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California urbanites flocking to remote deserts spark ‘culture clash’ with locals

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MORONGO BASIN, Calif. — Along a dusty highway snaking through the Southern California desert, Eric Wilson rattles off a list of fruits and vegetables available from his nearby farm.

He has been selling locally grown kale, lettuce, tomatoes and other produce since April at the Morongo Valley Fruit Market, a small grocery store he and his wife took over earlier this year.

Despite being located in what Wilson calls a “food desert” — the nearest grocery store is 15 minutes away in neighboring Yucca Valley — Wilson was initially dismissed as yet another outsider seeking to gentrify the quiet community.

Eric Wilson and his wife Garden Ramirez at their farm market. (Michael Rubenstein for NBC News)

“People assumed I’m from L.A.,” said Wilson, who grew up in Cathedral City, some 30 minutes away. “I was called a yuppie because of the organic prices.”

Once a hamlet for cowboys and homesteaders, the Morongo Basin is undergoing rapid change amid an influx of urbanites seeking to escape city life during the pandemic. They come to the sun-drenched desert in hopes of finding fresh air, cheap homes and Instagram-worthy backdrops.

But what is considered affordable for residents from Los Angeles, Silicon Valley or New York is out of reach for many longtime residents, who say transplants are pricing out locals and disrupting the fragile ecosystem.

“It’s a culture clash,” said Sarah Kennington, of the Morongo Basin Conservation Association. “Everybody loves [Joshua Tree National Park], everybody loves the desert, and if you were mellow, it was fine. But it’s not the place that it was decades ago.”

Located more than 100 miles outside Los Angeles, the Morongo Basin is tucked within the greater Mojave Desert. It borders Joshua Tree National Park and includes the communities of Morongo and Yucca valleys, Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, Pioneertown and others.

A view from Pappy and Harriet’s, a bar and restaurant in Pioneertown, in the Morongo Valley. (Michael Rubenstein for NBC News)

A view from Pappy and Harriet’s, a bar and restaurant in Pioneertown, in the Morongo Valley. (Michael Rubenstein for NBC News)

Visitors have long been lured to the remote region by spiky, twisty Joshua trees and an otherworldly landscape that has inspired countless artists and musicians throughout the decades. During the golden age of Westerns, film crews trekked from Hollywood to shoot movies in the rugged terrain, culminating with the founding of Pioneertown as a “living, breathing movie set” in 1946.

For decades, the Morongo Basin remained largely untouched by city life. It was a place to relax and unwind for tourists, while longtime residents could afford to buy or rent several acres of land for nominally low prices.

That started to change after the coronavirus pandemic shut down offices and ushered in a new era of working from home. Urban residents fled expensive, dense cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, gobbling up real estate and turning homes into short-term vacation rentals.

In Yucca Valley, where the median income is below $45,000, home prices are now upward of $300,000, according to Zillow.

New construction in the Morongo Valley. (Michael Rubenstein for NBC News)

New construction in the Morongo Valley. (Michael Rubenstein for NBC News)

Some of the recent changes have improved daily life, according to Clint Stoker, a Yucca Valley planning commissioner. The town recently replaced aging septic tanks with a sewer system, new restaurants and cafés are popping up and roads are being repaired.

Stoker, who was raised in Pioneertown, is among several Yucca Valley officials who own short-term vacation rentals in the area. During a planning commission hearing last week, Stoker and one other commissioner recused themselves from participating in discussions over the future of short-term vacation rentals because of conflicts of interest. That follows the recusal of two Yucca Valley Town Council members earlier this month for the same reason.

“This place was a ghost town in the ‘80s. You had to drive all the way to Palm Springs to do some shopping,” he said. “Now, there’s a lot more to do. It’s been a positive thing for us.”

Laurie McVay, who runs the Pioneertown community Facebook page, in front of the Pioneertown Post Office. McVay moved to the Morongo Valley 15 years ago from Boston where she was a financial advisor. She says that “growth is bringing in a lot of money to a town that really needs the money.” (Michael Rubenstein for NBC News)

Laurie McVay, who runs the Pioneertown community Facebook page, in front of the Pioneertown Post Office. McVay moved to the Morongo Valley 15 years ago from Boston where she was a financial advisor. She says that “growth is bringing in a lot of money to a town that really needs the money.” (Michael Rubenstein for NBC News)

But the influx of outside money has also contributed to rising home prices in one of the last affordable parts of California. Now, luxury cars drive alongside vehicles brandishing stickers that read, “Go back to L.A.”

