Badlands Journal
San Joaquin River Settlement approved by Congress...Badlands Journal editorial board
National Resource Defense Council
Historic Lands Bill Will Restore Water Flow and Salmon to San Joaquin River
Congress Passes Package That Will Protect America's Land, Water and Rivers
WASHINGTON (March 25, 2009) – The U.S. House of Representatives today passed an omnibus public lands package, which includes a landmark settlement to restore water and salmon populations to California’s San Joaquin River. This vote will send a bill to the president’s desk that provides the additional authority and funding needed to restore runs of thousands of salmon each year. It will also launch projects to improve flood protection and water supply in the Central Valley.
"After so many years of effort, today's historic action by Congress will revitalize California's second longest river,” said Monty Schmitt, project manager and senior scientist in the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "After recent dry years and a collapsing salmon fishery, passage of this bill is good news for fisherman, farmers, and the more than 22 million Californians who rely on the Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta for their water supply."
The House vote on the omnibus lands bill follows Senate passage last week. The bill comes after a historic legal settlement, reached in 2006, which resolved 18 years of litigation between environmental and fishing groups, Central Valley farmers, and the federal government to undertake one of the nation’s most significant river restoration projects.
"This legislation received broad bipartisan support from Republican and Democratic Members of Congress, the affected irrigation districts, the State of California, conservation and fishing groups, and urban water agencies," said Hal Candee of Altshuler Berzon LLP, who has represented NRDC and 13 other conservation and fishing groups in the litigation and the three-year old settlement effort. "It's gratifying to see Congress provide its final approval to this historic settlement that will restore one of California’s major rivers.”
Added Monty Schmitt: "This legislation will provide the final approval needed for a landmark restoration program that is already underway. Ultimately, restoring salmon to the San Joaquin River is critical to revitalizing California’s ailing salmon fishery, which was closed for the first time in the State’s history due to record low numbers of salmon, costing the state an estimated $255 million and 2,263 jobs."
The Omnibus Public Lands Package contains 160 public lands, water and resources bills, as well as 16 wilderness bills from nine states. In addition to funding the restoration of the San Joaquin, the bill:
•Designates more than 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states
•Establishes three new national park units, a new national monument, three new national conservation areas, more than 1,000 miles of national wild and scenic rivers and four new national trails
•Enlarges the boundaries of more than a dozen existing national park units and establishes 10 new national heritage areas
The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has 1.2 million members and online activists, served from offices in New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Beijing.
Fresno Bee
Weekly US rail shipments fall 14.7 percent...The Associated Press
WASHINGTON Shipments carried by U.S. railroads fell 14.7 percent last week compared with a year earlier, a major industry trade group reported Thursday.
The Association of American Railroads said freight carried on the tracks for the week ended March 21 totaled 276,030 carloads.
Volume tumbled 13 percent in the West, where cargo is primarily carried by Union Pacific Corp. and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. Volumes plunged 17 percent in the East, where freight is mostly hauled by CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp.
Intermodal volume fell 12.9 percent from a year ago. Intermodal involves moving freight from one method of transportation to another, such as truck to rail.
So far this year, shipments on U.S. rails are down 15.6 percent compared with the same period in 2007.
Valley Voice
Harder to Keep on Truckin'...John Lindt
Visalia - With fewer goods coming in and out of West Coast ports, freight haulers large and small are seeing a decline in business in the 25 to 30 percent range, idling trucks and forcing some truckers to look for work elsewhere.
A Plaza Avenue trucking firm in Visalia, TLN Inc., will put on hold a planned new warehouse in the industrial park because of the slowdown, despite the fact this week the city is expected to give the project a green light.
“There's so much warehouse space in the Visalia industrial park it makes no sense for us to build more even though we would like to,” says company President Kathe Newsome. “You can get all the space you need at 25 cents a square foot,” says Newsome. “We will put the project on hold for two or three years and hope it gets better.”
TLN Inc. is a small company with 22 trucks and 46 trailers. The company had plans to build its office at 1212 N. Plaza where it parks its trucks. The company, operating here for 15 years, employs 35 and earlier this year told the Voice it hopes to grow to add another 15 employees.
