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.

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Obama Admin’s growing “environmental” record is cause for concern

This is a repost of PEER’s (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) ObamaWatch newsletter. Ordinarily I just deal with things that have to do with the Carrizo, but the administration’s position on whistleblowers and several other decisions by Ken Salazar, Sec. of Interior, and Lisa Jackson of the EPA, relate to broader issues that affect the Carrizo, including solar energy. PEER is also looking for people to serve on its ObamaWatch committee called Support Scrutiny. PEER’s Membership & Outreach Coordinator, Debbie Davidson, who can also be reached by phone at (202) 265-7337. Information provided is considered CONFIDENTIAL and is protected by law.

Campaigns – Obama Watch – At Issue

A visitor to the White House website for information about eco-policies will not find an “agenda” for the environment. Instead, the category is “Energy & Environment” and that ordering appears intentional.

Other than curbing greenhouse gases, there is no mention of environmental priorities such as safeguarding clean water, reducing pollution threats to public health, conserving wildlife and protecting vital habitat, averting collapse of marine fisheries, or ending abuse of public lands through practices ranging from mountaintop removal to overgrazing.

Nothing….

Look at a growing record that is cause for concern:

Climate Change

* Obama has embraced a watered-down climate change bill that Dr. Jim Hansen and other experts warn will do too little too late;
* Central to the Obama effort is embrace of a cap-and-trade approach that is unworkable and unenforceable.

Coal Embrace

* Central to the Obama energy program is an embrace of more coal and developing “Clean Coal Technology” – a process that does not yet exist. In the interim, the administration is funding schemes to pump sequestered carbon into the ocean floor;
* The Obama team has backed away from promises to restrain the environmental damage wreaked by mountaintop removal coal mining;
* In a huge and dangerous hidden subsidy to the coal industry, the Obama administration delays taking action to address toxic coal combustion wastes.

Oil & Gas
The Obama plan seeks to reduce reliance on foreign oil by increasing production of domestic oil – with no limits:

* Drill, Baby, Drill – No part of the Outer Continental Shelf or the domestic U.S. has been put off-limits to petroleum production. Some lease sales have been slowed for further review – but they will be back;
* The Obama administration has approved a pipeline to bring Canadian oil sands, one of the most environmentally destructive petroleum extraction sources, to U.S. refineries (so much for ending dependence on foreign oil);
* Obama’s Interior department has defended a Bush plan to lease western Colorado’s beautiful Roan Plateau for oil and gas drilling; and
* A key priority is to back the construction of the Alaska Natural Gas Pipeline championed by Alaskan ex-Gov. Sarah Palin;
* Washington Post, Oct. 20: The Interior Department has approved permits for Shell to drill exploratory oil wells on two leaseholds in the Beaufort Sea off the north coast of Alaska.

Mining

* The administration did not object to a Corps permit allowing a gold mine to dump its wastes into Alaska’s Lower Slate Lake, killing all its aquatic life;

Natural Resources

* The Obama administration has embraced the failed Bush salmon recovery plans for the Pacific Northwest that put power production ahead of species survival;

Oceans

* The administration has allowed Bush permits for destructive fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico to go into effect;

Forestry

* The administration approved the first timber sale in a roadless area of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest;

Endangered Species

* In one of its earliest actions, the administration took the wolf off the endangered species list, clearing the way for hunting to begin through much of the West;
* Backing a move by the Bush administration, the Obama administration issued rules forbidding use of the Endangered Species Act to address habitat loss, like the shrinking ice shelves on which polar bears depend, caused by greenhouse gas emissions and climate change

Parks & Refuges

* Obama signed legislation allowing the open carrying of loaded firearms in parks and refuges – the first time a president has signed a law weakening wildlife protections in the National Park System;
* Obama’s Interior Department is defending the planting of genetically-modified crops on National Wildlife Refuges.

