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)

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)

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."

April 14, 2017

Marines move imperiled desert tortoises out of harm’s way

Biologists work with the USMC, BLM, the California and US Fish & Wildlife Services to relocate about 1,100 to 1,500 Desert Tortoises from the Bessemer Mine area of Johnson Valley in Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Wednesday. PHOTO BY ERIC REED

By David Danelski
The Press-Enterprise

Wildlife biologist Scott Welch looked out over the Mojave Desert and readied for action when he heard a distant helicopter flying in.

Just seconds after the aircraft landed, he and two others began loading it with plastic storage bins containing desert tortoises captured at an expansion area of the U.S. Marines Corps training base at Twentynine Palms.

They carefully packed 26 of the imperiled reptiles — one or two per bin — onto cargo carriers on the helicopter that looked like oversized saddlebags.

And within minutes, the tortoises were flying toward a safer haven of the recently created Mojave Trails National Monument — about 25 miles away from the crushing treads of tanks, the boots of soldiers and the blasts of bombs.

Operation Desert Tortoise was in its fifth day. As of Wednesday morning, 266 of the animals had been moved out of the Johnson Valley, about 30 miles northwest of Yucca Valley.

Before the end of the month, the Marines, working with about 125 wildlife biologists expect to have moved 1,156 tortoises, with a focus on clearing transportation corridors and other areas expected to be most disturbed by live-ammunition training missions.

It’s part of a multi-year, $50 million-plus tortoise relocation and study program at the base that was OK’d by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service following a 2013 vote by Congress to add about 88,000 acres in Johnson Valley to the combat center.

For the Marines, the expansion will allow them to hold longer and more-involved live-ammunition desert training missions to prepare Marines to intervene in global hot spots, such as the Middle East, should it be necessary. Such training is expected to start this summer.

For the tortoise, a species listed as threatened with extinction, it means the loss of more than a hundred square miles of quality habitat, as evidenced this year by robust blooms of yellow desert dandelions and other annual plants that are their primary food source.

The resources of the U.S. Defense Department were put to work to minimize harm to the tortoises, said Brian Henen, an ecologist for the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.

Analysis and field work for the move began more than two years ago. Scores of specially trained biologists have methodically walked the valley and fitted each tortoise they found with radio transmitters, so the animals could be gathered for this month’s move. It’s the largest tortoise move yet in the Mojave Desert.

The five areas of public land around the base that are receiving the animals were carefully chosen for their quality habitat and their distances from human habitation, Henen said.

Tortoises that lived near each other are being released in similar proximity in the recipient areas to preserve their social structure.

“We are moving them in groups. We are trying to sustain the similarity and the structure of their origin,” said Henen, standing by a makeshift medical checkup station for the tortoises.

There, Peter Praschag, a world-renowned tortoise and turtle expert from Austria, was working with veterinarian Shannon DiRuzzo to screen tortoises for signs of disease and other health issues.

A large male dubbed MC-2013 appeared frightened by the checkup and voided the water stored in his bladder, called a coelomic cavity. This was a serious matter, because a tortoise may get only one or two chances a year to get a good drink of water.

So Praschag used a syringe to carefully refill the animal’s coelomic cavity with a saline solution of water.

The work of the biologists won’t be finished until long after the last load of tortoises are flown out this month. Henen explained that the biologists will return frequently during the next four years to search for any reptiles that may have been left behind. They expect to move another 300 tortoises during that time.

The plans also include tracking and studying the relocated tortoises, as well as those already in the recipient area, for as long as 30 years. For this research, three groups of 225 tortoises — relocated ones, those already there and an unaffected control group — will be fitted with transmitters to track their movements and survival rates.

Biologists hope that the knowledge gained from this research will help the species recover.

But the loss of more than 100 square miles of prime habitat is still harmful to the tortoises, which has faced declines since the 1970s, prompting its 1990 listing under the Endangered Species Act, said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

“It is going to be a big hit on the species,” she said.

She said it is not known if the public property outside the base will have enough food and other resources for both residents and newcomers to survive, and that wildlife biologists don’t know for sure why tortoises numbers have dropped in those areas.

She’s also worried that the tortoises may try to find their way back to their birthplaces in the base expansion areas.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) determined in January that moving the tortoises from the Johnson Valley won’t jeopardize the survival of the species.

Scott Hoffman, who was observing the relocation effort for the FWS, said the species may benefit in the long run.

“Yes, we are losing habitat. But are we are using the relocated tortoises to supplement the populations in the critical habitat areas,” said Hoffman, referring to some of the recipient areas.

April 13, 2017

Once-abandoned Searchlight subdivision may soon be buzzing with drones

Aerial view of Searchlight airport on Tuesday, April 11, 2017. Jonathan Daniels, founder of Praxis Aerospace Concepts International, plans to open a drone testing site at the airpark. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

By Eli Segall
Las Vegas Review-Journal

SEARCHLIGHT — The once-abandoned subdivision off the side of U.S. Highway 95 is tucked out of view, but there isn’t much to see anyway — just some house-less streets next to a mile-long airstrip.

But in time, if Jonathan Daniels has his way, the property will be buzzing with drones.

Daniels, founder of Henderson-based Praxis Aerospace Concepts International, recently leased about an acre of land at the Searchlight Airpark for his drone-testing business.

