San Joaquin Kit Fox Conservation and Monitoring Plan

San Joaquin Kit Fox and Monitoring Plan

Synopsis
The Topaz Solar Farm (TSF) Project (Project) is a 550 megawatt photovoltaic (PV) power facility proposed by Topaz Solar Farms LLC (Applicant) that would be constructed on approximately 3,500 acres of land in the northern California Valley area of the Carrizo Plain in San Luis Obispo County (Figure 1). A Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) is currently being prepared by San Luis Obispo County that includes two TSF Project layout options: Option A and Option B, and several alternatives, including Alternative 3B. In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is currently preparing a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that will evaluate Option A and Option B within two alternative study areas
Alternative 3B is a 3,500 acre environmentally superior alternative that is an alternative to the Option A layout, and is situated within the Option A Study Area. The total land area included in baseline studies conducted for this report includes the combined Option A and Option B Project Study Areas (together, referred to as Project Site) of approximately 10,000 acres (refer to Figure 2). This San Joaquin Kit Fox Conservation and Monitoring Plan (CMP) provides conservation measures that address effects to this federally listed species that may result from installation and operation of Alternative 3B.
The San Joaquin Kit Fox
The San Joaquin kit fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica) is a federally listed endangered and state listed threatened species that is known to inhabit the Project Site. Kit fox presence was verified by DNA analysis of fecal samples (scat) collected throughout the Project Site (Althouse and Meade 2010a, Smith 2010, Maldonado 2010). Kit fox presence was also assessed by direct observations of kit fox at active dens, remote camera capture of kit fox, and occurrence of active and inactive dens observed during transect surveys (Althouse and Meade, Inc. 2010a).
The Project Site is located near the Carrizo Plain National Monument core SJKF population, which is one of three core populations in California. All three core populations are geographically distinct, and together with about a dozen smaller satellite populations comprise the entire SJKF metapopulation. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recognizes that recovery of the SJKF requires simultaneous action on two tracks: 1) habitat protection and enhancement of core populations and movement corridors, and 2) continued research on population ecology and management strategies (USFWS 1998). The CMP proposes measures to meet both of these goals within and in the vicinity of the TSF Project by establishing prescribed management for kit fox on thousands of acres and conducting an innovative scat study of the kit fox population as part of the kit fox monitoring program (Section 6.4.13).
San Joaquin Kit Fox Conservation and Monitoring Plan 1 Topaz Solar Farm
Althouse and Meade, Inc.
Conservation Strategy

The TSF Project could potentially result in adverse effects to the SJKF and its habitat. To off-set the potentially adverse effects of the project on SJKF, the Applicant has worked with regional SJKF experts (the TSF Project Kit Fox Conservation Team) to develop a multi-level conservation strategy that consists of avoiding and minimizing Project effects on SJKF by utilizing SJKF friendly design features, implementing a SJKF protection plan during construction, installing on-site habitat enhancements, monitoring on-site kit fox, and protecting off-site SJKF habitat in perpetuity.
The multi-level conservation strategy protects kit fox during construction, provides movement corridors and porous boundaries to facilitate long-range dispersal and short- range movements through and around the TSF Project, and provides a safe haven for SJKF habitation within the TSF Project footprint. It also contemplates conservation of off-site lands to compensate for actual and potential loss of usable SJKF habitat. Some of these off-site lands provided for SJKF conservation may also meet conservation goals for other rare and endangered species, assuming the land is compatible for multiple species. A monitoring and research program to track SJKF use of the TSF Project described in this document will provide important information for management of SJKF on the TSF Project lands. This strategy is consistent with USFWS recovery goals for SJKF.
SJKF Design Features
Early in the planning process the Applicant decided to design a project to accommodate SJKF movement through, and habitation within, the TSF Project footprint. Consultation with the TSF Project Kit Fox Conservation Team confirmed that it would be possible to create a porous TSF Project design to achieve these goals. The TSF Project description in this document includes detailed information on fence design, kit fox passages, kit fox dens, predator exclusion, and movement corridors. These are considered Applicant Proposed Measures (APMs) in the TSF Project’s EIS being prepared during the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process and in the FEIR being prepared in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process.
SJKF Protection Plan
Since SJKF are known to occupy the Project Site, construction of the TSF Project potentially could result in take of kit fox. A thorough SJKF Protection Plan is provided within this document that outlines a phased pre-construction survey approach to identify areas of kit fox activity in proposed construction blocks to facilitate construction planning. Also included in the SJKF Protection Plan are details regarding setbacks from occupied dens, on-site biological monitoring, and an array of daily construction requirements to minimize the potential for take of SJKF.
San Joaquin Kit Fox Conservation and Monitoring Plan 2 Topaz Solar Farm
Althouse and Meade, Inc.
On-Site Habitat Enhancements
The passive nature of the TSF Project provides opportunity for SJKF to inhabit the solar array areas. To increase the potential for SJKF habitation of the TSF Project site, the TSF Project Kit Fox Conservation Team developed a suite of on-site habitat enhancement features designed to provide SJKF with a safe haven with natural vegetation, sufficient prey base, and a variety of permanent and artificial denning structures.
Off-Site Conservation
The TSF Project has an estimated operational period of 25 years or more. At the end of the operational period, it is possible that the Project would be repowered for an additional operational term. After the productive life of the TSF Project, the solar facility and associated infrastructure would be removed. During the operational period, the Applicant intends to facilitate habitation of SJKF within the Project’s fenced area, thereby reducing the potential negative effect of the TSF Project on SJKF. Nevertheless, the TSF Project could result in loss or degradation of SJKF habitat during the operational period. Conservation for potential loss or degradation of SJKF habitat would be achieved by off- site conservation easements or land purchases to protect in perpetuity suitable SJKF habitat in the Carrizo Plain core population region. Offsite conservation lands would be acquired in sufficient quantity and quality to fully compensate for habitat impacts resulting from the TSF Project installation.
Monitoring Plan
Monitoring of SJKF within the TSF Project would be conducted as part of the Project conditions of approval included with a Conditional Use Permit to be issued by the County of San Luis Obispo. Monitoring would be sufficient to track use of the solar array areas by kit fox and provide current information to TSF Project management so that kit fox dens could be avoided and animals protected.

Grazing Will Remain a Controversy on Carrizo Monument Under the New Plan

SLO Tribune: Finally, A Plan for the Carrizo
The plains monument has its first management guidelines, which will direct it for 20 years
By David Sneed | dsneed@thetribunenews.com

Nearly a decade after it was created, the Carrizo Plain National Monument has its first resource management plan.
The plan uses grazing as a management tool for helping rare plants and animals and provides additional protections for those parts of the monument that have wilderness qualities. The plan will determine how the monument is managed for the next 20 years.
Jim Abbott, the Bureau of Land Management’s state director, formally approved the plan Saturday at a celebration at the monument, which attracted more than 400 people. Many were drawn by one of the most spectacular wildflower displays seen at the monument in years.

Tucked into San Luis Obispo County’s southeast corner, the monument covers about 250,000 acres, 206,000 of which are managed by the BLM. Other organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy and the state Department of Fish and Game, own holdings within the monument and helped write the management plan.
“The plan is really a major achievement for the various parties,” said Scott Butterfield, Carrizo program manager for the Nature Conservancy. “It’s amazing that everyone has come together to recognize the importance of the place.”
The plan is generally being greeted with support. However, the issue of grazing continues to attract some controversy.
Historically, the monument was heavily grazed. Now, cattle along with prescribed fires and other tools are used to create a habitat that is beneficial to the many rare and endangered plants and animals that live there.
The starkly beautiful Carrizo Plain is often described as California’s Serengeti, because it contains the last remnants of the grasslands that once covered the Central Valley. It also contains Painted Rock, a significant Native American rock art site, and highly visible sections of the San Andreas Fault.
Many environmental groups have praised the management plan. These include the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club. They particularly like that the plan gives added protection to 60,000 acres where roads and motorized vehicle use is minimized.
Other groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity say the management plan is a good start, but they don’t want any grazing to be allowed. They contend that scientific evidence shows grazing is harmful to endangered species.
The monument was created in 2001 in the final days of the presidency of Bill Clinton. It has been managed using cooperative plans drawn up in the late 1900s.
The BLM began drafting a new resource management plan in 2003. That effort foundered because of controversies over grazing and oil drilling as well as the death of monument manager Marlene Braun in 2005. Efforts to write a management plan were restarted in 2007.
Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.

