By Juliette Beck
This morning beginning at 8:30AM the Yolo County Planning Commission is holding a public hearing on a proposed gravel mining project along lower Cache Creek, located three miles west of the City of Woodland. Teichert, an $880 million year mega-construction company, is seeking a 30-year permit to expand its aggregate mining operations to include the 319-acre Shifler property adjacent to the Cache Creek Nature Preserve.
Opposition to the project is growing by the day. Many people are pointing out that the project was conceived in a different era and is based on a flawed logic that doesn’t fit with today’s realities of climate chaos, mass extinction, deep racial disparities, and growing socio-economic divides particularly in light of the ongoing pandemic.
Mining companies have been excavating gravel for construction along lower Cache Creek since the 1950’s and initially excavated the creek itself. After significant public opposition culminated in a “No Deep Pits” referendum in the 1990’s, aggregate mining companies and Yolo County struck a deal to permit deep pit mining outside the main channel of Cache Creek on land that is primarily farmland in exchange for funding reclamation and restoration of a 14.5 mile nature parkway. The latest proposal will expand the mining footprint with the illusory promise of restoration of the excavated land back to agriculture and a lake in three decades.
There’s much at stake for the communities and future generations that are counting on Yolo County to make good planning decisions. Less than 1,400 feet away from the proposed pit mine is the WildWings neighborhood where over 330 families purchased homes. The residents say they have had enough of the cumulative impacts of decades of mining – dust, diesel pollution, heavy truck traffic, noise and threats to their water supply – and are asking the county to reject the proposal.
The county and the project applicant – Teichert – appear to be in a rush to secure final approvals including changes to county zoning and certification of a lengthy environmental impact report.
The rush suggests an attempt to bypass or prevent the accumulating social and environmental costs of the project from becoming known to the public. Toxicologists are pointing to alarming evidence that poisonous methylmercury is forming in the oxygen-deprived environment at the bottom of the wet mining pits. Keen to distract with promises of a nature parkway sometime in the future, the very real possibility – and enormous liability or the county – that the mining instead could be creating a deadly parkway for migrating animals who eat the toxic fish spawned in poisoned ponds all along the Cache Creek wildlife corridor is being obscured.
Outdoor education groups are also questioning a plan to build a new nature center at the Cache Creek Nature Preserve less than a mile away from the large-scale, industrial mining operations. Some have suggested a wildlife rehabilitation center would be a better use of public funds.
The new nature center is being planned by the Cache Creek Conservancy, which has three mining company seats on its board including a representative of Teichert who is also the project manager for the mining expansion. The conservancy governs the 140-acre nature preserve located directly across from the Shifler property. The preserve is being touted as the crown jewel of “gravel to green” restoration projects. Yet insufficient funding and poor management has plagued reclamation and restoration efforts.
While the preserve has clearly been set up to greenwash the mining operations, it does however contain a hidden gem – the Patwin-Wintun Tending and Gathering Garden (TGG). The garden was created as a safe place for Native Californian basket weavers to cultivate native plants and practice their cultural traditions. Over the past twenty years, the garden has become a special place to study and learn from Native Californian naturalists and culture bearers about historic ecological wetland regeneration, yet it has also faced many challenges including how to keep native plants irrigated along steep slopes with poor soil as a result of the legacy of mining.
Efforts to expand outdoor educational opportunities at the TGG for Native youth and others have also been fraught with difficulty. The extractivist logic that permeates the conservancy – a logic that sees both nature and people as something to exploit and easily replace – is hard at work marginalizing the very people that should be leading the restoration of the imperiled watershed.
We are at a pivotal moment in the history of Yolo County planning. This project comes at a time of climate emergency that is worsening and has to grapple too with the legacy of ongoing, intergenerational trauma for indigenous people here in the historic epicenter of mining mercury for gold, greed and genocide.
Many of us that have settled here in recent times are still learning about the horrific treatment of Native Californian tribal communities and how to properly acknowledge Native Californians as the original stewards of the land. A growing number of institutions – including the State of California – are seeking ways to repair the harm from the lasting legacy of racial injustice.
We have much to gain from coming into “right relationship” with Native Californian people who are reminding us that we are not separate and apart from nature. “We are nature defending itself,” is a common refrain among indigenous environmental leaders.
Let’s hope for the sake of this generation and all the generations to come that the planning commission has the courage and common sense to pause the project and break from the outdated and harmful extractivist logic embodied in the Teichert-Shifler mining and reclamation proposal. There is another path forward for Yolo County and it starts with an ethic of deep care, appreciation and respect for indigenous-led ecological stewardship.
Juliette Beck is a Davis resident and climate activist