He plans to start working from temporary trailers — the site has water and power hook-ups — by mid-May and eventually build a permanent facility. As part of his agreement with the property owner, Daniels also will manage the tower-less airport.

At first glance, Searchlight seems an unlikely place for aviation technology. It’s a pint-sized town some 60 miles south of Las Vegas with abandoned mines and mobile homes and rarely gets new bursts of commerce.

But the area has open airspace for drone testing, Daniels said, unlike the more-restricted Las Vegas Valley, as well as a paved airstrip next to paved streets with utility service. His goal is to make the airpark a launch point to fly back and forth from a Boulder City droneport — test flights that could open drones to a range of commercial uses, he said.

Government officials and industry executives are trying to make Nevada a major hub of drone development and testing. It’s too early to say whether Daniels’ arrival in Searchlight will spark a big inflow of other unmanned-aircraft businesses, but he would at least bring some life to a boom-era real estate project that crashed with the economy and looks like a ghost town.

“If I could have designed a turn-key, instant airport for unmanned aircraft, it would look just like that,” he said.

‘The golden ticket’

Daniels, a 45-year-old former Army helicopter pilot and infantryman, founded Praxis in 2011. The company mostly provides testing, training and other services for owners and operators of drones and other robotics.

He also is part of the group that plans to develop and operate the Eldorado Droneport in Boulder City, a 50-acre property designed to include a 15,000-square-foot terminal building and 860,000 square feet of warehouse, hangar, training, office and research and development space.

His goal is to have people flying drones from Searchlight to Eldorado and back, a roughly 35-mile trip each way.

Drone operators typically can fly only within their line of sight, but Daniels said he wants authorization to let people fly back and forth without needing to drive alongside the aircraft.

He said he stumbled across the Searchlight Airpark when his group was looking for places to expand beyond Boulder City. As Daniels sees it, being able to link the two is “a sheer serendipitous event.”

If drone operators can show the Federal Aviation Administration that they can fly longer distances without visual line of sight, he figures it could help them secure approvals for such commercial uses as parcel delivery or inspections of pipelines, railroads, power plants, farms and forest fires.

“The golden ticket to get there is being able to prove the technology to the FAA,” he said.

Boom, bust, then drones

Daniels contacted airpark owner Bill Turnbull of Seattle and pitched him on the proposed use. Turnbull, whose company RC Aerodyne sells remote-controlled helicopters and airplanes, said he hasn’t determined what to do with the rest of his roughly 40-acre spread.

Located at the south edge of Searchlight, the airpark was designed to have dozens of houses and aircraft hangars, a community where people could fly in and out as they pleased, similar to the tiny town of Cal-Nev-Ari about 10 miles south.

The developers, who teamed up in 2004 during the housing bubble, built roads and installed street signs, power boxes and fire hydrants. But by 2010, after the economy crashed, one partner had sued the other, and by 2011 the airstrip was “in disrepair and deteriorating” because the developers had defaulted on their loan, county documents say.

Lenders foreclosed on the project site in 2011. Turnbull and his wife, Joan, bought it in 2015 for $400,000. Their holdings include a portion of the airstrip, the rest of which is owned by the federal government.

Asked if he could design the airpark to his liking, Daniels said he would want traditional airport facilities such as hangars, flight training and fuel service, with a cluster of companies that work in small-aircraft aviation.

“That’s important for an airport,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s just a chunk of dirt.”

April 4, 2017

Feinstein fumes as Trump team waives environmental review for Mojave water project

Scott Slater, CEO of the Cadiz water project, stands near a basin at the project site near Needles, California, Slater and Cadiz have recently gotten a big boost by a Trump administration decision that relieves the project of a federal environmental review requirement. (Noaki Schwartz AP)

Sacramento Bee

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration has handed a big boost to a private water venture in Southern California, angering California’s senior senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who said the decision could “destroy pristine public land” in the Mojave Desert.

In a little-noticed memorandum issued last month, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management effectively relieved the Cadiz water project of the requirement to undergo a federal environmental review, which the company had sought to avoid. The decision greatly boosts the prospects for Cadiz, which wants to tap water from under the Mojave and sell it to thirsty water districts in Southern California.

“The detrimental impact this project would have on the California desert is irreversible,” Feinstein said in a statement. “Rather than allow a proper environmental review, the Trump administration wants to open the door for a private company to exploit a natural desert aquifer and destroy pristine public land purely for profit.”

Cadiz responded that its project has undergone multiple environmental reviews, including a California Environmental Quality Act review that survived court challenges.

Feinstein’s “opposition has done a disservice to thousands of Californians who will benefit from this public-private partnership – a project which will deliver new, reliable water without any adverse environmental impacts,” Cadiz CEO Scott Slater said in a statement.

As noted in a Feb. 8 story by McClatchy, Cadiz has seen its fortunes rise since Trump was elected. Its stock price has more than doubled since Trump’s victory, apparently because investors believe the venture will fare better now than it did when Barack Obama was in office. Slater, the company’s CEO, is a water lawyer affiliated with the Denver-based firm Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, Schreck, an influential lobbying force in Washington.

One remaining hurdle for Cadiz is building a 43-mile pipeline necessary for shipping its water to potential customers. Prior to 2015, Cadiz assumed it could use an existing railroad right-of-way for the pipeline and do so without a costly and time-consuming federal review. Yet two years ago, the California office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management reversed a 2009 determination and required Cadiz to seek a permit to build the pipeline.

