By Kathy Bancroft
Lone Pine, California, the town where I was born and have lived all my life, sits in the valley by Conglomerate Mesa a mile from Death Valley National Park. I call the place Payahuunadü, meaning “land of flowing water.” The Mesa hosts a vibrant, beautiful and productive ecosystem of rare and unique desert plants, as well as culturally sensitive and archeologically significant artifacts. Returning to the Mesa, I am thrown back to my childhood, gathering pinyon nuts, listening to my relatives share our stories, and performing traditional rituals.
Conglomerate Mesa is the traditional homeland of my people, the Nüümü (Paiute) and Newe (Shoshone). This includes over 20,000 acres of public lands filled with natural beauty and wildlife. For millennia, our peoples have relied on these lands for traditional cultural uses, including subsistence hunting and gathering. The Mesa is home to threatened Joshua trees, Inyo Rock Daisies, and over two dozen federally recognized threatened and endangered species. To us it is a sacred place. To others it is a beautiful place to visit and hike, camp, hunt, stargaze, or take photographs. These visitors are welcome, and an important part of our local economy.
A Canadian company, K2 Gold, wants to mine for gold on Conglomerate Mesa. They are not the first. And because the federal government interprets its rules to mean mining is the “highest and best use” of public land, our way of life gets disregarded. The General Mining Law of 1872 is a relic from the United States government’s seizure and destruction of Indigenous Peoples’ land and resources. This government must reform its mining regulations to correct this historic injustice, and ensure that mining does not occur without the free, prior, and informed consent of potentially impacted communities.
So far K2 Gold has done nothing to convince us that they adequately respect this land. The company has ignored our concerns and suggestions to avoid causing irreparable harm. Their promises ring hollow, and we will stand in the way of any future exploration or mining project.
That process can begin with the Department of Interior under the leadership of Secretary Deb Haaland. As a Laguna Pueblo woman, Ms. Haaland understands what it means to have a spiritual connection to the land. She understands the legacy impacts of mining carried out by the United States government against Indigenous peoples. That toxic legacy persists in the bodies of more than 25% of Navajo women and infants, according to a recent University of New Mexico survey.
History has taught us to be skeptical of companies coming into our communities with grand promises of jobs and prosperity in exchange for exploiting our natural resources. Too often such companies take the wealth from the land and leave the mess. Communities across the country are living with pollution from mining, and taxpayers—not those responsible for the pollution—too often paying for cleanup.
American taxpayers shoulder an enormous financial burden from hardrock mining. Metal mining is the nation’s largest toxic polluter, responsible for polluting 40 percent of the headwaters of western watersheds. And unlike coal miners, hardrock miners pay no reclamation fee, leaving taxpayers a multibillion dollar cleanup bill for 500,000 abandoned hardrock mines. We need to hold the mining industry accountable for its pollution to protect communities, save taxpayer dollars, and create jobs cleaning up old mines. Thanks to the leadership of New Mexico’s Senator Heinrich, the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill includes funding for a new $3 billion abandoned mine cleanup program.
It’s a step in the right direction. On August 30, the U.S. Department of Interior closes their scoping comment period for K2 Gold’s proposed mining activities. Now and going forward, I and other Indigenous leaders will continue to make the case for reforming the archaic 1872 Mining Law.
Yet we cannot wait for Congress. It is within Secretary Haaland’s power to require more meaningful Tribal consultation and deny mines that would destroy our resources. As part of the Build Back Better plan, the Biden-Harris administration must source minerals more responsibly by strengthening mining oversight and tribal consultation. Industrial-scale mining should not trump other important land uses, such as sacred and cultural site protection, drinking water supplies, conservation and tourism.
I wish for the next generation of Lone Pine children to feel genuinely seen by the United States government in a way that I, and our ancestors, have never been: to know our history is recognized, and that our values are reflected in the decisions that affect our land.
Kathy Bancroft is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Tribe. She lives in Lone Pine, California.