Island in the Sky: Protect Conglomerate Mesa – We Need Your Help!

Kyle Von Hoetzendorff connected with Ken Etzel, videographer and activist to discuss the current threat to the Sierra and Inyo basins as mining encroaches upon this delicate zone. Along with Friends of the Inyo, Ken helped out with Protect Conglomerate Mesa documentary. Read on below for how you can help and an interview with Ken.

From the Protect Conglomerate Mesa Website:

“Nestled between Death Valley National Park, Malpais Mesa Wilderness, Inyo Mountains Wilderness, and the Owens Lake bed, is Conglomerate Mesa. These 22,500 acres of nearly roadless BLM terrain are unconfined, rugged, and brimming with rich desert life and cultural history. Conglomerate Mesa is part of the ancestral homeland of the contemporary Timbisha Shoshone Tribe and Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Tribe and is still visited for pinyon nut harvesting. The mesa is home to numerous sensitive plant species, including the threatened Joshua trees and the rare Inyo rock daisy. Visitors enjoy hiking, camping, backpacking, hunting, photography, stargazing, and more in this intact desert landscape.”

I grew up in Bishop, California. Spent much of my youth hiking, camping, and biking in the Sierra and White Mountains. To me, it is a special place. But that doesn’t mean you need to have a special connection to this area, or any area, in order for it to have meaning, importance, and gravity. That’s one positive result of having this expansive consciousness. We can connect to events long gone, and make predictions on future events based on our experiences and those had by others. We can choose to learn from our own mistakes and those of our friends, our community, and humanity at large.

It’s with this in mind that I call your attention to Friends of the Inyo and the project to Protect Conglomerate Mesa. This area doesn’t have to be in your backyard in order for you to understand, empathize, and act. We talked to filmmaker and photographer Ken Etzel about his film “Island in the Sky” and the fight to preserve Conglomerate Mesa from mining.


Who is Ken Etzel? What do you care about? And What do you Do? 

I am a filmmaker and photographer with a background in ecology. For many years I studied birds and used them as an indicator for environmental change. At some point, I realized that my potential for science was limited, maybe due to my obsession with mountains, and that I may have a bigger impact through visual storytelling.

Can you tell us about your history and connection to Inyo County? What drew you there? What made you stay? 

I fell in love with Inyo County and the Sierra Nevada around the turn of the millennium. I spent many a winter dirtbagging around, living out of my truck and spending as much time as possible rock climbing and skiing. My heart beats differently when I’m in the Sierra Nevada. Eventually, the community drew me in and I’ve made lifelong friendships and I feel part of the landscape.

How did you get connected and/or what is your history with Friends of the Inyo? Have you worked on other projects with them?

My connection with FOI came through my interest in mining activity in the Basin and Range. Particularly proposed lithium mining sites. I’ve spent some time wandering around looking for mining claims and random UTM’s of exploratory drilling sites. The Eastern Sierra is a small world socially and eventually people hear about those with similar interests. Bryan Hatchell was the grassroots organizer for FOI at the time. We spent some time out on Conglomerate making photos to bring awareness to the situation. Next thing I knew I was writing grants trying to get a short film funded.

For my part, the film makes a pretty clear case why the K2 shouldn’t be allowed to mine in the area.

With that being said, is there any information that didn’t make it into the film that you’d like to share? And/or is there information that you found personally compelling that maybe was right for the film that you want people to know about?

This is a great question. Of course, you can’t fit everything into a short film like this. One of the big things is that large-scale open pit heap leach cyanide gold mines are actually illegal in the state of Montana, a state with rich mining history and little regulation. Also the whole idea of the 1842 mining law in which Steve Swatton quotes in the film is so outdated and ridiculous. It basically states that if you claim the rights, nobody can stop you from extracting mineral resources if there is no “undo harm”. The deposit that this site is on has a history of underproducing mines over the years.

You actually have to drive (or ride) through Death Valley to access the Mesa via a road, the amount of water needed for this project is staggering, we used conservative numbers in the film and it would add a significant amount of stress to the fragile landscape. Particularly in this time of a warming climate. The stands of Joshua Trees on and near the Mesa are actually reproducing and are predicted to be a hovel for the species as lower elevations (like Joshua Tree NP) become devoid of the plant. Oh, and you’d be able to see this pit from the top of Mount Whitney!!!! The tallest point in the lower 48!

For readers who want to comment on the BLM site >HERE<  is there specific information or things that you’d suggest they share – is this just a numbers game or both?

It’s a bit of both, getting around the 1872 mining law is tricky if there are not any large-scale impacts, like groundwater contamination or federally endangered species present. One of the only ways to stop exploratory mining is through public comment. The more the better really, Friends Of The Inyo have done an amazing job at the grassroots level and sharing information. If you follow the link here, they have suggestions for your comments.

Outside of commenting is there anything else people could do to help prevent this mining operation from moving forward? 

First I want to say that I’m not against mining, or mining in the USA. I think we have amazing regulations that help keep our water drinkable, our streams clear, our air breathable, and our great wide-open lands intact. I especially believe as we move away from fossil fuels, the world might be a better place if we keep these operations closer to home where they can be monitored. The battery industry is messy. Given this idea, a large-scale open-pit cyanide gold mine probably shouldn’t live on Death Valley’s doorstep. It goes against all of the regulations and decisions we’ve made regarding these issues. So, I guess please watch the film, share it, have conversations about it, and think about where your resources come from. Maybe listen to the wind a little more closely and think about those who have come before you. Finding a connection with place is powerful and the Earth needs it from us.

Thanks, Ken!

If you think this doesn’t apply to cyclists, it does. See our extensive coverage from the region in our Related column below. Thank you!