Rare daisy clings to existence near a California gold mine

Botanist Maria Jesus makes a career out of protecting wild places where rare plants make their last stand, and fieldwork can mean bivouacking alone in a puppy tent.

Take the Inyo daisy, which only grows in the crevices of cliff faces in two largely roadless areas of the southern Inyo Mountains near Death Valley National Park.

One of these is Conglomerate Mesa, a 22,500-acre stretch of Piñon pine, rock pinnacles, and inclined limestone beds. K2 Gold Corp. is drilling and prospecting here. of Vancouver, Canada, on public land in hopes of laying the foundation for a large-scale open pit mine.

The other is near privately owned land in the nearby historic Cerro Gordo Mining District, which was recently sold to investors planning to develop a ghost town into a tourist attraction.

Saving an obscure daisy that occupies less than a square mile of the earth’s surface means getting to know it. Jesus, 38, a conservationist at the nonprofit California Botanic Garden in Claremont, has spent 103 days over the past four years traversing the sinister canyons and craggy peaks of the Inyo Mountains in search of details about its natural history.

She looked up for the first time Perityle inyoensisshe was hooked.

A closeup of a yellow flower

An Inyo Rock Daisy grows in Conglomerate Mesa near Death Valley.

(Mary Jesus)

“It stood all alone on a cliff on a scorching summer day,” she recalled, “attracting pollinating wasps with the pungent earthy aroma of its bright yellow flowers.”

“Back then,” she added with a proud smile, “I swore I would do whatever I could to ensure his survival.”

Earlier this month, Jesus and Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, in collaboration with the California Native Plant Society, filed petitions with the California Fish and Game Commission and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to preserve Inyo Rock Daisy listed as a threatened or endangered species.

And they hope its listing, if approved, puts an end to K2’s proposal to use tons of cyanide every day to leach gold from piles of crushed ore, a technique that has previously turned unprofitable mines into gold mines.

In the meantime, Jesus has become something of a hero among environmentalists, tribal members, and others who want to keep Inyo County’s lakes, streams, meadows, vast desert plains, volcanic fields, rural towns, and cattle ranches in their present state—free from the rattling and disturbances the heavy industry.

K2 could not be reached for comment. But Wendy Schneider, CEO of Friends of the Inyo, summed up Jesus’ crusade like this: “Flower Power – good stuff!”

Three people hike in an area of ​​the Conglomerate Mesa Wilderness where the Inyo Rock Daisy is found.

Botanist Maria Jesus hikes with Kayla Browne, a desert site organizer at the nonprofit Friends of the Inyo, and Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, in an area of ​​the Conglomerate Mesa Wilderness where the Inyo rock daisy was found will.

(Louis Sahagun/Los Angeles Times)

“Let’s find some daisies!” Jesus said on a recent morning as she, Anderson, Kayla Browne, desert area organizer at the nonprofit Friends of the Inyo, and a visitor set out on a trail across the dry mesa managed by the US Bureau of Land Management and Home to mountain lions, desert night lizards and most of the few dozen known occurrences of Inyo Rock Daisies.

Jesus has an additional awareness explorers develop with years abroad that takes them to steep, windswept slopes shared by the wildflowers and some of the several hundred mining claims K2 has acquired since 2019.

Finally, the group stopped abruptly, and Jesus nodded appreciatively toward a small brown shrub sticking out of a crack about 15 feet high in a crumbling rock outcrop dotted with brown moss and orange lichen.

“There’s our daisy!” said Jesus, stretching out her arms as if to embrace the plant, which was in a dreary, seemingly lifeless winter phase that only a botanist could appreciate.

Although most of the habitat of the daisies in the Mesa and Cerro Gordo conglomerate is designated as part of the National Conservation Lands system, it remains open for commercial mining under the Mining Act of 1872.

But the petition ignites deep passions in struggling communities along US Highway 395. The area has a legacy of historic mining but now relies on tourists from Southern California to keep the cash registers at fishing shops, art galleries, restaurants and saloons singing with Old West people bring facades.

