Quechan to Appeal Imperial County Planning’s Mine Decision » Holtville Tribune


EL CENTRO — The Quechan Tribe is nearing the end of a 10-day window to appeal a decision that essentially has cleared the way for exploratory mineral drilling on what the tribe has said is sacred land — among it, Indian Pass — in eastern Imperial County.

For several years, the tribe has been fighting the efforts of Southern Empire Resources (SMP Gold) Corp. to revive mining efforts in the Cargo Muchacho Mountains northwest of Winterhaven, near the Fort Yuma-Quechan Reservation. Already cleared to drill on US Bureau of Land Management land, the company cleared what was its largest hurdle with the county of Imperial — gaining approval from the Imperial County Planning Commission for the project’s reclamation plan, or how the land will be returned to a beneficial end state after its been mined. 

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After several continuances by the commission since Sept. 13, a lengthy meeting on Jan. 10 in which hours of testimony was heard against the project, the issue was decided 5-1 (Commissioner Lewis Pachecho voted against) in favor SMP Gold’s “Oro Cruz” project and members of the Quechan Tribe, including President Jordan Joaquin, and its supporters were told they had until Jan. 20 to appeal the county’s decision.

Although Joaquin could not immediately be reached, Faron Owl, another member of the tribe who has been instrumental in mounting the opposition to the Oro Cruz mining project, said on Tuesday, Jan. 16, that the tribe has issued its appeal to the project. 

RELATED STORY: Tribe Goes Up Against Gold Co. Again; Decision Delayed

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If the appeal is accepted, according to Imperial County ordinances, the issue would go to the Board of Supervisors, with a hearing to be scheduled by the director of Planning and Development Services. The ordinance states that the Board of Supervisors can choose to reject the appeal hearing if it feels the appeal has no merit, thus stopping it before it gets started.

Quechan tribal elder Preston Arrow-Weed speaks to the Imperial County Planning Commissioners on Jan. 10, saying, “Our footsteps are in those mountains, look around. It’s our land, not the government’s.” He was referring to an impending decision to award a permit to a mining company in the Indian Pass area sacred to the tribe. | KIMBER DIAL PHOTO

After the Jan. 10 decision, many people left the Planning Commission meeting teary-eyed after the official vote, among the disappointed Quechan tribal elder Preston Arrow-Weed.

“They’re actually racist and it’s always been like that. It shows in the way they work,” Arrow-Weed said of the Planning Commission.

President Joaquin said the tribe would not take the decision lying down and there will be recourse on the tribe’s end. He said the issue has only made the tribe stronger. In addition to the appeal, Joaquin said the tribe would fight the decision through legal means if necessary.

Outreach Toward the Quechan Tribe

Leading up to the Planning Commission’s decision, much of the early discussion during the Jan. 10 meeting centered around outreach efforts toward the Quechan Tribe, whether it be SMP Gold Corp. itself or the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency managing the land on which the mining claim was approved. 

There were more than 20 supporters of the tribe who spoke during the public comment portion of the commission meeting and some urged for the commission to delay making a decision until the BLM sits down with the tribe to discuss further details, in a direct government-to-government meeting, a meeting that both the BLM and SMP Gold claims has already taken place. BLM made its approvals of the Oro Cruz project in August.

“We have not had the opportunity to speak to BLM. Where are they? They are not even here today,” President Joaquin argued.

“There’s a timeline they’re supposed to reply by, but the problem with BLM is they’ve gone past that date. That’s just more evidence to us that they’re just not listening to us,” he told the commission. “The right thing to do is to reject this until all other avenues have been exhausted, let us have our due process.” 

SMP Gold Corp. was obligated by the commissioners to allow the Quechan Tribe to have meaningful consultations throughout the mining exploration. Since the process has been in the works, SMP officials said they have sent seven certified letters to the tribe detailing the ongoing process, made a visit to the lands and moved forward as allowed by the BLM and Imperial County.

Environmental, religious, and historical points were brought up to plead the case from every angle possible. Disagreements on who has rights to the land in the first place were also part of the discussion.

“We had it first. It was our land and it was taken away illegally from us,” Quechan tribal elder Arrow-Weed said.

Geologist and consultant Dale Fortner speaks to the Imperial County Planning Commissioners dispelling misinformation and advocating for SMP Gold Corp.’s Oro Cruz Exploratory Mining project on Jan 10. | KIMBER DIAL PHOTO

Outdated Mining Laws Still Relevant

Many mentions of the 1872 Mining Law were included in the conversation on Jan. 10. The law states, said one individual, “all valuable mineral deposits in land belonging to the United States to be free and open to exploration and purchase.”

Dale Wallster, chief executive officer of SMP Gold Corp., leaned on this more than 100-year-old United States law as his Vancouver, British Columbia, Canadian company exercised its right to move forward.

Many comments were brought up about the 1872 previous mining expedition in the area and the long-lasting effects from these actions. One commenter noted that the land is still barren and recovering from prior mining expeditions and they see no way the current proposal, if approved, would be any different. After the exploratory efforts were concluded more than 100 years ago, the land was not fully repaired.

