Conglomerate Mesa Is Still in Dispute
by Kayla Browne, Conglomerate Mesa Coalition Campaign Manager
Over the last year, the Conglomerate Mesa Coalition1 has been hard at work protecting the Mesa. In the lull between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decision requiring an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for K2 Gold’s expanded exploration project and the opening of the public comment period for the EIS (expected in the next few months), the Coalition has been focusing on permanent protection for Conglomerate Mesa and the surrounding unprotected BLM lands.
Joshua Trees on Conglomerate Mesa with the Sierras in the background. Photo: Jaime Lopez Wolters
Conglomerate Mesa is located near the Lone Pine, Keeler, and Darwin communities in Inyo County, California. It’s east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and west of Death Valley National Park. Conglomerate Mesa is surrounded by other permanently protected areas, including Inyo Mountains Wilderness, Malpais Mesa Wilderness, and Coso Mountain Wilderness. Conglomerate Mesa has been left vulnerable by previous legislation. The Conglomerate Mesa Coalition, local tribes, and surrounding communities would like to see that changed.
There’s Gold in these Hills
Conglomerate Mesa has a decades-long history of gold exploration companies disturbing the delicate desert landscape and leaving their scars behind. Since the mid-1980s, 11 such companies have threatened Conglomerate Mesa. Time after time, these companies have been held off by tribal nations, local communities, and a variety of conservation organizations.
In the late 1990s, a company called BHP executed a big exploration project on the Mesa, in which they were actually allowed to build roads. The company was supposed to reclaim those roads in 2000, but the scars are still clearly visible 23 years later. Once the living desert soil is disturbed, it takes decades or centuries for the microbiomes to re-establish.
Partially reclaimed mining roads high in Conglomerate Mesa. Photo: Kayla Browne
More recently, during K2 Gold’s first phase of exploration in 2020, the BLM approved a plan for 12 drill holes with access by helicopter. In the second phase, K2 has proposed to build roads and drill 120 holes on more than 30 sites. Thanks to more than 23,000 public comments during scoping in 2021, the BLM decided the typical Environmental Analysis was insufficient to determine the plan of operation, and an EIS would be required.
Worth More Than Gold
To the naked eye, it's easy to overlook the diversity of the area's ecological values. It’s just a desert, right? But if you take the time to look around, the area is rich with more than just gold. The area has large stands of Western Joshua trees, both mature and juvenile. In fact, there are a lot of juveniles. There is even one at the summit of the Mesa at 7,700 feet in elevation! The area is also home to the rare Inyo rock daisy, whose only home is the southern Inyo Mountains. Currently, this daisy is being considered for state and federal endangered species protections. Conglomerate Mesa is also part of a Pinion and Juniper forest. Pinion is a culturally important food source for the region's Indigenous peoples. The landscape is also an important area for hunting and traditional medicine gathering.
I have been fortunate enough to go out to the Mesa with Owens Valley indigenous community members. That trip will stick with me forever. My indigenous companions encouraged me to pay attention to the small details, like a Pinyon stump, cut down over 100 years ago for charcoal, that still had bark.
Saving the Mesa Means ‘Working at the Speed of Trust’
The Conglomerate Mesa Coalition has been working with the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone and Timbisha Shoshone Tribes to protect Conglomerate Mesa from K2 Gold and to stop the endless cycle of mining companies coming to this area.
We are working at the speed at which trust is built. The Coalition is committed to working with both tribes, on their timeline, to ensure that the path to permanent protection meets their needs. We will collaborate during conception, protection designation, management planning, and implementation. We will continually amplify their voices and support those whose ancestors were the original stewards of this landscape.
Through its connection with the Friends of the Inyo grassroots conservation organization, the Conglomerate Mesa Coalition maintains regular, transparent communication with Tribal Historic Preservation Officers of both tribes. We also appear before tribal and general councils, as well as cultural preservation committees and environmental committees. The Coalition has invited tribal members to be part of the coalition and attend calls and meetings. We have sought feedback on potential proposal boundaries.
Historically, permanent protection designations have not taken into account cultural resources, tribal access, indigenous rights, or traditional ecological knowledge as important land management considerations. The US federal land management agencies are slowly realizing the value and importance of including and respecting indigenous perspectives. The Conglomerate Mesa Coalition will do everything possible to ensure that the Timbisha Shoshone and Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone tribes obtain permanent protection designation for Conglomerate Mesa, and that they will always have a "hand on the wheel.”
K2 Go Home!
For the upcoming opening of public comments for the Environmental Impact Statement, the Conglomerate Mesa Coalition will be hosting several events. There will be "Mining 101" seminars in Lone Pine and Bishop, California, where the local community will have the opportunity to learn about all things related to gold mining and its harmful effects on the environment. We will also hold a peaceful demonstration along US 395 in Lone Pine. Friends of the Inyo will be releasing our Patagonia film “Island in the Sky.” Coalition members and community partners will also be hosting letter-writing parties.
What is important to know about the upcoming EIS comment period is that comments previously submitted for the Environmental Assessment in 2021 will need to be resubmitted for the EIS. The BLM considers this a new analysis; therefore, no documents carry over. So get your comments in!2
Other ways to help are to contact your local, state, and federal elected officials. Let them know that you want to see Conglomerate Mesa protected from gold mining and preserved for future generations. You can also subscribe to the Conglomerate Mesa Coalition’s Newsletter3 (to stay up to date with the latest happenings.
Kayla Browne is a Policy Associate and Desert Lands Campaign Manager with Friends of the Inyo based in Payahuunadü / Eastern Sierra and serves as the Campaign Manager for the Conglomerate Mesa Coalition. She has been living in Lone Pine, CA, since 2017, enjoying mountain biking, trail running, climbing, hiking, and learning about the biology of these landscapes.