Newsome says local trucking firms have simply parked their fleets in many cases – some with for sale signs on them.
Newsome says trucking rates are down about 25 percent with a fierce scramble for business among those who are left. She has scorn for middlemen and brokers who undersell the guy who does the hauling.
Newsome says drivers are walking through the door every day looking for work – some who have given up on their rigs. “That's where we get some of our best drivers.”
Big firms are in trouble too with the slide in demand hurting profits, including publicly traded Knight Transportation that has a big hub in Tulare.
According to a recent survey, 21 percent of truckload carriers suggested that they were likely to consider liquidating in the coming six months.
In its most recent financial statement, Knight said “a substantial number of small and midsized carriers have been forced into bankruptcy due to tight credit, high and volatile fuel prices, and challenging industry pricing. “We believe that this dynamic could eventually set the stage for tighter industry capacity,” the company said.
Heartland Express – another large carrier – said, “High fuel prices, a tightening economy, and tight credit drove many in the industry to bankruptcy. This, along with the harsh realities of declining freight volumes, will make it an even tougher operating environment and more difficult for the weaker carriers to survive.”
Container traffic shipped from the big ports of the state has collapsed in recent months. The L.A. and Long Beach ports, for example, account for 40 percent of U.S. inbound container movements. Business is the worst it has been in 25 years.
The L.A. port has announced that container traffic through L.A. fell 33 percent in February with ports down 35 percent on imports and inbound traffic just 28 percent.
Rail traffic is down 22 percent at Union Pacific through March 7, the company announced.
Trucking firms that once had a presence in Visalia, including Condor, are now gone. Real estate broker Doug Burr says the company-owned by DATS Trucking has relocated to Fresno, leaving a 16,000-square-foot trucking terminal at Plaza and Goshen Avenue vacant.
Sacramento Bee
Air Resources Board to help truckers meet pollution rules...Jim Dowing
State officials on Wednesday announced details of one piece of a $1 billion assistance package to help truckers comply with new air pollution regulations for heavy-duty diesel trucks.
The state Air Resources Board will provide $48 million to an existing small business loan-guarantee program administered by the California Pollution Control Finance Authority. That backing will leverage about $350 million in loans for small trucking firms that don't meet most banks' underwriting standards, according to a statement from state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who chairs the authority.
The funding is authorized under the current state budget.
Loans and grants to fund the truck retrofits and replacements are expected to total roughly $1 billion, the most ever provided by the state for compliance with a vehicle regulation.
In addition to the loan guarantee program, the air board will soon offer $14 million in vouchers of up to $35,000 to partially cover the cost of replacing trucks made in 1993 or earlier. Additional funds are pending.
The package will offset only a portion of the total cost of complying with the regulations, though. Exhaust filters and new engines required by the rules will cost truckers $5.5 billion over the next 14 years, according to air board estimates.
The air board approved the new pollution standards in December. The regulations roll out gradually, with smaller operators given more time to comply. By 2014, all trucks must have soot filters. By 2023, all trucks must have clean-burning engines built no earlier than 2010.
Staffers expect the rules to prevent 9,400 premature deaths in California over the next 16 years, in addition to reducing cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. The state is under a federal mandate to improve air quality, and heavy-duty diesel trucks are the largest source of key air pollutants.
There are roughly 400,000 large trucks registered in California. The regulations do not apply to diesel pickups.
Trucking firms seeking more details on the loan guarantees can call the California Pollution Control Finance Authority at (916) 654-5610 or see www.treasurer.ca.gov/cpcfa.
Stockton Record
Water contractors sue over smelt rule...The Record
SACRAMENTO - The latest in a wave of lawsuits by water diverters was filed Wednesday in the intensifying Delta water wars.
The State Water Contractors alleges that a new state permit allowing some longfin smelt to be killed at the massive pumps near Tracy is too strict and may "very substantially" reduce the amount of water that can be delivered from the Delta to cities from the Bay Area to San Diego.
