A corporation wants to mine for gold near Death Valley. Native tribes are fighting it (2022)

LONE PINE, Calif.—

Perched high in the craggy Inyo Mountains, between the dusty Owens Valley floor and Death Valley National Park, looms a rugged, nearly roadless chunk of desert terrain teeming with wildlife and scarred by mining operations.

Conglomerate Mesa’s charcoal smelters helped give birth 150 years ago to the nearby rip-roaring silver town of Cerro Gordo, where ingots were produced and shipped off to the small pueblo of Los Angeles by steamboat and a 20-mule team.

Now, the 22,500-acre tableau of Joshua trees, piñon pines and limestone boulders bristling with fossil shells is turning to mining again. Spurred by the rising price of gold, K2 Gold Corp., of Vancouver, Canada, is drilling and trenching in hopes of selling its findings or partnering with a bigger company that would, perhaps, transform the public lands into an open pit cyanide heap leach mine, just a few miles from Death Valley.

But environmental groups and tribal nations have drawn a line in the alluvial sands overlooking the community of Lone Pine, population 2,000, on the eastern flanks of the Sierra Nevada range: No mining in Conglomerate Mesa, not ever again.

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On a recent weekday, Bryan Hatchell, 27, desert policy associate for the nonprofit Friends of the Inyo, and Jeremiah Joseph, 36, a cultural expert for the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Tribe, led a group on a hike across two miles of scruffy mountains and sweeping plains managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to an area where the group of Canadian investors has launched an exploratory drilling program.

Their concern was that Conglomerate Mesa — a remote swath of ancestral tribal lands where the explosions of thunderstorms are the loudest noises one hears — will feel the constant rumble of earth movers over networks of service roads and utility corridors connecting heaps of ore and mining equipment.

A corporation wants to mine for gold near Death Valley. Native tribes are fighting it (1)

Jodie Gibson, vice president of exploration for K2 Gold Corp., holds a tray of high-grade gold ore obtained from his company’s mining claims on Conglomerate Mesa, between Owens Valley and Death Valley National Park.

(Louis Sahagún / Los Angeles Times)

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“We can’t continue to look at nature as simply an inventory of items to profit off of,” Joseph said. “It’s time to start protecting what’s left of the wildlands that our ancestors honored.”

“K2 is in for a hell of a fight,” Hatchell said. “Mining here is off the table.”

In a telephone interview, Stephen Swatton, president and chief executive officer at K2, said his company is cognizant of the environment.

“There’s gold up there and the world needs gold,” Swatton said. “Mining has to happen somewhere. So, we’ll defend ourselves as best we can.”

In a broader context, the dispute is seen as a test for the Biden administration and Interior Secretary pick Deb Haaland, and whether they plan to make a priority of injecting significant environmental protections into management strategies for large-scale mining projects on public lands.

“When it comes to gold mining in the California desert,” said Todd Tucci, senior attorney at the nonprofit Advocates of the West, “the rubber is hitting the road right now in the little town of Lone Pine.”

K2 officials have suggested that a mine on the mesa, with approval of the BLM, would operate nonstop as an open pit, using tons of cyanide each day to leach gold from heaps of crushed ore, a technique that has transformed previously unprofitable mines into bonanzas.

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In full swing, K2 officials say, the mine could help answer local prayers for a more stable regional economy by creating jobs and generating sales taxes.

Many rural towns on U.S. Highway 395 in Owens Valley rely on tourists from Southern California swarming into the eastern Sierra Nevada range and ringing up purchases in tackle and sporting goods stores, art galleries, restaurants and saloons with Old West facades.

This year’s travel restrictions due to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic changed all that.

Jodie Gibson, vice president of exploration for K2, said his company has sunk about $2 million into the venture over the last two years. So far, the results are encouraging.

Holding up a tray of samples of crushed rock gathered from various depths beneath the surface of the mesa, Gibson smiled and said: “Most folks would say this looks like worthless gravel.”

“In fact, it’s high-grade gold ore,” he said. “It would yield about 7 grams of gold per ton, which is really good.”

Gold reached a record-high price of $2,060 per ounce in August 2020.

Opponents, including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Inyo, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Tribe and the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, however, worry about air pollution, destruction of historic remains and Native American cultural sites, roads cut through deer migration corridors, and the water required for mining gold.

Pumping out millions of gallons from desert aquifers, or underground lakes, they fear, could exhaust regional springs in valuable wildlife habitat, and attract wildlife to ponds of cyanide-laced water.

