Michael Beck is one of the county’s leading environmentalists. He is also championing a major mining operation in East County.

In Beck’s view, the best way to save what’s known as the El Monte Valley is to temporarily destroy it.

In many nearby residents’ view, Beck is on a misguided mission to secure his legacy as a preservationist and has been bamboozled by a mining company with an Orwellian name.

The mining company Beck supports goes by the name El Monte Nature Preserve LLC. The owners of the company are seeking permission from the county to tear up a three-mile stretch of the San Diego River basin and remove 10 million tons of sand from it over the next 15 years. The sand, which sits on land owned by the Helix Water District, is valuable because it could be used for concrete.

In Lakeside, the nearest town to the project, many residents are unhappy with the sand mine because it would clog their streets with up to 250 trucks per day, dust up their air and destroy an informal system of trails equestrians use every day.

Some residents are also very unhappy with Beck, who is chairman of San Diego River Park Foundation, a director of the Endangered Habitats League and vice chairman of the County Planning Commission.

The dried-up river left sand, and non-native plants took root. Beck wants to kill them, pull them out and restore it as the natural landscape it was a century ago.

If all you have to do to make it happen is let a mining company truck out perhaps a few hundred million dollars’ worth of sand, so be it.

But residents are not buying that 15 years of mining will be worth what they consider an uncertain gain. As the mining company itself has pointed out, the valley has been mined three times since the 1940s with no attempts at reclamation.

“The thing that has put a bad taste in their mouth is not a single sand mining company in Lakeside has fulfilled its promise – not a single one of them,” said Karen Ensall, a member of the Lakeside Community Planning Group and president of a horse-riding club, the Lakeside Frontier Riders.

As the valley is mined for sand, Nature Preserve LLC will destroy a system of trails in the valley but has promised to begin restoring the habitat. When the mining is finished in 2031 or thereabouts, the company plans to turn over the land to another nonprofit Beck is affiliated with, the Endangered Habitats Conservancy, and put a few million dollars into an endowment to restore the land.

Beck says this arrangement will ensure the valley is restored to the sort of place it was before the El Capitan Dam was built in 1935 and stunted the natural flow of the San Diego River. To Beck, the sand that’s in the valley doesn’t belong there; and most of the plants that are there don’t belong there, either.

The valley’s invasive plants – mainly tamarisk, a shrub – are not necessarily unattractive and they’ve been there a while. But that doesn’t mean they should be allowed to remain, Beck said.

“They don’t get credit for being native because they’ve been around for 100 years,” he said.

The only way Beck said anyone can realistically pay for such a massive restoration project – across 500 acres of the valley floor – is revenue from the sand mining project.

Beck believes he’s found a solid partner in Nature Preserve LLC and one of its leaders, Bill B. Adams.

Adams, the developer, said his company is not like those previous operators. He said his work with Beck is helping to avoid being tied up in court fighting environmentalist opposition.

“We’re hopefully going to have the money end up in plant material rather than legal fees,” Adams said.

In a letter to the San Diego River Conservancy, Adams said there’s $2 billion worth of sand and land in the El Monte Valley. But Adams said he only wants part of that sand, about 15 percent, and will donate the land when he’s done mining.

If Nature Preserve LLC can’t develop the land, Beck warned that another mining company will – and that other company could spend decades mining the site. The land is currently zoned for sand mining.

Adams and his partners have already dumped $40 million into the El Monte Valley property, which is owned by the Helix Water District but which Adams and his partners have leased and are now in a position to buy. Back in 2000, Adams and his partners tried to build a golf course there – two 18-hole courses, actually. But the economic downturn killed the project.

By 2007, the golf course developers were working with Beck and the Endangered Habitats Conservancy on a sand mining and habitat restoration project. The name of the sand mining company then? El Capitan Golf Club LLC.

Opponents of the mining project are hoping to stall the approval until Adams and his partners’ option to buy the land expires in 2017, at which point Helix will take back control of the land.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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