What was supposed to be a compromise solution to help solve the Bodie Wilderness Study Area (WSA) fate Tuesday, wasn’t.
Instead, when Mono County District 2 Supervisor Hap Hazard proposed to divide the existing WSA roughly in half – with one half becoming true wilderness and the other open to multiple uses – just about everyone was none too pleased.
And the fact that he asked everyone to do it quickly didn’t help either.
The urgency, Hazard said, is because Congressman Buck McKeon may well be removed from Mono County representation next year due to redistricting. McKeon told Hazard last week he is willing to champion a bill through Congress this year that releases the Bodie WSA from protected status “if the community supports the idea.” (McKeon and former District 4 Supervisor Bob Peters tried to do this last year, and were stymied by Mono residents who felt rushed and manipulated even as some supported the bill. It died at the end of the year.)
Although Hazard’s compromise would not completely do what McKeon proposed last year, it is, he said “the best solution I could come up with that reflected the interests of the most people.”
Cougar Gold made it clear last month at a board meeting that the company would not continue to explore for gold in the Bodie WSA unless the WSA designation were removed.
The reason, the company said, is that it is “too risky” to invest millions in a project on property that Congress could someday designate as true wilderness.
Not enough time
But Hazard may have miscalculated. Even he acknowledged that “the public will not have the time to work though the process to feel they were involved.”
In a county known for its verbal, opinionated population, especially when it comes to land use issues, the sense of urgency rubbed many of the dozens of people who showed up Tuesday the wrong way, even if they might agree with some or all of the compromise itself.
Even pro-”multiple use” North County Supervisor Tim Hansen said he couldn’t vote to support Hazard, because of the lack of time and notice to constituents.
This same professed urgency backfired in other ways. Some in the audience were highly suspicious of what they saw as a likely connection between McKeon and Cougar Gold’s owner, Mark Wallace, president of the large international Tigris Financial Group, Ltd.
Their suspicions fueled their sense that the rushed push to remove the WSA designation is political and profit -driven, not to benefit Mono County as a whole.
The rest of the supervisors attending the meeting were equally wary (Supervisor Vikki Bauer, who supported removing the wilderness protection, was absent.) Supervisors Larry Johnston and Byng Hunt, who both oppose removing the WSA designation, were adamantly opposed to doing anything further without far more public participation.
But Hazard , who said he knew his idea was not going to be popular, nevertheless stated he felt it was up to him as a potential tie-breaker to offer some sort of solution that reflects the split wishes of the county’s residents.
Hazard was the only supervisor not to take a public stand regarding the request by Cougar Gold at last month’s board meeting with the company.
The unlovely compromise
Haste issues aside, the compromise itself didn’t go over too well either.
Multiple-use advocates didn’t like the idea of adding another 10,000 acres of wilderness, as Hazard proposed.
Wilderness advocates argued that the 6,000 acres where the mine site would be deserve to be wilderness, or at least, to remain protected in some way.
Private property owners within and close to the existing WSA, are upset they weren’t contacted about the project.
And so it went.
In the end, Hazard got almost no support for his idea and things pretty much went back to where they were before the meeting – in limbo.
No bill for McKeon and Cougar Gold, no resolution on the fate of the Bodie WSA, no more information about what Cougar Gold really intends to do.
Tread lightly in Mono County
But all is not lost. For anyone venturing into the wilds of WSAs, mines, economics, and ideologies in this county, two things can be taken away.
First, when it comes to land use issues, Mono County residents are as spirited, passionate and intense as sports lovers are about their favorite game and players. And, they are as knowledgeable. Often, they have traveled every square inch of the land in question, sometimes for generations.
The bottom line is nothing can fill a room faster in Mono County than the question of what to do with “our” public lands.
Whether advocating for opening the lands to motor bikes or mining, or protecting it as wilderness or anything in between, Mono County residents are crazy about their backyard. Silence is not their favorite tactic.
Second, those same residents are correspondingly highly resistant to being pushed or pulled in any direction fast. Nothing infuriates them more than thinking their voice doesn’t matter and there isn’t time to hear it.
With that in mind, it’s probably time to go back to the drawing board with the Bodie WSA thing and start over.