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.