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.

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.

March 2, 2017

Federal officials OK desert tortoise transfer

Marines wait for a desert tortoise - endangered and protected from harm or harassment by federal law - to move off the road during an operation at Marine Corps' Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif., on April 4, 2008. Federal authorities have approved a plan to move nearly 1,500 desert tortoises from the base. (REED SAXON/AP)

By David Danelski
The Press-Enterprise
San Bernardino Sun

Federal land management and defense officials have signed off on plans by the U.S Marine Corps to move as many as 1,500 desert tortoises from a Twentynine Palms military base in the coming weeks.

With the approvals, the largest tortoise relocation effort ever the Mojave Desert is on track to occur toward the end of this month or in April after the slumbering reptiles emerge from their underground burrows, where they spend the winter months.

The move, however, cannot occur before March 21, which is the deadline for anyone to appeal the approvals from the Navy and Bureau of Land Management, said Chris Otahal, a wildlife biologist for the BLM’s Barstow field office.

The move would clear about 88,000 acres of land in the Johnson Valley for expanded live ammunition training. Congress voted in 2013 to add this land to the west side of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.

The tortoises will be flown by helicopter to BLM lands mostly west and north of the Marine base.

The timing depends on the weather, but tortoises in the Mojave Desert usually leave their burrows by late March or early April so they can feast on wildflowers and other annual plants that are abundant after the winter rains.

Since the desert tortoises are listed as threatened with extinction, the Marines had to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which found earlier this year that the move would not jeopardize the survival of the species.

This winter’s wet weather makes conditions more favorable for the move, increasing the tortoises’ chances of survival, Otahal said.

There will be more plant life for the displaced tortoises to eat, reducing competition for food with the tortoises already living on the BLM land. Also there will be more rabbits and other animals for coyotes to eat, which will make those predators less interested in tortoises.

“It’s much better for the tortoises when we have more food resources,” Otahal said.

The Marines had planned to move the animals last spring, but the operation was delayed a year after the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal notice that argued that required environment analysis was lacking. The government then did more study, including assessing the impacts on wildlife on the BLM lands that will receive the displaced tortoises.

Ileene Anderson, a Los Angeles-based biologist for the center, said the move will be devastating to the species. The tortoises would lose some 136 square miles of quality habitat. What’s more, the displaced animals will move to BLM lands where species is in decline, she said.

“This is the largest translocation of tortoises in the Mojave Desert, and they’re moving them to areas where tortoises are dying off and we don’t know why,” Anderson said.

Super bloom looms in county desert

Desert Sunflowers are at the beginning to bloom at Anza-Borrego Desert. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

J. Harry Jones
San Diego Union-Tribune

Signs that a “super bloom” of wildflowers is about to hit Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are popping up across the desert floor about two hours east of San Diego.

Botanists, business leaders and visitors are already buzzing around the tiny town of Borrego Springs, where big changes are overtaking the typically stark landscape.

“It’s incredibly green,” said Kathy Dice, superintendent of the 900-square-mile park, which stretches from the Riverside County line to the Mexican border in eastern San Diego County. “That’s the thing all of us have noticed. I’ve never seen it so green.”

Campgrounds in the park are packed and hotels are encouraging people to book rooms now before they are all gone. At La Casa del Zorro Resort & Spa, even weekday reservations are between 80 and 90 percent full for the next three weeks, said Lynn Bowen in the resorts sales department.

Early blooming flowers include purple desert sand verbena, yellow desert sunflowers and white desert lilies, along with dozens, even hundreds of other species.

More than 5.5 inches of rain has fallen in the desert since mid December, almost as much as falls in the average year.

Botanist Jim Dice, the park superintendent’s husband, said such an explosion of color hasn’t been seen in the area in many years — and its beauty is likely to bring hordes of visitors.

“I think we’re probably a week or two away from the prime annual wildflower bloom,” Jim Dice said. “With plenty of sun this week and 80 degree temperatures, by Friday, Saturday and Sunday we could see a pretty massive bloom. We’re just seeing the very beginning of it right now.”

