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.

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In Memoriam: Anne McMahon

A great environmentalist and writer passed away this weekend. Anne McMahon, who worked with the Nature Conservancy during the period that Marlene Braun was the monument manager for the Carrizo Plain National Monument, but who left TNC shortly before Marlene died, was a champion for justice. She worked for Representative Lois Capps before moving to her job as Federal Programs Manager for the California Coastal Commission in San Francisco. In the Los Angeles Times article about Marlene’s death, she was one of the few willing to be quoted. A small notice appeared yesterday in the CalCoast News. There is a topix comment thread on which you can leave a comment if you like, to remember Anne.

If you would like to read Anne’s article about the Carrizo, “A California Gem,” the Wilderness Society has reposted it.

Anne, may you rest in peace.

Update:
Please make donations in Anne’s name to North County Watch (http://www.northcountywatch.org/).

Update:
Local political player hailed as dedicated
Anne McMahon, who died Saturday at 57, worked for the California Coastal Commission
By Bill Morem | bmorem@thetribunenews.com

Anne McMahon, 57, who died Saturday at her Santa Margarita home after a seven-month battle with cancer, was known for her keen intelligence and sense of humor.

Referring to her as “my dear friend,” Rep. Lois Capps said, “Anne was one of the first Congressional staffers (my husband), Walter, hired when he was elected in 1996, and she was a tremendous asset to the office and the constituents of the 22nd Congressional District.

“Anne was a wonderful writer,” she added, “having worked as a local journalist for several years before moving to politics. She also had a quick wit and generous spirit. It was truly a joy to work with her and an honor to be her friend.”
Click image to see caption

Anne McMahon was described as having a ‘quick wit’ by Lois Capps.

California Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas hired McMahon three years ago to be the commission’s Federal Program Manager, acting as a liaison with a variety of federal agencies and Congress.

Douglas said that although McMahon “knew the Coastal Commission, its policies and its work, she was not familiar with the wide range of responsibilities and issues she would need to address in her new capacity. She stepped right in, and through her dedication, strong work ethic, good mind and fine people skills, she was able to catch on remarkably fast.

“In my 30-plus years with the commission,” he added, “I know of no one who joined our coastal family and earned the love and respect of her colleagues more quickly than Anne did.”

Jim Hayes, former journalism professor and writing coach for the Los Angeles Times, taught McMahon when she returned to Cal Poly for a degree in journalism after having raised a family.

“She was smart, shrewd and determined to learn. Annie — as her friends knew her — had a heart as big as the outdoors she loved so well.

She drove herself with passion for good causes and compassion even for those who failed her. She taught me that politics, played by honest people for the right reasons, could be a wonderful game. She ended up teaching me. She was one-of-a-kind.”

Former county supervisor David Blakely hired her as his board aide. “She had been with me through my political career,” the now-retired Blakely said from his home in Santa Margarita.

“First and foremost, she loved her family and right behind that, this little community.”

Toward that end, Mc-Mahon fought the development of the Santa Margarita Ranch, pointing out that almost a dozen environmental problems associated with the project couldn’t be fixed or mitigated.

“She was great to work with,” Blakely said. “You know how you’ve got some employees that you don’t have to worry about? She was one of those. She just knew what to do and did it. She engendered a lot of respect from county staff.”

Neil Havlik, natural resources manager for the city of San Luis Obispo, said McMahon’s love for the county was evident in her efforts with the Nature Conservancy to get an area of the Carrizo Plain designated a national monument.

“I don’t know who got Bill Clinton to sign the designation,” Havlik said, “but it wouldn’t surprise me if her hand were in there.”

When she tried to drum up support for a countywide green belt, she pulled in such disparate groups as the Farm Bureau, Cattlemen’s Association, Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Center.

“She was nothing but a lady,” Havlik said.

She is survived by her husband Peter Kincaid; sons Jono and Ryan; parents Bob and Janis McMahon; three sisters — Noreen, Megan and Michelle; and two brothers, Gerard and Dan.

No services are planned, although an Irish wake will be held at a later date.

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 Story: House Passes Bill to Expand Wilderness

House Passes Bill to Expand Wilderness

In California–which now has 14
million acres of wilderness (second
only to Alaska, which has more than
57 million acres) — the bill would
protect about 700,000 additional
acres from new roads and most
commercial uses such as new mining,
logging and energy development.
Included in the legislation is $88
million to help fund a project to return
year-round flows and a prized salmon
run to the San Joaquin River for the
first time since the 1940s. The bill
also would provide $61 million toward
cleanup of polluted groundwater in
the San Gabriel Valley.

Solar Power: Eco-Friendly or Environmental Blight?

