Monday, April 22, 2019

Photo Essay: The Past Lives of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Located in the Colorado Desert portion of San Diego’s East County—between the Cleveland National Forest and the Salton Sea—lies California's largest state park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Most people just go for the superbloom to look at wildflowers and flowering cacti...

...and miss out on all there is to learn about the history of human (and animal) use of the canyons, dry lakes, valleys, and badlands of the area.

Occasional public tours of the Begole Archaeological Research Center reveal the secret lives of Anza-Borrego's first inhabitants, the Kumeyaay... they gathered food...

...and prepared it using groundstones (a.k.a. metate, or mortar)...

...and other tools (e.g. mano, or pestle).

More recent human use of the land is now part of the archaeological record, too, from soldiers stationed nearby during World War II... miners looking for a form of calcium carbonate, calcite, which was used in the Norden bombsight technology to improve bomb-dropping accuracy in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Traces of the more common lifestyle of the 20th century everyman can be found in the Begole Archaeology Library, which is open to the public on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

In addition to occasional talks, this non-circulating library also displays rotating exhibits...

...the current one focusing on the Butterfield stagecoach line that ran through Warner Springs and the Carrizo Corridor (now Ocotillo) along the Southern Emigrant Trail.

In The Stout Research Center Laboratory and Paleontology Collection Hall, however, the focus is on non-human animals. 

From modern-day reassembled skeletons of a local mountain lion (Puma concolor) from the early 2000s...

...and a Greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)... examples of the fauna of days gone by, like the fossil cast of a Harlan's giant ground sloth, Paramylodon harlani)...

...and plenty of skulls with jaws of varying sizes... can explore a fraction of what comprises the longest continuous fossil record in North America.

In addition to the ancient and extinct saber-toothed cat (Smilodon fatalis, the California state fossil)...

...there's also the short-faced bear (Arctodus), camels, mammoths, horses and the biggest tortoise you’ve ever seen (Hesperotestudo, a giant relative of the desert tortoise from the Pleistocene).

Their traces have been discovered and catalogued, whether an actual bone (or, say, tooth)...

...or a preserved footprint in prehistoric mud (like that of the large-headed llama, Lamaichnum borregoensis).

In some ways, it feels as though their work has just begun.

A current excavation work in progress is of a mammoth, for which researchers perform precision fossil cleaning with the help of tabletop micro-sandblasters, a dry process also known as "pencil blasting."

Because Anza-Borrego remains undeveloped—and even many of the roads and trails are considered backcountry—new discoveries are coming to light all the time.

And selfishly, I'm glad that most people don't consider the park a major destination outside of the spring wildflower season. Despite its enormous size, Anza-Borrego still feels like a well-kept secret.

I'd kind of like to keep it that way. I'd kind of like to keep it all to myself.

But I'm not very good at keeping secrets.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Creatures That Conquered the Desert
Photo Essay: Antelope Valley Indian Museum, Built into a Butte

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Banned from Boeing? Post-Woolsey Fire Edition

I was excited to celebrate Earth Day by taking a community hike at Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a former rocket engine and energy test center that was both historic and controversial.

I hadn't visited it since I took the public bus tour in 2014.

Photo: circa 1990, U.S. Department of Energy (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

I'd signed up for several "Rocket Walks" since then, but could never seem to wake up early enough to drive the 50 miles to the Santa Susana Mountains to get there in time for a early start. But today was different, probably because I was particularly curious to see the site in the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire.

But when I was driving up Woolsey Canyon Road towards the Boeing security checkpoint, I was greeted by masked protestors telling me to "turn back."

I stopped and said hello to each group of them, requesting a photo and asking why they were telling would-be hikers not to "support" Boeing by participating in its Earth Day activities. "Give me your pitch," I said.

I, of course, knew the dangers—having already visited five years ago and having (perhaps stupidly) spent time in Chernobyl in 2017. But all they could do was tell me that it wasn't safe—and that if I insisted on going, I should wear a mask (they provided one that's perfectly suitable for dust but not radioactive material), wash my clothes as soon as I got home, and leave my shoes outside the door.

Of course, they're right. And I believed the local woman who told me about her own health issues, as well as those of her daughters. The decades of thyroid cancer, autoimmune diseases, mystery illnesses—it's all pretty well documented.

Photo: Santa Susana Community Tours

In fact, the Santa Susana site is so contaminated that I can't think of a better place to focus on for Earth Day. The event was promoted under the premise of transparency. Boeing supposedly wants to share its progress on the cleanup and update the status of wildlife and vegetation.

