Conglomerate Mesa in California

Living Room Session: Some seek to revive gold mining in California, others say no

california conglomerate mesa conservation friends of the inyo gold mining inyo mountains k2 gold living room sessions sierra nevada Aug 22, 2023

During the July Living Room Session, we discussed a newly proposed gold mining project in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. We invited Wendy Schneider (Executive Director) and Jaime Lopez Wolters (Desert Lands Organizer) of Friends of the Inyo, an organization whose mission is to “protect and care for the land and water of the Eastern Sierra”. The guests talked about the current state of the project and explained what members of the jewelry industry can do to help block new gold mining. Jeweler Deb Durant, a regular face on our Living Rooms, also joined the session to share her insights on this matter.

*Please note that at the time of this session (July 2023), the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had not yet opened the public comment period regarding the proposed gold mine. The version of the film, Island in the Sky, that we viewed was the same as what you will see in this edited version of the Living Room session, except the new version includes a time sensitive call to action at the end. So while you’ll hear a call to action to submit comments in October or November in our conversation, that time is actually NOW and we’ve edited the full recording of the Living Room session to include the updated version of the film. Submit your comments here!

Friends of the Inyo about gold mining in Conglomerate Mesa.

Wendy Schneider, who’s been the Executive Director of Friends of the Inyo for about five and a half years, said that her work, despite being joyful and a great privilege, sometimes feels like pushing a rock up a hill. That’s because, unfortunately, “in the conservation world, defeats are permanent, and victories are temporary”.

Due to it being heavily mineralized and the continually increasing price of gold over the last few decades, the area called Conglomerate Mesa in the Eastern Sierra Mountains has been under threat of gold mining development for at least 30 years. According to the archives at the Ridgecrest Field Office, numerous gold mining exploration companies have been successful at getting exploration permits and conducting core sample drilling at the Mesa which happens to contain large amounts of Carlin–type gold deposits. The mining process involves a cyanide heap leach procedure, which is extremely toxic and cannot be entirely remediated, or could only be remediated over many hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

  • Carlin-type gold deposits are disseminated microscopic gold deposits found in carbonate rock formations and associated with fault zones. Also known as “invisible gold”, these deposits are usually extracted using open-pit mining methods, which involve first removing large amounts of overburden to access the ore body. In the past, mining Carlin-type gold deposits wasn’t economically viable but it is now due to cyanide and ever  higher gold prices.

  • A lithic scatter is an area where prehistoric stone tools and artifacts are scattered on the ground's surface. Such sites are considered important archaeological resources as they can provide insights into past human activities.

For example, one company successfully did an exploration and “restored” the roads in the '80s, and one can still see where those roads were. There was also a 2500-year-old lithic scatter that was severely damaged by that mining operation. Then, 5-10 years ago, another Canadian-based company called K2 Gold got a permit and conducted exploration by bringing equipment in by helicopter. They were not allowed to reopen the old roads, nor build new ones, due to the pressure Friends of The Inyo and thousands of commenters put on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Attempts to continue mining in this area are never far off, now K2 Gold wants to do another mining project, on a scale about 10 times bigger than the previous one. 

How to stop this new exploration? 

Just like they did the first time, Friends of the Inyo need to generate tens of thousands of comments and present a lot of scientific evidence to the BLM so that the agency has a large and diverse body of comments to consider when reviewing exploration and mining permit applications. Unfortunately, the United States 1872 Mining Law, which is very old and needs to be updated, prioritizes mining over all other land use proposals, even conservation.   

“This mining law of 1872 basically allows anybody with an intention to mine to go out into an area that's public land, it's supposed to be the land of everyone, and lay a claim literally by putting a stake in the ground and then going to the recorder's office and saying, 'I believe there's something there to be had in the ground, and it's my intention to pull it out.'"

says Jaime Lopez Wolters, the Desert Lands organizer for Friends of the Inyo.

There are now around 20,000 acres of land that K2 Gold has claimed over the years in the Eastern Sierra region, on which they have conducted exploration on a relatively small scale. However, the intention is, if they can prove that there is sufficient mineral there to justify a large mine, to prepare the groundwork for doing a massive construction.

Then, the only way to fight back is by nipping at the edges. In other words, the only thing we can do is severely decrease the amount of area that they will be allowed to work on, to the point where it gets to be too much trouble, and too expensive for the little amount of work they will be able to do. 

How is it possible that Canadian and British-owned mining companies can mine on the US indigenous land and even register their claim without being a US citizen?

K2 Gold, which is a Canadian-based mining company, registered a local subsidiary called Mojave Precious Metals and has been operating under that name in the US. So, multinational corporations have the convenience of registering their operations in the places that they need and achieve their goals. Practically, all they have to do is to file the necessary paperwork with the secretary of the state that they want to work in.

Being a desert in the mountains, Conglomerate Mesa has its own microclimate.