Over the last two years, Cadiz has been lobbying Congress to overturn the BLM decision and pass legislation that would relieve it and other companies of permitting requirements on railroad right of ways. On March 1, two California lawmakers – Democrat Tony Cardenas and Republican Tom McClintock – joined 16 other congressional representatives in a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, asking him to rescind the BLM decision and relieve the project of a federal review.

In a March 29 memorandum, Zinke’s Interior Department did just that, rescinding the 2015 decision signed by Timothy Spisak, acting assistant director for BLM’s Division of Energy, Minerals, and Realty Management.

Feinstein is the author of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, which established the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and the Mojave National Preserve. She has long opposed Cadiz, which has struggled for 15 years to get traction on different versions of its water project.

Feinstein points to analyses by the National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey to argue that Cadiz would withdraw more water – 50,000 acre feet each year – than nature could provide to recharge the desert aquifer.

“The Trump administration has once again put corporate profits ahead of the public’s interest,” Feinstein said in her statement. “In a blatant attempt to muscle the Cadiz water project through, the administration is completely undermining federal oversight of railroad rights-of-way.”

Cadiz rejects those claims, asserting that more recent analyzes have found that the company’s proposed groundwater withdrawals pose no threat to the desert’s flora and faunta.

“Senator Feinstein regrettably relies on outdated, 17-year old data inconsistent with presently known facts as foundation to oppose a project which will safely and sustainably create new water for 400,000 people, has broad bipartisan community support, will generate 5,900 new jobs, and will drive nearly $1 billion in economic growth,” Slater said late Tuesday.

Feinstein, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, has used her position before to block Cadiz and other developments she has deemed detrimental to the Mojave Desert. Whether she can again is not clear, but she pledged Tuesday to “fight this latest effort to push the Cadiz water project through.”

Trump administration boosts huge Mojave Desert water-pumping project

Environmentalists say the Cadiz project would rob the desert of the water that plants and wildlife need to survive.

A pumping station designed to help Cadiz project researchers understand how quickly water seeps into the earth is shown in this June 2015 file photo. (JOSHUA SUDOCK, STAFF FILE PHOTO)

Riverside Press-Enterprise

The Trump administration has removed a major roadblock to plans by a Santa Monica company to pump ancient groundwater from below the Mojave Desert and sell it to urban areas of Southern California.

The federal Bureau of Land Management has rescinded a 2015 administrative finding that Cadiz, Inc. needed to obtain a federal right of way permit and thus had to complete comprehensive environmental studies before it could build a water pipeline within 43 miles of railroad right of way owned by the Arizona & California Railroad.

The move follows a January decision by the Trump transition team to put Cadiz on a list of priority infrastructure projects, and a state appellate court’s rejection last year of a lawsuit filed by environmental groups challenging the project.

The $225 million Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project still needs approval from the powerful Metropolitan Water District to use the Colorado River Aqueduct to ferry the water to urban Southern California.

Cadiz company officials said in statement that they are pleased with the Trump administration’s decision. The statement said they have always believed “the BLM’s 2015 evaluation was contrary to law and policy.”

In 2008, Cadiz entered into a lease agreement with the railroad company to build a pipeline in between the wells it owns in the Mojave Desert area, west of Needles and south of Interstate 40, to the Colorado River, using the railroad’s right of way over federal land.

From the river area, the water could be ferried to urban Southern California using the aqueduct and reservoir system operated by the Metropolitan Water District.

“Our discussions are continuing about what would be required before they can put water in the Colorado River Aqueduct,” said water district spokesman Bob Muir.

In 2002, the water district’s board voted down an earlier version of the Cadiz project that also needed to use the aqueduct.
The project is staunchly opposed by environmental and desert advocates, who say it would rob the desert of the water that plants and wildlife need to survive.

“Many of the springs and seeps are going to dry up because of groundwater extraction,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

She is particularly concerned that the pumping would harm the Mojave National Preserve and recently created Mojave Trails National Preserve [sic].

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement that the new administration was muscling through the project without proper reviews. Feinstein is an ardent desert supporter who authored the California Desert Protection Act that created the preserve and other protections more than 20 years ago.

“The Trump administration wants to open the door for a private company to exploit a natural desert aquifer and destroy pristine public land purely for profit,” her statement said.

“The administration is completely undermining federal oversight of railroad rights-of-way. “

April 3, 2017

Long-Living Tortoises Roam Protected Portion of Mojave Desert

Desert tortoise
By Renee Eng
Spectrum News

CALIFORNIA CITY, Calif. — In the Mojave Desert, it’s not uncommon to see rabbits or even rattlesnakes slithering around but one reptile that’s harder to spot is the desert tortoise. But it turns out there are plenty of them in a protected area just an hour north of Palmdale, outside of California City. It’s called the Desert Tortoise Natural Area.


“They are a long-lived species,” explained Jillian Estrada, preserve manager and conservation coordinator for the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee.

“They can live more than 100 years in captivity. We actually see several tortoises out here that were initially tagged in the early 70s as part of a long-term study.”

We spotted one male tortoise that Estrada estimates is at least 40 to 50 years old. Her work with the DTPC focuses on protecting the long-lived reptile in the natural area.

“It’s about 39.5 square miles so just over 250,000 acres,” said Estrada.

The property was set up in the 1970s with the Bureau of Land Management and is filled with about 1,000 tortoises.