Early Tuesday morning Chris Baxter got out of her car at the Visitor’s Center, camera phone in hand. “Oh look, Annie! They’re getting ready to pop! They’re getting ready to bloom!”

Baxter and Annie Dennis are visiting from a far different climate.

“For us this feels so good,” Dennis said. “We’ve been stuck in frozen Detroit so this is perfect.”

An hour later, miles away at the mouth of Coyote Canyon, Lynda and John Friar of Pacific Palisades were busy taking photographs of a lone white desert lily that had bloomed amid many other budding plants .

“It’s beautiful this year,” Lynda Friar said. “We’ve never seen it like this.”

At the visitor center in Borrego Springs, a line was already forming by 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and the crush continued throughout the day.

“We’re already having a banner year,” said the town’s chamber of commerce Executive Director Linda Haddock. “You can’t get onto Palm Canyon (Road). It’s jammed with people. The restaurants have people out the doors.”

“It’s going to be a bloom that I’ve never seen before,” she added. “I keep hearing stories from years ago about carpets of purple and yellow flowers. I’m going to be like a big kid, too.”

Though difficult to gauge, Kathy Dice said roughly a half million people visit the park every year. She expects an additional quarter million could come in March alone.

The best places to see the vibrant foliage are constantly changing, so the park has a Wildflower Hotline — 760/767-4684 — to guide people to the best spots.

“The phones are ringing off the hook,” Kathy Dice said.

On Tuesday, the latest update said recent rain was “likely to extend the blooming period for many annuals, including the sunflowers along Henderson Canyon Road which are just beginning to bloom.

“Desert lilies are blooming in profusion in the Badlands including Arroyo Salado primitive camp on Highway S-22. Annuals and shrubs are beginning to bloom at the Visitor’s Center and should continue for a few weeks at least. Wildflowers are blooming at the north end of Di Giorgio Road, drivers of two-wheel drive vehicles should park at the end of the pavement and walk up the road or out onto the flats.”

Potential visitors are also encouraged to visit the Anza-Borrego Foundations website at www.theabf.org.

Jim Dice, the reserve manager of the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center run by the University of California, Irvine, said it’s been about nine years since a really good desert bloom and perhaps 20 years since a spectacular one.

“Just walking around the research center property the other day there are all sort of things I haven’t seen in the six years I’ve been there: Bigelow’s Monkey flower, Blazing Stars — all these annuals that haven’t been around or have been very, very rare recently.”

February 28, 2017

Bridge work to force extended road closure on Route 66 in Amboy

The East Mojave desert area is subject to extreme weather conditions including summer monsoonal moisture. Flash flooding can damage bridges causing periodic road closures. In August 2014 over 40 bridges along historic Route 66 in the desert region of San Bernardino County were damaged by flash flooding. (Department of Public Works)

Desert Dispatch

San Bernardino County Public Works will be constructing two new bridges and road improvements on National Trails Highway (Route 66) at Dola Ditch (2.08 miles east of Kelbaker Road) and Lanzit Ditch (2.77 miles east of Kelbaker Road), east of the community of Amboy. The construction will include removing the existing timber bridges and constructing new timber bridges.

A portion of National Trails Highway will be closed at all times to through traffic, including emergency vehicles. Traffic will be routed around the construction on public streets and highways. The detour plan includes using Interstate 40 and Kelbaker Road.

Local residents and businesses will have access from Essex Road west to the construction site, but there will be no traffic through the construction site. Construction of the project is tentatively scheduled to start on Monday and run through mid-September. This construction project was awarded to Cushman Construction Corporation of Goleta. The funding for this project is from the Federal Highway Bridge Program and locally funded gas tax.

This project is part of a master plan to replace several of the 127 bridges along the National Trails Highway corridor over the next several years. Engineering standards have changed since the bridges were originally constructed in the late 1920s, and with the modern traffic loading on these bridges, they have become structurally deficient and functionally obsolete.

Route 66, or National Trails Highway, is significant in American history as one of the earliest and most important highways linking the Midwest and California and was once characterized as "the road of opportunity."

