CONGLOMERATE IN PROTEST
In a small courtyard beside the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce, a small chihuahua makes a nervous initial pass on those walking in, warily keeping an eye on and backing away from those walking through the archway into the courtyard.
Inside, representatives from the Mojave mineral company mingle with one another and a few members of the interested public around a table loaded with maps and free stickers and a large easel-mounted map of Inyo County south of Lone Pine and the mountains bordering Nevada.
A yellow lab meanders around the edges, looking for food and attention, and Mojave staff are quick to offer a free burrito, chips and salsa, and water to any who spend more than thirty seconds at the table or easel.
With the late morning sun beating down, the scene is reminiscent of any public open house. But the issue at hand, and the one outlined on the maps, is far from tranquil, evidenced by the two deputies from the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department standing on the sidewalk outside the courtyard.
The small group gathered at the street corner less than sixty feet from the courtyard entrance, holding signs and starting conversation with passers-by, represented those who oppose Mojave Precious Metals (MPM) actions in the area and advocate for conservation.
Their signs read: “Protect Conglomereate Mesa”, “Worth More Than Gold”, and express support for the efforts by local tribes to halt disturbances on land held sacred.
A large number of the vehicles passing by on 395 gave
quick honks in support of the group, who responded with cheers. Even the occassional semi-truck expressed audible solidarity.
Kit Cole, a consultant on the project, eventually asked the officers to move along; they had not been asked to be present by either party.
The ultimate decision on whether there will be further exploratory drilling at Conglomerate Mesa is vested with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
In the courtyard, MPM’s Katie VonSydow explained the current process out at the mesa: soil sample collection and drilling down to 660 meters for surveying.
The company, she said, is in the process of cutting in a road to make the area more accessible in the future. She added that, since the area is public land, members of the public are allowed to be there just about any time save for equipment operations (that’s a liability.)
“The area,” VonSydow explained to two men examining the maps, “has been pretty beat up by tectonic forces.”
“And mining,” a third onlooker adds, mostly to himself.
The third man is Jeremiah Joseph, a cultural resource monitor for the exploration project and member of the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Tribe.
Joseph explained that both the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone and the Timbisha Shoshone have ancestral ties to Conglomerate Mesa stretching back for generations. It was used for hunting and ceremony, Joseph said, and the evidence of that history is evident to those who visit the site.
Joseph has been a monitor at the site for the past two years.
The trip out to the Mesa is 4 hours one-way: a two hour drive followed by a two-hour hike. MPM has a helicopter it uses to fly staff out to the site but due to insurance issues, tribal members weren’t allowed in the helicopter.
Joseph said that the tribes were then offered a 25% pay cut in exchange for being allowed to ride along in the helicopter.
“Every time we go up there,” Joseph said of the Mesa, “we find something to protect.” In addition to the cultural and archaeological resources present at the Mesa, the area’s fauna includes a large amount of Joshua trees and Pinion pines.
On the corner, Bryan Hatchell, the Friends of the Inyo’s Desert Policy Associate, was with the group of protesters, distributing signs and speaking with passersby.
“We’re not forgetting about the lands that are at stake,” Hatchell said.
Friends of the Inyo’s role in the conservation effort, he explained, is to “connect people to the landscape” and energize the local community response to projects like Mojave’s.
In addition, the group is a persistent advocate on a local, regional, and national level for conservation, petitioning for policy that would ensure protected lands retain their status.
When asked if he had interest in talking to Mojave staff, he responded, “We’re hoping to have a conversation today … it’s important that we have one.”
While he took issue with the way that the project, and overall mining, has been presented by invested companies (i.e. progress vs. no progress, pro-and-anti jobs), at the end of the day, “we just have differences of opinion.”
Attendees were at least open to hearing what Mojave was saying, if not outright supportive.
One noted that he was invested in gold, was overall pro-gold and mining “as long as you can do it right.”
He remarked to Jodie Gibson, VP of Exploration at Mojave, that there shouldn’t be anything negative about simple exploration.
Gibson spoke with The Sheet about the event and the project as a whole.
“It’s going the way we expected it to,” Gibson said of the open house, “It’s a contentious area.”
“At the end of the day, people are entitled to have an opinion,” he said. Final decisions are built into the existing regulations.
“It comes down to science, where BLM comes in and makes that determination.”
The goal of Mojave, he emphasized, is figuring out what’s present in the ground. That’s it. If they find sufficient resources for mining, that would be handled by an entirely different company.
Gibson also stressed the importance of mitigating any environmental issues that may arise during the exploration process.
Kathy Bancroft, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer with the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Tribe, took in the corner protest from the driver’s seat of her truck.
Bancroft had just arrived from a meeting with Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).
“It’s interesting because when [Mojave] agreed to meet with the tribes, they didn’t know anything about cultural monitors,” Bancroft said, “We told them there’s going to be monitors especially since no archaeologists are up either.”
Every time ground was disturbed, monitors would be there.
“The place is so sensitive that you may not see everything at the top,” she continued, “because there’s a history of looting.”
Crews are generally more careful and considerate when monitors are present, Bancroft noted.
Bancroft said that Lone Pine tribe was offered a scholarship by the mining companies that would send students to a trade school to study mining.
“Don’t try to buy us,” Bancroft said of the offer, “We don’t want your blood money.”
“This is how many times we’ve been fighitng people trying to come in and do this?” she asked rhetorically, “We can’t just keep fighting them over and over.”
The goal now is permanent protection and conservation; Bancroft said that she has been in contact with people all the way up to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to advocate for their cause.
“The most important thing is to change the mining laws…it’s scary to see how much power they have,” she said.
Bancroft gave an example: Montana mining laws have been changed to prevent extensive cyanide use in mining, although the change came too late, after many water sources near mines were contaminated with the chemical.
And as for the protest outside, Bancroft said with a smile, “I love it. It’s really inspiring.”