Toxics

* EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson dropped an appeal to the Supreme Court in a case that struck down Bush-era limits on mercury pollution from coal power plants, which unnecessarily permit more of the toxic chemical into the atmosphere;
* The Obama administration has ducked the problem of growing water pollution from oil “fracking” chemicals and coal-bed methane gas operations; and
* EPA continues to endorse using shredded tires in playgrounds despite red flags raised by its own scientists.

Appointees

* The Obama Administration has nominated a former pesticide lobbyist to be the chief agricultural negotiator in the Office of the United States Trade Representative (October 26, 2009).
* Obama’s Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, proclaims that “energy independence” is his number one priority. Not only is energy independence an unrealistic goal but any attempt to realize it from the public lands managed by Interior would involve turning America’s great heritage of wild lands into a giant energy farm;
* Obama’s EPA pick, Lisa Jackson, compiled an abysmal record in New Jersey including a dysfunctional toxics program, suppression of science, and retaliation against whistleblowers;
* The pick to head the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sam Hamilton, has the weakest record on Endangered Species Act enforcement in the country and tried to fire a scientist who exposed scientific fraud by the agency in issuing an unending stream of development approvals (even to this day) in shrinking habitat of the highly endangered Florida panther; and
* The choice to head the Office of Surface Mining, Joseph Pizarchik, has drawn the opposition of citizens and conservationists alike for his horrid record on acid mine drainage, subsidence from longwall mining, valley fill with mine slag and using toxic coal combustion waste as mine fill. Astoundingly, he ducked all questions on mountaintop removal mining at his confirmation hearing.

Whistleblowers

* As a candidate, Barack Obama frequently promised to “strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority.” Since he has been president, the only time he mentioned the need to protect whistleblowers was when he addressed the Parliament of Ghana.
* None of the prominent Bush-era whistleblower cases has been settled. In fact, the Obama administration is continuing the persecution of these whistleblowers in court;
* New whistleblowers are being fired or targeted while Obama appointees do nothing. Cases out of the Labor Department, Homeland Security, NASA, Wildlife Services and other agencies originated after Inauguration day and are heading to hearing;
* A package of strong whistleblower protections for federal employees was dropkicked out of the stimulus bill with not a peep of protest from – or with tacit support of – the Obama administration;
* The Obama administration has not committed to support whistleblower reform legislation that has passed the House for the past three years in a row; and
* After denouncing Bush’s signing statements, President Obama promptly issued one while signing the FY09 Omnibus Appropriations bill that he reserves the inherent authority to prevent civil servants from disclosing inconvenient truths to Congress.

Consider Taking Action for PEER to protect the Carrizo and other special lands from environmental destruction, as well as to protect federal employees from interference with their job duties and from workplace bullying that still goes on in the Department of Interior.

Carrizo Plain National Monument Proposed Resource Management Plan Published

Taft: Carrizo Plain National Monument Proposed Resource Management Plan Published
November 13, 2009
Carrizo Plain National Monument Selby Rocks in the foreground, Painted Rock and Soda Lake in background.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has released the Proposed Resource Management Plan and Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Carrizo Plain National Monument in eastern San Luis Obispo and western Kern counties.

The Monument was designated by proclamation in 2001 in recognition of its ecological importance as the largest undeveloped remnant of the vast grasslands that once covered central California. It is dramatically bisected by the San Andreas Fault and provides habitat for many native plant and animal species.

The proposed plan “balances public access with protection of the monument’s special resources,” according to Johna Hurl, monument manager. The Monument, which covers 206,000 acres of public lands administered by the BLM’s Bakersfield Field Office, is managed in partnership with the California Department of Fish and Game and The Nature Conservancy, which both own land within the Monument.

A draft was published in January 2009 for public review and public meetings held throughout the region. “We made a number changes from the draft RMP in response to public comments,” Hurl said, such as expanding the area proposed to be managed for wilderness characteristics, clarifying language regarding grazing and mineral interests, and allowing only street-legal vehicles on designated routes.