The designation of Route 66 in 1926 signified the nation's growing commitment to improved transportation arteries and increased influence of the automobile on American lifestyles. Route 66 had a transformative effect on the American landscape through which it passed. This landscape continues to provide a visual narrative history of America's automobile culture of the 20th century and its legacy of related commerce and architecture.

At well in excess of 250 miles, San Bernardino County has the longest stretch of Historic Route 66 than any other county in the United States.

"Replacement of these two bridges is a giant step in the continued effort to preserve the historical bridges of Route 66 in San Bernardino County," said 1st District Supervisor Robert A. Lovingood, chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.

The Public Works website contains up-to-date information on National Trails Highway at http://cms.sbcounty.gov/dpw/Operations/Route66.aspx

February 27, 2017

Joshua trees meet very different fates in California, Arizona

The sun goes down on Joshua trees at Castle Mountains National Monument in eastern California on Feb. 1, 2016. Private land across not far from here was recently transfered to Mojave National Preserve in part to protect these iconic desert plants. (David Becker/Las Vegas Review-Journal)


It’s been an up-and-down month for Joshua trees in the region.

At Mojave National Preserve in California, thousands of the iconic desert plants recently won permanent federal protection, thanks to a land transfer that added 3,100 acres to the park 90 miles southwest of Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, in Mohave County, Arizona, a Las Vegas businessman is defending himself from allegations of a “Joshua tree massacre” on about 100 acres of private property he’s clearing for agricultural development.

Al Barbarich, who owns the land about 95 miles southeast of Las Vegas and hopes to establish a nut and fruit orchard there, said his permit to clear the land did not require him to save any of the Joshua trees. But he said he arranged to have about 100 of them dug up and replanted at homes, a school and other locations in the area — all at no cost to those who received the plants.

“We tried to do something nice for the neighbors and the community,” he said.

Some area residents didn’t see it that way. In online posts and a Feb. 12 story in the Kingman Daily Miner newspaper, the developer was accused of wholesale Joshua tree murder.

Barbarich acknowledged that some plants were destroyed as the land was cleared, though he couldn’t say how many. He said a lot of the Joshua trees shown piled up in the photos posted by his critics were older plants with little hope of being successfully transplanted.

The negative publicity is “unfortunate,” Barbarich said, because he felt like he was trying, at his own expense, to do the responsible thing. “We wanted to preserve the trees to the extent that people wanted them,” he said.


The additional Joshua trees now under the protection of Mojave National Preserve in California were also once subject to the whims of private development.

The plants are growing on what used to be scattered pockets of private land within the boundaries of the 1.6 million acre desert preserve. Over the past decade, the nonprofit Mojave Desert Land Trust has been buying up such “private in-holdings” and selling or donating them to the National Park Service.

The latest land transfer, completed earlier this month, involved 110 scattered parcels ranging in size from 5 to 320 acres.

Frazier Haney, conservation director for the trust, said most of the land is located in Lanfair Valley near the eastern edge of the preserve, an area “really rich in Joshua trees and Mojave yucca.”

Haney said the trust purchased the property from “a variety of willing sellers” over the past nine years. The group paid a total of $1.5 million for the land and received $1.4 million from the park service in return.

That money will be used to buy other private property within the preserve and other desert parks in California, Haney said.

“Scenic views, sensitive habitat and historic resources that might otherwise be lost are now protected in perpetuity for all to appreciate and enjoy,” Greg Gress, regional realty chief for the park service, said in a written statement.

Haney said private in-holdings are not governed by the same rules and protections as the surrounding park land. Gradually eliminating the patchwork of in-holdings simplifies management of the entire preserve, he said.


But Haney stressed that the trust isn’t trying to force private landowners off their property, some of which dates to the days of homesteading in the area roughly 100 years ago. “It’s strictly willing sellers,” he said.

Since it was founded in Joshua Tree, California, in 2007, the conservation group has donated more parcels of land to the park service than any other trust in the country, Haney said.

Mojave National Preserve has gained more than 30,000 acres — and countless Joshua trees — through the trust’s efforts.