As this article points out, grazing will remain a controversy. There are no scientific studies that show that grazing is beneficial to the Plain. It was over this issue that Marlene Braun found herself locked in a struggle with her supervisor, Ron Huntsinger, and the top BLM California bureaucrats, Jim Abbott (now director of BLM California) and Mike Pool (appointed by the Obama administration as Deputy Director of Operations in DC).

****UPDATE****
Carrizo Plain Management Plan Unveiled
Thursday, April 22, 2010
by MATT KETTMANN

The long-awaited, first-ever management plan for the Carrizo Plain National Monument — a 200,000-plus-acre, grassland-covered landscape in southeastern San Luis Obispo County known as “California’s Serengeti” — was released earlier this month and prescribes wilderness protection for some areas while using livestock grazing on other spots to aid native plant and animals. While the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations applauded the plan, the Center for Biological Diversity decried the grazing, arguing that such practices harm species such as the rare kit fox and giant kangaroo rat. Those who’d like to visit the Carrizo while helping to improve the habitat for pronghorn antelope and tule elk should sign up for Los Padres ForestWatch’s fence removal weekend, May 1 and 2, by emailing info@lpfw.org.

Comments

The Sierra Club together with the Center for Biological Diversity, Los Padres ForestWatch and Western Watersheds Project all lodged protests about the proposed RMP see http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/mediali…
Cal and Letty French, (tel 239-7338 Prefer e-mail
lettyfrench@ gmail.com) from the Sierra club are also leading the next weekend on the CPNM.

John_Weatherman
April 22, 2010 at 3:40 p.m.

Carrizo Is Place of Togetherness: Chumash

Taft Midway Driller

Carrizo Plain: ‘This land has always brought people together’

By Doug Keeler
Taft Midway Driller
Posted Apr 15, 2010 @ 10:40 AM
Last update Apr 15, 2010 @ 12:39 PM
Taft, Calif. —

Carrizo Plain, the people who treasure it now, and the people who have treasured it for centuries met Saturday in a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the National Landscape Conservation System.

Its something that has been going on for a long, long time, as long as anyone can remember

“This land has always brought people together,” said Pilulaw Khus, an elder of the Bear Clan of the Coastal Chumash Nation.

The Carrizo’s natural beauty and human history provided the backdrop for the observance on a cool breezy day.

From Painted Rock, a sacred site to the Native Americans and a nesting area for rare raptors, to El Saucito Ranch, the first European settlement on the plain, and wildflower tours later in the day, it was a celebration of the land and its importance to those who know it.

Tributes were handed out to the public and private partners involved in the Carrizo, including the Bureau of Land Management, who manages the monument and works in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy and the California Department of Fish and Game, the Friends of Carrizo and others.

Among those honored was Ray Hatch of Taft.

Monument Manager Johna Hurl cited Hatch, which was unable to attend the events, for his work not only on the Friends of Carrizo Board and Carrizo Advisory County, but for helping promote the area through the Taft Chamber of Commerce.

“Taft was our first gateway city and Ray Hatch was instrumental in that,” Hurl said.

David Dennis, president of the Friends of Carrizo, was also singled out.

Dennis, a teacher at Taft Union High School, is also a Carrizo Plain resident.

Saturday’s celebration also marked the completion of the Carrizo Plain Management Plan. BLM officials in attendance included Hurl, Tim Smith, head of the Bakersfield BLM office; California Acting State Director Jim Abbot and Central California District Manager Kathy Hardy

Khus spoke of the relationship between the Chumash and the Carrizo through the centuries.

“This land, the Carrizo, is very important,” she told the gathering at El Saucito Ranch. “It has been since the beginning of time.”

For centuries, until European settlers settled it in the 19th century, it was a place where the Chumash and Native Americans of many nations gathered in the Carrizo, Khus said.

They came for sacred rites at sites like Painted Rock and for councils.

To this day, the Native Americans have an obligation, a sacred responsibility to the land and to the spirits.

“We have to take care of it,” Khus said. “No matter who else is here, we have to take care of it.”

But as the Europeans turned it into farmland, growing wheat, and grazing sheep and cattle, that task became difficult, she said.

Years of mistrust between the Native Americans and the settlers followed.

But the people of the BLM, Friends of Carrizo and others have helped build a new relationship, Khus told more than 100 people, many of the BLM employees and their families.

“People really care about this place,” Khus said. “They go way beyond their job to keep track of this place. We gave them a lot of trust and they returned the trust.”

Khus spoke from the porch of the El Saucito Ranch as the crowd sat under large cottonwood trees.

The program was held after a barbecue lunch that followed tours of Painted Rock

Just before the program started, a large white barn owl flew of the lawn.

Khus also paid tribute to former Carrizo Monument Manager Marlene Braun, who died in 2005.

“She loved this land more than her life,” Khus said. “She didn’t want to leave this land. I know there are still times when Marlene and her dogs still run this land because she loved it so much.”

The Carrizo Plain is a part of that system which was created a decade ago to provide an overarching guidance plan for the Bureau of Land Management’s 27 million acres of National Monuments, National Conservation Areas, Wilderness Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Scenic and Historic Trails, and Conservation Lands of the California Desert.

Carrizo Plain National Monument’s Plan Stiffs Conservation in Favor of Cattle

The actions of the Obama Administration on environmental matters is disappointing to say the least. Now, the Carrizo Plain National Monument has a plan, and The Wilderness Society published an article lauding the newly adopted plan and the protections it will give endangered species of flora and fauna. The Center for Biological Diversity gives the plan a more negative and mixed review.

Below is the Center for Biological Diversity’s press release.

For Immediate Release, April 9, 2010

Contact: Michael Connor, Western Watersheds Project, (818) 345-0425 (w); (818) 312-4496 (mobile); mjconnor@westernwatersheds.org
Ileene Anderson, (323) 654-5943 (w); (323) 490-0223 (mobile); ianderson@biologicaldiversity.org
Carrizo Plain National Monument’s Plan Comes Up Short for Conservation

SAN FRANCISCO— The Interior Department has put in place a 20-year plan for California’s Serengeti – the Carrizo Plain National Monument – that sacrifices rare wildlife habitat and native-plant preservation to entrenched livestock-grazing interests. Located in the western foothills of California’s San Joaquin Valley, the monument was created in 2001 to protect the visual splendor, cultural resources, rare plants, and wildlife of the valley’s largest remaining native habitat. The Carrizo Plain, an arid plain formed by the San Andreas fault, includes 206,635 acres of Bureau of Land Management-administered lands as well as lands administered by the state, private entities, and conservation groups.

“The Carrizo Management Plan is a step forward,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, “but it still fails to recognize the science, which clearly shows that grazing hurts rare species.”

While the management plan is an improvement over the Bureau’s long history of neglect of the Carrizo, it inexplicably allows livestock grazing to continue despite scientific studies that confirm grazing activities degrade habitat and undermine the long-term conservation of wildlife. The national monument is home to many endangered and rare species, including the San Joaquin kit fox, blunt-nosed leopard lizard, giant kangaroo rat, California condor, pronghorn antelope, tule elk, vernal pool species, and a suite of rare native plants.

