Threatened by Mining Exploration
by Maria Jesus
One of my most memorable trips to Conglomerate Mesa was on a hot summer day when I was looking for rare plants, but also keeping an ear out for helicopters. I had heard that K2 Gold, a Canadian exploration company, had received authorization to drill for gold at the south end of Conglomerate Mesa. However, the drill sites were roadless, and the company was required to fly their equipment in via helicopter. As I stooped to the ground, looking for rare plants, I heard it – the deep thrum of approaching rotors in the sky. It turns out the helicopter had a different destination that day, but it wouldn’t be long before K2 would land on the Mesa, hoping to find the gold they were looking for.
For the last four years, I have devoted myself to understanding the natural riches that occur on Conglomerate Mesa and surrounding lands. As a seeker of diverse plant life, this area drew me because it represents a unique botanical mixing zone within the larger regional landscape and is unscathed by modern development. Located at the meeting place of the Mojave Desert and Great Basin, vast stands of Joshua trees thrive alongside species endemic to the White-Inyo range. At least fifteen species in the Conglomerate Mesa area are officially ranked as rare in California and five are globally rare.1
Comprehensive botanical information about Conglomerate Mesa has been urgently needed to better understand the impacts of threats posed by mining and exploration. Even though Conglomerate Mesa is part of the National Conservation Lands system and surrounded by three wilderness areas – Death Valley, Inyo Mountains, and Malpais Mesa – it remains vulnerable to mining. Currently, K2 Gold is seeking permission to build roads and drill for more valuable minerals. The results of their exploration efforts, targeting submicroscopic gold, could pave the way for an open pit mine.
Photo: Friends of the Inyo
Existing federal laws require public land managers to assess the environmental impacts of ground disturbing projects, including mining exploration.2 Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, assessments of environmental impact rarely capture the fullness of biological diversity and ecological processes on the ground. To do so can take years or even decades of scientific research – a pace far slower than that afforded to most agency assessments. In the absence of scientific evidence, assumptions can be made, and development can proceed with unforeseen and sometimes devastating consequences.
To help fill in the gap in current botanical documentation in the Conglomerate Mesa area, I’ve spent nearly 100 days hiking this mostly roadless landscape to document all the plant species I could find. Some, like the sprawling, otherworldly stands of Joshua trees and sweeping fields of purple lupine are visually stunning and impossible to miss. Many other flowering residents of the area – small, uncommon, and/or ephemeral in habit – do not reveal themselves so easily.
Badger Flat threadplant photos by Maria Jesus
One of the most exciting finds was the Badger Flat threadplant (Nemacladus inyoensis) whose tiny flowers are slightly larger than a pencil tip and easily camouflaged by the chalk-colored rocks they tend to grow in. These annual plants need abundant rains before they can emerge from their long dormancy as seeds in the soil. Perhaps this explains why the species was unknown to mainstream science until 2020, when it was formally described as a “new” species, nearly endemic to the White-Inyo range. There are at least three occurrences of this rare plant in the Conglomerate Mesa area, and the largest overlaps with K2 Gold’s recently proposed mineral exploration project. Although several botanical surveys had been conducted in anticipation of mining projects over the past two decades, all failed to find the Badger Flat threadplant in this location.
Plant species that live in high desert environments, such as Conglomerate Mesa, operate on timelines that are not always well-suited to the relatively faster pace of environmental permitting. When botanical surveys are done in dry years, or outside the typical growing season, many annual plant species go undetected because they remain dormant beneath the ground in seed form. It can be years, perhaps decades, before the right combination of precipitation and temperature coaxes these seeds into emergence.
One of the more reliable perennial bloomers, is the Inyo rock daisy (Perityle inyoensis) which only occurs in the southern Inyo Mountains. These yellow-flowered daisies are mostly found above 6500 feet growing from calcium-rich rock outcrops where there are likely fewer competitors for limited water and nutrients. Blooming in July when most of the area’s plant species have gone dormant, the daisies appear to be an important food resource for native bees and other insect pollinators. Importantly, nearly the entire range of the Inyo rock daisy is overlapped by mining claims, and the species is currently being considered for federal and state listing under the Endangered Species Act and the California Endangered Species Act.