“They have inhabited the Mojave Desert for millions of years,” described Estrada. “They have been part of this ecosystem. They are specially adapted to survive here.”

But their survival is threatened by human settlements and a raven population that’s grown by 1500 percent over the last 30 years.

“They’re generalists, they’ll eat anything,” said Estrada. “They eat baby tortoises, adult tortoises, baby birds. They will eat lizards.”

A generous appetite threatening baby tortoises that don’t have a fully formed hard shell. It can be easy for predators, especially ravens, to peck through their brittle shells.

“As the mortality rate of juveniles has increased, in large part due to raven predation, we’re not seeing as many females surviving to reproductive age,” said Estrada.

The reproductive age for female tortoises is about 15 years old. However, the raven threat remains as those birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Act.

Tortoises that do survive, visitors can spot in the protected area but they cannot touch them. The animal – which is California’s state reptile – is protected at both the state and federal level.

Desert tortoises also hide out for about half the year.

“From late fall to early spring, about five to six months out of the year these guys are hibernating, which for these guys is called brumation,” said Estrada

When they’re not brumating, tortoises will dig shallow burrows, coming out to look for food. Visitors can learn more about their habits at an interpretive kiosk or explore four guided trails that total about 3.5 miles.

There’s also a full-time naturalist on-site from the middle of March to early-June to lead hikes and teach visitors about these gentle creatures.

The Desert Tortoise Natural Area is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is free to the public.

April 1, 2017

Got $5 million? You could own this sustainable "ghost town" in the Mojave Desert

In the Mojave Desert town of Nipton, the spirit of Western frontier has transformed a forgotten outpost into a self-sustaining ecotopia where the dream lives on.

Historic Hotel Nipton bed and breakfast.
By Dashka Slater
Sunset Magazine

One rule of Nipton living is that you never try to outshout the train. The noise might not seem so deafening closer to civilization, but in this Mojave Desert town, 60 miles south of Las Vegas, silence holds dominion. On my first visit there last year, I sat for a long while and heard nothing at all—no car, no airplane, no leaf blower, no barking dog, not a single human voice. The vast wordless desert surrounded me in all directions.

I’d arrived on a weekday, my rental car pinged by a shower of pebbles and grit as I motored down Nipton Road, which runs between Interstate 15 and the town of Searchlight, Nevada. Nipton was the only stop for miles, its existence marked by a wagon-mounted sandwich board that read:


There were no people roaming the sidewalks because there were no sidewalks—or people, for that matter. A faded settlement of about 20 permanent residents, the town consisted of an assortment of structures, some solid and occupied, some as vacant and splintered as an Old West movie set. Gamers might know Nipton for its cameo in Xbox 360’s Fallout: New Vegas, where it played a post-apocalyptic wasteland infested by giant mantises. But otherwise it was your typical drive-through desert community, fixed at the crossroads of Nowhere Special and Wherever You Were Going. There was one notable exception: Nipton, and everything in it, was for sale.

Two weeks earlier I’d telephoned the town’s owner, an 83-year-old former gold miner named Gerald Freeman, known to everyone as Jerry. He purchased Nipton’s 80 acres in 1984, then spent the next 30 years slowly turning it into a desert ecotopia, where he did everything from plant trees to convert to biofuel to erect an 80-kilowatt solar plant that pumps the town with nearly half its power.

A future buyer with enough cash and the right sense of mission would get the deed to the whole thing—a town, yes, but also Jerry’s vision. “Nipton was where I realized my dream,” he told me. But time was running out. When we spoke, he’d just spent four months in the hospital with congestive heart and renal failures, and he was still getting his nutrition from a feeding tube. He was looking for someone to continue his work. Before we hung up, he invited me to Nipton, to come see his sustainable community up close.

And so there I was, standing outside the whitewashed adobe Hotel Nipton, gazing out at the knuckly brown mountains of the Ivanpah Range and imagining what it would be like to have your own little kingdom. Just as I was turning the thought over in my mind the first freight train came rumbling through, followed by a violent blast of horns and chiming bells. For 20 minutes the cacophony lasted. I wanted to remark on it, but it was too loud, and besides, there was no one around to hear me.

Jerry might own Nipton, but the day-to-day running of the place usually falls to Jim Eslinger. A former long-haul trucker with a drooping mustache and a bowie knife strapped to his hip, Eslinger serves as caretaker and hotelier of Hotel Nipton.

At the height of the season, the hotel receives a steady influx of desert ramblers and foreign tourists anxious for a whiff of the authentic Old West. But the day I was there, the only other visitors were a couple from Las Vegas on an overnight with their teenage niece. Eslinger made a bonfire behind the hotel. The blaze was huge, fed by an enormous tree stump and several sheets of plywood. Sparks flew up in great blizzards, hissing and crackling. The niece, already in her pajamas, watched it for a few minutes, then turned back inside in search of a Wi-Fi signal.

Eslinger had wandered through town eight years ago and never left. “I can’t even imagine living in a city now,” he said. “I’d rather put a bullet in my head and call it a day.” His needs were meager, but when our conversation turned to the latest Powerball mania sweeping the nation, he confessed a longing for the winning ticket.

“I’d buy Nipton,” he said flatly, throwing more combustibles on the fire. “And I wouldn’t change a thing.”

