Protecting Juristac’s Wildlife and Sacred Landscape

green hills at Juristac
Photo credit: Amah Mutsun Tribal Band

A version of this article appeared in Green Foothills’ Winter 2023 newsletter.

The landscape of Juristac has been sacred to the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band for thousands of years, and provides critical habitat and movement corridors for multiple threatened and endangered wildlife species. Now, an open-pit sand mine is threatening this sacred Indigenous site and wildlife habitat. But an incredible groundswell of public support for protecting this landscape, led by the tribe with Green Foothills’ support, is shining a spotlight on the damage that could result from the proposed quarry. With this massive public response, we know we can defeat the destructive mining proposal.

Juristac: A Sacred Indigenous Landscape and Critical Wildlife Corridor

Juristac is the heart of the ancestral lands of the Amah Mutsun, who lived and held sacred ceremonies there for centuries. For Mutsun people, Juristac is the home of a powerful spiritual being known as Kuksui. The name Juristac translates to “Place of the Big Head,” and Big Head dances and other healing and renewal ceremonies took place at Juristac, often attended by neighboring tribal groups. These ceremonies came to an end when many of the Mutsun people were forcibly taken against their will from Juristac to California’s missions, one of the darkest chapters in our state’s history. Today, a padlocked gate stands between the Amah Mutsun and their ancestral lands.

Juristac is also an ecologically significant area for multiple at-risk species. The grassy, oak-dotted hillsides are foraging grounds for golden eagles and northern harriers; the streams, ponds and wetlands in the valleys are habitat for steelhead trout, California red-legged frog, and California tiger salamander. Perhaps most important, because of its location at the very toe of the Santa Cruz Mountains south of Gilroy, Juristac is the gateway for animals like mountain lions and badgers to migrate from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Diablo Range in the east and the Gabilan Range in the south.

The Threat: An Open-Pit Sand and Gravel Mine

The current owner of 5,000+ acres of the Juristac landscape, a Southern California-based debt acquisition company, has applied for a permit from Santa Clara County to operate an open-pit sand and gravel mine called the Sargent Ranch Quarry. This mine would destroy over 400 acres of habitat, excavating the hillsides and scooping out three giant quarry pits hundreds of feet deep. It would pump an estimated 86,000 gallons of groundwater per day. Noise from the heavy equipment at a huge industrial processing plant to sort and crush the quarried rock would echo far across the previously undisturbed hillsides. Hundreds of truck trips per day would take the sand and gravel to destinations elsewhere in the Bay Area.

In July 2022, Santa Clara County published its Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the Sargent Ranch Quarry. The DEIR found 14 separate significant and unavoidable impacts from the mine, including impacts to tribal cultural resources, wildlife movement, air quality, transportation, and aesthetics.

The DEIR recognized that the entirety of the Juristac landscape, not only specific archeological sites, is culturally important and would be damaged. The DEIR noted that the importance of the tribal cultural landscape is defined by its natural elements such as the hills, the creeks and rivers, the natural springs, and the views of the landscape. All of this would suffer “permanent and irreversible alterations” that no mitigation could avoid, and no post-mining reclamation could erase.

The DEIR also found that the quarry would interfere substantially with wildlife movement. Highway 101, which runs right at the foot of Juristac’s hills, is a barrier to wildlife movement, and only a few underpasses allow animals to travel safely beneath the freeway. These underpasses are critically important to the survival of the Santa Cruz Mountains population of mountain lions, a candidate for listing under the California Endangered Species Act. Because the quarry would lie directly across this movement pathway, with its huge, noisy and disruptive rock processing plant right next to the most important of the Highway 101 underpasses, the DEIR found that the quarry would block movement of mountain lions and other animals.

The Response: Massive Public Opposition

As soon as the DEIR was released last July, a groundswell of opposition to this open-pit mine began growing. According to the County, over 7,500 comment letters have been received in response to the DEIR. The Statement of Opposition to Sargent Ranch Quarry has been signed by over 100 elected officials and organizations. The city councils of Gilroy, Morgan Hill, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Sunnyvale, plus Santa Cruz County, have passed resolutions opposing the mine. Over 400 community members attended a rally held by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band to show their support for the tribe.

The massive response to the mining proposal has been greatly effective in calling attention to the issue. However, since the County received thousands of comments in response to the DEIR, it will take months before the Board of Supervisors will vote on the proposal. Therefore, we need to keep up the pressure and make sure this issue isn’t forgotten.

Green Foothills is committed to protecting Juristac and keeping this issue in the public eye. With a broad coalition of similarly dedicated people and organizations, we will advocate for more local cities to pass resolutions opposing the project, garner more petition signatures and letters of support for the tribe, and do everything we can to keep up our momentum.

Let’s Keep Up the Pressure!

Please join us. If you haven’t yet signed the petition, you can do so at protectjuristac.org. If you haven’t yet submitted an email to the County, you can do so at greenfoothills.org/juristac. When this issue does come up for a vote at the County, we will alert our supporters about how to take further action. Together we can protect Juristac.

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