Critics caution against Cougar Gold; Supervisor Hansen cautions against the critics
One would think there wouldn’t be so much of an uproar about a mostly informational item — one with no decision required and no fiscal impact — that’s on the Mono County Board of Supervisors agenda for this coming Tuesday. But then, the presentation is coming from mining company Cougar Gold, which has historically fired up activists leery of “the power of gold.”
The 1 p.m. agenda item, to be followed by a 6 p.m. Town Hall meeting, will allow Cougar Gold to talk about “the process of [its recent] exploratory drilling project [and subsequent results],” and “lay out hopeful next steps and how it may affect those in Mono County.”
With no formal, full-scale plans for a large mining operation submitted to the Board previously (and none on the agenda for this meeting), District 4 Supervisor Tim Hansen, who is the County sponsor for the agenda item, said he thinks the “next steps” mentioned will probably be about plans for more exploratory work in the near term. Hansen, however, didn’t rule out the possibility that Cougar Gold may put forth their view on what should happen vis-a-vis release of the Bodie Wilderness Study Area, where previous exploration has taken place.
Last year, Mono’s U.S. Congressman Buck McKeon (R-25th District) floated a bill that called for the release of the Bodie Wilderness Study Area from its protected status. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has jurisdiction over the wildland area, and has yet to rule one way or the other, but has previously recommended that the Bodie WSA (and others in the region) not be designated wilderness.
The BLM is expected to be represented at the 1 p.m. meeting and possibly at both.
In an Open Letter to Mono County, Cougar Gold CEO Marcel Deguire wrote, “We were proud to hire Mono County workers for the duration of our project and impressed with the quality of work that can be found in this area.” He went on to say that the meeting is being conducted to “keep the citizens of Mono County as informed as possible.”
For many conservationists, that would mean getting a few very specific questions answered.
Speaking for Friends of the Inyo, one of several local and national groups that comprise the Bodie Hills Conservation Partnership, Executive Director Stacy Corless touched on several general points common to many of the BHCP’s membership. “I think we’re going to see a push for the WSA release,” Corless opined. “But this isn’t just a choice between wilderness or mining. We need to have a broader discussion about the best use for our public lands.”
FOI does prize the Bodie Hills, along with the state park ghost town, as both a major tourist destination and unique landscape with natural, cultural and historical values. The area has recently been eyed by Washington D.C. for national monument status. Corless acknowledged it wasn’t, however, likely that President Barack Obama would push it through under the Antiquities Act, at least not anytime soon. “But, it does show we’re not the only people who think it’s special.”
The issue in Mono County, at least for FOI, is one of extraction versus conservation. “What would releasing the Bodie Hills from WSA status give Cougar Gold that it doesn’t already have?” asked Corless. FOI, she added, recognizes the need for jobs and revenue, but frankly doesn’t consider mining a significant or sustainable part of the county’s economic infrastructure. Corless expects Cougar Gold to come on Tuesday armed with lots figures and projections on everything from taxes to jobs, but little in the way of specifics. “What jobs are we talking about and who’s going to get them?” Corless asked. Equally as nebulous (at this point) is the end result of exploration and what she indicated could be a “long shot” in terms of actually finding a gold deposit and developing a working mine.
Corless said she’s heard of Cougar Gold’s references to “environmentally friendly” mining. “Show me … give me a tour of an example of an environmentally friendly mine, and how it’s sustainable 20 years down the road.”
She’s also concerned about the “blinded by the bling” factor that may have beset job-hungry northern Mono County residents and officials, citing recent area history of deals gone bad. “Intrawest, anyone? Hot Creek Aviation?” Which raises another question of the cost of extraction and the break-even point on the market price of gold, which like other commodities ebbs and flows.
One thing FOI concedes is Cougar Gold’s right to conduct exploration on its mining claim. Nonetheless, FOI would prefer to protect the Bodie Hills as part of a “proven sector (tourism)” that Corless thinks could be better capitalized.
“I just hope that [at the Town Hall] the Board hears the concerns, asks the tough questions and doesn’t rush to any hasty approvals for Cougar Gold,” she said. One elected official who said he’s looking forward to this meeting being fact finding and the truth coming out is recently seated District 4 Mono County Supervisor Tim Hansen.
“This is the time to have questions answered [by the BLM] once and for all about the WSA and what Cougar Gold can and can’t do,” Hansen told The Sheet. “What I’d like to hear from the BLM is, ‘Do the Bodie Hills meet your criteria for WSA status … yes or no?’”
Hansen insists, contrary to errant speculation, that he’s “not a spokesman for the mining company.” Cougar Gold, he said, asked for the Town Hall to be agendized, and a supervisor’s name was needed to sponsor the item. It’s not my deal, but — full disclosure — I worked for this company previously, though I’m not on their payroll anymore.”
Hansen said that gives him unique, first-hand experience when it comes to Cougar Gold. He worked on the exploratory project from start to finish, knows the working conditions and how those conditions were adhered to. “Just to be clear: I have no intention of letting anyone get away with any misleading information or other factual deception,” Hansen said.
He went on to say that in the past two weeks, he’s documented numerous e-mails about the Bodie Hills WSA and Cougar Gold. “Many are very impassioned, but most lack any substance and are reactions to action alerts.” Quite a few, he pointed out, are from outside the Mono County area.
“I want to keep the meeting open and get questions answered,” Hansen said. “The perception is that Cougar Gold is determined to mine for gold in the Bodie Hills, which we don’t know is the case as yet. I want this to be based on fact. The people who live in Bridgeport have the most at stake in this.”
The Board takes up its agenda item on Feb. 15 at 1 p.m. and the Town Hall meeting is set for 6-8 p.m. Both will be held in the Bridgeport Memorial Hall, adjacent to the Courthouse building.