“This is definitely a local Standing Rock”: Sargent Ranch

SARGENT RANCH — As shadows of red-tailed hawks dart across
rolling hills of green, cougars creep through hidden canyons of
this pristine expanse — long revered as a sanctuary for
threatened species such as burrowing owls, red-legged frogs and
steelhead salmon.

It’s also a place where investors are now hoping to build a
320-acre sand and gravel mine that over its 30-year lifespan could
generate 40 million tons of materials to make cement for Northern
California construction projects.

The brewing controversy over the proposal has all the makings of
an epic battle between development forces and environmental
activists. Native Americans are now linking arms with those
activists to argue that the cultural and ecological benefits of the
land are priceless, while investors tout the project as an
opportunity to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue
that would allow them to save the property for future
generations.


“This
is definitely a local Standing Rock,” said Greg Cotten, a
44-year-old environmental consultant from Santa Cruz, referring to
the fierce 2016 protests by members of the Standing Rock Sioux
Tribe and their allies over an oil pipeline under construction in
North Dakota.

Cotten is one of the leaders of Friends of Juristac, a
grassroots group organized late last year to show solidarity with
the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, which is trying to stop its most
sacred site from being mined.

The Amah Mutsun call the land Juristac, or “place of the Big
Head.” The tribe has hosted healing rituals and prayer ceremonies
on the land for thousands of years. The area, the tribe’s leaders
note, is also treasured because it served as a safe haven for their
ancestors during the brutal reign of Spanish and Mexican
colonizers.

“My tribe historically has not reached out to the public
before, but the only way this mining permit will be denied is if
there is overwhelming public support for Native American
spirituality and culture,” said Valentin Lopez, the Amah
Mutsun’s chairman, who is now organizing a September prayer march
from San Juan Bautista to the ranch to protest the project.

The property, once a sprawling cattle ranch, is no stranger to
controversy. After plans to build a casino, 2,000 homes and two
golf courses fell apart, the land went into foreclosure in 2012.
The San Diego-based Debt Acquisition Company of America then bought
up $100 million in debt to become majority shareholders in the
property.

The new owners of the property say the mine will create about
two dozen union jobs and generate more than $3 million a year in
sales tax revenue. They also argue that by mining less than 5
percent of the ranch they will be able to preserve the rest of the
6,600-acre property — either by protecting it themselves or
selling the ranch to a conservation group. The investors, who
promise to restore the mined land, contend that the unique geology
of the ranch has created an inland sand deposit that can be mined
without having to disturb any rivers, creeks or beaches.

Supporters of the project also point out that cement is now in
high demand because of the booming Bay Area economy. As a result,
supporters say, local construction businesses are forced to import
sand from Canada on barges or truck it in from Southern California,
releasing greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

The Sargent Ranch is located west of Highway 101 and four miles
south of Gilroy, near the intersection of Santa Clara, Santa Cruz,
Monterey and San Benito counties. The ranch’s woodlands and tall
grasslands are complemented by unique tar pits, ponds and flowing
streams. The property connects the Santa Cruz Mountains with the
Diablo Range to the east and the Gabilan Range to the south.

The dispute over the proposed mine is expected to heat up this
summer when a long-awaited environmental impact report on the
project is released. The public will have 60 days to comment before
the Santa Clara County Planning Commission votes on the proposal.
The county Board of Supervisors will then have the final say.

The project has already gained the strong support of one key
supervisor: Mike Wasserman, whose district includes Sargent
Ranch.

As development in Santa Clara County and surrounding areas
continue to boom, sand remains a vital part of the urbanization
process, Wasserman argues.

“There is so much construction happening in Santa Clara County
now,” he said. “All this stuff takes concrete, and concrete is
made out of cement. And cement is made out of sand. Right now,
there is no local source for sand.”

Former South County Supervisor Don Gage, who once hunted and
fished on the ranch, has long admired its natural beauty. “It’s
just absolutely gorgeous,” he said. “It’s hard to describe
because you’re just in a different world.”

But he believes that elected officials need to carefully balance
conservation and development.

“You cannot develop unless you have rock,” he said. “You
can’t build a freeway or a road without crushed gravel.”

Owners of the ranch say the money made from the mine would
supplement the income generated from a working oil derrick on the
property.

“The approval of the sand quarry is key to the preservation of
the rest of the ranch,” said Verne Freeman, who heads quarry
efforts on the ranch for Freeman Associates, a Palo Alto-based firm
managing the property.

Howard Justus, managing director of Debt Acquisition Company of
America, said he would like to see the ranch opened to hikers on a
limited number of managed trails to allow local residents to
experience the ranch’s beauty without damaging its fragile
habitat.

“This is a project that allows for doing well by doing
good,” Justus said of the mining project. “We are able to
provide a consistent and reliable sand source for the South Bay at
a fraction of the carbon footprint and to conserve an incredible
piece of property.”

Environmental groups preparing to fight the proposal include the
Committee for Green Foothills, the Center for Biological Diversity
and the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County.

“To develop that property and disrupt its current state would
be terrible for all the wildlife,” said Stephen Slade, 
executive director of the land trust, a nonprofit organization that
buys up land for conservation and owns 1,200 acres west of Sargent
Ranch.

Similarly, Tsim Schneider, a Native American who teaches
anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, called the proposed mine part of
“a longstanding pattern — and it’s heartbreaking.”

He said that because indigenous people consider natural features
inherently valuable, they would leave the land intact rather than
build structures such as churches, temples or mosques. So,
Schneider said, mining Juristac would essentially be desecrating
sacred ground.

“It’s like deciding to slap a hotel on top of the Liberty
Bell,” he said.

The environmental impact report is expected to suggest ways to
reduce cultural damage, including preserving space for the Amah
Mutsun to host spiritual and ceremonial gatherings. But the
tribe’s leaders argue that once the land is tainted there is no
going back.

“For us, there’s no mitigation possible here,” Lopez said.
“We won’t compromise our spirituality, our relatives or our
culture.”

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
“This is definitely a local Standing Rock”: Sargent Ranch