The lawsuit was filed in Sacramento County Superior Court against the state departments of Fish and Game and Water Resources.
On the opposite side of the issue, conservation groups The Bay Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity warned Tuesday that they intend to sue the federal government for delaying decisions to protect longfin and Delta smelt.
The contractors' lawsuit on Wednesday was at least the fourth legal action this month filed by various water users against the government regarding fish and water supply issues.
San Francisco Chronicle
Environmentalists sue to protect endangered condor...FELICIA FONSECA, Associated Press Writer
Flagstaff, Ariz. (AP) -- An environmental group sued two federal agencies Wednesday over a land management plan it says fails to protect the endangered California condor from lead ammunition.
The Center for Biological Diversity is pushing for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to ban lead hunting ammunition that can poison or kill condors that feed on gut piles and carcasses.
"We really feel that without regulation, you're going to continue to have chronic poisoning, you're going to continue to have death," said Jeff Miller of the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity.
The BLM adopted a management plan for an area north of the Grand Canyon known as the Arizona Strip last year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is also listed as a defendant in the lawsuit, issued an opinion on the plan a year earlier that environmentalists say is flawed.
Scott Sticha, a spokesman for the BLM's Arizona Strip office, said the management plan does not address hunting ammunition and declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit.
Brenda Smith, assistant field supervisor for Fish and Wildlife in Flagstaff, said the agency is taking another look at its opinion but did not say what the review might entail or when it would be completed.
"There are some valid concerns, and we're just making sure our analysis was appropriate," she said.
The condor once numbered in the thousands across North America but was nearly extinct by the early 1980s from the effects of hunting, lead poisoning and habitat encroachment. The final 22 birds were captured in California and a breeding program started. There are now more than 300 of the giant vultures, and many have been released back to the wild in California, Arizona and Mexico, where their status varies.
State and federal agencies have stepped up efforts to reduce lead poisoning in condors and other animals. The National Park Service announced an effort earlier this month to eliminate the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle in parks by the end of 2010.
California passed a law that went into effect in July prohibiting hunters from using lead ammunition in the condor's historic range, which covers 20 percent of the state.
The Arizona Department of Game and Fish has said a voluntary program that provides hunters with vouchers for non-lead ammunition and encourages them to drop off gut piles for disposal at a checkpoint on the Kaibab plateau in northern Arizona is working just fine.
State officials tout a 90 percent compliance rate under the program. Utah officials plan to implement a plan similar to Arizona's next year.
Miller said although he agrees with the educational aspects of Arizona's program, he argues it's unlikely the condors will make a successful recovery without a ban on lead ammunition.
"That program is never going to have a high-enough compliance rate or participation rate as long as it is voluntary," he said. "There are still going to be enough people hunting with lead that we're still going to have the poisoning."
On the Net
Center for Biological Diversity: www.biologicaldiversity.org/
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Program: www.fws.gov/endangered/i/b0g.html
Perspective needed on UC salaries...Richard C. Blum, Mark G. Yudof. Richard C. Blum is the chair of the UC Board of Regents. Mark G. Yudof is president of the University of California system.
Contrary to what The Chronicle's news pages might lead one to believe, it is not business as usual at the University of California these days.
The public rightly expects public higher education to make prudent use of its resources, place a priority on serving students well, and make cutbacks to fit the economic times. We're doing all of that at UC as we face a $450 million shortfall in state funding.
But The Chronicle's most recent story ("Even in recession, UC raises some top salaries, gives perks," March 25) cloaks those efforts behind a misleading and incomplete appraisal of several administrative salaries. It is as if The Chronicle has one eye shut to all the university is doing to cope with severe state under funding, emphasizing a handful of personnel decisions and ignoring the overall budget reductions.
Here are the facts:
-- UC has instituted a systemwide freeze on senior managers' salaries, cut bonuses and incentive pay, and reduced the budget at the Office of the President in Oakland by $67 million and the staff by 628 over the last two years.
-- UC campuses are curtailing faculty recruitment, in many cases by 50 percent or more; reducing hiring of non-teaching staff; severely limiting spending on nonessential costs such as travel; consolidating or eliminating programs; and looking for efficiencies across their administrative organizations - while working to minimize cuts to student programs.