“We watched family members have to leave. We watched friends have to leave,” said Yucca Valley resident Breana Violanti. “We don’t care where you’re from. The biggest problem is that they’re not coming to stay here.”

Violanti, who grew up in Joshua Tree and lived there until earlier this month, said she was recently forced out of her home because the landlord wanted to turn it into a short-term vacation rental.

The landlord initiated the process last year, around the same time Violanti and her husband were both laid off from their jobs because of the pandemic, she said. Violanti was able to remain in her rental for another year because of the state’s eviction moratorium, but that expired at the end of September.

“I’m not a crier, but I cried that day,” she said. “I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’”

Joshua Tree, Calif., in the Morongo Valley. (Michael Rubenstein for NBC News)

Joshua Tree, Calif., in the Morongo Valley. (Michael Rubenstein for NBC News)

Realtor Madelaine LaVoie estimated that home prices in the Morongo Basin have increased some 35 percent since the pandemic began. She recently sold a property for nearly $2 million that sits across 13 acres. Many of her clients are “big city transfers” looking for privacy and breathtaking views, she said.

Those views come with a high price beyond sticker shock, however. Joshua trees are candidates for the California Endangered Species Act, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and cannot be moved or cut without a permit. Failing to obtain one can lead to hefty fines.

Stoker, who is also a contractor, said many of the new properties popping up in the desert are built with an eye toward sustainability, incorporating solar panels and drought-resistant landscaping into construction plans.

But some homeowners have run afoul of environmental laws that protect native and protected species. Earlier this year, a couple was fined $18,000 for bulldozing 36 Joshua trees.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit conservation organization that works to protect endangered species, found that while the most visible threat is the direct killing of Joshua trees by developers, climate change and fire are also responsible for pushing the species closer to extinction.

“They are an iconic species of the Mojave Desert. There’s no question about it,” said Ileene Anderson, deserts director and senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “They don’t occur anywhere else in the world.”

Homes in the desert of Joshua Tree, Calif. (Michael Rubenstein for NBC News)

Homes in the desert of Joshua Tree, Calif. (Michael Rubenstein for NBC News)

Joshua trees were the tallest things in the desert until humans introduced infrastructure to the remote region, Anderson said. The trees continue to provide important habitats for wildlife like Swainson’s hawk, a rare bird of prey that builds nests in the spiny limbs during long migrations between North and South America. Fallen trees also host desert night lizards, small reptiles that live in the trees.

The uniqueness of desert life also makes it especially fragile to outside disturbances, Anderson cautioned.

“It takes so long for the desert to heal if there’s an incursion,” she said.

Eric Wilson in his farm market in the Morongo Valley.  (Michael Rubenstein for NBC News)

Eric Wilson in his farm market in the Morongo Valley. (Michael Rubenstein for NBC News)

Working with the desert environment instead of against it is one of the reasons grocery store owner Eric Wilson chose the Morongo Basin to start a small farm. The Coachella Valley is “overrun” with big farms, he said, and Wilson wanted to avoid adding to an already large environmental footprint.

He said as a resident, he sympathizes with concerns about gentrification, but as a business owner, change is inevitable.

“No matter what anyone thinks about the situation, it’s happening,” Wilson said.



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Russian Troops Dead After Getting ‘Treated’ to Poisoned Meals, Ukraine Officials Say

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Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry / Facebook

In a show of hospitality, Ukrainian citizens in the besieged region of Kharkiv have reportedly been “treating” Russian troops local delicacies—laced with poison.

At least two troops from the 3rd Motor Rifle Division of the Russian Federation died immediately after eating stuffed buns served by the residents of Izium, a town about 80 miles southeast of Kharkiv, the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine wrote Saturday in an announcement posted to Facebook.

Another 28 Russians are being treated in intensive care from eating the contaminated treats. The condition of these poisoned invaders has yet to be confirmed.

According to the Intelligence Directorate, several hundred Russian soldiers have also suffered severe illnesses from drinking poisoned alcohol while occupying the region. Ukrainian officials said that the Russian military is “writing off these cases as so-called ‘non-combat losses.’”

Though Russian troops have reportedly retreated from the capital of Kyiv. The New York Times reports that insurgent forces are still fighting to gain control of Izium, despite the locals’ culinary efforts. Control of the eastern town would allow Russians to strategically secure access to the occupied Donbas region.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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Massive ship called Ever Forward is stuck in Chesapeake Bay

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Despite two failed attempts to free it this week, a sister container ship to the Ever Given that got stuck in the Suez Canal last year has been lodged in the Chesapeake Bay for 21 days — and now cargo holders have to pay to help free it.