“The BLM is trying to argue in this plan that livestock grazing should continue as a management tool, but all the science shows the opposite,” said Michael Connor, California director of Western Watersheds Project. “The science shows that cattle presence on the plain increases nonnative weeds, is detrimental to rare plants, and impacts federally protected species, so this simply is not a viable approach.”

“In the face of a changing climate, preserving the Carrizo Plain ecosystem with its suite of rare and imperiled species is imperative if we are to recover these species in the wild,” said Anderson. “The Bureau of Land Management’s previous management was based on 19th-century practices; the new plan moves the Bureau’s practices into the 20th century, but they still need to get to the 21st.”

Here are some of the public comments. The BLM’s RMP process can be found here.

If you have thoughts about the plan, please share them in the comments section.

Carrizo Plain as National Monument May Not Last Forever

Bring Down Barbed Wire

Volunteer Carrizo Plain Excursion to Remove Disruptive, Destructive Fences
Friday, February 19, 2010
By Jordan Miller

Camping, hiking, and eating a potluck dinner are some of the activities that local volunteers will participate in this weekend at the Carrizo Plain National Monument as they work to remove barbed wire fences that have inhibited pronghorn antelope from enjoying their natural habitat.

Rebekah Rafferty of Los Padres Forest Watch describes the pronghorn as “the fastest land mammal native to North America” and is worried that “abandoned barbed wire fences currently fragment the pronghorn’s movement … [They] cannot jump high enough to clear them.” To help the antelope roam freely once more, Los Padres Forest Watch is organizing a weekend excursion to Carrizo that will highlight the beauty of the plain while respecting its natural inhabitants by removing the dangerous clutter that prevents the antelope from exercising their freedom.

While the Carrizo Plain has been deemed a national monument, it may not last forever. Recent stimulus bills have inspired multiple companies to begin major planning and seemingly inevitable construction in the plains. This will reportedly not only displace the wildlife population but also destroy countless acres of serene nature. In other words, this may be the best time to catch a glimpse of the fleeting beauty that has been heralded as a natural treasure. [Emphasis added]

The weekend trip begins on Saturday, February 20 at 8:30 a.m. at the Goodwin Visitors’ Center. Food, water, gloves, and camping gear are essential for the trip. If you wish to join, contact Rebekah Rafferty at Rebekah@LPFW.org with the subject as “Pronghorn Fence Removal” and include a name, address, phone number, and number of people attending.

Volunteers Remove Fences on Carrizo for Pronghorn

Thanks to the volunteers who remove fencing so the Carrizo Plain National Monument can be a place for antelope to thrive! The volunteers do so much good work!
From The Cattle Network:

The fences crossing the desolate Carrizo Plain are remnants of the hardscrabble homesteaders who arrived a century ago, then abandoned the arid, alkaline land to the elements.

Now the barbed-wire legacy of ranching and farming on this inhospitable landscape in California is being blamed for threatening the recovery of antelope that were reintroduced in 1990 after being slaughtered to near extinction.

The long stretches of fence spread across the range prevent the Pronghorn from fleeing predators and seeking forage, and are a big reason why the herd has the worst survival rate in the West. Pronghorn are North American’s fastest runners, but cannot jump the fences.

So volunteers have taken on a cowboy’s most odious ranch task, hoping to improve the odds of the herd by taking down fences. Suffering bloody scrapes and punctures, they dismantle rusty barriers and modify others to give the antelope of the Carrizo P lain National Monument a fighting chance against coyotes that vastly outnumber them.

“You get a sense of satisfaction opening things up and making them free and wild again,” says Alice Koch, a state wildlife biologist who started the fence project on her own on her days off but now has a cadre of volunteers who proudly show off their battle wounds. “We’re opening their world up into a better and more survivable one.”

The Pronghorn are part of a debate over the future of the Carrizo Plain, designated a national monument by the federal government nine years ago. A draft management plan for the park indicated some cattle grazing would be allowed to control invasive species, but the EPA and others have countered that cattle can adversely affect native species as well. Those comments are under final review.

“Grazing is somewhat contentious,” said volunteer Craig Deutsche, who organizes four work trips a year. “Is it helpful or harmful? Do ranchers have rights by priority? Do cows have rights here since they are not native? It’s something to think about as we do the work.”

The fence volunteers’ work is painstakingly slow. It must be done by hand, and all wire carried out on foot to protect the fragile underground burrows of endangered species such as kit fox, antelope squirrels and kangaroo rats.

But there is an incredible amount of work to do: Volunteers put in more hours than the Bureau of Land Management could afford to hire out.

“If we had to contract this out, it would probably get done only in critical areas,” said Ryan Cooper of the BLM. “Their goal is every fence on the monument.”

The grassy plain 80 miles west of Bakersfield is isolated by the Temblor Mountains – an upthrust of the San Andreas Fault – and the Coast Range. Officials say it is the only place in the world where Pronghorn and Tule elk, also once plentiful in California’s Central Valley, have been reintroduced together to replicate an extinct landscape.

The elk have adapted so well that sometimes they are subject to limited hunting.

The Pronghorn? In the state’s other two regions where they have been reintroduced in habitats not crossed with cattle fences, 25 percent survive to the age at which they can outrun coyotes. In the Carrizo, it is less than 10 percent, a number that inspires the fence removers to give up their weekends and holidays.

Some abandoned fence inside the monument is removed entirely, but along miles of others that still hold cattle, volunteers stoop to replace the bottom wire with a smooth strand high enough for the 90 or so goat-sized Pronghorn to squeeze under.

“It’s a meditation for me,” said Suzanne Swedo of Los Angeles, who spent a long New Year’s holiday with 14 other volunteers an hour and a half’s drive from the nearest grocery store. “When I’m out here working, if I have anything on my mind, it just goes away.”

Their headquarters is the old prairie hous e owned by the Nature Conservancy where the Carrizo’s first manager lived when President Clinton created the monument in a flurry of public land designations three days before he left office.

Once it was common on the Carrizo to see the tan-colored antelope nervously pacing a fence they could not figure out how to bypass. As of the new year, 150 of 200 targeted miles of fence on 250,000 acres have been modified or removed by the volunteers.

Against the backdrop of this beautiful desolation, their success is not always measurable by the wire-mile.

“If you’ve ever seen them go under a fence you’ve just removed, it’s a beautiful thing,” said Janice Hamilton, a family therapist from Santa Barbara. “I’ll do anything to preserve some of this for my grandchildren.”

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

Salazar says Reform Due for Oil and Gas Leases on Public Lands

Taft: Interior Secretary Salazar Launches Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reforms
Reforms Will Make Oil Drilling Tougher on Public Lands, Carrizo Plain
January 8, 2010

