GILROY, Calif. (KGO) -- For members of the Amah Mutsun tribe, a stretch of rolling hills in southern Santa Clara County is known as Juristac. With pristine valleys, running creeks and natural tar pits, the tribe considers the area sacred to their culture and religion.
Chairman Valentin Lopez says the name translates to "Place of the Big Head," in honor of the tribe's most important ceremony.
"We had four tribal villages at or near Juristac. The responsibility was to maintain these lands as being sacred and prepared for a ceremony," Lopez said.
But since the early days of western settlement, the area has also been part of the Sargent Ranch, now managed by a group proposing a different use: construction of a sand and gravel quarry, ultimately covering several hundred acres. Howard Justus is with Sargent Ranch and says the operation would be a boost to local construction, which relies in part on materials shipped from Canada.
"Sand being a critical component, 40% of concrete is a very necessary component of our construction needs," he said.
But the scope of the project is also drawing criticism from nearby communities and environmental groups, especially plans to raze several hilltops and construct facilities to support the mine.
Alice Kaufman of the nonprofit Green Foothills, believes the operation could both scar the open space and also disrupt an important migration route for Mt. Lions in the area.
"If these animals are not able to migrate in and out of the of the Santa Cruz Mountains, then they're at risk for reduction of genetic variability -- which is another word for inbreeding, which is very dangerous for such a small population -- and they could be at risk of local extinction," Kaufman said.
The development group counters that it has new proposals in place to protect migration corridors and restores the site once the permit is complete.
But perhaps just as sensitive is the disruption felt by the Amah Mutsun. Information originally posted on the Sargent Quarry website appears to question some of the tribe's historical claims to the Juristac area. But Chairman Lopez says a cultural and archaeological study, done as part of the environmental impact process, paints a far different story.
"Our people have been here a very, very long time. It is a place where there's many springs and many waterways. And it's a place where our people gathered their foods, their medicines, their basket, true materials or other materials for housing and clothing, for tools," he said.
The development group says it doesn't dispute that the tribe considers the area sacred, and said in a recent letter to the county that it's willing to negotiate, possibly making parts of the land available for native ceremonies.
"And we want to be part of the solution to provide the tribe with an area they can call their homeland, whether that's on Sergeant Ranch, or at some other location that is to be determined. But we are in agreement with the tribe that the land is sacred in accordance with their definition of it," Justus said.
The future of the area, the project, and the tribal claims will likely come into sharper focus, with the county now taking public comment before moving forward with a decision on the Juristac site.
Santa Clara County will hold a virtual planning meeting tomorrow afternoon at 1:30 p.m. that is open to the public. Access the virtual meeting via Zoom Meetings or by calling (669) 219-2599, using meeting ID 949 7951 4788# (participant ID not required).
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