Take a drive east on Highway 180 from Fresno toward Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and you’ll see a landscape as varied as the Valley itself. Neatly arranged orchards give way to the lush green basin of the Kings River, and the rustic towns of Centerville and Minkler. And just as the highway begins its climb into the Sierra foothills, off to the left, the first hill you see is Jesse Morrow Mountain.
“It’s a very beautiful mountain, it’s about 2800 feet, it’s got oak trees on it, it certainly has a lot of wildlife on it. It’s the first view of the Sierra Nevada range as you traveling east towards the national parks.” That’s Jim Van Haun, owner of the Cedar View Winery and Sequoia View Bed and Breakfast.
They are among a handful of businesses along the highway catering to the tourists who come to see the National Parks and the Blossom Trail.
“Well we have 20 acres here right at the base of Jesse Morrow Mountain and it’s an absolutely gorgeous view between Jesse Morrow Mountain and Campbell Mountain, looking at the Sierra Nevada Range.”
But that scenic view may soon undergo a dramatic change. On Thursday, the Fresno County Planning Commission will vote on a proposal to allow CEMEX, a construction materials company based in Mexico to dig an open pit hard rock mine, on an 800 acre site on the south side of the mountain.
"They're still actually contemplating on dynamiting that mountain out and the view for us would be a view of a sand and gravel plant, an asphalt batch plant and just all the ancillary facilities," says Van Haun.
If approved, the mine would produce around one and a half million tons a year of broken rock called aggregate, which is used in the concrete and asphalt that goes into local construction projects.
“That is critical to the construction of roads, and highways, bridges, dams, high speed rail facilities,” says Michael Prandini, President of the Building Industry Association of Fresno and Madera Counties.
He says that when the economy improves, the area will have a shortage of construction materials, much like it did before the recession.“At one time back around 2005 I believe, they were having to import aggregate because construction was booming so much that the local aggregate suppliers couldn’t provide enough aggregate.”
CEMEX representative Jolene Polyack says the mine will have a big economic impact."We had an economist from the Bay Area look at the numbers. She said that it will contribute $36 million year to the local economy, nearly $7 million will come directly from labor income."
Polyack says this new mine is essential, as the company's existing mines near Friant and Lemon Cove are nearly depleted. And unlike other mines in river bottom areas, this site on Jesse Morrow Mountain wouldn't wipe out farms.
"The beauty of Jesse Morrow Mountain is that it's not prime ag land. So this is land that currently isn't bringing anything into the county coffers, but will then become an economic benefit to the county."
CEMEX also claims the new project would reduce CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming, thanks to shorter trips from the mine to local construction sites. "If you've got the aggregate close to where the growth is, which we project the growth being Clovis, Reedley and Sanger, then it's less truck miles, which obviously reduces the greenhouse gas. So for example, a roundtrip to Coalinga to the Fresno area is 120 miles. Whereas from Jesse Morrow it would be 40 [miles]," says Polyack.
But those arguments haven’t been enough to win over many area residents, who remain bitterly opposed to the project, which has been the works for around a decade.
"I knew that it would be going through some sort of environmental review and so I just sort of started galvanizing the community and a lot of folks in the community had no idea what was going on and the impacts to it. So we formed Friends of the Jesse Morrow Mountain some six to eight years ago," says Van Haun.
His group has rallied around the cause of preserving the mountain, attacking the project on fronts ranging from air and water quality, to its effect on the local tourism industry.
“We get people from all over the world literally that come up to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks because they are “world heritage” sites. It just reflects on us badly because the first thing they see of the Sierra Nevada range is Jesse Morrow Mountain. Right now it’s a pristine place, a very beautiful mountain. And with the CEMEX proposed project they'll see something entirely different."
Just down the road from the winery is the Schoolhouse Restaurant and Tavern. The business just opened a little over a week ago in a old red brick schoolhouse dating from the 1920's. Inside are two of the owners of the Art Stand, a co-op art gallery that sits directly across Highway 180, including Deanna Bristow.
"I've lived in this area all my life. I feel very possessive about it, and I don't want to see that shiloutette change whatsoever." Elaine Towne-Lane shares a similar view."An open pit mine, it's not inductive to tourism, whatsoever. It's ugly, " she says.
But while aesthetics may be the top concern for area business owners, it's the potential cultural impacts of the mine that have generated some of the project's most vocal critics."We know it as Wah-hal-ish, [meaning] Crying Mountain. There’s a significant history for that mountain for our people," says Audrey Osborne, tribal historian for the Traditional Choinumni Tribe East of the Kings River. Her people have lived in the area for well over 6,000 years.
She says the mountain is one of several sacred sites to the Choinumni in the area. "There were fasting ceremonies done on that mountain, coming of age ceremonies, there's a lot of history there. You've got to remember too, death came, in those times [of] disease, and we couldn't always there's people who had to be buried where they were. So all of that history is there. And if you are a Choinumni, and you know your significant history, you'd know what the impact of that mountain will have on us."
But not all of the Choinumni people feel the same way. A separate branch of the tribe, the Kings River Choinumni Farm Tribal Council, disagrees. They say mountain isn't significant and they support the CEMEX project. As part of the mine's environmental mitigation, CEMEX has agreed to lease the tribal council 40 acres of land at the site, which CEMEX will donate to the tribe if the project is ultimately approved. The tribal council would also receive around $40,000 from the company. The Kings River Farm Tribal Council did not respond to our requests for an interview.
The dispute over the mountain has even caught the attention of the California Native American Heritage Commission in Sacramento. "Our agency has been concerned with the project down there," says Dave Singleton who is a program analyst with the commission. "We feel there's enough justification that's been presented to us by the archeology community as well as the Native American community that it's a sacred area."
So where does this leave the project, and what are some possible solutions? CEMEX says it has listened to the public and has revised its original plan. "When it was initially proposed it was a 100 year project and it was going to be on the ridge of the mountain," says Polyack.And this new alternative plan is the one that will go before the planning commission this Thursday.
"Basically what this means is it's bringing it down off the ridge, it's closer to the mine itself, so it'll be more difficult to see from Highway 180, and we cut the duration from 100 years to 50 years," says Polyack.
Still despite the changes, the Friends of Jesse Morrow Mountain remain opposed to the mine. But Jim Van Haun says this isn't a typical case of "not in my backyard" opposition. "All of us in the community are for sand and gravel mining, it’s just an area of location."
He says alternate sites for aggregate mining exist nearby, including The Carmelita Project, a proposed 1,500 acre mine o wned by Gerawan Farms on Reed Avenue just a few miles away. The land which is currently home to fruit trees would be mined in a conventional manner, similar to the existing sand and gravel mines on the Kings and San Joaquin Rivers.
But even after all the controversy, years of analysis and debate, not to mention the recent death of her mother, tribal elder Angie Osborne, Audrey remains committed to the fight to preserve what her people know as Wah-hal-lish."We are obligated by honor to protect our site and our history, not only for us but for generations to come."