It doesn’t help that when asked, “Where would a full-blown mine on the mesa get its water from?” K2 officials sheepishly respond: “That’s a darn good question.”

In any case, the company, which owns mineral claims on 14,400 acres of federal land, says its exploratory efforts are far from over.

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“It may take us a decade to complete the exploratory phase of our mission,” Gibson said. A succession of mining companies has leased the land at issue from the BLM since the 1990s.

Critics are using the controversy to influence Congress as it wrestles with reforms of the 150-year-old federal law that regulates mining claims and makes mining the highest use of public lands managed by the BLM.

The 1872 mining law, written before the telephone was invented, allows multinational mining concerns to extract gold, silver and other “hardrock minerals” on public lands without compensating the taxpayers who own the land. Critics say it also lets industry off the hook for cleanup costs at abandoned mines.

That may change soon. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), for instance, has proposed legislation that would replace the law with a modern leasing system designed to protect taxpayers and public lands.

“I’m hopeful that Congress will roll out some important reforms of the mining law,” said Aaron Mintzes, senior policy counsel at the nonprofit Earthworks. “Mining crowds out other land uses. That has to change because these lands belong to all of us.”

Mindful of growing concerns, a subsidiary of K2 has opened an office adjacent to the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce, hosted community gatherings, and produced “guest columns” about its activities published in the local Inyo Register newspaper.

They include a recent article written by Katie VanSydow, a company field geologist, titled “The Many Uses of Gold.”

“When we think of gold’s uses, our first thought immediately jumps to jewelry and money,” she wrote, in part, “but there are so many other uses for gold that are vital to our modern society.”

For example, she said, gold is critical to the phasing-out of gas-powered vehicles to fight climate change. “Automobiles, particularly electric ones,” she said, “require circuit boards for operating things such as monitoring engine performance and even playing your favorite podcast through your sound system.”

In an opposing view published in a section of the newspaper titled “Miscellaneous commentary,” Michael Prather, an environmental activist and Lone Pine resident, argued that it is not a question of the value of gold, it is a question of saving a portion of dwindling wilderness.

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“Mining is accepted by most of us in Inyo County,” he wrote. “Pumice mining near Olancha, cinder mining near Little Lake, borate mining east of Death Valley National Park, soda ash mining on Owens Lake, geothermal energy extraction at [Coso Geothermal Area], gold mining on the west slope of the Panamint Mountains.”

But “it is in the interests of Inyo County in the long run to oppose open pit mining at Conglomerate Mesa,” he added. “Supporting such an environmental, cultural and recreational loss is a mistake, plain and simple.”

Kathy Bancroft, tribal historic preservation officer of the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Tribe, has challenged K2 Gold’s characterization of its drill sites on the mesa as having “low archeological sensitivity.”

“The disrespect of our land is unacceptable,” Bancroft said. “We will stand in the way of any future exploration or mining project.”

Contributing to the controversy was an incident that has come to be known as “pondgate”: K2 Gold was caught siphoning water out of a water hazard at Lone Pine’s Mount Whitney Golf Course into four 55-gallon tanks for use at its drilling sites up on the mesa.

Locals reported the activity to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which swiftly conveyed a sharp warning to K2 Gold: The golf course property and the water in its ponds belong to the city.

“We put the water back,” Gibson said. “After that, several residents offered to sell us water pumped out of their private wells.”

The mesa is home to dozens of species of plants and animals despite scant rainfall, a dearth of natural springs and elevations ranging from 3,800 to 7,100 feet.

Among the species bound to the mesa’s crags, crevices and piñon pines are bighorn sheep, bobcats, coyotes, deer, desert night lizards, barn owls and Townsend’s long-eared bats.

For Hatchell, saving the mesa means getting people to know it. So, he has been leading tours across the rugged high-altitude ecosystem.

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“People need to know what all the fuss is about here,” he said. “The future of this kingdom of solitude is at risk.”

FAQs

Can you mine in Death Valley? ›

Death Valley's Last Mine

For over a decade the Billie Mine, an underground borate mine along the road to Dante's View, was the only active mine in the park. In 2005 when the Billie Mine closed, the last of Death Valley's mines had ceased operations.

Is there gold in Death Valley? ›

Death Valley Today

There is definitely still gold in this desert. In fact, there are likely some very rich areas that a could be mined today if there was access, but unfortunately the National Park status prevents any form of prospecting within the boundaries of the park.