We're fighting to preserve affordability for students. On our recommendation, the UC Board of Regents adopted a program ensuring that grants will cover systemwide fees for students with financial need and household incomes of less than $60,000 per year. Financially eligible students whose families earn between $60,000 and $100,000 a year will continue to get grant assistance to cover at least half of any student fee increase, as well.
We have continued to hire senior-level leaders. We have to.
Of the people mentioned in The Chronicle story, one employee has been asked to fill two vice presidential roles for the salary of one, saving UC roughly $320,000 per year.
Another has been hired to serve as chief financial officer, at a salary well below the going rate for CFOs, to ensure strong financial management and to identify more smart ways for the university to save money.
A third individual was promoted to fill a vacancy in our Washington office, which is a critical place for UC and California to be represented as the federal government distributes stimulus funds, and wrestles continually with important policy issues that have major impacts on California such as health care, financial aid, research funding and solutions to the nation's economic crisis.
None of these people is responsible for the fact that state funding has fallen $450 million behind the university's needs, and none is being paid above-market rates. In fact, all of them have key roles to play in leading the university through this challenge and ensuring that we continue to do the best job possible in meeting our obligations to students, parents and the people of the state.
In the environment of the financial crisis, we understand how easy it is for members of the public to become concerned about institutional excesses. We also believe the public genuinely wants to have a balanced presentation of the facts so they can make up their own minds.
We are committed to keeping the University of California accountable to the public, owning up to mistakes when we make them. We also are committed to making the decisions we need to preserve UC as a strong institution for California, one that will play a leadership role in helping our state move onto a path of recovery and prosperity.
Los Angeles Times
Los Alamos' security flaws exposed
An Energy Department investigation into a plutonium mix-up reveals deficiencies that the New Mexico nuclear weapons lab must address, an official says...Ralph Vartabedian
An Energy Department investigation has alleviated fears that a significant amount of plutonium was missing from a national laboratory, but it has also heightened concerns about flaws in the system for controlling the U.S. stockpile of weapons materials.
The investigation began in February, shortly after a routine inventory at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico found a plutonium shortage estimated at 2.2 pounds, setting off a frantic national effort to determine what happened to the material.
The confidential investigation concluded this week that statisticians at the lab had miscalculated the amount of plutonium at its facility and that none was actually missing.
Although the finding eliminates the worst-case scenario -- that the material left the facility and ended up in rogue hands -- it raises doubts about the lab's management at a time of growing concern about nuclear terrorism.
Brad Peterson, the Energy Department's chief for defense nuclear security, acknowledged in an interview that the closure of the investigation does not clear the laboratory but rather points out deficiencies that must be addressed.
"There are many corrective actions that need to be taken, and we are watching closely," Peterson said. "We are very concerned, obviously."
The inventory miscalculation follows more than a decade of security problems at the bomb design center, including several incidents of lost classified information contained on computers, electronic drives and paper.
The current case seems to parallel an incident in 2004, when the lab thought it had lost computer disks containing bomb design information.
Operations were shut down for six months while officials conducted an intensive search. In the end, an investigation concluded the disks never existed. Not long after, the laboratory director was fired.
"When you are in the nuclear weapons business, you have to keep precise track of every single thing from classified information to nuclear materials," said Philip Coyle, a veteran nuclear weapons expert who served in both the Energy and Defense departments. "You wonder if Los Alamos doesn't have good statisticians and good inventory systems, who would?"
Energy officials, however, defended their system of safeguards, saying their quick investigation demonstrated to other countries the U.S. commitment to tight controls on nuclear materials.
The incident was brought to public attention by the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based watchdog group that has long urged improved nuclear weapons security. The group intercepted a scathing letter sent in February by Energy officials to lab director Michael R. Anastasio, saying that the lab had ignored its deficiencies for a long time.
Peter Stockton, an investigator for the watchdog group and a former security expert at the Energy Department, said Los Alamos is overly confident about protecting plutonium.
