November 16, 2017
Juristac (Huris-tak) lies at the heart of the ancestral lands of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band near Gilroy, California. For thousands of years, the Mutsun’s ancestors lived and held sacred ceremonies at this location in the southern foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, above the confluence of the Pajaro and San Benito rivers.
The cultural landscape encompassing Juristac is known today as Sargent Ranch. An investor group based in San Diego purchased the land at a bankruptcy auction and is currently seeking to develop a 320-acre open pit sand and gravel mining operation.
Over a 30-year operating period, the proposed Sargent Quarry includes a 14-acre processing plant, three 200-foot deep open pit quarry sites, a 1.6-mile long conveyor belt, and a 30-foot wide access road. An estimated 40 million tons of sand and gravel aggregate would be produced over the life of the mine, primarily for use in local road building and general construction.
For property owner Debt Acquisition Company of America (DACA), the quarry project is an opportunity for financial gain. Doing business under the name Sargent Ranch Management Company, DACA has hired a Palo Alto-based firm, Freeman Associates LLC, to shepherd their proposed quarry through Santa Clara County’s planning and environmental review process. The county is currently preparing a draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR).
Cultural and Spiritual Impacts
For Mutsun people, Juristac is the home of a powerful spiritual being known as Kuksui. Juristac, which translates to “place of the Big Head.” Big Head dances associated with Kuksui and other healing and renewal ceremonies took place in the area for centuries, often attended by neighboring tribal groups. The entire area now known as Sargent Ranch, and previously named Rancho Juristac, contains a complex of storied cultural sites and features of spiritual significance.
Today’s Amah Mutsun Tribal Band are survivors of the destructive reign of Mission San Juan Bautista and Mission Santa Cruz. Many Mutsun ancestors were taken into the missions from villages at Juristac including Xisca, Pitac and La Brea. After the missions were closed in the 1830s, some Mutsun people returned to their homelands at Juristac, until a smallpox epidemic and pressures from American settlers led to their relocation to surrounding towns and ranchos.
The tribe, which now owns no land within its traditional territory, draws a clear connection between today’s threats to sacred sites and the legacy of colonial violence its people have endured. “The destruction and domination of Amah Mutsun culture, spirituality, environment and people never ended,” Chairman Valentin Lopez states. “It just evolved to the destructive and dominating projects we see today.”
The significance of the Juristac area is further heightened by its pristine state in relation to the surrounding region. “When you look at our other ceremonial sites and our hunting, fishing and gathering places, the vast majority of these places have been lost to development,” Lopez explains. “Juristac is one of the very last remaining undisturbed areas.”
The Amah Mutsun tribe maintains that once disturbed by mining, there will be no way to rehabilitate the cultural and spiritual aspects of the landscape. While the land and any cultural resources within the 320-acre footprint of direct impact is in obvious peril, the broader disruption of the spiritual integrity of the land as a result of mining cannot be quantified.
The proposed quarry and processing plant represent a major intrusion into an otherwise relatively pristine area. Juristac’s grasslands, oak woodlands, riparian corridors, freshwater ponds and streams provide important habitat for an abundance of species.
The project would eliminate approximately 248 acres of grassland habitat critical to the California tiger salamander and California red-legged frog during hot, dry periods—both are federally-listed threatened species. It would also degrade breeding habitat in ponds adjacent to quarry operations. The loss of grasslands would harm the American Badger and birds of prey, such as the Golden Eagle, Northern Harrier and Burrowing Owl, all of which hunt in the area. In addition, quarrying would destroy approximately 33 acres of California live oak woodland, valuable roosting and foraging habitat for many native species.
Seeps and springs line both sides of Sargent Valley and are a vital component of the landscape, providing moisture year-round and recharging off-channel ponds and perennial pools in lower Sargent Creek. The aquifer that feeds these springs will likely be affected by quarry excavation pits and pumping of an estimated 162,800 gallons of groundwater per day from an on-site well for aggregate processing and dust control. Pit excavation would eliminate approximately 5,600 linear feet of ephemeral stream drainages.
The Sargent Hills have been identified as a critical point of habitat linkage between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo and Gabilan mountain ranges to the south. Sargent Creek provides valuable north–south passage for wildlife and Juristac is the gateway to key under-crossings for wildlife passage beneath Highway 101. The quarry and its processing plant, roads and associated infrastructure would disrupt these wildlife corridors.
In recognition of its unique habitat values, the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority identified the Sargent Hills as a Conservation Focus Area in its 2014 Santa Clara Valley Greenprint. Local conservation organizations such as the Peninsula Open Space Trust and The Nature Conservancy also consider the Sargent Hills area a top priority for protection.
There is Only One Juristac
Promoters of the Sargent Quarry point to the growing demand for local sources of aggregate, a necessary material for construction and road building, and herald the relative environmental benefits of quarrying upland locations like Sargent Valley, rather than riparian floodplains. Yet, it is clear that while there are many other potential upland sources of sand and gravel in our region, there is only one Juristac.
For the Amah Mutsun, who have already seen the loss and degradation of nearly all the lands they once occupied, there is no room for another loss. Their very cultural survival hinges on the preservation of what little remains of their homeland.
What You Can Do
Visit the Protect Juristac website for the latest details on the project’s status and how you can support the Amah Mutsun’s efforts to protect their sacred lands.
Comment letters on the draft Environmental Impact Report will be needed in early 2018.
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