A 30-day public protest period begins today with the Notice of Availability published in the Federal Register by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. During this period, ending December 14, 2009, any person who participated in the planning process and believes they may be adversely affected by approval of the plan may submit a protest. A final decision on the RMP will not be issued until protests are resolved. Procedures for filing protests are available at www.blm.gov/ca/bakersfield.

Copies of the document are available at the Bakersfield Field Office, 3801
Pegasus Drive, Bakersfield and online at
http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/bakersfield.html For more information,
contact the Monument information line at 661-391-6034.

The effects three solar plants on California grasslands

Monday, Sep. 07, 2009
Tribune special report: Valley of life
Though the Carrizo Plain may look like a desolate, inhospitable landscape, the remote grasslands are actually home to California’s largest concentration of endangered species, many of which live in underground burrows and are very rarely seen
By David Sneed | dsneed@thetribunenews.com

To the motorist passing on Highway 58, California Valley can look like a whole lot of nothing — brown flatlands nearly devoid of vegetation and inhabited by the occasional cow or raven.

If you’re lucky, you can catch sight of a pronghorn antelope or tule elk grazing in the distance.

But to the trained eye of a biologist like John Davis, the valley is full of signs of a vibrant wildlife community living in the state’s last remnant of grassland. Many of the animals live underground in this treeless environment, coming out only at night.
Click image to see caption

Biologists from URS Corp. — a Santa Barbara-based construction consulting firm — walk in lines while conducting a survey for blunt-nosed leopard lizards on SunPower’s Carrizo Plain site.

Of all the effects the three solar plants will have on the environment of the area, none are as significant as the wildlife impacts.

“Wildlife is the big issue,” said San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Jim Patterson, whose district includes the Carrizo Plain.

“The projects cover so much ground,” he added. “One of the major characteristics of the Carrizo is the multiple rare and endangered species found there.” The Carrizo Plain is the last remnant of grassland in the state.

The solar companies and the state Energy Commission are taking a coordinated look at wildlife issues. The effort has sparked controversy — the solar companies want some of the results of the study kept confidential because it may identify which lands they must purchase as mitigation and that could drive prices up.

Looking for lizards

Davis recently led a team of 24 biologists who were surveying a portion of the area that is proposed to be the site of SunPower’s California Valley Solar Ranch along the valley’s eastern edge.

SunPower hired Davis’ employer, URS Corp., a Santa Barbara-based construction consulting firm, to survey the more than three square miles on which the company will build the plant. One day recently, the URS team went looking for blunt-nosed leopard lizards, one of more than 70 rare and endangered animals that live in the area.

None were found — just as none of the lizards have been found on the other two proposed solar sites. But lots of other rare animals have been seen, including burrowing owls, San Joaquin kit foxes, coast horned lizards, the San Joaquin coachwhip snake and kangaroo rats.

Davis thinks the absence of the lizard is due to the fact that the valley is a marginal habitat for them. This site will be surveyed 12 times before biologists are satisfied that none live there.

“You can’t rule them out just because the habitat is marginal,” he said. “That’s why we do these presence/absence surveys.”

The biologists form a line, each person about 100 feet apart. They begin to walk. Occasionally, one stops to examine a hole in the ground or peer through binoculars at the landscape ahead.

The first thing that stands out is that the ground is full of holes. The holes range from large ones where kit foxes have made their dens or badgers have tunneled after ground squirrels to ones so small you could barely insert a pencil where pocket mice have made their dens.

But the most impressive are kangaroo rat dens — complexes, really. They feature numerous holes, both horizontal and vertical, leading to a network of tunnels. Areas of barren dirt mark where the rats have taken dust baths to eliminate parasites.

Some areas are covered with brown vegetative mats where the rats store red brome seeds, their burrs knitted together to prevent them from blowing away. The ground is also pockmarked with small pits where other grass seeds are stowed.

Davis stoops to measure the diameter of the holes. Biologists are uncertain exactly which species of kangaroo rat is making the holes — the endangered giant kangaroo rat or its more diminutive and more common cousin, the Heermann’s variety.