"The lab has plenty of holes in its highly touted security system," Stockton said.
Such problems are hardly new. In September 2007, Energy Department Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman detailed problems with Los Alamos' inventory system. In some areas, no inventory had been taken for 10 years, he reported.
Dating back to the Cold War, the lab has checked only a small fraction of its uranium and plutonium stockpile and then statistically computed any imbalances.
Coyle, among others, says the current system should be dumped in favor of an actual inventory of every ounce of nuclear material, known as a "wall-to-wall" inventory.
Peterson said the department is moving in that direction. In the future, the Los Alamos lab will have to conduct a 100% inventory every two months of all materials actively being used in fabrication or research.
But such comprehensive checks will not be done in the lab's plutonium and uranium storage vaults because it could expose workers to more than allowable levels of radiation. The vaults are considered the most secure parts of the facility.
Kevin Roark, a lab spokesman, said there was never any possibility that plutonium was stolen, owing to tight physical security measures that he could not discuss.
Meanwhile, the Energy Department's office in New Mexico has suspended an employee, David Lee, on suspicion that he leaked the February letter.
"They are trying to lay the rap on me," Lee said in an interview, though he would neither confirm nor deny the allegation.
Officials at the local Energy office declined to comment.
Tom Devine, an attorney for the Government Accountability Project, which represents whistle-blowers, said that even if Lee had leaked the unclassified letter, the action was protected under U.S. law.
Southern California ports' economic storm may calm by year's end
An economist's outlook is a bright spot at a shipping conference. Some warn that Los Angeles and Long Beach are at risk of losing their competitive edge to other ports in the U.S. and Canada...Ronald D. White
The worldwide economic storm might ease by the end of the year, an economist told a gathering Wednesday of international shipping lines, terminal operators, retailers and trucking companies in Long Beach.
"The very worst part of this particular business cycle is occurring in this quarter, but as we move forward through the rest of the year, the decreases will diminish until the fourth quarter, when we actually move into the positive range," said Joseph P. Magaddino, director of the global logistics program at Cal State Long Beach.
That hopeful view came during an otherwise gloomy assessment of the economic pain that would come first, delivered at the annual Pulse of the Ports conference sponsored by the Port of Long Beach. Some speakers warned that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were in danger of losing their competitive edge to other ports in the U.S. and Canada.
The conference was begun in 2005 to get officials from every part of the supply chain talking together to avoid the massive delivery delays that occurred after an unforeseen surge in trade in 2004.
But Wednesday's audience met under much different circumstances, and speakers added some stark numbers to show there was more pain to come. Magaddino said that the global economy would shrink by 0.5% this year for the first time since 1945, and predicted that an additional 3 million Americans would lose jobs before the recession ends.
Peter Keller, president of NYK Line North America Inc., an arm of one of the world's biggest ocean shipping lines, likened the downturn to the time he fell off a boat on a white water rafting trip and was sucked into a whirlpool.
"You have to find a bottom to kick yourself up," Keller said. "It's pretty scary. That is where we are today."
Dean Tracy, director of international transportation for Lowe's Cos. of Mooresville, N.C., said the home improvement retailer would open only 60 to 70 stores this year, or half what it normally does.
Tracy also sounded a warning to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, saying both were getting too expensive given a number of fees for various improvement and environmental mitigation programs. Tracy said the costs came at a time when 11% of the world's ocean freight fleet was out of work.
"Given these economic times, we have to scrape for every dollar," he said. "Freight that we would bring in has moved to other ports. Not the bulk of it, but we have had to move some business."
Keller noted that Southern California ports were very efficient by U.S. standards, but when compared with many Asian and European counterparts, he said: "Costs are going to have to come out of the system. We are going to have to have more productivity.
"Southern California does not operate at world-class standards," he said. "That has to change."
Obama nominee for EPA deputy position withdraws...Jim Tankersley, Greenspace
Chalk up another casualty in the Obama administration's attempts to staff federal agencies.
Jon Cannon, nominated to be the deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, pulled his name from consideration today, citing questions over a nonprofit of which he once served as a board member -- and which EPA auditors accused in 2007 of mismanaging $25 million in taxpayer funds.