Citing a need to improve certainty and order in oil and gas leasing on U.S. public lands, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today announced several reforms that the Bureau of Land Management will undertake to improve protections for land, water, and wildlife and reduce potential conflicts that can lead to costly and time-consuming protests and litigation of leases. Interior will also establish a new Energy Reform Team to identify and implement important energy management reforms.
“The previous Administration’s anywhere, anyhow policy on oil and gas development ran afoul of communities, carved up the landscape, and fueled costly conflicts that created uncertainty for investors and industry,” said Secretary Salazar. “We need a fresh look – from inside the federal government and from outside – at how we can better manage Americans” energy resources.
Les Clark of the Independent Oil Producers Association told the Independent that the IOPA opposes these new guidelines and said that the government is just making it more difficult for oil producers to lease and explore for oil on public lands.
According to Salazar, the new guidance BLM is issuing for field managers will help bring clarity, consistency, and public engagement to the onshore oil and gas leasing process while balancing the many resource values that the Bureau of Land Management is entrusted with protecting on behalf of the American people. “In addition, with the help of our new Energy Reform Team, we will improve the Department’s internal operations to better manage publicly owned energy resources and the revenues they produce.”
Many of the reforms that the Bureau of Land Management will undertake follow the recommendations of an interdisciplinary review team that studied a controversial 2008 oil and gas lease sale in Utah.
Congressman Kevin McCarthy issued a statement about the new policy and said, “The Department of Interior’s decision takes a step backward in ensuring that our families have reliable access to affordable American energy. Our local communities are blessed with abundant resources that can be responsibly developed, creating good, well-paying jobs and promoting domestic energy production. Rather than promoting this, Interior’s additional layer of bureaucracy could instead lead to higher energy prices at a time when hardworking Americans are already shouldering high costs.”
Under the reformed oil and gas leasing policy, BLM will provide:
Comprehensive interdisciplinary reviews that take into account site-specific considerations for individual lease sales. Resource Management Plans will continue to provide programmatic-level guidance, but individual parcels nominated for leasing will undergo increased internal and external coordination, public participation, interdisciplinary review of available information, confirmation of Resource Management Plan conformance as well as site visits to parcels when necessary; Greater public involvement in developing Master Leasing and Development Plans for areas where intensive new oil and gas extraction is anticipated so that other important natural resource values can be fully considered prior to making an irreversible commitment to develop an area; Leadership in identifying areas where new oil and gas leasing will occur. The bureau will continue to accept industry expressions of interest regarding where to offer leases, but will emphasize leasing in already-developed areas and will plan carefully for leasing and development in new areas.
BLM Director Bob Abbey said the increased opportunity for public participation and a more thorough environmental review process and documentation can help reduce the number of protests filed as well as enhance BLM?s ability to resolve protests prior to lease sales. A comparison of the new guidance with current policy can be found here.
“The new approach can help restore certainty and predictability to a system currently burdened by constant legal challenges and protests,” said Abbey. “It will also support the BLM’s multiple-use mission, which requires management of the public lands to provide opportunities for activities such as recreation, conservation, and energy development?both conventional and renewable.”
BLM will also issue guidance regarding the use of categorical exclusions, or CXs, established by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and that allow the bureau to approve some oil and gas development activities based on existing environmental or planning analysis. Under the new policy, in accordance with White House Council on Environmental Quality guidelines, BLM will not use these CX’s in cases involving “extraordinary circumstances” such as impacts to protected species, historic or cultural resources, or human health and safety.
Salazar also issued a Secretarial Order establishing an Energy Reform Team within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management that will identify and oversee implementation of energy reforms.
“The creation of the new Team focuses on our important stewardship responsibility in the management of the nation’s energy resources,” said Wilma Lewis, Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management. “Through its work, the team will promote efficiency and effectiveness in the development of renewable and conventional energy resources, so that we can be properly accountable to the American public.”
Under the Assistant Secretary’s direction, the Energy Reform Team will provide greater coordination and improved accountability to ensure the orderly, efficient, responsible and timely development of public resources critical for our national energy security. Through its own efforts, as well as by considering good ideas from stakeholders, industry, and the public, the Team will help ensure that Interior is a responsible steward of the public resources it manages and obtains fair value for energy resources owned by the public.
The new oil and gas leasing guidance and CX guidance will be implemented once BLM has completed final internal reviews.
According to Forest Watch, the Carrizo Plain National Monument, in San Luis Obispo County, has also experienced increased pressure from the oil industry. In 2006, an oil tycoon announced his intent to drill an exploratory well inside the Carrizo Plain National Monument boundary. His lease eventually expired before he was able to do so. In 2008, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum announced its intent to explore for oil on the valley floor of the Carrizo Plain National Monument. That proposal is still pending.

http://www.taftindependent.com/News/ViewArticle/1666

Secretary Salazar is drawing heat from the oil industry. His stance has angered and surprised the industry.

According to the Wall Street Journal,

Business groups fear the administration’s action will discourage domestic energy development, by adding new red tape to the permitting process for oil and gas drilling. In a letter to Mr. Salazar last week, the Industrial Energy Consumers of America, a lobbying group that represents manufacturers, credited the 2005 law with reducing drilling-permit backlogs and boosting natural-gas production.

The Bureau of Land Management will have to reign themselves in. From the WSJ article quoted above:

Mr. Salazar’s action follows litigation from some environmental groups and criticism from the Government Accountability Office that the BLM has often misinterpreted and violated a 2005 federal law. The legislation was designed to speed oil and gas drilling in the West by allowing federal land managers to waive extensive environmental reviews normally required.

Republicans sent a letter of complaint about the reforms.

Environmental groups who have been fighting for curbing of the leases are generally pleased. The Billings Gazette quotes Salazar as saying that the Bush Administration treated public lands like a “candy store.” Previously Salazar had halted land sales that were to take place in Utah, so this latest reform is additional good news for places like the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

Sarah Christie, environmental expert, forced to resign from Planning Commission

A story is playing out once again that will end with the removal of a woman of intelligence, vigor, dedication and vision from the Carrizo. It is not the work of BLM this time, but apparently being too good at one’s job is dangerous for women in cattle/oil’n’gas/and solar energy country. “Headstrong” is a bad quality in women working for the environment, and a lot of people like to see these women put in their place. (KT)

So long, Sarah
Supervisor Jim Patterson intends to ax Planning Commission Chairwoman Sarah Christie.
BY COLIN RIGLEY

AXED
Sarah Christie is expected to resign from the SLO County Planning Commission at the request of Supervisor Jim Patterson, who appointed her five years ago.

Sarah Christie is the type of public official who can rip you to shreds and hold a quizzical look that says, “How did you not see this coming?”

She’s a brutally incisive decision maker who can steer a meeting, sway a vote, and shift opposing political views, using keen reasoning and unparalleled knowledge of local laws.

Maybe it’s because of those very qualities that Christie has become one of the most divisive members of SLO County government. And maybe they account for why, after five years, she’s being forced out of office.

Christie is expected to resign from the SLO County Planning Commission during the Dec. 17 meeting. She’s been perceived by some critics as an extreme, left-biased roadblock and by supporters as one of the best planning commissioners in memory. When she steps down—barring a change of heart by Supervisor Jim Patterson, who appointed her—she may allude to spending time with her family or other such political clichés. Whatever her official explanation may be, Christie is not stepping down by choice.

Throughout her tenure, Christie has been at the forefront in the pitched battles between SLO County’s environmentalists on the left and developers on the right. Despite vigorous campaigns by pro-growth agitators to unseat her, her position has been secure. But somewhere along the line very recently, Patterson turned against her.

About 15 people met with Patterson on Dec. 7 to change his mind: As far as anyone can tell, they failed.

Many political figures self-destruct amid scandals and corruption charges; Christie may meet her demise for no reason other than she’s an expert. “I just think it’s really sad for Sarah personally … just because she’s so smart,” one supporter said. “Just because we have an intelligent woman. And that’s a bad thing?”

Christie is an undeniable pain in the ass to any developer who relies on smooth public relations consultants and slick PowerPoints. Pat Veesart, a former District 3 planning commissioner, thinks “it’s always been an unlevel playing field” in the world of county development. Christie, he believes, provided a counterbalance for the public, who is usually shortchanged compared to developers with deep coffers and ready access to decision makers.

Ultimately, Christie is just one vote on the commission, a government body that can be easily overridden by the Board of Supervisors. And the Planning Commission rarely gains much public attention, aside from a small circle of activists and wonks. But Christie’s departure would signify much more than just the loss of a mid-level decision maker who is virtually a volunteer (planning commissioners make $150 per meeting); it would be a sign the county’s political infrastructure is vulnerable to pressure from private interests.

“I think the message is going to be loud and clear among those circles,” Veesart said.

What’s odd is not that Christie might be forced out; what’s odd is the timing. She’s served for five years as Patterson’s appointee and has come under fire before. Calls for her blood peaked months ago but have faded.

