A gold mining exploration company with ties to Sarah Palin, the George W. Bush Administration and claims in the Bodie Hills Wilderness Study Area, came to town this week asking for support for a possible gold mine in the hills.
The mining executives got a mixed welcome at the two meetings they attended, depending on the audience of the hour.
Cougar Gold, a resource- exploration-only holding of two large, international corporations, Electrum Strategic Holdings LLC and Tigris Financial Group Ltd., put out its best argument to the approximately 120 Mono County residents Tuesday, presented often by the president of Tigris, Mark Wallace.
Wallace was formerly a UN ambassador, an attorney for the Bush administration.
But things didnâ€™t necessarily go smoothly for Cougar Gold/Electrum/Tigris, at least not in the first meeting of the day, before the Mono County Board of Supervisors.
When he asked the county supervisors and the public to support Cougar Goldâ€™s desire to remove the Wilderness Study designation, the audience and the supes refused to cooperate.
The Board of Supervisors, who, regardless, cannot change the designation (only Congress can) gave them no clear answer.
Two supervisors stated their opposition to removing protection (Larry Johnston and Byng Hunt), two stated their support (Vikki Bauer and Tim Hansen), and District 2Supervisor Hap Hazard stayed squarely in the middle, stating he wanted the process to proceed through more meetings and, that he didnâ€™t have the data to make a final decision.
The audience was less divided, with the majority (but by no means all) of the comments opposing a mine in the Bodie Hills and/or opposing removing wilderness protection from the site (see sidebars).
That was not the case at an evening meeting held in Bridgeport the same day.
Although the audience was smaller â€“ about 45-50 people by one attendeeâ€™s count â€“ the mostly North County audience was almost united in their support of a mine in the hills, sometimes raucously so.
â€śWhen someone asked the audience to raise hands to show their support for a mine, everyone (I saw) did,â€ť said Hansen, the supervisor for Bridgeport and North County.
Still many questions
In the end, though, the four and then two-hour meetings left most with as many questions as answers.
It came down to the fact that although the mining executives and geology specialists stated they knew there was â€śsomething very interesting out there,â€ť they did not say exactly what kind of mine would be needed, nor how big it might be.
Correspondingly, they couldnâ€™t tell the audiences exactly what kind of economic benefits, or, environmental harm it might bring.
The uncertainty prompted one woman, Janet Carle, to ask, â€śThey donâ€™t know what it (a potential mine) will look like. They want clarity from (Mono County) but they canâ€™t give it to us?â€ť
But the mining company offcials remained adamant. More exploratory drilling is needed to get a better idea of exactly what is under the approximately one square mile that is most promising, officials said. And that wonâ€™t occur until the Wilderness Study Area designation is gone.
â€śWe have put $7 million into this already,â€ť Wallace said. â€śWeâ€™ve done it under strict environmental controls, to show you what we are capable and willing to do. But we donâ€™t want to spend more money until the regulatory purgatory that is the WSA is removed.â€ť
Wilderness Study Areas, administered by the Bureau of Land Management, require a more stringent level of protection for the environment than if the mining were done in a â€śmultiple useâ€ť area, both Mono County and mining officials noted.
The fact that the Wilderness Study Area could become a true wilderness before the mine is built, and after spending untold more money, increases the regulatory uncertainty, Wallace told the MT after the meeting.
â€śItâ€™s not worth it to us, to do it this way,â€ť he said. â€śWe either do it above ground, with the community support, or not at all.â€ť
That leaves the whole issue, once again, perfectly in limbo.
The Bodie Hills site where the potential mine would be placed was recommended for removal from potential wilderness designation in 1991 by the Bureau of Land Management, due in large part to its high number of mineral resource claims.
But, it was also selected by the BLM in the first place as a potential wilderness, due to other outstanding features, including biological diversity, rare species, and more.
Getting the Wilderness Study designation removed will take an act of Congress, regardless of what local officials do. With the Rep. Buck McKeon bill which pushed to eliminate the wilderness protection from the area dead after last yearsâ€™s Congress adjourned, Supervisor Hazard suggested that neither McKeon nor conservation-minded Senator Barbara Boxer has the time or interest to take on such a fight at this time.
â€śThey have more things to worry about right now,â€ť he said.
That may not be true, however. Although Wallace did not address the issue, if the company is interested, it can certainly bring the subject up again. Electrum/Tigris is a multi-billion dollar group of companies, with plenty of lobbying clout.
And with Mono County residents split, with the board split, with no way to know if Electrum/Tigris is bluffing or not, the way forward is far from clear.