Why it matters: The Ever Forward (yes, bask in the irony) is the largest ship to get stuck in the Chesapeake Bay and it’s carrying 5,000 containers of … stuff.

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What’s happening: The ship’s owner — Evergreen Marine Corp. — has invoked a maritime law dubbed “General Average,” under which people whose belongings are on a ship must share in the cost of freeing it.

Zoom in: It’s unclear what’s in the thousands of containers aboard the Ever Forward, but at least one cargo holder — a Bloomberg journalist who recently moved from Hong Kong to New York — has been sharing her experience waiting on her furniture.

  • “The entire contents of our apartment, all of our furniture, lots of books, things of sentimental value are all in a container stuck in the Chesapeake Bay,” Tracy Alloway told NBC Washington.

  • The U.S. Coast Guard, which is handling Ever Forward’s PR, per the Port of Baltimore, told Axios that “general cargo” is on the ship and referred further questions to Evergreen.

Zoom out: The Ever Forward has been idling near Baltimore, en route to Norfolk, since a wrong turn leaving Baltimore on March 13 ran the boat aground in shallow water (24 feet of water — when it needs 42 to float, per NBC Washington.)

  • The Ever Forward has been stuck thrice as long as its sister ship sat marooned between the Mediterranean and Red seas last year.

  • The ship is not disrupting trade — or blocking passage out of Baltimore Harbor, William Doyle, director of the Port of Baltimore tweeted.

  • Tuesday and Wednesday were the first attempts to refloat the boat using tug boats.

  • A third attempt will be coming soon, “using two anchored pulling barges from the stern and five tugs,” Doyle wrote on Twitter.

The big picture: You can stay informed on the progress via istheshipstillstuck.com, a website that went viral last year during the Suez fiasco.

  • The boat has become a tourist attraction and Downs Park (there’s a $6 entry fee) in Pasadena, Maryland is apparently the best place to see it.

By the numbers: Comparing giant, stuck container ships.

  • The Ever Forward — currently lodged in Baltimore en route to Norfolk for 21 days and counting — 1,095 feet long, 117,340 gross tons. Ran aground due to a wrong turn in the Bay.

  • The Ever Given — stuck in the Suez Canal for 6 days – 1,312 feet long, weighing in at 224,000 gross tons. Ran aground due to a large wind gust.

🗞 This article is by Axios Richmond’s Karri Peifer! Subscribe to the Axios Richmond newsletter (launching soon).

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California has $600M in unclaimed can, bottle deposits

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California is sitting on a $600 million pile of unclaimed nickel and dime deposits on recyclable cans and bottles and now wants to give some of that back to consumers.

To get the state’s nearly 40 million residents to recycle more and send more deposits back to them, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration unveiled a plan Friday to temporarily double to a dime the refund for a 12-ounce (355 milliliters) bottle or can. California already pays 10 cents on containers over 24 ounces (709 milliliters), and that would temporarily double to 20 cents.

The move would make California among the highest-paying recycling programs in the country. Rachel Machi Wagoner, director of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, said the effort would help California again become the recycling leader it was 35 years ago when it started its cash refund program.

When someone in California purchases a regular-sized soda, a 5-cent charge is applied that can be recouped if the container is brought back for recycling. Under Newsom’s plan, the deposit charge would remain the same but the return amount would double. The goal is to raise the recycling rate for beverage containers from 70% to at least 80%.

Oregon and Michigan already offer 10-cent refunds and advocacy groups say that amount for each glass or plastic bottle or aluminum can has been enough for consumers to recycle at least nine of every 10 containers.

The advocacy group Consumer Watchdog’s President Jamie Court, a frequent critic of the recycling program, called the plan “a very positive step” and “a bold proposal to give people their money back.”

“That money isn’t doing anybody any good sitting in the bank,” Court said. “We need a complete structural fix, but this is a good interim step.”

California’s proposal feeds the latest national effort to boost recycling as beverage distributors face increased pressure to include higher percentages of recycled material in their containers, National Stewardship Action Council executive director Heidi Sanborn said.

Just 10 of the 50 states have deposit programs now, but many are considering them — potentially creating a confusing patchwork and beverage labels crowded with different states’ deposit amounts, something she said distributors want to avoid.

California’s doubling of refunds would be temporary — a duration for the change has yet to be decided — and is expected to cost $100 million. If approved by the Legislature the refund increase would take effect sometime during the next fiscal year that starts July 1.