Cannon sat on the board of America's Clean Water Foundation, a now-dissolved nonprofit, which won some $25 million in federal contracts to identify environmental risks at beef, poultry and pork plants, and to help states and tribes comply with the Clean Water Act. EPA auditors questioned the accounting of almost all that money, charging that the group could not support some costs, included duplicate transactions on others, and did not complete several required audits. The Office of Inspector General report, which does not mention Cannon, also alludes to allegations of embezzlement in the foundation.
Senate Republicans apparently raised the report, which appears on the first screen of a Google search on the foundation's name, in questioning Cannon, but they said Wednesday the questions would not have affected his nomination.
The bigger issue, for a young administration that has faced many questions on its vetting process, is whether Team Obama knew about the report, and if so, how much it cared about it.
The EPA released this statement from Cannon:
"Today I am voluntarily removing my name from consideration to be Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. It has come to my attention that America's Clean Water Foundation, where I once served on the board of directors, has become the subject of scrutiny. While my service on the board of that now-dissolved organization is not the subject of the scrutiny, I believe the energy and environmental challenges facing our nation are too great to delay confirmation for this position, and I do not wish to present any distraction to the agency."
And this, from EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson:
"I'm disappointed that Jon Cannon will be unable to serve as Deputy Administrator, and I thank him for his many years of dedication to the EPA. The administration will move quickly to identify a new candidate who can help us carry out our mission to preserve environmental sustainability and create green jobs as we transition the nation to a clean energy economy."
Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works committee, released this statement:
"We were surprised to learn today about Jon Cannon's decision to remove his name from consideration to be Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
"At a recent staff meeting, as part of the normal oversight process for nominees, Inhofe committee staff questioned Mr. Cannon regarding an EPA Inspector General report on America's Clean Water Foundation, on which Mr. Cannon served as a board member. According to the report, the organization mismanaged $25 million in taxpayer-funded grants. Through his leadership position on the EPW Committee, Senator Inhofe has long made EPA grant oversight a priority.
"I want to make clear, however, that at the meeting Inhofe staff expressed to Cannon that, though the organization committed serious missteps in managing
did not warrant opposition to Mr. Cannon's nomination."
CNN Money
Betting on a housing recovery
Hopes are rising that the housing market has finally hit bottom. In addition to better-than-expected home sales reports, many homebuilder stocks are surging...Paul R. La Monica
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Has the housing market finally hit bottom? It's probably too soon to say -- but Wall Street sure seems to think so.
The Commerce Department reported Wednesday that new-home sales rose almost 5% last month after hitting their lowest point ever in January. Economists were expecting a decline of about 3%
This comes on the heels of two reports showing a better-than-expected gain in existing-home sales and the first increase in construction of new homes since June.
Investors have taken notice. The SPDR S&P Homebuilders (XHB) exchange-traded fund spiked about 8% higher Wednesday morning. The ETF includes several leading homebuilders, as well as companies with strong ties to the housing market like Home Depot (HD, Fortune 500) and Lowe's (LOW, Fortune 500) and paint maker Sherwin Williams (SHW, Fortune 500).
Talkback: Do you think housing has finally hit bottom?
Over the past two and a half weeks, a period when the entire market has surged, the homebuilders ETF has been one of the big leaders -- it is up more than 40% compared to about 20% for the S&P 500.
In fact, even though the broader stock market is still down sharply this year, several homebuilding stocks are actually in the black, including D.R. Horton (DHI, Fortune 500), Lennar (LEN, Fortune 500) and Pulte Homes (PHM, Fortune 500).
Now what does all this mean? Are savvy investors declaring that the worst is over for housing and that it's time to start plowing back into homebuilders? Perhaps. Still, it's hard to get overly excited about the recent housing data.
Investors have to be cautious.
Even though some of the February numbers suggest that the that the credit markets may be finally thawing after the Lehman Brothers collapse-induced freeze, many experts warn that isn't the same thing as a healthy housing market -- especially since home prices continue to fall.
