Cougar Gold says won't mine unless wilderness protection removed, county supervisors divided

Cougar Gold, a gold mining exploration company with claims in the Bodie Hills Wilderness Study Area, said yesterday that they won't continue their exploratory drilling until the "regulatory purgatory" of the Wilderness Study Area designation is removed from the hills.

Despite their request for support for this from the Mono County Board of Supervisors, who, regardless, cannot change the designation (but could support a bid by Congress to do so) the supervisors gave the mining company executives who attended the meeting no clear answer.

Two supervisors said they supported the wilderness designation (Larry Johnston and Byng Hunt), two said they opposed it (Vikki Bauer and Tim Hansen) and District 2 Supervisor Hap Hazard said he was uncommitted at this time.

At least 120 people filled the Bridgeport Memorial Hall room Tuesday afternoon hoping to hear specifics from Cougar Gold about what exactly it is the company is planning on their claims in the Bodie Hills,
but the four hour meeting left most with as many questions as answers.

The company, including a George W. Bush administration attorney and former UN Ambassador Mark Wallace, the President of Tigris Financial Group Ltd which owns Cougar Gold. stated that although the company believes there is "something very interesting out there", they could not tell exactly what kind of mine, nor how big it might be, and correspondingly, what kind of economic benefits or environmental harm it might bring at this time.

More exploratory drilling is needed, Wallace said. And that won't occur until the Wilderness Study Area designation is gone.

If so, that leaves the whole issue, once again, perfectly in limbo. According to Tim Hansen, North County's supervisor, another meeting Tuesday evening was dominated by pro-mining Bridgeport and North County residents (this was a Town Hall style meeting sponsored by Cougar Gold and no board members except Hansen attended the meeting).

The afternoon meeting was heavy on the conservation community interests.

In the end, the discussion appeared to be split between Mono County residents relatively evenly, in terms of who spoke for and against pushing for a mine and/or removing the wilderness designation from the site.

The board of supervisors are split down the middle, with tie-breaker Hazard unwilling to show his hand.

The site was recommended for removal from potential wilderness designation in 1991 by the land manger for the site, the Bureau of Land Management, due in large part to its high number of mineral resource claims. But, it was also selected by the BLM in the first place as a potential wilderness, due to other outstanding features, including biological diversity, rare species, and more.

Getting the Wilderness Study designation removed will take an act of Congress, regardless of what local officials do. With the Rep. Buck McKeon bill that pushed to eliminate the wilderness protection from the area dead after last years's Congress adjourned, at least Supervisor Hazard suggested that neither McKeon nor conservation-minded Senator Barbara Boxer has the time or interest to take on such a fight right now.

"They have more things to worry about right now," he said.

More details on this story will be available in the print edition of the Mammoth Times this Friday.