Gold exploration projects by foreign companies threaten Conglomerate Mesa, and Paiute and Timbisha Shoshone homelands.
By Kris Hohag, Special to CalMatters
Kris Hohag, a citizen of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, is a senior organizing representative at the Sierra Club, an educator and activist for land conservation in the region.
You probably haven’t visited Conglomerate Mesa in the Eastern Sierra. I hadn’t until about two years ago. This place – notoriously difficult to access – holds an important history to my people, the Bishop Paiute Tribe, along with neighboring tribes.
Like most people who are fortunate enough to visit this beautiful swath of land, I was left profoundly touched. It is rugged, remote and dramatically beautiful. It sits between Mt. Whitney – the highest point in the continental U.S. – and Death Valley – the lowest, and represents the breadth of beauty of this country.
But the Conglomerate Mesa is at risk. While my community and I see this as a land inextricably tied to our past and our legacy, exploratory mining companies see it as a place to be exploited for financial gains.
During the pandemic, the price of gold has risen to an all time high. This boom is not surprising given the massive shutdowns and subsequent ongoing uncertainty around the world, and our increasingly highly interconnected global economic system.
In the Eastern Sierra, there are no less than five gold exploration projects by foreign companies proposing to use the “cyanide, heap leach open pit” process to extract dust-size gold particles. This process destroys mountains, countless land features, cultural resources and animal habitats for the foreseeable future, if not forever.
Right now, the Bureau of Land Management is weighing a permit for a Canadian corporation, K2 Gold – set up locally as Mojave Precious Metals Inc. – to expand their exploratory drilling on Conglomerate Mesa, Paiute and Timbisha Shoshone homelands, just a stone’s throw from Death Valley National Park. To the north, just outside the mountain resort town of Mammoth Lakes, in Mono County, Paiute homelands, KORE Mining, also a Canadian company, is proposing a similar open pit mine under U.S. Forest Service oversight. It is critical that these proposals are stopped in the early stages before it spirals to the point of irreversible damage.
Local tribes, environmentalists and community members have been adamant about the harm and negative repercussions such industrial mining would have on the environment and local water supplies. Reclamation, even if required by law, can never fully repair a landscape, and tribes know all too well the history of mining in a region that was booming as a result of the 1849 California Gold Rush.
Tribes are still recovering from the environmental and cultural destruction that took place more than 150 years ago, and now it seems that without key reform to the General Mining Law of 1872, which has allowed such prolific and unmitigated extraction on public lands, history is poised to repeat itself in this spectacularly beautiful and wild region of the country.
All of this industrial gold mining activity feels like an attack on the Indigenous people of this land, like me. The scenic vistas are incomparable to anywhere on earth and the night sky allows for a full view of our Milky Way galaxy overhead. Drilling in these places would not only be a disgrace to the many tribal leaders who have opposed these projects for years, but it would threaten and drive away wildlife, destroy rare plants and be a direct blow to the local recreation economy that depends on its protection.
The approval of these projects would mean the mining industry once again gets its way at the expense of our local autonomy, indigenous sovereignty, public health and sustainable economies. We cannot let this happen. There are people that think the land is not good for anything but gold, but I’m here to say this place is so much bigger than us, and it’s worth protecting.