I was at the hotel lobby early the next morning, waiting for Jerry to arrive. These days, he and his wife, Roxanne Lang, spend most of their time in their home in Henderson, Nevada, about an hour away, because of his health. I thumbed through the scrapbooks stacked in the sitting area, each one stuffed with yellowed newspaper clippings: “Owner of historic Nipton thinking big.” “Nipton developer has big plans.” “Nipton is his personal fiefdom.”

When Jerry arrived, he was pushing a wheeled walker, and despite obvious signs of declining health, he retained a quality of robust vitality. He wore a leather vest and sunglasses, and he had the same rough-hewn features of the man in the photographs from 30 years ago. He settled into a bentwood chair on the hotel’s wraparound porch and attached an oxygen tube to his nose, so that his breath didn't run out before his thoughts did.

Jerry was born in Hollywood in 1933 to a Russian Jewish family. He graduated from Caltech with a degree in geology and eventually founded a mineral exploration company. After some success, he invested in several gold mines in the Ivanpah Valley, but already he was looking for his next project.

And there was Nipton, just down the road from his mines—and it was for sale. The way Jerry saw it, the tiny outpost had everything you needed to build a self-sustaining community, including access to the sweet waters of the Pleistocene- era lake below its surface. He bought it for $200,000.

At first, Jerry wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with the town. He originally envisioned Nipton as an artists’ colony, while his wife pitched the town as a movie location (a few films, including Breakdown, with Kurt Russell, were shot there). Neither idea bore much fruit. But soon the newly remodeled hotel filled up with desert pilgrims, and the trading post—stocked today with guidebooks, dry goods, and local crafts—brought in a steady income. Jerry tried to open a gas station but found it too expensive. He conceived a barbecue business, but that took too much time. So he constructed a greenhouse from which to sell potted poplars and Christmas trees, but there was little demand. Then, certain that a new gold rush was about to strike the Ivanpah Valley, he spent $50,000 building an assay house and convinced a mining company to locate its office there.

But the dream was larger than any one venture. It was as old as the West and as human as the first Homo sapiens who trekked across the Bab el Mandeb strait in search of a new home. It was the dream of starting over and of forging a new and simpler path. “We’ve got all the resources we need to do that,” Jerry told me. “We’ve got the water, we’ve got the sunshine that gives us the power. We have the ability to grow things and to build structures from the natural materials around us.”

“After considering Freeman’s enthusiastic boosterism for a couple of hours, a listener comes away with one of two impressions,” a reporter for the San Bernadino County Sun observed in 1986. “Either this guy has really done his homework and Nipton’s development is a venture of genius. Or, he’s gotten too much sun.”

In 1991, Jerry struck gold once again. The Nipton Trading Post was granted approval to sell tickets for the California State Lottery, making it one of the closest retailers to Las Vegas. (Nevada has no state lottery.) For a while it was the highest-volume lottery-ticket retailer in California, and even today it remains one of Nipton’s most important sources of income.

The previous afternoon I’d strolled into the trading post, where two Buddhist monks in saffron robes were filling out their tickets. One was tall and thick, the other as tiny as a 10-year-old. They didn’t speak much English, so our conversation consisted mostly of the word “lucky,” passed back and forth with various inflections. The big monk had recently won $1,700, which he used to purchase a new iPhone. He held the gadget out for me to admire: “Lucky!”

Once the lotto took off, so too did Jerry’s vision for a sustainable community. First he added a cluster of tented eco-cabins, outfitted with platform beds and wood-burning stoves. Popular with today’s 30-something crowd, the cabins were based on a design by Frank Lloyd Wright. Then, in 2010, he assembled a solar plant, which produces 40 percent of the town’s power. It sits on the outskirts behind a barbed wire fence, its rows of reflecting harvesters mirroring the sun as it moves across the sky.

Jerry’s next step, he said, was to build a hydrogen system in order to store clean energy. He described a visit he recently had from Phil Hawes, the architect for the Biosphere 2 project, who spoke to him about using Nipton as a kind of hands-on sustainable-design classroom for San Francisco Institute of Architecture students. (When I spoke to Hawes, he sounded downright Jerryesque, conjuring visions of Nipton as a self-supporting Eco Village of 2,000 souls.)

But all of these notions depended on the right kind of buyer stepping forward. Someone who saw Nipton as Jerry did. Someone to keep the dream alive. “I’d like to move forward in the direction I’m going,” Jerry said. “That heritage, that legacy, that thrust that began with the first settlers.”

The setting sun had painted the desert pink. The mountains solidified into silhouettes, hoarding the evening shadows. It was time for Jerry to head back to Henderson. Eslinger walked him to his car.

“Thanks for taking care of Nipton,” Jerry said, his eyes misty. Then he and Roxanne drove off toward the train tracks and disappeared over the horizon.

A few months later, I called him at his home in Henderson. He’d come down with a bout of pneumonia not long after my visit, and his voice was faint, with long pauses as he gathered air into his lungs. While his dream buyer had yet to materialize, he had found new operators for the cafe and was hiring a property management company to help run Nipton. A few new residents had moved to town, and he was in talks with someone who wanted to install a solar observatory. He was heartened by these signs of interest, he said, his voice growing stronger. They told him he was on the right path, and he planned to stick around long enough to see where that path would lead. “We’ll see what happens,” he said. “Life has so many crazy twists and turns, you hardly know what’s going to happen from one day to the next.”

