Are the Bodie Hills wilderness or not?

A proposed bill to remove the Bodie Hills from its status as potential wilderness brought Eastern Sierra residents on both side of the issue out of the woodwork Tuesday. More than 50 people piled into the county courthouse to have their say.

At stake was a resolution brought to the county supervisors by District 4 Supervisor Bob Peters that asked the supervisors to support a bill to take the Bodie Hills (behind Bodie State Park) out of its current, semi-protected status as a Wilderness Study Area (WSA).

If passed, the resolution would show support for a bill introduced to Congress on Sept. 15 by U.S. Rep. Buck McKeon.

But by the time the three contentious hours were passed, the 16,482-acre Bodie Hills site under scrutiny remained exactly where it has been for more than 20 years – in a kind of regulatory limbo – neither protected wilderness nor open to all the activities common to most public land.

The prospect that the removal of the protection would allow easier access to a mining company, Cougar Gold, that has been doing exploratory drilling in the area recently with the intent to expand, didn’t help matters for some in the audience.

But for others, it was that very option that triggered comment, with a mining operation seen as a possible way to increase the economic options for northern Mono County.

The final outcome of the day pleased no one, not the county supervisors who narrowly voted 3-2 (Supervisors Vikki Bauer and Peters were the minority vote) to stop the resolution, nor the audience, which was split as well. Even the “winners”, those hoping to keep protection intact, walked away dissatisfied. And everyone left with the sense that this battle was far from over.

“This area has already been designated as not suitable for wilderness,” Peters said (by the BLM when it reviewed the parcel several years ago). “We need economic development (opportunities) not more restrictions on our way of life. If HR 6129 passes, we have a greater ability to manage our economy for generations to come.”

Peters added that he doesn’t oppose wilderness per se, but that the Bodie Hills site is not truly wilderness quality, given it has roads and many mining established mining claims.

Cougar Gold, the company proposing to mine the hills if exploratory drills continue to be promising, could provide faltering Bridgeport with another source of economic diversity, he said.

Others in the audience vehemently disagreed.

“I’ve lived in this area for 28 years, said audience member Frank Stewart. “I was here in the late ’80s when another mining company came in during a time of high gold prices. The gold under the hills of Bodie is in the pockets of the tourists that come here, (not in another gold mine.)”

The Bodie Hills are rich in wildlife, critical springs and more, many others added. They need to re-evaluated under today’s values, not those from 20 years ago.

Still others sided with Peters.

“This is not a wilderness area, not like the Hoover area,” said Bridgeport resident Mike Mooney. “We’re scared to death it’s gonna be locked up to the point we can’t even get access to our heritage.”

Even former District 4 Supervisor Ed Inwood weighed in, stating that his stand (to support the release 18 of the county’s WSAs from protection) still stood.

“Back then it was a 3-2 vote to release them and the audience was just as split as it is today,” he said. It wouldn’t matter how many years residents talked about this, they would still be split pretty much 50-50 on this, he added.

To make matters worse, the way the whole thing even came about did not go over well either.

“The public process has not been met,” said District 5 Supervisor Byng Hunt. “There has been no public input before this point. And I take exception to the name of the bill, (the Mono County Economic Development Act of 2010). It’s extremely misleading, it implies a county-wide effort to do more than (develop) just District 4. This is a back door attempt to influence the mining interests over the other interests.”

Hunt went on to give a strongly worded denouncement of the entire process, stating that although Rep. McKeon’s staffer said bringing a bill as locally controversial as this one to the attention of the public at the last minute might be “normal,” it wasn’t normal for Mono County. Even the BLM didn’t know about the bill or the meeting until this week, he said.

District 2 Supervisor Hap Hazard stated another idea: send a letter to Congress telling it that it was past time to act on all the WSAs still in limbo in the county. District 3 Supervisor Bauer said, “Wilderness has its place and mining has its place” but “the Bodie Hills have a history of mining and I think we have to honor that.”

In the end, almost everyone left feeling dissatisfied and disgruntled, with the sense that nothing much had happened except that neighbors and co-workers had argued and that the whole thing was far from over.