“The 1872 mining law has gone a little too far, because when that was made there was only a donkey and a pick and a shovel, and you couldn’t do much damage. But today they are going to tear up the land,” Arrow-Weed told the commission.

Project Overview

Graham Stevens, the Planning Commission’s environmental consultant, laid out the plans once again for those present. The project will include constructing a temporary exploration drilling access road, eight helicopter landing pads and 65 drilling sites throughout 21.3 acres. The land will then be reclaimed after the 12 to 24 months of drilling and be revegetated over a five-year period.

“Project operations would be temporary within each drill area, occurring over up to two drill sites at a time before moving to a new drill site,” the staff report said.

“The project is entirely on federal lands,” Stevens noted, “and therefore the BLM has approval authority over the exploratory drilling activities.

“It could even improve the land,” Stevens said, words which the opposing parties used numerous times against him during the public comments portion for this item.

Questions from where the water will come from during this project were raised by concerned parties, to which Stevens said there are a couple proposed possibilities. Gold Rock Resort RV Ranch located 2.3 miles from the proposed Oro Cuz Pit Exploratory site is a possibility. It could also come from Yuma, but a conclusive decision has not been made yet.

Environmental Concerns on Drilling

Gail Overton lives less than two miles from the proposed drilling site, and she said the land is already scarred. She expressed her disappointment in the entire proceeding for not being transparent. 

“The only reason I was informed is because I watched the news … and there certainly wasn’t much transparency in informing the public,” Overton said angrily. “Talking about a reclamation plan is quite a joke.

“SMP is calling this purely an exploration, but we all know what that means. So what about when and if they do find gold? They’re not just going to leave it and we all know that,” Overton concluded.

“I am personally affronted and aggrieved at the BLM for designating an area a critical environmental concern, and then when approached by a mining company acting as if it doesn’t exist and approving mining,” Carrie Meister said, 

Daniela Flores, executive organizer for Imperial Valley Equity & Justice Coalition, said, “We’re talking about preserving our planet.”

Juan Valencia, a Calexico resident, said, “You know fully well this reclamation should not be approved.”

Calexico Mayor Raul Ureña speaks to the Imperial County Planning Commissioners on Jan. 10 over SMP Gold Corp.’s agenda item, angrily defending the Quechan Tribe. | KIMBER DIAL PHOTO

“Colonizers — that’s what you are all. El Centro Planning Commission and BLM there is now native blood forever staining your hands,” Valencia angrily said during his three-minute comment. “These actions are the late capitalist echoes of centuries old colonization and cultural genocide … and you all are here at the forefront of it still in 2024.

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“I find it so pitiful and so shameful that we have to defend it to our own public servants,” Valencia concluded.

“The Rule of Law”

Geologist and consultant Dale Fortner urged the Planning Commission to approve the reclamation consideration based on the law. “The only action is a stay by the court or an injunction, but it seems evident the unhappy party here today will take action,” he said.

Fortner wanted to correct ongoing misinformation for the public, clarifying that nobody lives on the land. He also said, “This is not a mining operation. There have been mentions of concerns of cyanide or arsenic, which have not and will not be used for drilling.”

“There is the rule of the law, and there is the spirit of the law, ” Quechan Tribe President Joaquin said in response to Fortner, and as a former law enforcement officer, he knows there is a difference.

“We’re not a non-profit organization, we’re not a committee, we’re a sovereign nation and we deserve the right to be considered a government within our own people,” Joaquin added.

Gilberto Manzanarez, Calexico City Council member, was in attendance along with his city’s mayor. He gave a history lesson to the commissioners. “Just because this is legal does not make it right. There was a time in this country where slavery was legal, where genocide was legal. Where the Trail of Tears where tens of thousands of my ancestors were murdered, raped and abused, backed by the law.”

“California native tribes, particularly during the Gold Rush were targeted and killed, between 10,000 and 27,000 were also taken as forced slavers by California settlers,” Willie White added during his comments.

Mine Site on Sacred Land

Perhaps one of the overriding conversations for the tribal members and their supporters was the importance of the land as a sacred site.

“We are the land, we are the water, and we are the air, and we are still here,” said Tribal Council member Zion C. White.

“This will cause irreversible damage to the sacred Quechan area,” commenter Jocelyn Morales said. “It is a sacrilegious disgrace what they have done in the past.”

Calexico Mayor Raul Ureña, was among the public commenters. “Their land is their DNA. Their ancestors are here, were here, and continue to be here,” he told the commissioners. “This is as if they were proposing to drill the holiest site of Jerusalem for the wealth of Egypt.” 

Ureña called it a “disgusting distortion of democracy,” and shamed the commissioners for dragging the Quechan people once again to fight a topic they’ve fervently denied.

A solemn Jason Andrews, another member of the Quechan Tribe, spoke. “I come to you spiritually with a humble heart to ask you to open your hearts … open your eyes to what’s been happening. 

“Don’t follow your ancestors and ancestral ways,” Andrews said. “We were nothing to them. Our life was not even thought of … It wasn’t until the 1970s that we were finally acknowledged as a people.”





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