There is an interesting article in Time Magazine on solar proposals involving the Carrizo Plains.
Solar Power on the Carrizo: www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1887120,00.html?imw=Y
By Matt Kettmann / Carrisa Plains Tuesday, Mar. 24, 2009

California wants to run on sunshine. The state is forcing utility companies to provide 20% of their output by way of solar power and other forms of renewable energy by 2010. Last November, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said he wanted the portion to be one-third by 2020. Now the feds are bringing the money to help fund all this sunny energy, with the Obama Administration’s stimulus package promising to pay for 30% of solar-power projects that begin by the end of 2010.

But could this politically backed, popularly supported solar surge spiral into eco-disaster? That’s what some say is happening to the Carrisa Plains, a sparsely populated swath of arid, sunny and relatively cheap land in eastern San Luis Obispo County, where three of the world’s largest solar plants ever proposed are under review.

People who live near the Carrizo Plains National Monument have concerns:

“It’s peaceful out here. I love the wildlife,” says Mike Strobridge, 32, an auto mechanic, explaining why he moved to the Carrisa Plains with his daughter. “But then these solar guys are going to come in, and they’re just gonna destroy the area.” Strobridge is especially troubled because he will be “surrounded on four sides” by the three projects. What’s more, like his neighbors and other concerned parties — including the Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo County — Strobridge is worried about the impact the power plants will have on endangered species such as the San Joaquin kit fox. He is also concerned about the effect on dwindling water supplies as well as the more intangible treasures of the area: the unimpeded views, the stark silence, the rustic natural beauty, the huge wilderness area called the Carrizo Plain National Monument just down the valley — that is, just about everything that led him to buy the property 10 years ago.

Although there is support for solar power among environmentalists (you may have seen AllianceforAmerica’s commercials) there are environmental and other concerns. Ranchers whose grazing rights are the subject of controversy may be making money on the new solar projects as well.

Darrell Twisselman — whose family has lived in the area since the 1880s and whose land would host the two photovoltaic plants for a hefty profit — remembers when they built a solar photovoltaic plant there in the mid-1980s. (At 6 megawatts, it was tiny compared with the current proposals, one of which has a 177-megawatt capacity.) The project faced similar gripes then. “Everyone complained about them for two weeks, and then everyone forgot,” Twisselman says. “And they were what you might say unsightly. You could see them from everywhere.” The technology, however, was worse then, and “the panels cooked,” melting in their own heat, says Twisselman. That was just one reason the government pulled funding and the project was dismantled.

Despite the earlier Carrisa solar experiment, the state feels it is still inexperienced in judging the impact of huge solar plants. According to California Energy Commission chairwoman 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.”

Also:

Check out the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. There has already been a vote on some amendments, but there are other votes coming up:
Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 – H.R.146

The House will vote on this public lands, national parks and water development legislation.

Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act – H.R.1404

The House is scheduled to vote on this bill intended to improve funding and management of fighting wildfires.

And please consider signing the petition to release the Department of Interior’s Inspector General’s Report on the death of Carrizo Plain National Monument manager Marlene Braun by clicking here.

Carrizo Plain named as environmental “Bio Gem”

Petition for Justice for Marlene Braun

Carrizo Plain is New BioGem

Peace-Athabasca Delta named a BioGem

By Hanneke Brooymans, edmontonjournal.com
February 3, 2009

EDMONTON — Among the crown jewels of Canada’s boreal forest tracts, the Peace-Athabasca Delta in northern Alberta stands out as a BioGem, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The environmental organization named the region as one of three new BioGems on Tuesday. The other two newly designated regions are the Carrizo Plain National Monument in central California and the country of Costa Rica.

There are now 13 BioGems in all. The BioGems project highlights the Western Hemisphere’s most extraordinary and at-risk places stretching from the Arctic in Alaska to Patagonia in Chile.

Since 2001, NRDC has campaigned to save more than 30 special natural places throughout the Americas that offer sanctuary for endangered wildlife, curb global warming and provide livelihoods for local communities.

“Even within the boreal forest, the Peace-Athabasca Delta is one of the world’s most important nesting grounds for migratory birds. But these rest areas are threatened by the world’s largest industrial project — Alberta’s tarsand mines,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz director of NRDC’s Canada program, in a press release. “By designating this area as a BioGem, we can help prevent potential devastation from the oil industry and other development.”

The Peace-Athabasca Delta is a stopover and nesting area for more than one million birds, including tundra swans, snow geese and countless ducks, the council said. The delta and the bird populations are also of critical importance to local aboriginal communities.

The council fears ramped-up oilsands extraction could contaminate and reduce water flow into the delta, kill fish and disturb habitat.

Conservation groups recently released a report finding that oilsands projects could have a cumulative impact in the coming decades that could be as high as 166 million birds lost, including future generations, throughout the larger boreal forest.

hbrooymans@thejournal.canwest.com