Haney said more than 1,300 private parcels remain within the boundaries of the preserve, though, “so we’ve still got a ways to go.”

February 15, 2017

Nonprofit land trust turns over 3,000 acres to Mojave National Preserve

An entrance to Mojave National Preserve on Zzyzx Road near Baker, Calif. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Associated Press
Los Angeles Times

A nonprofit group has donated more than 3,000 acres of desert land to the Mojave National Preserve.

The Mojave Desert Land Trust announced Wednesday that it had handed over ecologically and historically significant land to the park. The 110 parcels already are surrounded by the national preserve. They include juniper and yucca stands and a century-old homestead site.

The trust has an ongoing program to buy up private land that survived within the boundaries of the Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park.

“Development of this private land can degrade neighboring park resources, impact public access and cause management problems for park staff,” a trust statement said.

Over the past decade, the trust has conveyed about 23,000 acres of land to the National Park Service.

“Our great desert parks are immeasurably enhanced” by the work, Greg Gress, regional realty chief for the National Park Service, said in a statement. “Scenic views, sensitive habit and historic resources that might otherwise be lost are now protected in perpetuity for all to appreciate and enjoy.”

February 8, 2017

California water venture tied to Trump sees prospects rise after years of setbacks

Sacramento Bee

WASHINGTON -- Until Donald Trump won the presidency, prospects looked bleak for Cadiz, a California company that has struggled for years to secure federal permits to transform Mojave Desert groundwater into liquid gold.

With the change of administration, a new day is dawning. In December, the National Governors Association circulated a preliminary list of infrastructure projects provided by the Trump transition team, and Cadiz’s was on the list. The company’s stock price rose on that news, part of a trend that has seen Cadiz’s valuation more than double – to roughly $14 a share – since the election.

Cadiz has worked hard to raise its profile among consultants compiling lists of possible infrastructure projects, says Scott Slater, CEO for the company.

But what has really helped Cadiz is its deep connections to Washington. Slater is part of a Denver law firm – Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, Schreck – whose attorneys have long lobbied the Interior Department, with some serving inside of it. One of those is Brownstein’s David Bernhardt, who served as Interior’s solicitor during George W. Bush’s presidency, helped Trump during the transition and is a candidate to return to Interior in a top job. He’s also been a lobbyist for the powerful Westlands Water District in California’s Central Valley.

In an interview, Slater said Cadiz still faced hurdles but the project’s future looked brighter than it did a few months ago. “The dynamics have changed,” said Slater, noting that Republicans now control the White House in addition to both houses of Congress.

Slater and his law firm have a lot riding on Cadiz’s success. According to an SEC filing last year, the Brownstein firm stands to earn 200,000 shares of Cadiz stock if the company meets milestones for completing the project and selling water. Brownstein has already earned 200,000 shares for its involvement with the company — a stock portfolio that is sure to appreciate in value if Cadiz can overcome permitting obstacles.

Numerous businesses are hoping to cash in on Trump’s interest in infrastructure. Two weeks ago, McClatchy was the first to report on a list of infrastructure projects that, according to the National Governors Association, the Trump transition team had given the group. Cadiz’s was one of two private California water projects on the list; the other was a desalination project south of Los Angeles.

While Trump is a supporter of traditional public works – touting the need for “new roads, highways, bridges, airports, tunnels and railways” during his inaugural address – fiscal hawks and some GOP leaders are leery of new federal funding for infrastructure. That political calculus has created openings for private infrastructure projects seeking regulatory relief, especially if they have connections. Cadiz’s project falls into both of those categories.

The brainchild of a British financier, Keith Brackpool, Cadiz is a publicly traded company with a stock price that has gyrated for a decade and a half. The company owns 45,000 acres in the Mojave Desert, where it hopes to extract water from an aquifer to sell to thirsty water districts in Southern California.

Fifteen years ago, the company’s stock price approached $200 a share, in part because Brackpool was close to then-Gov. Gray Davis of California, and investors apparently assumed that Cadiz had the political juice to make its project a reality. Yet Cadiz ran into opposition from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which started questioning the company’s financial resources, and also from environmentalists, who feared the project could further dry up the Mojave, a national preserve. By 2011, Cadiz’s stock price had dropped below $10.