Then last October, I got an email from Roxanne. It was brief without being terse: Jerry had died in her arms a few days earlier. He was buried at a cemetery in the Mojave Desert. The town of Nipton is still for sale.

March 28, 2017

When the Desert Blooms

Anza Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California (iStock)

James MacDonald

The California desert is awash in color. Following a winter of exceptional rain, desert wildflowers have bloomed en masse, carpeting the normally drab landscape with a riot of bright blues, yellows, and reds. The rare phenomenon has drawn delighted tourists from around the world (some of whom, unprepared for the heat, are passing out). The event is dubbed a “super bloom.”

What causes a super bloom? The short answer is evolution. The desert is a tough environment for a plant. Accordingly, desert plants have evolved a variety of ways to cope with heat and dryness, such as thick succulent leaves which can store water (e.g. cactus) and a special form of photosynthesis where gas exchange occurs at night to prevent water loss (also cactus).

Desert wildflowers are mostly annuals, which grow, live, produce seed, and die over the course of one year. If an annual plant is going to grow, it needs to be certain that it will be able to complete a life cycle and produce seed, or else its ability to pass on its genome—its fitness—is compromised. To make sure that it can find the right conditions for optimal growth, a desert annual seed can lie dormant for years, even decades. There is a compound in the seed coat that inhibits growth. The seed cannot germinate until the seed has been exposed to sufficient rainfall to leach the growth inhibitor out of the seed. Prime conditions for one seed will work for others, so when the right conditions come along lots of plants take advantage at once.

What counts as enough rain to really get those seeds germinating depends on temperature. In hotter deserts, more rain is required since evaporation occurs; under cooler conditions, less precipitation is necessary since evaporation is reduced. Basically, water use by plants is more efficient when it isn’t so hot. Conditions for a “good wildflower year” occur roughly every 5 to 7 years. This time frame corresponds roughly to ENSO (e.g. El Niño) years, when wetter conditions come to California. Exceptionally good years come maybe once a decade.

Since the conditions for a super bloom are local, a boom year in one area may be a dud in another. This year’s bloom is localized in Southern California, and is not connected to ENSO; these conditions are truly exceptional. Following years of punishing drought, dormant seeds were raring to go. At the same time, the tongue of moisture from the Pacific known as the Pineapple Express has caused exceptionally heavy rains and lower temperatures throughout large swaths of California. For a wildflower, the combination is like hitting the lottery. Even a brutal drought has a silver lining.

LADWP scrambling to prepare dusty Owens Valley for possible floods

Overflow from the Owens River creates a mirror pond near Bishop reflecting the snow-capped Sierras. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

by Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

Lone Pine, Calif. -- As snow continued to fall on the eastern Sierra Nevada on Monday, platoons of earth movers, cranes and utility trucks fanned out across the Owens Valley, scrambling to empty reservoirs and clean out a lattice-work of ditches and pipelines in a frantic effort to protect the key source of Los Angeles’ water.

With snowpack levels at 241% of normal, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti a week ago issued an emergency declaration allowing the Department of Water and Power to take immediate steps to shore up the aqueduct and its $1-billion dust-control project on dry Owens Lake, which L.A. drained to slake its thirst in the last century.

DWP activities have always elicited concern in the Owens Valley, given the history of a water war that began when Los Angeles agents posed as ranchers and farmers to buy land and water rights in the area. Their goal was to build the aqueduct system to meet the needs of the growing metropolis 200 miles to the south.

The stealth used to obtain the region’s land and water rights became grist for books and movies that portrayed the dark underbelly of Los Angeles’ formative years, and inspired deep-seated suspicions about the city’s motives that linger to this day.

Officials insist that the current emergency poses a real threat not just to urban Los Angeles’ residents, but to the ranchers, farmers, outdoor enthusiasts and small-business owners living in the sage-scented high desert gap between the fang-like peaks, some taller than 14,000 feet, of the Sierra Nevada to west and the White and Inyo ranges to the east.

“Conditions of extreme peril” threaten residents and ecosystems, Garcetti said. The 1 million acre-feet of water expected to flow through the century-old aqueduct system this spring and summer could possibly overflow the web of concrete channels, spilling into fields, homes and businesses.

The danger of destructive flooding and the utility’s responses to it are raising tensions between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley towns along a 110-mile stretch of U.S. 395 in a rural region defined by water wars since the early 1900s.

The crews swarming the valley are focused on protecting DWP infrastructure and U.S. 395, the principle route between Southern California and eastern resort areas, leaving some townsfolk fretting they are being overlooked.

The emergency is already taking toll on the tourism industry in a stunning landscape of snow-capped peaks, cascading streams, dormant volcanoes, small towns and sage plains dotted with irrigated pastures — most of them leased from the DWP.

The Bishop Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, for example, was forced to cancel the 50th annual Blake Jones Trout Derby scheduled for March 11 after the DWP rescinded its permission to hold the event because of dangerously high waters spilling over the banks of the Owens River, just north of town.

“Losing the derby was a $300,000 hit to the local economy,” said Tawni Thompson, director of the chamber. “We’ll never know how many vacationers decided not to come through Bishop because they were scared of dying in a flood.”

“I’m going to declare a state of emergency,” she added, “if our tourism industry goes down the toilet.”

Bernadette Johnson, superintendent of the Manzanar National Historic Site on U.S. 395, has been getting nowhere with requests for additional flood control measures along streams on DWP land just outside the boundaries of the location that was a Japanese American internment camp during World War II.

