Conglomerate Mesa

Threatened by gold mining

2021 UPDATE: CalWild, along with other conservation partners, submitted scoping comments on Mojave Precious Metals’ proposed Exploration Drilling Plan of Operations in August 2021. These comments raised a number of issues, including: the importance of complying with the conservation protections of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan; the protection of Joshua tree woodlands and other sensitive plant species; and the importance of analyzing cumulative impacts to wildlife, visual resources, and groundwater. We also provided an action alert to our members that included a sample scoping comment letter to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

It is our understanding that about 20,000 comments were submitted during the scoping period on the proposed Plan of Operations. This was truly an unprecedented and astounding number of comments for any proposed project on BLM-managed lands, especially for a mere Plan of Operations. We expect BLM to issue a scoping report in the coming weeks and either an Environmental Assessment or (preferably) an Environmental Impact Statement in late January or early February. CalWild will once again collaborate with its partners to submit a comment letter and will also likely provide an action alert to allow our members to easily submit comments.

ORIGINAL POST: Conglomerate Mesa is located in a remote area of the Inyo Mountains, east of Highway 395 and Owens Lake, on the western doorstep of Death Valley National Park. A Canadian mining company is currently conducting test drilling to determine the feasibility of a potential open pit gold mine that could remove most of the top of the mesa and destroy its unique ecological and cultural values. It is one of several mining and energy extraction projects that threaten the northern Mojave Desert, including proposed lithium mining in Panamint Valley (also in our Top 5 Threats) and proposed geothermal development and pumped storage in the Haiwee Reservoir area (near Highway 395 and Olancha).

Conglomerate Mesa, is a 7,700-foot formation topped with a ragged, coarse conglomerate rock. West from the mesa the topography gradually drops to 3,800 feet at the western boundary near Keeler on the edge of Owens Lake. The western slope includes fascinating rolling badlands that appear almost to be laminated. East from the mesa, elevation drop is precipitous, to relatively level Joshua tree forested flat lands at approximately 5,700 feet.  Visitors who make the trek to the top of Conglomerate Mesa are treated with expansive views of multiple wilderness areas, Owens Lake, the glittering Sierra Nevada Range and into the expanses of the Saline Valley and Death Valley National Park.

The Conglomerate Mesa area is the ancestral lands and traditional territories of the Timbisha Shoshone and Paiute Shoshone Tribes. Conglomerate Mesa is used by tribes native to Payahuunadü, commonly known as the Owens Valley, and those in Death Valley/Timbisha for traditional cultural uses, including hunting, and pinyon nut gathering.

The area provides habitat for a variety of lizards, snakes, and small mammals, including the state listed Mohave ground squirrel. Small wildlife supports many predators, including raptors, badgers, bobcats, foxes, and coyotes. The area also provides habitat for sensitive bat species, including Townsend’s western big-eared bat. Upland areas of the mesa provide important winter Mule deer habitat and overwintering sites and corridors for Nelson’s bighorn sheep.

Because the mesa lies at the eastern edge of the Mojave Desert and the western edge of the Great Basin Desert, it has high plant diversity, including creosote scrub, silver cholla, Joshua tree and pinyon-juniper woodlands, and sagebrush meadow ecosystems. The mesa is habitat for at least seven Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sensitive species including the Inyo rock daisy and Ripley’s Cymopterus.

In 2016, the BLM included Conglomerate Mesa in the California Desert National Conservation Lands, due to its nationally significant cultural, ecological, and scientific values. While this designation protects Conglomerate Mesa from renewable energy development, it does not protect it from mining. Additionally, Conglomerate Mesa holds wilderness quality lands and has been designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern to protect its Joshua tree habitat.

Conglomerate Mesa is threatened by a potential industrial-scale open pit gold mine. In 2018, the BLM approved exploratory drilling at 16 drill holes via helicopter access. BLM required access by helicopter to attempt to avoid significant impacts to Conglomerate Mesa’s sensitive resources. K2 Gold Corp., the Canadian mining company that conducted the exploratory drilling, completed the project in mid-November 2020. This exploration activity created impacts including new trails, diesel spills, and hydraulic oil spills.

We recently learned that K2Gold has submitted a new proposal to BLM for 120 additional drill holes.  This new proposal may also include a request for approval to build a permanent road to the exploratory drill sites.  Given the amount of ground disturbance that K2Gold caused with the much smaller drilling project via helicopter access, we are extremely concerned about the impacts the new, much larger proposal would cause to the wild character and importance resources of Conglomerate Mesa, especially if K2Gold is given permission to build a road.

Obviously, the point of this exploration is to find gold. Carlin, the specific kind of gold at Conglomerate Mesa, is mined by using the cyanide heap leach process, which uses cyanide to extract gold from the earth. The cyanide poses significant hazards to local residents, plants and animals.

If K2Gold finds enough gold to make a gold mine economically feasible, they will seek BLM’s approval for an open-pit cyanide heap leach mine which would forever destroy this special wild place. Conglomerate Mesa’s many natural and cultural values are worth more than gold. CalWild’s long-term goal is to permanently protect Conglomerate Mesa from mining and other development threats by convincing Congress to add it to the adjacent Malpais Mesa Wilderness.