Why now?

By most accounts, her position on the county’s future energy policy was the final straw; a position that poses a financial threat to large solar projects—projects involving people with ties to certain county officials.

“I think it’s the solar stuff, I do,” said Robin Bell, of the Carrisa Alliance for Responsible Energy.

Two large solar electric projects have been proposed for construction in the Carrizo Plains, which is in Patterson’s district. There were originally three projects, but after several sales and company buyouts, SunPower and First Solar stand as the only applicants. Both companies have a lot riding on those projects, which came about after PG&E brokered a deal to add 800 megawatts of power to its grid. State law requires utility companies to increase supplies of renewable energy.

The latest Wedbush research report for stock investors, published Dec. 4, gave both solar companies neutral ratings. The report warns that expected lawsuits and delays in the approval process could significantly extend company timelines to construction. According to the Wedbush analysis, SunPower’s share price anticipated for the next 12 months is scaled back from $29 to $21.

And the escalating global market, particularly because of Chinese solar manufacturers, means First Solar and SunPower must build a lot of solar panels to stay competitive, explained Wedbush solar analyst Christine Hersey.

“Investors just need to realize it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than maybe they were previously thinking,” Hersey said, adding that the Carrizo projects are the largest U.S. projects ever proposed by either company.

Although the projects are the vanguard of a state and national push for green energy, they have come under intense scrutiny because of potential impacts to wildlife. Neither project has yet moved to the county’s approval process—both are still drafting environmental review documents.

In June 2009, a deliberative process began to unfold that potentially could undercut such large projects as the ones proposed in the Carrizo, and it originated in the Planning Commission.

Simultaneously, some critics were calling for Christie’s resignation as she and the other commissioners were redrafting the county’s General Plan. Over multiple meetings, the commissioners have been updating policies for the Conservation and Open Space Element of the plan. Some of the policy reforms focus on energy: namely what kind, where should power plants be built, and should there be large power plants or should we instead favor solar panels on rooftops? Should energy companies be required to avoid environmental impacts or merely offset them?

Such were the questions the commissioners pondered during the course of the early meetings. It was a rough start, but as the commissioners gained momentum in their review, Christie became the focal point in the most contested debates about the new energy policies. Indeed, Christie provided the groundwork for the current version of policies with a draft she wrote based on public comments—if only because no one else brought language to the table. Though the commissioners continued to work from Christie’s draft, she personally caught so much flak she felt obligated to explain what she had provided. “They’re not necessarily my edits,” Christie said on July 6. “They’re a reflection of the public’s input.”

But what the public wanted and what some commissioners were willing to concede were mostly disparate. Some policy language gave preference to distributed power sources—solar panels on rooftops—instead of large local industrial solar plants. Other bits of wording went a bit beyond historical county guidelines by saying that in SLO County, new projects should avoid environmental impacts. Historically, commissioners and some county planners argued, projects are only expected to mitigate impacts. But asking developers to avoid impacts may preclude some projects from passing county standards.

“My guess is four of us are a little more on the side of accepting that there may be some trade-offs,” Commissioner Anne Wyatt said. In other words, the policies Christie proposed went too far.

Commissioner Carlyn Christianson also warned the policies might restrict projects from moving through the county’s approval process. But Christie countered, laughing as though she was going crazy, “So nothing in this document is going to prohibit anything from happening. All this document is going to do is to lay out a general path. These are general guidelines.”

She continued, “And I’m getting a little bit of a sense that we’re trying to craft this document to meet the needs of some specific applicants, which I think is completely inappropriate.”

By July 23, representatives from the solar companies were attending the meetings in person and submitting letters on the record urging the county to pull back on the restrictions.

As the commissioners wrapped up the energy element, they tentatively approved the language, but left it on uncertain ground. Surprisingly, Christianson and Wyatt, who are both part of the Democratic 3-2 majority, actually apologized as they closed the books on the energy element.

“I do not feel that some of the decisions made by the commission are things I do agree with, but I do think the Board of Supervisors will have a chance to review some of those decisions made by the commission,” Christianson said.

On Dec. 17, Christie and the rest of the commission are scheduled to finalize the new General Plan elements. Some commissioners hinted they want to revise the earlier language and gut the suggestions Christie included.

It is an undeniably tense issue for the commission, so significant that solar representatives have been drawn into the debate before their projects go up for public review.

“There’s been quite a bit of discussion about Sarah’s role as chairman of the Planning Commission and her extensive involvement in revising the open space element of the county’s General Plan,” said Chris Crotty of Crotty Consulting in San Diego.

NOT WORTH IT ANYMORE
Supervisor Jim Patterson long withstood pressure to remove Planning Commissioner Sarah Christie, but something or someone recently changed his mind.
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Crotty’s name might sound familiar for two reasons. First, he has a long history as a political consultant in SLO County, having guided the election campaigns of Supervisors Patterson, Adam Hill, and Bruce Gibson. And second, SunPower recently hired Crotty as a consultant.

“Let me put it this way,” Crotty said. “The document that the planning commission utilized to make those changes was a document that was authored by Sarah Christie.”

It’s not only that Crotty is being paid to represent a company trying to build in SLO County and is buddies with the people who will make the decision, or that Christie may have upset the balance on a project in Patterson’s district. If you ask Bell or Veesart why they think Christie’s job is on the line, it’s because she irked the wrong people.

When it comes to the large-scale solar projects, Bell said, “It was apparent that Sarah was going in one direction and Jim was going in the other.”

But after tidal waves of pressure for Patterson to remove Christie, which she had always survived, would the solar companies somehow be able to drown her out? “You can bet that it’s a factor in this,” Veesart said. “You can bank it.”

Crotty responded that no one from SunPower asked that she be removed.

Damage control

Neither Christie nor Patterson would confirm she’s slated to retire from her position, though Patterson told New Times on Dec. 14 he would have a statement later during the week. Perhaps a wave of support for Christie would sway Patterson’s decision, though many say they worry it’s unlikely things will change.

According to several of Christie’s supporters, who asked not to have their names disclosed because a decision has not been made official or public, Christie will be replaced during the first meeting next year. One of her supporters, referring to criticism levied against Christie throughout her five years in the position, said, “I think that it’s just been this drum beat. I figure that it’s gotten harder and harder for the supervisor to ignore.”

Her worried supporters have lobbied Patterson. But Patterson insisted a recent meeting with several of them had nothing to do with Christie and anything about her being kicked out was merely gossip.

One person who attended that meeting told New Times “it was just weird.” The group urged Patterson to change his mind while he sat, listened, jotted a few notes, but didn’t indicate what he would do.

“What prompted him to even think about hanging her?” the attendee wondered.

For now, the message is being tightly controlled. One potential replacement could be Patterson’s appointee to the Water Resources Advisory Committee, Dan O’Grady, who was nervous to comment on the matter and a bit cryptic about whether he had been pegged for the job.

“I need to just refer you to Jim about any questions about his appointments,” O’Grady said dryly. “I don’t think that would be appropriate for me to [comment].”

O’Grady didn’t return a follow-up call.

Andy Caldwell, who’s a Santa Maria talk show host and executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, has become one of Christie’s biggest, or certainly one of the loudest, critics. On July 14, Caldwell publicly called for Christie to be removed from the commission. He asked the Board of Supervisors directly and repeated his opinion in a commentary he contributed to New Times (“Remove Sarah Christie from the planning commission,” July 23).

Asked about Christie, Caldwell was thrilled she might be on the way out.

“But I think what’s occurring right now is what I would refer to as an echo,” Caldwell said, meaning the blasts from himself and others were reverberating from the opposing political spectrum. “And that is the truth about Sarah Christie is a lot of the lefties don’t even like her because she doesn’t listen to them.”

