Supes take no action on wilderness resolution
During its regular meeting on Tuesday, Mono County’s Board of Supervisors voted to take “no action” on a resolution to support HR 6129, the “Mono County Economic Development Act of 2010,” legislation authored and introduced in Washington D.C. by U.S. Congressman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-25th District). The bill essentially calls for release of the Bodie Study Area (WSA), which surrounds Bodie State Historic Park, from its study status.
The Board voted 3-2 to leave the resolution in limbo. The contentious agenda item packed the Bridgeport Boardroom with both supporters for and opposition of the release, and drew fire from all sides.
District 4 Supervisor Bob Peters acknowledged the item was agendized hastily, but thought it necessary to respond to McKeon in a timely manner. He went on to explain that recent public meetings with Cougar Gold were held, and that Cougar asked for the legislation, though Peters maintained he had no idea a release proposal was in the works. Peters said Cougar plans to augment 19 test holes drilled last year with some 200 more, in a space about 500 square feet in size, or roughly the dimensions of the Bridgeport Board chambers.
A recent Bureau of Land Management (BLM) determination deemed the Bodie Hills not suitable for wilderness designation. The Hills, however, are on a draft BLM list of sites being considered for national monument designation under the Antiquities Act.
Approximately 96 percent Mono County land is owned or controlled by the federal government in one form or another. With unemployment in the county running at roughly 10 percent, one of McKeon’s selling points is job creation.
“Releasing the Bodie Wilderness Study Area and opening it for economic development could create hundreds of good-paying jobs and annual tax revenue in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” according to the bill’s language.
Hazard thinks the resolution may not be the right message to send. “We need to tell our legislators they failed to take leadership during the last 30 years and resolve the WSAs in Mono County,” Hazard said. “We shouldn’t have to give our blessing to release just one.” In terms of economics, he said, “Comparing California to Vail and its skiing or Nevada and its mining doesn’t ring my chimes. Neither one has the economy we have here.” He didn’t dismiss exploration for resources, pointing out the County has other similar operations, such as wind towers, geothermal, etc.
Supervisor Tom Farnetti pointed to additional protection afforded under WSAs. “We all love this area, and want to keep it this way … the economy’s in recession, and it’s affected everyone,” he said, “but I’m not sure that one economic development will change things that significantly.” Bodie has more than 200,000 visitors every year and other outdoor activities that bring people to the county. If mining is to occur, we should have solid environmental regulations to protect resources, he added.
Chair Hunt, however, was livid about the way the bill, which was written in May and introduced in September, was foisted on the Board. “Why wasn’t there any public process before the introduction of such a controversial piece of legislation?” he asked. Hunt said he was told “this is normal legislative process,” and that it may be pushed through in an emergency session, possibly as part of a larger omnibus lands bill. Is there a backroom deal or quid pro quo here? “Clearly it favors mining interests,” he said.
“This may be the way Congress does it, but it’s not the way it’s done in Mono County. Why didn’t Congressman McKeon or anyone in his office contact the Chair of the Board of Supervisors? I first heard about it, seven days ago, and second-hand at that.” Hunt called the proposal “premature” on the part of the Congressman. “Any jobs providing economic benefit will disappear quickly enough,” he thought, adding that the proposal isn’t in the best long-term interest of the county. “The WSA,” he stated, “doesn’t need to be lifted. I stand by our county motto of ‘wild by nature,’ and against HR 6129.”
Opposition was very well organized. The California State Parks Foundation (CSPF), a Sacramento-based group (not affiliated with the state government), sent a mass e-mail urging “Take Action Today.” Friends of the Inyo talking points said the legislation “could open it up to harmful mining exploration,” and called the WSA release “unnecessary for mining exploration and potentially dangerous for the wildlife of the area and for tourism in and around California’s official ghost town.”
In public comment, Sydney Quinn said passing the resolution would be an irreversible decision. “Gold is too nebulous,” she said. “If it were water, liquid gold to some, we’d be talking about quality, quantity and so on.” Several comments railed against the effects of the cyanide heat bleaching process that’s historically been used in mining. (Mono County ordinance prohibits the use of cyanide, including cyanide heat bleaching.) Jan Carle, a retired state parks ranger, said, “It’s ironic that a tourist attraction illustrates the boom and bust related to mining. Fallout from [mining company] Galactic’s attempts to mine [in the 1980s], she suggested, illustrates the “messes that can be left to clean up.”
Supporters, however, were largely motivated by economics. Walker resident Annie Reavey said, “Look at the lack of jobs. Where are we going to put our windmills?” She outlined a future in which fewer fire trucks were on the road that would lead to tourists coming here to see the charred remains of our county.
County resident Lynda Bryant, who said she was “born and raised here,” stated in an e-mail response to the CSPF that mining is “a huge boost to our community” and not harmful to the nearby hills. Citing the principle that “people have mined for centuries,” the response went on to say that what must instead be stopped is the Obama administration’s attempt to make Bodie a national monument.
Benny Romero, a Bridgeport property owner who poured the water tank in Bodie Hills in 1976, pointed to mining in Elko, Nev., that he said has contributed a great deal to the economic health of that area. “If we remove the WSA are we leaving things out in the wind? I don’t think so,” Romero observed. A participant in several national sustainable rangeland roundtable meetings, he advocated a “multiple use concept,” whether mining, recreation, etc. “I think we have enough protection [under the BLM] as it is, and even though it’s short notice, attempts by environmental groups to lock it up aren’t good either.”
Several county residents advocated release based on free use for their own projects, pointing out that there are roads already in the Hills, and it’s been previously used and developed, most saying that simply releasing the WSA doesn’t mean there are going to be mining projects, citing BLM rules and regulations that would still govern the area.
Incoming District 1 Supervisor Larry Johnston commented that mining towns are “not the kind of place I’d want to live in,” calling what he’s encountered “run down” and “dilapidated.”
Mary Booher, however, disagreed with his take on mining town, saying she’s been to some of what she called the “best towns,” company towns she said are “booming” and boast vibrant communities.
Supervisor Vikki Bauer said, “The whole process doesn’t make me happy … it’s strictly a two-sided argument and that’s sad. Do we want to stick our flag in and make our stand over this issue?” Bauer restated that the Bodie Hills land doesn’t meet the criteria of wilderness and WSAs aren’t intended to tie up land forever. This isn’t about mining, gold or any specific project. Bridgeport isn’t exactly thriving, and to base everything on tourism is shortsighted. The bill’s simple: it should be released. I agree with Chair Hunt … it shouldn’t have been rushed. Maybe they took their cues from the current administration, but Bodie is a place for mining. Without it there would be no state park.” Bauers and Peters dissented in the final vote.
Hunt and Hazard said the WSA would probably not resurface in its current form as a stand-alone item, but likely return as part of a package of more than a dozen WSAs in Mono County to be voted on in an “up-or-down” configuration.