Inyo rock daisy photo by Dylan Cohen
Inyo rock daisy photo by Cheryl Birker
I was very fortunate to have spent many days on Conglomerate Mesa in 2019, a “super bloom” year when winter precipitation was abnormally high. The abundant moisture spurred many of the Mesa’s plant species to emerge in droves, painting the otherwise stark rocky canyons and ridges with a rainbow of colors. Among many exciting finds that season was a charismatic magenta flower that turned out to be the southernmost occurrence of the rare Parry’s monkeyflower (Diplacus parryi). Relative to other desert areas, it appears that Conglomerate Mesa is exceptionally rich in rare plant species.
So why is this place such a special home for plants? For one, many of the Mesa’s rare plant species have an affinity for the calcium-rich rock outcrops that are plentiful here. Additionally, this area hasn’t experienced heavy impacts from wildfire, grazing, or road building – all of which can destroy native plant habitat and introduce invasive species. Since Conglomerate Mesa is situated at the transition between the Mojave and Great Basin ecoregions, several plant species reach the edge of their range here and cannot move beyond.
As the climate continues to change, the Mojave-Great Basin transition zone that characterizes this area will likely become critical habitat for many Mojave plants like the Joshua tree. Several recent scientific studies have found that under future climate scenarios in California, most Joshua trees will disappear from the southern part of their range, including many protected areas like Joshua Tree National Park. Due to its higher elevation and location at the northwestern edge of the Mojave Desert, Conglomerate Mesa has been identified as one of the few places in California where Joshua trees will persist through the end of this century. If we take steps to protect these populations from development, the Mesa’s extensive stands of Joshua trees are more likely to remain healthy well into the future.
Joshua Trees on Conglomerate Mesa. Photo by Evan Frost
I am very grateful to have been able to study Conglomerate Mesa's botanical riches and document many of the beautiful, rare, and unusual plants that live here. The Mesa, as well as the larger wildland of which it is an integral part, is a plant lover's dream (especially in a good water year!). As interesting and important as the area's botanical values are turning out to be, the plants are only one chapter of the larger story on what makes this place special.
Importantly, Conglomerate Mesa has a rich human history and is part of the traditional homelands of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone and Timbisha Shoshone Tribal nations. Members of these Tribal nations continue to visit the Mesa and have worked in a variety of ways to protect these lands and maintain traditional cultural uses.
Conglomerate Mesa's numerous cultural and environmental values – encompassing the flora, fauna, intact desert ecosystems, and the wide range of habitats that connect nearby protected areas – deserve careful stewardship that accounts for the desires and perspectives of all who collectively own these public lands.
Intact wildlands like Conglomerate Mesa, increasingly rare in today's world, are an ideal place to conserve biodiversity for future generations. Once these places are developed and activities such as an industrial-scale mining are allowed to proceed, there is no going back.
At the time of this writing, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is analyzing a proposal submitted by K2 Gold (subsidiary Mojave Precious Metals) requesting permission to build roads, utilize overland routes, construct drill pads, and establish long-term camps.3,4 Perhaps by the time you read this, the BLM will have released either an Environmental Assessment or an Environmental Impact Statement which will elicit a 30-day comment period before the agency reaches a final decision. This is an important opportunity for the public to provide further comments to the BLM before a final decision is made. You can find the latest news at the website https://protectconglomeratemesa.com/ and subscribe to the mailing list to have updates delivered to your inbox.
Maria Jesus recently earned her M.S. in botany at California Botanic Garden/Claremont Graduate University. Prior to graduate school, she managed a vegetation monitoring program for the Nevada Department of Wildlife and has also spent several seasons working as a field botanist. Currently, she is a conservation botanist at California Botanic Garden where she works as part of a team to advance native plant conservation.
(3) Mentioned in June 2021 Issue of the Desert Report
Conglomerate Mesa intro photo at top by Ken Etzel