He went on: “I think ultimately this is going to come back to Patterson and [Supervisor Bruce] Gibson where it rightly belongs because they’re not reining her in. … Sarah Christie’s days are numbered.”

Christie has never pretended she’s trying to win friends. Her reputation and tone on the commission is usually hard-edged and sometimes stubborn. After the 2008 election—which switched the Board of Supervisors from a Republican to a Democratic majority, which was reflected by the commission—Christie appeared to mellow a bit. No longer on the defensive as far as voting, her attitude tempered from boiling to a quiet simmer. By reputation, Christie has been a strong voice on the commission for smart growth and environmental stewardship—a voice that has likely won her as many fans as it’s created enemies.

“Sarah has shown more people skills than she had previously,” said Jerry Bunin of the Homebuilders Association of the Central Coast. “But I wouldn’t call her a fair and balanced commissioner. She’s not objective unless the housing is overwhelmingly affordable and therefore difficult to make financial sense to build.”

Patterson was first elected in 2004—he was re-elected in 2008—beating out contender Mike Ryan. Christie was integral in the first campaign and was appointed to be his planning commissioner. She held the office through his re-election last year. She’s also the legislative director for the California Coastal Commission, and has a long résumé of community and environmental activism, starting as a journalist and local government employee.

In 2009, as part of a regular rotation, Christie landed the commission chairmanship, which seemed to throw a fresh coat of paint on the target on her back. Earlier this year, the bloodlust from Christie’s detractors spiked after the release of a 2008 grand jury report. Though Christie wasn’t named, the grand jury reported that she may have overstepped her bounds when she contacted the state Department of Fish and Game about a sand and gravel mining operation proposed in Paso Robles. But the grand jury recommended no punishment, nor in fact any actual wrongdoing, stating instead that planning commissioners should have more training.

If indeed Christie is forced out, it would be a huge loss, several supporters told New Times.

SLO Councilwoman Jan Marx said Christie is “very thorough, very bright, and she knows a lot. Sometimes that’s threatening to people.”

“She is magnificent,” Veesart said. “There’s no other way to describe her. … She’s leagues above everybody else in county politics.”

If Christie is forced out, her absence will resonate far beyond the Planning Commission. As one supporter said, “I think this is getting very political and I am sorely disappointed in Jim Patterson.”

Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

Christie says she was betrayed
By Bob Cuddy | bcuddy@thetribunenews.com

Former Planning Commissioner Sarah Christie says the man who appointed her, Supervisor Jim Patterson, betrayed her in “a muscular act of political disloyalty” and has created a rift in the North County environmental movement.

Christie resigned Thursday under pressure from Patterson, who asked her to leave.

Christie said Patterson knuckled under to people “who came running into his office with their hair on fire and said Sarah Christie is trying to hijack the General Plan.”

Patterson denied the existence of either a betrayal or a rift among environmentalists.

Some Christie supporters said at a minimum Patterson may lose support among his base should he run for re-election in 2012.

Sue Harvey of the environmental group North County Watch said the chief problem with Christie’s departure is the loss of her knowledge and skills. But, she added, “If you are asking does this fragment and erode Patterson’s political base, yes I believe it does.”

Morro Bay Vice Mayor Betty Winholtz was part of a group that tried to talk Patterson out of replacing Christie a week before he did so. She told The Tribune on Tuesday that the group warned him it would be political suicide to abandon Christie.

However, Patterson told them and later the general public that he asked Christie to resign because a growing number of people were telling him that they were not being treated even-handedly when they went before the commission.

He said, for those people, “It was like going to court and thinking the judge is biased and you don’t have a chance.”

“I try to … build consensus,” Patterson told The Tribune. “I don’t think she was good at building consensus.”

Asked if that were perception or reality, Patterson said, “It’s actuality as well.” He said he observed her at commission hearings and “she was not handling herself well,” coming off as confrontational and “too forceful.”

Political fallout

Christie and Patterson spoke with The Tribune in separate interviews.

The discussions delineated a fissure that has been widening since at least last summer between the two old friends and political collaborators. The pair worked to dislodge conservative Supervisor Mike Ryan in 2004 and fend off a strong attack from Ryan acolyte Debbie Arnold in 2008.

Christie, a strong-minded, highly knowledgeable environmentalist and a member of the California Coastal Commission staff, drew criticism from the start, particularly from North County ranchers, gravel miners and property rights advocates.

She acknowledges being a lightning rod for criticism but adds, “Lightning rods are important; they keep your house from burning down.”

Until this past summer, Patterson defended her, even during the 2008 campaign when she was being loudly reviled by Patterson’s opponents. He said in light of that and other acts of loyalty, he finds Christie’s accusation of betrayal “odd.”

“I don’t get the betrayal thing,” Patterson said.

During the 2008 election, Christie said Patterson’s campaign polled to see how much of a drag she was on his re-election chances. “It was on the table,” she said.

Patterson was re-elected in June 2008, but it was not until this past August that he told her to prepare her exit strategy, she said.

Christie said he told her there are people in the community who would not speak to him because she was his planning commissioner.

“He thinks with me gone the noise will stop and he can go back to being the beloved, benevolent politician he sees himself as,” Christie said.

Christie believes the change in Patterson’s thinking occurred after she submitted comments ahead of time for the commission’s discussion about energy last summer. None of the other commissioners did that this time around, although Christie said they had in previous meetings on other subjects.

She said people unhappy about the way that meeting went showed up at the next hearing and “excoriated the Planning Commission.”

Patterson said it is “absolutely untrue” that he is being pressured by energy companies.

He said he had been “thinking about this for a long time,” and his feeling that it was time for a change grew when he began hearing complaints about Christie’s confrontational style from people who were “not the usual critics.”

“I’m talking about the general public,” he said, citing people in business, health care, agriculture and housing, for example.

None of Christie’s fellow planning commissioners who spoke at the commission meeting after she resigned echoed Patterson’s criticism.

Bruce White, who represents the conservative North County on the commission, called her “thoughtful, considerate and respectful.”

South County farmer Gene Mehlschau, who sometimes disagrees with Christie on policy, added that “the issues are more widely discussed because we are different; that’s the beauty of it.”

In one sense, the matter is academic. Patterson has appointed Dan O’Grady of Atascadero, who has similar values but a different style, saying, “She (Christie) is not the only one who can do this work.”

But if the coalition that worked to put Patterson in office falls apart, it could put a conservative back on the board from the 5th District. That in turn could tip the board’s 3-2 environmental balance back into a 3-2 pro-growth dynamic.

Carrizo Plain National Monument faces threats from inside and out

Carizzo Faces Threats from Inside and Out (San Luis Obispo New Times)
Saving the silence
Carrizo Plain National Monument faces threats from inside and out
BY MATT KETTMANN

The Carrizo Plain opened up like an earthen vault, its natural jewels spilling before my eyes, accompanied by serious silence. I had traveled a long journey inland by pickup truck to explore the riches of the remote national monument some 70 miles from SLO.

Encompassing 250,000 acres, the vast grasslands extended endlessly north, crept casually up the rolling hills to the east, and jutted violently into mountains on the west. The road soon turned to dirt before continuing all the way to the alkali-rimmed Soda Lake, a refuge for rare birds and rarer shrimp. Attempting to get a grip on the monument’s official significance, I stopped at the Goodwin Visitors’ Center, where I was encouraged to hike to Painted Rock, one of the few outcroppings on the otherwise uninterrupted plain. Painted Rock is one of the inland Chumash people’s most revered shrines, a three-story high, rocky womb adorned with detailed pictographs that still speak after years of weather and vandalism. If I wasn’t already enchanted with the Carrizo, this spiritual experience sealed the deal.

