GILROY (KPIX) — In southern Santa Clara County a battle is brewing over a plan to turn a Native American spiritual site into an open-pit sand and gravel mine.
On the map, an area just off Highway 101 south of Gilroy is called Sargent but the Native Americans who used to live there had a different name: Juristac. Now, just beyond the windswept hills by the highway, a land-holding company called Sargent Ranch Partners has proposed digging a sand and gravel quarry to supply base material for regional construction projects.
“As soon as we heard about that, our tribe spoke up loudly and forcefully about this right here being our most sacred site. It was our sacred site for thousands of years,” said Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun tribal band.
He said the land was once the most densely populated area north of Mexico and his tribe shared the Juristac site for religious ceremonies with other tribes from as far away as Yosemite Valley. He said much of his tribe was relocated during the building of the California missions and very few members remain in the area. He said that doesn’t change the historic and spiritual importance of the hills.
“We have no protection for our sacred sites,” Lopez said. “If this was a Catholic, Morman, Jewish, Buddhist or any other religion, it would have protections but, because it’s an Amah Mutsun Native American site, it has no protection whatsoever. And that really is shameful. That really is shameful. They should not allow the destruction of our sacred sites.”
The project was first proposed in 2015 but the environmental impact report is now finished and will soon be considered by the Santa Clara County Planning Commission. It is precisely the impact on the environment that has conservation groups joining the fight as well.
“It’s considered — universally considered — one of the most important areas for wildlife connectivity,” said Alice Kaufman, policy and advocacy director for a conservation group called Green Foothills.
She said the spot at the bottom of the Santa Cruz Mountains is a key point of passage from the coast to the inland areas for all kinds of wildlife.
“In order to get across Highway 101, they have to go through under-crossings,” Kaufman said. “This mine is going to lie right next to the most major under-crossing through 101.”
No one from Sargent Ranch Partners was available for comment on Saturday but they make the case that locally sourced building materials prevent the environmental impact of trucking it in from great distances.
Kaufman rejects that argument.
“We have plenty of local sources of building materials — of sand and gravel. We’re not at any risk of running out any time soon,” she said. “So, it’s completely ridiculous to suggest this would actually be good for the environment. An open pit sand and gravel mine that would permanently destroy the landscape.”
Several cities, including Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Morgan Hill have announced opposition to the plan. If the proposal is approved by the planning commission, it could be sent to the board of supervisors for a final vote. With the acceptance of the draft EIR, a public comment period has just opened and both the tribe and conservationists say they intend to make their voices heard to county officials considering the project.
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