Cougar Gold: No WSA release, no mining
Catch 22, Mexican standoff, vicious circle … call it what you will, but after spending $7 million on exploratory work in 2009, officials from Cougar Gold LLC told the Mono County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday they are reluctant to develop and submit any plans to move forward with additional work, let alone any full-scale mining efforts, until the Bodie Hills area is released from Wilderness Study Area (WSA) status.
The non-action agenda item, which also included representatives from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), pulled in a packed crowd to Bridgeport’s Memorial Hall. Needless to say, the discussion drew civil, but decidedly polarized comments from the general public. The afternoon Board agenda item brought out a preponderance of those who want the Bodie Hills either left under WSA status or determined to be wilderness. The evening’s Town Hall meeting, however, tipped the scales the other way, with mining supporters citing Bridgeport’s pressing need for jobs and revenue, and almost uniformly behind release of the WSA.
No matter your position, when considering the WSA, all roads lead to Washington D.C., where the BLM’s recommendations to Congress regarding the Bodie Hills and numerous other WSAs waits in what Cougar Gold’s Mark Wallace deemed “purgatory.”
The BLM-regulated Bodie Hills area, not to be confused with nearby Bodie State Park, fell into WSA status upon passage of the Federal Land Policy Management Act, Oct. 1, 1976, which required that all tracts 5,000 acres or larger be studied for potential wilderness qualities. In 1991-1992, the BLM recommended to Congress that the Bodie Hills WSA did not meet wilderness criteria for reasons including population density of the area and a cursory road system. Nothing happened. In 1999, the sitting Mono County Board of Supervisors narrowly passed a resolution calling for the release of 26 area WSAs. The result? Nothing happened.
On Sept. 15, 2010, U.S. Congressman Buck McKeon (R-25th District) introduced HR 6129, Mono County Economic Development Act of 2010, which called for the Bodie Hills area to be released from WSA status. The bill never became law. The following day, on Sept. 16, the House Committee on Natural Resources referred the bill to the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, where it still sits today, presumably awaiting expiration, based on Congress’ track record on such matters.
“The political is the next stage in the process, and only Congress has the final authority to designate WSA status,” Bob Wick from the BLM’s state office said.
“We’re committed to the area; we wouldn’t be here today talking about the process if we weren’t,” Cougar Gold CEO Marcel “Mac” DeGuire told the room. The determination made in the early 1990s, according to Wallace, was based largely on the area’s mineral history. Wallace went on to say that in his opinion, it’s not pristine wilderness and simply doesn’t merit WSA status.
“We just don’t think it makes sense to work within the ‘purgatory’ of the current WSA,” Wallace said. “Grandfathered [mining rights] or not, it doesn’t make sense to continue unless the community and elected leaders think that part of Mono County’s economic future involves extraction, even at a moderate level.” DeGuire added that a release doesn’t automatically guarantee there would be any mining.
How much are we looking at?
Larry Buchanan, Cougar Gold’s staff geologist, told the room there isn’t yet a gold deposit they can mine for profit. He said there is an “anomalous” amount of gold, which translates to about 14,000 ounces out of about 1 million tons of rock. In layman’s terms, that’s not much. What there may be, however, are more veins that make up the anomalous gold, but more exploration is required to locate those veins. Company officials said the “hope” is that more feeder systems would be found within the approximately one-mile-square target site, but for now Cougar Gold isn’t sure where the veins are or if they even exist.
Several public comments were critical of Cougar Gold’s intentions, speculating and opining about large, open pits and widespread use of the cyanide leeching process. DeGuire refuted both, rhetorically quipping that the company isn’t even at the “open pit” phase, much less the “cyanide” phase. Buchanan added that the use of the toxic chemical depends on the geology of the rock (which has yet to be determined). “There are several large mining operations that use no cyanide at all,” he pointed out.
Other members of the public didn’t question Cougar Gold’s ability to work within the rules and regulations. They want jobs, and pointed to the company’s recent hiring of locals from Walker to Lee Vining. Mining, several suggested, would help schools and future generations, and potentially rescue Bridgeport, which was labeled a “dying town” in need of help.
Asked about whether Cougar Gold had anything to do with McKeon’s HR 6129 bill, DeGuire didn’t acknowledge any formal contact, but stated, “If you’re insinuating … that there’s a hidden agenda, there’s nothing hidden about it. We think the WSA should be released.”
Any mining proposed for the Bodie Hills will be subject to an intricate mix of federal, state and county regulations, including all the standard environmental analyses, as well as substantial annual bonding to make sure the work is covered financially from first hole to reclamation. According to BLM geologist Mark Springer, Cougar Gold still retains an “open” status, and has completed the required reclamation process to the area that had been part of its 2009 project.
From the floor …
Most of the afternoon’s public comment rehashed the usual environmental concerns. Some called for more clarity as to Cougar Gold’s plans, much of which the company said it either couldn’t or wouldn’t be able address at this juncture. Others brought up new talk about implementing economic safeguards and other financial considerations.
“Cougar Gold bought into ‘purgatory’ in 2004,” Tony Dublino from Bridgeport commented. “I support economic development in Bridgeport and I think all comers should be entertained, including mining, but a dialogue should be held to establish some community protections to make sure the company doesn’t ‘take the money and run.’” Jimmy Little, who owns a business not far from Bodie State Park, said he has mixed feelings about the whole project. “There are lots of processes, but there has to be a balance,” he said, suggesting a commitment on the part of Cougar Gold to mitigate any potential economic flight risk.
Friends of the Inyo’s Stacy Corless said the organization recognizes the benefits of jobs to the area, but is leery of what the company will ask for in addition to the County’s backing of the WSA release.
Mark Davis, a self-described amateur historian, advocated a visitor center-type of economic scenario, as opposed to a mine. “A miner is a liar with a hole in the ground,” he said, quoting Mark Twain.
WSAs are for study, said former Mono County Supervisor Ed Inwood, and by definition supposed to be transitory. “The study’s been done; it should either be released or not.” Wallace took that point further and defended the use of the word “purgatory,” saying that keeping lands in a sort of permanent stasis was never the intent of the [FLPMA] law.
And from the Board dais …
“Even if you’re digging it up, moving it around and burying it again, think of how many jobs are involved in that digging it up, moving it around and burying it again,” Supervisor Vikki Bauer commented. The WSA, she opined, is not supportable, based on “what the land tells me it should be.”
“Everyone thinks mining should be done in some hideous, hot, dusty place, but it’s out of whack to think mining is an odd thing to do here,” Supervisor Tim Hansen remarked. Tourism is precarious, he opined, indicating the area needs more of an economic backup plan than it currently has.
Board Chair Hap Hazard railed against comments suggesting gold’s only function is to sit in vaults and prop up large banks, citing its value in electronics on small and large scales, among other everyday uses. He also called the WSA structure a “failure of government, which has divided its citizenry and defaulted on its responsibility to stand up and take a position and make tough decisions.”
“I’d like one day to see people come to Bodie and see the historic location and the legacy left behind, and also be able to drive over the hill a few miles to visit an example of a functioning, modern mining operation.”
If Congress opts to act on wilderness status anytime soon, don’t look for support for release from two supervisors. District 1 rep Larry Johnston said he prefers preserving the area as opposed to having a reclaimed pit. District 5 lawmaker Byng Hunt firmly stated his support for wilderness status and doesn’t see mining as a viable economic option.
After the meeting, BLM Bishop Field Office Manager Bernadette Lovato said, “The public deserves an answer. It’s been a very long time.”