That’s when Slater came aboard. An expert in California water law, he became president of Cadiz in 2011 and rose to become CEO two years later. Through Slater’s Brownstein firm and other firms, Cadiz also stepped up its advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill, spending $3.4 million in lobbying from 2011 to 2016, according to a tabulation by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Slater has helped the company win several legal victories. In 2016, California’s 4th District Court of Appeal upheld six lower-court decisions in favor of Cadiz, putting to rest further state court litigation against the company’s environmental impact report.

Yet the company remains blocked by an unexpected 2015 Interior Department decision. That year, the California office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, an Interior agency, reversed a 2009 determination that the Cadiz project needed no federal permits. Cadiz had long believed that it could use an existing railroad right of way to build a 43-mile pipeline to transfer its water to potential buyers, and do so without a federal permit.

The BLM ruling opened up the possibility of an uncertain multi-year federal review, frightening potential investors and sending the company’s stock price down to the $4 range.

Slater said in an interview that Cadiz was urging the new administration to rescind the BLM decision, “accelerating our path by removing some of the underbrush.” Cadiz also wants Congress to pass legislation to make clear its intent on how the BLM should handle decisions involving railroad rights of way. The issue is of concern to legislators outside of California, said Slater, because the 2015 BLM decision potentially could affect use of all railroad rights of way in the West.

Matt Lee-Ashley, a former Interior Department official, said that what Cadiz was doing was typical during a White House transition. “Anytime an administration turns over, anyone who had a project with an unfavorable ruling will try to make another run at it,” said Lee-Ashley, who worked in Interior during the Obama administration and now is public lands director at the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group.

Yet even though Cadiz has new friends in a Trump administration, it may not be enough to counter the company’s most formidable foe: U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who wrote the Desert Protection Act of 1994 and has long been the Mojave’s guardian. She has the ear of ranchers and conservationists who fear that Cadiz’s pumping project could damage the desert’s range lands and ecosystems.

Cadiz disputes those claims, arguing that it will be withdrawing only water – enough to supply 100,000 homes yearly – that would otherwise evaporate from lake beds in the desert. So far, however, Cadiz has been unable to win over California’s senior senator, who succeeded this year in persuading President Barack Obama to create three new national monuments in the Mojave, totaling more than 1.3 million acres.

Things could also get complicated if David Bernhardt, Slater’s colleague at the Brownstein firm, takes a top job at Interior. Brownstein’s 250 lawyers represent scores of clients, and the firm runs a political action committee that has given more than $513,000 to federal candidates and members of Congress since 2014.

According to a recent report in Energy and Environmental News, Bernhardt is a front-runner to serve as deputy to Ryan Zinke, a Montana congressman who is Trump’s interior secretary nominee.

Late last year, Bernhardt withdrew his registration as a lobbyist. If he moved back to Interior, Bernhardt would have to recuse himself from Interior issues involving his former clients, including Westlands.

But it’s less clear whether he’d have to recuse himself from matters involving other Brownstein clients, of which there are many. Attempts by McClatchy to obtain White House clarification were unsuccessful.

Also unclear is how Cadiz’s project ended up on a list of “emergency and national security priority projects” distributed to the National Governors Association and reported by McClatchy. Slater suspects that Cadiz rose on someone’s radar after he made several presentations at infrastructure conferences last year, including one hosted by CG/LA Infrastructure Inc., a national consulting firm. CG/LA is headed by Norman F. Anderson, an infrastructure expert who has ties to Dan Slane, a real estate developer from Ohio who has been helping the Trump administration with transition work.

Anderson couldn’t be reached for comment, but in a telephone interview on Tuesday, Slane said he had met with Cadiz’s CEO and thought it had a worthy project.

“That’s one where they just need some help from us on the permitting side,” said Slane, adding that he thought the Trump administration “could help with expediting permitting.”