Splendor imperiled

Despite the renewing tranquility of the spectacular natural vistas of the Carrizo Plain, there’s never been a more crucial moment for determining their future. As policymakers put the finishing touches on the monument’s official management plan—which has taken much longer than expected, due to official and personal politics—threats to the status quo loom both inside and outside its borders. From the oil and gas claims that cover nearly half of the protected acreage to the massive solar power plants being proposed just north of the monument’s border to debates over habitat restoration, cultural resources, and grazing practices, to an increasing amount of visitors, all involved are debating vital issues about the future of the Carrizo Plain National Monument. The results of those discussions will reveal what we as Californians consider our priorities, and could have ramifications that will echo far beyond the silence of the Carrizo Plain.

Located in the southeastern corner of the county, owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and operated in partnership with the Nature Conservancy and the state Department of Fish and Game, the Carrizo Plain National Monument is home to more specially protected animal and plant species than almost anywhere in the country—from the kit fox, kangaroo rat, antelope squirrel, and blunt-nosed leopard lizard to the jewelflower, woolly-threads, and Hoover’s woolly-star. The 38-mile-long, 17-mile-wide Carrizo is considered to be the last vestige of what the 300-mile-long San Joaquin Valley looked like before agriculture took over; its ecosystem essentially extends another 50 or so miles to the north toward Highway 46 east of Paso Robles.

“This is the last remaining facsimile of the grasslands that once covered all of California,” explained Mike “Doc” Malkin, a former drama professor at Cal Poly, who’s a member of the Friends of the Carrizo Plain, a volunteer organization that
provides docents, builds trails, refurbishes historic buildings, removes old fences, and serves as the monument’s watchdog. “When it’s gone, it’s gone.” Throw in the antelope, elk, a few roving coyotes and cougars, eagles of the bald and golden variety, some fairy shrimp, songbirds galore, and the occasional California condor, and there’s little wonder why Carrizo has been called “California’s Serengeti.”

Carrizo’s historic homesteads, farms where people survived for generations by growing barley and winter wheat and ranches where cattle and sheep paid the bills, became more parched throughout the decades, forcing most folks to move on but allowing nature to fill in the void. By the mid-1980s, the Nature Conservancy teamed up with the BLM to create the Carrizo Plain Natural Area, which they did by buying more than 80,000 acres from land investment company Oppenheimer Industries in 1988. Congress kicked in money for another 50,000-plus acres within two years, and since then, smaller purchases have grown the monument to a quarter-million acres.

However, the protections, even as a national monument, remain somewhat tenuous, in large part due to the potential wealth of oil and gas that sit below the monument’s surface. Valid mineral resource claims exist on more than 100,000 acres of the monument; any development could have disastrous impacts on the Carrizo’s critters and calmness.

I took another trip to Carrizo Plain to meet up with Malkin, who was joined by the monument’s wildlife biologist Kathy Sharum and Roger Gambs, a retired biology professor from Cal Poly who’s active with Friends of the Carrizo Plain. Sharum and monument manager Johna Hurl both spend a great deal of time dealing with the difficult challenge of habitat restoration, which has become a hot button issue for those who’d rather use the monument for livestock grazing, hunting, off-road driving, and other potentially damaging activities. Some of those folks criticize native plant and animal restoration by saying that the genie of modern impacts and introduced species simply cannot be put back in the pre-European-contact bottle. “I don’t think any of us want to play God,” Sharum told me that day at the monument’s KCL Campground, where numerous orange flags, denoting kit fox and kangaroo rat dens, flapped in the midday wind. “We don’t have the perfect ecosystem,” she admitted. “But realistically, you work with what you have.”

Compared to other ruined landscapes across the world, the Carrizo isn’t too far off from its original form. That gives Sharum, Malkin, Gambs, and all the members of Friends of the Carrizo Plain hope for the future. Explained Gambs, while in the shade of a dilapidated barn with a telephoto lens around his neck, “We are trying to get the Carrizo up there with what could someday be an internationally recognized model of how a national
monument ought to operate.”

Planning for the Plain

The most crucial part of that model is the monument’s management plan, which is nearing completion. Today, everyone involved—from the BLM to its nine- member advisory committee to those watching from the sidelines, including Friends of the Carrizo Plain—is satisfied with the progress. But it wasn’t always that way.

Soon after the monument was created in 2001, 13-year BLM veteran Marlene Braun was named manager. Having been stationed in Alaska and Nevada, the workaholic Braun finally felt at home on the Carrizo, and took intense pride in protecting it. She scaled back grazing on sensitive grasslands and began developing the monument’s first management plan, which would phase out long-term livestock permits. Every agency signed on, even the BLM’s California office. Then, in March 2004, the Bush administration—which was critical of Clinton’s last-minute monument designations—appointed Ron Huntsinger as Braun’s supervisor in BLM’s Bakersfield field office. With marching orders to favor ranching over preservation and “fix this plan,” Huntsinger and Braun became immediate enemies. The two butted heads repeatedly, so much so that in May 2005, Braun—who had also been dealing with her own psychological demons—arranged her personal affairs and wrote a few important letters about her fears for the Carrizo. She then took a .38 caliber revolver, killed her two dogs—neatly placing their bodies under a quilt—and turned the gun on herself.

Braun’s suicide shocked the region, resulted in a federal investigation, and eventually led to Huntsinger’s transfer. The management plan was the fourth casualty. “The whole process imploded. It collapsed,” explained Neil Havlik, who was named to the monument’s advisory committee when it was created in 2002. “It was finally decided that the process should start all over again.” Relations soured between the Carrizo staff and the BLM higher-ups. “That trust took time to rebuild,” said Havlik, the City of San Luis Obispo’s natural resources manager, “but it has been rebuilt.” That’s thanks in large part to the appointment of Tim Smith as the BLM field supervisor in Bakersfield, who Havlik called a “really great guy.”

Nearly four years after Braun’s suicide, the current plan reflects her vision. “I am very happy with the plan,” said Havlik, who’s spent much of his last 13 years at the city protecting open space. “It is setting policies that are progressive, that are going to be responsive to scientific recommendations and input.” Specifically, the plan addresses grazing, mineral extraction, cultural resource protection, wilderness designation, and roads, and has proposed three alternatives that range from more hands-off management to intense involvement. The BLM staff’s preferred alternative is number two, which blends the two more extreme alternatives, encourages a “moderate” expansion of wilderness zones (where no motorized vehicles are allowed), reduces the redundant roadways, only allows
grazing for “vegetation management,” stabilizes historic sites, and makes Painted Rock accessible only by permit or tour.

Since BLM is an agency that traditionally allows extractive industries, the management plan does not affect the “valid and existing” mineral rights that cover about 100,000 acres of the monument, including four active oil wells in the Caliente Range. Any attempt to eliminate those surely would have led to a massive fight, but if a recent response to an oil-drilling proposal is any indication, the monument is in good hands.

That proposal came during the oil price spike of late 2007 from oil company Vintage Production, which announced its intent to do seismic testing on its 30,000 acres of mineral holdings on the valley floor. Testing would involve “thumper trucks” that send soundwaves into the Earth to look for oil and gas. That process, said Helen O’Shea of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “is particularly damaging in an environment like the Carrizo where you have animals like the kit fox and kangaroo rat that actually live underground.” When presented with this proposal, the BLM had multiple options, but they chose the strictest and asked Vintage for a full Environmental Impact Statement. Months later, the oil company has not yet responded. “We’re very pleased to see the BLM choose appropriately and hold the applicant to the highest possible standard,” said O’Shea.

