On Tuesday November 28, the Inyo County Board of Supervisors discussed the approval of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) concerning exploratory drilling at the so-called “Mojave property—a tract of public land near Conglomerate Mesa in Inyo County.
Inyo County Planning Director, Catherine Richards summarized the contents of the memorandum before the Board, explaining that Mojave Precious Metals—a subsidiary of K2 Gold, and the entity that proposed the mining project—has submitted an amendment to their existing, BLM-approved plan of Operations for mineral extraction near Conglomerate Mesa. The initial plan, approved in 2018, involved helicopter transport to seven designated sites. However, only four sites were explored. The proposed modification sought exploration access on previously disturbed roads, expanding the project’s impact to 15 acres at around 30 locations with a possible 120 boreholes.
“It’s expanded since the first approval,” explained Richards.
“Inyo County has absolutely no permitting authority over this project,” continued Richards, “but we do still have the responsibility to … ensure that a reclamation plan is prepared and implemented.”
In other words, while the county has no say in whether or not the drilling takes place at Conglomerate Mesa, it is obligated under the State Surface Mining and Reclamation Act to ensure intent of reclamation, to restore the land following the mining activity.
The environmental impact statement “will eventually be used for the reclamation plan, to the extent that it’s appropriate,” assured Richards.
Following Richards’ presentation, questions arose amongst the Board concerning the potential consequences of not entering into the MOU. Richards clarified that, without the agreement, the county would still participate in the environmental document but as a private citizen, lacking the status of a cooperating agency.
“We’re gonna have to participate, whether we like it or not,” said Richards. “We don’t have a choice.”
The planning director placed emphasis on the county’s responsibility to oversee the reclamation plan, regardless of its participation in the MOU.
And then, the floor opened up for public comment.
Jolie Varela was the first to speak.
Varela introduced herself as a citizen of the Tule River Yokuts and Nüümü (Paiute) Nations—a resident of her maternal homelands of Payahuunadü, or the Owens Valley.
“I am firmly against further exploration and further desecration of our homelands when it comes to mining,” said Varelat. She urged members of the board to “keep the land and its people in mind,” in advance of signing the MOU.
Mike Prather—retired school teacher, former Water commissioner, and resident of Inyo County since 1972—was next to the microphone.
“Years ago, Father Crowley realized that our wild Inyo County landscapes were our sustainable future, as opposed to the boom and bust of mining and other extractive industries,” began Prather, referring to the influential Catholic priest in the early 20th century Eastern Sierra who is remembered for his economic advocacy for residents of the Owens Valley following the diversion of its water to Los Angeles, and for whom, Crowley Lake was named. “Father Crowley didn’t oppose mining, but he felt that the world-class beauty of the land would provide local communities with a more dependable economy through tourism and responsible recreation. The requirement was the protection of these lands through wise land-use decisions.”
Prather referred to Conglomerate Mesa as one of the most “prized places in Inyo County’s landscape, and criticized its possible condemnation as an “open pit gold mine.”
Prather also acknowledged the multi-factional political quagmire surrounding the proposed exploration.
“There are voices accusing us residents of stirring things up, and this is just a time-tested attempt to delegitimize contrary opinions in public,” said Prather. “But stirring things up is very American. It’s an American tradition.”
Other residents suggested that the cost-benefit analysis of the project did not warrant its potential environmental impact.
David McMullen, resident of the Owens Valley, referenced a 2022 study, “The Case Against Gold Mining,” which analyzes the social and environmental cost of large-scale, industrial gold mining.
“There is enough gold that’s already been pulled out, and is in circulation, to supply all of the technical demands that we require for gold,” cited McMullen. “But it’s only 8% of production. The rest goes into bank vaults, or something similar.”
McMullen encouraged advocates of the mine to consider the competing values of the potential gold extraction and the beauty of the mesa.
“The rare plants, and the wonderful environment that’s up there… it’s worth so much more than jewelry, or investments.”
Betsy McDonald, a Chalfant resident in neighboring Mono County, agreed.
“I’m ready to give up my wedding ring,” said McDonald. “There’s enough gold out of the ground, already.”
McDonald also directed distrust at the purported reclamation plans, associated with the mining project.
“When I heard the word ‘reclamation,’ it struck my heart,” said McDonald. “I mean, do you know of one gold mine that actually looks good right now?”
“No matter what assurances and mitigations … the EIS can provide in an attempt to safeguard our environment here, the reality is that allowing drilling will change the mesa forever,” seconded Richard Potash, resident of Lone Pine. “A landscape like Conglomerate Mesa—which literally took millions of years to evolve—can be decimated in a matter of years.”
Supervisor Matt Kingsley, representing the fifth district where Conglomerate Mesa is located, acknowledged the diversity of opinion among constituents but affirmed his commitment to factual discussions. He expressed his support for signing the MOU, citing the legal rights associated with mining claims and the delicate balance between environmental conservation and existing mining rights.
“65% of Inyo County is wilderness, so I don’t think this county is a spot where we’re writing blank checks,” said Kinglsey. “Conglomerate Mesa—there’s been mining claims on that area for many, many years. Mining claims come with some legal rights … so I’m gonna be in favor of signing this MOU.
At meeting’s end, his fellow Board members voted to sign the memorandum of understanding.
“I’ve been up to Conglomerate Mesa many times,” reflected Supervisor Jennifer Roeser, upon the approval of the document. “I’ve ridden up there—beautiful ride. A lot of special country in that area, anyway.”