In addition, the unemployment rate has risen sharply in the past few months and many economists expect that trend to continue.
So even though mortgage rates have been falling and banks may be more willing to lend now that the Treasury Department has a plan to help them unload some of their most troubled assets, that may not be enough to counter the growing ranks of unemployed who can't buy under any circumstances.
Nonetheless, one fund manager who owns several homebuilder stocks said that even though it's premature to predict a housing recovery, the group has been beaten down so far that it won't take a significant real estate upturn for more share-price gains.
"One month does not a trend make. We're hopefully bouncing along the bottom but happy days are not here again," said John Buckingham, manager of the Al Frank fund. "Still, many of the stocks have been priced for the Great Depression 2. Lots of homebuilders have been generating cash during the downturn and their balance sheets, believe it or not, are in good shape."
Buckingham said he's a little concerned by the sharp recent run-up in the stocks. But he said he still likes shares of several of the larger builders, including MDC Holdings (MDC), Ryland (RYL), D.R. Horton and KB Home (KBH, Fortune 500), for the long-term.
At the end of the day, stabilization in the market is what is needed before a recovery. It's the classic case of learning to crawl before you can walk, let alone run.
Buckingham said that as long as the housing numbers are "getting less worse" that should be treated as encouraging news by investors. He added that even though some may dismiss February's surprising sales strength as a byproduct of more demand for foreclosed homes, any boost to sales is a good sign.
"Clearly there is interest in homes. Whether it's in foreclosure or not, there's still a buyer. That helps put in a floor on prices and could boost confidence," he said.
Another investor in several housing-related stocks agreed that the housing picture looks less bleak. But he added that investors will need to be patient. Just as the housing market didn't collapse overnight, a rebound won't take place quickly either.
"It's exciting that the numbers are perking up and the government's efforts to bring mortgage rates down are helping," said Doug Ober, chairman and CEO of Adams Express (ADX), a closed-end fund that invests mainly in U.S. stocks and owns Ryland, Lowe's and cabinet and plumbing fixtures maker Masco (MAS, Fortune 500). "But I think that probably the market is a little early on this. This is going to be a recovery that will take several years."
Jobless claims top 5.5 million
The number of Americans filing continuing claims for unemployment benefits rises to a fresh record as another 8,000 file first-time claims last week...Ben Rooney
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The number of people filing initial claims for unemployment benefits rose last week, while those filing continuing claims hit an all-time high for the ninth straight week, according to a government report released Thursday.
In the week ended March 21, a total of 652,000 people filed initial jobless claims, up 8,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 644,000, the Labor Department reported.
Economists had expected new claims to rise to 650,000, according to a survey by Briefing.com.
The number of people continuing to file for jobless benefits rose 122,000 to 5,560,000 people in the week ended March 11 - the latest week for which data was available. It was the highest number since the government began keeping records in 1967.
Continuing claims have hit record highs as more unemployed Americans struggle to find work. But the 4-week moving average of initial claims, which economists say gives a more accurate indication of unemployment trends, came down for the first time in 10 weeks.
The 4-week moving average for weekly filings, which smoothes out volatile peaks and troughs, was 649,000, down 1,000 from the previous week's revised average.
Still, the unemployment rate stands at 8.1% - the highest level in 25 years - and many economists expect it to exceed 10% later this year.
"The trend in claims is still upwards, though the rate of increase might be slowing," wrote Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, in a research note.
Thursday's jobs data come amid a recent bout of better-than-expected economic reports on housing, manufacturing and other critical areas. These early sings of improvement have helped boost stock prices in recent sessions, but many economists remain skeptical about the prospects for a long-term economic recovery.
"There is no sign of recovery here," Shepherdson said. "And claims are usually one of the very first numbers to turn."
MCAG meetings
April 02 - Technical Planning Committee Meeting...10:00 a.m.     http://www.mcagov.org/tpc.html
April 03 - Citizens Advisory Committee Meeting...8:30 a.m.     http://www.mcagov.org/cac.html
April 08 - Technical Review Board Meeting
April 16 - Governing Board Meeting