstein repeatedly failed to gain enough support, as did bills written by Rep. Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, which would have established the Sand to Snow monument and offered a lesser level of protection to the Mojave Trails.

With little chance of movement in Congress, Feinstein asked Obama to designate the monuments. He did so in February 2016, emphasizing that the monuments would help fortify the desert against the impacts of climate change by connecting millions of acres of already-protected lands, creating corridors through which at-risk species like bighorn sheep can travel as some areas become less habitable due to rising temperatures.

The Sand to Snow designation was relatively noncontroversial, since most of the monument was already congressionally designated wilderness. Sand to Snow helps link the San Bernardino National Forest, the San Jacinto Mountains and Joshua Tree National Park, connecting a diverse array of ecosystems and protecting a wildlife corridor traversed by mountain lions, bighorn sheep and desert tortoises, among other species. The monument also includes 30 miles of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.

Leaders of Desert Hot Springs, the Coachella Valley's northwestern-most city, see Sand to Snow as a potential economic boon. The City Council passed a resolution last year declaring its intent to be a "gateway community" for the national monument.

"When President Obama signed the Sand to Snow act, it really opened up opportunities for us to capture a portion of those two million visitors to Joshua Tree (National Park) every year, to stop here in Desert Hot Springs and use us a a gateway to Sand to Snow," the city's mayor, Scott Matas, said in an interview Wednesday, after Trump signed his executive order. "It is an important piece of our tourism plan for the future."

Fighting over off-roading, rockhounding at Mojave Trails

Mojave Trails was more controversial. Miners, hunters, off-road vehicle enthusiasts and collectors of rocks and minerals opposed a presidential monument designation, fearing they would be shut out from enjoying the land. They preferred legislation, through which Congress could guarantee their favorite pastimes would continue to be allowed.

During an event hosted by Feinstein at the Whitewater Preserve in late 2015, John Sobel — chief of staff to Rep. Cook, who had his own desert lands legislation — said monuments designated using the Antiquities Act would be "second-rate monuments, because they lack the adequate support of locals and of Congress."

But now that the desert national monuments are in place, even some of those critics say Trump should leave them alone.

Randy Banis, a representative of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, worked with Feinstein on her legislation. He opposed Obama's designation of the Sand to Snow and Mojave Trails monuments, but he doesn't think Trump should reverse that decision.

"I'm generally not one for going backward. I don't think it’s productive," Banis said.

Banis is working with other stakeholders to make sure the Mojave Trails monument stays open to recreational activity. As chair of the California Desert District Advisory Council — which gives input to the federal Bureau of Land Management — Banis is forming a group to advise BLM specifically on the management of Mojave Trails.

As an off-roader, Banis often explores the Mojave Trails area in his safari-style 1994 Land Rover Defender, driving east from the Cady Mountains toward Needles, along the Colorado River. While he's worried the monument's 1,400 miles of off-highway vehicle roads will be closed, he's optimistic federal officials will take local input into account.

"We can do that with the tools that we have on the table now," he said.

Two dozen monuments threatened by Trump's order

Trump said a main reason for his executive order is to re-examine monuments that were designated without sufficient local input, or over the objections of communities. But in the California desert, that rationale doesn't make much sense, monument supporters say. While Republican politicians and other local stakeholders criticized Obama's executive action, Obama only designated the monuments after six years of extensive public conversation, including three attempts by Feinstein to pass bills in Congress.

Conkle, the Route 66 historian, said it's possible other monuments were rammed through without public input — but not the one he worked so hard to create.

"We worked on it for 18 years, covered all our bases, included everybody we could. Everybody had a chance to come to the table and to be recognized," he said. If the Trump administration tries to revoke the Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow monument designations, he added, "They're going to have a battle on their hands."

The White House said Trump's executive order covered two dozen national monuments larger than 100,000 acres, including several in California. Besides Sand to Snow and Mojave Trails, the Interior Department will review California's Giant Sequoia and Carrizo Plain national monuments, which were established by Clinton, and the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, which was designated by Obama. A spokesperson for Zinke said the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument outside Los Angeles, which Obama designated in 2014, may also be reviewed. Unlike all the other 100,000-acre monuments designated or expanded since 1996, it's managed by the U.S. Forest Service, an agency within the Department of Agriculture, rather than Interior.

The Trump administration reached back to 1996 in order to capture the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, which Clinton created over strong objections from Utah's congressional representatives. Twenty years later, another monument designation angered Utah lawmakers even more: A few weeks before leaving office, Obama created the Bears Ears National Monument, protecting 1.35 million acres of sacred tribal lands in southeastern Utah. The area is rich with petroglyphs, remnants of ancient dwellings and other archaeological artifacts, but it's been plagued by looting.

Native American tribal leaders and conservationists cheered Obama's decision. But state lawmakers and some rural Utahns cried foul, saying a presidential designation would unduly restrict oil and gas development, recreation and other activities.

Trump's executive order calls for Zinke to bring him a report on national monuments within 120 days, but asks for an interim report on Bears Ears specifically within 45 days.

Outdoor recreation industry fights back

Some of the biggest supporters of Bears Ears and other monuments have been outdoor recreation companies like REI, Patagonia and The North Face, which see public lands as good for business. The Outdoor Industry Association released a report Tuesday estimating outdoor recreation to be a $887-billion business. The Interior Department, meanwhile, has estimated the lands under its management hosted 443 million visitors in 2015, supporting $45 billion in economic output and nearly 400,000 jobs.

A few months ago, the outdoor industry pulled its twice-yearly trade show from Salt Lake City after two decades in Utah, in response to a push by state lawmakers to rescind the Bears Ears designation. In a blog post Tuesday, after news broke of Trump's executive order, REI chief executive Jerry Stritzke vowed to fight for America's public lands.

"We believe there is a compelling case to maintain the integrity of our existing national monuments," he wrote. "Our 16 million members can be assured that we believe — as Teddy Roosevelt said — our public lands should be left stronger and healthier for future generations."