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Mojave Preserve again shuts down Water for Wildlife guzzler restoration efforts


Here we go again.

Until this year, the volunteers for Cliff McDonald’s Water for Wildlife have worked on the Mojave National Preserve repairing and restoring wildlife water. Over a nine year period, the volunteers have restored 60 guzzlers that provide water for small animals and birds, restored five springs, and repaired a number of water tanks and windmills. Over 6,000 volunteer hours and $40,000 in private funding have gone into these efforts. Over 300 species of birds and at least 45 mammal species have been documented using these important water sources, which increasingly serve as mitigation for natural water sources lost to development and ground-water pumping across the Mojave Desert.

In January this year, McDonald was informed that their volunteer efforts would have to cease “for a short period of time,” while the NPS made sure the work was compliant with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

So McDonald adjusted his 2015 volunteer schedule off the Preserve to other public lands in the east Mojave Desert and on the Inyo-Mono county region. When he inquired in November about restoring eight more guzzlers in April and May, 2016 on the Preserve, he was told the volunteers wouldn’t be allowed to do work in 2016 either.

The reasons: The National Historic Preservation Act issue still hadn’t been resolved, and now the park staff didn’t want more work to be done until it was finished with its master Water Management Plan, a process that will probably take at least three more years. Imagine a muffled scream here.

A dozen years ago, McDonald went through the same set of denials and bureaucratic sleight-of-hand before he was finally granted permission to restore water for wildlife in the Preserve. It’s the same thing all over again. And for no reason.

The three-page letter from new Preserve Superintendent Todd Suess describing why McDonald’s work was stopped outlines in detail the two reasons. Let’s take them both in order:

The National Historic Preservation Act outlines how historic objects are to be protected and restored. The key feature is that they must be over 50 years old. Since virtually all of the guzzlers, cattle water developments, and developed (and natural) springs are over 50 years old, they would qualify. Apparently, the question is whether or not they should be included on the National Register of Historic Places, and Suess says his staff doesn’t have the expertise to make that determination, so they are “seeking funding to accomplish the task through a contracted specialist.”

“Until we have made eligibility determinations, we cannot do any work on any potential historic structures,” wrote Suess.

I have a number of questions here.

First, since there is no other National Preserve or Park that has guzzlers, where are they going to find someone with expertise to make a determination? Even if there is such a person, shouldn’t that “job” request go to bid first, instead of the Preserve seeking funding for a task for which the preserve staff has no cost estimates?

Suess and his staff already have the authority to make a determination if the guzzlers are historic, and they have the authority to restore them (just like they have already done with Kelso Depot). They don’t need a consultant or specialist. I could quality as that specialist, call me, I’ll give them an answer for free.

Second, if the determination isn’t in the Superintendent’s hands, didn’t the previous Superintendents break the law by allowing McDonald and his volunteers do this work for nine years? I mean, the law has been around since 1966. And what about all those lovely historic windmills, and cattle water systems (that also served wildlife), and old ranches that were yanked out at the direction of the first Superintendent? Didn’t that 1966 law apply then?

Third, if the guzzlers are historic sites, the National Park Service would be required to maintain them. If they aren’t determined to be historic sites, the NPS could maintain them at its discretion – or more accurately, maintain them as called for in the Preserve’s management plan and its agreement with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Bottom line: The determination about their historic state has zero impact on what McDonald is doing.

But it gets even worse. Suess babbles on about the National Environmental Policy Act and how the California Department of Fish and Wildlife was given a categorical exemption (no environmental impact) and special use permit (used by McDonald) to repair guzzlers. This is because the repairs on guzzlers would not change the existing impacts to the environment, except to the positive. But somehow Suess wants to lump the Water for Wildlife work with other efforts to maintain and install much larger bighorn sheep drinkers along with a study that involves reactivating windmill sites for wildlife use.

“The sum of all these actions resulted in a large action… and a decision was made to start a larger planning effort” that would be compliant with all environmental laws. “Until the Water Management Plan is finalized, I do not see it as prudent to permit specific, individual actions to maintain or retrofit small game guzzlers.”

How does this make sense? Why would you lump a project (guzzler repair), that Suess’ own letter compares to replacing a kiosk or campfire circle, with a project like building an entirely new campground in an undisturbed location? It simply doesn’t make sense.

And it gets even crazier. Even if -- as the Preserve staff goes through the whole process of writing a draft Water Management Plan, allowing for public comment, then writing a final document -- there is a crazy determination that all water should be removed from the Preserve, the work by McDonald’s crew will result in no change from the existing, pre-restoration condition.

Suess said his staff had looked at the eight guzzlers McDonald wanted to repair in 2016 and that they were all already holding water and with an El Niño predicted, it was unlikely they would dry up even in their various states of disrepair. He was saying that in the short term there would be no negative impact on wildlife that relies on that guzzler water.

So nothing will change if you do the work. Nothing will change if you don’t do the work. Nothing will change, except in the long haul. If the Water Management Plan sensibly determines that keeping water available for wildlife is a good thing, then why throw up a road block for Water for Wildlife for doing something now that has already been determined to have no negative environmental impact?

Shutting down this volunteer work is pure nonsense. If this doesn’t just make you scream at the insanity of government bureaucracy, nothing will.

It also makes you wonder if there really isn’t something else behind this effort to shut McDonald and the Water for Wildlife volunteers down.


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