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.

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

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

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

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

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

According to the Wall Street Journal,

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

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

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

Republicans sent a letter of complaint about the reforms.

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

BLM Celebrates National Public Lands Day at Carrizo Plain National Monument, et al

BLM Celebrates National Public Lands Day at 14 sites in California
September 04, 2009

On NPLD 2009- volunteers and BLM staff will renovate the Soda Lake Overlook and the Soda Lake Boardwalk. These sites are the first place most visitors stop and the most visited sites at the monument so the receive most of the wear and tear. Barriers around the parking lot will be replaced, the trails will be resurfaced and the interpretive displays will be renovated.
To celebrate National Public Lands Day (NPLD), hundreds of volunteers will work to improve the quality of their public lands at 14 selected Bureau of Land Management sites in California. Volunteers will perform trail and campground maintenance, clean-up illegal dump sites, remove invasive plants and restore areas back to their natural state.
“National Public Lands Day has grown significantly,” said BLM Acting State Director Jim Abbott. “What began a decade ago with one or two sites has grown into a major volunteer effort at over a dozen locations.”
Some of the activities include renovating the Soda Lake overlook and boardwalk at the Carrizo Plain National Monument in San Luis Obispo County; planting native seeds at Fort Ord in Monterey County; hiking to a remote location in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument in Riverside County to remove invasive plants; conducting an interactive “Caring for the Land” exhibit at the Los Angeles County Fair; and taking intercity youth for an overnight excursion to El Mirage Dry Lake Bed in San Bernardino County to clean-up trash and campout overnight.
The official National Public Lands Day is September 26, when most of the volunteer events will take place, but some sites are holding their events on different dates. The first National Public Lands Day event in California is August 28 & 29, at the newly designated Bitner Area of Critical Environmental Concern in Modoc County. The last event will take place in partnership with the National Park Service at its Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County on November 7. For a complete list of dates, sites and how to volunteer, visit the BLM volunteer website at http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/res/volunteers.html.
National Public Lands Day is the largest volunteer hands-on activity o fits kind in the nation. Held the last Saturday in September each year, National Public Lands Day brings together thousands of individuals and organizations to refurbish and restore the country’s public lands.

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.”

Carrizo Plain National Monument Tourism

Carrizo Plain National Monument Tourism Carrizo Plain National Monument to Offer New Historic Ranch Tour
April 17, 2009

In addition to the Painted Rock Tours currently being offered by the Carrizo Plain National Monument each Saturday two new tours to the historic El Saucito Ranch will be offered this spring. Tour dates are April 19 and May 3.
Call (805) 475- 2131 for tour reservations and information.
The tours meet at the Goodwin Education Center off of Soda Lake Road at 10 a.m. and will caravan up to the ranch. Visitors should bring a sack lunch to enjoy while sitting on the ranch house veranda at the tour conclusion.
The El Saucito Ranch has the distinction of having the oldest standing historic house on the
Monument and is the only ranch on the monument to have been occupied from the pioneer period to modern time. Historic sites such as the El Saucito Ranch are special places that tell us a story about the heritage of California.
The tour includes a short hike lead by a BLM employee around the grounds of the ranch, descriptions of the facilities and the operation of the historic ranch, and stories about the way life was 100+ years ago on the Carrizo Plain.

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.