Before European Americans settled California, much of the Central Valley was covered with massive expanses of grass that hosted numerous herds of deer, antelope and elk.

Those grasslands were converted to farms and oil fields. Only the Carrizo Plain was spared because it lacked enough oil and water to be commercially viable.

This last fragile grassland remnant is so ecologically valuable that President Bill Clinton established the Carrizo Plain National Monument in the waning hours of his presidency in 2000 to protect it.

California Valley, comprising the plain’s northern end, was not included because it had been the most intensely farmed and is where the area’s few residents live.

Fox habitat

Of the myriad of rare species that survive in the Carrizo Plain, none is as important as the endangered San Joaquin kit fox. Populations of the little canine are scattered from the Carrizo northwest into Monterey County and Camp Roberts.

Ensuring that the three proposed solar plants do not block the fox’s migration routes, destroy den habitat or otherwise reduce its chances for survival will be the biggest challenge faced by the solar companies and state and federal wildlife managers.

“The kit fox is what we call an umbrella species,” said Dave Hacker, a state environmental scientist based in San Luis Obispo, who is monitoring wildlife issues associated with the solar farms. “If you can meet the conservation needs of the kit fox you can meet the needs of the other species in the area.”

Unfortunately, the proposed solar farms sit smack dab in the middle of the fox’s migration routes, as well as those of tule elk and pronghorn antelope. Because the fox is federally listed as endangered, its conservation needs far outweigh those of the elk and antelope.

Clearing a pathway

The two sprawling photovoltaic plants will have the biggest potential impact on the fox. Consequently, the companies say they have designed their projects to be as fox-friendly as possible.

Steps they plan on taking include raising the solar panels some 18 inches off the ground to allow the fox to move through the area and maintain a clear line of sight in order to avoid predators.

They plan to provide fencing around the plants that will allow the fox passage. Both photovoltaic plants have also scrapped plans to use concrete pedestals as foundations for their panel arrays in favor of sinking the foundation poles a short way into the ground.

Wildlife officials say this arrangement maximizes visibility for the fox. Not having to mix concrete also reduces water consumption.

Because the wildlife impacts are so important, the state Energy Commission has hired the consulting firm South Coast Wildlands to perform a wildlife corridor study that will look at the cumulative impacts of all three solar plants, said John Kessler, the commission’s Carrizo Plain project manager.

“The goal of this study is to provide and maintain an equivalent alternate corridor for wildlife as is utilized currently, considering the proposed project effects,” he said.

In spite of these efforts, the three solar plants will inevitably destroy or degrade wildlife habitat. The standard way to offset those impacts is to permanently conserve alternative habitat to replace it.

Ausra has options to purchase six square miles of nearby land to offset the environmental impact of its one-square-mile proposed solar thermal plant.

Similarly, SunPower is planning to use only about three square miles of the nearly seven square miles it has acquired, with the rest available for wildlife mitigation. First Solar has reduced the footprint of its project by 2,000 acres which would be available for wildlife mitigations.

The commission hopes to have the corridor study complete sometime this fall. The state Department of Fish and Game will then use the information to decide mitigation measures each plant must undertake.

“Wildlife cannot be worse off after these projects are built,” Hacker said. “That can be a challenge when you are looking at large-scale projects like these.”

Secret info?

The possibility that the solar companies will have to purchase additional land for wildlife mitigation has generated a controversy. The solar companies have requested that parts of the study be kept confidential.

They are afraid that if the study identifies certain properties for mitigation, the price of those properties could increase.

“This type of volatility could potentially have a negative impact on corridor mitigation activities, the interests of local landowners and the advancement of development of solar energy projects,” said Ausra spokeswoman Katherine Potter in a prepared statement.

California Valley residents are fighting the confidentiality effort as unnecessary. They say that property owners in the area are already well aware of the solar projects and would take them into consideration if they received any purchase offers.

Confidentiality would also limit public participation in the study, which has been valuable in increasing its accuracy, opponents say. A decision on the request is pending.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.