One thing that’s not controllable is the number of visitors; increased use is something that’s worried former county supervisor Jerry Diefenderfer ever since it became a monument in 2001. A fourth generation Carrizo-dweller whose family has been ranching in the area since 1865, Diefenderfer was involved in the initial BLM acquisition in the ’80s, but thought a monument designation was “premature.” Diefenderfer, a former president of Friends of the Carrizo Plain, believes there is still not enough staff to watch over the quarter-million acres, even with only about 3,000 counted visitors per year. Indeed, anyone who spends much time on the Carrizo is bound to see some bizarre human activity—there’ve been accounts of drug-running, meth-making, body-dropping, sports car-burning, and the like for years. “I know a lot of people would like to have more activity there,” said Diefenderfer. “But I think it would be unhealthy for the monument to have that, simply because we’re not geared to handle a large number of people. And I quietly hope that day is a long way away.”

His government-fearing neighbor Darrell Twisselman, whose family has been on the Carrizo since the 1880s, agrees, and loudly. “The reason the endangered species [are] still there is because there was nothing out there but a few old farmers,” he explained in his good-ole-boy twang. “Now they’re bringing all kinds of people out there and they’re gonna defeat their purpose.” When the Wilderness Society tried to establish the Carrizo as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—which would have upped its international appeal—Twisselman “fought the hell out of that. You’d get 20,000 tourists running around here. That’s no way to protect your endangered species.” That campaign, which requires regional support, was shot down by county supervisors in March 2007.

For all his anti-environmentalist ire, Twisselman did play a major role in making the Carrizo what it is today. In the late 1980s, he helped the Department of Fish and Game reintroduce the pronghorn antelope and tule elk to the Carrizo, driving them down himself from Mount Shasta. Now, he allows people to hunt them on his land for a fee, and laughs when people cite them as some sort of threatened species. The self-proclaimed “true environmentalist” who believes the environmental movement has turned into a power-grab, recommends “building a big fence around it and getting away from it. Of course,” Twisselman continued with a chuckle, “I’m not very popular with those guys.”

Though the monument can’t physically restrict visitors from driving through, Havlik assured that the management plan is not designed to attract hordes of people. “In some ways, this is the place where time has gone backward,” he said. “The opportunity for solitude and reflection is really a great thing, and that’s one of the things I think everybody appreciates about the monument. We don’t want to make it into Disneyland. We don’t want a lot of attractions out there. The natural environment is the attraction.”

Solar Dreams or Eco-Nightmares?

While the monument’s managers may not be setting up the Carrizo as the “happiest place on Earth,” no one can deny it’s one of the sunniest. Pair that with cheap land, existing electrical transmission lines, and political pressure from both the state and feds for renewable energy, and it’s easy to understand why the lands just north of the monument’s border are being targeted for the most massive solar power plants on the planet. When combined, these proposed plants—two photovoltaic, under review by the county, and one solar thermal, under review by the California Energy Commission—would provide energy to nearly 100,000 homes but only by covering more than 16 square miles of the valley floor, an area nearly the size of the City of Santa Barbara. If all are approved—and there’s plenty of motivation in the federal stimulus plan, which will pay for 30 percent of projects that begin construction by 2010—many fear that the solar plants would block migration patterns for the kit fox, antelope, and other species, threaten Soda Lake by tapping an already overburdened groundwater basin, and damage views irrevocably.

“I live right in the middle of it,” said Mike Strobridge, an auto mechanic who lives with his daughter in a house near the monument that would be surrounded by the proposed plants. “It’s peaceful. I love the wildlife. Then these solar guys come in and they’re just gonna destroy the area.”

Robin Bell, who is building a retirement home about a quarter-mile away from a proposed plant, is worried, too, and has formed the Carrisa Alliance for Responsible Energy, or CARE. (“Carrisa Plains” is a colloquial name for the area.) She explained, “I personally feel strongly that all these rules and regulations are in place for a reason, and, in the name of being green, these power companies are exploiting that.” Bell favors distributed renewable energy, i.e., solar panels on homes and businesses throughout the state. “I totally support the development of renewable energy, but at what cost?” she asked. “This area has one of the highest concentrations of special species in the state. To me, it seems like the last place you should be doing this.”

Bell is also watching two bills moving through the state legislature that, if passed, would put all renewable energy projects under the control of a new state commission. (Currently, photovoltaic projects are reviewed by counties and industrial-type plants, such as solar thermal, are reviewed by the state.) Bell fears the bills would streamline the process too quickly and eliminate all local control.

The specific effect on the monument remains to be seen. But Mary Strobridge, a member of CARE and mother of Mike, is concerned the plants would ruin anyone’s experience who visited the monument from the northern entrance. “It would just be devastating to drive into the Carrisa Plains and see a 10-story-tall industrial solar plant right smack dab in the middle of it, with 640 acres of pipes and mirrors and around that photovoltaic cells going on for thousands and thousands of acres,” she said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Making sense of the two photovoltaic projects is the job of John McKenzie, a county planner. Among other issues, he’s analyzing migration corridors, groundwater limitations, and the loss of ag land. “It’s really a quandary for a lot of people,” he said. “It does try to address a huge environmental problem, but it’s at the potential expense of some more localized environmental problems. It’s one of those very difficult issues.” More frightening, however, is that no one’s really had to review projects such as these ever before. McKenzie has “zero” experience in doing so. “These are the two biggest plants in the world,” he said. “This county is getting to be one of the first folks to deal with it.”

The third project—a solar thermal plant proposed by Australian company Ausra that uses sun power to heat water to turn turbines—is considered more industrial, so it falls under the purview of the California Energy Commission. But even that commission is still getting up to speed with projects of this type. Said its chairperson Karen Douglas, “We’ve got much more experience siting natural-gas plants than siting renewables, both from a staff and commission perspective. So some issues are rising up in the renewables case that are substantively different than what has been the core of the siting work before the solar applications started coming in so quickly.” There are ongoing studies of how to incorporate renewable projects while protecting ecosystems—studies Douglas hopes “will be a model for how we can get this done”—but those are strictly for the Mojave Desert, and currently have no bearing on the Carrizo.

The solar power companies, however, believe the time and location are right. Ausra’s Katherine Potter explained, “There is certainly a good place for distributed generation, but to ensure the reliability of the grid, you do need large-scale power generation.” Added Alan Bernheimer of OptiSolar, which proposed one of the photovoltaic projects (but recently sold to First Solar), “We need all the solar power we can get, both distributed and large-scale. It’s not a question of either/or. It’s both.”

As the solar projects move forward and analysts begin to assess potential impacts to the monument, Mike Strobridge is holding his ground. “At this point, we’re frustrated and doing everything we can to make sure if something does come in, it’s put in responsibly.” And that’s about all anyone else can ask for.

Breathe deep

Amid the debates over solar projects and monument management, one point was uttered by almost every one of the more than 20 people contacted for this article: The Carrizo is not for everyone. “You either get it or you don’t,” exclaimed biologist Gambs. “There is no in-between!” Echoed rancher and former politician Diefenderfer, “I’m not sure what it is, but I do know that in my 65 years of lifetime, everybody I’ve dealt with on the Carrizo Plain, they either love it or they hate it.”

Flat, bleak, dry, and desolate, the region turns off those scared of solitude, those who don’t appreciate the silent stillness, those who aren’t impressed by rare species of plants and animals. But like a good book, those who continue reading the Carrizo will find that its characters are rich, its storyline quite deep, and its value immeasurable. ∆

Matt Kettmann is the senior editor of the Santa Barbara Independent, where this article was first published. Comments can be addressed to econnolly@newtimesslo.com.

What do you think about the Carrizo Plain National Monument? BLM wants to know…

The Wilderness Society is sending out reminders to get in your comments in about the Carrizo Plain National Monument Resource Management Plan into the BLM, c/o Johna Hurl, Monument Manager, 3801 Pegasus Drive
Bakersfield, CA 93308, If you can’t write a letter, the Wilderness Society has a recommended form letter on their site:
http://action.wilderness.org/campaign/carrizo
Just fill in your name and address and send away!
BLM must receive written comments on the draft RMP/EIS by April 23 at the latest.