It’s uncertain if any boost in recycling would last once the higher price ends, Sanborn acknowledged, but she hopes instead California will decide to make the increase permanent. She’s also hopeful pressure from states will spur attempts by U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California and U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon to craft a national bottle bill.

Newsom’s plan also attempts to ease a bottleneck that began years ago as more neighborhood recycling centers closed and Consumer Watchdog said many grocery stores also were refusing to take back empties in-store as required.

To increase access, Newsom’s administration proposes spending $100 million on grants to add about 2,000 automated recycling machines, also known as reverse vending machines, at high schools, colleges and retailers. Consumers dump their empty containers into the machines, which issue a refund.

Another $55 million would go for state-funded mobile recycling programs in rural areas and other places with few recycling options.

Consumers are very upset that “they are unable to return their bottles and cans and get their money back as promised,” said Sanborn, who also heads California’s Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets & Curbside Recycling.

Sanborn blamed the closure of many California recycling centers on the state’s failure to quickly adjust its complicated payment formula to meet changing market conditions.

Many of California’s recyclables go to China, which toughened standards in 2017 on accepting contaminated material, including plastics. The move “totally slammed the recycling industry” nationwide, said Kate O’Neill, a University of California, Berkeley, environmental science professor and author of the 2019 book “Waste.”

The U.S. market is recovering now with the addition of domestic recycling facilities, but there still is a problem matching supply to demand, O’Neill said.

Recycling officials had expected beverage consumption to drop during the pandemic, as it does during most economic downturns, Wagoner said. Instead, container sales in California increased by 2.5 billion over three years, to 27 billion last fiscal year, meaning a record number of deposits flowing into the state’s recycling fund.

The number of refundable containers recycled in California meanwhile hit a record high of more than 18.8 billion in 2021 — but that still left plenty of money on the table.

Repeated attempts to improve the state’s recycling system have struggled in the Legislature, even as California tries to boost its recycling rates, minimize food waste, and work toward a circular-use economy.

Wagoner said Friday’s proposal is an interim step while the administration continues talks with lawmakers over permanent fixes.

Democratic state Sen. Bob Wieckowski said he tried a bill last year with proposals similar to what the administration is now suggesting, “and they didn’t want to hear about it.” He anticipates people now hoarding their recyclables until the double redemption period, then facing long lines once it begins.

His proposal this year would put more responsibility on producers to recycle their containers.

“It has a little gimmicky nature to it,” Wieckowski said of the state’s plan. “We have 45 Band-Aids on this program, and sometime you have to get out of the Band-Aid business.”



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Fort Lauderdale police arrest Black hotel clerk who called for help

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New body camera video released by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department shows officers pushing a Black hotel employee before arresting him. The employee, Raymond Rachal, was the person to call the police after an incident in the lobby where Rachal claims a man was yelling racial slurs at him.



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Police investigating ‘appalling’ incident recorded inside a Wilmington High School bathroom

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Police and school officials in Wilmington are investigating a “serious and disturbing physical altercation” inside a boys’ bathroom this week that left the superintendent of schools “appalled,” not only because of the incident, but because some students recorded video and posted it online.

The video is difficult to watch.

In a letter to the school community dated March 30th, Superintendent Glenn Brand said the incident happened on Tuesday and investigators are working to identify the students involved.

The recording sent to Boston 25 indicates a student was picked up inside the bathroom and had his head forced into a toilet inside a stall in the bathroom. The video below has been blurred due to the ages of those involved.

“I am truly appalled by the actions of these students which are unacceptable and do not represent the core values of this educational community,” said Supt. Brand. ”It is my expectation that each and every one of our students has the right to attend a school that is safe and supportive. While I recognize that the vast number of our students consistently make appropriate choices to support such an environment, we will have zero tolerance for those that do not.”

“The Wilmington Public School prioritizes, above all else, the safety, well-being and respect of all of our students and staff,” said Supt. Brand.

“It is therefore with tremendous disappointment that I write to inform you of a serious and disturbing physical altercation that occurred in one of the boys’ bathrooms (Tuesday),” said Brand. “Not only is the incident itself concerning, but also that some of our students recorded the altercation and posted this online.”

“All students who are found culpable will be held fully accountable and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken as well as the removal of appropriate privileges that are afforded to those students,” said Supt. Brand. “I assure you that we will pursue relevant legal actions should such be deemed warranted following the investigation.”

The superintendent also alluded to other recent trouble at the school.

“This incident comes in the wake of a number of other concerns recently involving troubling student behavior. Everyone has an obligation to help foster the type of school environments that our students deserve, including our staff, families and most importantly, our students themselves,” said Brand.

