BLM WILD 10-27-17 The Secret California Desert

Oct 27, 2017

California’s arid interior includes millions of acres of spectacular wild public lands. CalWild and its partner, Friends of the Inyo, recently took a group of people to see Conglomerate Mesa — a remote and untrammeled land, frequented by Native American people for pinyon nut gathering and by solitude seekers for hiking, camping, and hunting. Yet the area remains widely unknown to many.

Conglomerate Mesa. Photo by Neal Nurmi

Conglomerate Mesa lies in the southern Inyo Mountains, sandwiched between the Sierra Nevada Range and Death Valley National Park. The nearest towns are Olancha to the southwest and Lone Pine to the northwest. The mesa itself is an impressive landform when seen from a distance, extending from 3,800 to 7,100 feet in elevation. Visitors who clamber to the top via the historic unmarked Keeler-Death Valley footpath are treated to expansive views of multiple wilderness areas, Owens Lake, and the glittering Sierra Nevada. On clear days, Telescope Peak in Death Valley is visible.

The impetus for our hike was that Conglomerate Mesa is being threatened with a gold mine. Historically, mining has taken place in and around Conglomerate Mesa since the 1800s. The area holds a unique collection of historic era mining features, particularly associated with early charcoal production for Cerro Gordo and smelters in the Owens Valley. However, mining in the Conglomerate Mesa area appears to have been done by small groups of “amateurs” and had little to no impact on the area. Larger operations took place at nearby Cerro Gordo.

Our objective was to climb to the top of the mesa to experience the views, but also to take a closer look at the specific lands, rocks, trees, wildlife, and recreational opportunities that would be damaged if the mine were to be approved.

Our intrepid group of hikers to Conglomerate Mesa

The approach to Conglomerate is nearly as stunning as the view from the top. The Saline Valley road winds north from highway 190 through Centennial Flats, which hosts a dense Joshua Tree forest. It is unusual to see another car along the rough dirt road, but Mohave ground squirrels and other small mammals often scurry across.

In among the Joshua Trees creosote bushes and silver cholla poked out. The cholla cactus appeared “fuzzy” as the sunlight shone through their dense spines. Since Conglomerate Mesa is situated in a transition zone along the eastern edge of the Mojave Desert and the western edge of the Great Basin, the area has high plant diversity. As we gained elevation, the vegetation changed into a pinyon-juniper woodland. The area was a traditional pinyon nut gathering location for indigenous peoples, evidenced by lithic materials and ceramic fragments dating to the contact period in the Owens Valley and earlier. It remains an important modern day tribal site.

Other unique and sensitive flowering plants, such as Ripley’s Cymopterus and Inyo rock daisy are found in the area as well. Although we did not see either of those, we saw a variety of plants including Cooper’s goldenbush, Matchweed, Great Basin Sagebrush, Black sagebrush, Spiny hop-sage, and several varieties of buckwheat and cacti.

Our on-board tire crew

As we approached the flanks of the mesa, Mother Nature threw us a curve ball. A sharp protruding rock punctured one of my tires. With limited daylight hours, we opted to leave the flat until after our hike, and piled into the other vehicles to travel the remaining stretch of the dirt track to start our hike. As we walked along the track, we passed a natural double arch — an uncommon sight in this landscape.

Hikers through one of the arches

Golden Eagles, Prairie Falcon, hawks and owls frequent the skies above Conglomerate hunting for the lizards, snakes, and other small wildlife that make the mesa home. And at night, Townsend’s Western Big-eared bats seek out moths and other insects. Badgers, bobcats, foxes, and coyotes can be found on the ground. The upland areas of the mesa provide important winter Mule deer habitat and overwintering sites. Conglomerate Mesa is also a key part of larger movement corridors for Nelson’s Bighorn Sheep. In turn, the Mule deer and Bighorn sheep presence supports mountain lions. We kept our eyes peeled for signs of these wild critters as we began the steep climb to the top of the mesa.

As we climbed higher along the old trail, the view to the east opened up and the Joshua Trees we drove past became small dots on the landscape. At one point, the trail faded and we began to walk cross-country as we climbed to the top of the mesa. Along the way, we continued to look for wildlife, but only saw an occasional bird or lizard. However, we saw evidence of larger wildlife scat which appeared to be from hares, coyotes, and deer.

The Canadian mining company SSR, Inc. proposes to drill seven exploratory drill sites to attempt to locate gold deposits in the heart of the mesa. In order to accomplish these exploratory drilling areas, the company would have to either construct roads in this otherwise roadless area or fly in the equipment with helicopters. It was hard to imagine either thing happening in the peaceful and unmarred landscape that spread out before us.

The groups descending from the summit

Our group of fifteen hikers reached the summit around noon and paused to take in the 360 degree views and to eat our lunches. Everyone was amazed that, other than one communications tower that was barely noticeable outside of the roadless area on Cerro Gordo, we could not see any evidence of civilization no matter which direction we looked.

If the mining company does locate gold during the exploratory drilling phase the next step will be a proposal for an industrial scale open pit mine, also known as a cyanide heap-leach mine. Such an operation is difficult to imagine. It’s well documented that cyanide heap leaching poses significant hazards to plants and animals and contaminates scarce water resources.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages the Conglomerate Mesa area, has designated this area an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern” in order to protect the cultural values and rare plant and animal species and habitat found in the Conglomerate Mesa area.

Conglomerate Mesa has also been identified by both the BLM and CalWild as having wilderness characteristics. The recently completed Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a land use plan covering the vast majority of the California Desert, recognized the scenic and wild values of the area by designating it a “California Desert National Conservation Land,” thereby adding it to the National Landscape Conservation System.

Looking around at the surrounding land unfolding in every direction, there was no question that such a mining operation would damage the area’s wild character and degrade habitat for wildlife.

An evening photo of the area captured by Tom Budlong

The Bureau of Land Management, which manages Conglomerate Mesa, is in the process of conducting an Environmental Assessment for the exploratory mining activities and is soliciting public comment. To learn more about the mining proposal and to submit a public comment to BLM, please visit CalWild’s Conglomerate Mesa action page.

Of the 15 participants on the hike, about half had never set foot on Conglomerate Mesa before. After the hike, everyone could not stop talking about the beauty of the area and the sense of peace and solitude that it evoked and all agreed that this was no place for an industrial open-pit mine.