Who owns K2 gold? ›

The CEO of K2 Gold, Stephen Swatton, formerly worked for BHP in the early and mid-2000s, which is the company that constructed the now restored (with non-native seeds) road into Conglomerate Mesa in 1997.

Is it legal to gold mine in California? ›

No permit is required for low-impact gold panning, however respect the rights of existing mining claims. There are many areas within the BLM Redding Resource Area that are popular for panning including areas along Butte Creek, Clear Creek and the Trinity River.

Can you pan for gold in California? ›

Gold panning is legal in most rivers and streams running through state and national parks in California, but your luck will be best if you head to regions where gold has been discovered in the past.

Is there gold left in California? ›

Gold can still be found all over California. The most gold-rich areas are in Northern California and the Sierra Nevada mountains. While the commercial mining of gold has nearly disappeared since the peak of the gold rush, tourists and residents are still on the hunt for this elusive precious metal.

Do they still mine borax in Death Valley? ›

Borax mining in Death Valley has ended. Its legacy is still present in the mining remains and artifacts left by those who sought wealth in the white mineral deposits found here.

Which desert has the highest gold deposits? ›

Detailed Solution. KyzylKum has the highest gold deposit. It is situated in Uzbekistan.

Are there ghost towns in Death Valley? ›

The townsite is located off the Panamint Valley road west of Death Valley proper. Chloride City became a town in 1905 when the Bullfrog strike brought people into the area to re-work old mining claims. It became a ghost town the following year.

Is there oil in Death Valley? ›

Most of those reserves are concentrated in the southern San Joaquin Basin. Seventeen of the country's 100 largest oil fields are located in California, including the Belridge South oil field, the third largest oil field in the contiguous United States.

Who owns k2 mining company? ›

K2 Gold Corporation is a Canada-based gold exploration company, which is engaged in the exploration of mineral properties in California, the Yukon Territory, and Alaska.
...
K2 GOLD CORPORATION.
NameEquities%
Stephen Paul Swatton2,603,7504.02%
Anthony Margarit774,5001.19%
Robert James Scott126,5000.20%
Jodie L. Gibson0-
2 more rows
26 Aug 2022

What happens if you find gold in California? ›

In California, there is a law mandating that any found property valued over $100 be turned over to police. Authorities must then wait 90 days, advertise the lost property for a week, and finally release it to the person who found it if no one could prove ownership.

Which state has the most gold? ›

1. Nevada. Currently the top gold mining state of the US, Nevada is home to three of the world's top 10 gold mines and seven of the top 10 US sites. Nevada's Goldstrike is the top gold mine in the US, followed by the Cortez and Carlin Gold Mines, with all three located in north-central Nevada.

Can you live on a mining claim in California? ›

Virtually all unpatented federal mining claims are in multi-use areas, this means that anyone can camp on the area. The claim owner only has rights to the minerals which means the campers are not allowed to access minerals, they also can not stop the miners from mining.

Where is the most gold found in California? ›

Sierra Nevada Region. California's Sierra Nevada Mountain Range is by far the top gold region in the state. With well over 10,000 gold mines and thousands of active placer claims, this region has the state's largest historical gold production totals and the most active modern placer mining districts.

How do you find gold in soil? ›

Changes in the color of soil can be another indicator of nearby gold. Iron staining is another excellent indicator that gold may be present. The iron stains are in yellow or reddish soil. Soil which contains iron may also be black, provided it has not oxidized.

Why is there so much gold in California? ›

Gold became highly concentrated in California, United States as the result of global forces operating over hundreds of millions of years. Volcanoes, tectonic plates and erosion all combined to concentrate billions of dollars' worth of gold in the mountains of California.

Which river has the most gold? ›

One such mystery flows through the unexplored terrains of Jharkhand, known as the Subarnarekha River. You'll be amazed to know that the river has pure gold in its water! The river flows through regions of Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha.

What is the largest gold nugget found in California? ›

The largest gold nugget ever found in Sierra County, known as the “Monumental,” weighed 103 pounds and was discovered on the Sierra Buttes Mine property at approximately the eighth level in 1869.

How much gold is still undiscovered? ›

According to the US Geological Survey, the underground gold reserves are currently estimated at about 50,000 tons.

Is borax company still in business? ›

U. S. Borax is now headquartered in Valencia, and the company with an Old West heritage is run by Oxford-educated Brit Ian White-Thomson, and it isn't even American-owned, having been acquired in 1968 by London-based RTZ Corp., the world's largest mining concern.