A statement posted to the school’s website on Friday by the Wilmington High School Student Class Officers, called the incident “horrific.”

“If a picture is worth a thousand words then a video is worth a million, yet many of us were left speechless by the thoughtless actions of others that transpired earlier this week in one of our school bathrooms,” according to the statement. “These horrific actions perpetrated by an embarrassing group of individuals do not represent who we are as a student body. We are honor roll students, college bound-career focused seniors, varsity athletes, robotic champions and so much more. Our image should not be clouded by these individuals.”

Boston 25 spoke with Wilmington Police Chief Joe Desmond about the incident.

“Obviously there were a lot of kids in the bathroom and this young man was taken and physically dragged into the bathroom,” said Desmond.

The chief says the students pick the student up and lower him head down into the toilet. “It clearly looks like an assault as far as where I come from,” said Desmond.

Police are also looking to see if this incident rises to the level of a hate crime or civil rights violation. Chief Desmond says they have at least three recordings and they are working with the school to identify everyone involved.

“Kids should be able to go to school and feel safe and feel supported and not worried about being picked on or God forbid this incident is horrible. That poor kid” it’s terrible,” said concerned parent Roberta Biscan.

The school superintendent is scheduling bystander training that will be mandatory for all students. According to police, the case is moving quickly and charges are likely to be filed.

Watch for updates on Boston 25.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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Why this huge catfish was released by a fisherman who didn’t even bother to weigh it

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Ivan Garren from Cleveland, Tennessee caught a huge catfish Thursday while fishing in Wolftever Creek.

Garren, who used skipjack as bait, was fishing in a depth of about six feet when he hooked the monster.

He did not weigh or measure the fish but estimated it was about 38 pounds. He wanted to get the fish back in the water as soon as possible after taking a couple of pictures.

More: A 500-pound black bear made its home near a Tennessee college. Here’s how TWRA relocated it

Ivan Garren caught this big catfish in Wolftever Creek in Hamilton County.

“I release all big fish for other people to enjoy,” Garren said.

As big as the fish was, Garren said he has caught bigger.

Wolftever Creek is located in Hamilton County near Middle Valley, Tennessee. It is known for having a large population of catfish, largemouth and smallmouth bass and crappie.

Ivan Garren caught this big catfish in Wolftever Creek in Hamilton County.

Ivan Garren caught this big catfish in Wolftever Creek in Hamilton County.

Reach Mike Organ at 615-259-8021 or on Twitter @MikeOrganWriter.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee fisherman releases huge catfish without weighing



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The Judds reunite for CMT Music Awards performance

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Judds, one of the most successful duos in country music in the 1980s, are reuniting to perform on the CMT Music Awards, their first major awards show performance together in more than two decades.

The mother-and-daughter duo of Naomi and Wynonna will perform their hit “Love Will Build a Bridge” on the awards show on April 11, airing on CBS and Paramount+, during an outdoor shoot in front of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee.

It’s a fitting backdrop for the five-time Grammy winners, who will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in May.

“It feels both surreal and what a thrill it is. What a thrill to finally get her back on the stage because she’s been waiting for 20-plus years,” Wynonna told the AP of her mother, Naomi. “As a daughter and as an artist, it’s a win-win.”

Originally from Kentucky, Naomi was working as a nurse in the Nashville area when she and Wynonna started singing together professionally. Their unique harmonies, together with elements of acoustic music, bluegrass and blues, made them stand out in the genre at the time.

The Judds won nine Country Music Association Awards and seven from the Academy of Country Music and had more than a dozen No. 1 hits, including “Mama, He’s Crazy” and “Grandpa (Tell Me ’bout the Good Old Days).”

In 1990, Naomi Judd announced her retirement from performing due to chronic hepatitis. Wynonna has continued her solo career and they have occasionally reunited for special performances.

“To have all the incredible opportunities that I have had, being reminded of all that, just makes me very humbled and I just want to bask in the moment,” Naomi Judd told the AP.

This is also their first ever performance together at the CMT Music Awards. Country star Kacey Musgraves will introduce the pair prior to the performance.

“Music is the bridge between mom and me, and it it bonds us together. Even in the not easy times,” said Wynonna Judd. “We show up and we sing because that’s what love is about, right? So what a beautiful celebration.”

Hosted by country singer Kelsea Ballerini and actor Anthony Mackie, the fan-voted awards show will also feature performances by Ballerini, Kane Brown, Miranda Lambert, Luke Combs, Maren Morris, Cody Johnson, Little Big Town, Keith Urban, Carly Pearce and more.



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