The BLM ideally takes many factors into consideration when granting exploration and later mining permits. Friends of the Inyo have and will continue to provide comments in support of protecting Conglomerate Mesa based on the rare and endangered plants including  five species that need to be listed on the Endangered Species Act. There are also thousands of thriving Joshua trees that are reproducing there.

The Joshua tree is an example of a species that is going to need a protected place to survive. As the world is getting hotter, the Joshua Tree National Park is actually not going to be an ideal region for Joshua trees to thrive and survive anymore. Even now, they're not really reproducing enough there. In contrast, in the plateau and the Mesa itself, the higher altitude and the higher elevation provides good conditions for Joshua trees to thrive and reproduce. 

The interesting thing is that this area in particular is surrounded by land that did get protected in one form or another over the years. To the east of Conglomerate Mesa is Death Valley National Park which is cherished and protected as a national park. To the north of it are the Inyo Mountains, close to Conglomerate Mesa, which are protected as the Inyo Mountain Wilderness managed by BLM and the United States Forest Service. To the south of it is Malpais Wilderness, and to the south of that is the Coso Range, which is also a protected wilderness area. But the area we’re focused on, including the mesa, was left unprotected in part because these minerals were there. 

It is the environment that needs to be protected, but it was left out of this puzzle piece network of other types of protection that surround it. It has twice been proposed to protect the area as part of desert protection legislation, but twice it was cut out. Conglomerate Mesa currently needs permanent protection, so that there’s no need to fight these distinctive mining threats anymore.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to extinguish mining claims that have already been filed, even if the area becomes designated as wilderness or as a national monument. However, it does make it more difficult for the mining company to proceed with their project.

“ the process of putting through a proposal to do some kind of work, if the mining company is having to work in an environment where the land they wanna mine on is protected as a national monument or as a designated wilderness, it just becomes very hard for them to prove that the the impacts that they make are consistent with the way that land is supposed to be managed. So as a practical matter, it gets very difficult to undertake mining operations if you're in designated wilderness or a national monument, even though those things are technically not disallowed by the designation document,” explained Wendy Schneider.

Partnering with the indigenous communities. 

Conglomerate Mesa is, basically, untouched by human hands except for the exploration that happened once or twice throughout its history and the charcoal harvesters from the Cerro Gordo silver mine in the days when it was active. So, the area doesn't really have a big imprint by human hands, and the goal is to keep it that way. 

Friends of the Inyo partner with the indigenous communities and help to elevate their voices and concerns about the new mining operations. There's now more and more recognition of the value of the traditional ecological knowledge and the passion for the land that the indigenous community has. So it’s important to bring that forward and elevate it with the help of land management agencies.

However, there's a lot of distrust of the white conservation community by the indigenous community. For example, one of the tribes for whom Conglomerate Mesa is ancestral homelands, partly lost its access and the ability to use the land in their traditional ways in Death Valley after the area became a national monument and then a park. That’s why these tribes are now skeptical.

Protecting the “Island in the Sky”.

Kris Hohag, a local tribal member who is collaborating with Friends of the Inyo and is also featured in their short film about Conglomerate Mesa called “Island in the Sky”, was present during the session and described what the Mesa really means to the local indigenous communities and why they want to protect it:

“Once you climb and you get to the top of that Mesa, it [feels] extremely spiritual, and…this is a type of place where you would go for ceremonies or go for fasting or what people might call a vision or a vision quest… You're basically gonna feel the power of the creator all around you. And you're able to see over Death Valley, you're able to see the Sierras, and it just helps you see how small you are. I encourage all of you who haven't been to try to come and see this place.”

Kris explained that it’s exhausting to have to scare away the national corporations every time they show up to do exploration. So, the tribe members hope to achieve changes in the laws or at least protection of this area specifically.

How can jewelers help?

Our other speaker for this session, jeweler Deb Durant, talked about her first encounter with Jaime Lopez Wolters at the Bioneers Conference and the importance of jewelers’ contribution to the environmental initiatives such as this one led by Friends of the Inyo:

“[we have a] unique opportunity to get the perspective from the people who work responsibly with gold, how they might, while still working with gold, want to voice their support of protection of these areas. [To voice that] we would not want to purchase or use this gold. I think this is a unique perspective and an amazing opportunity… to do something before this happens… there's so much we can be doing here locally to support the right things and speak up [about] what's legal versus what's ethical. They aren't the same. What's legal is not necessarily what's ethical.”

The comment period is now open through October 16th, 2023. Submit your comments here! One thing that you can do is to submit comments to BLM against tearing up the Conglomerate Mesa for the sake of making money for a Canadian mining company. The generated comments could be a part of the solution if not the decisive factor in blocking this new mining operation.

To get updates on developments regarding mining in Conglomerate Mesa, please, subscribe to Friends of the Inyo newsletter: 
- Sign up for the main Friends of the Inyo newsletter list here::
- Sign up for the "Inyo to Coso" newslettter list (which includes Conglomerate Mesa updates specifically) here:

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