“We were hit by destructive flooding earlier this year, and in 2013 and 2014,” Johnson said. “But the DWP is saying that when all hell breaks loose they won’t have enough resources and manpower to help us. We have to wonder about their priorities.”

In long legal battles spanning decades, the DWP was eventually forced to give up significant amounts of water to steady water levels in Mono Lake, re-water parts of dry Owens Lake to help prevent dust storms and restore a 62-mile stretch of the Lower Owens River.

Many residents suspect that the DWP plans to use emergency declarations to bypass rules and regulations that have prevented it in the past from constructing paved roads, for example, on Owens Lake, which is owned by the State Lands Commission.

Richard Harasick, head of the DWP’s water system, dismissed that notion: “The department is not using this emergency declaration to take some sort of advantage or build special projects that would otherwise have to go through the normal regulatory process.”

“It is as much to help us manage the anticipated floodwaters as to aid in public safety,” he said. “It allows us to get goods, services and contracts faster, from heavy equipment to riprap needed to shore up banks and channels.”

This week, Inyo, Kern and Mono counties were expected to issue their own emergency declarations, making them eligible for state and federal assistance in the event of flooding.

“My proclamation will ask for critical resources,” Inyo County Administrator Kevin Carunchio said. “In the meantime, I want every DWP facility, ditch, diversion bypass, canal and conveyance structure available and operating as soon as possible.”

The region has a history of destructive floodwaters rushing off the High Sierra.

In August 1989, for example, cloudbursts driven by 60-mph winds gouged out the underpinnings of the aqueduct near Cartago and closed a 63-mile stretch of U.S. 395.

Jon Klusmire, administrator of the Eastern California Museum in Independence, isn’t taking any chances with the little institution located along a usually docile creek.

“I’ve devised a survival strategy for a worst-case scenario,” he said. “I’m going to jam some boards in a nearby DWP diversion gate, then dig a ditch to divert the water away from the museum and into the streets.”

The big question for Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, tribal historic preservation officer for the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation, is this: “How could it be that Los Angeles never developed a plan B in a place where massive snowpack and destructive flooding go with the terrain?”

Standing on a berm overlooking on the plots of vegetation, gravel and shallow flooding the DWP has constructed across 50 square miles of dry lake bed over the past 20 years, Bancroft said, “They’ve reduced dust pollution here by 96% with these projects, and they’re all going to be underwater soon.

“Honestly, I’m looking forward to seeing this lake filled up again, like it is supposed to be,” she said.

That vista will be short-lived. The runoff is expected to evaporate within 12 to 18 months, leaving behind an already existing repair job for dust abatement and system improvements expected to cost up to $500 million, officials said.

The rebuilding effort will be done in cooperation with state and federal regulatory agencies, local authorities and stakeholders, the State Lands Commission, which owns the lake bed, and the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, which is responsible for protecting the health of Owens Valley residents.

“When we’re done, it’ll be something different than what exists today,” Harasick said. “That’s because we plan to make it more flood-resilient.”

March 24, 2017

Ecologist Steps in to Lead Mojave Desert Research, Education Center

Darren R. Sandquist is the new
Desert Studies Consortium director.

CSUF News Service

For over 25 years, ecologist Darren R. Sandquist, professor of biological science, has taken countless treks to California's arid regions to study plant ecology and teach his students about the rare and threatened plant and animal species, as well as the importance of conservation.

"I love seeing others discover how amazing deserts are," said Sandquist, who studies how desert plants manage to grow, survive and reproduce in an environment with so little water.

Now in his new role as director of the California State University's California Desert Studies Consortium (CDSC), Sandquist is taking steps to advance cross-disciplinary research, education and training to better understand desert ecosystems.

The consortium of seven Southern California CSU campuses operates the Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx, located within the Mojave National Preserve, a federally protected area about 60 miles northeast of Barstow. CSUF serves as the host campus, providing administrative oversight of the desert field station. In its 40th year of operation, the Desert Studies Center attracts more than 2,300 visitors a year, including students, faculty members and other research scientists from across the globe.

Sandquist became consortium director last fall when longtime director William "Bill" Presch, professor emeritus of biological science, stepped down after serving in the post for 24 years.

What is your new role?
The consortium promotes research, education and outreach related to our California deserts. As director, I oversee consortium programs and operations of the center. This includes developing student academic skills and public awareness through instruction, research and special projects and programs — in and out of the classroom.

Why did you want the job?
I applied for the position because I'm a great believer in the consortium's mission and field-based education. Having used the center since I arrived at CSUF in 1999, I believe it is an irreplaceable resource for both education and research, and I want to help increase the visibility and appreciation of both the consortium and center.

What has been the most rewarding so far?
Two things: The passion for the center expressed by our users — ranging from CSUF students who have visited multiple times to first-time visitors from as far away as the United Kingdom. The place can be infectious. What I always look forward to most is being at the center when students are there and seeing them discover and learn, and maybe even get hooked on desert research. We’ve also received tremendous support from practically every level at CSUF, and I really appreciate that commitment.

What is your vision for the center?
I can’t stop thinking of things I’d like to see us accomplish. One of the main emphases right now is to increase our role in desert research. Research meets many important educational objectives, in addition to providing evidence-based information for decision-making and prudent management of desert ecosystems. I also want to provide greater opportunity for underrepresented students in STEM disciplines to both participate in academic field experiences and engage in field research.