Is baking soda and borax the same? ›

Borax (sodium tetraborate) and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) aren't the same thing. They're both salts, and they're both popular as “green” household cleaning agents, but borax has a pH of 9.5, compared to baking soda's pH of 8. This makes borax considerably more alkaline than baking soda.

Who owns U.S. Borax? ›

U.S. Borax was acquired by Rio Tinto in 1967. The new group, sometimes referred to as Rio Tinto Borax or Rio Tinto Borates, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto Group.

Which country is richest in gold? ›

China. China is the number one producer of gold in the world. The USGS estimates that China mined 455 metric tons of gold in 2016.

Where is the best gold in the world? ›

The Emirate of Dubai, UAE

According to financial marketplace Policybazaar.ae, the Emirate of Dubai (an independent city-state in the United Arab Emirates) is the best place in the world to buy pure gold—or the highest purity available on the market today, given what was mentioned above about gold in entirely pure form.

Where is the hottest place on earth? ›

Death Valley holds the record for the highest air temperature on the planet: On 10 July 1913, temperatures at the aptly named Furnace Creek area in the California desert reached a blistering 56.7°C (134.1°F). Average summer temperatures, meanwhile, often rise above 45°C (113°F).

Where is the abandoned city in California? ›

Eagle Mountain, California, is a modern-day ghost town in the California desert in Riverside County founded in 1948 by industrialist Henry J. Kaiser.

Why is Death Valley so hot? ›

Why so Hot? The depth and shape of Death Valley influence its summer temperatures. The valley is a long, narrow basin 282 feet (86 m) below sea level, yet is walled by high, steep mountain ranges. The clear, dry air and sparse plant cover allow sunlight to heat the desert surface.

Is there lithium in Death Valley? ›

Lithium Claims East of Death Valley National Park

In the last few years we have encountered several Lithium claims, marked out by stakes, on playas and open Joshau tree desert in Sarcobatus Flat on Nevada lands managemed by the Bureau of Land management, just east of Death Valley National Park.

Does California still produce oil? ›

California among tops in oil production. California is the nation's seventh largest oil production state, with most of the industry centered around Kern County at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. California produced 130 million barrels of oil last year, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

Is Death Valley the lowest place on earth? ›

Death Valley is the lowest point in North America.

At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is a surreal landscape that tricks the senses.

What mines are in California? ›

Gold
MineCoordinatesComments
Argonaut Mine38°21′47″N 120°47′7″Wregistered as California Historical Landmark #786.
Golden Fleece Tunnel39.185735°N 120.617152°W
Iron Mountain Mine
Kennedy MineSouth of Sutter Gold Mine
6 more rows

Where can we mine gold? ›

Gold mining production map
CountryTonnes
Canada192.9
United States186.8
Ghana129.2
Peru127.3
41 more rows
9 Jun 2022

Who owns the mineral rights to Cerro Gordo? ›

Canada-based mineral exploration company K2 Gold has entered an option agreement to purchase a 100% stake in the Cerro Gordo Gold Project in California, US.

How much does a gold nugget cost? ›

Quality natural nuggets of good size, purity and color will sell easily for about 10-30% over spot (currently $6 to $15 dollars per gram over spot price). Try to negotiate to buy on the low end of this range if you will be buying in large quantity or will be trying to re-sell your goldnuggets.

Can you find gold with a metal detector? ›

Yes. Most metal detectors are capable of finding gold but some will do a much better job than others. Since gold has rather low conductivity, metal detectors that use higher frequencies will spot gold better than low frequency detectors.

Can I pan for gold in Nevada? ›

Northern Nevada is chock-full of old active and inactive gold and silver mines. Whether adventurers wish to take a tour, learn about the industry, or try their luck panning for valuable ore, there is certainly plenty to do. Panning for gold or silver is quite easy and inexpensive.

Can I keep gold I find? ›

If you find gold you are free to keep it without telling a sole. You don't have to report it to the government and you don't have to pay taxes on it until you sell it. This public land is generally managed by either the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. Most of it is found in the western United States.

What happens if you find a gold bar? ›

Usually, you'll be able to reclaim the property if no one steps up to claim it. If you're unsure of the value of the bar, it's best to find out by consulting with an expert in precious metals who can guide you through the next steps.

What would happen if you found gold in your backyard? ›

If you did happen to find a large gold deposit on your property and do not own the mineral rights, don't fear. You do still own the property at least from the ground up. The mineral rights owner cannot simply come and remove you and dig up your property.