Having gotten my attention while so many other cars sped past me with my hazards on, the protestors begged me not to go. I told them not to worry: "They're probably not going to let me in anyway."

Because although I'd received my confirmation email three days ago, when I logged in to double-check the address earlier this morning, I discovered yet another email in my inbox.

This one, from two days ago, read, "We host separate site tours for community members and media representatives.  Since you are a KCET contributor, please follow up with our Environmental Communications you can schedule a media tour in the future."

I thought that was curious, since I wasn't attending as a media representative and definitely hadn't been assigned a story about the hike or Santa Susana in general. My KCET column is pretty fluffy—goat yoga, coffee culture, superblooms, and the like—and therefore innocuous.

You'd think, anyway.

I replied to their email—but it was so early in the morning, I suspected they might not receive it right away. So, I decided to show up anyway and try to clear up what must've been a simple misunderstanding.

But when I got there, my name wasn't on the list at the security checkpoint. The officers had me proceed past the kiosk and pull my car over.

One called the Boeing rep from Environmental Community Relations on his walkie. When he gave her my name, she responded, "Can you call me?"

When he returned to my car after calling her, he said, "They told me not to let you in."

There was a bit of back-and-forth after that, but it was clear that there was no getting in. So, I turned around and drive back past those protestors.

They nodded knowingly when I said that I was turned away for being "media."

Boeing couldn't possibly be blacklisting me because they didn't want journalists showing up, could they?

I mean, after all, everybody's a blogger or some kind of social media influencer these days. And although my Avoiding Regret readers are loyal, there's not a staggering number of them.

Boeing's confirmation email even encouraged photography and promoted the hashtag #SantaSusanaOpenSpace.

So what are they hiding? What would I, as a writer (or "media" person), pick up on that members of the general public would not?

What didn't they want me to see or hear?

What didn't they want me to tell?

The secret's already out about the Sodium Reactor Experiment nuclear meltdown of 1959 (the fourth-worst nuclear accident in all of history) and the subsequent illegal disposal of nuclear waste.

What else could there possibly be?

Here's what I know from the internet:
  • The Boeing Company has lined up a number of "third-party allies," including a Pennsylvania-based conservation management organization called North American Land Trust—a 501(c)(3) non-profit that holds a perpetually binding Conservation Easement on the property. 
  • Boeing has been certified by another 501(c)(3) non-profit—a DC area-based conservation organization called Wildlife Habitat Council, which works with corporate landowners to use their holdings in a way that's sensitive to wildlife.
  • Other organizations working with Boeing include Santa Susana Mountain Park Association, San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, Southwestern Herpetologist Society, Pollinator Partnership (which has conducted onsite studies), and the Chumash and Tataviam Native American Tribes. 
  • Boeing isn't the only landowner of the former Rocketdyne site, but it's the only one to commit to permanently conserving its holdings (2,400 acres) as open space. NASA and the Department of Energy have put their parcels up for sale.
  • There has been a movement to establish the site as a National Historic Monument, but no updates are available.
  • Most documents and position statements available online are from 2013-17. There's nothing on the California Department of Toxic Substances Control's SSFL Document Library for 2018. It's hard to know exactly what's happening now and what's been decided—but originally, the SSFL was already supposed to be cleaned up by 2017.
  • The public comment period for the the DTSC's Draft Environmental Impact Report has closed. Not sure when the final report will be released.
Meanwhile, the air quality report from 2Q 2018 shows that concentrations of at least one volatile organic compound—ethylbenzene, a possibly carcinogenic solvent used in the production of styrene—were higher at SSFL than what the EPA recommends for a residential area.

Levels of radioactive particles (a.k.a. radionuclides, like plutonium, radium, and uranium) were tested by collecting samples from glass fiber—but their method of testing introduced interference in all samples, which created a low bias in the results. 