One such community is Lone Pine, about 20 miles west of Conglomerate Mesa. The town of about 2,000 people, about 100 miles south of the Mammoth Lakes ski area in the Sierra, has a median household income of about $46,146, compared to $80,440 statewide, according to the US Census Bureau.

Also there, K2 Gold, known locally as Mojave Precious Metals Inc., has opened an office just steps from the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to K2 Gold, state land managers are considering at least five controversial foreign company gold exploration projects along the nearby eastern Sierra Nevada. For example, just outside of Mammoth Lakes, KORE Mining, a Canadian company, is studying the feasibility of open pit mining under the supervision of the US Forest Service. Some fear the venture could overwhelm the peaceful atmosphere at Hot Creek, a fly-fishing hotspot about 300 miles north of Los Angeles.

Whether any of the claims being staked across the mineral-rich region will blossom into full-fledged mines remains to be seen, but gold prices rose to around $2,000 an ounce following Russia’s military action in Ukraine.

Matt Kingsley, an Inyo District Manager, who represents a district that includes the southern Inyo Mountains, said he was “not surprised” that conservationists are “throwing everything in their power at these gold mining proposals — this is their latest.” Tactics”.

“But the plants in question,” he suggested, “obviously thrived and survived; and it is possible that they can cope with any mine.”

Jesus is not so sure about that. And when it comes to the Inyo Rock Daisy, she knows as much as anyone.

Three women hike in an area of ​​the Conglomerate Mesa Wilderness where the Inyo Rock Daisy is found.

Botanist Maria Jesus (right) searches an area in the Conglomerate Mesa Wilderness for the Inyo Rock Daisy. Directly behind her is Kayla Browne, desert areas organizer at the nonprofit Friends of the Inyo, and at left Ileene Anderson, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.

(Louis Sahagun/Los Angeles Times)

The thesis for her master’s degree from Claremont Graduate University required 4WD traversing the Inyo Mountains on dirt roads and hiking on factual trails to map the extent of the daisies’ home range.

While searching for clues to the plant near Cerro Gordo, she spent a night alone in a puppy tent, a stone’s throw from a centuries-old cemetery. “I didn’t sleep much that night,” she said.

Other measures of their dedication to the cause include handing out buttons with color photos of the daisy in bloom and producing a virtual tour of the plant’s tiny kingdom to answer a fundamental question: why would anyone care for just a few daisy plants in one place visited by a few intrepid hikers every year?

It’s the kind of question that has fueled the earlier explorations of a woman Jesus and Anderson both consider personal heroes: Mary DeDecker, a botanist who amassed a vast archive of information on native plants of the Inyo Mountains and eastern Sierra Nevada and who residents to combat development proposals that threatened their survival. DeDecker died in 2000 at the age of 91.

“She was crisp and tireless,” Anderson recalled, “and an inspiration to new generations of naturalists.”

Jesus couldn’t agree more. But regulatory gears move slowly.

State and federal wildlife agencies may not review the petition until August, and K2 has requested permission to pave dirt roads on the mesa as part of an effort to increase its exploration drilling activities.

“These wildflowers may have survived decades of historic mining,” Anderson said, “but they don’t stand a chance against a combination of modern industrial operations and extreme climate change.”

Indeed, there are many worrying signs that more frequent droughts and record-breaking heat waves are taking their toll on the region’s fragile ecology. Animals desperate for food and moisture, for example, have eaten the bark off the trunks of thousands of Joshua trees in the area.

It added a layer of urgency to Jesus’ efforts to gather more facts that could become keys to his long-term survival.

During the final hike, as gusts of wind and snow swept across the mesa, Jesus dropped to his knees to get a closer look at a lone daisy clinging to existence on a ledge surrounded by mining areas. Looking through a strong hand lens, she smiled and said, “Hold on.”


Watch LA Times Today at 7:00 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or stream live on the Spectrum News app. Viewers from Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99. Rare daisy clings to existence near a California gold mine

Tom Vazquez

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