Why is there no gold in Florida? ›

Unfortunately, limestone deposits in Florida are not gold-bearing. The limestone itself has a variety of different commercial uses, but for gold prospectors it is of little interest. There are no known gold deposits in Florida.

How do you tell if a rock has gold in it? ›

One of the easiest and most telling tests for gold that you can perform on your rock is for hardness. This test is an application of Mohs hardness scale, which compares the hardness of different minerals by scratching them against one another.

Where is the purest gold found? ›

Dahlonega has the purest gold in the world, which is 98.7 percent pure. This makes our gold over 23KT gold. Since we are still in operation today we do not allow any tours of the mine itself due to insurance purposes.

How long can you stay on your mining claim? ›

The maximum period is 90 days from the staking of a claim or site on the ground. However, some states require earlier filings, such as 30 or 60 days from the date of location.

How long can you camp on a gold claim? ›

You cannot camp longer than 14 days, and you cannot come back and camp again for another 14 days within the same 90 day period, nor can you camp on a different claim or site if it is within 25 miles of where you previously camped within that 90 day period.

Who owns mineral rights in California? ›

In California, mineral rights can be owned independently from the property. If an individual owns the mineral rights to a piece of land, he has a legal right to the minerals beneath the surface. The right's owner can access the minerals using any reasonable perimeters.

Do they still mine borax in Death Valley? ›

Borax mining in Death Valley has ended. Its legacy is still present in the mining remains and artifacts left by those who sought wealth in the white mineral deposits found here.

How many mines are there in Death Valley? ›

Mining operations have left the Death Valley landscape littered with abandoned mines and related debris that pose hazards to unwary or unlucky visitors. The National Parks Conservation Association estimates that there are at least 2,000 hazardous mine features in Death Valley.

What natural resources are found in Death Valley? ›

After the 1848 discovery of gold in California, Death Valley experienced more than 150 years of boom and bust mining, with prospectors scouring the region for silver, antimony, copper, lead, zinc and tungsten. Of all the minerals mined in Death Valley, only gold, borax and talc produced sustained wealth.

Is there oil in Death Valley? ›

Most of those reserves are concentrated in the southern San Joaquin Basin. Seventeen of the country's 100 largest oil fields are located in California, including the Belridge South oil field, the third largest oil field in the contiguous United States.

Is borax company still in business? ›

U. S. Borax is now headquartered in Valencia, and the company with an Old West heritage is run by Oxford-educated Brit Ian White-Thomson, and it isn't even American-owned, having been acquired in 1968 by London-based RTZ Corp., the world's largest mining concern.

Is baking soda and borax the same? ›

Borax (sodium tetraborate) and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) aren't the same thing. They're both salts, and they're both popular as “green” household cleaning agents, but borax has a pH of 9.5, compared to baking soda's pH of 8. This makes borax considerably more alkaline than baking soda.

Who owns U.S. Borax? ›

U.S. Borax was acquired by Rio Tinto in 1967. The new group, sometimes referred to as Rio Tinto Borax or Rio Tinto Borates, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto Group.

Are there ghost towns in Death Valley? ›

The townsite is located off the Panamint Valley road west of Death Valley proper. Chloride City became a town in 1905 when the Bullfrog strike brought people into the area to re-work old mining claims. It became a ghost town the following year.

Is Death Valley the lowest place on earth? ›

Death Valley is the lowest point in North America.

At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is a surreal landscape that tricks the senses.

How is borax mined? ›

Most of the major borate deposits in the world are mined by surface methods, generally using truck and shovel or backhoe equipment. In the United States, only one company in Death Valley operates underground at this time.

How long can you survive in Death Valley? ›

As the film says, Death Valley is not a place you want to be without water, as while a human can survive three days without water, in this desert you can live just 14 hours. Camping out under the stars the Dawson's Creek actor and his stunning girlfriend happily cooked with what their car had produced.

Can you live in Death Valley? ›

More than 300 people live year-round in Death Valley, one of the hottest places on Earth.

Is there lithium in Death Valley? ›

Lithium Claims East of Death Valley National Park

In the last few years we have encountered several Lithium claims, marked out by stakes, on playas and open Joshau tree desert in Sarcobatus Flat on Nevada lands managemed by the Bureau of Land management, just east of Death Valley National Park.

Does California still produce oil? ›

California among tops in oil production. California is the nation's seventh largest oil production state, with most of the industry centered around Kern County at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. California produced 130 million barrels of oil last year, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

Where does most of California's oil come from? ›

The majority of California's crude oil is imported from Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Colombia.

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