I also look forward to building stronger relationships with our partner universities and with the Mojave National Preserve. Collectively, we have a tremendous amount of expertise in desert systems — and the consortium should be instrumental in mobilizing that expertise to help address the current and rising challenges faced by the wild and human residents of these arid environments.

March 5, 2017

BLM stops efforts to restore desert water sources

Jim Matthews
By Jim Matthews
Hesperia Star

Water for Wildlife, a desert conservation organization that restores water sources in the Mojave Desert for wildlife, has been stopped from doing its work for the second time two years. This past week, the Needles office of the Bureau of Land Management refused to allow the group to conduct its March and April projects on guzzlers in the Clark and Kingston mountains region northeast of Baker.

The group was also stopped from restoring guzzlers on the Mojave National Preserve late in 2015, pending a determination from the National Park Service that work could continue. There has been no determination, yet, from the NPS and no word on the progress of the analysis.

The most recent stoppage of this work came Wednesday this past week in a letter from Daniel Vaught, assistant field manager in Needles for the BLM. Vaught wrote that "our archaeologist has recently expressed concerns regarding the cultural and historical resources and impacts involved in the small-game guzzler restoration."

Cliff McDonald, Water for Wildlife coordinator, said he asked for the letter after a meeting recently when he was told the group's work would need to cease until these concerns could be addressed.

In this meeting, McDonald said he asked why these concerns weren't made last year or the year before. The group has been restoring wildlife water sources for 11 years in the region. McDonald said Vaught had no answers, except to say that the current archaeologist, Chris Dalu, has been on the job for five years in Needles and was suddenly now concerned.

McDonald cancelled the March 16-19 project, and the April 6-9 project was tentatively cancelled, pending a another meeting with BLM this coming week.

McDonald said the BLM has not identified any "cultural and historical resources" on any of the sites where they have worked in the past, and that their efforts have all been done on locations that were developed in the 1950 and 60s in joint efforts between the BLM and Department of Fish and Wildlife. These "administrative sites" were disturbed historically, and the restoration efforts do not enlarge the footprint of the site. McDonald doesn't know why they are doing this now.

Safari Club International, already in the midst of a battle with the National Park Service over its refusal to allow guzzler and windmill restorations to continue on the Mojave National Preserve, immediately jumped in to assist in "this important work for wildlife."

In a letter to all members in the Orange County Chapter, Jim Dahl asked its member to write or call Vaught to remind him that for 11 years "Water for Wildlife has restored water drinkers... (and) have made significant investments and have a long history of restoring guzzlers."

Craig Stowers, the deer program coordinator with the state DFW, wrote to McDonald in an unofficial capacity to say, "it's not OK with DFW that this is going on. We have a significant investment there, too, and (have) a long history of working in this field.... It is a disturbing direction for them to go, and I'm at a loss to explain why this is suddenly an issue for them now."

Clark Blanchard, an assistant deputy director with the DFW in Sacramento, said the issue just popped up on the radar, but said — in an official capacity — that "the department is aware of the issue and is diligently working to find solutions in order to allow this work to continue."

Neither the BLM's Vaught nor Dalu were available for comment Friday.

Those are the facts as we know them now.

What we have is two federal land management agencies, adjacent to each other, fighting to stop volunteer wildlife water restoration efforts.

It is ironic for the Needles office of BLM to jump in bed with the National Park Service on this issue. After years of battling with the state DFW, the BLM has a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the DFW to even allow guzzler restoration in BLM wilderness areas, including the building of new water sources. Restoring existing sites is not even an issue any longer. Or it wasn't. But now we have some low-level bureaucrat suggesting restoring existing desert water sites is going to harm archeological resources? And he's saying this without a shred of data to support his claim.

The National Park's argument for stopping guzzler restoration was equally as specious and completely lacking in data (or even common sense):

In a nutshell, Todd Suess, the new superintendent of the Preserve, listed two reasons why guzzler water restoration was stopped. First, he wrote that guzzlers might be historical sites and we can't restore them until we determine if they are historical sites and then we can decide if they need to be restored or not. (It was that convoluted.) The caveat was that they didn't have anyone who could tell if they were historical sites or not, so we can't do anything. Second, he wrote that all guzzler water restoration had to stop until the Preserve-wide water management plan could be completed and implemented. That is like saying, you can't replace a sign or repair a campground restroom until the Preserve's entire facilities development plan is done. And of course, the water management plan is at least three or four years away from completion.

The "reasons" are both smokescreens to stop work that had been ongoing for nine years in the Preserve and 11 years on BLM land. Where was the concern before the work stoppage? Why are these specious administrative arguments, using obscure rules and regulations, being used now to stop important wildlife field work?

That's the question that needs to be asked.

Here's the answer: It's about hunting. I'm not the first person to point out that it all started when Todd Suess was named the new superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve. I'm sure Suess is a good guy, but it's pretty clear that he doesn't particularly like hunting and hunters. Maybe he's even neutral on hunting. But his friends and staff who don't like hunters know this guzzler and water restoration work is primarily being done by hunter conservationists. And they have his ear. If it's not him, then it's his staff and associates who are persuading this man to issue bad rules based on bad information that is anti-hunting, pure and simple. The decision are certainly not pro-wildlife, sound administration, or correct use of the regulations. It can only be a bias against hunting.