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.

LA Times Julie Cart Wins Well-Deserved Pulitzer for series on brush fires

Julie Cart, who has been writing on environmental policy and issues as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, and who, with Maria La Ganga wrote the August, 2005 article on Marlene Braun’s suicide, has just won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism with a colleague, Bettina Boxall. Congrats to both of them. You can link to the articles on the brush fires here. One of the great things about Julie Cart’s reporting is that is so balanced. She is among a handful of investigative journalists still trying to understand all sides of an issue.

Cronkite Alumna Wins Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting

April 20, 2009

Julie Cart, a 1980 journalism graduate of Arizona State University and member of the Cronkite School Alumni Hall of Fame, won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for a powerful Los Angeles Times series on fighting wildfires.

Cart and Bettina Boxall, both on the Times metro reporting staff, won for their five-part “Big Burn” series that explored the growth and costs of wildfires. The reporters used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain cartons of U.S. Forest Service records.

The Pulitzer board applauded Cart and Boxall for “their fresh and painstaking exploration into the cost and effectiveness of attempts to combat the growing menace of wildfires across the western United States.”

The series revealed that wildfires are growing in both intensity and expense and that firefighters are often pressured into using air tanker drops even when they will do no good because the aerial water drops – dubbed “CNN drops” by fire officials – “make good television.” The series also explained how more Americans are living in areas prone to wildfires where escape routes are inadequate and how wide swaths of sagebrush are being devastated by wildfires.

Cart, who was an intercollegiate athlete at ASU, has the university’s ninth all-time discus throw record with her 52.04-meter mark recorded in the 1980 season. She was one of the first women’s conference champions in ASU track and field history, winning the discus at the 1976 Intermountain Conference Championships. She also made the U.S. Olympics trials.

She graduated with a B.S. in journalism in 1980 and was inducted into the Cronkite Alumni Hall of Fame in 1998.

“Hooray for the L.A. Times,” Cart told the newspaper staff after the Pulitzers were announced. “It was great that we were given the amount of time to report something that is so important to our readers.”

The series took 15 months from idea to publication last summer.

“The Big Burn series is a marvelous example of the kind of important, in-depth and nuanced journalism we hope our students will be inspired by and aspire to produce,” said Cronkite Dean Christopher Callahan. “We congratulate both Julie Cart and Bettina Boxall and are proud to call Julie one of our own.”

The Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting honors “a distinguished example of explanatory reporting that illuminates a significant and complex subject, demonstrating mastery of the subject, lucid writing and clear presentation.”

The Pulitzer is the 39th won by the Los Angeles Times, the nation’s fourth-largest daily newspaper.

“Wildfires are part of the landscape in Southern California and we did what any serious newsgathering organization does: devote the time and the resources to tell our readers about the causes and effects of this growing menace,” Times Editor Russ Stanton said in a prepared statement. “Our team of reporters, editors, photographers, graphic artists and Web producers devoted more than a year to this project, including traveling to the other side of the globe, to deliver this terrific series. We remain committed to providing this type of in-depth coverage on topics that are important to our readers.”

As the plan goes to a vote, the Monument shows its Glory!

There is a long article on the Carrizo Plain National Monument about the NM itself, including the flora and fauna and the dangers they face, its Resource Management Plan process, and a history of the monument. It is well worth reading the entire article. Click the link. The article also contains some beautiful photos of the monument.

Anyone reading this post who would like to help get the Department of Interior’s report on the death of Monument Manager Marlene Braun released, please go the Petition Site.
Saving the Silence

Facing Threats from Inside and Out, the Carrizo Plain National Monument Prepares for the Future
Thursday, April 16, 2009
By Matt Kettmann
[This part of the Santa Barbara Independent‘s article gives a little history]:

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.

Russell Orrell

Retired Cal Poly biology professor Roger Gambs is a member of Friends of the Carrizo Plain, which cares for these resources with the help of BLM staff.

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 of S.L.O. 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 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.