According to publicly available materials, there are two prevailing concepts that are largely informing Boeing's approach to the cleanup:
  1. That the contamination is isolated to the site, and therefore
  2. That the cleanup only needs to be held to the standards of an "occasional use" open space.
And there are two problems with those arguments:
  1. As we know from Chernobyl, radioactive material does, in fact, drift—with wind (which Santa Susana has plenty of), rain, and the resulting runoff. Polluted water pools at the lowest spot, which is both the "Southern Buffer Zone" (where the hike was held) and the neighboring communities below. Tests in surrounding communities have found Rocketdyne-associated contamination in groundwater and soil samples.
  2. People are already living so incredibly adjacent to the SSFL site—not the least of which are two mobile home communities, Summit and Mountainview Estates, both since 1979. A more recent addition includes the "upscale" and "prestigious" residential subdivision of Woolsey Canyon View Estates. The home closest to Boeing's security kiosk is a mere 1.1-mile drive away—or 0.7 miles as the crow flies.
For Boeing's position, you can read their Backgrounder sheet and one-pager on the EIR.

To hear the protestors' side of the story, you can visit the websites of such community-based alliances as Santa Susana Field Laboratory Work Group, Protect Santa Susana from Boeing, and Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition.

I wish Boeing had given me the chance to see the recovery myself. I'd love to see some birds and lizards and plants and bees up there.

But maybe I dodged a radioactive bullet by being unceremoniously ejected from the site.

Nevertheless, it raises a bright, red flag.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Boeing Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Lab, Declassified & Decontaminating
Photo Essay: Crashing & Bleeding on the Trails at Sage Ranch

Friday, April 19, 2019

Photo Essay: The First-Ever Public Tour of Blue Cloud Movie Ranch

If anything will perk up my ears, it's hearing that any particular place is "never open to the public"—except this one time.

Such was the case with Blue Cloud Movie Ranch in Saugus, which offered its first-ever public tour through the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival this year.

To be considered an official "movie ranch," a production facility needs to be at least 50 contiguous acres and have a buffer zone between it and the local residential area. Blue Cloud has 250 acres that are located in a wilderness area, partially bordering Los Padres National Forest and the City of Santa Clarita's Haskell Open Space.

It first opened for business in 2001 under the leadership of movie actor and stuntman Rene Veluzat—a member of the Veluzat family, who's got the Santa Clarita movie ranch market cornered. He sold it to new owner Dylan Lewis in 2015. 

Lewis and his team has renovated and expanded Blue Cloud Movie Ranch since that time...

...including adding a 3,000-square-foot mission-style church.

Eventually, it will anchor a town plaza-themed set...

...because what center of town doesn't have some kind of church?

The exterior could easily double as California...

...or Mexico.

But once you pass through those big wooden doors and go inside...'s more of a blank canvas, waiting to be dressed by production designers and set decorators.

Like the rest of the sets on the ranch, there's no potable water and no electricity (though it's wired for it, so productions can bring in their own generators).

One of the most famous sets at Blue Cloud Ranch is the insensitively-named "Third World Town"...

...where we saw Tony Stark as Iron Man come "to the rescue" [click for clip] in Afghanistan.

This set also functioned as Afghanistan for an episode of HBO's True Blood...

...although it's designed to portray the bustling side streets of any traditional Middle Eastern town (or even Mexico or Asia).

And because of its remote location, excessive noise (like explosions and helicopter landings) is permitted from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. As well, production companies can film here 24/7.

Clint Eastwood's production of American Sniper chose this set to portray an Afghan village...

...where Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (portrayed by Bradley Cooper) dines with a family of insurgents...

...and discovers a cache of weapons in the floor [click for clip].

As soon as it starts to seem real, you turn a corner and you're reminded that it's all just a Hollywood set.

However, one of two fully functional military base simulations at Blue Cloud—Forward Operating Base #1—is as authentic as any Middle Eastern "training towns" I've seen on real bases.

Between the tents, barracks, offices...

...guard towers, and other military infrastructure, it feels like you're right on the front lines.

Given Blue Cloud's proximity to undeveloped land—its oak trees and scrub oaks located on the Ranch are protected by state law—it can't exactly dig through the natural landscape if it needs a tunnel.

So, it built a free-standing culvert...

...that leads to a labyrinthine cave system that feels underground but is entirely above ground (and artificial, like everything else).

Visiting Blue Cloud Movie Ranch feels like stepping back in time—before LA was overcrowded and everything was owned by just a handful of corporations.

It's nice to see an independently-owned movie ranch thriving. Especially when the ones in the San Fernando Valley, Simi Hills, and Santa Susana Mountains got crowded out (or burned down).

But movie ranches like Blue Cloud do feel like an endangered species.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: A Fake Iraq in the Middle of the Mojave Desert
Photo Essay: Melody Ranch Movie Ranch, Closed to Public (Except this Once)
Finding the Minnesota Prairie in the Simi Hills