Mono Supervisor crafts plan to allow Cougar Gold to move forward
During a meeting with the Mono County Board of Supervisors on Feb. 15, executives from mining company Cougar Gold told lawmakers that, following completion of their 2009 exploratory work, there would be no further activity at the Bodie Hills site until Congress releases the area from Wilderness Study Area (WSA) status.
This past Tuesday, a proposed compromise was floated by Board Chairman Hap Hazard intended to appease both environmentalists in favor of having the Bodie Hills area declared wilderness and those supporting either mining, general release of the area from WSA status or both.
With only four members on the dais (Vikki Bauer wasn’t present), Hazard said he wasn’t seeking action on the compromise, but rather, consensus to send a letter of support for the idea to Congressman Buck McKeon (R-25th District), and move the proposal onto the next step of what he hoped would be a relatively swift public process
In Hazard’s proposal, the existing WSA would be released. Inside that area is a section that would be Cougar Gold’s sphere of influence for any future mining projects. Hazard offsets that by setting aside a large chunk of land to the immediate north of Bodie State Park as wilderness, which he said already has a logical border, and uses Rough Creek as part of the border on the northwest side. The Hills area is one of a group of 13 such WSAs in Mono County (and others in Inyo County) that have been in a sort of limbo since the early 1990s, when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) submitted its recommendations for disposition. Since then, Congress has deferred action on the matter.
Hazard explained that an Ombudsman bill addressing the WSAs could soon be working its way through Congress. The Board has until on or about August to get any action by the County included as part of collateral attached to the bill.
Factored into Hazard’s timing on the compromise is redistricting, which, based on new census counts in Riverside County, might pull McKeon out of representing our district within a year or two.
Why the rush? This compromise, after all, deals with only one of the 13 WSAs. Hazard said a discussion can still be had on the rest, but those exist on a longer timeline. The Bodie Hills is a federal issue, and this compromise could be pivotal. It’s time, he said, to step up and make the hard decisions … and soon. “Let’s move this back to Washington D.C., where it belongs,” he stated.
Hazard said the Board and staff received 400 or more letters before the Feb. 15 meeting, and more than 600 for this meeting, nearly all rehashing previously made points or opinions. One new issue, however, came from the ranching community, where concerns are that the compromise’s new proposed wilderness might financially impact how they run their livestock operations, and handcuff the BLM’s ability to affect rehabilitation of sage grouse habitat.
Mining, as expected, dominated the periphery of the compromise discussion. “I’m disappointed that the WSA and mining have been inextricably linked,” Hazard remarked. “It’s caused nothing but grief.” Supervisor Tim Hansen cited a letter he received equating the use of cyanide to the Nazi death camps in WWII, which he said is indicative of how “beyond the pale” things have gotten.
Public comment was filled with much the same rhetoric from both sides. Opponents amped up their attacks with accusations of “stonewalling,” and implying that Cougar Gold’s real intent is simply to use the release as a “gift” and package the mining for a subcontractor.
Hansen’s mention of the death camps letter was punctuated by some public speculation that Cougar Gold would wantonly poison the water with vast amounts of cyanide and rape the land with massive open pit mines, then abdicate its environmental responsibilities and skip town leaving an insufficient completion bond.
Hazard stated he has no particular love for Cougar Gold, likening the executives’ business tactics to “snake oil salesmen.” He questions the company’s estimates on the number of jobs and whether most would come from Mono County. “I don’t count any Nevada jobs as beneficial to California,” he said. Hazard’s also wary of the company poaching Public Works for heavy equipment operators at three times what the County’s paying.
“Not going forward until the limbo status is decided is a reasonable business plan, but I’m not necessarily buying [Cougar Gold’s] numbers,” said Hazard. “I haven’t seen $7 million worth of positive impact to date, not a new coat of paint, not a new car.” Based on that notion, he’s skeptical that their $20 million of projected benefit will amount to any real significant impact.
Stacy Westerlund pointedly charged some of the Cougar Gold critics with being unwilling to listen. She felt Cougar Gold was forthcoming with answers to questions. Opponents who left early, she said, didn’t like the answers they were getting.
Sally Miller from the Wilderness Society rejected the compromise plan as a “closed-door plan driven by a false sense of urgency. What’s driving the proposal, and who’s leading who?” She rebuffed Hazard’s assertion that mining is a separate issue. “It’s all about mining. Yes the WSAs need to be resolved, but this is not how I do business.”
Dan Westerlund, a 40-year resident who lives on an access road to the Bodie Hills, said 100 years of use should be evidence it’s not suitable for WSA status. (The Hoover wilderness, he said, is a better example of wilderness.) The process, he said, hasn’t been rushed, but one that’s been going on in one form or another for more than 25 years.
On the dais, Supervisor Byng Hunt restated his opposition to any release of WSA at this time. Supervisor Tim Hansen, whose district would be most affected by the compromise, said he wouldn’t have voted to proceed, not because he disliked the idea, but due to what he saw as a shortfall when it came to an open process. Supervisor Larry Johnston said the compromise doesn’t reflect proper action or consideration by the Board.
Seeing no real support for swift action on the compromise, a frustrated Hazard folded his hand. “As far as I’m concerned, the issue is dead.”