February 3, 2017

Utah Legislature votes to shed Bears Ears monument designation

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — An indignant Utah Senate voted 22-6 Friday to urge the unraveling of the Bears Ears National Monument designation in San Juan County, bristling at the process used under the Antiquities Act and what they say was indifference to a majority of statewide sentiment.

Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, the Senate sponsor of HCR11, said if a monument designation had been made for the Bears Ears region via congressional legislation subsequently signed by the U.S. president, he wouldn't be arguing against the new monument.

"It's absolutely wrong," the Senate president said, asserting the legislative process was circumvented with one person's pen via presidential proclamation.

The 1.35 million-acre monument was created in late December by former President Barack Obama in the waning days of his administration and was largely seen as a poke in Utah's eye.

Obama was vacationing in Hawaii with his family over the holidays when the White House made the announcement on Dec. 28.

"I find it insulting that President Obama couldn't even interrupt his golfing in Hawaii" for the monument designation, said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

Democratic opponents to the resolution, which had already passed in the House and was signed Friday night by Gov. Gary Herbert, pointed to the failure of the Public Lands Initiative to gain any traction as the impetus for the monument's creation.

The massive public lands bill carried by Republican Utah Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz proposed land uses covering 18 million acres in eastern Utah, including the Bears Ears region.

Instead of a monument designation, however, the bill called for two national conservation areas in the Bears Ears area that would have still allowed for multiple uses in a less restrictive land management strategy.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said the proposal turned into a game of politics and was never a sincere attempt by Bishop or others in Utah's congressional delegation to answer Native Americans' concerns in the region.

"The process fell apart and got all political," Dabakis said, earlier emphasizing the anti-Bears Ears resolution as a "dumb bill."

Niederhauser, joined by other colleagues, defended the initiative and said the legislation, while a messy exercise in compromise, is the right way to protect land.

"You say the process broke down and it did not get through Congress. That is not an argument," Niederhauser said. "It is not supposed to be easy."

"Two wrongs don't make a right," emphasized Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.

But Senate Minority Whip Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said the majority of people in her district — the hunters, the campers and the anglers — support the Bears Ears monument.

Mayne added that the only "stream" in her district is a canal, and outdoor spaces are valued.

"We have no place to go," she said. "It's hard for us."

Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, the only Republican member of the Senate to vote against the resolution, said he had hoped for a compromise solution that stopped short of upending the entire designation.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, stressed that he supports monuments but said the rescission of the designation would allow parties to "reset the clock" and start a better process.

Friday's vote came after the Senate voted to suspend the rules and move the resolution to the front of the line. Its passage followed twin hearings before Senate committees on Thursday and passage in the House earlier this week in a fast-tracked process designed to deliver a strong message to the U.S. Department of the Interior and the White House.

Both HCR11 and a resolution to shrink the boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument were requested for consideration before the Legislature by Utah's congressional delegation, who will wave the document as a flag in the war on federal "overreach."

Pro-monument group Utah Dine Bikeyah board members are marching out their own paperwork with a letter to Interior Secretary nominee Ryan Zinke, imploring him to accompany them on a field trip to Bears Ears and attend a community meeting before making any decision.

"Grass-roots people who depend on this landscape every day would like the opportunity to explain why we have worked so hard and so long to create this first-ever Native American national monument that honors our history and points toward our future," the letter reads.

The organization invited Zinke to attend a Monument Valley community meeting and meet with tribal leaders to discuss the designation.

"We do not want any action that will change the boundary, deny the role of traditional knowledge, develop these lands, undermine local voices or disgrace our ancestors who still reside there. To truly appreciate what is at stake, you must see the landscape and you must hear the wisdom of elders for yourself," the letter states.

Utah Dine Bikeyah says it developed the monument proposal seven years ago at the request of local elders, and their input in the Public Lands Initiative process and other land management planning was either ignored or shut out.

Critics of the Native American tribal "movement" behind the Bears Ears campaign say that support was co-opted by environmental and conservation organizations that reasoned there was a better chance for a monument if it came gift wrapped with a distinct cultural bow.

Both sides in the monument debate claim support from local tribal members or grass-roots people.